“One Hands Down” by Mark W. Harris

 First Parish of Watertown – September 16, 2012


  Call to Worship – from Rebecca Parker

               Your gifts

Whatever you discover them to be

Can be used to bless or curse the world.

The mind’s power,
The strength of hands,
The reaches of the heart,
The gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing, waiting,

Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,
   Bind up wounds,
   Welcome the stranger,
   Praise what is sacred,
   Do the work of justice or offer love. 

And any of these can draw down the prison door
   Hoard bread,
 Abandon the poor,
 Obscure what is holy,
 Comply with injustice
 Or withhold love. 

You must answer this question:

What will you do with your gifts?
 Choose to bless the world. 

              The choice to bless the world

Can take you into solitude,
   To search for the sources
   Of power and grace;
    Native wisdom, healing and liberation.

More, the choice will draw you into community;
    The endeavor shared
    The heritage passed on,
     The companionship of struggle,
 The importance of keeping faith,
The life of ritual and praise,
     The comfort of human friendship,
     The company of earth
      Its chorus of life
      Welcoming you.

None of us alone can save the world,
 Together—that is another possibility,


Reading – from Louisa May Alcott, Recollections of My Childhood


Sermon –  “One Hands Down” by Mark W. Harris

             Children can make an impression in public.  Most of us know that, whether we are parents or not, from our experiences in restaurants, or even in church.  Cute can become annoying after the third time a spoon comes hurtling from the booth adjacent to yours, or the screaming or running becomes more than the parents embarrassment quotient can take.  My own boys can make a powerful impression of 6 foot plus onslaughts of adolescent manhood who can empty a refrigerator or cabinet in a flash of one huge gulp.  How do you teach manners anyway?  Sometimes we have to remind ourselves, as Andrea and I did the other night when we said, “they are acting like teenagers.”  And suddenly acknowledged, “Oh yes, they are teenagers.”

            One of these powerful impressions that the parents might have wished never occurred happened more than 150 years ago when Bronson and Abba Alcott welcomed Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller to their cottage. As the four adults stood by the door the conversation naturally turned to education.  Although Alcott then had no school in which to pursue his educational theories, he had in fact been able to carry out his methods by home schooling his daughters.  Fuller remarked, “I should like to see these model children,” and she got her wish.  Moments later the Alcott girls came barreling around the corner of the house.  Abby sat dressed as a queen sitting in a wheelbarrow that had been transformed into an ancient royal chariot.  Louisa was harnessed to the front with the horse’s bit in her mouth snorting and lopping along, while Anna drove the entire monarchial car with shouts for her steed to go faster.  Lizzie had taken the part of a dog and was barking as loudly as possible following behind.  Louisa later wrote that when she saw this serious adult group, she stumbled, and her three sisters fell on top of her in a laughing heap.  Abba then gave a grand, sweeping gesture towards her children stacked in a pile on the floor, and said, “Here are the model children, Miss Fuller.”             

            Abba Alcott is a good model for us, because, as this story illustrates, she was able to admit that the idea of nurturing model children is a joke. We are more likely to recite our failures or shortcomings as parents charged with this enormous task of raising children.  Joan Didion, in her book Blue Nights about the death of her daughter Quintana Roo, says she doesn’t know many people who think they succeeded as parents, and those who do are the ones who recite marks of achieving status in the world.  This good child received the Harvard PhD, while this lack luster, directionless child lives in an apartment in the city and makes guitars. Didion’s concern is that we used to define success as the ability to encourage a child to be independent, and so there was a bit of benign neglect and children could pursue pastimes at their own risk, hopefully learning from their own experiences even though sometimes they would crash and burn.  But today, Didion says we measure parental success with how much we can keep our children monitored and scheduled, merely extensions of us.  She implies that those of us who are parents might be a little more trusting of our children.

