Posts Tagged wisdom

Embracing Our Identities

Changing the World @ the UUFP

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

This time last year there were a couple of a widely shared articles criticizing Christianized versions of the Passover seder.  In “Why Christians Should Not Host Their Own Passover Seders”, for example, Rebecca Cynamon-Murphy describes how, as a Christian woman married to a Jewish man, she has become a “safe person” for her fellow Christians to ask about Judaism.  As such, she has been approached by Christians who want to hold Passover seders.  “Their logic,” she notes, “is that since Jesus was celebrating Passover during the week when he was arrested, tried, executed and resurrected, in a desire to be more Christ-like, they too should celebrate the holiday.”

While understanding that desire, Cynamon-Murphy goes on to make the case that Christians hosting their own seders do more harm than good, from ignoring thousands of years of persecution of…

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To Be Good Stewards of Our Own Power

Changing the World @ the UUFP

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”
– Our Fifth Principle

I spent two of January’s Tuesdays in Richmond, the first for the Virginia Interfaith Center’s Day for All People and the second for Equality Virginia’s Day of Action.  Both were opportunities to learn about the legislative process and the bills before the Virginia General Assembly and then to meet with our elected representatives or their legislative aides to share with them our opinions of those bills and other views on what matters to us.

Now most of us experience some anxiety or at least nervousness when it comes to approaching those who make the laws that govern our lives.  I’d…

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Things My Baby Daughter Taught Me

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on June 16th 2013.  A portion from the end of it was published as one of my columns in the Daily Press.)

Reading: “For Those Thinking of Having Children”

Our reading is one of those things that gets e-mailed from one person to another, or posted by one person to another on Facebook, until it’s not clear where it came from or who originally wrote it.  I imagine that it’s most often sent by those who are already parents to those who are not yet parents, usually with a knowing comment such as “You’ll find out this is 100% true!”

Here, then, are ten lessons for those thinking of having children.

Lesson One: Household Finances

Go to the grocery store.  Arrange to have your salary paid directly to their head office.  Go home.  Pick up the paper.  Read it for the last time.

Lesson Two: Giving (and Receiving) Advice

Find a couple who already are parents and berate them about their methods of discipline, their lack of patience, their appallingly low tolerance levels and the fact that they allow their children to run wild.  Suggest ways in which they might improve their child’s breastfeeding, sleep habits, toilet training, table manners, and overall behavior.  Enjoy it because it will be the last time in your life you will have all the answers.

Lesson Three: Night-time Schedules

Get home from work and immediately begin walking around the living room from 5pm to 10pm carrying a wet bag weighing approximately eight to twelve pounds and with a radio turned to static (or some other obnoxious sound) playing loudly.  Eat cold food with one hand for dinner.  At 10pm, put the bag gently down, set the alarm for midnight, and go to sleep.  Get up at twelve and walk around the living room again, with the bag, until 1am.  Set the alarm for 3am.  Since you can’t get back to sleep, get up at 2am, make a drink and watch an infomercial.  Go to bed at 2:45am.  Get up at 3am when the alarm goes off.  Sing songs quietly in the dark until 4am.  Get up.  Make breakfast.  Get ready for work and go to work — work hard and be productive!  Repeat these steps each night for three to five years.  Look cheerful and together.

Lesson Four: Child-Oriented Redecorating

Smear peanut butter onto the sofa and jam onto the curtains.  Hide a piece of raw chicken behind the stereo and leave it there all Summer.  Stick your fingers in the flower bed, then rub them on the clean walls.  Take your favorite book, photo album, etc., and wreck it.  Spill milk on your new pillows and cover the stains with crayons.

Lesson Five: Dressing a Small Child

Buy an octopus and a small bag made out of loose mesh.  Attempt to put the octopus into the bag so that none of the arms hang out.  Time allowed for this: all morning.

IMAG0587Lesson Six: Feeding a Small Child

Hollow out a melon and make a small hole in the side.  Suspend it from the ceiling and set it swinging.  Now get a bowl of soggy Cheerios and attempt to spoon them into the swaying melon by pretending that the spoon is an airplane.  Continue until half the Cheerios are gone.  Tip most of what’s left into your lap.  The rest, just throw into the air.

Lesson Seven: Auditory Resilience

Make a recording of Fran Drescher saying “mommy” repeatedly.  It is important to have no more than a four-second delay between each “mommy”.  An occasional crescendo to the level of a supersonic jet is required.  Play this in your car everywhere you go for the next four years.

Lesson Eight: Adult Conversations

Start talking to an adult of your choice.  Have someone else continually tug on your clothing while playing the “mommy” recording from the previous lesson.

Lesson Nine: Vehicle Maintenance

Buy a chocolate ice cream cone and put it in your car’s glove compartment.  Leave it there.  Get a dime and stick it in the CD player.  Take a family size package of chocolate cookies and mash them into the back seat.  Sprinkle Cheerios all over the floor, then smash them with your foot.  Run a garden rake along both sides of the car.

