First Unitarian Church of Worcester

Sermons, Memos and other writings from the newsletter and worship services of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester. The First Unitarian Church is located at 90 Main Street, Worcester, MA 01608. Our phone is 508-757-2708 and our webpage is A audio CD is produced for almost every one of our regular services. Call our office or send a note to the office at our website to request that one be shipped to you.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

"A Vacation in Pentecost" by Christopher L. Walton

On August 20th, worship was conducted by Christopher L. Walton, the executive editor of the UU World Magazine. Chris's sermon was a reflection on his experience of the Taize community in France. The text of his sermon has been posted on his blog,

The congregation shared the following Common Prayer, selected by Chris Walton, and written by Brother Roger of Taize.

Holy Spirit, enable us to bring peace where there are oppositions, and to allow a reflection of God's compassion to become visible by the lives we lead. Yes, show us how to love and to say it with our life. Amen

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

"Striking Out" by Ken Waugh

On August 13, 2006, Worship was led by Ken Waugh. His sermon title was "Striking Out" and it was a funny and wise exploration of the lessons to be drawn from the game of baseball to life. And yes, that is a statue of David Ortiz on the chancel table.

A tape recording was made of Ken's sermon, which will be posted here when it is in a suitable format.

The Bounty of Summer

Ken Waugh always brings the harvest from his garden when he leads worship during the summer. Here is just some of what he brought to share with those who come.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

"Life's Challanges and the Power of Faith" by Dr. Peter Levine

On May 21, 2006, Worship was led by Dr. Peter Levine. His inspirational sermon has been reprinted numerous times, and is, still, frequently requested. Get the MP3 here.

Pastoral Reflection for Youth

In the house where I grew up as a kid was an old windup phonograph. It was called a “Victrola.” It had belonged to my grandparents, and it had a collection of 78 rpm records with it. One was a recording of poetry read by the American poet, Edgar A. Guest, known as the poet of the people during the 1930s. Some of my colleagues here at the church on a Monday night session of poetry reading heard me mention that I was going to read something by him, and in unison, said, “Eewwww”. But I’m not going to stand here and disgrace the pulpit by reading such things as, “Wait Till Your Pa Comes Home.” You remember that poem:

“Look what you’ve done you little tramp

you soiled the wall with your fingers damp,

you tracked the floor with your muddy feet,

you fought with the boy across the street,

you’ve torn your clothes and you look a sight,

but wait till your Pa comes home tonight.”

I wouldn’t do that.

Today most of the children are at a separate service for children, as the Religious Education season draws to a close. And when I learned that, I was disappointed because I wanted to read this poem that influenced me when I was a kid and had listened to the poet in his own words reading the poem I am about to read. So Diane Mirick is reading it now, this minute, to the kids. He wrote this poem called, “It Couldn’t Be Done.” It doesn’t apply to all situations, but what an interesting, starting point-of-view for life.

It Couldn’t Be Done

Somebody said that it couldn't be done,
But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn't," but he would be one
Who wouldn't say so till he'd tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn't be done…….. and he did it.

Somebody scoffed: "Oh, you'll never do that.
At least no one ever has done it";
But she took off her coat and she took off her hat,
And the first thing we knew she'd begun it.
With a lift of her chin and a bit of a grin,
Without any doubting or quiddit,
She started to sing as she tackled the thing
That couldn't be done…….. and she did it.

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
There are thousands to prophesy failure;
There are thousands to point out to you, one by one,
The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start to sing as you tackle the thing
That "cannot be done, "and you'll do it.

–Edgar A. Guest

Would any children who are left in the congregation and any of their teachers please thunderously head for the doors and join their programs.

And for those of you who are new to the church; one of the great joys for my wife and I every Sunday during this period of the service is to watch what is normally a thunderous group of children and teachers rush to both side doors. If you want to know, “What can I do about all the horrible troubles in the world,” support a program of Religious Education that is as good as this one. There is the hope for the future.

Pastoral Reflection for Grownups: A True Story

A physician with a form of leukemia had been sent to see me from out of town several years earlier and was doing beautifully on a gentle maintenance program of daily oral chemotherapy. I saw him on a routine follow-up visit and he suddenly was feeling badly. He had lost a lot of weight. He had severe fatigue. He was pale. He had tremor. His skin was cold and a little bit clammy. His usual good humor was replaced with the demeanor of a man who was about to die. And his blood counts from the hematology lab were unchanged. His physical exam was unchanged. There was nothing else in the history that suggested what was going on. And so I began looking for a second illness. I scheduled him for x-rays and other studies and asked him to come back and see me in a week. The studies were all normal. When he came back to see me, the light bulb finally went off….boing! Why wasn’t I thinking? So I said, “Jerry, what did they tell you, the physicians in the north county who sent you down to see me?” “Well, they said I had chronic lymphocytic leukemia.” And I said, “Well what did they tell you about what would happen?” He said, “They told me the average survival was five and a half years.” And I said, “How long have I been seeing you?” And he replied, “Five and a half years.”

This is not an unusual story, even though the patient is a physician. He had also read about it and confirmed that average survival was five and a half years, and so he “knew” it was time to die. He had forgotten, as so many people do, about the bell-shaped curve of averages. There are some people who will die at five and a half years, and there are some people who will die in weeks or months and others who will live for decades. And oh, incidentally, the bell-shaped curve for most illnesses is not a bell shape; it’s a big wide curve with long tails. Some people with most forms of leukemia are going to die soon after diagnosis, because they’ve got other things going on, because they’re extremely old and sick, or they’ve got two diseases, or they’ve got a really rare form of leukemia that’s very aggressive, or something. But other people are going to be there twenty years from now doing just fine. It took me several visits to talk him into that, and out of the idea that he was dying. He wasn’t dying. The mind/body connection is unbelievably powerful. At the 11-year point he came back to see me to remind me of the episode of his almost premature death and to thank me.


