Theme: Help, Generosity and Gratitude
Personal Reflection Jared Hammond
Flashback to a very cold, snowy day in December. New Year’s Eve, 1993. I was three years old and for the next twenty-seven days, I would still be an only child. We were at the top of a sledding hill in Firestone Park, which the city of Columbiana, Ohio calls the “recreational cornerstone of the city.” Named for Harvey S. Firestone, who donated the land and funded construction of the original infrastructure of the park. He also founded Firestone Tire & Rubber, which made Akron, Ohio the “Rubber Capital of the World” and possibly keeps your car on the road during the winter. That’s pretty much all the information available about him on the internet, so I figured he deserved a shout out.
Anyway, we were at the top of a sledding hill. “We” being my father and I. My mother was waiting in the car as it was, again, very cold. We had gone down the hill on our long pink sled with a yellow cord countless times and it was very fun. So fun, that three-year-old Jared couldn’t get enough. He was feeling adventurous. As we set up to go down the hill again I turned to my father and said “Daddy, I go!” It was cuter when I was three. My father understood telegraphed speech and knew that this meant that I wanted to go down the hill, by myself. He was happy to oblige my request, but told me to hold on tight. It was a pretty steep hill, after all. I don’t remember what it looked like when I went down the hill or what most of my senses experienced as I went down the hill, but I remember what it felt like. Have you ever ridden a rollercoaster? You know that feeling you get when you’re somewhere near the max speed and you’re about to go over a hill that’s small enough that you know it goes down again quickly, and there’s going to be some intense air time, but you can’t see what happens after that so there’ s that little bit of apprehension? It felt like that.
That was my last time down the hill that day. Without my father’s extra weight, I went much faster and much farther than any of the other times we went down the hill. Again, I don’t remember what it looked like, but I remember what it felt like when I went face first into that tree. The next thing I remember was him laying me down in the back seat of our small car and driving away quickly.
The next thing I remember after that was being rolled through some doors, or maybe just a door way, on a hospital gurney. I threw up all over myself and the hospital employee rolling me down the hallway said, “Woop. There goes lunch.”
The next thing I remember after that was the life flight helicopter taking off. It was very loud. I didn’t like it.
The next thing I remember after that was waking up in a hospital bed. I began to panic and was assured by some hospital employee and both of my parents that they were there, and everything was ok. But, that was not why I was panicking. I continued my frantic search and found the small dish they give you to throw up in and “lost my lunch” again. I may have been three-years-old, but I was not one to make the same mistake twice.
I learned later that the impact with the tree had fractured my skull and caused internal bleeding in my brain. That’s why I was life flighted to Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital. They were properly equipped to monitor the bleeding and provide the proper care, IF, the bleeding stopped. Spoiler Alert: It did.
What do you want to be when you grow up Jared? I want to fly one of those life flight helicopters. Bad idea. They’re loud and I don’t like them. An ambulance driver. Also too loud. Don’t like going fast. A doctor or nurse or the guy who said “Woop. There goes lunch.” Whatever he was. Nope. Don’t like hospitals. I don’t know. I just want to help people. My life was literally saved. Every day is a gift. I just want to help people.
I was about thirteen or fourteen when I finally settled on something for more than five seconds. My mother had been sick for a few years at that point and we finally had a diagnosis. Long story short, it was an immune disease and it was going to be fatal. Music was how I dealt with that. I used music as an escape when I needed it. But, I wanted to do more. So, I thought I wanted to work in a lab. I was going to be a scientist and I was going to cure diseases. All of them, there was no stopping me. I held on to that dream for a few years. I even applied for a biotechnology summer camp at my future alma mater, Baldwin-Wallace College (It’s called Baldwin Wallace University now.) 9am to 4:30pm every day for a week. We worked in the labs. Saw the cadavers. Great time all around. I learned so much. Unfortunately, the most important thing I learned was that I didn’t want to do this with my life. It was too rigid. I needed something way more creative and dynamic. If only I could do something with music. But that wouldn’t help anyone else. Don’t worry. Seventeen-year-old Jared learns that he was wrong about this later.
