Unitarian Universalist Church of Olinda
news of our historic UU church in Ruthven (Kingsville), Ontario

May 2023 Newsletter

April 20th, 2023 . by William Baylis

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March 2023 Newsletter

February 22nd, 2023 . by William Baylis

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Covenanting Through Transitions (CUC National Service)

February 5th, 2023 . by Rod Solano-Quesnel

The Canadian Unitarian Council hosted this week’s service.

Watch the recorded broadcast here:

National Worship Service (Sharing Our Faith Covenant Through Transitions) – 5 February, 2023

February 2023 Newsletter

January 26th, 2023 . by William Baylis

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Special Occasions

January 15th, 2023 . by Rod Solano-Quesnel

Opening Hymn #353 Golden Breaks the Dawn
Words: v. 1 from the Chinese of T. C. Chao, b. 1888,
trans. by Frank W. Price and Daniel Niles,
~)-| v. 2 by John Andrew Storey, 1935-1997
Music: Hu Te-Ai, b.c. 1900,
~)-| harmony by David Dawson, 1939-

Unitarian Universalist Society of Laconia NH

Sermon – Special Occasions – Rev. Rod


Read: [Printable PDF document available for download]

The cook and best-selling author Samin Nosrat is perhaps best known for her book Salt Fat Acid Heat – the title refers to four of the basic elements of cooking.  She also hosts the Netflix series of the same name.

When talking about the basic cooking element of fat (which is also an essential nutrient), she spends much time talking about olive oil – which is among the oldest cooking fats, as well as one of the healthiest, not to mention very flavourful.

In a conversation about olive oil with one of her show’s co-hosts, they discuss an anecdote about one of their friends – a bride who received an expensive bottle of exotic olive oil as a wedding gift.  Being that the bottle was so special, the bride sought to extend her enjoyment of it by using it sparingly, bringing it out only for special occasions, such as their wedding anniversary.  Even years after her wedding, the bride would take out the exotic, expensive olive oil and use just a bit of it, saving the rest for the next year.

There’s an endearing element to this ritual, and it has a certain value as a practice to celebrate a special date, marking a special time.

Although… if you know anything about olive oil, you might remark that it doesn’t keep well over time – especially once it’s been opened.  Year after year, this extremely refined olive oil would become increasingly rancid, and it’d eventually be no better – in fact, measurably worse – than any ordinary bargain oil you’d get at the local grocery store.

Anniversary celebrations aside, if the purpose was to enjoy the oil to the fullest extent of what it has to offer, she’d have been better off using it right after it’d been opened, adding it to every meal that called for it.

Now, I have to admit that I see a bit of myself in this story.  And maybe you’ve found yourself in similar situations.  I think of those times when one might have gotten something really special, and followed an instinct to save it – one might even say, hoard it – lest we run out of it too soon and not get to enjoy it in the future.

And I’ve been heartbroken many times, when I’ve finally had to resign myself to throwing out special treats or foods that I’d been saving up for the right time – a special occasion – only for it to be wasted, never to have been enjoyed at all.

Yes, a measure of restraint can be an indication of virtue – having too much of a good thing at one time can be sign of vice.  And practicing some strategic temperament over impulsivity has its place in running a balanced and healthy life.

Yet hoarding, or dawdling on good things, can be a vice of its own, and there are some special things that really do call to be used when you can, regardless of whether or not the situation appears to “measure up” to its particular… specialness. 

In fact, those special things, treats, foods, etc., may be quite helpful in reminding us that the ordinary times can be celebrated as well.  As important as it is to mark and recognize times that are labeled as “special” – be it by tradition, practice, or the stories that come along with them – it may be just as important to remain mindful of the wonder that the present moment offers.  And if we can add a nice treat to it, that might go a long way to enhancing the moment, and help us remember that “ordinary time” is precious in itself.

Now that the new year has begun in earnest (getting to the point where it might feel out of place to greet someone with the phrase “Happy New Year!”), the winter holiday season seems to be officially behind us (we don’t even have the Feast of the Epiphany left to celebrate).  There will be other holidays, minor and major ones – days that might be marked by the calendar manufacturers: Groundhog Day (or Candlemas, if you want to be more traditional); Valentine’s Day (which, like many holidays, may bring its own baggage); Family Day for those in Ontario (a full stat holiday even); eventually some of us might begin some kind of Lenten observance in preparation toward Easter; and so on, among others that could be named.