-Isaiah 33: 15-16

He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly; who despises the gain of oppressions, who shakes his hands lest they hold a bribe, who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed, and shuts his eyes from looking upon evil.

He will dwell on the heights: his place of defense will be the fortresses of rocks: his bread will be given him; his water will be sure.


from “The Passing Arthur” by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Then loudly cried the bold Sir Bedivere:
"Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?
Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?
For now I see the true old times are dead,
When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight.
Such times have been not since the light that led
The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.
But now the whole Round Table is dissolved
Which was an image of the mighty world,
And I, the last, go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds."

And slowly answered Arthur:
"The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

(and later Arthur asks:)
Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of.

“Life’s Challenges and the Power of Faith”
Dr. Peter H. Levine

This morning’s sermon is entitled, “The Role of the Blood Platelet in Hemostasis and Thrombosis.” Oh no… I’m sorry…that was a different talk.

Tom Schade asked me if I would turn a talk that I gave at an Advent service on “hope” last December into a sermon and present it here this morning. And I was happy to do so. It will involve talking a bit about some of my own experience with adversity. I’ll draw heavily from what I’ve learned, not just in medical school, but more importantly, what I’ve learned from my patients. I will also change the examples I use enough so that the 25 people who attended that Advent service won’t be bored to tears by hearing it a second time, although you’ll recognize a few common themes.

First, I want to be sure you understand what I am talking about in terms of life challenges. Life challenges to me include such things as marital problems, problems with your children, job discord, losses of all sorts, financial difficulties, illness. Life throws these things at us. Sometimes these challenges are tough and seem unbearable, and the best antidote we have is hope for a better tomorrow.

(Let me assure you that this talk will not be a downer!) I spent most of my career in hematology because I wanted to treat patients with serious, potentially fatal, blood diseases. I was quite sure of what I, myself, would die of. I would die of heart disease. I’d have a heart attack, as did my father, and as do so many other Americans, and I do have some risk factors for heart disease. And so I never dreamed that I would have a disease in my own specialty, or two diseases in my own specialty, as I subsequently did.

One of the questions I’d like to pose to you at the outset is, “Who deals best with the kinds of major challenges that life can throw at you, men or women?” And I’d like to ask you all to go along with me by doing the following. I’m going to ask you to put up your hand as to which it is, and keep it up long enough for everyone to look around and see how you voted. I’d like to see how the men vote. I’d like to see how the women vote. And let’s see how many people are horribly embarrassed by this exercise. Who handles life’s major challenges better? For example, a major family issue or being told you have a fatal disease. (Wait till I ask…wait!) I’m going to ask you to vote for either (a) Men handle it better, or (b) Women handle it better. How many votes for (a) Men? Put your hands up. (This choice got a smattering of votes by both sexes.) How many votes for (b) Women? Put your hands up. (This choice got a very large majority of votes, and not just by the women.) This is not a vote along party lines, you will note! The scientifically correct answer, and I have to tell you I am very dismayed by the outcome of your vote, is: (c) No one has the vaguest idea!

It would be impossible to do a study like this in true randomized fashion, given how many different stresses there are, and how different men and women are. This is lumping to a degree that’s ridiculous. Then why did I put you through this nonsensical exercise? We know a lot more now about how brains work through a variety of good scientific studies, including positron emission tomography scanning (PET scanning), of the brain in which we can watch while people are confronted with a variety of situations to observe what their brain does to deal with that situation. Many of you have read recently of excellent studies done on homosexual men and women that show us that the brain “wiring” of homosexual men and women is a variant of normal in 10% of us that causes them to react differently to stimuli. We thus now understand that it is a variant of normal to be homosexual for about 10% of the human population, just as it is a variant of normal for some of us to have red hair or blue eyes.

Well, what about the issue of confronting people with stressful impulses? The data for PET scanning says when you confront men with a stressful situation, a severe one of the sort of examples I gave you, a part of the brain that has to do with motor activity, the muscles used for fight or flight, lights right up. When you confront women with that sort of stress, the motor activity in those areas of the brain tamps down. In women, the area of the brain that has to do with higher thought integration and speech lights up bright red. In men, it goes out!! It goes completely dark. There is virtually no wiring for discourse during severe stress in most men. Why do women get so infuriated when it’s time to argue a tough issue and men go silent, and in fact, leave? They flee. It’s because they’re wired that way. It’s because evolution has caused those changes to occur in most people, and luckily that particular anomaly can be relearned or unlearned in the face of life’s severe challenges.

What I have seen among men and women who are confronted with a diagnosis of severe, potentially fatal, blood disease, is that initially the response among the women is remarkably better. But sooner or later, the men learn, often from some of the women, either family members or friends or people who are taking care of them, about the benefits of reaching out and accepting discourse, discussion, advice, solace, etc.

Now at the Advent series, I talked at some length about aplastic anemia, a rare disease which I acquired nine years ago. I’m going to spend two minutes only on it now. It’s a rare form of auto-immune disease. Your immune system mistakenly attacks your bone marrow stem cells and stops them from making blood cells. There was no effective established treatment for it when I developed it nine years ago, unless you were young enough for a marrow transplant, which I was not. About 6-8 months before I developed it some experimental treatments began to be done with a new way to suppress severely the immune system, to stop it from attacking the bone marrow and to let the bone marrow work again. I tried the new experiment and it worked. But at first, I knew I was going to die. I knew it because I had treated hundreds of older patients with severe aplastic anemia as had all of my colleagues and they’d all died. I was too old for a marrow transplant. Older patients with severe aplastic anemia all die. I “knew” it. So I needed to put in place a series of prescriptions that I had seen my patients use to maintain hope. I’m going to tell you about that prescription in a minute. But first, I want to tell you about my second problem. I’m going to use a few examples from that to illustrate some of the points in the “Hope Prescription.”