IMAG0378Lesson Ten: Grocery Shopping

Go to the local supermarket.  Take with you the closest thing you can find to a pre-school child — a full-grown goat is an excellent choice.  (If you intend to have more than one child, then definitely take more than one goat.)  Buy your week’s groceries without letting the goat out of your sight.  Pay for everything the goat eats or destroys.

Sermon: “Things My Baby Daughter Taught Me”

Today is my first Father’s Day.  A couple of years ago I had no idea I’d now be a father — it’s amazing how much life can change in just two years!  And they’ve been two years that have somehow gone by very quickly, too.

I am loving it, of course.  For all that I feel exhausted almost all the time, for all that I don’t get to read the newspaper anymore or that dressing Olivia really is like wrestling an octopus into a mesh bag or that our living room is now wall-to-wall toys — or that I sometimes find myself humming the obnoxious tunes that said toys play over and over again — I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Lots of people, of course, have been giving us advice of varying degrees of helpfulness.  Many of the more dire predictions concern what our lives will be like when Olivia’s a teenager, but Allison and I keep reminding ourselves that we still have another decade or so of relative sanity ahead of us.

Life, of course, is famous for failing to come with an instruction manual, and the chapter that’s the most missing is undoubtedly the one on parenting.  Oh, there are experts and classes, of course.  Allison and I dutifully attended the series of childbirth classes offered by Mary Immaculate, learning about the stages of labor, techniques for relaxation, the importance of breathing, and so on.  As it happened none of that helped, because at twenty-five weeks Olivia apparently decided she was going to sit upright for the rest of the pregnancy and was eventually delivered by scheduled Caesarian section.  Since Olivia’s head was measured in the ninety-ninth percentile, though, that was the only way she was going to come out.

Now there are some helpful resources on parenting.  For instance, I was recommended a book by pediatrician Harvey Karp called The Happiest Baby on the Block, which explains the consequences of the fact that there really ought to be a fourth trimester of pregnancy.  For those women who’ve had children and just broke out into a cold sweat at the thought of there having been a fourth trimester, I apologize!  Dr. Karp argues that there’s so much developing that newborns do during their first three months that it’s like a fourth trimester, only it takes place outside the womb.

For instance, Olivia had a mild case of hip dysplasia when she was born, given that she hit the trifecta of being Allison’s first child, being a girl, and being in the breech position for the last fifteen weeks before birth.  Thankfully it was only mild, so keeping her in two diapers and swaddling her tightly at night for the first couple of months was enough for her hip joint to finishing developing correctly.

And we saw with our own eyes how much Olivia changed outwardly during the three months after birth, too, not just growing in size but transforming from primarily reflex-driven behaviors to an emerging consciousness with more awareness and control of herself and her surroundings.  It was actually amazing to me, during those early weeks of not enough sleep and irregular meals, that it was possible to calm Olivia and get her to sleep by following Dr. Karp’s advice in regard to those newborn reflexes, particularly in terms of what Karp calls the five “S”s.

After all, before being born, the baby pretty much fills the uterus.  Being out in the open where, as one parenting blog put it, the arms and legs are free to flail around “like an octopus on meth”, well, that can be scary.  So the first “S” is swaddling.  While that helped fix her hip dysplasia, as I said, it was a struggle to maintain it as Olivia grew.  That’s because she’s on the long side and the swaddle wraps that are made with the Velcro and so on are apparently designed for babies who are shaped like miniature sumo wrestlers.  Thankfully tucking her into her cradle had much the same effect.

Another “S” is shushing, or really any white noise, that mimics the sounds made by the blood flow and other bodily functions going on around the uterus.  And the shushing can be loud.  You can apparently get an idea of what it sounds like to be in the womb by filling your bath-tub with water, turning on the taps full blast and then sticking your head under the water.  After being born, then, a baby’s world is too cold, too bright and way too quiet.  One night, when Olivia just wouldn’t settle down and go to sleep, I moved her cradle into the kitchen and started the dishwasher running.  Now we don’t have a quiet dishwasher, but that was good, because to Olivia the racket it makes was apparently the sweetest lullaby.

Then there’s the “S” of swinging, which is mimicking the rocking motion that is felt in the womb when the mother is moving around.  We had this swinging cradle for Olivia that was a life-saver for us.  We tried a few times in those first few months to transition her to her crib, but she wouldn’t sleep, even when the swaddling didn’t fall off her.  So when the motor on the swing broke, we despaired of ever sleeping again.  I think Allison actually cried.  Thankfully we survived long enough to get the replacement motor that Fisher-Price sent us, and, once it was installed and the swing was working again, there was much rejoicing.

