Monthly Archives: December 2006

The light of the sun hanging low over the western side of New Bedford harbor practically blinded me; when I got closer to the water, it reflected up off the flat surface of the water, and I had to look down. Down at the asphalt pavement littered with broken shells left when the gulls dropped a quahog or a mussel to break it open and reveal the tender mollusc body inside. Broken shells and some bones, picked clean, probably bones of a small gull — that bone looked like a humerus, that one perhaps an ulna — and the tail end of a fish skeleton, left by returning sport fisherman, and picked clean by the gulls.

Out on the still surface of the water, sea ducks dove underwater to catch small fish. The fish in the harbor are filled with toxic waste, PCBs, which will accumulate in the fat of the ducks. The fish in the harbor are evolving to become tolerant of the toxic waste, although it took many generations of fish and lots of death to get there. The same will probably happen to the ducks.

A breeze riffled the surface of the harbor. I turned away from the sun. Three gulls flew away at my sudden movement. One immature gull, too stupid to know when to fly away, stayed, facing the sun behind my back. No haze to soften outlines or hide sharp edges: I could see each feather on its head.

The ducks aren’t bothered by the traffic on the highway. They see me and fly low across the water, their wingtips tapping its calm surface. On Pope’s Island, I can see every detail of a Lark Sparrow hiding in the bushes, even though I have forgotten my binoculars: the harlequin pattern of its head, the clear breast with a dark spot in the center.

Walking west, the sun blinds me and forces me to look away. Then it dips behind the city, the few last rays lighting up the top of the old New Bedford Hotel dimmed by clouds moving in from the west, and the sun sets for the last time on this year.

Liberal religion on the Web: year-end reflections

Unitarian Universalist blogs remain a tiny presence on the Web. According to UUpdater, a news aggregator which casts a pretty wide net, there are around 205 Unitarian Universalist blogs — 205 out of some 55 million total blogs. According to Technorati, a Web site that tracks and ranks blogs, the most popular Unitarian Universalist blog currently is undoubtedly Philocrites, which Technorati ranks at 24,382nd out of all blogs. Forget the top hundred — Unitarian Universalist blogs don’t even make the top twenty thousand. (We used to have one blog in the top twenty thousand, before Shawn Anthony, of Lo Fi Tribe, stomped angrily and suddenly out of Unitarian Universalism into mainstream Christianity this past fall.)

Beyond the narrow confines of Unitarian Universalist blogs, I suspect that liberal religion doesn’t fare much better on the Web. My service provider tells me that he hosts “hundreds” of Bible-thumping Christian sites, conservative Islamic sites, and other religious conservative Web sites. Mine is one of the only liberal religious sites he hosts.

Brian Maclaren, an evangelical Christian best known for his work on what’s called “Emergent Church,” has said that that mainline Protestants and religious liberals are theologically liberal and methodologically rigid. I feel that captures us pretty well. I am continually surprised at how many Unitarian Universalists dismiss the Web as, well, frivolous. I led a workshop on creating great content for church Web sites at our annual denominational meeting back in June, and quite a few of the participants spoke to me later about their frustration as they tried to convince their congregations to spend any time or energy (let alone money) on the church Web site. Yet it is becoming clear that as many as half of all newcomers find out about our churches through the Web.

Beyond simple marketing, I get the strong feeling that Unitarian Universalists, and religious liberals more generally, simply do not understand how a strong presence on the Web can serve us well. We are such a tiny presence in the national dialogue (let alone the world) that we simply must use all the means at our disposal to make sure our message is heard — and that it is heard clearly, accurately, and without distortion. Everyone knows what the conservative Christians believe about the Bible, about evolution, about same-sex marriage — but how many people know that there are other (religiously liberal) ways of looking at those same issues?

Since we don’t get our message out, we have people like Richard Dawkins trash-talking religion. Sure, he’s an idiot for equating all religion with conservative doctrinaire Christianity. But it’s not like we give him the opportunity to learn about Unitarian Universalism, or any other liberal religion. How is Dawkins going to find out about us?

One thing we can and should do immediately: take it upon ourselves to make sure that our congregation’s Web sites, and our personal liberal religious Web sites, are useable and easy to find. Get Steve Krug’s book on Web usability, Don’t Make Me Think, read it, and apply what’s in that book to your church’s Web site (I spent half a day applying some of Krug’s principles to my congregation’s Web site, and traffic quadrupled in a year). Read Google’s advice to Webmasters on how to optimize your Web site’s ranking on Google (I’ve been paying attention to this on my own site, so that now if you enter “Dan Harper” in Google, my site comes up in the top ten listings rather than buried two pages back).

A second thing we can all work on together: find, encourage, and support liberal religious writers who could present our message to a national audience. For that matter, find, encourage, and support filmmakers, singer-songwriters, and other artists who could do the same thing.