When you’re severely immune-suppressed as I was from the treatment of my disease, you are susceptible to other illnesses, and there are two cancers in particular that are common in people who are severely immune-suppressed. One of them is melanoma, the skin cancer. And I developed a melanoma on my scalp, and because it was a rare melanoma with no pigment in it, nobody could see it. By the time it was diagnosed, it was large and deep. I underwent multiple surgeries. I had a radical lymph node dissection of my neck, then I went back and had some of my parotid gland taken out, and (remember this talk is not going to be a downer!) we chased it for a number of months. Then I went back for a routine follow-up and the CAT scan showed I had 6 metastastic lesions in my lungs. Melanoma with lung metastases has an anticipated average survival of a few months. So, I said to myself, “Well better now start working, instead of on the “Hope Prescription,” on the “Get Ready To Die Prescription.” Among the many things I needed to think about was, where would I have the funeral? I had been a Unitarian but didn’t currently belong to a congregation. Dr Harvey Kowaloff, a good friend of mine, introduced me to Barbara Merritt, about whom I had heard wonderful things. My wife and I came and spent an hour with Barbara, and told her my story. When it was over, after asking me a few questions, Barbara said to me that she didn’t think that God was ready for me to die yet because I was still doing a lot of useful things, and I still looked pretty good. I went home and thought about that and I said, “I have just been given the license to hope. What’s wrong with me? I’ve forgotten one of the things I had learned from all those patients. I might know what will kill me, but I certainly don’t know when. So I’d better go back and reapply the “Hope prescription” with a vengeance.” And that’s what I did.

Here are the elements of the “Prescription for Hope.” First, live normally. Live. Do the things you always did to the extent that you can. Sounds simple, but when confronted with major stress, lots of people stop doing those things they normally do. Living normally, especially when confronted with stress, a severe one like being told you have a fatal illness, might mean; “I am going to France. I’ve always wanted to see Paris. Here’s my excuse to do so. I’m going on a trip to France.” NO! Don’t do that. Why? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen patients of mine use that as a piece of their defense. And this also applies to people with other kinds of severe life stress. I’m going to go to Paris. Or I’m going to make it to the Christmas holidays. I’m going to make my grandson’s graduation. Those are all wrong. Because what happens is that you go take the trip to France, you go to your grandson’s graduation, you make it to Christmas, and then…die. How many times have I seen that? Patients who kept themselves going beautifully with their illness, nothing changed, except when the holiday passed or the graduation passed, they died. The mind/body connection is unbelievably powerful. OR in the case of another type of severe stress, you reach that milestone (Paris, Christmas or the graduation) and then you go into a deep depression. The milestone is over. Don’t do that. Do this when confronted with a severe stress: “I’ve got a multiple point plan. I’m going to France, and when I get back, I’m going to do….” And then follow some other pieces of the prescription I’m about to give you please, because that’s the way life is.

Do something new. I don’t care what it is. Start writing letters to your Congressman. Ever done that before? Think it’s hopeless? You’re wrong. They do pay attention to the letters they get. I’ve seen multiple examples that they do. Yes, it’s true, you are going to get a phone call or two looking for a donation …ignore that! They will pay attention to the letters whether you are a donor or not. Their office staff will be collating these and saying to the senator or local representative, “We’ve had six letters now on the problem of hunger in the Worcester area. We need to be active in helping the volunteer efforts that are going on. We have to do something about this.” Letters really work, having spent a lot of time in Washington, I assure you, they really work. Do something new. Put a bird feeder in your backyard. Join a committee. It doesn’t matter what it is. Do something new that you can control.

Next, plan a series of powerful conversations. One of the biggest regrets I have in my life is waking up in the middle of the night to a midnight phone call from a policeman. I’d get lots of middle-of-the-night phone calls when I was in practice. But this one was different. It was from a policeman who said, “Dr. Levine?” I said, “Yes.” “Your mother wants you to come home. Your father’s had a heart attack.” And I said, “Is he alright?” And the policeman said, “Your mother wants you to come home.” That’s how I learned that my father had suddenly and unexpectedly died. And I went home. My father and I had a great relationship. He was a super guy. He knew I loved him. He knew all the things he meant to me. But I didn’t have a chance to say that to him because I’m wired wrong. I’m a male. Have some powerful conversations with people around you. Pretend you’re going to die, now. (Don’t do it, just pretend!) Or say “I heard some geek with a hat say that we ought to be having powerful conversations with each other,” and go have some. Say to people in your family and maybe a few close friends, even though you know they know it, that you love them and appreciate them, and why. You will be amazed at how good it feels, and how important it is to give them the opportunity to say things back to you.

So far we’ve done: Live Normally, have a Long-term Plan, Do Something New, Have Powerful Conversations. Next comes extend help to other people. Do something that helps other people or other things. Participate in the Plant Sale. Dig up some plants and bring them to the church for sale or help to sell them. Go to the sign-up tables upstairs after church this morning and find some interesting new things to do that can contribute to the well-being of other folks. It’s unbelievably gratifying. This may be the most powerful element of the prescription for hope.

In addition to helping others, be willing to ask for help. Reach out. Talk to the ministers of this church. Talk to members of your family. Ask their opinion and listen. My secret weapon through all these travails has been my wife, who is wonderful about listening and reflecting good advice and caring and being supportive. And hopefully, I help support her with what she has to go through with watching me deal with this. Incidentally, periodically, she walks into the room, seizes me by the throat and says “Get out of bed and get going!” Actually, she’s never done that. It’s just that it feels like that to me on some days because she can read me, and knows when I’ve forgotten my prescription and that I need to just start applying it again.

One of the last things I’ll tell you is that, of course, I’ve wound up getting my aplastic anemia back because Dr Doreen Brettler, my hematologist at the Levine Cancer Center at Memorial and I, said we’re going to design a new, never before attempted treatment for melanoma that happened in the face of immune-suppression: we’re going to abruptly stop the immune-suppression (that’s malpractice) and let your immune system come back to fight off the melanoma. And we’re going to give you chemotherapy…you never give chemotherapy in aplastic anemia, that’s malpractice, too. So we did as an experiment two forms of medical malpractice that were totally contra indicated. That plus the whole hope prescription, and help from a lot of my friends here, and the melanoma all went away. It disappeared almost three years ago. Maybe it’ll come back sometime, but if it does, I’m ready with the next experiment and the whole hope prescription.