At the end of the week, we stopped by the administrative building and got a brief lecture about the history of the school and the myriad of degree programs and how wonderful everything is and give us your money. Listed as a major on the school propaganda pamphlet they gave us were two, magical words: Music Therapy.
What is music therapy? I went home and sat at the desktop computer in our living room for hours researching music therapy. It was love. There were probably angels singing or something. The only time I looked away from the screen was when I asked my father if the median salary of a music therapist in the US was enough to live on, but I immediately turned back around, and I don’t remember what he said because I didn’t care. He loves that story.
Music therapy is not who I am. But, it combined the “I just want to help people” with my passion for music. I was so grateful that I could do both. Music continued to be an escape for me as my mother’s condition worsened. I wrote a piece of music for a small chamber ensemble when she died, and I got it tattooed on my arm after the five-year anniversary passed.
There’s way more to it than that, but that’s a brief history of Jared.
Reading from a Letter to Theophilus Lindsey, by Joseph Priestley Jared Hammond
This morning’s reading is extracted from a letter from Joseph Priestley to Theophilus Lindsey. It was written in 1771, three years before Lindsey founded the first avowedly Unitarian church in England, in defiance of the articles of the church of England, and in opposition to Parliament. Mr. Priestley wrote”
“I own I had that expectation, when I first put a sprig of mint into a glass jar, standing inverted in a vessel of water; but when it had continued growing there for some months, I found that the air would neither extinguish a candle nor inconvenience a mouse…
“I have had some appearances, which extraordinary as it will seem, make it rather probable, that light is necessary for the formation of this substance (algae). …
“I have discovered what I long have been in quest of, vis a vis, that process in nature by which air, made noxious by breathing, is restored to its former salubrious condition.”
Sermon “Finding Your Essence” Rev Denis Letourneau Paul
Mary Swift Priestley and Jonas Priestly came from a long line of dessenters. In early 18th-century England, that meant that they didn’t belong to the Church of England, a fact that made them outcasts in Yorkshire, where they lived.
She was pregnant with her third child when her oldest son, Joseph — barely a year old – was sent by her husband Jonas to live with her father, a full day’s ride away.
Poor Mary Priestley. Her life was not easy. She gave birth to six children in six years, and died shortly after the birth of the youngest. Shortly after Mary’s death, Joseph returned to live with his father and his younger siblings.
Jonas was left with 6 very young children.
A little more than a year later, he remarried, and, as was not unusual at the time, he sent his children off to live with family members. Joseph was delivered to a wealthy aunt, his father’s sister Sarah, and her wealthy husband John Keighley. Joseph was a smart boy, precocious, curious, and eager to learn, so the Keighleys spared no expense in securing for him a superlative education.
Finally sending him to Daventry, and academy of and for religious dissenters, where he moved more into embracing the school’s philosophy. It wasn’t that he just accepted the mission of the school without questioning it. At age 16, he became seriously ill, so sick for so long one winter that he was convinced he was dying, which forced him to face and question the doctrine his family held, that of predestination. In his Calvinist church, they believed that only a few, known only to God, would find a place in Heaven, and that to ultimately achieve salvation, a rebirth was necessary. He knew he was upset and afraid, but he knew he didn’t have any kind of conversion experience. Rather than accept his fate, he changed his faith, and accepted universal salvation, the belief that everyone has equal opportunity for a good afterlife. His family’s church refused to accept him as an adult in their community, thereby making him a further dissenter of dissenters.
Upon graduation, he became a teacher of language and rhetoric, and married Mary Wilkinsom, whom he admired more for her mind than anything. He found in his wife a partner he respected, and they named their only child Sarah, after the aunt who raised and supported him.