Let’s make a resolution for 2007: that we religious liberals will be, not just theologically liberal, but methodologically liberal too.

Looking back over 2006

Average number of unique visitors to 1,879/month
Total number of hits for 2006: 228,899
Number of unique visitors in December (up until 5:00 p.m. on the 30th): 2,520

The main page of “Yet Another Unitarian Universalist” got about 13,750 page views in December, 2006. In general, the blog gets about three quarters of the total page views for the whole site.

I don’t bother tracking how much traffic individual blog posts get (such figures tend to be misleading, since you have no way of knowing which posts someone reads when they just access the main page of the blog). Based on reactions from readers, I suspect that the nine-part series on Teaching kids how to be religious got far more traffic than anything else I wrote this year.

Looking back over the past year, what really stands out is hearing from readers of the blog. I look forward to your comments, your email messages, and the occasional in-person conversations — that’s what makes it interesting and worthwhile for me.

Thanks for your patience…

If you tried to visit this blog from December 28 through about 6:00 p.m. on December 29, you got a WordPress error message. (For the computer geeks out there, it was a problem in accessing the MySQL database, resolved by changing the wp-config.php file.)

Problem is now fixed. Sorry for the downtime.

Marriage equality in Mass.

This just in from the Religious Coalition for the Freedom To Marry:

SJC can’t force legislature to vote
Email Your Legislators Today
Come to the State House on Jan. 2

Good News. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that it cannot force the legislature to vote on the anti-gay amendment on Jan. 2nd. Troubling News. But legislators are feeling pressured. The Boston Globe today reported that Romney is threatening legislators into advancing the anti-gay amendment by holding up their pay raises, which are supposed to be automatic.

It’s crucial to email your legislators , urging them stop the ballot initiative amendment when they reconvene on January 2, the last day of the session, by adjourning the convention.

Please email your legislators today. We have only 5 days to the ConCon. Click here to quickly find the contact information for your legislator(s).

Rally for Equality
State House
Tuesday, January 2, 2007
7:30 AM – all day

Bring your banners and wear your equality stoles and/or vestments. Encourage your congregants and friends to join you.

Consider yourself hereby encouraged to join me on January 2 outside the State House!

Semantic Church?

Over the past couple of days, I’ve been reading up on the Semantic Web. First, I sought out a concise definition — here’s the definition according to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C):

The Semantic Web provides a common framework that allows data to be shared and reused across application, enterprise, and community boundaries. [Link]

Next, I asked myself: should I care about the Semantic Web? –or is it just another technology buzzword that I can ignore? Pretty quickly, I came to the conclusion that maybe I should care about the Semantic Web, because it may solve a problem I have.

The problem is one you may share: the volume of information available via Web Classic has become so large that search engines like Google are getting to the point where they are no longer adequate for my purposes. A few years ago, I experienced search engines as opening a door for me; now I often experience them as frustrating bottlenecks. As time goes by, I find myself relying more and more on other methods for finding links to good information: blogs, Wikipedia, tags, etc.

It looks like the Semantic Web may help address this problem I’m currently facing. One of the more interesting developments is the link between the Semantic Web and knowledge management. Knowledge management can use hi-tech tools like content management systems, online learning, wikis and blogs — but knowledge management also includes face-to-face interactions like mentoring relationships, formal training, and informal learning from peers. Considered from the point of view of knowledge management, the Semantic Web is just another tool to help manage knowledge (albeit a tool that is potentially very powerful).

I’ve also started thinking about how the Semantic Web might be useful in a church setting — what problems could the Semantic Web solve for a local congregation? One of the biggest problems in most local congregations is knowledge management, because local congregations tend to be fairly isolated from one another, and from the denominational bureaucracy. If you face a problem in your local congregation, all too often you’ll probably wind up solving it on your own, even though there are lots of other congregations out there who have gone through exactly the same problem — the knowledge of how to solve your problem is out there, but it is difficult for you to access that knowledge.

As a minister, a significant proportion of my work life is spent seeking out sources of knowledge. I’m the only person in my profession working in my small congregation; I don’t have the option of asking the person in the next cubicle for advice. Instead, I read books and blogs and magazines on churches, I go to workshops and take classes, I attend professional meetings, I talk to a church consultant twice a month, I have informal mentors, and so on — I find other ways to increase my stock of knowledge.

However, lay leaders have a more difficult time increasing their stock of knowledge. Most lay leaders work on a part-time, volunteer basis; many have full-time jobs and/or families that require their time and attention. Most of the lay leaders I work with do not have the time to go to workshops and classes, attend professional meetings, have a mentor, etc. They might have time to read a few articles (in either print or online publications), but that’s about it. This is why the Interconnections newsletter for lay leaders has been so wildly successful in my denomination — it has become the primary source of church knowledge within Unitarian Universalism, because the editor, Don Skinner, presents best practices and other institutional knowledge in a concise and easily accessible format.

