Is your identity set in stone?

If you’re reaching sexual maturity today, you have a wide array of sexual orientations with which you might identify. There are the old categories of straight, bisexual, gay, and lesbian. There is a continuum from asexual through graysexual to allosexual, though it’s not a linear continuum since it also includes demisexual and aspec and other identities. The old continuum of gay/lesbian to straight (where if asked “how gay are you?” you might reply “a Kinsey 6”) now must include more than two binary genders. Thus, in addition to gay or straight, we now have pansexual, omni sexual, polysexual, etc.

In my observation as a sexuality educator, this plethora of sexual orientations can be both freeing and confusing for young adolescents. Some young adolescents, including the ones who have felt they are somehow different than the norms shown in popular culture, are relieved to find that there are other people out there like them. Other young adolescents, including those who may feel that they don’t fit into pop culture norms, may not see themselves reflected in any of the existing categories, or may see themselves reflected in more than one category. Even young adolescents who fit into one of the old categories (one they don’t have to explain to their parents) find the need to understand the new plethora of sexual orientations, as friends and acquaintances identify with other sexual orientations.

I think it’s helpful to introduce young adolescents to the concept of sexual fluidity. Back in 2014, social psychologist Justin Lehmiller wrote:

“Over the last decade [i.e., prior to 2014], the concept of sexual fluidity has drawn great attention from both scientists and the general public alike. In case you aren’t familiar with it, the basic idea behind sexual fluidity is that some of us have the capacity for a ‘flexible’ erotic response, which can lead to significant variability in one’s pattern of sexual attraction, behavior, and identity over time. In other words, someone who is sexually fluid may experience fluctuations in who they are attracted to, who they sleep with, and what labels they identify with multiple times over the lifespan.”

In other words, your sexual orientation can change over time. I feel this is a useful corrective to a culture that seems to want to put us into a limited number of essentialist categories — we are gay or straight (but not something in between), black or white (but not biracial), Democrat or Republican (but not socialist or communist).

There’s a theological point here. Existentialist theology suggests that humans don’t have a pre-existing essence. We define our essences ourselves, through our actions in the world. By contrast, essentialist theologies insist that humans have defined essences from their beginnings. Essentialist theologies include both conservative Christian theologies (“man is sinful”) on the one hand, and atheist theologies (“humans are programmed by their biology”) on the other hand.

While some Unitarian Universalists do espouse essentialist theologies, mostly essentialist atheist theologies, I’d like to think that most of us do not fall into the essentialist trap. Instead, we assert that humans can change over time. Where others try to place humans into little boxes of essentialist identities, as existentialists we know that we have the ultimate freedom to define our own essence through our actions.

Revised Coming of Age curriculum now online

A fairly major revision of a gr. 8-9 Coming of Age program is now online. From the course description: “The goal of our Coming of Age program is to help young people sort out their ethical and religious identity (recognizing that some young people do not feel religious at all), so that they may make rational decisions about the kind of person they want to become.”

This Coming of Age program assumes that Unitarian Universalist religious identity is primarily concerned with what we do in the world. Second, the program does not take Christianity as the paradigm of all religion, which means that belief and doctrine are de-emphasized, while ethics is emphasized. Third, the course includes many hands-on activities, as well as discussions, to reach different learning styles. Fourth, the course is outcome-driven, with everything in the course designed to prepare participants to write and deliver statements of religious identity in a culminating worship service.

I wrote the curriculum, but it’s based on the real-world course we’ve offered at the UU Church of Palo Alto for the past decade. Many other teachers, and many participants, have contributed to the program.

There are still known issues with the curriculum. The session plan for Session Seven, “Western Religious Practices,” is teachable, but needs revision. Session Ten, “Football Is Religion,” was taught for the first time in 2021, and the session plan is still rough. Session Eight is designed as a field trip to a specific art museum in San Francisco, but could be adapted to other museums in other locales. The social justice project is very specific to the Palo Alto congregation, but with careful attention to the criteria for what constitutes a good social justice project, other congregations can find suitable projects.

The curriculum does make use of copyrighted material. However, the online curriculum provides to online sources for all copyrighted material.

Overall, the curriculum is quite sound and produces excellent outcomes. While written for the Palo Alto congregation, it should be fairly easy to adapt to most UU congregations.

Coming of Age program at Yet Another UU Curriculum Site.

Behind the scenes

Since 2020, I’ve been filming stories-for-all-ages in a puppet studio I put together in the nursery at the Palo Alto church. We’re about to resume infant and toddler care, so it’s only a matter of time before I have to remove the puppet studio from the nursery. But I managed to take some behind-the-scenes photos of puppets and puppeteers in action while filming a few last videos.

When we’re filming, the puppeteers mostly watch the action on the computer screen. Sometimes looking at the screen is disorienting and we have to look up at the puppets. We tape the script to the back of the puppet stage at our eye level. Puppets who are not in the current scene lie on the table next to us (you can see Possum in the lower left corner of the photo.)

