Monthly Archives: January 2007

Plain words

This week, I’m taking one of my weeks of study leave. Most Unitarian Universalist ministers receive four weeks of study leave each year, during which time we are relieved of ordinary duties (although we remain on call for emergencies), and can read, take courses, engage in spiritual reflection, or otherwise study and take in new material.

The congregation here at First Unitarian seems to like responsive readings, but the worship committee and I have become bored with the unison and responsive readings in the back of the current Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition. Increasingly, I have found myself finding such readings elsewhere; so the members of the worship committee suggested I assemble a collection of such readings. That has become my central project for this week of study leave.

It’s an interesting project, because I’m trying to use material that’s in the public domain. Fortunately, some of the best English translations of various scriptures and writings from the world’s religions are now in the public domain. I have been collecting printed copies of some of these, and these days I can find many more on the Web.

Eventually, I’ll post my collection of responsive readings on my Web site. In the mean time, maybe you’ll like this reading, taken from the Taoist tradition, as much as I did:

Plain Words

By abandoning the appetites and restraining the passions, you may escape trouble and anxiety.

By keeping clear of calumny and beyond the reach of suspicion, you may avoid hindrance to your affairs.

By abhorring the wicked and expelling slanderers from your presence, you may put a stop to disorder.

By extensive study and eager questionings you may greatly enlarge your knowledge.

By a high course of conduct and a reserve in conversation, you may cultivate the person.

By providing against disaffection and knowing how to use your power, you will be able to unravel complications.

By firmness and stability of purpose, you will establish merit.

By impregnable virtue, you will be able to preserve yourself securely until death.

By consulting with the benevolent and making friends of the outspoken and blunt, you may receive support in seasons of adversity.

By doing to others as you would wish to be done by, and being sincere and honest in all your dealings, you may attract all people to become your friends.

From “The Su Shu: The Book of Plain Words,” in Taoist Texts: Ethical, Political, and Speculative, collected and trans. Frederic Henry Balfour (London, 1884).

It never hurts to make friends with the outspoken and blunt….


Back in June, I wrote a series about the time I served on the jury for a murder trial [link]. Five people acting together were accused of the murder; the defendant in the trial of which I was a part managed to get a separate trial. I often wondered what happened in the other trial.

John, over at LiveJournal, served on the jury for the other trial, and now he has written an account of his experiences in that trial. Link. (The link is to the final entry of his account of the trial; each entry has a link to the preceding entry; click all the links back to the first entry and then use the “Back” button on your browser to read the entries in chronological order.)

It was interesting for me to read John’s account of the trial. He remembers some details that I had forgotten, and his trial took a very different direction than ours — his jury wound up being sequestered, for example, and his jury managed to acquit one of the defendants. I wonder about the other people who were involved, and the stories they could tell — the two men who are still serving time for the murders, their families, the families of the men who were murdered, the defendant who was acquitted, the other jurors. I wonder if the judge and the lawyers and the police involved even remember the trials any more, or if those two trials have just blended in with their memories of a long succession of similar trials.

It was impossible to ignore the cold weather today. I couldn’t ignore the raw northwest wind. I couldn’t ignore the chill that worked its way through the heavy coat, the warm gloves, the long johns. I realized that I have been ignoring too much of the world, I have been focused too closely on abstract ideas: congregational administration, organizational dynamics, the link between economic and ecological solutions to global climate change. Some people are at their best with abstract problems. I can get lost in abstractions.

So I stopped thinking about the abstractions. I noticed that clouds were moving in. I noticed that the sun is setting later and the daylight is noticeably longer now. I noticed the flocks of starlings wheeling overhead and lighting on the cranes on Fish Island.

Furnace and vacation

Finally, the weather turned cold again. When I took a walk this afternoon, it wasn’t that cold — just below freezing — but the wind was blowing hard enough that I had to lean into it at times. I had to walk hard and fast to get warm. It felt good to take deep breaths of the cold, dry air.

Once the sun went down, the temperature started dropping quickly. I had to make a hospital visit, and on the way there I checked the heat in the church. The furnace was off again. I hit the reset button on the burner, and it roared back to life. I got back from the hospital, had a late dinner, and on a hunch went back up to the church to check the heat again — of course the furnace was off yet again.

