Dream world

I woke up early, decided it was too early, and went back to sleep. I seem to have had a lot of dreams, none of which I remember. But I have vague memories of a dream involving my mother, during the years she had dementia. My mother died twenty-five years ago this month, and for the last few years of her life had gradually increasing dementia associated with supranuclear palsy, Parkinson’s, and the side effect of the drugs she was taking. She didn’t know who I was for the last couple of years of her life, and I didn’t have much in the way of real conversations with her for a couple of years before that. The mother who appeared in my dream last night was the person who had dementia — not always making sense, sometimes hallucinating. It’s funny how vivid my memories of that time still are, vivid enough to reappear in my dreams from time to time.

Plant morphology

I’ve been doing a deep dive into plant morphology. I went down this rabbit hole while doing planning for some ecojustice workshops I’m planning this summer. One of the activities I like to lead is dissecting flowers— it helps participants see things from a new perspective, and a great deal of ecojustice is learning how to see things (like society) from a new perspective.

If you’re going to dissect flowers, why not dissect non-flowering plants as well? However, ferns, green seaweeds, red seaweeds, mosses, etc. — differ in their structures from flowering plants, and thus they have their own terminologies. Even grasses, which are a flowering plant, have their own peculiar terminology.

I quickly decided the terminology of grasses was too complicated to present to casual workshop participants. Awn, floret, panicle, pedicel — I could envision everyone’s eyes glazing over as they heard those terms.

The basic terminology for ferns and seaweeds, though, was easier to present. And there were some interesting contrasts with flowering plants. For example, flowering plants have stems; seaweeds have stipes. Flowering plants have roots; ferns have rhizomes.

There is a transcendent point in all of this. Life on Earth is filled with incredible diversity. Our human language really can’t encompass that diversity. But we can use words to help us see some of that diversity a little better.

A drawing of a seaweed with the parts labeled.
Parts of seaweed, shown on Bladderwrack, Fucus vesiculosus

The ongoing Southern Baptist abuse crisis and us

Today brought another news story about the ongoing Southern Baptist abuse crisis: “A Southern Baptist leader hid decades of abuse. Will his fall doom SBC abuse reforms?” Why should Unitarian Universalists pay attention to this? Because we can learn a great deal from what’s going on in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Like the Southern Baptists, we Unitarian Universalists (UUs) have a history of sex abuse. (Nor are we alone: nearly every American institution, from schools to sports to health care to entertainment, has its own history of abuse.) I’ve mostly heard allegations about male UU ministers and lay leaders targeting women over the age of 18. But I’ve also heard allegations about powerful men targeting legal minors.

And like the Southern Baptists, we have a decentralized structure. Each local congregation is theoretically autonomous. If a local congregation wants to hire a minister who’s known to have a history of abuse, there’s no way to stop them.

From today’s news story, it appears that the Southern Baptists have used their decentralized structure to avoid taking responsibility for dealing with their sex abuse crisis:

“…Southern Baptist leaders boast of their power to spread the gospel but take little responsibility when things go wrong. And local congregations have little power to fix things that are broken on a national level. ‘The beauty of SBC is that we’re local and autonomous,’ said Adam Wyatt, a Mississippi pastor and member of the SBC Executive Committee, recently. ‘The challenge is, we’re local and autonomous.”

A lawsuit against Paul Pressler, one of the most powerful Southern Baptist leaders over the past fifty years, alleges that Southern Baptist leaders might talk about local autonomy, but they have also been evading responsibility.

This is what we Unitarian Universalists can learn from the Southern Baptists. We, too, like to talk about the autonomy of local congregations. To what extent do we (and I mean all of us) use local autonomy as an excuse to evade our responsibility to protect against sex abuse?

I think we Unitarian Universalists have made more progress at dealing with sex abuse than have the Southern Baptists. But we have lots more work to do before we really address the problem. At least we can learn from the Southern Baptist debacle that local autonomy is no excuse.

Teacher of the year

De’Shawn Washington, teacher of the year in Massachusetts, came to Cohasset at the 20th annual breakfast honoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Washington is a fourth grade teacher at Maria Hastings Elementary School in Lexington, Mass.

His was one of the best talks I’ve heard in a long time. He spoke about how Martin Luther King’s message continues to inspire and inform his own teaching practice. But he really shone during the question and answer period after his talk. Of course you’d expect a fourth grade teacher to be able to think on their feet. What I really appreciated, though, was that he kept his focus on children and their families. His worldview is both humane and child-centered.

Washington is speaking frequently across the state this year. If you get a chance to hear him, go. We’re luck to have him representing the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as our teacher of the year.

Washington’s talk was sponsored by the Cohasset Diversity Committee and the Cohasset Clergy. The hosting congregation this year was First Parish in Cohasset.

Man standing at a podium draped with the Pan Afrian flag.
De’Shawn Washington at the podium

(I had this post written then got caught up in work responsibilities and forgot to post it on Wed. So the post is dated Wed. but was actually posted on Sat.)

Parental rights, parental consent

An article in today’s Boston Globe by Dana Goldstein, “New school laws have unintended consequences in Fla.: bureaucracy,” reports on unintended consequences of Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education Act.” The Globe picked up this article from the New York Times, which ran it on Wed., Jan. 10 — here’s a free version of the article.