For now, we’re in the middle of January.  Some of us might recognize World Religion Day today, or prepare to honour Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, especially if you have a US background or connections there.  But for the most part, the latter part of January (and into February) simply doesn’t seem have the same spirit of celebration that often comes with December.

Last month, I offered affirmation and encouragement around the increased connection that many of you might partake in during the winter holidays, some of it even face-to-face.  Sometimes, having certain special days in the calendar helps us to have a good excuse to get together, or reach out more than we might ordinarily do – it also helps that more people might have more time off, to travel or to set time aside for connecting.

And there’s no reason why some aspects of those practices can’t carry over into this time of the year.  It might not involve the same level of extravagance that some of you might take over holiday times, and there might be less time and space for that anyway, but the spirit of connection need not dwindle away.  If anything, there may be a greater call – and a larger need – to diligently carry it through.

I am aware that many of you already have a practice of regularly checking in with some of your family, friends, or neighbours, maybe weekly or even daily, and that is a practice that can allow you to maintain the specialness of the moments that every day may offer, even if the calendar doesn’t offer an “official” excuse to do so.

Or… maybe that practice has fallen off by the wayside, or you might be wondering about how to start it up in the first place.

I have spoken before about approaching the practice of new year resolutions a little differently.  Rather than taking an attitude of rigid goals or specific tasks, I might instead think of the year as having a theme, and the theme of renewing connection has resonated with me lately.

While staying connected with my support network (or being part of that network for others) is not new to me, I’ve lately felt the need to pay extra attention to that area of my life.  One practice that I’ve found very helpful over the past while is to schedule calls with people in my life that I haven’t connected with as much as I’ve wanted.  Now, long “catch-up” calls may feel daunting, but it can help if we agree to schedule future follow-up calls from the get-go, so that we are comfortable leaving some conversations unfinished.  The calls I’ve been having with my friends and family tend to take about an hour – but there are other options.

The New York Times columnist Jancee Dunn suggests scheduling 8-minute calls, which make it likelier that her potential connections will be inclined to wedge in the check-ins into their schedules, without feeling obligated to stay longer, and encouraging more frequent follow-ups.

I don’t know what might be your magic number, but exploring discrete morsels of time might be one way to make connecting, or re-connecting, a more manageable task (if that’s something you struggle with).

Here, at our church, we have an established (and re-emerging) practice of holding some opportunities for connection, even if there isn’t a particular calendar date to honour (sometimes, it’s precisely because there isn’t a particular date to honour, which in turn offers more space and time).

In a bit over a week, we have an opportunity to be part of our soup fundraiser, and our auction will come up in a couple of months.  Some of you are interested in hosting small-group dinners at your place.  The dates when these happen don’t necessarily hold particular significance – beyond the fact that each of us is setting them in the calendar and intentionally making them special out of our own accord.

My friends, whatever your intentions might be for this year, they don’t need to wait for the calendar to give you an excuse.  Sure, the calendar might sometimes make that easier, but living in “ordinary time” need not be a barrier toward finding special moments.

If anything, my friends, ordinary time may in itself be the perfect reason, the perfect excuse, for seeking out what is special about the here, and the now.

My friends, who knows when the opportunity might pass.  And saving the special moments only for what we expect might be the special occasions might mean that we could miss out entirely, like a bottle of expensive olive oil that has been left out too long.  Now is the time, my friends, for co-creating special occasions.

So may it be,
In the spirit of ordinary connection,

Copyright © 2023 Rodrigo Emilio Solano-Quesnel

Hymn #77 Seek Not Afar for Beauty
~)-| Words: Minot Judson Savage, 1841-1918
Music: Cyril V. Taylor, b. 1907, © Hope Publishing Co.