And what about prayer? Does prayer work? There was a study published last month showing absolutely no effect of prayer. I’ve had thirty years worth of serving as consulting editor to 8 medical journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine the Annals of Internal Medicine, and all of the blood journals, the Journal for Public Health, etc. I’ve never seen a worse piece of human research. Time doesn’t permit me to tell you the incredible flaws in that piece of garbage. But it should not have been published. It was awful. Does prayer work? I don’t know. But it sure makes you a more thoughtful person and makes you feel better.

One last story, and then I’ll sit down. Some of you know I don’t believe in coincidence, especially when it’s preposterous. The scientific method tells us to doubt such coincidences. I had a really unusual complication of my aplastic anemia last September and found myself at a care unit in the hospital that I would never ordinarily require. I woke up wide awake in the middle of the night. I’m going to be careful about confidentiality here. A man/woman walked into that unit to which I would normally never go and said, “Aren’t you a hematologist?” I said, “Yup.” And he/she said, “I have something kind of rare, can I tell you about it?” I said, “Sure.” (I’m complimented when people do that, as most doctors are.) And he/she went on to describe an illness, a genetic illness that he/she had that would kill him or her at about age 45. And it’s very, very rare. There are expected to be three people with this illness in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts now. He or she was one of them. “Do you know anything about this?” he/she said. I replied, “Yes, when I first began doing bench research in hematology, I worked on this. I am one of the three hematologists in Massachusetts who knows about this disease in some detail and therefore knows that a new medicine has been invented that will be released two weeks from now that will cure it. That’s got to be just a coincidence. No! When one of three people in the Commonwealth who has it, meets one of the three hematologists in the Commonwealth who knows lots about it, and when the meeting occurs just as the first new cure is about to be released, does not constitute random occurrence.

Two or three of the very thoughtful people here who attend Monday Night at the Church regularly are going to give me hell for telling this story and we’re going to debate it over the weeks to come. If you’ve never had a letter from Ken Waugh, who has one of the best minds I’ve ever encountered and really thinks about these things and writes beautifully, you’ve missed something. I’m saving a letter he wrote me the last time I talked that’s unbelievable. If you’ve never attended Monday Night at the Church and had the meals that he and Carmen and their helpers prepare, and listened to the programs that Jeff Bailey puts on, you’ve missed something. They are terrific.

It is time for us to close this sermon and to sing a hymn. Hymn #29, gray. “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.”


Sad but true:

Life will confront all of us from time to time

with stress and adversity.

Some will seem unbearable.

May all of us find the way to retain our hope

and to regain enjoyment in life,

And may we do so, at least in part

by both giving and receiving support from our fellow man.

Key Elements of Dr Levine’s Hope Prescription

1. Keep on living, as normally as possible, and with as much vigor as possible. Set both short and long term goals.

2. Do something that’s new. Make it something you can control, and make it worthwhile.

3. Have some powerful conversations.

4. Reach out and give some support to a person or persons who are in need.

5. Reach out and ask for and dare to accept the support of others.

6. Get active at the First Unitarian Church of Worcester (or equivalent institution), and be inspired by its many attributes, its worthwhile activities, and its potential to be a site for some of the above-mentioned prescription elements.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Sacred Play

Worship on August 6th was led by Peter Gray, a member of the faculty of Boston College.

Sacred Play.

Pastoral Reflection

Diane and I spent 11 days at the end of July backpacking on the Long Trail in Vermont's Green Mountains. So I thought I would start this morning with a little story about a Unitarian mountain climber.

This guy is hiking along a mountain ridge, loses his footing, and slips off the edge of a cliff, but he grabs onto a vine to keep from falling into the chasm. There he is, hanging over the cliff, holding on to the vine. In fear and desperation, he looks up toward heaven and cries out, " Is there anyone up there who can save me?"

A booming voice responds:


The man looks down into the chasm.Then he looks up again and cries out, "Is there anyone else up there who can save me?"

I'll come back to this story near the end of the service. Right now, though, I want to tell you about Diane's & my backpacking trip.

This was the first backpacking that I had ever done in my life and the first that Diane had done in the past 20 years. We hiked up and down mountains for about 100 miles, through heat and Rainstorms. We each carried a quarter of our own weight on our backs. We scrambled up some steep rocks and we slogged through lots of mud. We ate only dehydrated foods and drank only water that we filtered from mountain streams.

We didn't fall over any cliffs, but we suffered in just about every other way you can imagine. We suffered bites from mosquitoes, wasps, deer flies, and black flies. We suffered from blisters on our feet and shoulders and from bruises that came from a couple of falls. We, including me with my arthritis, slept on a thin mat on the hard ground in a tent.

Physically, this was probably the hardest thing I' I've ever done in my life. Diane says for her it was the hardest thing since labor. If it had been a job, we would have quit. No pay would be enough. And yet, there we were, spending our precious two weeks of vacation time out there on the trail. And we didn't regret it. In fact, we're already making plans for doing another 100 miles of the trail next summer.


Why did we choose to do this?

And why are we likely to do it again next year?

I don't have a good answer to that. All I can say is that for some reason, for us, this was an extraordinarily engaging form of play.

An activity is play if it is self-chosen; done for its own sake rather than for some goal outside of itself; has its own rules or structure, which are different from those of ordinary life; and has an imaginative or "pretend" component to it.

Our backpacking trip met all of those criteria. We did not choose to do this because we thought it might in some way be good for us; in fact we were a little concerned that it might be bad for us.

We did it, I think, to experience a different world from that of our serious lives. Out there on the trail, Diane was no longer a physician; I was no longer a research psychologist and writer. We were mountaineers. We were in a play world. We even went by different names.

