Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

January 20, 2019: “The Gentle Pursuit of a Modest Competence”

In this time of year when many are holding themselves accountable to some often outrageous new years resolutions, it may make more sense to take it easy on yourself. Instead of setting numbers-oriented goals, like pounds lost, miles run or books read, try setting a different goal: doing something with the hope of being just good enough to enjoy it. Imagine the possibility in that. During the service the members of the congregation will dedicate ourselves to the spiritual development of Caleb Starr Laymon-Hooper Byrd who is 20 months old.

Reading (Scott Wise)

This morning’s reading is by Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School.  It’s from a New York Times article called “In Praise of Mediocrity.”  

I’m a little surprised by how many people tell me they have no hobbies. It may seem a small thing, but — at the risk of sounding grandiose — I see it as a sign of a civilization in decline. The idea of leisure, after all, is a hard-won achievement; it presupposes that we have overcome the exigencies of brute survival. Yet here in the United States, the wealthiest country in history, we seem to have forgotten the importance of doing things solely because we enjoy them.

Yes, I know: We are all so very busy. Between work and family and social obligations, where are we supposed to find the time?

But there’s a deeper reason, I’ve come to think, that so many people don’t have hobbies: We’re afraid of being bad at them. Or rather, we are intimidated by the expectation — itself a hallmark of our intensely public, performative age — that we must actually be skilled at what we do in our free time. Our “hobbies,” if that’s even the word for them anymore, have become too serious, too demanding, too much an occasion to become anxious about whether you are really the person you claim to be.

If you’re a jogger, it is no longer enough to cruise around the block; you’re training for the next marathon. If you’re a painter, you are no longer passing a pleasant afternoon, just you, your watercolors and your water lilies; you are trying to land a gallery show or at least garner a respectable social media following. When your identity is linked to your hobby — you’re a yogi, a surfer, a rock climber — you’d better be good at it, or else who are you?

Lost here is the gentle pursuit of a modest competence, the doing of something just because you enjoy it, not because you are good at it. Hobbies, let me remind you, are supposed to be something different from work. But alien values like “the pursuit of excellence” have crept into and corrupted what was once the realm of leisure, leaving little room for the true amateur. The population of our country now seems divided between the semipro hobbyists (some as devoted as Olympic athletes) and those who retreat into the passive, screeny leisure that is the signature of our technological moment.

 Sermon “The Gentle Pursuit of a Modest Competence”      Rev Denis Letourneau Paul

Somebody asked me a couple days ago why I wear a bow tie more frequently than I wear a typical necktie.  I responded that I wear it because I always have, going all the way back to my college days when I first started working in an architectural firm.  

Back in those days, we’d stand at drawing boards all day, this working on vellum paper, parallel rules and triangles, drafting pencils and electric erasers. Dangly neckties would get in the way, so we all wore bow ties.

But those days are long gone. You know why I left the work of architecture?  I left it because I loved to draw, and we were no longer allowed to draw.  You see, at the beginning of my last semester of architecture school computer aided drafting and design entered the curriculum, and I barely had the basics of it when I graduated.  

Truth be told, I hated the whole process.  It was too abstract and intangible, the data too slippery for my comfort.  Most of all, the drawings had no warmth, no humanity. I missed the sound of the scratching of graphite on paper, the resistance, the drag, I would feel in the process.   And the thing is that paper has a very fine grain to it, that you can actually feel directing your pencil very slightly, giving your drawing a bit of imperfection outside of your control.  It’s humbling.  And thrilling to bear witness to an outcome that isn’t yours alone.

I went to work in the family business, the designer in our residential design-build firm.  If I wanted to draw instead of investing in a computer, that was fine with everyone else, and so I resisted the switch everyone else was making to electronic drafting and design.  Within a few years, when I would appear at a building department to apply for a permit, they’d laugh at me and quaint, old fashioned drawings.  

Before I was thirty, I was a dinosaur, a leftover from a class of animal that had gone extinct in an age of digitized precision.

