Monthly Archives: May 2007


This Sunday’s “sermon” will be the annual question-and-response sermon at First Unitarian in New Bedford — those who show up at the worship service will have the opportunity to write down a question on a religious topic, and I will answer as many questions as I can during the sermon time. The New Bedford congregation asks the best questions, and the questions last year gave me material for lots of sermons.

In any case, I racked my brains to day trying to come up with a good reading for this year’s question-and-response sermon. I still haven’t come up with a satisfactory reading, but I did come across this passage in Thoreau’s Walden that I like very much:

After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep, as what — how — when — where? But there was dawning Nature, in whom all creatures live, looking in at my broad windows with serene and satisfied face, and no question on her lips. I awoke to an answered question, to Nature and daylight. The snow lying deep on the earth dotted with young pines, and the very slope of the hill on which my house is placed, seemed to say, Forward! Nature puts no question and answers none which we mortals ask.

No questions needed. Just look outside your door….

The end of a search

As of this morning, when the successful candidate signed the contract, we concluded a successful search for a part-time Director of Religious Education. We had five high-quality people apply, all of whom were qualified, and all of whom had relevant gifts and/or experience.

How good were our applicants? All our applicants identified themselves as Unitarian Universalists, which was a big plus from our point of view. All our applicants had at least two years of college. Our applicants included an experienced Director of Religious Education looking for a new job, four people with experience as religious education volunteers in their own congregations, two people with one to two years of seminary training, one life-long Unitarian Universalist, and one person with a background in counseling.

I thought other small churches might be interested in hearing why I think a tiny church like ours got such a good pool of applicants for a half-time job.

First and foremost, we committed ourselves to paying at the salary guidelines recommended by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), and we also committed ourselves to coming up with enough money to make it a half-time position. In the past, when we advertised for a quarter-time or one-third-time position we got only one or two applicants. Increasing the position to half-time at a fair salary made a big difference in the number of applicants.

Second, two of our applicants mentioned that they checked out our church Web site before applying. Our Web site doesn’t pretend to be flashy, but I think it does accurately reflect who we are as a congregation. Although our Web site is aimed primarily at newcomers, I suspect it is equally useful for job applicants — which we will keep in mind during future revisions of the Web site.

Third, we advertised in the right places. We sent a full job posting out in our newsletter — two applicants saw it in the newsletter, and one applicant was given the job posting by someone who receives our newsletter. We also posted the job on the Web site of the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) — two of our applicants saw the job posting there.

Fourth, we stated that we were hoping for a three-year commitment. I believe applicants heard that and understood that meant that the church was going to be committed to them for at least three years — this was more than a one year trial commitment.

Finally, it helped that we are in Massachusetts, the state with more Unitarian Universalists than any other state. Only two of the five applications came from out of the state.

Of course, having these five excellent applicants created a problem for us — the search committee had to decide between them. It was not an easy decision for them. What a great problem to have.

Hymn resource

While I was working on creating hymn accompaniments for our summer worship services (when we won’t have a live musician for several Sundays), I discovered a very useful online resource. The Christian Classics Ethereal Hymnary has hundreds of classic, copyright-free hymn tunes in a variety of formats. Not all formats are available for all hymns, but the hymns I looked at generally had the following:

  • MIDI files with four-part harmony (which allows you to listen to the hymn)
  • a score in PDF format
  • a score in one or more of the common music-authoring formats (Noteworthy, Finale, etc.)

Some hymn tunes also had partial scores, and scores in more than one key. The one canon/round I looked at (Tallis’s Canon) also had MIDI files of the melody sung as a round.

(This could be a useful resource for worship leaders who don’t read music, but who want to know what a tune sounds like. All you have to do is find the name of the tune — in the hymnal I use, Singing the Living Tradition, the tune name is in small type at the lower right of the hymn — and play the MIDI file on your computer. The only downside is that the Christian Classics Ethereal Hymnary does not include newer, copyright-protected, hymn tunes. So forget tunes written after 1922.)

What I wanted from the hymnary were the MIDI files, to use as a starting point for making less mechanical hymn accompaniments. Straight out of the box, the MIDI files sound as tacky as they usually do. But you can easily modify a MIDI file to make it sound much better. I downloaded the MIDI file to my Mac and dragged it into GarageBand. From there, I altered the type of instrument (e.g., changing it from the crummy default electronic organ sound to a less offensive “cathedral” organ sound), and played with the note durations and note velocities where necessary to make it sound less mechanical. I also checked the harmony parts, and corrected them to correspond with what’s in our hymnal. Since I’m a perfectionist, I added about half a beat at the end of each verse so the congregation can take a big breath before going on to the next verse; and I altered the last verse so that the final notes are held for an extra measure or so. Of course I looped the hymn to wind up with the correct number of repetitions of the melody (whatever the number of verses, plus once through at the beginning).

The final result of an afternoon’s work is a CD with inoffensive accompaniments for eight hymns, plus Old Hundredth for the doxology. That will be enough to get us through the summer. And if I can free up another afternoon, I might just produce another eight hymn accompaniments.