All backpackers on the Long Trail and Appalachian Trail take on trail names and know each other only by those names. Diane took the name Mighty Mouse; and if you had seen her hauling her huge pack up and down mountains you would have to agree that the name was perfect for her. Sometimes when I was tired I would grab figuratively onto her cape and she would pull me along, flying through the woods.

I took the name Loon , which I like for both of its meanings-- a bird that seeks pristine waters and a slightly crazy human being.

In play, people do things that are harder than what they do in real life. In play, people are stronger, are able to tolerate more pain than in real life. Children in play think at a higher level, read better, do everything better, than they do when not playing.

To borrow a phrase from the famous Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, in play each person is a head taller than in real life.


In my real life I have for some time been a student of children's play. My academic specialty is evolutionary psychology, which means that I bring a Darwinian perspective to the attempt to make sense of human behavior.

Play is a universal aspect of human nature. Indeed, it is universal not just to humans but to essentially all mammals. Play is the means by which young mammals practice the skills they need in order to survive. In most mammals play is restricted to the young; but in humans it persists to some degree throughout our lives. That is because we, unlike most mammals, never quite grow up. We continue, throughout our lives, to learn and adapt to new circumstances.

I'm convinced that the instincts for play and exploration in children came about, evolutionarily, to serve the purposes of education.

During the great bulk of our evolutionary history, we were hunter-gatherers. As part of my research I have surveyed child development in modern-day hunter-gatherer cultures and have found that in every one of them that has ever been studied children and young adolescents are free to play and explore, on there own, essentially all day long, every day, and through those activities they acquire the skills and knowledge they need to become successful adults. An assumption in all such cultures is that children teach themselves, through their own play and exploration.

I have also studied play at a radically alternative school in Framingham, and that work has shown me that-- in a safe, age-mixed, democratic setting, where the skills and values of the culture are represented-- the play drive and curiosity drive are sufficient for the purpose of education even in our own culture. Coercive education is unnecessary. I'm not going to talk about those studies or try to convince you of that thesis today. I would love to do so, however, in some other context, such as a Religion in Our Times meeting, if there is interest.

What I intend to do here, now, is more modest. I want to talk about what play is as a natural phenomenon, how it contributes to our experience as human beings, and how it may contribute to our philosophical and religious thinking.

Most research on play is with children, so I will start with children's play. Children all over the world, in every culture, play when they have the opportunity to do so. The specifics of play vary from culture to culture. For example, in hunter-gatherer cultures children play with bows and arrows, and in our culture they play with computers. But, at a more abstract level, the basic forms of play are universal. Consistent with the idea that the play instinct evolved to serve educative functions, the basic forms of play match closely with the categories of skills that people everywhere must learn.

  • There is rough and tumble play -- play chasing and play fighting. This is a kind of play that we share with other mammals, and it helps us develop strong bodies and stamina. Children do not run laps or lift weights to build their bodies. They run around playing monsters and other chase games until their sides ache from both laughter and exhaustion.
  • There is constructive play -- the playful building of things. Children everywhere play at building the kinds of things that are important in their society-- huts or houses, bows and arrows or computer programs, secret codes, sometimes poems. We are the species that survives by building things; so it is not surprising that we have an instinct to play at building things as children.
  • There is pretend play and its close cousin, sociodramatic play. Children everywhere create make-believe worlds in their play. They create dramatic situations and play out roles. Such play exercises a number of extraordinary human abilities: the ability to imagine various possibilities and carry them out in one 's head; the ability to think about and plan for the future; the ability to get along with others; the ability to control one's own behavior in accordance with mental concepts about how one should behave if one is a certain kind of person.
  • Finally, there are formal games with explicit rules, which are passed along from generation to generation of players. Play of this sort exercises, among other things, the capacity to understand and follow explicit rules, a skill that is required for full adult participation in any society

Those are the major types of play, but what exactly is play?

Like other psychological concepts, play is a fuzzy concept. Some activities are fully and clearly play, while others are just partly play. Those of us who study play generally consider an activity to be playful to the degree that it to has the following four characteristics:

1. Play is intrinsically motivated . Another way of saying this is that, in play, the means are more important than the ends. A child playfully building a sand castle is more interested in the process of building the castle than in having the castle. If an adult came along and said, " You can stop all your effort now, I'll build the castle for you," the child would be disappointed. Similarly, when products that children create are evaluated and judged by adults, even when judged positively, play is often ruined. The child's focus changes naturally to the end result-- that of pleasing the adult-- and the activity is no longer play. If Diane and I had done our backpacking trip primarily because we thought it would be good for us in some way-- maybe by building our bodies or causing us to lose weight-- then that activity would not have been play. Our focus would have been on the end, and we would have hated the process. Play may do good things for us -- indeed, my thesis as an evolutionary psychologist is that the play instinct evolved because play does do good things for us-- but we don' t consciously play for those ends. Indeed, it is the very fact that our focus is on the means and not on the ends that makes play so valuable as a mode of practice and learning. Because the ends are unimportant in play, we feel free to experiment with the means, and it is through that experimentation that we learn and grow.

2. Play is self-chosen and self-directed. Play is what one wants to do as opposed to what one is obliged to do. It is optional, not required. That is perhaps the most basic ingredient of most people's common-sense understanding of play. In one research study, kindergartners identified as "play" only those activities that were voluntary-- the things they did at recess-- and as "work" all of the activities that were part of the school curriculum, including required activities that were designed to be enjoyable, such as finger-painting, running relay races, and listening to stories. The joy of play is the ecstatic feeling of liberty. Players are free agents, not pawns in someone else's game. They play by rules, but the rules are those that they themselves have agreed up on. One player may for a period emerge as the leader or director, but only at the will of all the others. Each change in rules or direction of play must be approved, at least tacitly, by all. Every player is always free to quit, so if one person' s will dominates at the expense of others' the game is over. That is also what makes play the most democratic of all social activities. Well-meaning educators and reformers often attempt to take control of children's play to shape it for the participants' betterment. The results, ranging from math games to little league baseball, may or may not be enjoyable to the participants, and may or may not be pedagogically useful, but they are not play for those who feel forced to participate or who experience little or no role in developing or choosing the rules. The same is true of adults' sense of play. People who have a great deal of autonomy in their work often experience their work as play, even (and maybe especially) when the work is difficult. In contrast, people who must do just what others tell them to do at work, and who feel that they have no choice but to work at that job, rarely experience their work as play.