He couldn’t afford the life of a tutor, so he secured a position as a minister. In 1767 he moved his family to Leeds, where he became close friends with Theophilus Lindsey. Neither were particularly sought after or respected by the Church of England mainstream, so they quickly formed the kind of relationship in which they relied solely on one another to learn the best they were capable of, and held one another accountable. Together, they evolved into Unitarians. They believed in three separate elements of Christian Faith: the Father as the divine creator, the Son as the fully human spokesman of God’s truth, and the Holy Spirit as something else entirely. They rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, which held – and still holds – that the Father, Son and Holy spirit are three distinct persons, yet one in substance, essence and nature. They both engaged in pamphlet wars with church of England clergy – kind of like social media wars of the day – over communion and the Calvinist belief in predestination.
Lindsey went on to form the first Unitarian Church in England, as he supported Priestley in engaging in experiments in chemistry. Priestley’s church was a few doors down from a brewery, which sparked his fascination with the fermentation process, enough so that he would spend the rest of his life studying the chemistry of gases.
The brewing process has an abundant amount of what was then called “fixed air,” which we now know to be Carbon Dioxide, and in his early work, he was able to isolate it, and artificially produce the effervescence that occurred in fermentation, without the alcohol. He invented carbonation in experiments funded by William Petty, the Second Earl of Shelburne, a fellow Unitarian.
At the time, scientists and inventors were using steam for power, but they didn’t really understand how the whole process worked. They knew that fire would heat water and produce steam, but they didn’t really understand how to make an efficient fire. Since the time of Aristotle, scientists believed there were three immutable, unalterable elements: earth, air, fire and water. For centuries they believed that burning something would create a byproduct they called phlogiston, but nobody could ever isolate, define it. Scientists like Antoine Lavoiser were experimenting with different “airs,” good and bad, but it took Priestley’s experiment using a 12-iinch wide “burning lens” to focus sunlight on a glass container inverted in a pool of mercury to produce a gas that he described to be “five or six times as good as common air.” It was so good that it cold make a flame burn more intensely and keep a mouse alive four times longer than a similar quantity of air. (1)
He experimented on himself, breathing in the air. “the feeling of it in my lungs,” he wrote, “was not sensibly different from that of common air, but I fancied that my breast felt peculiarly light and easy for some time afterwards.” (2) He was onto something. I the new millennium, in cities across the world, bars have popped up serving not liquor via tap, not smoke vapor via hookah, but pure oxygen via tube and mask.
Priestley called it “dephlogisticated air,” because it supported combustion so well it couldn’t possibly have phlogiston in it. He shared his work with Lavoisier, who named it oxygen. But in his career, as he did more and more experiments, Priestley was responsible for isolating 8 different new elements, all gasses.
In his early thirties, Priestley had made quite a name for himself. He was a widely-read theologian and a well-respected part of England’s scientific establishment, but it was his stance against the doctrine of the Trinity that cost him the job of a lifetime as science advisor to Captain James Cook on his second voyage, circumnavigating the globe as far south as possible to determine if there was any great southern landmass.
But it was his politics that got Priestley into real trouble. He became part of the inner circle of Unitarian Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the earliest, and perhaps most revolutionary, advocate for women’s rights. She was notorious for being of the opinion that, adjusting for women’s lack of access to education, they were equal to men, but more for having two very public romantic relationships outside of marriage, one of which produced a child.
More annoying to the mainstream, he publicly endorsed the American Revolution. It was so troublesome to The Earl of Shelburne and his allegiance to the Throne, that he withdrew his financial support of Priestl;ey, forcing him to move to Birmingham for a more demanding and higher-paying post in ministry.
There, he was vocal in his support of the French Revolution, so vocal that on the second anniversary of Bastille Day, in 1791, an angry, drunken mob burned down his house in Birmingham, including his top-notch science lab, then went on to also torch the church he was serving as minister. He knew he couldn’t stay long-term in England, and a couple years later, he moved to Northumberland Pennsylvania, where he spent the last ten years of his life, where he established the first Unitarian Church in the United States in Philadelphia.
They were active years. He became friends with politician/ philosopher Thomas Jefferson and politician/ scientist and tinkerer Benjamin Franklin, with whom he shared the results of experiments he had done with electricity. The president at the time was John Adams, who attended his services and commented on his sermons.
