Monthly Archives: May 2006

Inman Square

The sun stayed out this afternoon in spite of dark puffy clouds moving by.

“You rarely see that any more,” said Carol.

She was looking across Cambridge Street. I knew what she was talking about from her tone of voice. Three young men, maybe in their late twenties, had just gotten out of a cab. The cab stopped in the middle of the traffic lane just as the light turned green. The last man out of the cab, a tall man with fuzzy blond hair, aviator-style sunglasses, tight jeans, and a funky leather jacket, did not rush.

“You don’t see men walking with such a swagger any more,” said Carol. “And look at his two friends. They’re nothing special, a little schlumpy.”

They were schlumpy, just ordinary guys with ball caps and t-shirts stretched over slightly rounded bellies. One of them lit a cigarette, but you didn’t even notice those two guys, because the guy with the swagger and the fancy leather coat drew your attention. They kept walking up a side street. We walked past a man and a woman explaining MassPirg to passersby, and went into a coffee house.

The coffee house appeared to be crowded. I grabbed a table while Carol got coffee. It wasn’t really crowded, though: there were lots of table with just one person sitting working at a laptop or writing or reading a newspaper. A man near us stood up to go. I waited to see if he’d leave his newspaper, but he picked it up and tucked it under his arm.

The tall thin barista whose blonde hair was dyed vermillion came down the aisle and cleaned off his table. She picked up trash from the other tables where people were still sitting: “Are you done with that?… I’ll take that if you want….” She squeezed her way through the tables back to the counter.

The young man at the table immediately to my right stood up. “Excuse me,” he said to the red-haired waitress, following her as she walked towards the counter. “Excuse me. Excuse me, you’re bleeding.”

She looked down at her hand. Blood was running along one finger. “Oh,” she said cheerfully, “You’re right, I am. Uh, thank you.” She walked behind the counter and showed her hand to a co-worker, a short quiet woman. “I’m bleeding,” she said, smiling.

The young man picked the key for the men’s room. The young woman who was with him stood up and walked over to the counter. “Excuse me, do you have something to clean off the table?” She had a pronounced accent, perhaps from Latin America. The short woman behind the counter looked at her inquisitively. “There’s blood on our table,” said the woman with the accent, smiling.

I watched the MassPirg woman through the front window of the coffeehouse. She peeled off the blue MassPirg t-shirt she wore over her hooded white shirt. She laughed and said something to the MassPirg man, and they walked off in separate directions — the end of the work day, I suppose.

Carol and I had finished our coffee. “Ready to go?” I said. She smiled and nodded. We went out, and walked down to Kendall Square in the warm May sunlight.

Mencius says…

I’ve been reading the ancient Chinese sage, Mencius, in a 1998 translation by David Hinton. I like Mencius because he begins with the axiom that human nature is essentially good; which fits into my Universalist theology. Somehow, as I was reading this morning, this passage struck me:

Emperor Hsuan of Ch’i asked [Mencius] about ministers [i.e., ministers in government service], and Mencius asked, “What kind of minister are you asking about?”

“Is there more than one kind?” asked the emperor.

“Yes,” replied Mencius. “There are ministers from royal families and there are ministers from common families.”

“May I ask about ministers from royal families?”

“If the sovereign is making grave mistakes, they admonish him. If they have to admonish him over and over, and he still refuses to listen — they replace him.”

The emperor blanched at this, so Mencius continued:

“Why so surprised? You asked, and I wouldn’t dare be less than honest and forthright with you.”

After he’d recovered his color, the emperor asked about ministers from common families, and Mencius said: “If the sovereign is making mistakes, they admonish him. If they have to admonish him over and over, and he still refueses to listen — they resign and leave his country behind.” [Wan Chang, Book Two, section 9; pp. 193-194]

That’s an interesting distinction that Mencius makes. It makes you ask yourself: which kind of the two types would I be?


In preparing for this Sunday’s sermon, I’ve been reading up on dominion theology. In a new book, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, Michelle Goldberg traces the theological roots of Christian nationalism back to dominion theology, and from thence back to Christian Reconstructionism.

