Monthly Archives: February 2006

Bad Unitarian Universalist joke

A Catholic priest, a Wiccan priestess, and a Unitarian Universalist minister went out for a drive together. The UU minister was driving when a rabbit suddenly ran in front of the car. The minister swerved, but too late — the rabbit was squashed flat.

The UU minister stopped the car, and said, “I feel so terrible, I killed that poor rabbit.”

The Catholic priest said, “Don’t worry, I’ll heal the rabbit.” He got out of the car and sprinkled holy water on the rabbit. Nothing happened.

So then the Wiccan priestess said, “Don’t worry, I’ll heal the rabbit.” She got out and cast a spell. Nothing happened.

So then the UU minister grabbed something from the trunk of the car. He came over, rubbed it onto the rabbit, and the bunny immediately got up and ran away. The Catholic priest and the Wiccan priestess said, “That’s amazing! What did you use?”

The UU minister replied, “Rogaine, hare restorer.”

I warned you it was bad.

Winter walk

Carol and I went on our regular walk at lunch hour, over to Fairhaven and back. The wind was blowing out of the west-northwest, and two red pennants flew from the Wharfinger building: gale warning.

Walking over to Fairhaven wasn’t so bad, with the wind at our backs. Coming back, the wind was full in our faces. On the most exposed parts of the bridges, the gusts were strong enough to noticeably slow my forward progress.

The wind was strong, but bracing. You feel more alive somehow under a clear blue sky when the westerly winds of February are sweeping across land and water. By this point in the season, the cold isn’t nearly so bothersome; instead, it gets your blood moving.

Hours later, as I write this, I can still feel a little hotspot on my right cheek where the flesh is tightest across the bone; a day’s worth of that wind on my face, mixed with inattention on my part, could have brought frostbite. I wish I could have spent the whole day outdoors. It’s not a bad thing to have to pay attention.


Second in a series of commentaries on the essays in the book Urban Place: Reconnecting with the Natural World, edited by Peggy F. Bartlett (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005).

In her essay in Urban Place, titled “Reconnecting with Place: Faculty and the Piedmont Project at Emory University,” Peggy Bartlett begins by noting that academia is dominated by an ethic that “values a cosmopolitan placelessness.” Professors and academics are supposed to be ready to move to another university at a moment’s notice:

Such a commitment to placelessness responds to the mobility of academic positions and the nomadic life that many experience. It also reflects the deep familiarity that some faculty have with cities and places far from where they teach, an expertise that may be part of why they were hired in the first place.

Bartlett developed a curriculum development project at Emory University to help faculty reconnect with place, and to create course, or modules within existing courses, that were place-based. The response, she says was extraordinarily positive. Faculty liked being connected with the place they lived in. And of course, the hope is that they will train their students to become more aware of place — and thus more open to enviornmental stewardship.

I can’t help but note that Unitarian Universalist ministers are trained in placelessness. When I began training for the ministry, I was told to be ready to relocate anywhere in North America. It has proved true: I have had to relocate a number of times because of my career; a friend and fellow minister who wishes to remain in one place, on the other hand, has been struggling to put together a career. And I feel the placelessness of Unitarian Universalist ministers may well inhibit a rooted, place-based religion which can help foster further environmental stewardship.

Soemthing to think about as we strive towards an ecological theology….

Speaking of placelessness, Carol and I are off to Washington, D.C. until Monday. I probably won’t be able to post again until then — see you in three days!

Sublime nature in cities

First in a series of commentaries on the essays in the book Urban Place: Reconnecting with the Natural World, edited by Peggy F. Bartlett (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005).

In his essay “On the Sublime in Nature in Cities,” Robert Rotenberg begins by asserting that city dwellers in the United States lack “a meaningful language to talk about [their] connection to landscape.” It’s almost as if many urban dwellers don’t even think of themselves as living in a landscape at all.