There are, though, a number of things I’ve noticed or wondered about, some from when Allison was pregnant and many from since Olivia was born.  As I said a couple of weeks ago, being a parent and playing with Olivia and reading to her and so on means that, in a way, I’ve been doing some teaching at home, but I know I’ve learned a lot more from her than she’s learned from me.

Here, for instance, is something my baby daughter taught me even before she was born, as we were getting ready for her arrival.  There it is, in fact: we use some weird euphemisms, like “arrival”, to talk about birth.  It makes it sound like we expect babies to show up on a baggage claim carousel at the airport.  Or we talk about a child “coming into this world”.  That would imply that the womb is in another dimension, outside the Universe, and the birth canal is some sort of hyperspace portal.  When all of us so readily use bizarre language like that in everyday conversation, I guess it’s not surprising that politicians keep creating bizarre legislation to control women’s bodies.  Maybe they think trans-dimensional aliens might use women’s “hyperspace portals” to invade the Earth otherwise.

484106Then there’s something Allison had told me about, having had more recent baby experience than me with all of the younger cousins on her side of the family, but I don’t think I believed her until I saw it with my own eyes.  And that’s what Allison calls “gas face”.  Yes, apparently babies, a month or two old, will smile, quite serenely, while passing gas.  Now when she was older Olivia would smile when she saw us — and I have to tell you, nothing else has ever made me feel as good as peeking my head around the door of her bedroom in the morning and seeing her, when she sees me, breaking into a big smile — and then, when she was a little older than that, she started smiling when she saw the cats.  Apparently it took her a while to figure out that cats are not just mobile furniture.  But before any of that, there was “gas face”, so I have to wonder what that implies for actual smiles.  Perhaps there’s something back in our hominid evolution where smiling meant “I’m so happy to see you that it feels as good as when I pass gas.”

Here’s another thing my baby daughter taught me.  It’s very hard to spoon-feed someone, particularly if they’re reluctant to open their mouth, without opening your own mouth.  This need not be a conscious attempt to invoke mimicry, either.  My mother-in-law pointed it out, in fact, back in the early weeks of feeding Olivia puréed vegetables, that both Allison and I were opening our own mouths each and every time we offered her a spoonful of food.

Then there’s the fact that while babies certainly do learn by mimicry, they seem to learn an awful lot by figuring things out by themselves or by doing them instinctively.

For instance, we quickly realized how much of a difference it made to Olivia being able to fall asleep if she had a pacifier in her mouth.  (Dr. Karp’s fifth “S” for calming babies stands for sucking, either a pacifier or a thumb.)  But often, being on the verge of falling asleep, her mouth would relax and the pacifier would fall out, at which she’d quickly wake back up, meaning we’d have to restart the whole process over again.  Soon after being born she only managed to get her thumb in her mouth by accident, and when another random arm movement took her thumb back out of her mouth, she’d actually get upset, as if someone else had played a trick on her.  When she was a few months older, she did figure out how to get her fingers in her mouth, at which point she spent a lot of time with her face, her bib and her clothes saturated with drool.  I’m glad we have a high-efficiency, front-loading washing machine!  Finally, thanks to a pacifier that she discovered let her put her thumb inside it while it was in her mouth, she figured it out.  That was a glorious day!  We can’t claim credit for any of that, of course; we’d just seen that brand of pacifier mentioned on a parenting blog.  But once Olivia knew how to suck her thumb, she could help herself go to sleep, or go back to sleep if she woke up during the night.  Someday, of course, we’re going to have to wean her off her thumb, or else be prepared to pay a lot of orthodontist’s bills when she’s older.

Then there’s a more recent example of this that continues to stun me.  One day, playing with Olivia and in something of a silly mood, I made a burbling sound by moving my finger across my lips.  Well, she copied me!  Allison did it, too, and Olivia copied her as well!  Mostly she just made the same sound, while moving her hand across her mouth, though since then she’s refined her technique and she does actually swipe her thumb across her lips.  That’s not what stunned me.  What stunned me was when she started clicking her tongue.  She figured out how to do that all by herself.  And doing it first, she got us to copy her by doing it, too.  I’m still amazed at that.

Something else my baby daughter taught me is that there’s no such thing as average.

Oh, there are common developmental milestones that typically happen in certain windows of age after birth, but even the best pediatrician can only make general predictions.  Allison and I had heard a pretty widespread opinion, for instance, that when babies start making pre-verbal sounds, “də də də” comes before “mə mə mə”.  Well, Olivia’s been making “mə” sounds for ages.  I don’t think she’s ever connected it with a way of calling or referring to Allison, and she’s never said anything that sounds like “mama”, and for that matter there were occasional periods of a week or two where she’d stop saying “mə mə mə” and instead every sound would be screeched as by an angry pterodactyl.  Then she discovered “bə” sounds.  Allison and I agree that the first actual word Olivia spoke is “baby”.  We have a video of her, crawling through the grass in my mother-in-law’s back-yard, clearly saying “baby” to herself, over and over again.  That was probably because, during our visit to her that week, my mother-in-law kept using the word “baby” whenever she saw Olivia — or, for that matter, whenever she saw the puppy they’d just brought home.  I’m pleased to report, though, that just in the last couple of weeks, Olivia has started making “də” sounds.  Perhaps she knew that Father’s Day was coming.