Unitarian Universalists of San Luis Obispo

Links in the Description

January 8th, 2023 . by Rod Solano-Quesnel

Opening Hymn #259 We Three Kings of Orient Are
Words & Music: John Henry Hopkins, Jr., 1820-1891

Unitarian Universalist Society of Laconia

Sermon – Links in the Description – Rev. Rod


Read: [Printable PDF document available for download]

As the Christmas season draws to a close, its most recent related holiday was Epiphany, this past Friday Jan. 6 – often called the 12th Night of Christmas, which is referenced in the song about the partridge on the pear tree.

The word Epiphany itself refers to a divine manifestation – a revelation of sorts.  In the Christmas story, it’s about the divine presence that is contained in an unexpected place – a child in a humble lodging in a dingy town in Judea, a far-off corner of the Roman Empire.

But, as the story goes, those who were ready to look beyond appearances were able to recognize the awesome presence in that child.  As the Epiphany carol We Three Kings of Orient Are suggests, the stargazers from the east followed special signs that led them to make that connection.  A similar thing is said to have happened to many local shepherds, who were prepared to go deeper than the superficial setting of the child’s whereabouts.

There are many unexpected connections we can make – with a bit of extra digging.

A couple Easters ago, I talked about the wonder of allowing oneself to go down unexpected “rabbit holes” – that is to say, letting ourselves follow interesting paths when exploring a topic, or subject of interest, which may often mean we end up in a much different place from where we started, as our initial query may have been transformed.

If, for instance, you’ve ever looked up an article on Wikipedia, and then clicked a link on a related topic, and suddenly found yourself several articles deep, many hours later, you’ll know what I mean.

Of course, these rabbit holes of exciting exploration don’t necessarily need to be on Wikipedia, or even online.  Any stroll down a bookstore or library, including your own bookshelves, may yield similar results.  Even a casual chat with a friend is often bound to take interesting turns, and you might find that the topic at the end of your visit might be very different from where you were, many conversations before, at the beginning of a visit.

Of course, online media has a way to enhance the speed at which these rabbit holes go – and it’s also important to be especially cautious with the content that is available on the internet, since out of the great volume of information we can find on it, much of it is not always reliable.  Finding trustworthy sources, and coming in with a healthy dose of skepticism, can help reduce the risk.  With a bit of caution, we can find fun, interesting, and even transformative material.

Over the past couple of years, we have made much more ample use of online resources at our church.  We occasionally have online resources during our live in-person services, including music, and what I call “video readings”.  Not only are we broadcasting online live, but we also have archived sermons, so you may watch some of the messages of inspiration from more than two years ago.  And these options can go further than you might realize.

You may have noticed that, when I send out the link for the online edition of our services, I don’t just title my e-mail “Sermon”, I call it “Worship Resources”.  I do this quite deliberately, as I often include more than just a transcript of the sermon and a recording of it.

When you click the link in the Worship Resources e-mail, you usually, also have access to recordings of some of the hymns that go along with the topic we explore, and I often also include links to articles or videos that I might not have included in the live service, but which are related to the topic, or may even have been part of my inspiration toward it.

If you watch exclusively on YouTube, without accessing the UU Olinda page, you can also find any links by scrolling down a bit to where it says Show more and clicking there, which expands to offer additional details.  This is what is called the description of the video, and that’s where I may include links to resources for further exploration.

In some of the sermon recordings, you might hear me say “links in the description” – it is this Show more doohickey that I mean by “the description”.  In 2009 the YouTuber Wheezy Waiter called this section for description of details the dooblydoo, an expression that has also caught on among YouTubers.  Whether you look at the “links in the description” or “in the dooblydoo”, the key action is looking at that option to Show More – on offering to find additional connections.

I set up these options in these different ways in order to offer some possibilities beyond the Sunday service.  Whether you attended live, online or in-person, or you access the services later on, you can continue to use these Worship Resources throughout the week, or even months later.

Over the holiday season, I celebrated and encouraged us in our community to seek out new connections, or actively maintain existing ones.  This could mean getting in touch with other people, or perhaps figuring out new ways to foster a better relationship with oneself, especially if the holiday time meant spending more time at home during a snowstorm.