            When it came to creativity in educational philosophy, it was Louisa May Alcott’s father who inspired what might be considered the foundation of a liberal religious approach to religious education and education in general. He was probably born a century too early considering the far sighted nature of his educational theories, which included the abolishment of physical punishment, organized play and pleasant rooms. He said children were “divining rods” for apprehending natural truths.  Their mere spirit of innocence, Alcott believed, brings them closer to the divine spirit.  He wanted the children to explore their own consciousness. While the Bible had been a key to literacy for most children since Puritan times, in Alcott’s hands it became a tool for religious inquiry and exploration rather than mere rote memorization of truths.  In his conversations with children, he would read the passage from scriptures, and then explore with the children asking them such questions as: “What came into your minds while I was reading?”  “What interested you most?”  Or “what does this mean to you?”   It was a Socratic method of teaching where Alcott never lectured. He wrote, “It is better to give the subject up to the children, and let them lead us where they will.”  On one occasion, Alcott asked what judgment day meant.  The conventional answer from a lecture about the material would be: the last day of existence when the world is destroyed, but some of  his pupils’  responses were extremely insightful.  A child named Charles wrote, ”The day of judgment is not any more at the end of the world than now. It is the judgment of conscience every moment.”  Another student, John B. said: “Whenever we do wrong it is a day of judgment to us. “

            In this way the children could use the Bible as a way to help them discover their own moral center through personal exploration and experience.  Historically, its use as a tool for literacy, where everyone could read it and discover what it said, meant that the Bible became a means of rebellion from the traditions of the church or the priests telling people what it said, and thus it made Protestantism possible. This was also revolutionary in that it did not limit truth to the confines of the church building. The truth was tied to the ability to read the written word. Nevertheless, churches still proclaimed the truthfulness of their particular approach to Biblical interpretation, and insisted upon rote memorization of texts, and in the fundamentalist church I grew up in, the literal truth of its content.  This is in stark contrast to the Unitarian leader William Ellery Channing who in his famous address on the Sunday School said: “the great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own.”  The words seem to indicate an approach to faith development that would encourage the children to ask questions and awaken their own thoughts and minds to religious exploration. You can see that liberals have historically advocated for a child-centered approach to faith development.

             This begs the question of how we respond to the current trends in education.  The emphasis in recent years is on literacy in education.  What has suffered as a result is creativity.  One sees this with the tremendous emphasis on achievement, most particularly with test results, the Texas way of educating that the whole country has adopted.  What this has meant is that with limited resources, creative programs have suffered.  Art, music and even physical education have been reduced in favor of academics. Of course now everyone is panicked about obesity, as even young children are so overly scheduled, they rarely have free playtime.  Children receive massive amounts of homework, and are encouraged to work endlessly in order to succeed. This does not educate the whole child. Yet we see the consequences in pressures even in the liberal church to become more content oriented.  People want to see their principles on paper and have their children know them as if they were the factual content of Unitarian Universalism.  We have forgotten that the strength of the search, and the kind of person you become in the search are what is most vitally important, and not the content.  It is, as Martin Luther King said, the content of our character that counts; and character is developed relationally, over time.    

             What suffers in a content laden approach are all the things we have traditionally associated with a liberal education.  Everyone now acknowledges that people have different  learning styles. My oldest brother learned with his hands and the academic approach or sitting quietly in a row of chairs was nothing he could ever adapt to. He came away from his school experiences with the idea that he was stupid. We must do more than educate heads. People are smart in different ways. Some people need to think on their feet while moving, yet how often is dance as prominent a part of the curriculum as academic subjects?  Yet beyond the styles we learned by, is another factor we might call intellectual curiosity or even imagination that seems to be what those who are attracted to Unitarian Universalism find central to their journey.

             For all our belief in reason, we UUs like creativity, but it isn’t like the wholesale adoption of belief in wild or fantastic statements.  We demand creativity within the context of truth, which means we are hung up on details.  Now you probably think, well that’s not true.  That is just Harris talking because he likes facts and he wrote this dictionary full of facts.  UUs are actually big picture people, and not like those conservatives who zero in on specifics creeds or beliefs. But to people who believe in a revealed religion details often don’t matter. Mormons treat their book as revealed truth, an icon to be worshipped, but does it really matter if they believe in the special underwear that keeps them from harm?  To us, the devil is in the details. Why do we quibble over by laws, or have endless meetings to discuss things while those Mormons are out proselytizing?  They have a truth.  We have a process. Truth demands acceptance, but process demands participation. Process is hard to hand down because it is unfriendly to children. This is why people gravitate toward those principles. 