There’s much more that I could talk about this morning, and I know there will always be more I learn with every passing week and month and year.  I’ll end, though, with something that seems particularly appropriate for inclusion in a sermon, for consideration by a religious community, and that’s what my baby daughter has taught me about morality.

Morality, after all, is something that is of concern to every religion.  Every religion ought to help its adherents distinguish between good behavior that is to be encouraged and bad behavior that is to be discouraged.  Religions that have a holy book or a great leader have a relatively easy time of identifying their moral center, in that it’s whatever the book or the leader says it is.  There’s still the problem of interpretation, which keeps the priests and the scribes employed for generations, but in principle it’s straightforward.

Unitarian Universalism has neither a holy book nor a great leader, though.  Rather, every book can be holy, if holiness can be found amongst its words.  And every person can be someone who inspires, supports, guides, comforts and counsels others, given aptitude and/or training.  So, on the basis of how other religions do it, it’s not uncommon to hear expressed doubts about the moral center of Unitarian Universalism when it’s not given to us by some specially designated source.

IMAG0270Well, our own Unitarian Universalist versions of priests and scribes have been hard at work on this for a long time, usually constructing elaborate systems involving evolutionary biology and categorical imperatives and other complex psycho-social theories.  But my almost-eleven-month-old has convinced me that it may well be a whole lot simpler than that.

After all, when Olivia eats her food without dribbling it down her face and over her clothes, when she lets go of the cell ‘phone charger wire and stops trying to chew on the little plug on the end, when she lies still on the changing pad and lets me not only put a clean diaper on her but, more importantly, dispose of the old one without any of its contents escaping, then I find myself, quite without thinking about it, praising her for “being good”.

In other words, when she behaves according to my expectations of her behavior, when she does what I want or simply does what’s convenient for me, that, really, is what it means to me for her to be good.  Perhaps understanding morality doesn’t need highbrow ideas or elaborate psychological or sociological concepts.  Perhaps it just needs the recognition that when we are in relationship with one another, then we have certain expectations of one another, and when those expectations are met, then that’s good, and when they’re not, then that’s bad.

And that’s great news for Unitarian Universalism, a religion that is based on the truth that we are most human when we are in right relationship with one another and with the world around us, a religion that trusts that revelation is not sealed and that we can always learn better and deeper and more loving ways to be in relationship with one another.

I know I’m going to need to remember that as Olivia grows up.  It’s something I know I need to do a better job of remembering in my marriage with Allison, in my rôle as the son of my parents, and in my ministering to all of you.  After all, there’s no instruction manual for any of this.  We figure it out as we go along, and each of us tries to remember that we are human and each of us tries to remember that the other person is human, too, and we accept that we’re going to make mistakes and when we do, we try to own those mistakes so that we can at least learn something from them.  And we are all one another’s teachers, from the elder with the wisdom of years of hard-won life experiences to, well, a child who isn’t even a year old and who has only a one-word vocabulary and who sometimes screeches like an angry pterodactyl.

May we always be open to whatever life has to teach us, whoever the teacher may be.

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Harry Potter and the Standardized Test

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on July 7th 2013.)

Video: from “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

During the fifth installment of the Harry Potter series, the Ministry of Magic tries to take over the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft.  Some of this is driven by the supporters of the evil Lord Voldemort who work at the Ministry of Magic; they create a smear campaign to discredit Harry, who personally witnessed Voldemort’s rebirth, as well as Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore.  Some of it is driven by the personal paranoia of the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, who refuses to believe that Voldemort is back and is instead convinced that Dumbledore is raising a secret army to make himself the new Minister of Magic.

The agent of interference at Hogwarts is Fudge’s Senior Undersecretary, Dolores Umbridge, whose pinkly saccharine manner belies a cruel and vindictive soul.  At first she is on the staff as a teacher, but then becomes acting headmaster when Dumbledore is removed.  Through an ever-growing number of Educational Decrees issued by the Ministry of Magic, which are framed and hung on the wall outside the Great Hall, Umbridge imposes her draconian rule over the students, the teachers and all other aspects of school life.

In the end, though, it is the students themselves who fight back, with Harry secretly training the others in the defensive spells that Umbridge refuses to teach them, and the Weasley twins Fred and George generating mayhem where appropriate.

In this scene from the movie, things come to a head during an “Ordinary Wizarding Level” or OWL exam that Harry and the other fifth-years are taking under Umbridge’s watchful eye.