The whole time, he continued his correspondence with Theophilus Lindsey.
Scott Prinster, a Unitarian Universalist minister who holds both a Master of Divinity and a PhD in physics, a few years ago warned in UU World Magazine that we as we study the life of Joseph Priestley, we mustn’t fall into the trap of presentism, The presentist approach, he writes, “holds up only those of his accomplishments that look like modern science, celebrat[ing] his role in the discovery of oxygen but dismiss[ing] his outdated theories of the phlogiston, …. Presentist history reduces the past to a clear, linear trajectory that leads directly to the present and disregards events, relationships, and forces that do not lie directly on that path. In Priestley’s case, it reduces his complex and fruitful career to that of a dabbler who insisted on pursuing a misguided theory but somehow stumbled into sharing the credit for one legitimate achievement.” (3)
Joseph Priestley was more than a minister who stumbled upon the charming idea of adding carbonation to water. And we have a lot to learn from his life and his work.
For example, horrible things happening to us can be just the things we need to create change in our lives, the drive that compels us and guides us in our work. Challenges can be great sources for clarity in life’s mission, the way his mother’s death and the burning down of his church, lab and studio were catalysts for change that solidified Priestley’s theology and scientific interests.
Jared learned at an early age, because of a near-death experience and the later fatal illness of his mother the role of music in his life. Hopefully the lesson can be as exciting as a sled ride, but not as potentially fatal.
From Priestley we learn that we can be profoundly wrong about something, as he was about Phlogiston – a belief he held for decades after it was debunked by every other scientist – and still contribute significantly to a field of knowledge and study, enough to be considered a leader in that field. The collaboration, the sharing of information, is what really matters. It’s all about having the kinds of friends and colleagues who support and challenge you, even when you are headed in the wrong direction. The collaborative relationships are what will keep propelling you toward success and innovation.
Conversely, losing the support of fair-weathered friends like the Second Earl of Shelburne might be just the thing you need to push you into another direction, a path that leads you to new associations with new people, like Jefferson and Franklin.
Most can focus our work on multiple fields, and find the philosophical intersection of them.
Priestley’s life work, in fields of theology, science and politics teach us that faith is required for everything we do that requires taking risks. His wasn’t a blind faith. We questioned everything, from predestination to good and bad airs, to the double standard applied to men and women. He tested it against his own experience, and experimented endlessly to learn more, all while engaging publicly with friends and foes with the goal of expanding shared knowledge. His was what Buddhist theologian Sharon Salzburg calls “bright faith,” propelled through observation and reflection into “verified faith.”
He teaches us that in fact science and religion can coexist nicely. More than that, as Scott Prinster knows, you can be a minister and scientist simultaneously and successfully, gaining respect in both fields.
Part of what made Priestley successful was that ultimately, his work was about one practice: breaking things down into their essences, their essentials, their fundamental elements. He broke down the Trinity into the Father as the divine creator, the Son as the fully human spokesman of God’s truth, and the Holy Spirit as something else entirely.
He broke air down into oxygen and nitrogen and isolated carbon dioxide.
He even advocated for breaking the empires of France and England into democracies that served the people.
In doing all this work, he found his essence, his elemental state of being: a person who questioned, experimented, discussed, learned and taught.
Through Priestley’s example, we know that if we do our own work, whatever it is, however many fields of study it may involve, following a few guiding principles that define who we are, we can accomplish much. We can change the world. We can change the future.
May we all be so bold. May we all have the courage to follow our bright faith into verified faith, simply by finding our own essence.
(1) Joseph Priestley and the Discovery of Oxygen. International Historic Chemical Landmark.https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/josephpriestleyoxygen.html
(2) Joseph Priestley. From “Priestley and Science,” by Derek A. Davenport.hhttps://www.josephpriestleyhouse.org/learn/about-joseph-priestley/quotations/priestley-and-science/
(3) Scott Prinster. “Seeing Joseph Priestley Whole.” UU World, Fall, 2009.https://www.uuworld.org/articles/seeing-joseph-priestley-whole