Monthly Archives: July 2009

Summer rain

Our PODS moving container arrived at seven this morning. As I stood outside our building waiting for the truck to show up, the rain came and went — light rain, a quick heavy shower, drizzle, then no rain for a while. The National Weather Service tells us that a low pressure system is moving up the coast of New England. We’ve only had a quarter of an inch of rain so far today, but it has felt like a wet day.

Carol and I walked down to the Waterfront Grill tonight to have a good-bye dinner with Ann and Leo. While we were walking, we admired the lush gardens tucked between the road and State Pier, and the gardens in Coast Guard Park. The hostas were especially remarkable, with huge leaves and big, tall clusters of purple flowers.

“Look at those gardens,” I said to Carol. “They look much better than they did last year.”

“It’s all that rain,” she said. “All the plants are growing like crazy.”

More rain is forecast for Thursday night. The hostas will be happy.

Uncle Bob’s challenge

I went over to Martha’s Vineyard today to visit with Uncle Bob and Aunt Martha one more time before we move to California. Uncle Bob, a life-long Unitarian (he grew up in All Souls Church in Washington, D.C.), asked me, “So, do you think Unitarian Universalism can grow?”

“Yes, I think it can grow,” I said. “But I’m not sure it will grow.”

This got us started on a long discussion of what is needed to make Unitarian Universalism grow. Uncle Bob, who worked as an executive at GTE for many years, understands marketing. He said that he thinks the big challenge for Unitarian Universalism is to come up with a short, easily remembered summary of what we stand for.

“Well, I think we could do that,” I said.

“OK,” said Uncle Bob, “but no one has done it yet.” He added, “What you come up with has to be short, pithy, and easy to remember.” We both agreed that meant that the so-called “seven principles” were not adequate for our purposes, because they are too long, don’t really say much, and are difficult to remember.

“How about this,” I said. “First, from our Unitarian side, we know that there is an essential unity to everything, to the universe. Second, from our Universalist side, we know that the destiny of all people is bound up together, and therefore we work for the salvation of all humanity. Third, we are post-Christian, which means that although we come from the Christian tradition, we don’t accept any of the traditional Christian creeds and doctrines.”

Uncle Bob didn’t like the term “post-Christian.” “I don’t know what that means,” he said. This is supposed to be a short, easy–to-remember definition, and so we don’t want to have to engage in a lot of explanation. I said that he was right, but what I wanted to do was make sure that we affirm the Golden Rule as a basic moral principle. Then Uncle Bob added another point: we affirm freedom of conscience. I wanted to phrase it that human beings have freedom of will (i.e., I wanted to affirm Arminianism), and we went back and forth on what exactly we meant by this.

We argued all this back and forth for a good three quarters of an hour. We never got to the point where we completely agreed on exact wording, but we came to a general agreement on four points. Here’s how I would summarize these four points (Uncle Bob would put them differently):

  • We affirm the essential unity of all that is. [Unitarianism]
  • The destiny of all people is bound together, so we work together to save the world. [Universalism]
  • We follow the Golden Rule, not creeds or doctrines. [Non-creedalism]
  • We have the freedom and the responsibility to shape ourselves and the world. [Arminianism]

Obviously, any such short list is not meant to be comprehensive, it is only meant to give a concise summary; if people are still interested after hearing the short summary, we could then trot out the “seven principles” or whatever else we might wish. Equally obviously, such a list is not meant to be binding on anyone — you don’t have to use this list, it’s just another possible tool to use to help explain who we are to newcomers.

I am not entirely happy with this list — some of the individual points are too wordy, and not memorable enough. And maybe four points is too many to remember. But I think we’re getting close to meeting Uncle Bob’s challenge — close to having a short, easy-to-remember list that would help us to explain the core of our religious faith to newcomers.

What do you think?


As soon as I finished breakfast, I started packing boxes. After about half an hour, I paused and said to myself, Boy this really sucks.

Then I thought to myself, Hey wait a minute: we are moving to a great new apartment; we’ll be living in a region we like; we already have good friends in this new place; I’m going to be starting a fabulous new job; and there will be many more job options for Carol than there are here in New Bedford. I should be thankful that we are managing to improve our economic prospects when the economy is as bad as it is right now. I should be thankful that I am going from one good job to another good job. And I know I am thankful for all that.