Under Florida’s new law, many school districts are now requiring permission slips for what used to be routine matters. For example, some school districts are now require permission forms for putting a band-aid on a child, because the new law requires that parents be able to opt out of health care services for their children.

The result, according to Goldstein, is increased paperwork: “Educators across the state say recent laws and regulations around parental consent have created an entirely new bureaucracy, filled with forms and nagging phone calls to parents.” Goldstein goes on to report: “While no state has gone as far as Florida with parental consent requirements, dozens of states are considering bills inspired by Florida’s laws.”

I don’t expect many new laws requiring parental consent for religious education programs. Nevertheless, one result of law like this is that parents are coming to expect to be allowed to exercise more granular control over their children’s experiences. Congregations are going to have to be increasingly sensitive to parent expectations — and congregations are going to face an increasing paperwork burden as they track parent consent on a widening range of matters.

Violence, nonviolence

A hundred days ago, Hamas unleashed their attack on Israel. In response, Israel has been carrying out reprisals on the Gaza Strip. And the war is spreading throughout the region, so that the U.S. and other countries have sent warships to protect shipping in the Red Sea. An initial act of violence led to an ongoing violent reaction, which in turn is leading to violence spreading even further….

Many years ago, the science fiction author Isaac Asimov had a character in one of his novels say, “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” This pronouncement by a fictional character is a gross generalization subject to all kinds of exceptions (think about Ukraine). But there is a truth underlying this fictional pronouncement, and that is that violence does tend to beget more violence, so any use of violence can suck you into a vicious circle of more and more violence.

This was part of the genius of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his principle of nonviolence. It’s something worth remembering as we celebrate his birthday tomorrow.

Why clergy are quitting

A group of social scientists at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research have been investigating the impact of the COVID pandemic on organized religion. They have just issued a new report titled “‘I’m Exhausted All the Time’: Exploring the Factors Leading to Growing Clergy Discontentment.” A PDF of the full report is available here.

One key finding in this report is that in the aftermath of the panedmic, the number of congregational clergy who are both considering leaving their current position and who are thinking about changing careers keeps increasing. We’ve been seeing some of this in Unitarian Universalism — I personally know of several UU ministers who have not only left their congregations, but who are now transitioning to a new career.

I participated in this study — I have no idea how they found my email address, but they sent me the survey forms and I filled it out. Now that I see the results of the report, it turns out that I’m in the minority of clergy who still love their jobs and who have no intention of leaving ministry.

But the fact remains that many other clergy are leaving the profession. It remains to be seen what effect this has on organized religion. Will it have a positive effect, in that new clergy come along whose expectations for the profession are more aligned with the new realities of congregational life? Will it have a negative effect, by reducing the pool of qualified ministers such that too many congregations can’t find qualified leadership? Or something else entirely?

Christians against Christian Nationalism

You’ve probably already seen this, but I just discovered the Christians against Christian Nationalism website. The tagline of the website is “We believe that Christian nationalism threatens our faith and country.” Amen to that.

For my co-religionists, and any other readers, who are Christians: you can read and sign their statement against Christian Nationalism. It’s just so refreshing to see Christians standing up against this pervsion of the Christian faith.

For everyone: that website has great printable resources you can share with your Christian friends. Plus there’s a related TikTok account, @EndChristianNationalism, which might also be worth sharing.

Native American members of a church that became UU

(I don’t usually link to my sermons, because reading sermons can be about as interesting as watching paint dry. But today’s sermon had some interesting history in it, and I’ll provide direct links to the interesting bits so you can skip the boring bits.)

In the 17th century, our congregation, First Parish in Cohasset, had at least two Native American members.

Sarah Wapping joined our church on January 7, 1738 [N.S.], exactly 296 years ago today. Not much in the historical record, but I found a few things to say about her.

Naomi Isaac joined our church on September 19, 1736 [N.S.]. I may have found out more about Naomi Isaac’s life — though you have to read the footnotes so you can see why much of what I say is only tentative.

None of this is to imply that either Naomi Isaac nor Sarah Wapping was a Unitarian Universalist. Our church was not Unitarian in the 1730s. It was a fairly liberal Christian church for its time and place, since it was under the influence of Ebenezer Gay of Hingham; but it was not yet a Unitarian Universalist congregation.

Nevertheless, it’s still very interesting that our congregation had Native American members i the mid-eighteenth century. There were Black members, too. Thus, in spite of a rigid racial hierarchy, in the mid-eighteenth century ours was a multiracial congregation. Then by 1790, the town of Cohasset had become entirely White (the 1790 U.S. Census reports no non-White population at all), and the congregation was also entirely White. The town and church went from moderately racially integrated, to entirely segregated in the space of half a century.

Noted without comment

“‘Of course, I did it!’ she blazed.’And why not?… It’s all right to talk about respectability if you’ve been educated so you can get by and be respectable, but when you have nothing back of you, you have to take things as they come….”

A character being interrogated by the fictional lawyer Perry Mason, in Erle Stanley Gardener’s The Case of the Rolling Bones (William Morrow, 1939).