Martin Levy is a Frisbee coach and orthopedic surgeon.  He uses clickers to train border collies how to catch the flying discs high in the air and execute complex gymnastic tricks in between catches.  The point of the clicker is to communicate to the dog that it’s doing a good job, and it works so well, that he found over time that his human students were responding well also.  

The technique was effective on the Frisbee field, so he decided to take it to his day job at the Bronx Montefiore Medical Center in New York to help his student surgeons more effectively quickly learn their craft.  

I learned recently on the Hidden Brain on NPR that he uses the clicker “to teach his inexperienced medical residents how to tie knots, drill holes and twist screws into broken bones and ligaments, among other techniques. Dr. Levy breaks the skills down into tiny, incremental steps. Each step, performed correctly, is marked with his clicker.

“The only feedback is the sound of the click. [Click.]

“The only reward for the student is the mastery of the skill. [Click.]

“All the usual interference from the teacher — “great job,” “well done,” “no, wrong” — is removed. “This is why I use the clicker, it’s baggage-free, it’s emotion-free.”  “

The human students, like the dogs, learn more efficiently how to do the work of.

It turns out that a lot of folks are horrified by the idea of learning something the way animals do, as if the common technique reduces humans to the status of mere animals, manipulated into performing.  

The thing is that the animals are being manipulated, because they are not  motivated to sit.  They sit because they get a treat, which they enjoy, accompanied by the click.  After a while, the click as associated with the enjoyment of a treat, and becomes a substitute for the treat.  Trainers use the clicker and the treats to get them to do what we want them to do.  But human students are already motivated.  A surgeon wants to tie good knots.  Dog trainers want to communicate better with their animals.  The clicker takes all the emotion out of it.  Instead of doing things better to get the approval of the teacher, the student is now doing the task and getting better at for the sheer pleasure — the satisfaction — of gaining the skill.  Students are motivated by the prospect of having a better, more enjoyable life.  

The good life.

My new favorite theologian James KA Smith has a lot to say about living the good life.  He believes that we are driven by our hopes and passions, and that education — specifically the kind of religious education we take part in as children and as adults — should focus those instead of just passing on facts and data. (Desiring the Kingdom, p. 18)

“A vision of the good life,” he writes “captures our hearts and imaginations not by providing a set of rules or ideas, but by painting a picture of what it looks like for us to flourish and live well.” These pictures we have, these images of the good life, “begin to seep into the fiber of our everyday being … our hearts … and thus govern and shape our decisions, actions, and habits.  Thus we become certain kinds of people; we begging to emulate, mimic, and mirror the particular vision that we desire.” (Desiring, p. 54)

In other words, we are motivated by our desire to live in the world we want, and to make that world come into being.  Habits that we develop are what he calls the everyday liturgies of our lives, the rituals that form us and direct us.  These everyday it urges teach us how to love, and let others know what we love.(Desiring, p. 80)

That’s a pretty radical idea these days, isn’t it, in a world where the message we are bombarded with constantly is that the good life is made up of good things.  The better the stuff in our lives, the better our lives.

Rebecca Jennings learned how untrue this idea is by embarking in a little experiment she wrote about in VOX.  (I used all the best stuf… 12/12/18) 

She set out to use all the best hipster products for a week…just a week … the kinds of products that promise not to deliver good quality or value, but to transform your life.  She got companies to give or lend her everything from hygiene products and food, to clothing, shoes, mattresses and bed linens.  She was awash in luxury, comfort and style.   

She went into the experiment knowing that consuming the best “isn’t just a display of wealth; it’s your morality: [proof] that you are indeed the Informed Consumer, able to not only afford the best but to know what “the best” even is.”

She also knew in advance that she is what she calls a “consumer dirtbag,” not just frugal, but cheap, really cheap, wearing only second or third hand clothes and boots held together by tape and never, ever paying for lunch, instead picking off other people’s leftovers in the office kitchen.  