Sermon: “Harry Potter and the Standardized Test”

Some of you may not know this, but I actually went to school at Hogwarts.

Oh, I don’t literally mean the magical castle with its animated paintings, fantastic creatures, shifting staircases and energetic ghosts.  But from the age of seven until I was eighteen I did attend British boarding schools, with big halls where we ate our meals and took our exams, dormitories where we slept, and even houses into which we were sorted, though instead of being named Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin, they had names such as Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans.  Such schools were, of course, the basis for J. K. Rowling’s creation of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry which in a 2008 survey was, in spite of its fictional status, voted one of the best schools in Scotland.

And, of course, the British educational system generally was part of Rowling’s inspiration.  When I was in school we had two sets of nationwide exams that students took at the ages of sixteen and eighteen respectively.  At sixteen we all took the Ordinary or O-Levels in just about every school subject, which Rowling turned into the “Ordinary Wizarding Level” or OWL exams.  How each of us did in those determined which three or perhaps four subjects we might study for the next couple of years before taking the Advanced or A-Levels at eighteen, to which Rowling’s equivalents are the “Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Tests” or NEWT exams.

Now when I was working my way through the O- and A-Level system, there were, of course, other end-of-year exams, designed within the school, to test us on what we were supposed to have learned during the course of each school year.

Few of those exams, I should note, involved questions with multiple-choice answers.  Other than the occasional essay question, most questions required long answers, where we students were expected to provide not only an answer but to demonstrate the reasoning that went into figuring out that answer.  In fact, it was possible to get partial credit even for an incorrect answer, if some of the reasoning that went into it was still valid; on some exam questions the reverse might even be true, that a correct answer all by itself with no demonstration of how it was obtained would not receive full credit.

In college, too, there were similar exams, the final results of which were considered in regard to admission to graduate programs in the UK and by many potential employers, too.  But when I started down the path of applying to graduate schools in the US, I was told that I needed to take the Graduate Record Exam or GRE as part of the admission process.  The GRE, I discovered, was nothing but multiple-choice, with the answers marked by filling in these little circles on a computer-readable form using a number-two pencil.  Oh, and I’m guessing that part of the pretty high fee we had to pay to take the GRE went toward shipping those number-two pencils from the US because that’s not how pencils are categorized in the UK.

Now fifteen years after I went down to London one very cold October morning to take the GREs, I found myself teaching other college graduates how to prepare for the exams.

I worked for one of the big test preparation companies, which the legally binding agreement I signed to get that job prevents me from mentioning, and during my time with them I helped people prepare for a number of the standardized tests that are used to help determine admission to higher education in the US.  I got to revisit a lot of grade-school math and English, though I was disappointed to discover that essays had replaced the abstract reasoning section that had been part of the GRE when I had taken it.  More than that, though, I felt like I had become part of a privileged inner circle that had been given the secrets to unlocking these standardized tests.  And I guess that’s part of the reason why people who can afford to do so — or whose parents can afford to do so — pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars to take such test preparation courses and why the content of them is proprietary.

Now that’s not to say that being comfortable with arithmetic, algebra and geometry and having a good vocabulary and a good grasp of grammar aren’t important in these exams.  They certainly are.  But for most of the multiple-choice questions created for such standardized tests, being proficiently literate and numerate is very nearly besides the point.

For instance, knowing how to do long-division is actually a handicap on questions that look like they need long-division to answer.  Now I learned how to do long-division when I was eight, and I was so proud after the class where our teacher taught it to us, that I went back to my teacher from the previous year and showed her.  (Obviously she didn’t already know how or she’d have taught it to us herself.)  I remember whole sets of questions we were given for homework that involved doing long-division, as well as a more general emphasis in all of my school science classes that precision was something to be valued.  I don’t remember ever being taught with equivalent dedication about how it’s sometimes okay to estimate the answers to some long-division problems as opposed to calculating them, that in some circumstances estimation provides an answer that is good enough in its imprecision — or, as an old colleague of mine used to say, “close enough for government work” — but will at least do so faster.

So one example of a standardized test question is to find the answer to some horrible-looking division problem, like 2,393 over 607.  (I don’t use math to illustrate my sermons too often, and I hope this doesn’t induce any traumatic flashbacks in anyone!)  Now this problem is specifically designed for the student who knows how to estimate: that student quickly rounds the top up and rounds the bottom down and concludes that the correct answer is a little less than four, which of course matches just one of the possible answers on the test.  The student who knows how to do long-division, on the other hand, ends up with a more precise answer of 3.94…, which of course also matches just one of the multiple-choice answers, but they spent so long doing the long-division that they’re now four questions behind the student who estimated.  There’s also a bigger chance of making a mistake in calculating than in estimating.

So what is such a question actually testing?

