A Straw Man, a White Elephant, and a Perfect Storm

A Straw Man, a White Elephant, and a Perfect Storm, are three phrases whose meaning is larger and more complex than the literal meaning of their individual parts. And inevitably, we are faced with circumstances in life that are like that– they need an immediate decision, but also give us the opportunity to examine our values and act so as to convey those values to the larger community. This is the anniversary of the historic floods. And we have launched our Capital Campaign for renovations to our building. A Straw Man, a White Elephant, and a Perfect Storm are three idioms that can help us come up with answers to the question, “Given the best of all possible worlds, what outcome do you most wish for?”    Speaker: Rev. Jennie Barrington

Service Transcript:

“A Straw Man, a White Elephant, and a Perfect Storm”


Worship Service and Sermon for
the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of
Columbia, South Carolina
October 2, 2016
The Rev. Jennie Barrington, Interim Minister


Opening Words: [from, “Field of Dreams”]


Ray Kinsella:  “You once wrote, ‘There comes a time… when all the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place… and the universe opens itself up for a few seconds, to show you what’s possible.’”


The Morning Reading [“Field of Dreams,” W.P. Kinsella and Phil Alden Robinson]:


Archibald “Moonlight” Graham:  “It was the last day of the season. Bottom of the eighth inning, we were way ahead. I’d been up with the club for three weeks, but I hadn’t seen any action. Suddenly old John McGraw points a bony finger in my direction…and he says, ‘Right field. I jumped up like I was sitting on a spring. Grabbed my glove, and ran out on the field…  They never hit the ball out of the infield. The game ended. The season was over. I knew they’d send me back down. I couldn’t bear the thought of another year in the minors. So I decided to hang them up. It was like coming this close to your dreams, and then watching them brush past you, like a stranger in a crowd. At the time, you don’t think much of it. We don’t recognize our most significant moments while they’re happening. Back then I thought, ‘Well, there’ll be other days.’ I didn’t realize that was the only day. You know, I never got to bat in the major leagues. I’d have liked to have had that chance, just once… to stare down a big-league pitcher. Stare him down, then just as he goes into his windup, wink.  Make him think you know something he doesn’t…  That’s what I wish for…  The chance to squint at a sky so blue that it hurts your eyes to look at it. To feel the tingle in your arms as you connect with the ball. To run the bases, stretch a double into a triple… and flop face first into third. Wrap your arms around the bag. That’s my wish. Is there enough magic out there in the moonlight to make this dream come true?”


Special Music “Rain,” by Patty Griffin



The Morning Sermon:  “A Straw Man, a White Elephant, and a Perfect Storm”


Unitarian Universalist ministers, on Sunday mornings, are supposed to “speak the truth in love,” as best we can, incorporating all that has led up to that moment in time, including human accomplishments and historical events, keeping in mind that what is real and true can and will change, as time continues to pass. On this Sunday morning, two significant events are on our minds: the historic floods, one year ago today, and the happy successes of the Capital Campaign we launched last week, for needed renovations to our building.


So this week I have been contemplating three phrases: a Straw Man, a White Elephant, and a Perfect Storm. They are three phrases whose meaning is larger and more complex than the literal meaning of their individual parts. And inevitably, we are faced with circumstances in life that are like that–  circumstances that present themselves as needing an immediate decision, but that also give us the opportunity to examine our values and act so as to convey those values to the larger community, in lasting ways.  A Straw Man, a White Elephant, and a Perfect Storm are three idioms we can use to stretch our imagination. The three concepts can be used in a close-minded, short-sighted way, to give some people an excuse to do the one option which was the only one they really considered doing anyway.  Or the three concepts can help some people come up with many possible answers to the question, “Given the best of all possible worlds, what outcome do you most wish for?”


There are always times when we encounter circumstances that seem too big and complex to manage– that feel out of our control to solve. I’m sure that’s how all of us who were here a year ago felt when we were beset by those historic floods.   And I think that, in the last several years, the needed renovations to this building felt like too big and complex an undertaking for any one individual to conceive of a solution for. But over at least the past two years, several of your lay leaders, and other professionals, have done information-gathering, research, and problem solving, with thoughtfulness and care, piece by piece. So, last Sunday, we were ready to launch this effort, and we did so successfully, and very enjoyably. Using the idioms of a Straw Man, a White Elephant, and a Perfect Storm to stretch our imagination toward best possible outcomes can help us discern how best to proceed with our building renovations, and also what we might do about a myriad of other issues in our lives. Taking some time to intentionally stretch our imagination can help us to no longer feel that certain challenges are totally out of our control.