Rotenberg is an urban anthropologist who has been studying urban gardeners. He has been studying urban gardening in Chicago, and at the same time has research partners in Vienna, Austria. He found that American urban gardeners do not understand their gardens to be a part of the urban landscape:

Urban gardening in Chicago exists on a continuum between the amateur and the agriculturalist. Amateurs include home gardeners who plant small beds for aesthetic enjoyment… Their design rules and landscape tastes derive from popular media such as Martha Stewart’s magazines and Home and Garden TV, on the one hand, and the more serious magazines, such as Organic Living, Organic Gardening, and Horticulture Monthly.… The urban agriculture end of the continuum is characterized by for-profit and nonprofit community gardening…. The nonprofit version aims to build community and… is characterized by such ideologies as sustainability through intensive soil-building practices [etc.]. The for-profit organizations supply locally-grown, high-quality produce for restaurants and food pantries. [Emphasis added.]

By contrast, the Viennese urban gardeners make direct connections between their gardens and the greater urban landscape:

In Vienna, my partners connected their home gardens to public gardens, and through public gardens to several different discourses, including the relationship between activity and health, and between the individual and the community.

Rotenberg believes that here in America, the meaning of “nature” has become limited to wilderness. If an American wants to get out into nature, he or she will get in a car and drive away from urban areas. Because of this, says Rotenberg, when we talk about nature in cities, we are likely to talk about “concerns of sanitation, civil order, and governmentality.”

Case in point: here in New Bedford, there’s a local group called “Friends of Buttonwood Park,” a citizen’s group that wants to support beautiful Buttonwood Park, which was designed by Frederick Olmstead. But the Friends have faced stiff resistance from the city government when they have tried to plant more trees in Buttonwood Park. Even though the new trees would be consistent with Olmstead’s vision for the park, the city government does not want any new trees because that just means more leaves to clean up in the fall. Thus, the discourse immediately turns towards sanitation, civil order, and governmentality.

Rotenberg goes further. Here in America, he claims that we have gotten to the point where we understand the sublime only in the context of wilderness. The sublime is an experience of nature which can overwhelm us, terrify us. But we tend to ignore sublime nature that exists in cities. Rotenberg gives two examples of sublime nature in cities: wild animals and extreme weather. Here in New Bedford, we have seals in the harbor, which stay at a distance in the water and seem kind of cute and cuddly rather than sublime. But we also have peregrine falcons; in fact, a peregrine made the front page of the New Bedford Standard-Times a week ago Thursday. Pergrines have no qualms about sitting outside office windows and ripping apart a bloody pigeon to eat it; watching any large raptor eat can be terrifying enough to be sublime. As for extreme weather, any community on the New England coast experiences weather extremes. I happened to go into a supermarket the night before the blizzard hit on February 12. You could almost smell the fear as people stood in long lines at the checkout counters; I’d argue they were anticipating a sublime natural experience.

Rotenberg points out that by denying the sublime in nature that already exists in our cities, we are “debilitated from experiencing [nature] in its fullness,” and, worse yet, we “deflect attention from the nature that already exists in the city.” He ends his essay by saying:

To invigorate urban life with a more direct experience of nature means to embrace the sensibility of the sublime. The embrace of the sublime has already begun to occur in the reclaiming of spiritual and nonrational experience that is often associated with postmodern social movements. It may be merely a matter of time before our sense of the desirability of nature in the city has more to do with trembling fear than quiet beauty.

So what’s the role of liberal religion in reclaiming the sublimity of nature in our cities? One big stumbling block for my own faith community is our over-insistence on the primacy of reason — which by definition means denying the sublime. Unitarian Universalists are still stuck in the extreme rationality that dominated modernism in the past century. Yet if we look back at some of our spiritual forebears, such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, we would find that they made room for both rationality and the sublime. We will have to move beyond Thoreau and Emerson, however: they had the unfortunate tendency of only seeing the sublime in wilderness and ignoring the sublime in the city. Yet their embrace of nonrationality and their acceptance of the sublime in daily life could serve us well, as we try to grow into a postmodern religious movement.

Spring watch

Watching for spring:

A few green shoots in a warm protected garden: bulbs just starting to emerge.