At the same time, I hate moving. I hate that we have to leave behind all the connections and relationships we have here. I hate moving so far away from my dad and Carol’s dad and Abby and Jim and other friends and relations. I know I am going to miss all the little routines that we now enjoy: taking walks out to Pope’s Island, walking to work in the morning, Carol’s Saturday mornings at the Green Bean coffee shop.

The worst part of packing up, though, is confronting all the things I didn’t do: packing away financial records that should have been sorted; packing books I meant to read but didn’t; realizing my bicycle is still in the box from when we moved here from Illinois; the list goes on.

I’ve been packing boxes all day, and even though we have good reasons for moving, I still say that moving really sucks.

Small RE programs, pt. 6

Read the whole series.


This session, we opened with a reading from an old Unitarian book titled The Little Child at the Breakfast Table, a collection of 31 daily readings for Unitarian parents to read to their children at the breakfast table. (You can download the entire book, or read it online, here.) I read the introduction by the editors, William and Mary Gannett, where they explain the purpose of the book. They say in part:

Are not many mothers and fathers today vaguely longing for some kind of “household altar,” fitted to our own time and feeling? A few of these may like to try our simple way. Not a return to the old form of “family prayers,” but some custom akin to it is needed, — greatly needed, if conscious reverence be a quality as worthy of culture in ourselves and in our children as truthfulness and kindness.

While many of the readings now sound dated to our Unitarian Universalist ears, some of the readings could still be read aloud by parents to their children between age 5 and 10 (see, e.g., p. 16). I suggested that this kind of resource would be a great help in trying to reach some of the big outcomes we identified. For example, if one of our desired outcomes is to help UU kids become UU adults, this kind of simple activity could help move towards this outcome by making Unitarian Universalism and UU values become a part of everyday life. Unfortunately, The Little Child at the Breakfast Table was put together in 1915, and it won’t work for us today. But if enough of us start thinking about it, I’ll bet we could assemble a similar book for 2009 UU kids. (I’ve collected a few such readings here, but this is a bare beginning.) Continue reading

Small RE programs, pt. 5

Read the whole series.

On the fourth day of the workshop, we began once again with two of the participants teaching a sample lesson. Helen was the lead teacher, and Mary was the assistant teacher.

What interested me about watching these two skilled teachers in action was that they had two very different teaching styles. Helen is calm and centered: she tends to keep her body still, leaning forward slightly in her chair, and she engages the participants with her voice and facial expressions. Mary, on the other hand, uses her whole body to teach: she stands up, sits down, moves, she’s a very physical teacher. Both Helen and Mary are skilled teachers: watching them teach together was both a study in contrasts, and a vivd reminder that there is no one right way to teach.

Watching Helen and Mary caused me to reflect on my own teaching style. I’m a fairly physical teacher, and I find it hard to sit still. Often I have to think hard and force myself to be physically still when the lesson requires it.

After the sample lesson, we shared out evaluations with each other. A couple of the participants mentioned that they weren’t sure where Helen had assessed the learning of the group. As it happened, Helen had included assessment in the lesson, but some of us didn’t notice that she was assessing our learning. This raised the interesting question of whether learners should know they are being assessed or not. I favor always letting participants know when they are being assessed; but I recognize that there is a case to be made for teachers sometimes doing assessment without letting learners know.

After a break, we came back and worked on the religious skill of singing. We learned a new song that we’re going to sing tonight at the conference talent show.

We wound up the session talking about appropriate assessment genres for religious education. In an earlier session, we had agreed that testing is not an appropriate assessment genre for religious education — we all felt that paper-and-pencil tests do not accurately measure the kind of learning that should go on in religious education programs. So what are the appropriate assessment genres? We came up with the following list: Continue reading

Small RE programs, pt. 4

Read the whole series.

We began this morning with a sample lesson taught by one of the participants. I acted as the observer during this lesson — that is, I did not participate, but sat off to one side observing and taking notes.

The lesson began with a story about forgiveness, and quickly took the participants to a fairly deep emotional level. It was fascinating to be the observer. I listened to what the teacher and the participants were saying, but more than anything I observed body language and facial expressions. When you sit back and watch all the participants — when you are not a participant-observer — you get a very different perspective on teaching.

The lesson was brilliantly taught by Lynn, assisted by Kate. But what really struck me while I was observing this lesson was how much I can learn about teaching from observing someone else teach. Lynn is a skilled and gifted teacher, but she teaches differently than do I — she emphasizes different things, she has a different bag of teaching tricks, etc. By sitting there and observing how she teaches, and by trying to articulate that in writing, I was forced to think more deeply about teaching. What are my assumptions about how one should teach? What things did Lynn do that I simply don’t do, i.e., what are my blind spots as a teacher? How is her philosophy of teaching reflected in her teaching praxis, and how does her philosophy differ from my own? All these questions were in the back of my head as I was observing. Continue reading

Small RE programs, pt. 3

Read the whole series.