Christian Reconstructionism, according to Goldberg, is a “theocratic sect… which advocates replacing American civil law with Old Testament biblical law.” This theocratic sect is based on a theological position that is, in essence, the darkest hue of American Calvinism:

Most Christian Reconstructionist theology — a very strict Calvinism that mandates the death penalty for a long list of moral crimes, including homosexuality and apostasy — has little appeal to outsiders and is controversial even among Christian conservatives. But dominionism, its political theory, has been hugely influential in the broader evangelical movement…. [p. 13]

In other words, dominionism grew out of Christian Reconstructionism. Goldberg later calls dominionism a theology, rather than a political theory, but she’s not contradicting herself: dominionism is a theology with definite political implications. Goldberg cites a book by Francis Schaeffer called A Christian Manifesto:

A Christian Manifesto, published in 1981, described modern history as a contest between the Christian worldview and the materialist one, saying, “These two world views stand in complete antithesis to each other in content and also in their natural results — including sociological and government results, and specifically including law.” [p. 38]

What does “dominion” mean? It’s a familiar Biblical word from the story of Genesis, where God tells Adam and Eve that they have “dominion” over everything else. But dominionist theology means something more than that, and Goldberg quotes from a book titled The Changing of the Guard: Biblical Principles for Political Action by Christian nationalist George Grant:

It is dominion we are after. World conquest. That’s what Christ has commissioned us to accomplish. We must win the world with the power of the Gospel…. Thus Christian politics has as its primary intent the conquest of the land — of men [sic], families, institutions, bureaucracies, courts, and governments for the Kingdom of Christ. [quoted in Goldberg, p. 41]

Two interesting points from my own religious liberal perspective:

First, theology can have political implications, and it’s foolish to pretend otherwise. Within religious liberalism, feminist theology certainly has had dramatic political implications; and my own religious community of Unitarian Universalism has an explicit commitment to democratic principles. Curiously, many Unitarian Universalists would say that their religion is merely a private matter. It’s time for us to get over that misconception.

Second, with its Calvinist overtones, dominionist theology represents a kind of theology that my religious tradition, Unitarian Universalism, knows how to tackle. After all, historically both Unitarianism and Universalism grew out of serious and effective theological critiques of American Calvinism. We thought the battle against that kind of Calvinism had been won; I think it’s time for us to face up to the fact that we’re going to have to fight that battle all over again.

This Sunday, I’ll be exchanging pulpits with Ellen Spero of the Chelmsford, Mass., Unitarian Universalist church. If you’re in New Bedford this weekend, come hear Ellen preach — she’s one of my favorite Unitarian Universalist preachers.


Sublimity consists, in part, of direct confrontation with unknowable mysteries of life and death. There are places in downtown New Bedford where you can stand at a window or in the open and look down on surrounding rooftops. The flat roof surfaces are always littered with shell fragments left by gulls, mostly Herring Gulls, dropping shellfish in order to break them open so they can eat the soft bits inside. The peaked roofs often show a coating of whitewash, gull guano, spreading down the peaks from where the gulls like to perch, facing into the sun. Midafternoon I was standing in a place where I could see down on half a dozen different rooftops. The sun broke through the clouds, and there was blue sky above, although the fog and low clouds wouldn’t let me see the mouth of the harbor, or even the steeples of Fairhaven across the harbor. With my binoculars I looked down on one Herring Gull, who was sitting on a pile of brown dead leaves and stalks, a pile which also included bits of green including a couple of dandelion leaves and bits of white trash or litter. It all looked too carefully piled up to be anything but a nest.

The Herring Gull casually stood up in the sun, stretched its wings out a little, and wandered off a few steps to where it was hidden from my view. The pile of leaves and litter had been hollowed out in the middle, and down inside I could see two olive-green eggs spotted with brown.

Since we moved here last August, I have been pretty sure that there’s a Herring Gull nesting colony on the rooftops of downtown New Bedford. With all the Herring Gulls in the neighborhood all year long this should not be surprising. A hundred years ago it would have been surprising; in Birds of Massachusetts, Richard Veit and Wayne Petersen write:

Before 1900, Herring Gulls were not known to breed south of eastern Maine. In the summer of 1912, the first nesting in Massachusetts was recorded by Allan Keniston on the south side of Edgartown Great Pond, Martha’s Vineyard, and, between 1919 and 1920, 20 pairs were found breeding on an ephemeral sandbar called Skiffs Island off the southern end of Chappaquidick Island. At the time, the prospects seemed so remote that Herring Gulls could ever establish themselves in Massachusetts in the face of the expanding human population that Forbush was prompted to state, “It is improbable that the Herring Gull can maintain itself anywhere on the coast of southern New England.” Defying Forbush’s prediction, the Herring gull underwent one of the most remarkable population expansions of any New England bird. The growth of the population between 1930 and 1970 was almost exponential until about 1965, when it leveled off. The slackening in the rate of increase may have been due to the refinement of garbage disposal, sewage treatment, and fish-processing practices because space for nesting sites does not seem to be a limiting factor. [p. 219; references removed for readability]

The fish processing plant off Route 6 on Fish Island regularly attracts Herring Gulls and other gulls, when the plant pumps blood and byproducts into the harbor; I’m sure they also frequent the other fish processing plants nearby. Gulls also sometimes flock after incoming fishing vessels, and they obviously eat shellfish that they find. Food sources may well be the limiting factor for the Herring Gull population in our neighborhood, since there are plenty of suitable rooftops on which to nest. As I stood watching this afternoon, I found only one other definite nest, and one possible nest, although I saw plenty of gulls in adult plumage who did not appear to be nesting. I stood looking down at those olive-green eggs for five or so minutes, and never saw the adult return to the nest.


Another period of heavy rain last night awakened me. The storm has been with us for three days now: low clouds so dark we’ve had to turn on the lights in the middle of the day; periods of heavy, even torrential rain followed by longer periods of no rain at all. Yesterday we saw the sun for a few minutes in the afternoon, but then the low clouds closed in again.

The weather service reports only five and a half inches total for this storm in New Bedford. It feels like we got more than that. It feels like it’s been raining for too long without a real break. But then I hear the reports of flooded streets and houses in Middlesex and Essex counties, where they’ve received twice as much rain as we have; at least it’s not that bad here. But it’s not the rain that’s wearing on me so much as the gloom.


It was my turn to buy the food for the youth group; each week we cook dinner together as a part of our meeting. This afternoon, the supermarket had fiddleheads on sale, so I bought some along with everything else.

Emma, the other advisor, said, “You always bring such interesting food when you buy.” Jarrod looked at the fiddleheads skeptically; they do look pretty weird, coiled up heads of ferns cut before they can grow into those tall fronds. Alyzza just chopped garlic.

“Interesting food?” I said.

“Yeah,” said Emma, “Like you brought in the parsnips a couple of months ago. I don’t think I’d ever eaten parsnips.”

I thought about it. I guess it’s true: most people in these United States don’t eat parsnips or fiddleheads. Why do I? “I guess it’s because Carol and I keep trying to eat locally grown food,” I said. “Parsnips are just about the only vegetable that you can dig all winter. And I really don’t like fiddleheads all that much, but they’re really the first green vegetable you can get in the spring that’s local.”

We sauteed the fiddleheads in olive oil with lots of garlic. “About a third of the population has mild allergic reaction to fiddleheads,” I announced as we dug in to the food.

“Great,” said Emma, who’s an R.N. “When I go into anaphylactic shock, you can drive me to the hospital.”

“Well, maybe it’s not a full-blown allergic reaction,” I said. “Sometimes I get kind of an itchy feeling inside my mouth. Besides, you’re a nurse — oh wait, guess you can’t do first aid on yourself if you’re in anaphylactic shock, can you?”

We all tried the fiddleheads. They weren’t very good. They never are.

“They taste kind of like asparagus,” said Alyzza.

“Kind of,” I said. They just taste like leaves to me.

Emma actually had seconds. We talked about it later: fiddleheads must have tasted pretty good when you hadn’t had any fresh green vegetables all winter long. I suppose now we are spoiled by having fresh produce shipped in from California at a great expenditure of jet fuel. Even so, I think the only reason I’d eat fiddleheads is because they remind me of spring; but not because they taste good.

Bloggers’ picnic

Today was the 2nd annual Boston area blogger’s picnic, held at the First Parish Church in Milton (Unitarian Universalist). In what appears to becoming a tradition, it rained and the picnic was held inside. Actually, it did more than rain. It poured. Traffic on Interstate 95 heading to Milton slowed to 40 miles an hour at times — this on a road where the average speed on a Saturday morning is 70+ miles an hour.