Two pigeons engaging in courtship behaviors on the swing bridge across the harbor: twining their necks, bobbing, circling.

Daylight lengthens perceptibly over the course of a week: light remains until past five thirty now.

A sense of hope: in spite of everything that is going wrong in the world.

Why church is important

Here in New Bedford, the anti-gay attack at Puzzles bar in the North End sent shock waves through our community. How could an 18 year old man walk into a gay bar to attack the patrons with a handgun and a hatchet just because those men happened to be gay? Right now, many of us in New Bedford are trying to figure out what to do.

Scott Lang, our mayor, has called on churches and other religious communities to provide better support to youth. I’m all in favor of supporting teenagers, but I don’t think it works quite that way.

First of all, research shows that teenagers who go to church are far less likely to engage in risky behaviors of all kinds. The issue is not providing additional support to the teens who are already coming to church, the issue is the large numbers of teens who have no religious affiliation to speak of.

Secondly, I’m increasingly of the opinion that the way we get teens into our churches is to support their families. In a recent article about ministries that support whole families (instead of just supporting, say, youth), Rev. Phil Lund asks a rhetorical question:

…Why are so many of our current youth strategies and programs focused on trying to put the pieces back together after kids are already in crisis rather than on providing the early and continuing nurture that will keep them healthy and whole?

Phil’s answer is that congregations should be what he calls “authoritative communities,” and before you get your back up about that word “authoritative,” let’s find out what Phil really means. Citing a new book titled Hardwired To Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities, Phil writes:

Authoritative communities are [multigenerational] groups of people who are committed to one another over time and who model and pass on at least part of what it means to be a good person and live a good life.

Authoritative communities have 10 key characteristics. Based on careful analysis of both the new science of nurture and the existing child development literature, the Commission on Children at Risk [authors of Hardwired To Connect] identified the following 10 principal characteristics of an ideal authoritative community:

  • “Authoritative communities include children and youth.
  • They treat children as ends in themselves.
  • They are warm and nurturing.
  • They establish clear limits and expectations.
  • The core of their work is performed largely by nonspecialists.
  • They are multigenerational.
  • They have a long-term focus.
  • They encourage spiritual and religious development.
  • They reflect and transmit a shared understanding of what it means to be a good person.
  • They are philosophically oriented to the equal dignity of all people and to the principle of love of neighbor.” —[Hardwired To Connect]

This might provide a useful model to us here in New Bedford: make sure our churches and religious communities function as this kind of authoritative community.

More to the point for my own church, this should serve to remind us why we’re doing what we’re doing. You don’t come to church when you feel like it so you can hear some good music and maybe an inspiring sermon. You come to church to be a part of a multi-generational community that is shaping the life of the surrounding community, by transmitting what it means to be a good person, and by promoting equal dignity all all persons as set forth in the Golden Rule.

Not that that is easy. But the more of you who show up at church, the easier it will be, and the less likely it will be that we’ll have another incident like the one at Puzzles bar. And no, I’m not trying to make you feel guilty, I’m trying to give you a good reason why you should get out of your comfy jammies on Sunday morning, leave behind the crossword puzzle in the Sunday paper, and go out into the cold to come to church. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty, I’m telling you that you really do make a difference when you show up.

Link to Phil Lund’s complete post

Spring watch

A warm winter like the one we’ve been having can give the illusion that spring is just around the corner. Swelling red buds on the maple trees in the courtyard across from our apartment don’t indicate that spring is coming, they indicate that the winter has been warm.

Yet it’s about this time of year when you first start hearing bird songs, the first really reliable indicator of spring. A couple of Northern Cardinals have been wintering over in some evergreens on the road to Fort Phoenix. All winter long, when I walk past them I hear them giving their call note: chip, chip, chip. But today when we were walking home from Fort Phoenix, I heard their song for the first time this year: cheer, cheer, cheer.

The Frightened Rabbit

Part of a series of stories for liberal religious kids. This well-known story comes from the Jataka Tales, stories of the former lives of the Buddha. The title in the original Pali is Duddubha Jataka, and it is Jataka tale number 322.