Whether the past holidays meant more cozy time by the fireplace (or perhaps with a streamed version of a fireplace, such as the blockbuster film Fireplace for Your Home), or whether it meant a resurgence of in-person encounters, it may well have meant a change of pace from some of the other, more “regular” times of the year – the “ordinary time”.

Yet, as we begin a new year, amid more “regular” spots in the calendar, it pays off to consider what it means to keep this spirit of connection – or re-connection – into this year.  This includes seeking out new opportunities, some of which may seem hidden or not immediately obvious, but which may be quite close-by – if we invest some effort or intentionality in looking for them… if we decide to take that extra step and look for “Show More”… to explore the “links in the description”.

Some of these may be just a click away – literally scrolling down and being open to go into a new rabbit hole and see what direction a link (a connection) might lead us into.  It may include being open to connecting over new media (with appropriate precautions), or reinitiating our use of more traditional media, such as phone, or post mail – or even getting back into the practice of spending time with each other after the church service… you know, doing more church after “church”.

My friends, the holiday time may offer us a reminder to be intentional in connecting through the colder, darker winter months.  And, just like the spirit of Christmas, that initiative need not be confined to December.

My friends, during the more “regular” times of the year, the spirit of connection may remain with us.  It may look different – our availabilities, energy levels, and needs, will be different in different seasons – but the opportunities to be with each other, and the benefits of exploring reconnection with ourselves and those around us, are still there.

My friends, may the spirit of connection and reconnection carry forward in this new season.

So may it be,
In the spirit of connection,

Copyright © 2023 Rodrigo Emilio Solano-Quesnel

Closing Hymn #326 Let All the Beauty We Have Known
~)-| Words: Dana McLean Greeley, 1908-1986
Music: English melody, adapt. and harmony by Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1872-1958, © 1931 Oxford University Press

Unitarian Universalist Church Utica (30 January, 2021)

January 2023 Newsletter

January 8th, 2023 . by William Baylis

Click here and enjoy.


December 24th, 2022 . by Rod Solano-Quesnel

Opening Carol #241 In the Bleak Midwinter

Words: Christina Georgina Rossetti, 1830-1894
~)-| New words by John Andrew Storey, 1935-1997
Music: Gustav Theodore Holst, 1874-1934

First Unitarian Church of Baltimore

Homily – Housewarming – Rev. Rod


Read: [Printable PDF document available for download]

I have often spoken about the Mexican holiday tradition of posadas, in which folks in small communities re-enact an interpretation of the Christmas story, wherein Mary and Joseph knock at different doors, looking for lodging, and repeatedly being turned away, all the while, Mary being pregnant and expecting her son Jesus.  The word posada is Spanish for inn.

But some of the keener listeners among you may have noticed that inn is not the word I used when reading out the Christmas lesson today.  Sure, most current translations of Luke 2:7 speak about there being “no room at the inn”, but among the many parts of the Christmas story that raise questions for scholars, the translation of the word inn (for the ancient Greek katalouma) comes up.

Many scholars believe that the word could more accurately be translated as guest room (which is the word I used today).  Households in Bethlehem, like many places in the region at the time, would likely have a guest room, to house relatives or other travelers, and some biblical scholars suggest that the holy family in the story may been staying with their extended family (Bethlehem, after all, would have been a hometown of sorts for Joseph).  In that case, the house would have been more crowded than expected, and they would have had to stay in the lower level of the home, were the animals were also around… not where they would have expected to be, but a warm enough space to bear and shelter a child.

This evening, some of us are not where we expected to be… as our church building was snowed in, our preferred spiritual home is less accessible than usual, some among us may have had travel plans upended this weekend, you may be hosting unexpectedly, or more likely have visitors sending regrets.  Nonetheless, if you are joining us in this space, you are likely to have found a place that is warm enough to shelter you and anyone around you, and to bear witness to this holiday, however you feel the need to observe it.

Whichever your observances, my friends, the realities of this season – as witnessed particularly over the past couple of days – are that our shelter is an important place in which to find a homebase.  And setting it up in the way that makes that stay as pleasant and heartwarming as possible is part of the necessity, and spirit, of the season.