Marc Fawzi, writing in the blog “Evolving Trends,” has been speculating on what he calls “Web 3.0”. Fawzi speculates that Google’s dominance of the Web will be broken by the development of peer-to-peer Semantic Web engines. In another post, Fawzi speculates that Wikipedia is actually best positioned right now to break Google’s dominance because Wikipedia has already begun to map out knowledge domains that could help structure a truly useful Semantic Web.*

Applying this to the church world, imagine if the “Interconnections” newsletter utilized even more peer-to-peer interaction? What if there were a wiki component to the “Interconnections” Web site, such that the knowledge that is currently presented could be further refined over time by succeeding generations of lay leaders? Of course, realistically I don’t think that’s going to happen — at least, not within Unitarian Universalism, a denomination that has been more concerned about presenting a carefully controlled image to the outer world, than sponsoring and supporting the infrastructure for peer-to-peer interactions.

What I’m hoping is that local congregations, and individuals within those congregations, figure out how to do knowledge management with or without denominational support. Working outside denominational bureaucracy would also give us the benefit of being able to interact with peers in other, related, denominations. In fact, constructing a good set of Semantic Web ontologies will only facilitate knowledge sharing across denominational lines.

In spite of the fact that some folks are calling the Semantic Web “Web 3.0,” I am reluctant to call this overall concept “Church 3.0” because a network of evangelical Christians is already using that term to refer to mission work in a postmodern, globalized world.

So maybe call it “Semantic Church” — a framework using Semantic Web standards to allow us to share data and knowledge across boundaries that currently keep us apart.

* Update (23:07 EST): Suddenly Wikipedia’s founder is talking about using a wiki platform as a kind of search engine [link to BoingBoing post], saying search engines are no longer working.

Christmas checklist:

  1. Eat a little too much — check.
  2. Call family and friends who live far away — check.
  3. Take a walk, to walk off some of the food I’ve eaten — check.
  4. Have something a little silly happen — check. (For the record: watching brother-in-law Jim play blues on a ukulele using a jelly jar as a slide.)
  5. Have the bayberry candle we lit last night burn down to the socket of the candlestick this morning, as dictated by the folk saying “A bayberry candle burned to the socket brings health to the house and money to the pocket” — check.
  6. Eat one last Christmas cookie before going to bed (and feel a little sick as a result) — oops, still have to do that.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Christmas Eve in New Bedford

At about 7:30 p.m., I’ll be preaching this homily here at First Unitarian in New Bedford. I’ve set this blog entry to appear at the same time — it’s not quite live streamed audio, but if you’re stuck at home you’ll be able to start reading this just about when the congregation in New Bedford starts hearing it.

As usual, this is a reading text, and no doubt I will ad lib and otherwise diverge from what is printed below. Please excuse any typos, as I don’t proofread reading texts of my sermons particularly well.

And merry Christmas to you and yours!

Christmas Eve Homily

I don’t know if you ever noticed, but there are two quite different stories about the birth of Jesus. On the one hand, the story in the book of Luke [Luke 2.1-21] tells us about how there was no room at the inn, and the manger, the shepherds, and the angels. The story in the book of Matthew [Matthew 1.18-21, Matthew 2.1-12], on the other hand, says nothing about a manger or a stable, and in fact calls the place where Jesus was born a “house.” But it’s Matthew who tells us about the magi, whatever “magi” might be. There are at least three other complete books that purport to tell the story of Jesus — the books of Mark, John, and Thomas — but Mark and Thomas start with Jesus as an adult, and John gives us a short and mysterious paragraph about word and God and light.

The fact of the matter is that we know precious little about the birth and early life of Jesus. It would be slightly easier for us if we said that the Bible is the literal and incontrovertible word of God: then we’d know for certain that there were angels who spoke to shepherds, and a long journey to Bethlehem, and magi from the East (whatever “magi” might be). Of course, if the Bible were the literal and incontrovertible word of God, we could ignore the contradictions and inconsistencies that occur between the different stories about birth and life of Jesus.

Since we do not take the Bible literally and incontrovertibly, at Christmas time we find ourselves in the realm of myth and enchantment; I would say, we find ourselves in the realm of poetry. A poem can be just as true as a mathematical equation, or just as true as a scientifically proven natural law; but it is true in a different way; not literally true, but true in its allusions and connections and resonances.