While this story has appeared in many picture books, those who retell it never seem to include the framing story, which is interesting in its own right. For the purposes of religious education, the framing story can serve to teach children about the Buddha, and it also adds another layer to the interpretation of the story. It’s also interesting that the fruit tree that the little rabbit lives under is the same kind of fruit tree that Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, is said to have lived under — perhaps there is some implicit criticism of Hinduism in this story that could be explored with a religious education group. Thus, although this is a well-known story, I think my version is sufficiently different to be of some interest.

The Frightened Rabbit

Copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper

One day in the town of Savatthi, some of Buddha’s followers went out to beg for their food, as was their custom. These followers of Buddha were known as bhikkus.

Each day when the bhikkus went out to beg, they went to a different part of the town. On this particular morning, their path led them past some holy men. These holy men lay naked on beds of thorn-plants, in the hope that this would help them become more holy.

The bhikkus looked at these holy men, and kept walking. Then their path led them past more holy men. These men had built a large bonfire, and even though the day was hot and the sun was bright, they sat as close as they could to the broiling fire, in the hope that this would help them become more holy.

The bhikkus walked by these men, too, and continued on their way, stopping at each house and begging for food. When at last each of their begging bowls was filled with food, they returned to where they lived with Buddha and all the other bhikkus.

As they sat and ate, the bhikkus talked about the holy men that they had seen. They talked and they talked, and finally they decided to ask Buddha about these holy men.

“Buddha,” said one bhikku, “when we were out getting our food this morning, we walked past some holy men who were lying naked on cruel, sharp thorns.” She paused for a moment. “Will doing this make them any more holy?”

“And Buddha,” said another bhikku, “when we were out getting our food this morning, we walked past some holy men who were sitting next to a blazing fire, out under the blazing hot sun.” He paused for a moment. “Will do this make them any more holy?”

“No,” said Buddha. “Lying on thorns will not make you more holy. Baking yourself under the sun and next to a hot fire will not make you more holy. Such things are just like the horrible noise that was heard by the timid rabbit.”

The bhikkus looked at each other. One of them said, “Buddha, we have never heard about the timid rabbit and the noise he heard.”

“Well,” said Buddha, “it is a story that took place long, long ago, in the far distant past.” And then he told this story:


Once upon a time, there was a little rabbit who lived in a forest by the Western Ocean. This little rabbit went to live in a beautiful grove of trees. He made his home at the foot of a Bengal quince tree, the kind of tree under which the god Shiva was said to have lived. Next to the Bengal quince tree was a plam tree where the little rabbit liked to sit and nibble grass.

One fine day, the little rabbit sat under the palm tree nibbling grass and thinking about what would happen to him if the world got destroyed by Lord Shiva. At just that moment, a large, hard Bengal quince fell off the tree and hit the ground directly behind the little rabbit.

“The earth is being destroyed!” cried the little rabbit, and he immediately started running as fast as he could away from the sound.

Another rabbit saw him running with terror in his eyes, and said, “What’s going on?”

“The earth is being destroyed!” cried the little rabbit, and kept running.

The second rabbit ran after him, shouting, “The earth is being destroyed!” Soon, all the rabbits in the neighborhood were running with them.

When the other animals saw all the rabbits running, they asked, “What’s going on?”

The rabbits cried out, “The earth is being destroyed! Run for your lives!”

The other animals began to run, too: the wild pigs, the deer, the buffaloes, the rhinoceroses, the tigers, and even the elephants all began to run, shouting, “The earth is being destroyed!”

Now, in another part of the forest there lived a good and kind lion. She saw all the animals running, and heard them shouting, “The earth is being destroyed! Run for your lives!” The lion was wise enough to see that the earth was not being destroyed, and she could also see that the animals were so frightened that they would run right into the Western Ocean and drown. She ran as fast as she could and got in front of all the animals, and stopped them by roaring three times.

When the animals heard the good and kind lion roaring, they call came to a stop.

The lion said, “Why are you all running?”