So here I sit, waiting for the furnace repairman to show up. He is no happier than I to have to go out on such a cold night; what makes it worse is that he’s been here at least once a week since Christmas. Our architect tells us that the whole heating plant needs to be replaced; so our repairman fixes one thing, and something else breaks.

I’m taking a week of study leave, which begins next week — next week begins in approximately ten minutes. When I’m on study leave, I’m supposed to devote myself to study and continuing education, and I’m not supposed to go to the church at all. But I will still be here past midnight.

I still like cold weather, but I hate deferred maintenance.

New look, upgrade

I finished working on my sermon in the late afternoon. By then, the gloomy clouds had settled in and the rain had begun. It was too gloomy to go out, so I stayed home and finally got around to fixing a couple of things on this blog:– (1) I installed and debugged design changes I’ve been working on for a month now. The new layout should make it easier for you to find what you need on the sidebar; behind the scenes, I cleaned things up to make site maintenance easier for me. (2) I finally finished the upgrade that I botched earlier in the week. The design changes made everything go smoothly. But when I was done I discovered that I had not installed the most recent upgrade. So I still have an upgrade to do, but that’s enough for one day — further maintenance will have to wait until I have my patience back.

Grolier Book Shop

Yesterday, I had to go up to Cambridge for a meeting. While I was up there, I stopped in at a couple of bookstores in Harvard Square, and on a whim I walked over to see if Grolier Poetry Book Shop was still open.

Grolier Poetry Book Shop is one of the last holdovers from a different era. Twenty years ago, there were more than fifty small independent bookstores in and around Harvard Square. Many of those were specialty bookstores, like Mandrake Books that sold only philosophy and fine arts books, or the store on Arrow Street that sold only Asian books, or Grolier that sold only poetry books.

Grolier was special even in those days — it was perhaps the only bookstores in the whole country that sold nothing but poetry. The only other poetry bookstore I knew of was City Lights in San Francisco, but City Lights sold non-poetry books, and most of its poetry had some relation to the Beats. Grolier carried all kinds of poetry. Everyone who cared about poetry went there: people would travel great distances to go to Grolier; walk in there on any given day, and you would be likely to run into a published poet, or at least a young struggling poet.

The last time I was in Grolier was a year ago. Louisa, the former owner, had not been well for quite some time. Store hours had grown irregular, so when I walked by last spring and saw she was open, I went in. Louisa looked ill, the shelves were half-empty, and for the first time ever I walked out of the store without finding at least one book of poetry to buy.

So yesterday, I walked by on a whim; more out of habit than anything else. Miracle of miracles, Grolier was open. Not only that, but the shelves were full again. I climbed up the familiar steep stone steps and walked in.

“Where should I leave my pack?” I asked out of reflex (Louisa vigorously enforced the rule that all bags and packs should be left behind the counter).

“Over there, if you want to,” said the pleasant, relaxed man at the counter, someone whom I had never seen before.

We wound up talking at some length. Daniel is the new general manager of the store; he’s managing it for the owner; sales have been pretty good so far; he’s a professional musician, a trumpeter, who’s taking a break from performing. We both agreed on several things: the level of music education in the general population is declining; we wish Barney Frank was one of our senators rather than in the House of Representatives; Philadelphia is a wonderful city; the war in Iraq is absolutely insane.

Daniel apologized that he did not have the bilingual edition of Portuguese poetry that I was looking for, tacitly acknowledged that in the old days Grolier probably would have had it, and said that it was taking time to build up the stock to the old levels. I managed to find the other books I was looking for, and a few others I wasn’t looking for: Countee Cullen’s collection of African American poetry, a collection of poems by contemporary Chinese poets, the collected poems of Maya Angelou, Given by Wendell Berry, and Audre Lourde’s The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance.

What a relief: Once again, I’ll be able to make regular trips to Grolier to get my poetry fix. Once again, a cultural landmark is open for business.

Grolier Poetry Book Shop: Daniel Wuenschel, General Manager. 6 Plympton Street, near Harvard Square, Cambridge (off Mass. Ave. behind the Harvard Book Store). Phone: 617-547-4648, email: grolierpoetry AT verizon DOT net.

Grolier’s hours:
Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 am to 7 pm;
Thursday – Saturday, 11 am to 6 pm,
closed Sunday and Monday.