In most situations in real life where long-division is actually needed, chances are it won’t lend itself nicely to estimation.  Remember that a problem like this is intentionally designed to benefit the student who knows how to estimate.  It’s an artificial problem in another way, too. Real life problems do not come with a pre-determined set of possible answers, one of which is guaranteed to be correct.  So the question is not testing the student’s ability to solve such a problem in anything like a realistic situation.

In these and all other such questions where there are tricks and tools for taking shortcuts to the correct answers, and even for improving your odds of simply guessing if that’s all you can do, the questions aren’t really testing students on what they appear, at first, to be about.  Most of the questions, in fact, are testing how well the students have learned to use the tools and the tricks, which means that what standardized tests are really testing is how good the students are at taking standardized tests.

Now I maintain that it is important for schools to assess students on what they’re learning, and when students from all over the country, even all over the world, need to be evaluated on as level a playing field as possible, it’s clear that tests that influence college admission decisions, for example, need to be standardized.  But let’s not kid ourselves that what standardized tests are really testing is anything other than the ability to do standardized tests.

And as a tool for evaluating teachers, when there are so many other factors at play such as the socioeconomic backgrounds of the students, the amount of support and encouragement that they’re getting from their families, standardized tests simply do not yield the accountability that was promised of them.  It’s not surprising that people have taken to referring to “No Child Left Behind” by other names such as “No Teacher Left Unshamed”.

All too many public school teachers find themselves “teaching to the test”, because that’s what matters most when it comes to their continued employment as teachers or even when it comes to the continued existence of their school.  Some school districts report that their teachers spend as much as forty-five days, in other words a quarter of the school year, in preparing and administering tests, even at the same time that the curriculum is dumbed down to be more suitable for standardized testing, sending higher level reasoning and critical thinking into the trash can right along with art and music.

Now in spite of the fact that there is no evidence of success when it comes to either student improvement or teacher accountability, the US relies upon standardized testing far more than any other economically developed nation.

The Texas program that was the prototype for “No Child Left Behind”, for instance, only appeared to be successful at the time because districts were fudging their numbers, such as by under-reporting dropout rates.  What’s more, reducing both students to test scores and teachers to test score producers gives the students incentives to cheat and gives the schools incentives to dump hard-to-teach students.  The culture of testing, in fact, enables what is known as the “school-to-prison pipeline”, where once again students of color, students with disabilities and students from low-income families are disproportionately impacted.

So the fact that Virginia’s testing regime is known by the initials S.O.L. is little more than a cruel irony.

Now I could continue by talking about how much standardized testing costs school districts, which now pay over a billion dollars a year to for-profit companies for the creation and administration of tests.  I could talk about how such tests fail to be teaching tools because they provide no evaluative feedback that closes the didactic loop in order to reinforce the original learning and guide continued improvement.  I could talk about how, with my daughter’s first birthday less than two weeks away, I’m conflicted about sending her, as and when, to public schools, given the culture of testing, and yet I believe supporting public education is the most important way we can resist the systematic destruction of the middle class that’s been taking place during the last two decades.

But I want to change gears and talk about how we, as Unitarian Universalists, do children’s religious education.  Aside from the fact that, right now, we’re doing a Summer RE program specifically based on the content of the Harry Potter stories, how we do RE may have more in common with J. K. Rowling’s fictional Hogwarts than with what goes on in public schools, even if that’s the parallel we tend to draw.

For all that we’ve embedded what we do for children in the larger process that has been named “life-span faith development”, I’ve come to the conclusion that what we do may be better termed religious exploration.  But there’s one aspect of the word “education” that still holds value, if only we can remember to hang onto it, and that’s because it comes from the Latin “educare” which means “to draw forth”.

While secular education consists, at least in theory, of the imparting of the facts and skills deemed necessary for life in today’s world, religious education is a drawing forth of one’s inner being, building upon personal and shared experiences to grow a soul that is capable of shining life into today’s world.  It is, as poet William Butler Yeats noted, “not the filling of a [bucket], but the lighting of a fire.”  Or in the words of Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, “The great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own.”

It’s certainly important for religious education to include some didactic components — drawn, for example, from Unitarian Universalist history and theology as well as from the wisdom of the other faith traditions of the world — but they serve to support faith development in its largest sense, namely the formation of Unitarian Universalist identity at its best.  So within our Sunday school classes, we aim to give our children a basic understanding and appreciation of many different forms of spirituality and many different ways of approaching life, encouraging in them a respect for religious difference in general and for their own religious heritage in particular.

Religious education also needs to take place in age-appropriate ways and should take into account different learning styles.  I projected that long-division problem on the screen, for instance, because most of us are visual rather than auditory learners.  As Confucius is reputed to have said, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember.”

Of course, Confucius completed that saying with “I do and I understand.”  We can’t just teach UU theory: we must teach UU practices, too.  Thus religious education extends beyond the congregation itself to the family setting as well.