The earth is being destroyed,” said all the animals together.

The lion said, “How do you know the earth is being destroyed?”

One of the animals said, “The elephants must have seen it.”

But the elephants hadn’t seen anything. “We think the tigers saw it,” they said.

But the tigers hadn’t seen anything. “We think the rhinoceroses know what happened,” they said.

But the rhinoceroses didn’t know anything. “We think it was the buffaloes who gave the alarm,” they said.

But the buffaloes hadn’t given the alarm. Nor did the deer know anything. The wild pigs said they started running when they saw the rabbits running. One by one, each of the rabbits said that they hadn’t seen anything, until at last the little rabbit said, “I was the one who saw the earth starting to break into pieces.”

The lion said, “Where were you when you saw this?”

“I was at home in the little grove of trees,” said the little rabbit, “next to my house at the foot of the Bengal quince tree. I was sitting under my favorite little palm tree nibbling grass, when I heard the earth start to break behind me. So I ran away.”

The lion knew then that the Bengal quinces were starting to ripen, and she knew that one of the fruits had fallen from the tree and hit the ground behind the little rabbit. But she said to all the animals, “Stay here for a while. I will take the little rabbit with me to this place, and we will see what is happening back there.”

The kind lion had the little rabbit jump up onto her broad back, and ran off to where the little rabbit thought he had heard the earth breaking up. When they got to the Bengal quince tree, the little rabbit pointed in terror and said, “There! There it is! That’s where the earth is breaking up!” And the little rabbit closed his eyes in fear.

But the lion said kindly, “Little rabbit, open your eyes and you will see that the earth is not breaking up. I can see just where you were crouching under the little palm tree nibbling on some grass, and right behind that a large fruit from the Bengal quince tree is lying on the ground. You heard was the sound of that piece of fruit hitting the ground behind you. It must have made a loud sound, and now wonder you got scared, but there really is nothing to fear.”

The good lion went back and told the other animals what she had found. The animals all sighed in relief, and everything returned to normal.


“So it is,” said the Buddha, “that you should not listen to rumors, and you should not listen to the fears of other people. You should try to find out the truth for yourselves.”

A bhikku said, “The lion was truly wise and compassionate. If it had not been for her, all the animals would have drowned.”

Another one of the bhikkus said, “Buddha, were you the lion in that story?”

“Yes,” said the Buddha. “I was the lion who stopped the animals from harming themselves for no reason at all.”

After that, the bhikkus no longer needed to ask questions about people who lay on thorns or sat next to a bonfire on a blazing hot day.

Beyond the progress narrative

Over at Left Coast Unitarian, James writes:

In general, I believe that Unitarian Universalism (though in particular I am thinking of pre-consolidation Unitarianism) constructed a post-christian identity based on Humanist Manifesto style supersessionism and the progress narrative. For a variety of reasons, the progress narrative does not really work any more. I don’t think anyone has really come up with anything else to fill the vacuum left in its wake.

That vacuum may be filling in some interesting ways. Carole Fontaine, a Unitarian Universalist scholar (professor of Hebrew Bible at Andover Newton), has pointed out that Unitarian Universalists are well-suited to negotiating between the two main camps of human rights organizations: those who do human rights out of divine law (theistic), and those who do human rights out of natural law (non-theistic). Her contention is that we already know how to have conversations across those boundaries. A summary of one of her lectures on the topic states:

Fontaine began by asking, “What will it take to form a global conscience for planet Earth?” Using both feminist analysis and deconstructionism, she looked at how the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an can influence understandings of human rights. Fontaine contends that Unitarian Universalism, with its traditions of religious tolerance and free inquiry, stands in a unique place to promote understanding between differing conceptions of human rights. Link

A wider application of the same principles (of relatively free inquiry, and relatively greater religious tolerance) could have Unitarian Universalism understanding one of its roles as facilitating conversations across various boundaries, in a postmodern world populated with many groups having quite different worldviews. This idea would place us as one more group among equals, thus avoiding the trap of thinking we’re the best of all religions.