3. Play is guided by rules. To some,this may seem to be the most surprising and counterintuitive characteristic of play, because it seems to contradict the idea that play is freedom. But think about it.

Play is always an exercise in self-control. When not playing, children may act according to their immediate biological needs, emotions, and momentary whims; but in play they must act in ways that they and their playmates deem appropriate to the game. Play draws and fascinates the child precisely because it is structured by rules that the child herself or himself has accepted or invented.

All forms of play have rules. In games with formal rules, the rules are explicit; in all other types of play the rules are implicit.

In rough and tumble play, an always-present rule is that you don't really hurt the other person. You control your actions in ways designed to keep the fighting at a "pretend" rather than real level. You don't hit with all your force (at least not if you are the stronger of the two); you don't kick, bite, or scratch.

In constructive play , the basic rule is that you must work with the chosen medium in a manner aimed at depicting or producing the desired object. You don' t just pile up blocks randomly, but rather you arrange them in accordance with your mental image of what you are trying to make.

n sociodramatic play, a basic rule is that you must abide by the players' shared understanding of the role you are playing. If you are the pet dog in a game of "house," you must walk around on all fours and bark rather than talk. If you are Wonder Woman, and you and your playmates believe that Wonder Woman never cries, then you refrain from crying, even when you fall down and hurt yourself.

And so, in play, there is always a certain paradox . Play is self-chosen, but the child, in choosing any form of play, chooses to restrict his or her freedom for a period of time. The child voluntarily subjects himself or herself to a set of arbitrary rules and must abide by them as long as the play continues.

In my opinion, the single most important skill that a child practices in play is the capacity for self-control. Self-control is the essence of being human. We commonly say that people behave like "animals," rather than like humans, when they fail to abide by socially agreed-upon rules and, instead, impulsively follow their immediate drives and whims. Everywhere, to live in human society, people must behave in accordance with conscious, shared mental concepts of what is appropriate; and that is what children practice constantly in their play. In play, from their own desires, children practice the art of being h human.

4. Play is non-literal, imaginative, marked off from reality. The fantasy aspect of play is most obvious in sociodramatic play, where the players work together to create the characters and plot, but it is also present to some degree in all other forms of human play.

In rough and tumble play, the fight is a pretend one, not a real one.

In constructive play , the players say that they are building a castle, but they know it is a pretend castle, not a real one.

In formal games with explicit rules, the players must accept an already established fictional situation that provides the foundation for the rules. For example, in the real world bishops can move in any direction they choose, but in the fantasy world of chess they can move only on the diagonals.

The fantasy aspect of play is intimately connected to play's rule-based nature. Because play takes place in a fantasy world, it must be governed by rules that are in the minds of the players rather than by laws of nature in the physical world. In reality, one cannot ride a horse unless a real horse is physically present; but in play one can ride a horse whenever the game's rules permit or prescribe it. In reality, a broom is just a broom, but in play it can be a horse. In reality, a chess piece is just a carved bit of wood, but in chess it is a bishop or a knight that has well-defined capacities and limitations that are not even hinted at in the carved wood itself. The fictional situation dictates the rules of the game; the actual physical world within which the game is played is secondary. Play of most sorts has time in and time out . Time in is the period of fiction. Time out is the temporary return to reality-- perhaps to tie one' s shoes, or go to the bathroom, or correct a playmate who hasn't been following the rules. During time in one does not say, "I am just playing," any more than does Shakespeare's Hamlet announce from the stage that he is merely pretending to murder his stepfather.

In sociodramatic play the players at once are and are not the characters they are pretending to be. Adults sometimes become confused by the intensity of children's play. They worry needlessly that children don't distinguish fact from fantasy. When my son was three and four years old he was Superman for periods that sometimes lasted more than a day. during those periods he would deny vigorously that he was only pretending to be Superman, and this worried his nursery school teacher. She was only partly mollified when I pointed out that he never attempted to leap off of actual tall buildings or stop real railroad trains and that he would acknowledge that he had been playing when he finally did declare time out by removing his cape.

And so we have another fascinating paradox in play. Play is at once serious and not serious, real and not real. In play one enters a realm that is physically located in the real world, makes use of props in the real world, is often about the real world, is said by the players to be real, exercises skills and values that are important to real-world life, and yet is clearly not of the real world.

An amazing fact of human nature is that even two-year-olds are not fooled by this paradox; they know the difference between real and pretend. A two-year-old who pretends to pour Kool-Aid from an empty cup and who "spills" some of the pretend Kool-Aid on her doll and says "Dolly all wet," knows that her doll isn't wet in the real world. The doll is only wet in the pretend world. It would be impossible to teach such young children such a subtle concept, yet they understand it. Apparently, the fictional mode of thinking, and the ability to keep this mode distinct from the literal mode, are innate to the human mind.

The fictional mode of thinking is important not just for children's play, but also for serious adult thinking. Among other things, it provides a foundation for hypothetical reasoning, which is crucial to science and to all planning and thinking about the future. In scientific theorizing we say, “If this or that were true, what might the consequences be?” In planning for the future we say, If this or that were to happen to me, how would I cope? We enter a pretend world when we think in these ways and we bring our conclusions to bear on our serious behavior.

The famous developmental psychologist Jean Piaget claimed-- wrongly, I believe-- that children under the age of 10 years old or so are incapable of hypothetical reasoning and can only think in terms of concrete reality. Part of Piaget 's evidence came from his observation that children under 10 generally fail to solve syllogisms that have one or more counterfactual premises. Here's an example of such a syllogism:

All cats bark.