But I arrived at last, and when I walked in to the kitchen at the Milton church, dripping wet, there was Philocrites, big as life, tearing lettuce leaves off a head of Romaine lettuce. Unity arrived, with the new baby, the baby’s older borthers, and the baby’s mom. We all admired the baby, then wandered in to the dining room, where Free and Responsible Search and Rick were having a deep discussion about politics. So I chatted with Fausto, our gracious host, about the state of UU blogging.

Pretty soon the hamburgers were done (no vegetarians in this crowd, though I personally passed on the burgers because they weren’t organic or otherwise politically correct). At lunch, I sat next to Free and Responsible Search, with whom I’ll be working as one of the General Assembly Web site reporters. Peacebang regaled us with a stories of her “beauty tips for ministers” series on her blog. Recently, Peacebang said, she went into the Harvard Divinity School bookstore, got to talking to the young woman (a new seminarian) working behind the counter, who upon finding out that this was the one-and-only-Peacebang burst out with, “Oh no, here I’m talking to Peacebang, and I’m really not looking my best!”

Under the leadership of Philocrites, we made plans for General Assembly. Looks like bloggers will meet for dinner on Friday night, and Philocrites is planning another informal “meet the bloggers” session, both for existing bloggers and for anyone who wants to know what blogging is all about. Watch Philocrites’ blog for details.

As we were cleaning up, Peacebang looked out the window and said, “Wow, it’s stopped raining so hard.” “Don’t say that!” I said. Sure enough, the weather gods were listening in, and by the time Peacebang and I walked out the door it was pouring again.

Maybe next year the sun will shine…

(Not present at the picnic were Paul Wilczynski’s Observations, Radical Hapa, Debitage, and a few others. No excuses next year: be there.)

In the cemetery

From the base of the tower, the highest point in Mt. Auburn Cemetery, you can usually see Boston. But late this afternoon all you could see was low clouds and maybe a little fog in some of the hollows of Cambridge. It was a lousy day to go looking for warblers, but this was the only free day I had.

I walked around for half an hour and the only birds I could see well enough to identify were some American Robins. The light was bad, and mostly I just saw silhouettes. I could hear birds all around me though. Good birders can identify hundreds of birds by ear. Not me; all I know is a couple dozen of the more common ones. Mewing: Catbird. Konk-a-ree: Red-Winged Blackbird. Cheeriup, cheeriee: American Robin. A few others.

After an hour I had managed to see a few birds, but no warblers. The whole reason you go to Mt. Auburn Cemetery in the spring is to see warblers; it’s nationally famous for being a spring warbler trap. I was about to leave when I heard a lazy song that sounded something “zee zee zee zee zoo zee,” the “zee”s all on one note, and the “zoo” perhaps a major second lower. I had been camping up in Maine early one July, in a campsite in a pine grove, and I used to hear that lazy song every morning right at sunrise: “zee zee zee zee zoo zee” over and over again; or sometimes “zoo zoo zee zoo zee.” I had finally tracked the bird down: Black-throated Green Warblers who had been nesting right next to my campsite. Here they were in Cambridge, lazily calling from somewhere up in one of the trees.

“Zee zee zee zee zoo zee.” I tried to figure out where the bird was sitting. I walked around in a big circle, trying to triangulate. “Zee zee zee zoo zee.” There were at least two; one of them seemed to be moving further away. Once I thought I had the nearer one spotted; I brought my binoculars up; but then I heard it from the next tree over, lazily calling “zee zee zee zee zoo zee.” At last I gave up, and went back to the car. You don’t always have to see things to know they’re there.

For my mom, who was a birder; today would have been her 82nd birthday.

Spring watch

The drive from New Bedford up to Cambridge takes you through wooded swamps in the town of Freetown on the south coastal plain of Massachusetts. At this time of year the swamps are mostly gray: gray twigs, gray branches, gray tree trunks. Just now, as leaves are just starting to come out on some trees, you’ll also see colors that are almost autumnal in hue. The brilliant crimson of the last of the Red Maple flowers almost hides the gray branches in places. A nearby maple will appear dull orange from a distance, from the reddish hue of the tiny new leaves just bursting out from buds. The hanging blossoms on a birch tree are nearly yellow, with just a tinge of green. As you drive by on the highway, winter gray still dominates; the crimson, dull orange, and bright yellow hues will last for just a few days, a brief anticipation of autumn before the swamp trees turn brilliant green.