I was actually stunned a few years ago when I realized that Sunday school alone only represents about forty hours of religious education each year.  That’s the equivalent of just one regular work week — fewer hours than were part of last week’s GoldMine youth leadership school — and yet we somehow think that that’s enough to teach our children about our faith and to help them grow up to be the sorts of adults we can only wish we were.  So no, the religious education of children and youth that takes place on Sunday morning should serve to support and enhance the religious education that they are receiving at home, rather than the other way around.  Parents are thus the primary religious educators of their own children and the congregation should provide them with the tools necessary to responsibly and successfully take on this role.  And, frankly, secular education should be viewed more like that, too.

Now I want to note that DRE Joanne does include activities for her RE classes that allow the lessons to be taken home and continued.  I’m pleased to know that many of you who are parents of children in RE here have used those activities at home and have given Joanne positive feedback on them.

A lot of how we do religious education ultimately comes back to the nature of Unitarian Universalism as a faith tradition.  While most religions have a basis in creed, which is a particular statement of belief, Unitarian Universalism inherits from its religious forbears a basis in covenant, which is a particular standard of behavior.  As generally interpreted for the purposes of religious education, this means that the way of approaching belief is more important than the content of belief. In other words, while we have a vision of ourselves as a community that “offer[s] a safe place for spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious education”, we nevertheless strive to place the pursuit of truth within a context of respect, kindness, responsibility and fairness.  As Universalist minister and educator Angus MacLean put it, “The method is the message.”

Weirdly enough, that’s actually one of the philosophies of standardized test preparation.  One of the things we teachers tried to get our students to remember was that it wasn’t the content of the example problems we worked through with them that mattered.  Rather, it was the tricks and tools we used for tackling the problems that we wanted them to remember.  Any specific problem, after all, would probably never come up in a test in that exact way, so it was the general means of solving the problem that needed to be remembered.  We assumed that higher level of reasoning as part of preparing for test questions that didn’t require it!

And in the Harry Potter stories, what matters to Harry and Hermione and Ron throughout their seven years of battling Voldemort and his minions isn’t really the specifics of the spells and the potions that they learned at Hogwarts, though they certainly help.  What made a difference definitely wasn’t the narrow curriculum approved by the Ministry of Magic.  What did make a difference to them were the resources for courage and hope that they found within themselves and within one another, and the love that made them and their friends stronger together than they would have been alone.

And in the religious education we do here, what matters isn’t whether we know all the details of Unitarian Universalist history or can recite by rote the words of all Seven Principles and all Six Sources.  What matters are things that can’t possibly be evaluated by multiple-choice problems: that we bring a willing spirit; that we offer one another an open mind, a loving heart and a helping hand; and that we engage together in this religious exploration by building upon our personal and shared experiences and dreams so that each of us may grow a soul that will shine life abundant into the world.

May it be so.

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That Transcending Mystery and Wonder

Changing the World @ the UUFP

I remember being on Star Island about ten years ago and noticing that everyone was reading what seemed to be the same book.  Everywhere I went I saw them — on the sofas in the lounge, in rocking chairs on the porch, even at the tables in the dining hall — adults as well as youth and children, all of them lost in their reading.  Sitting next to one of them, I waited until a suitable moment and asked what he was reading; eyes aglow with the light of imagination, he responded with just two words: “Harry Potter.”

Well, I had already heard of J. K. Rowling’s novels about the famous boy wizard, of course.  With each subsequent volume, their popularity grew even more, and Rowling was rapidly becoming one of the best-selling British authors.  Her own rags-to-riches story added to the mystique, and there were rumors about the…

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Freedom from Fear

Franklin D. Roosevelt concluded his 1941 State of the Union address by describing four universal freedoms that, as the right of all people, justified American involvement in the Second World War.  When it came to the fourth freedom, “freedom from fear”, Roosevelt said more than he did for the first three freedoms — “freedom of speech and expression”, “freedom of worship” and “freedom from want” — making the case for U.S. military intervention in Europe as a means to the goal of “a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.”

This is a dream that still awaits realization.  Universalizing Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms beyond the challenges of his time, though, freedom from fear continues to be the most critical of the Four Freedoms, something that we would do well to demand in our own time.  Enshrining freedom of speech and freedom of worship in the Constitution does little good if people are afraid to enjoy those freedoms.  Even freedom from want isn’t possible if people are afraid to grasp the opportunities and securities that are their rights as basic expectations of democracy.

That’s a point that has been part of the good news of Unitarian Universalism for a long time.  There are, for instance, a hundred or more references to freedom in our primary hymn book, Singing the Living Tradition.  There are even whole sections of both hymns and readings under the title of “freedom”!  There are many references to fear in that hymnal, too, but most of them are about overcoming fear, whether that’s through truth or love or service or fellowship.  And in the newer book, one of my favorite new hymns, Jason Shelton’s “The Fire of Commitment”, calls us “into faith set free from fear.”