The Straw Man concept can be used for good or for ill. I have heard it used to name when someone suggests possible answers they would never actually go along with, because they were so dead certain that there was already only one way to go.  So say there’s an employer who really wants a newly-created job. But according to employment laws, he has to publically advertise the job, and interview a certain number of people who apply. So I help him do that. Then, after all those interviews have been completed, he says to me, “Well, clearly there’s no one who will be able to do that job–  So I’ll have to do it.”  I’ve been there, and I’ve long been able to recognize this scenario. It’s a ruse. And it’s a waste of a lot of people’s time and other resources. That’s what it means to use the Straw Man concept in ways that aren’t honest, transparent, or fair. But using the Straw Man concept can also be very helpful to a group in circumstances where they are going to have to figure out some course of action, sooner rather than later. A task force does its fact-finding, then presents to the group several decisions the group might make, and what the likely outcome of those decisions might be, long-term, even though those decisions might end up not to be viable. The keys to this method being successful are that the task force tells the group up front what might and might not work out with each of these decisions.  And the task force tells the group that these proposals are starting points for discussion, as the final decision will be up to the group, not the task force.


I think that the renovations that our building needs, when viewed in their entirety, were overwhelming to some members, particularly the amount of money we would need to raise. The leaders of this congregation are people of integrity. They did not want to tell people they would do something that they then might not be able to do. So to make this undertaking manageable, and less scary, we broke it up into phases, and priorities. After listening to you, your board discerned that the bathrooms are of highest priority. Second is renovations to our Religious Education wing. These can be followed by renovations to the Social Hall and Sanctuary. Each of those priorities has its own estimated cost. I am so pleased and proud to report that, after our launch last week, we have nearly enough raised in pledges to complete the work on the bathrooms and R.E. wing. Last winter, the board expressed to me their concern that, once we set a target goal, supposed we did not meet that goal? I responded that, so long as everyone tries their very best, I would not be upset nor disappointed if we fell short of our goal. And if we raised only some of our goal, then that’s how much we’ll do in renovations at this time. And I will recommend that you reexamine the needed work three or four years later. This lessened everyone’s anxiety considerably. So in a way, separating out the work needed on the social hall and sanctuary helped us in our problem-solving. It helped us have the confidence and motivation to launch the initial phase of our capital campaign. However, the work that is needed on the Social Hall and the Sanctuary is not a Straw Man. Those renovations are very much needed. No one proposed them to you just so we could have a couple ideas to reject and give up on. Our first week of our Capital Campaign has been wonderfully successful! But we all need to continue to do our very best to raise the additional funds to complete all the work our building needs and our mission deserves.


The second idiom I’ve been thinking about this week is a White Elephant. That phrase is used for a gift which, though valuable, has long-term costs, in particular, upkeep, which are out of proportion to its usefulness or worth.  The origin of the phrase is that in Southeast Asia, a monarch could give a real white elephant to someone he didn’t like–  By all appearances, the monarch was bestowing honor, most generously–  But the white elephant could not then be given away, nor used for labor–  And so its upkeep could end up eventually bankrupting the owner. Some modern day examples of White Elephants are:


  • The Lambert-St. Louis International Airport runway 11/29; the projected additional air traffic it was built to accommodate never materialized, and it is too far away from the terminals to be cost effective;


  • The Millennium Dome in London, which struggles to find events that require its enormous size;


  • England’s Christ Hospital railway station, built to accommodate the children of the Christ Hospital school; they failed to take into account that that school is a boarding school; so the railway station is only used a handful of times a year;
  • And the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, which has had dismal usage since the Montreal Expos baseball team left in 2004; it is nicknamed “Uh-Oh.”

Our church building and its grounds are very dear to us. This is our “religious home.” But any home requires ongoing maintenance, which can become very costly.  So I felt that we all should satisfy ourselves this week that our building is not a White Elephant–  It is not.  Our congregation has a real purpose of providing progressive values and a think tank for creating a more fair and tolerant world–  Our building is used for multiple good purposes by our congregation and by a several community groups–  And there is real potential for our building to be even more fully used—We certainly could increase the number of members, and of children and teens.   A White Elephant is a building or other project that is not worth keeping up. What we all need to do is enlarge our vision and work smarter to keep up with all the worthy events and gatherings our building has the potential to host.


Last week in my sermon I talked about the Marshall University football team, “The Thundering Herd.” In 1970, that team and school and town were devastated by a plane crash that killed almost their entire team, and coaching staff, and many residents of the town. In order to survive and thrive, they had to enlarge their vision and work smarter and imagine a time in the future when their present challenges would be behind them. They did so by remembering the people who had worked and sacrificed for their shared goals and dreams. They did so by doing their very best week after week, even without many tangible signs of success. And they did so for the future generations who would look back on them, in admiration of their persistence and courage.


I am that future generation. In June, I went to Marshall University, and visited the memorial fountain (pictured on the front of your Order of Service) that they built in honor of the loved-ones they lost in that plane crash. Marshall University is in Huntington, West Virginia. So I stopped there on my way back from the UUA’s General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio. That university community lives with this fountain at the center of their campus. They live with it when, each year, the water is turned off on November 14th, commemorating the crash in 1970. And they live with it when, each spring, the water flows again. The fountain is surrounded by a lovely patio, and seating, some of which is shaded, and some of which is in the bright West Virginia sunlight. After sitting beside it at length, I felt strangely well. We are all living with grief and loss all the time. It is helpful to go to a place that acknowledges that fact. And, as heartbreaking as the Marshall University plane crash was, that pain became an occasion to create beauty  –beauty, solace, and tranquility–  for us who are the ones living now. Before I left, I walked up to the edge of the fountain one last time. To my glad surprise, I saw a rainbow in it–  Its colors strong–  quite strong.