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Around noontime, Carol went up to watch the Memorial Day parade here in New Bedford.

“How was it?” I asked when she got back.

“It was fine,” she said. “Some people walked down all the way from Buttonwood Park alongside the parade. You should have gone.”

“I suppose I should have,” I said.

She started eating watermelon. “I figured that as long as some kid from New Bedford died in Iraq, I should at least go to the Memorial Day parade,” she added. “Actually, I didn’t realize it, but four kids from New Bedford have died in the war.”

I felt a little guilty that I hadn’t gone. “Four from New Bedford?” I said.

“Yeah,” she said. “One of their fathers was there. He stood up next to the mayor. He didn’t speak, but it looked like he was maybe crying a little.”

I guess I really should have gone to the Memorial Day parade. Sadly, because this war shows no signs of ending, when I do go to the parade next year there will probably be some more New Bedford kids who have died in Iraq.

Post cards

Blogger “UU Enforcer” has started up a fascinating new blog. It turns out he has a large collection of old post cards and other vintage images depicting Unitarian and Universalist churches. He’s been scanning his collection little by little, and posting the scans to his new blog. Most of the images are from the first half of the 20th C., depicting churches from Florida to the midwest to New England. His most recent post has wonderful steroscopic views of the interiors of two Universalist churches in Lowell, Mass. Link.

Be warned — he posts high-resolution images directly to the blog, so if you have a dial-up Internet connection it could take an hour to download one blog page.

On the rooftops

The rooftops of downtown New Bedford host a Herring Gull nesting colony. Yesterday and today I went searching for gull nests. I climbed up onto the roof of First Unitarian church, roamed the top deck of the Elm St. parking garage, stuck my head out of one of the skylights in our apartment, and poked around into a small urban park, and the video has footage from all four places.

If you prefer to download a Quicktime movie, click here.

Yesterday while I was shooting video up on the parking garage, I wound up talking with one of the people who works at the parking garage. Last year, they had a dozen nests up there, and the Herring Gulls made something of a nuisance of themselves. This year, he’s up on the top deck every day, sweeping out nesting material before the gulls get a chance to get settled in. “Just call me an apex predator,” he said.

One final note to those of you who are birders — I’m pretty sure I saw nesting Great Black-Backed Gulls from the roof of the Elm St. Parking Garage, but they were far enough away that you’d need a scope to be sure. They were on a building just about due east from the parking garage.

30th anniversary

Thirty years ago today, the Science Fiction Club of Concord Carlisle Regional High School went on an afternoon field trip. Actually, it was just me and Mike Saler who went on the field trip, because the other two members of the club couldn’t make it that afternoon. Mike and I stood at the entrance to the high school grounds waiting for our ride to pick us up (but I can’t remember if our faculty advisor, Mr. Williams, gave us a ride, or if Mike’s mom did). We engaged in typical science-fiction-fan behavior — Mike found a basketball-sized rock, captured it, and tied a scrap of clothesline around it as a leash.

“His name is Spot,” said Mike, “and he’s coming with us.” Mike dragged Spot by his leash, until the clothesline broke. “He’s escaping!” cried Mike, and we both started laughing.

We got to the movie theatre in Boston and bought our tickets to the new science fiction movie, “Star Wars” by a young director named George Lucas. “His first film, THX-1138, was really good,” said Mike, who was already a member of NESFA (the New England Science Fiction Association), and a contributor to at least one science fiction fanzine. “They showed THX-1138 at the last Boskone.”

“This film is better,” said a guy standing near us. He said he had already seen “Star Wars” twice that day, and he was going back in to see it a third time. He was a little strange.

We got into the theatre just after the film had started. The scrolling text that told the background story had just about finished scrolling its way up the screen. We made our way into the dark and crowded theater. “Half these people are NESFA members,” Mike whispered.

We loved the movie. It was a real science fiction fan’s movie. At the beginning, as the characters make their way across the desert planet of Tatooine, they pass what looks like a huge dead worm. “Sandworm!” Mike and I whispered to each other, and we could hear other science fiction fans in the audience whispering the same thing. Lucas had obviously included it as an homage to the novel Dune. We loved the bar scene — “Better than Spider Robinson!” whispered Mike to me, and that was saying a lot, since Mike was a big fan of Spider Robinson’s bar stories.

But then the character Han Solo said, “Fast?! The Millennium Falcon can do three parsecs!” You could almost hear all the science fiction fans thinking for just an instant — “‘Three parsecs’… waitaminute, a parsec is a unit of distance, not velocity” — and then everyone hissed.

That was really the only sour note. Aside from that, it was the perfect movie for us science fiction fans, obviously made by a fellow science fiction fan. Even the ending, where you find out that the evil bad guy, Darth Vader, wasn’t really dead, was perfect. It harked back to the old Flash Gordon movie serials — they still showed old, scratched copies of the Flash Gordon serials at science fiction conventions — where there’s one last scene showing that the evil bad guy actually survived, so you know there will be another episode.