Fluffy is a cat.

Does Fluffy bark?

Children over 10 or 11 usually answer as adults do: "Yes, Fluffy barks."

Younger children, however, usually answer: " No, Fluffy doesn't bark; dogs bark, not cats."

According to Piaget, children under 10 are mentally unable to accept and work with the counterfactual proposition.

A few years ago a British psychologist performed a variation of Piaget's experiment. She gave children the same kinds of problems that Piaget had used, but she did it in the context of play rather than that of serious testing.

Lets pretend that we live in a world where all cats bark.”

“Fluffy is a cat, in this world.”

“Does Fluffy bark?

When put this way, even four-year-olds accepted the counterfactual proposition and solved the syllogism as adults do. Work like this has convinced many of us that Piaget was mistaken. The difference between the four-year-old and the older child or adult is not so much in quality of thought as in the understanding of the rules of the game of syllogisms and other such problems. The older child understands implicitly that this is a game in which you have to imagine something to be true that isn't. The younger child only understands this when the context is clearly one of play. With development we apparently learn to combine our playful mode of thinking with our serious mode, and that is how we become planners and scientists.

Now, we reach the scary part of this talk. I'm going to make a claim that not all of you will agree with. But before I make that claim I want to remind you of something that David Rynick said in his Sunday Service a few weeks ago. David said, in essence, that you can' t be excommunicated from the Unitarian Church. He said that everyone who leads a lay service fears that they will say something that will get them thrown out of the church, but that in fact nobody ever does get thrown out or will get thrown out. Well, it 's time to put Rynick's theory to a serious test.

My claim is that religion, rightly considered, is play . With that claim I mean not to diminish religion but to exalt it. We might refer to religion as sacred play. For many devout people, religious play is play from which there is no time out. Because there is no time out they can never say it is play, even though it is play. For the devout, the rules of religious play are the rules of life. Religious play can provide people with meaning and values and tools for engaging with the trials of daily life. Play is not trivial, and that is especially true for religious play.

Here are some observations in support of my religion-is-play theory:

The first observation comes from a mental exercise. Lets return to our poor mountain climber who has been hanging onto that vine over a cliff for most of this service. He wouldn't have to be a Unitarian. He could be a Methodist, or a Catholic, or a Jew, or a Muslim, or a member of any of the world' s religions. He could be a devout believer in God; he could even believe that God responds to prayers, speaks to individuals, and performs miracles. None of that would matter; he still wouldn't let go of that vine. He would no more let go of that vine than would my son leap off of tall buildings when he was Superman. Play is one thing; the laws of physics are another; and we keep the distinction clear. The great majority of believers in any of the world' s religions would agree that a man who would let go of that vine, in response to that voice, is someone who suffers from schizophrenia or who has been brainwashed into a distorted, maladaptive version of the religion.

A second, somewhat more scientific observation in support of my theory, comes from anthropologists' reports about the religious beliefs of hunter-gatherers. Presumably, the roots of religion-- the basic aspects of human nature that provide our religious tendency-- originated in our hunter-gatherer past. According to the writings of anthropologists who have studied them, all hunter-gatherer religions are extraordinarily playful. The gods are playful; they perform all sorts of tricks on human beings, including unkind tricks. The religious rituals are playful; they take the forms of games and songs and dances. For example, certain Australian aboriginals, in one of their religious rites, become kangaroos. They don't say they are pretending to be kangaroos; they say they are kangaroos. Yet, they don't try to leap over chasms that only a kangaroos, and not humans, could leap over.

The same is to some degree true for modern religions. Catholics who say that the wafers and grape juice they consume at communion are the flesh and blood of Christ know, in reality, that they aren't.

An advantage, I think, of hunter-gatherer religions over most modern religions is that the play element is more overt, less hidden. Hunter-gatherers don' t seem to be bothered by the fact that many of their religious stories contradict one another. They don't seem to be bothered by the fact that neighboring bands have quite different gods and stories from their own. When a hunter-gatherer moves from one band to another, as frequently happens, he simply adopts the religion of his new band-- it's no big deal. As far as I have been able to discover, no hunter-gatherer ever bemoans the fact that his son or daughter has married someone from a different religion and the grandchildren will be raised in that religion. As far as I have been able to discover, no hunter-gatherer has ever fought or killed anyone because of differences in religious belief. The serious, deadly aspects of religion-- things like the sacrificing of virgins to angry gods-- seem to have come with agriculture.

Susan Kent, an anthropologist, wrote an article summarizing the unifying characteristics of all known hunter-gatherer cultures. Among them she listed a high degree of playfulness, a high degree of egalitarianism, and "beliefs and values that are fluid and non-dogmatic."

Perhaps my view that religion is play merely represents a limitation in my own thought capacity. To me, religion only makes sense if it is play . In religion, people talk about the choice to believe. People talk about faith -- which literally means belief without evidence. What can that possibly mean, if not play?

Many religious people talk about having a personal relationship with god ; a god with whom they carry on dialogues and through whom they gain insights and find courage and values.

How is that different from an imaginary friend?

To suggest that God is an imaginary friend is not to demean the concept of God. Imaginary friends are extremely important.

I myself have a number of imaginary friends, who validate my choices, and cheer me on, and encourage to do things that are difficult. I also have a number of imaginary critics, who hear my thoughts and see my deeds and cast doubt in my mind. They help to keep me in line.

I don' t refer to these imaginary friends and critics as God, but I could; and if I did I would be a religious man.

Sonnet to a Playful God

In play we learn to think in ways most clear.

In play with others we resolve our strife.

In play we laugh at what provokes our fear.

In play we soar above our routine life.

In play we learn to follow rules we share,

Assert our selves while making others smile.

In play what's right is what to all is fair.

In play it's fun to go the extra mile.

And so to you, the god of play, we pray,

Please keep our ludic spirit's liveliness.

As we approach the trials of each day,

Protect us from our over-seriousness.

From dust to dust we all end up the same.