The Marshall University memorial fountain is a gift, but it is not a white elephant. Since its creation, it has required renovations, including a new foundation. In 2008 they lifted the fountain off its base, rebuilt the foundation, and upgraded the surrounding area. The cost was approximately $200,000, a bit more than our target goal for our Capital Campaign. They raised the money to renovate the place they loved, in honor of the people they loved who were no longer with them. And so can we.


The final idiom I chose for us to think about this morning is the Perfect Storm. It is true that, in 2007, Lake Superior State University awarded the phrase its top award for phrases that deserved to be banned for overuse. Yet it is one of my favorite expressions. I think of it often when I hear of a tragic occurrence that resulted from such a rare combination of circumstances that there is no one thing to blame, and certainly no one person.  A significant part of my ministry is to talk with individuals who have been through such events, in the hope that they will not be unduly burdened by undeserved guilt or shame.


Were our historic floods a year ago a Perfect Storm? I think so. I wanted to be sure to name and honor what we went through last year, because it was a really big deal. The National Weather Service wrote, “A stalled front offshore combined with deep tropical moisture streaming northwest into the area ahead of a strong upper level low pressure system to the west and Hurricane Joaquin well to the east. This led to historic rainfall with widespread amounts of 15 – 20 inches and localized amounts over 25 inches…  Flash flooding was prevalent and led to significant damage to numerous properties and roads, and many people having to be rescued by emergency personnel.” It was the sort of storm that only happens once in a hundred years. The Governor’s office reported that:


  • 40,000 households had no running water, 26,000 had no electricity.
  • State highway patrol officers responded to nearly 5,000 service calls.
  • 2,122 of those calls were responses to vehicle collisions.
  • Several thousand National Guardsman came to our state to assist.
  • 600 people and hundreds of pets were rescued.
  • More than 800 people were in shelters.
  • 13 dams had failed, and 62 were being monitored, and
  • 74 miles of interstate highway were closed.


It’s been hard to believe that it all was as bad as it was on this weekend last year, since the weather has been so lovely this past week. Yet I bet many of us are edgy about this anniversary–  perhaps even buying extra bottled water and hand sanitizer, and feeling easily startled by the sound of thunder. So I think that, in the coming days and weeks, we should give some extra care to our feelings.


Why do such tragedies happen?  I do not believe that the gods nor the forces of the universe conspire to inflict injustice and pain on us.  But I also know that sometimes, as hard as any of us and all of us have tried, some things still happen that are just so unfair.  Yet, to me, a Perfect Storm can also be a rare convergence of circumstances that results in a wonderful outcome that seems almost miraculous. I believe there are forces in the universe that want things to go right–  forces in the universe that want beauty, artistry, truth, and for things to be fair. And I think that often we can work with those forces to help create those things. But those forces are not omnipotent–  We all have to do our part.  That theology is what’s called “Process Theology.” You can read and reflect on it for yourselves. It’s described in the Unitarian Universalist primer, called, A Chosen Faith, in the chapter by John Buehrens called, “Mind and Spirit.” John Buehrens is citing process theologian Alfred North Whitehead.


Setting up some Straw Men, and maintaining a gift so it will not become a White Elephant, and imagining most wonderful Perfect Storms are all ways of doing long-range planning, for ourselves, and for the generations that will come after us. Long-range planning means facing the reality that some long-held dreams have not yet come true, some options will not be viable, some maintenance cannot be deferred, and some combinations of circumstances just seem too much, too soon. Straw Men, White Elephants, and Perfect Storms each contain potential negative outcomes. Yet they each also hold the possibility of a future with more clarity, justice, and love than there was in the past. After all, in the real life “Perfect Storm” on which Sebastian Junger based his book of that name, the name of the Hurricane was “Grace.” And so when you are faced with challenges and obstacles, it can help to remember that you always have the right to pray.  For what is prayer but the longing for the best of all possible worlds to come to pass. To pray is to long for the world in which we live to be as trustworthy, kind, reliable, companionable, and safe as it can possibly be, given all the separate ingredients, and the way those ingredients combine, in the place where we stand. I know that not every person is comfortable with praying, for their own behalf. But we can hold in our minds and hearts the ardent prayers of our fellow travelers, and honor their longing.  Beneath all the surface traits that make us appear so different, all human hearts dream of halcyon days.


**Parting words [from, “Field of Dreams,” W.P. Kinsella and Phil Alden Robinson]:

“You once wrote, ‘There comes a time… when all the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place… and the universe opens itself up for a few seconds… to show you what’s possible.’”