This year, I have been thinking about the magi, those mysterious visitors from the East. (By the way, nowhere does it say that there were only three of them.) Magi comes from the ancient Greek word “magoi,” which means astrologer or wise men. I wonder if they were actually all men, or if we just assume that they were? I wonder, if they were astrologers, did they try to predict the future life of the new baby they came to visit? –and how accurate were their predictions? I wonder where they came from in the East? –from Persia, from Baghdad, from India? I wonder what religion they followed –Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, paganism? I wonder, but there is simply no way to know for sure.

But the poetic truth of that moment when the magi finally arrive:– the star that they have been following stand directly over the house where the newborn baby lies, watched over by his mother and father — the poetry, for me, lies in this passage:

The magi “were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

We should all kneel down to pay homage when we see a new-born baby. Any baby is a miracle: a new life that has come into being, a new bit of humanity to be loved and cherished, and to offer love in return. Every time a baby is born, the human stock of love is increased by the love contained in that tiny body. What could be more miraculous? We can offer no other response than to be overwhelmed with joy.

And then the magi open up their treasure chests, and offer gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Why did they give those three things? They gave gold because the crown of the king of Israel was fashioned from gold; and frankincense and myrrh were used in the oils for anointing kings. These astrologers seem to be predicting that Jesus would be a new king of Israel. So there is a very specific, technical meaning for the gifts the magi brought.

As with any good poetry, we can find layers of meaning. For someone living in the land of Judea in the first century Roman Empire, gold and frankincense and myrrh might have very specific meanings relating to the longing for a king, a leader, to deliver the land of Israel from Roman oppression. For us today, living in a post-Christian, globalized world, those old meanings have only a faint resonance; but we can resonate with the deeper levels of meaning in the giving of gifts.

We can understand that the magi gave gifts to that baby, because that baby represented new life and love. We can understand that we give gifts today for the same deep reason. When you or I give a gift to someone else, we are first of all acknowledging that person’s essential humanity; and although we might not express it that way, we are also extending a little bit of love to that person.

If you exchange gifts tomorrow, I hope you will think of this poetic meaning of Christmas gift-giving. To give a gift to another person is a metaphor for extending a little bit of love to that person; and so symbolically, poetically, to exchange gifts is to add to the store of the world’s love. And it isn’t necessary to give an actual physical object, you know; you can give the gift of a kind word, or a hug, or a smile, and it does the same thing.

Let me put this another way. When Jesus grew up, he taught that the most important thing in the world is to love your neighbor as yourself. This is a truth that Jesus got from his Jewish heritage, and passed on to the wider world. This is the poetic truth that is embodied in the simple act of giving gifts: to love and value other people as you would be loved and valued by them.

“You’ve got to sit down”…

From the November, 2006, issue of Working Waterfront/ Inter-Island News, a publication based in Maine:

Vegetable fleet puts to sea

Here in mid-coast Maine, adventurous farmer-sailors grow Giant Atlantic Pumpkins, only to slice them in half, hollow them out, and put to sea in their veggie coracles. A recent pumpkin regatta in Damariscotta attracted scads of spectators.

Not your garden-variety pumpkins, these gargantuan squashes can tip the scales at a whopping 1,000 pounds or even more, but of course this is before they are converted to low-freeboard boats with decks and outboard motors….

Link to story and photos at the online version of Working Waterfront News.

You can learn more about how to grow, build, and sail your own pumpkin boat from a Bangor Daily News article:

“Commodore” Buzz Pinkham, owner of Pinkham’s Plantation Greenhouse and Landscape Center on Biscay Road, made his first pumpkin boat last fall…. “I was the first captain,” Pinkham recalled of his maiden voyage. “You definitely want to stay on center. You do not want to get out of line too much. We kind of went low-profile last year because we didn’t know if it would sink or tip upside down.”…

On Sunday [October 8, 2006], Tom Lishness of Windsor and Bill Clark of Bristol were hard at work crafting boats out of giant pumpkins. It’s a pretty simple job. First they cut and hollow out a 2-foot-by-2-foot “cabin” and then attach a plywood “deck” to the pumpkin with 8-inch bolts. On Monday the group plans to outfit their boats with 2 to 9 horsepower outboard motors. The only other additions are gas tanks and sand bags for ballast. Clark fashioned his boat from an 812-pound orange pumpkin. Lishness crafted “Moby Gourd” from a 712-pound white pumpkin.

“You’ve got to sit down,” Commodore Pinkham advised his sailors. “I don’t know if it’s really advisable to stand in it.”

Link to full article.

The Damariscotta event pales in comparison with established pumpkin regattas like the ones in Windsor, Nova Scotia [link], Nekoosa, Wisconsin, and Tualatin, Oregon [link], which can have dozens of competitors in several classes such as paddle-powered pumpkins, motor-pumpkins, and experimental craft.

I figured I’d tell you about this now so you can plan next year’s garden accordingly.