            Today’s education system wants you to know the answers so you can achieve high scores.  We want you to be educated into awareness. Know yourself.  This means it isn’t really about endless facts or all the religious traditions, but it is about continuing to uncover truths, and exploring deeper and deeper.  This means that we want you to be educated into relationships, so that there is a dialogue with many others, and in that dialogue you find out what is best for you, and makes you a better, more integrated person.  So it is not learn this one truth from the source, but keep finding truths from many sources.  Where does all this searching take us?   In our book on UUism Andrea and I speak about the publication of the Pentagon Papers by the UUA’s Beacon Press back in the 1970’s.  They revealed the full story about the Vietnam War.  There were lots of facts there, and we took them seriously because they revealed a truth about the immoral actions of our government.  The publication of those papers showed that we maintain a belief in the power of education to reveal the truth. You have got to go deep.  You have got to keep searching. You have got to tell the truth.  We believe the search will make us reveal the truth and will make us better people. In this case, knowledge disrupted injustice.  We believe that to know is to love.  Thus, the more we know, the path to a just community becomes clearer.

            The Unitarian Universalist faith is a faith for explorers, and we need to encourage our educational systems whether they are here at church in schools or at home to explore in greater depth.  Today our culture is all about success, and so we may inadvertently raise children who always think there are right answers and they are afraid of being wrong as a result.  There is an old story about the young girl who was often distracted in class, but one day she was taking part in a drawing lesson and became very engaged.  The teacher asked her what she was drawing, and she responded that she was creating a picture of God.  The teacher said, well, no one knows what god looks like.  But the girl replied, well they will when I am done.   Too often these days creativity is educated out of us.  We are afraid to explore or frightened to be wrong.  But we want our children and ourselves to be willing to explore, to use our imaginations, to be creative in our thinking of what is possible.  Sir Ken Robinson says, “If you are not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original.” Louisa May Alcott lamented in our reading that the free country life had ended, and the wild colt had to tie herself to the harness.  Unitarian Universalists resist the harness, but we do so because we want that beloved liberty, that Alcott speaks of, not to be free for its own sake, but to be explorers of deeper relationships, deeper love, and deeper truths, and now in the 21st century deeper ways. As Paul Carnes once wrote, we may not know what God is, but we can learn what it means to be human.

            I sometimes despair when I see my children fail to eat vegetables.  This is one sign of parental failure.  Yet with any of our children, all we can do is show them the way.  When they grow up and live on their own they can decide not to brush their teeth for endless days, or never eat a green bean again.  I will have done what I could for them and me if I eat my broccoli and recycle, so that they understand that taking care of their bodies and the environment is important. The choice will be theirs.  I hope they choose a path and live a life that makes them happy, and perhaps in some small way they will help others, and make someone’s life just a bit better. First, we must try to give everyone that choice.  Andrea told me the story of a despairing mother she talked to recently whose son with autism, had just been placed in a group home. In this new setting they were spending inordinate amounts of time on teaching him to wash his face rather than stimulating his mind to what he loves to learn about. While appearance and manners do have their place, the mother remembered how he was so proud when he could show off the math problems he could do in his old school.  The rest of us can spend the rest of our lives learning something new, she said, why not him?  Our tradition believes that every person regardless of ability or disability should have the opportunity to use their minds creatively all their lives. One of the great joys of life for me is my desire to always be learning.  We live in a world that will try to show us another way.  It may be a world where what our children get for a grade is the only important thing, and where a mistake on a test is cause for humiliation.  It may be world where they learn they have to look or dress a certain way.  We can let that world guide them, or decide that we would educate for loving the questions, loving their creative talents, wanting them to have respectful relationships with others, and wanting to care for their bodies and the body of earth.  We can educate so that they keep searching in their hearts and minds for what feels best, and when they find what is good and loving, they affirm it with all their hearts.


Closing Words – from Lawrence Ferlinghetti,  “I am Waiting”  (excerpt)

I am waiting

to get some intimations

of immortality

by recollecting my early childhood

and I am waiting

for the green mornings to come again   

youth’s dumb green fields come back again

and I am waiting

for some strains of unpremeditated art

to shake my typewriter

and I am waiting to write

the great indelible poem

and I am waiting

for the last long careless rapture

and I am perpetually waiting

for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn   

to catch each other up at last

and embrace

and I am awaiting   

perpetually and forever

a renaissance of wonder