Ms. Jennings learned that living the fancy life was wonderful …. until it wasn’t.  

She ran into the same problem that so many of us run into, and that’s believing that the perfect life is possible, and that somehow we have the responsibility to make it happen by using the highest quality products and being the best at everything we do.

Ms Jennings, after just a few days, was miserable. So miserable she had to stop and look at herself, really look at herself.  Which she could easily have avoided had she not been expected to write a essay about the experience.  

I have a feeling that most of us, as engaged Unitarian Universalists, know most of the time that having perfect stuff isn’t going to make our lives better.  But I think we may have more of a tendency to fall into the trap of thinking that if we are really good — perfect maybe — at what we do and expressing what we believe, life may be better.  

And so we struggle, as al around us people are suffering.  We see all the injustice that exists in the world, and while it might be great to pamper ourselves occasionally to really lovely bath soap or a sweater made from the best organic, sustainably harvested fairly traded wool available, injustice still exists.  There are still people suffering somewhere, and we want to do something about it.

We each work for peace and justice in our own ways, in our workplaces and neighborhoods.  We want to see the world Rev. King dreamed of where children are judged not by the color of their sin by by the content of their character.  

But we need moments to stop, to rest, rejuvenate, to recharge our batteries.  We know it’s a long, long road to the world we dream of, not a race.  It’s a longer road than any marathon runner could ever survive without collapsing into exhaustion and despair. That’s what I’ve been struggling with lately, as I reflect on my every day liturgies, the habits and practices that teach me how to love.  And so, I’ve taken up drawing again. 

Actually, it’s more like doodling at the moment, but I’m doing it.

I got this cool iPad Pro to replace my antiquated laptop that I kept for way too long.  I’m also being a bit of a consumer dirtbag.  I splurged a bit for the optional stylus that allows me to draw or paint … virtually … right on my screen.  I can zoom in on any area, in order to work at a great level of detail, so I can print my doodles at a huge scale, if I want.  The program produces drawings that are surprisingly warm and human, unlike those early CADD drawings.  You’d almost never know they were computer generated.  You have to look really closely at the prints to see that they don’t have the same patina of human touch that come from direct contact with the human body in making them.  

But there’s something missing.

There’s no resistance in the process.

The resistance is where the magic happens.

I’ve noticed that in the work of ministry, shared ministry in this congregation, the most creative and most satisfying parts are where the friction and the resistance happen, and leaning into it.  Working with it, rather than against it, allowing the pressure mold the outcome.  

I still miss that in digitized doodling.  It just isn’t as satisfying knowing that with a bit of manipulation, I can make it perfect.

And bland as all get out.


Last week after service, we had a tough conversation in which all of us at varying times were surprised, challenged, even disappointed.  As I said then, I couldn’t help but notice that in shooting our ideas about how we want people to feel when they encounter us, our challenges and the things we’d like to keep, change or let go of, nobody that I heard ever talked about meeting the needs of a community that needs us.  

Social justice never came up as a priority.  

But as I looked around the room, I had a realization.  Everyone among us is concerned with justice.  Most of the adults work at jobs that seek to create justice and healing in the world: lawyers, medical professionals, teachers and the like.  

And those who aren’t directly involved in those kinds of endeavors still focus on making their workplaces, even their entire industries, more equitable and ethical.

So while we may not seek to extend our work in our day jobs into this place as we gather, we come here to be renewed, restored, recharged, reinvigorated with the spirit of life and love that sustains us in our work.  It’s the work of “re.”

We come to refill our wellspring of compassion, which isn’t easy in a time that feels increasingly more vitriolic and threatened by differences, real or perceived.  

We can’t make of it a hobby, this work of “re.”  But it must be a gentle pursuit, one that lives in the imperfect.  The work of “re” must be ever evolving, responding to the resistance, satisfied with the friction, finding comfort in the knowledge that the effort will make it all worthwhile.

It’s a good thing we have each other on this journey.