This month, my friends, we have been exploring the call for us to get into the mood for what we might call “hibernation”, and today is a good place to put that into practice.  Be it decking the hall, lighting a fire, watching a show featuring a fire – or any other classic film, or simply putting on a good winter sweater with the right winter food, today is a good place to put the spirit of hibernation into practice.

My friends, it is also a day in which to witness the hardship that many in our community have in being able to hibernate in comfort, and we make it a practice to remember all our community members, near and far, and make efforts to make access for housewarming spaces easier and more accessible, be it with gifts of money, time, or advocacy.  That is also part of the necessity, and spirit, of the season.

And so, my friends, just as we warm each other today with our presence, we may warm our hearts and our homes tonight, and search to warm the hearts and the homes of those around us.

So may it be,
In the Spirit of the Season,

Copyright © 2020 Rodrigo Emilio Solano-Quesnel

Closing Carol #251 Silent Night, Holy Night

Words: Joseph Mohr, 1792-1848
Music: Franz Xaver Gruber, 1787-1868

Michael Tacy – Joint Choir of Gathering at Northern Heights (Cincinnati) and Heritage UU

Stellar Apple Pie

December 11th, 2022 . by Rod Solano-Quesnel

Time for All Ages

Carl Sagan – Cosmos – Stars – We Are Their Children – Smithsonian Channel

Sermon – Stellar Apple Pie – Rev. Rod


Read: [Printable PDF document available for download]

As we approach the middle of December, certain seasonal motifs become increasingly conspicuous.  It will be common to see “indoor trees” in many homes (maybe even your own), and these are often decorated with a star at the top – as is the one we have in our church’s sanctuary.

Stars, of course, are linked with the traditional Christmas story, which includes an account of a Star of Bethlehem, as a guiding light toward a mystical revelation.  In Christmas, this mystical revelation is the power of cosmic divinity in a child.

Last year, I spoke about the Posadas tradition in Mexico, in which small communities look to re-enact part of the Christmas story, in which Mary and Joseph look for lodging while traveling far from home, so that Mary may give birth to her child (posada refers to “lodging”).  At the end of this re-enactment, it is customary to smash a piñata, which is traditionally made in a “Star of Bethlehem” image, with many points adorned in paper ruffles and tassels.  This tradition would start this week (it’s usually around the Dec. 16), so this feels like a good time to think about stars, and how they may continue to offer guidance in our lives.

Along with that, this is also a season in which many of us pay special attention to certain kinds of foods.  This may simply be that some childhood favourites of yours are featured more often around this time of year.  Or, you happen to be able to gather with friends or family who make special dishes.  Or, perhaps you are the person who is keen on making these special dishes, either for others… or for yourself.

When gathering for special food – or when settling down on your own for some special treat – there is sometimes a debate on whether to get food ready-made or whether to start “from scratch” and make it all on your own.

Now, I should say that I find no shame in getting food ready-made.  Depending on each of our individual situations, it may be the most realistic or effective way to get fed.  I myself like to get certain meals made by the professionals, either because I might not have the time or inclination to make a meal at a given time, or because I know that, for some dishes, there are others who are better at preparing them than me.

But, if you’re up for the challenge, or find it personally enjoyable, there can be a certain feeling of achievement in making something from scratch – starting with ingredients that may be used for many other things, but then making them into an entirely new thing.  It may take longer (and may sometimes even be costlier) than simply getting the finished product from the get-go, but going through the process of preparation can be its own payoff, and sometimes even offer a superior product – or, at least, one that is personally special.

Yet, as we gaze upon the stars, and ponder about their ancient wisdom, an inconvenient question might crop up – can we really make anything from scratch?

Scratch is a way of saying “from the beginning”, so that we may take some claim of responsibility – and credit – for creating a meal ourselves “all on our own”.

Most of us will understand that starting with typical kitchen ingredients, such as fresh produce, or plain spices and seasonings, might be enough to say we’re starting from scratch – that is, from the beginning.  And from then on staking a claim that we’re making the thing ourselves.

Take apple pie.  If we start with a few things like apples, flour, sugar, cinnamon, and a few other things, like butter, salt, and whatever your secret recipe calls for, and then put them together and bake it, we can typically claim credit for having made the pie “all on your own”.

