Life Lessons from Sherlock Holmes
That Teal Hymnal
Sex, Money and Commitment
Things You'll Never See
Men, Women and Communication
Reflections on Three Score
What is a Devout Unitarian Universalist?
My Spiritual Journey
Adventures of a UU Web Master
Good morning. I'm Ted Pack, your webmaster. Thank you for coming out this chilly morning, when you could be at home, eating leftover turkey sandwiches. If this is your first time with us, you should know that I'm a layman, not a minister.
I speak about once a year. Some of you look forward to my talk for a change of pace, and some of you look forward to it as a good excuse to stay home. Two members have told me they look forward to my talks, but wish I would speak slower and louder; one suggested I trim my mustache, which seems to her to trap my words the way it traps white sauce when I eat clam chowder. So, I'll try to go a bit slower, speak into the microphone and give you a hint when I make a joke.
If this is your first time, you may not expect a joke from the pulpit. If you have heard me speak before, you know I try to work an underwear pun into my homily every year. This year I couldn't come up with one. Mary Randall, my service leader, said I should look for one I could ... slip ... into my talk seamlessly and would fit the subject to a ... Tee.
Back to web mastering, I was also webmaster for the UU Fellowship in Mendocino County, from 2005 until last June, when they went into hibernation because their lay leader, Rick Childs, retired.
Rick is a nice guy, someone who reads widely and thinks deeply. He and I got along well, despite our differences in writing style. He used the word "wonderful" in almost every sermon blurb he wrote. He used the world "delightful" more than I do, too. In fact, he slathered flowery adverbs and adjectives into his writing the way a barbecue chef slathers sauce onto a side of ribs. Those of you who have read things I've written know that my prose style is plain and terse; you could almost call it ... spare.
Mendocino has 82 pages on their site, 66 of them essays about spirituality that Rick wrote, once a month, for their newsletter. His May 2011 essay struck a chord with me. In it he recalled a conversation he had with the contractor who built his house 22 years before.
His contractor said, "There are things that you'll never see that are in your house." He went on to say that he'd added things like extra nails, above the number required by the building code; stronger bracing where he thought it would help, should a bad earthquake hit; and the smallest possible holes in the wall studs for the electric wires, so as not to compromise the stud's strength, even though it made feeding the wires through the holes difficult.
It struck a chord because my web sites, including the one for this fellowship, have things you don't see, or don't usually notice, things that take a little extra time and make the site a little bit better, by my standards.
As an aside, one of the tenets of my trade is that non-computer people are usually not interested in the inner workings of computers. I worked as a COBOL programmer for 35 years, 25 of them for Tri Valley Growers and their successors. We programmers call the people who use our program "users" instead of "clients" or "customers" or, for you Harry Potter fans, "muggles". I used to add a paragraph or two to my users every once in a while, when I wrote to them about a change or update, to explain exactly why the computer was doing something the way it did. And then, about 10 years into my time with Tri Valley, I had a revelation. It wasn't quite the blinding flash that struck Saul on the road to Damascus, but it changed the way I worked.
I realized that morning that, as long as they got their reports on time, the information was accurate and in a format they could use, my users wouldn't care if the laser printer was full of tiny elves in green hats, writing with pots of ink made from sewing thimbles and quills made from hummingbird feathers. I stopped trying to explain what was happening inside the machine after that day.
So, while I did want to mention a couple of things about the web site, I will go through them quickly and I'll skip some. I won't skip all of them, because I'm proud of them and Unitarian Universalists tend to be interested in a wide variety of things.
I use breadcrumbs, which are short links at the top of the page to tell you where you are and, sometimes, how you got there. For instance, at the very top of all of Rev. Grace's sermons is a single line with the word "home", an arrowhead, the phrase "Rev. Grace's Sermons", another arrowhead, and the sermon title. The word "Home" and the phrase "Rev. Grace's sermons" are links to our home page and to the entire list of Reverend Grace's sermons. You'll notice my link names are plain as a mud fence, but really clear, something else I take pride in.
In the early days, when people usually went to a home page, then navigated down, click by click, to what they were looking for, these showed the visitors how they had gotten to a particular page. Today most people look for what they want in a search engine, like Google, and go directly to that page. Roughly 80% of our visitors come straight to a page from a search engine.
Breadcrumbs are still helpful. Visitors are not likely to have gone from home to her sermons page to a particular sermon, but if they see the breadcrumbs they can deduce that we have a selection of her sermons, and if they wonder what sort of a church we are, they can go to our home page.
I use accent codes: There is some magic you can do that tells the browser to put an accent over the vowel in words like café, and Francis Dávid. I use it. If you've ever seen a web page with odd symbols - the Euro currency sign, for example - where an accented letter, apostrophe or semi-colon should be, you've seen an example of the problems you have with characters when their web masters don't take the time to check their accent codes.
I take care with pictures: You may have seen a web page with a small picture that takes a long time to load. That is usually because the web master has put a 5,000 x 3,000 picture on the site, but set the size to 500 x 300. You are waiting while your browser downloads a huge picture, then shrinks it by 99%. I use a photo editor to make each picture the size it is going to be on the page.
I take care with dates: I put the year on all of my dates, and the day of the week on every item on the Calendar page. The year assures visitors the site is current. The day of the week lets people who play bridge every Tuesday know that they will have to choose between the game and the event.
There are more things I do, but that's probably than more than you wanted to know about web keeping, so I'll skip to other people part of my homily. If you're really interested, ask me about little things sometime when we are at a circle dinner, or read the page titled Inside.
Other people do little things that the rest of us don't always notice.