What counts in life is how we play the game.

-Peter Gray

Thursday, August 03, 2006

"In the Love of Truth" by Stacey Hill

Stacey Hill contributed the following reflection to the July 30, 2006 Worship Service, which was held outdoors in the Memorial Garden. It was led by the Environmental Committee.

“In the love of truth”

Stacey Hill

I recently saw “An Inconvenient Truth,” the documentary about Al Gore and his crusade to educate people about global warming. (How many of you have seen it?) Gore is both knowledgeable and passionate about this issue. As an environmental science teacher, I consider myself knowledgeable on this topic, too. And I’m happy to report that Gore doesn’t know much more about global warming than I do! Gore’s passion is clear. He has traversed the globe presenting his “slide show” to whomever will listen. Gore’s audiences, for the slide show and the film, are there of their own free will. My usual audience, made up of 16 and 17 year-old 11th grade students, is captive: Environmental Science is a graduation requirement for them.

I am clear with my students that we are striving for environmental literacy, not grooming environmental advocates. After 10 years of this work, however, I find it more and more difficult to restrain my passion. These issues: protecting the quantity and quality of our fresh water, maintaining open spaces for ecological, aesthetic, and recreational benefits, searching for energy sources that provide for our needs without harming the surroundings…how can EVERYONE not recognize their importance?!

I do teach about climate change, and I always refer to the larger issue as climate change and not global warming, because we understand now that the result of more CO2 and other greenhouse gases is not just an increase in the average global temperature. We can expect more severe storms, coastal flooding, wetter weather in some places, drought in others. I present to my students the accepted scientific understanding of climate change, with the caveat that even the experts acknowledge that we don’t understand climate very well, much less climate change. Even so, as Gore argues, there is much about this issue that we have to acknowledge as TRUTH. And it is our responsibility as environmentally literate citizens to make sure we are getting the truth. Gore presents a troubling statistic about media coverage of global warming. While recently published scientific papers almost never questioned the occurrence or cause of global warming, over the same time period, about 50% of the popular media coverage did.

We as Unitarians value truth…in our covenant we speak of our love of truth. And our intent to worship and serve “in the spirit of Jesus”…I wonder, WHAT WOULD JESUS DO about climate change?? While I’m not sure of Jesus’ position on the environment, I’m pretty convinced of his compassion for people. And people will suffer as the problem of climate change continues. For example, environmental refugees will have to (have already) leave flooded islands and coastal areas, people will be hungry as crops become more difficult to grow in some areas, heat-related and vector-borne diseases will affect more people.

Gore worries about the human tendency to go from “denial to despair” when faced with big issues or problems. Despair isn’t very productive. There are steps we can take, at all levels, to address this issue. As an individual, I know I could work to influence national or regional policy. But I have to admit I haven’t written to George Bush to let him know how I feel about his administration’s lack of support for US participation in the Kyoto Protocol. I haven’t emailed Mitt Romney, either, about Massachusetts’ pulling out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. The actions at the highest levels of government are important, of course. I’m terribly embarrassed to be an American in this sense: we are the world’s biggest producers of GHG, yet we don’t seem to take much responsibility for our actions. It’s only typical, I’m afraid, that one American response to GHG emissions is, instead of reducing emissions, to offset them planting trees…you can even pay someone else to do the tree planting for you!!

So what DO I do, if I’m not writing letters or planting trees? I drive a Toyota Corolla, which gets great gas mileage. And I pay more for my electricity, through National Grid’s “GreenStart” program, which offers customers an opportunity to support alternative electricity sources. The last report I received indicates that my electricity consumption is powered, indirectly, by hydropower, biomass, solar, and wind. While I’m skeptical that I could reduce my carbon emissions to zero, despite what Gore’s movie says, I’ve made a start.

We need to seek the truth, both spiritually and scientifically, in understanding our surroundings and our role in them. We need to be true to ourselves, in taking action in a way that works for us.

Finally, according to the movie, one of the most important actions I can take to combat global warming is to tell all my friends to see “An Inconvenient Truth.” If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s still playing at West Boylston.

"The Great Turning by Joanna Macy" Read by Kate O'Dell

"The Great Turning by Joanna Macy"

Read by Kate O'Dell

As part of the Worship Service of July 30, 2006, led by the Environmental Committee, Kate O'Dell read the following originally written by Joanna Macy.

The Great Turning is a name for the essential adventure of our time: the shift from an Industrial Growth Society to a life-sustaining civilization.

The ecological and social crises we face are caused by an economic system dependent on ever-increasing corporate profits--in other words by how fast materials can be extracted from Earth and turned into consumer products, weapons, and waste.

A revolution is underway because people are realizing that our needs can be met without destroying our world. We have the technical knowledge, the communication tools, and the material resources to grow enough food, ensure clean air and water, and meet rational energy needs. Future generations, if there is a livable world for them, will look back at the epochal transition we are making to a life-sustaining society. And they may well call this the time of the Great Turning. It is happening now.

Personal guidelines:

Come from gratitude: Gratitude for the gift of life is the primary wellspring of all religions. It is a privilege to be alive in this time when we can choose to take part in the self-healing of our world.

Don’t be afraid of the Dark: This is a dark time. It is natural that we feel the trauma of our world. Don’t be afraid of the anguish that you feel, of the anger or the fear. They arise from the depth of your caring.

Dare to vision: Out of the darkness a new world can arise. But we will never be able to build what we have not first imagined and cherished in our hearts.

Roll up you sleeves: Many people don’t get involved because there are so many different issues which seem to compete with each other. Save the whales or the battered children? All aspects of the current crisis reflect the same mistake—setting ourselves apart and using others for our gain. Link up with others. Find what you love to work on and take joy in that. To heal any aspect helps all others to heal as well.

Act your age: Every particle of your body goes back to the first flaring forth of space and time. You are really as old as the universe. When you lobby, or testify, or stand up and protect, you are doing that not out of a personal whim, but in the full authority of your 15 billion years.