We made our way out of the movie theatre. Thinking of Flash Gordon, I asked Mike, “Do you think they’ll make another movie?”

“Nah, it’s too much of an insider film,” Mike said. “No one except science fiction fans will get all the jokes.”

I had to agree. This just wasn’t going to be a successful movie. As we were going out the door, they offered us buttons that said “May The Force Be With You!” Neither Mike nor I bothered to take one. After all, the movie was just going to disappear, only to reappear year after year at science fiction conventions, with more and more scratches appearing every year.

How very wrong we were. Within two years, I noticed that at the summer camp where I was a counselor, all the little kids were playing with Star Wars action figures. “Stah Wahs! Stah Wahs!” they’d say, in their diminutive Boston accents. I couldn’t figure out why little kids liked a movie that made so many references to science fiction books that they had never read.

I still don’t get it. “Star Wars” is not a particularly good movie, it’s just a fan-boy movie, and it should have faded into obscurity. Unfortunately it became wildly successful, which completely derailed George Lucas from what could have been a wonderfully creative career as a film writer and director.

In some alternate universe, “Star Wars” didn’t achieve undeserved success. It made enough money so that the movie studios were willing to give Lucas another shot, as long as he stayed away from science fiction in his next films. Instead, he goes back to his 1966 short film “Freheit” and picks up on the idea of freedom, goes back to his big hit “American Grafitti” and the characters of middle America, and makes a powerful film about a young white man in a midwestern town who finds his way to intellectual freedom through his friendship with a young black man. In that alternate universe, Lucas builds on that success to make an updated versions of “Hamlet,” and spends the rest of his career making a wide variety of films that continue his exploration of freedom and individuality and response to authoritarian power.

In that alternate universe, George Lucas is compared to Stanley Kubrick instead of to the anonymous makers of the Flash Gordon serials. I would prefer the George Lucas of that alternate universe to the the sterile and unintelligent George Lucas that has evolved in this universe.

No wonder Mike repudiated science fiction, and now leads a mundane life as a history professor who is occasionally interviewed on NPR and writes popular articles about John Le Carre’s spy thrillers. As for me, I have remained a science fiction fan, somewhat to my regret, and thus toil in obscurity as the 21st C. American version of a provincial English curate. And George Lucas is laughing all the way to the bank. Tanj.

Memorial Day meditation

While researching my Memorial Day sermon today, I happened across the following sermon excerpt by Dana Greeley, who was my Unitarian Universalist minister when I was in my teens in First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts. His pragmatic pacifism had at least some influence on me; I doubt I heard this particular sermon, but it sounds familiar nonetheless:

War is insanity in this day and age. It is total destructiveness; it is total immorality; it is total waste. The end of war should be our goal today. Negotiation should be our commitment. We ourselves ought to be both wiser and more ethical than our fathers, but we are not….

I covet for America not the fear of the nations but a stronger moral leadership, and not the hatred but the respect of humanity. You may disagree with me, of course; but I make a plea, as strongly as I can, both for the strengthening of the United Nations and for the abolition of war.

How can we broaden and deepen our own lives? How can we make ourselves more world-oriented, and make the life of our church and our community broader and deeper and more world-oriented? We are the citizens of America! We are America itself, and if we are giving and forgiving and magnanimous and resolute and peaceful, America will be giving and forgiving and magnanimous and resolute and peaceful.

If we can overcome anger and violence, America will overcome anger and violence. If we can believe and demonstrate that love is better than hate, America will do away with hatred and with arrogance and fear. If we can be persuaded that right makes might more than might makes right, then America will rely less on its… weapons, and even alter its policies. Do we believe in truth and goodwill and the oneness of humanity more than we believe in falsehood and retaliation and war?… [Forward through the Ages, p. 78.]

Greeley wrote this thirty-two years ago, five months after the United States finally pulled its last troops out of Vietnam. It sounds just a relevant today as it did back then, and could serve as a good meditation on this upcoming Memorial Day weekend — a good way to honor our dead, those who have died in military service, by meditating on how to end all wars.

Chronology corrected thanks to Scott.

Happy 300th birthday

Today is Carl Linnaeus’s 300th birthday. Linnaeus invented binomial nomenclature, those two-part Latin names biologists have for living organisms.

I celebrated Linnaeus’s birthday by going out for a walk.

Just down the street from our apartment, I noticed that several Alianthus altissima — an invasive exotic that can be difficult to eradicate — are springing up near the pedestrian bridge over Route 18, and I wondered if the city would remove them before they overwhelmed all the nearby plants. Then I realized that the nearby plants were Euonymus alatus, an equally pernicious invasive exotic.

On the Fairhaven side of the bridge, the tide was low. Standing on the mud flats I saw quite a few Larus delawarensis and Larus argentatus, and a Larus marinus standing there preening. Two Branta canadensis swam in amongst the gulls.

Happy birthday, Carl Linneaus. For even though using binomial nomenclature in ordinary conversation is a pain in the neck, we still admire your genius as a taxonomist.