What makes a good religious blog?

Recently, I’ve been thinking about writing some critical reviews of other religious blogs. But what makes for a good religious blog? Below, I’ve listed some of the criteria I use for judging religious blogs (of course, no one blog will meet all these criteria).

I’d love to know what criteria you use to judge the quality of religious blogs, or of blogs in general — leave your criteria in the comments.

  1. Good writing
    • Well-crafted prose or verse
    • Distinctive voice
    • Aimed at a recognizable audience
    • Worthy subject matter [added per Jess’s suggestion in comments]
  2. Good blogging practices
    • Posts that appear with some regularity (daily, three times a week, weekly; but at least weekly)
    • Comments enabled and responded to; nasty comments and comment spam removed in a timely fashion
    • Posts corrected and/or updated as needed
    • Adherence to some style book, including consistent style for hyperlinks
    • Social networking in the form of some connection to other blogs
  3. Significant content about the faith tradition, including for example (examples are for my faith tradition):
    • Exploration of the distinctively Unitarian and Universalist theological traditions, and/or
    • Exploration of the Unitarian and Universalist historical traditions, and/or
    • A willingness to engage in defining boundaries of the tradition, and/or
    • Serious, frank, thoughtful discussion of contemporary issues facing Unitarian Universalism
  4. A focus on lived religion, including for example:
    • Reflections on what it means to live life as a Unitarian Universalist (or insert other religious tradition), and/or
    • Connecting events from everyday life with spiritual or religious concerns (at least sometimes), and/or
    • Discussions of politics and social action, if discussed from a religious perspective, and with a clear distinction made between, e.g., liberal religion and liberal politics
  5. An openness to those from other faith traditions
    • A majority of the writing is not aimed at “insiders”
    • All acronyms explained in every post; technical language explained frequently
    • Significant religious content or discussion that is not specific to the faith tradition

I’m not qualified

The annual Unitarian Universalist blog awards process has begun again. I do not plan to nominate or vote. There are something like 200 Unitarian Universalist blogs, but I can only seem to keep up with two or three them on a regular basis. So I don’t feel qualified to say which is the year’s best blog, or which is the year’s best blog entry.

Sometimes I feel guilty that I don’t read lots of Unitarian Universalist blogs. But I like to read blogs written from other religious perspectives, like the blog entries aggregated at The Daily Scribe, with authors who write from Jewish, pagan, progressive Christian, Emergent Christian, humanist, and Buddhist perspectives. That kind of thing broadens my mind, and my mind could use some broadening.

And I am just as likely to read non-religious blogs: my two sisters’ blogs (Jean, Abby); the Horn Books Magazine blog Read Roger; and maybe Boing Boing and Bad Astronomy. Then there are the many newspapers, magazines, books, and the reading matter I get from Carol. Sitting on the dining room table waiting for me right now are: The Small-Mart Revolution (from Carol), The Shorebird Guide, rattapallax 13, Asimov’s science fiction magazine, The Post-Corporate World (also from Carol), Boswell’s Life of Johnson, a book on religions of the African diaspora, and Harvard Business Review.

Not that I’ll get around to reading everything on that list. But I never wanted to be a specialist, and I can only do so much specialized reading. The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said, “Those who love wisdom must be inquirers into very many things indeed.” Not that I’d count myself wise, but I’m certainly not qualified to judge Unitarian Universalist blogs.

Update: An attempt at defining a set of criteria for what constitutes a “good religious blog” here.

Upgrade problems (all my fault)

WordPress came out with a security upgrade a couple of days ago. This afternoon, I sat down to install the upgrade. I tried to get fancy. I lost some data. (Thank goodness for back-up files.) But I had to head off to a meeting this evening, didn’t finish cleaning up the mess, so things might still be a little screwy in odd corners.

Today’s problem is what’s known as a PICNIC — Problem In Chair, Not In Computer. It’s not a WordPress problem; it’s a Dan problem. To be fair to myself, much of the fun I get out of keeping this blog is experimenting with new Web tools like CSS and PHP. Thank you, dear reader, for putting up with my experiments. And I will finish cleaning up the mess tomorrow — well, maybe over the weekend — anyway, it’ll get done Real Soon Now.