And to be clear, making an apple pie this way is, indeed, an achievement.  And I know that some of you are particularly good at this sort of thing – so, this is not a commentary on your abilities or skill.

But going deeper, how much does this really represent making it “all on our own”?  What does it really take to start “from the beginning”?

Very quickly, we realize that that particular claim is a bit of a fantasy.  The apples didn’t come out of nowhere.  They may have come from the orchard down the street, or been trucked in from a place further away.  And they were grown from the ground, with water from the ground or the sky, with knowhow from a whole team of farmers and farm workers, and labour by people that live nearby or came from far away.  They, too, make the pie that we bake.  The beginning starts further back than our kitchen counter.  The reality is that none of us makes a pie “all on our own”.

Same deal with the sugar, which most certainly came from farther away, not to mention additional processing by people and machines, at a factory.  And the butter has a similar story, plus the life investment of animals that gave of themselves, in some way or other (even vegetarians have bees to recognize for their role in pollinating for fruits and vegetables).  Many of you are involved in some of these kinds of industries, and will well appreciate the work involved way before a pie starts “from scratch”.  None of us make a pie “all on our own”.

I could tell similar stories about any of the ingredients that go into a pie, way before we have a go at making it “all on our own”… “from the beginning”.

But let’s go a bit deeper.  Because even before any of these ingredients get to look like anything we’d recognize as food, or the inputs for the food, we might consider what makes the stuff that they’re made of… and that stuff was made a long, long time ago – possibly in our galaxy, but likely still far, far away.

I’m particularly fond of the way that the late astrophysicist Carl Sagan describes how all of the elements we’re made of have had a long journey toward their creation.  Most of them were made during the lives of stars… or as they died.  And even though hydrogen, the simplest of the elements was not made in stars, it too could only be formed as the early big bang universe cooled down enough for it to come into being, at a time very close to the beginning.

In the vast furnaces of stars, hydrogen came together under immense pressure and heat to make helium… and eventually, other things like carbon, and oxygen, things that our bodies and the stuff we eat know very well.  After enough hydrogen fuses together to make iron, then it is only through the death of some stars – in massive supernovae explosions – that we come about other elements we know, like gold, and tungsten, and… molybdenum.  What we stand on, what we breathe, who we are, all came to be in another time and another space, in and by stars we’ll never know about, and which we have never named.

My friends, we have spent much time and contemplation this year in honoring and recognizing the legacy of our ancestors, recent and historic.  And just as we are the product of our ancestors, for whom we are grateful, we and these ancestors are the products of ancestral stars, whom we may honor and recognize as part of our creation – to whom we may offer credit in the creation of the carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, that make up the apples in a pie, forged inside stars and at their end, as well as the even more ancestral hydrogen, which may be nearly as old as our universe.

My friends, it is no small feat to make an apple pie in your kitchen, especially if you get to share it with loved ones – or with strangers you have yet to meet.  And it does not diminish your achievement to share the credit with those who also collaborated in making the ingredients before they got to the kitchen, or with the ancestors who crafted the knowhow and shared the knowledge, or with the stellar ancestors that made possible what we are and where we are.

My friends, we may never make a dish “all on our own”, but then, isn’t it comforting that we don’t ever do anything “all on our own”? as a cloud of witnesses collaborates with us in everything we do? (a cloud that includes, somewhere along the line, a literal cosmic cloud from a nebula of freshly-created elements)

My friends, it turns out that, to really make an apple pie from scratch may take longer than we might expect – 14 billion years, give or take a few million.

My friends, over this holiday season, or into the new year, if you come across a slice of apple pie, or apples, or pie, it wouldn’t be out of place to offer a prayer of gratitude and joy, to the people who made the final preparation “all on their own – but not by their own” (no small feat); a prayer of gratitude and joy for the people and animals who offered of themselves; a prayer of gratitude and joy for the stars whose lives continue to live within each of us; for our ancestors near and far; recent and from time immemorial; for the unfathomable forces and reach of time and space, which remind us that none of us is “all on our own”.