Puppeteer view

This is what the camera sees when the zoom is set to the widest angle:

Camera view

A wider view, from behind the camera. We sometimes have up to seven lights aimed at the stage. Props are laid out on the table to the left of the puppet stage. When not needed in the current scene, the puppets stay in cloth bags, and you can see Rolf’s head poking out of the dark blue bag in the lower right corner of the photo.

View from behind the camera

I’ll miss the puppeteer studio when it’s gone. But I won’t miss sweating in that small room on hot days, with the doors closed to keep outside sound out. I won’t miss having to reshoot a scene because a helicopter went overhead, or someone started talking on their phone right outside the door, or the cello class started up unexpectedly, ruining the sound. I won’t miss having a carefully-constructed set suddenly decide to fall over in the middle of filming. I won’t miss spending fifteen minutes trying to level the camera, only to find that somehow, mysteriously, the stage has gone out of level. I won’t miss shooting video on a tight deadline with little margin for error. But… I will miss bringing Sharpie and Possum and the other characters to life.

Webpage with links to all videos, plus “Meet the Stuffies”

News

It’s public now. I’ll be resigning from the UU Church of Palo Alto as of July 31. I’ll post my resignation letter below the fold. The congregation that hired me hasn’t posted this on its website yet — when they do, I’ll post that info here.

Continue reading “News”

Ecojustice Class curriculum now online (finally)

We’ve been teaching Ecojustice Class — a hands-on environmental justice curriculum for gr. 6-8 — since 2014. But much to the frustration of the teachers, there has never been a written curriculum for the class — until now.

Here’s the general curriculum plan for Ecojustice Class. There should be enough material there to fill approximately two dozen sessions over the course of a school year.

However, you won’t find a completely scripted curriculum, because that’s just not possible due to the nature of the program. This is a hands-on curriculum that gets the participants outdoors as much as possible. That means you have to have back-up plans in case weather doesn’t allow you outdoors. And you have to adjust the program to your specific climate and seasons.

I still have a few more successful lesson plans that I haven’t had time to put online yet. So expect minor upgrades to the curriculum over the next few months.

(And thanks to the many talented Ecojustice Class teachers who contributed to the class over the years, including Carol Steinfeld, Francesca Finch, Emma Grant-Bier, Ed Vail, Lorraine Kostka, Buzz Frahn, Mark Erickson, and others. I’m especially grateful to Francesca and Emma, who grew up taking the class and then went on to teach it.)

Toxic masculinity

Actor Will Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock during the Oscar awards ceremony. Now we learn that he was asked to leave but refused. I’ve been asking myself some questions about this incident….

— Why didn’t security remove Will Smith? Had he slapped a woman, of course he would have been hustled out of there. But a man hitting another man is somehow considered normal.

— Why a slap, and not a punch? Because a man defends his honor by slapping the other man. It’s a challenge to a subsequent duel. This continues to be a behavioral norm for men in Euro-American culture.

— If Chris Rock’s joke was aimed at Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith’s wife, why didn’t she slap him? Because this really wasn’t about Will Smith defending Jada Pinkett Smith. It was really about Will Smith defending his own honor.

— Why didn’t Will Smith stop to think about the example he was setting for all the teens and young men who idolize him (and he had plenty of time to think on that walk up to the stage)? Because he was passing along what he learned from previous generations of American men: Defend your honor with violence.

This incident is a classic example of toxic masculinity. The norms of toxic masculinity are deeply ingrained in our social structure. Men are trained from birth to defend our honor. We are socialized from birth to use violence.

I’d like to think that I would never do what Will Smith did. But if I’m honest with myself, in the right circumstances, I might. Yes, I’m a pacifist. I’m a feminist. I’ve taken on a non-standard gender role by working in the helping professions. But any American man could do what Will Smith did, given the right circumstances. Yes, even me. Even you….

Of course Will Smith should be held accountable for his bad behavior. But those of us who are men might also want to think about what this incident says about all of us. We men still have work to do to change what it means to be a man. Let’s use this incident to remind ourselves how important that work is.

Update: In response to a thoughtful email — (1) I’m not trying to excuse Chris Rock’s insensitive joke. (2) Most men do not consider it acceptable to slap another man. (3) One of the horrible things about toxic masculinity is that it damages all men (to say nothing of other genders).

Reopening

Here in Palo Alto, it feels like people are starting to return to church. It’s not like the pandemic has gone away. Here in Palo Alto, the Omicron surge has died down, but now we’re seeing a slight uptick in cases, probably caused by BA.2. Or caused by the lifting of indoors restrictions on masks. Or caused by hundreds of other random variables that we’re not aware of.

At the same time, we’re also becoming more aware of another public health problem — an increase in mental health issues among teens and children. Teen mental health problems began rising around 2009, but the pandemic prompted even more teen mental health issues. One probable cause: a rise in screen time. More screen time leads to more mental health problems. And the pandemic led to even more screen time.