Today’s session started off with one of the participants teaching a sample Sunday school lesson. Four of us participated in the lesson, with the understanding that we would be writing down our observations and reactions after the lesson was over. A fifth person, Sheila, was both a participant and Lisa’s assistant. The sixth person, Mary, acted as an observer, and instead of participating she wrote out a rough narrative account of the lesson while the lesson was taking place.

Lisa led us in a lesson about Queen Esther from the Hebrew Bible. First she asked the participants what they knew (if anything) about Esther. We didn’t know all that much. Then Lisa told the story of Esther in the first person, as if she was Esther (this was a summary of the story told in the book of Esther, chapters 2-9). To reinforce the story, Lisa asked us to make a diorama depicting one of the scenes from the story; Sheila, acting as her assistant, facilitated the making of the diorama. To connect the story to the participants, Lisa introduced the concept of heroes, and said that Esther was a hero (or heroine, if you prefer). Lisa asked us to name someone who was a hero to us; there was silence for a bit while we thought that question over, and then Sheila broke the silence (and modeled for us what to do), telling about a heroine of hers. Lisa ended with a short wrap-up and review.

After the sample lesson was over, we all wrote up evaluations: Lisa wrote a self-evaluation; the four participants and Sheila wrote up their observations and evaluation; and Mary added to her narrative account. After about 10 minutes, we all shared our evaluations, beginning with Lisa. What was most interesting to me and the other participants was hearing Mary’s account of the sample lesson: because she was not involved, she saw and heard things that the rest of us missed. There was general agreement that having such an observer was extremely helpful in gaining perspective on this teaching episode. Continue reading

Small RE programs, pt. 2

Read the whole series.

We started off this second session in the workshop with me teaching a sample lesson. I taught the lesson pretty much as I would teach it to a small, mixed-age group of children.


We began by saying together a simple affirmation of faith, with hand motions. Then we went around the circle, and each participant said their name, after which they could say one good thing and one bad thing that had happened to them since we had met together yesterday. One participant had something very important to say, and we spent several minutes listening to her.

After the introductory bits, I read the story about the God of the Israelites parting the sea so Moses and his people could escape form Pharoah’s army. I read the story straight out of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (Exodus, all of ch. 14), and of course I made sure to read it dramatically.

The participants wanted to discuss the story right away (a quite different reaction than children would have had). But instead of allowing the discussion, I said, “Let’s act the story out. Who wants to be which character?” Sheila agreed to act out the part of the God of the Isrealites; I was Pharaoh, Mary and Helen said they would be the sea (“the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left”); and so on. We had great fun acting out the story, and we really hammed it up — I had Phraoh talk in a pirate voice, Sheila played God as a deadpan New England Yankee, Mary and Helen were very active as the waters of the sea, etc.

When we had finished acting, it was time to discuss the story. “What happened in the story?” I asked. The participants reviewed what had happened in the story. Then I asked, “What did you think about the story?” Some of the participants didn’t like the story, because it was violent, and the God of the Israelites seemed vindictive to them. But as the participants kept talking they came to some interesting conclusions: Moses was a strong leader; the God of the Israelites was like a superhero character; the parting of the sea could have been explained by natural phenomena. I asked whether this story was non-fiction or fiction. Continue reading

Small religious education programs, pt. 1

Ferry Beach Conference Center, Saco, Maine

I’m at a religious education conference here at Ferry Beach, leading a week-long workshop on small religious education programs. We had our first session in this workshop today.

My basic contention for this workshop is that small churches are not well-served by the usual Unitarian Universalist (UU) approach to religious education. The usual UU approach to religious education is pretty straightforward: find a printed curriculum guide that you like, buy it, and tell all your volunteer teachers to follow it. Problem is, almost all of the printed curriculum guides that are appropriate for UU religious education are written for churches that have perhaps 50 children in their programs — enough so you can have have 8-12 children in each class, with the classes divided up by age group. But small churches have too few children to divide up by age groups. This is the big problem facing most small church religious education programs — we feel we have to use the existing printed curriculum guides, but they don’t work with the small number of children we have.

So what’s a small church to do? Continue reading