Elizabeth Coard tells me she plays part of the hymn through softly, as the service leader announces which number it is and we leaf through the hymnals. She slows to a stop on the final note of that introduction, then hits the opening note hard when we are supposed to sing. She has tried to explain it to me three times, using one of those $12 words in Italian that musicians are always throwing around, and I haven't gotten it yet; my explanation will have to do, but you can ask her about it after the service.
Rev. Grace once told me she tried to use "him and her" and "her and him" an equal number of times, to make up for a thousand years of men always coming first in English. She also tried to phrase sentences about the person you live with to reflect the fact that some of us are single-sex couples; the age when everyone lived in the suburbs with 2.3 children, a station wagon, a husband who worked and a wife who stayed home are long gone.
Something a number of you do, but I won't name names to avoid embarrassing you - I've come home from circle dinners and realized that someone had asked a question of someone else, a question which would let the person asked tell the rest of us what an interesting life he or she had led. Sometimes it is obvious, but sometimes it isn't. It's a small, gracious thing to do.
Before I get to the spiritual part I'd like to quote Rev. James Kubal-Komoto, who works in a small UU church near Seattle. Their web site has a page of tips for people who want to write a sermon, which he let us copy to our web site. I copied before I knew that the worship committee was way ahead of me. I thought we'd have to have lay speakers until our interim Minister arrived. The worship committee arranged for us to get seminary students from Starr King for many of our services. We still need one to two lay speakers a month, which is a chance I urge you to take. I'm firmly convinced there is at least one sermon in each one of you. Jack Lackey, from the conversations we've had over circle dinners, probably has half a dozen.
Rev. James says that worship in a UU congregation:
So, I'm going to remind you of things you have probably thought of before, but we all need reminders - of your highest aspirations, as well as of a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread, should your partner call you at work.
Blaise Pascal said, "Strength of character is not measured by special exertions, but by habitual acts." I hope you habitually take a little extra time and a little extra trouble to do things the right way, even if no one notices.
Note the phrase "habitual acts". Anyone can make a special exertion. If the winter ever grew cold enough, for instance, that wolves came down from the mountains, lean, grey, sharp-fanged killing machines, menacing my home, my children and my cats, I would be out there at the first howl, with a stout wooden club, defending my home, my children and my cats. Any decent man would; we've done it since the Paleolithic, and it comes with the territory when you start to shave. It doesn't really count however, if you prepare for the eventuality by sitting in the recliner on a winter evening, with three fingers of bourbon in a Mason jar and a good detective novel, while your wife does the dishes, even if you do have a baseball bat close at hand.
[That paragraph has a little intentional exaggeration for humor. I've read Farley Mowat's "Never Cry Wolf" and remember his line, "Wolves, killer fiends of the arctic - eating mice!".]
I've said it before, from this pulpit, that the opposite of "good" is sometimes "easy", not "evil". Mr. Pascal and I would agree that someone with a strong character habitually does the right thing, not the easy thing. None the reminders I give you will change your life or make you a saint, but they should give you some quiet satisfaction, even if no one else knows about your deeds. They are all of the same nature - take a little time to do something right, something that most people won't notice.
Donate some time or money to a good cause - us, for example - anonymously. It's hard to donate your time anonymously, unless you come out to our campus some afternoon to fix something that needs fixing, like Bob Santos does, ALL the time. You can be almost anonymous if you stay after the service to help Phyllis and Aynslie clean up, since most people leave before they finish. There are a dozen other ways you can help without many people noticing, unless Pat Egenberger puts your name in the newsletter. Money is easy to donate anonymously; Tracy Cramer is as discrete as the priest in a confessional. Send her a check. You can donate things under false names too, although people who know you may make a shrewd guess when they read the book plate on the inside front cover of the teal hymnals.
Recycle. It's good for you, and it's good for the environment. No one but your garbage man or woman will know if your can is a little lighter every week. If you go to the right grocery store, you can drop your aluminum and plastic off in the parking lot. (I told you these were not going to be world shaking.)
Print on two sides, if your letter, story or sermon is long. That will save you paper and postage, too, since the post office charges a fraction for the second ounce on a first class letter. Right now it is 44 cents for the first and 17 for the second; if you ramble, like I do, you can save quite a bit by buying some 17 cent stamps instead of using two 44s. An ounce is usually 4 pages of good quality paper and an envelope. I once told my brother Jim how he could save money when he wrote letters over 4 pages long. He looked at me like I'd given him advice on what kind of a sword to use when fighting three-horned flying wolverines. He knew it was good advice, but he also knew he would never need it.
Be grateful, and show your appreciation. I walk along Dry Creek, on the trail the city of Modesto calls the Peggy Mensinger Trail and my kids used to call "The Walking Park", now and again. Whenever I see someone cleaning up after her or his dog, I'll thank him or her on behalf of everyone else who uses the trail. It doesn't take more than 30 seconds, and no one knows about it but the dog owner and me.
Although none of those 300 people I mentioned in the meditation - the ones who voted at our polling place - fell to their knees to give thanks for the right to vote, several dozen thanked us poll workers for our work, and we appreciated them.
I find it helpful to say grace before dinner, if we have guests, and, even though I'm an agnostic, I address it to the Lord. He or she may exist, after all. I try to mention something small that I'm grateful for. It is rarely the right to vote, clean water or electricity; usually something smaller.
In conclusion, to reflect on the simple charge in our opening hymn,
Comfort the lonely.
You can make the world a better place, one small step at a time. Take that step. You'll feel better about yourself. Thank you.
[Delivered November 27, 2011. In 1983 (See picture, above) I was no stranger to building things.]
This is one of a series of homilies I wrote for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stanislaus County, in Modesto, California, from 2003 - 2014.