So may it be,
In the spirit of mystical connection,

Copyright © 2022 Rodrigo Emilio Solano-Quesnel

Hymn #1051 We Are… (For Each Child That’s Born)

~)-| Words & music: Ysaÿe M. Barnwell, 1946- , © 1991 Barnwell’s Notes Publishing (BMI).  Used by permission.

Annual Dinner 2021 – Dr. Ysaÿe Barnwell Performs “We Are”
Bishop John T. Walker School for Boys (2 March, 2021)

The Curiosity Gap

December 4th, 2022 . by Rod Solano-Quesnel

Time for All Ages Hallelujah Chorus – Quinhagak, Alaska 5th Grade class of Kuinerrarmiut Elitnaurviat school

James Barthelman (Dec. 20, 2010)

Sermon – The Curiosity Gap – Rev. Rod


Read: [Printable PDF document available for download]

Picture this: it’s 5:05pm, you’ve just finished listening to the afternoon news on CBC Radio – which is all you needed to hear before dinner – but you took just a little too long to turn off the radio, and now you’ve caught a few words from the announcer about the upcoming show on the secrets of better sleep, as revealed by new revolutionary research – “coming up next” they helpfully remind you… before you know it, you’re halfway through a show you’d originally had no plan to listen to, but now can’t seem to be able to walk away from.

What happened?

It’s not your fault, that’s simply the work of journalists using one of the oldest tricks in the book.  In content marketing, this is known as the curiosity gap, often phrased as something like: “the gap between what people know and what they would like to know”.

In other words, whoever is writing the news or a show – and the advertising for it – expects that you already have at least some background knowledge about what they are going to talk about.  But they also presume that they are going to give you some information you’re unlikely to know – and will likely find fascinating.  So, before the show even gets going, the announcer tells you… not exactly what they’re going to tell you later, but that they’re going to tell you something more about what you already know, and are presumably interested in.  That gap is a compelling force into keeping your attention.

And it’s not just radio – TV news, print news, and online news, all employ this tactic.  It’s part of what can make learning about the world – and its many challenges – so addictive, even if it isn’t always as inspiring, or pleasant, as the kind of entertainment media that you might be more likely to follow for relaxation or amusement.

The curiosity gap is a powerful force.

And, in the case of the internet, the marketing aspect of the curiosity gap is even more insidious – and potentially more harmful.

Online, the riskier version of the curiosity gap gambit has come to be known as clickbait, that is, headlines or links that are worded so that they can be irresistible to ignore, baiting you by promising to satisfy your curious mind, by hinting that they’ll give an incredible answer to a question they have raised in the headline – if only you clicked.

Classic examples are phrasings such as “You won’t believe how so-and-so keeps their house so clean” or “Are your recipes ruining your dinner parties?”

(By the way, there’s a news media adage that, whenever a headline ends with a question mark, then the answer is almost always “no”.)

These kinds of headlines or article titles are especially difficult to ignore if they have tickled some sense of insecurity in you.  This is often used by the makers of products that promote diets or beauty products, who often use clickbait in the form of sensationalistic banners that give promises of a body that is considered ideal by certain segments of our society, although the goal of this kind of body is often neither attainable nor necessary for being able to love oneself and to be loved by others.  There is also the risk of harmful products that underdeliver on their promises or which may be outright dangerous to one’s physical or mental health.

Other times, the clickbait technique may simply lure you into wasting time on information that is nowhere as important (or interesting) as its headline may have made it out to be.  This may seem like a minor hazard, but when that lost time reduces the time for you to connect more deeply with better content, or with those around you, the harm can be real.

So, yes, my friends, clickbait, and the manipulative use of the curiosity gap, can be harmful in many ways.  It is little wonder that the action of following a seemingly endless thread of clickbaity content is often labeled as doom-scrolling.  And a lot of doom-scrolling – even more of it than usual – happened during the pandemic, when our curiosity to find more and better information left a wide gap, which many content providers were vying to fill – some more responsibly than others.

Curiosity can be a powerful force.

Now, using the curiosity gap, or even some versions of clickbait, isn’t always a bad thing, nor is it necessarily a nefarious tactic.  After all, the job of journalists, and other kinds of content creators, is to make content that you want to follow and may indeed be information you need, or could at least find useful.  And presumably, you are interested in following interesting content… at least some of the time.