I feel that our congregations are in a balancing act right now. On the one hand, we want to help control the virus, and we also want to remain accessible to people who are vulnerable to the virus. On the other hand, we know that our in-person programming can support positive mental health outcomes in children and teens. So we need to reopen to support good mental health, and we also need to promote COVID safety.

Right now, the Palo Alto congregation where I serve is reopening as fast as we can, while staying safe. We just figured out how to start offering child care for infants and toddlers once again. As the weather warms up, we’re seeing more preschoolers show up for outdoor play time — we had six preschoolers on campus this past Sunday, the first time we’ve had more than two since the pandemic began. We’re still not up to pre-pandemic attendance, but we’re getting there. And we’re still offering most of our programming outdoors, or in large rooms with small numbers of kids.

Reopening is a lot of work. But I don’t mind. It feels great having more people showing up in person again.

Obscure Unitarians: Burt Estes Howard

[An excerpt from my forthcoming book on Unitarians in Palo Alto:]

A minister and a professor at Stanford University, Burt Estes Howard was born February 23, 1863, in Clayton, N.Y. He went to school at Shaw Academy, Cleveland. He graduated from Western Reserve University in 1883, received a masters’ degree from Lane Theological Seminary, and was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1886. He served as a Presbyterian minister in Michigan and Ohio from 1887 to 1892.

He married Sarah Gates 1890, and they had three children: Grenville (b. 1891), and twins Graeme and Emily (b. 1896). Sarah was a college graduate, having received her A.B. from Vassar in 1869.

He became the pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Los Angeles, in 1892, moving his wife and infant son to California. He only remained a pastor of that church for three years. In 1895, Burt was convicted of “insubordination” by the Los Angeles Presbytery, on what some considered to be trumped-up charges. The presbytery stripped him of his ministerial authority. Burt and his supporters appealed the conviction to the judiciary commission of the Presbyterian Synod in San Jose, which reversed the local decision. But then he was brought up on charges of heresy and insubordination again a few months later. On January 25, 1896, the Los Angeles Herald reported in a page two story:

“The Rev. Howard is to be charged with high crimes and misdemeanors innumerable. The bill of particulars, it is said, will allege that he has been guilty of denying the atonement. It will furthermore be alleged that he also questioned the integrity of the scriptures. This is not all. It will be claimed that the doughty pastor has advanced, stood by and defended the doctrine of evolution. He will also be accused, in all probability, of pantheism. This is something new, but it means that he has enunciated that all nature is good. Not content with this, an endeavor will be made to show that Mr. Howard has stood up for Unitarianism. These charges will be made, so it is claimed, by some of the members of Mr. Howard’s congregation. The congregation split, and those who withdrew formed another church.”

This second heresy trial finally drove him away from Presbyterianism. In 1897, while also serving as a lecturer in professional ethics at Los Angeles Law School, he organized the Church of the Covenant, a congregation independent of any denomination. He served as the minister of that congregation for three years.

Continue reading “Obscure Unitarians: Burt Estes Howard”

Thinking back

My uncle Bob died late last month. I’ve been thinking about him a lot. I talked to my younger sister about him, even wound up talking to some cousins I haven’t talked to in a long time. Thinking back about parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents and great-grandparents. All the things I don’t know, the people in old photographs we’ll never be able to identify because there’s no one we can ask, “Who was that? and who’s that next to them?…”

A short film on Vimeo by twenty-something filmmaker Devon Blackwell captures some of these feelings. As she looks at old family photographs, Blackwell says: “It’s frustrating, longing to talk to people I’ve never met….”

That’s the feeling I get when I look the old photo sitting on the desk next to my laptop, a picture of my great-grandparents Bessie and Lew Harper. I know almost nothing about them; the only way I know they are the people in the photo is because my grandmother wrote their names on the back. The last time my sister and I talked with our Uncle Lee, he told us how Bessie, his grandmother, had lived with our grandparents before she died. “I was probably her best friend in those years,” Uncle Lee said. I never knew that before. It was after Uncle Lee died that I found the photo of Bessie and Lew Harper, so I couldn’t ask him about it.

Inscription on reverse reads, “Bessie and Lew Harper, Early 1890s”

I had a videoconference call with Uncle Bob the week before he died. He looked good and sounded great. In my head, I was making plans to visit him this summer, assuming COVID would allow. I had some questions I wanted to ask him….

Riverside Cemetery, Oshkosh, Wisconsin

After last night’s snow storm, temperatures rose above forty degrees. This afternoon, Carol and I took a long walk. We wound up in Riverside Cemetery, where we were especially interested in the nineteenth century gravestones.

The gravestone reads: “John / Son of / H. & M. Serves, / died / May 21, 1868 / AE 19 yrs & 2 wks [?]” The lower lines were illegible.
Grave marker, with inscription in German