In this, we Unitarian Universalists really are living the counter-culturalism we claim.  In some of my sermons I criticize the commercial media that, if it’s not trying to sucker us into buying stuff we don’t need, seems to thrive on making us afraid.  Actually those functions go hand-in-hand.  It’s almost laughable how often some so-called “news” segment on television concludes with an outrageous statement such as “Something in your kitchen could be killing you right now!”  Apparently the assumption is that you’ll sit through as many commercials as can be fit in before it is finally revealed that you probably shouldn’t drink dish soap.

Part of the Unitarian Universalist message of freedom, however, is that we don’t need to live in fear.  We don’t need to live in fear of hell or in fear of orthodoxy.  We don’t need to live in fear of the world around us or in fear of our own bodies.  We don’t need to live in fear of being judged for being ourselves or for having questions.  We don’t need to live in fear of not being perfect when perfection is an impossibility.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more it makes sense that the opposite of freedom isn’t captivity or imprisonment or regulation; no, the opposite of freedom is fear.  So to speak of “freedom from fear” is to be redundant.  To speak of “freedom of speech” also includes not being afraid to speak.  To speak of “freedom of religion” also includes not being afraid to think about and ask questions about religion.  To speak of “freedom from want” also includes not being afraid to demand that one of the priorities of the wealthiest nation on Earth be that everyone have access to the basic necessities of life.

As we go about our lives in a world that strives toward peace, liberty and justice like a seedling strives for the Sun, let us cultivate a faith that rises above fear, seeking the wisdom of our heritage and values, seeking the courage to free ourselves from the fear that closes doors, and resolving to offer the world a hope so keen that our souls may hear and our hearts may see.

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“I Want a Principle Within”, adapted

During his life as an Anglican and then Methodist minister, Charles Wesley wrote the words for about eight thousand hymns.  I’m not actually sure how that’s possible and still have a life.  In any case, many of his hymns are still sung in Anglican and Methodist churches, but perhaps not as he had intended them.

Wesley was a curious combination of somber seriousness and evangelistic pragmatism.  He preached and wrote hymns about sin and temptation and more sin and the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus, drawing upon and in turn feeding the message of the Great Awakening, the Christian movement that was then sweeping across the American colonies.  And yet, when he realized that his public sermons were competing with the popular but raunchy songs of the local taverns, he cleverly wrote new words, conveying his desired theology, that could be sung by unlettered sailors and farmhands to the already familiar tunes.

In other cases, though, Wesley fully expected that his serious words would be set to appropriately somber music.  A case in point is “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, one of the most popular Christmas carols there is thanks to the fact that, over a hundred years after Wesley wrote them and in spite of his wishes, his words were set to the joyful and stirring music of Felix Mendelssohn.  I’m guessing that something similar took place for as hymn I recently discovered, too.

We’re singing it today because a few weeks ago, a congregant generously gave me a CD of instrumental arrangements of classic English hymns.  Looking down the playlist I noticed one called “I Seek a Principle Within” and the word “principle” caught my eye.  I hadn’t heard of such a hymn before, and I wasn’t familiar with the tune, but I loved it as soon as I heard it.  The music — which is in 6/8 time, so it’s essentially a dance — is by Louis Spohr, who was a great composer and musician in his own right but is largely forgotten today because he was so overshadowed by his friend and colleague, Ludwig van Beethoven.

Then I looked up the words to this hymn and found that they’d been written by Charles Wesley, and written perhaps as much as a century before Louis Spohr wrote the music that eventually accompanied them.  Wesley’s words were, as usual, about the fear of sin, the pain of temptation, the ever-present danger of sin, and the need to return to the blood of Jesus.  Beyond his words — which for many of us in today’s world, whether we’re Unitarian Universalists or not, are rather a turn-off — I saw a message about the importance of cultivating something within ourselves that helps us figure out right from wrong, so I decided to adapt Wesley’s words for Unitarian Universalists, and adapt I did, heavily.

This is perhaps the longest introduction I’ve ever given to a hymn, for which I can only apologize by saying: I love hymns.

I want a principle within
that lifts my heart from fear,
a sensibility wherein
life’s goodness draws me near.
Discerning how I think and feel
in all things I require,
to guide the wand’ring of my will
and grasp that holy fire.

From trust that I no more may stray,
no more time’s promise grieve,
to hear that still, small voice, I pray,
to tender conscience cleave.
Quick as the apple of an eye,
that inner wisdom make;
bestir, my soul, when trouble’s nigh,
and keep my heart awake.

O source of life, of hope, of love,
to me thy pow’r impart;
the splinters from my soul remove,
the hardness from my heart.
O may compassion now entrain
my re-awakened soul,
and lead me to that spring again,
which makes the wounded whole.

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