One of my favourite content creators is Adam Ragusea – you’ve seen me reference him, or even play some of his videos, here before.  A journalist by training, he describes himself as “man in a kitchen with a camera” and his channel is food focused.  And while he does offer weekly recipes, he also has videos that are essentially food journalism, exploring aspects about food production, preparation, commerce, and even the ethics around the food we eat, and how we get it.

In a speech he gave to the Atlanta Writers’ Club a couple years ago – during the height of the initial pandemic waves – he spoke about how he struggles to balance the need to inform right away and the need to get people’s attention – and therefore onto the content he creates.

At the time, in the context of the pandemic, he made a video to emphasize that getting food through minimal contact with people was safer than riskier options, such as going to restaurants.  He titled that video “People are more dangerous than food” – effectively offering the answer right in the title.  He did this because he felt that playing the clickbait game, with a curiosity gap headline, was inappropriate at the time, wanting to prioritize giving as much of the answer as possible in the title itself.

But he noticed that this particular video had significantly fewer views than some of his videos with less urgent information that had more clickbaity titles.

Adam Ragusea wondered if he’d had gotten more views with a title like: “Can you get covid from food?” – a question for which you’d have to click in order to get the answer – thus enticing more people to click and get a fuller sense of the safety information he was looking to offer.  He has reluctantly accepted that, if he cannot get people’s attention, he cannot inform them, and thus makes some use of curiosity gap tactics to get people onto his content.

He balances this by giving away the most important information early in his videos (rather than make you wait to the end of the video, as some other YouTubers are prone to do), and he also ensures that he does intensive journalistic research before publishing, seeking to offer good quality information.  In this way, he feels he has “earned” your click.

In fact, we do this kind of thing at church.  When I write the blurbs for the upcoming month’s sermons, my e-mails to the newsletter team are headed “Titles & Teasers”.  If you’ve ever wondered why my titles aren’t more forthright, part of the reason is that I’m leaving a bit of the subject matter deliberately in the gap between what you know and what you want to know, hoping that this will pique your curiosity and you’d be more inclined to engage with the service.

If I worded my title and blurb something like “today I’m going to talk about how understanding star formation cycles can offer spiritual inspiration”, you might be less keen to attend, or to click on the Zoom link. (Next week’s sermon, by the way, is called “Stellar Apple Pie”… it’s about how understanding star formation cycles can offer spiritual inspiration).

Of course, there is more than a simple marketing ploy at play.  Because part of our tradition’s practice is to inspire curiosity, so intentionally seeking the gap between what we know and what we want to know is precisely what we are often about – looking to bridge that gap, and then find the next one – because curiosity is a powerful motivator to make connections between the gaps, that we may explore how our fragmented world is far more connected than we might expect.

My friends, curiosity is a powerful force.

Last week, my friends, I spoke about some of the practices that we sometimes take, or which folks have suggested, to bring cheer and warmth into a season that might otherwise be cold and dark.  These practices and suggestions included a mix of comfort in tradition, as well as excitement in seeking novelty.  Our church is about that, finding a sense of grounding and guidance in the work and insights from our ancestors, while also pursuing the gap that our curiosity finds, that we may move toward bolder, deeper, and more connected ways of being.

My friends, in the spirit of the season, we encourage curiosity through an appeal to exploration, to search how we may stay connected or make new connections – with oneself or with others – as the cold season may invite warm opportunities to either gather together, or find comfort in our own places, in sometimes new and exciting ways.

My friends, curiosity is one of the drivers of our faith.  And finding the gap in it is an invitation to practice that faith.

So may it be,
In the spirit of curiosity,

Copyright © 2022 Rodrigo Emilio Solano-Quesnel

Closing #354 We Laugh, We Cry
~)-| Words & Music: Shelley Jackson Denham, 1950- , © 1980 Shelley Jackson Denham,
~)-| harmony by Betsy Jo Angebrandt, 1931- , © 1992 UUA

First Unitarian Church of Baltimore (10 January, 2021)

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