Monthly Archives: April 2008

Rapt in a Revery

This story is part of a work-in-progress, a book of stories for liberal religious kids. The sources for this story are Walden by Henry David Thoreau, and The Days of Henry Thoreau by Walter Harding. I wrote this story for use in worship services, but I have also used it in Sunday school classes (slightly modified) to introduce a unit on meditation.

Rapt in a Revery

I thought you might want to know what a spiritual practice is, so maybe you can talk about it after Sunday school with your parents. A spiritual practice is something you do regularly that helps you get in touch with something larger than yourself. For example, some people sit and meditate for a spiritual practice. Some people do yoga for a spiritual practice. Some people pray for their spiritual practice.

Well, I don’t pray, and I don’t do yoga, and I don’t sit and meditate. I do a different kind of spiritual practice, a spiritual practice that many Unitarian Universalists do. But first I have to tell you a little story….

Way back in 1845, a man named Henry David Thoreau was living with his mother and father and his sisters in a big house in Concord, Massachusetts. Henry worked for his father in the family’s pencil-making business. Henry’s family all went to the Unitarian church in town. Henry himself preferred the Universalist minister to the Unitarian church, but Henry basically stopped going to church once he grew up. Then one day Henry decided that he needed some time to himself, to get in touch with something bigger than himself. I would say it this way: Henry wanted some time to do intensive spiritual practice.

He went to his friend Waldo Emerson, and asked Waldo if he could build a little cabin out in the woods, on some land Waldo owned that was right next to a pond named Walden pond. Waldo said, Of course! So Henry spent a few months building a cabin for himself, and then he went off to live in the woods. His cabin was only a mile or so from his family’s house, and he still went home regularly to eat dinner and spend time with his family. But mostly, Henry lived out in the woods alone, and worked on his spiritual practice.

Henry’s spiritual practice was to spend time in Nature. One of his best ways of spending time in Nature was to sit quietly outdoors, doing nothing, just watching the natural world. Here’s how he describes it:

“Sometimes, in a summer morning, … I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant roadway, I was reminded of the lapse of time.”

I can see the whole thing in my imagination: a warm sunny day, Henry sitting on the front step of his cabin, looking out over Walden Pond, “rapt in a revery” — and when Henry says, “rapt in a revery,” he means that he is just sitting quietly, not really thinking of anything in particular — he is simply sitting and watching and listening to the world of nature around him, lost in wonder at the beauty of the natural world.

Sometime you should try doing this yourself. On a nice day, find yourself a comfortable place to sit outdoors — maybe leaning back against a tree. Pick a place where you can see and hear the natural world — it could be in your back yard, if you have a back yard — pick a place with trees and grass and birds and sky and clouds. You just sit there — you don’t have to do anything — you don’t have to think about anything — and see if you can lose yourself in sitting, watching, and listening to the natural world. See if you can lose yourself in something larger than yourself.

Henry Thoreau could sit like that all day, but he had had lots of practice. You try it for ten minutes or so at first. Maybe you’ll find you like it — sitting like Henry Thoreau lost in wonder of the natural world. Maybe that will be your spiritual practice — a real genuine Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice.

Mr. Crankypants stimulates the economy

Last month, Mr. Crankypants received a notice from the Department of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service. It began:

“We are pleased to inform you that the United States Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008, which provides for economic stimulus payments to be made to over 130 million American households. Under this new law, you may be entitled to a payment of up to $600 ($1,200 if filing a joint return), plus additional amounts for each qualifying child.”

What a great idea this is! When our economic stimulus checks arrive, Congress and the President know that we will all go out and spend all that money on consumer goods, thus stimulating the economy right out of the recession into which we are currently descending. Now, probably Mr. Crankypants should spend his economic stimulus check as follows:

  • $278 to pay off the doctor’s visit for bronchitis back in March. (Mr. Crankypants can only afford a crummy HMO-with-deductible these days, which means every doctor’s office results in a big bill in addition to the already insanely high monthly health insurance premiums.)
  • $100 put aside as a gasoline emergency fund. (With gas prices climbing up towards $4.00 a gallon, and no end in sight, it seems like good idea to have a little reserve fund on hand in case things get really tight.)
  • The remainder put into retirement savings. (What with rising food prices and rising natural gas prices over the past few months, it has been impossible to put as much money into retirement savings as usual.)

But Mr. Crankypants knows that none of these expenditures will help stimulate the economy out of the recession. Consumer goods! That’s what we’re supposed to buy! Our economy runs on consumerism! Being a true-blue patriotic American, here’s what Mr. C. will purchase to stimulate the economy:

  • One month trip to California, to clear out the last of the bronchitis.
  • Brand-new hybrid car that gets 50 mpg, to beat those high gas prices.
  • Vacation home on Nantucket Island, to provide retirement security.

With all these great consumer purchases, Mr. C.’s economic stimulus purchases will total more than $600. Surely Congress and the President understand that they are dealing with a true patriot, and so will fund the balance of these purchases. Why, if every American spent as much money as Mr. Crankypants, the recession would be over! Hooray for Mr. Crankypants!

Patriot’s Day and Universalism

By April 20, 1775, His Majesty’s regular troops had retreated from the towns west of Boston by the colonial militia companies. Nonetheless, more colonial militia companies continued to pour into the Concord and Lexington area for some days; when they arrived in Concord and Lexington they learned that the Redcoats had gone to Boston, and many of them continued on and participated in the engagements that culminated in the battle of Bunker Hill. One such company came all the way from the newly settled Massachusetts town of Warwick, and Caleb Rich was one of their number. Supposedly, Rich actually stood on Lexington Green a little more than 24 hours after the skirmish there.

Rich was one of the early Universalist preachers in North America. Beginning in 1772, Rich had experienced a number of visions and dramatic insights that were leading him towards a universalist theological position. In 1773, he was expelled from the Warwick Baptist Church as a heretic, and, with his two brothers and some others, formed a new religious society. This new religious society became an early Universalist church by about 1778; so while Rich wasn’t exactly a Universalist in 1775, he was only three years away from being one. Rich was later instrumental in converting Hosea Ballou, the greatest American Universalist theologian, to Universalism.

Thus, a proto-Universalist preacher missed participating in the Battle of Concord and Lexington by one day.

April 19

Patriot’s Day, the Massachusetts holiday that commemorates the April 19, 1775, Battle of Concord and Lexington, is a big deal in Concord, Massachusetts. I was born in Concord, and lived there for forty years, and Patriot’s Day is still a big deal to me. Patriot’s Day is now celebrated on the Monday following the real day, but no matter. When I was a kid, the parade and the re-enactment of the battle took place on April 19. It really was a big deal: cannon and muskets firing, guys walking around in funny clothes, and us kids running around trying to find the best place to see the Redcoats.

So in commemoration of my favorite holiday of the whole year, here’s Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1837 poem, often called the Concord Hymn, about the events of April 19 (with my commentary in italics after each stanza):

(Sung to Old 100th.)

  By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
  Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled;
  Here once the embattled farmers stood;
  And fired the shot heard round the world.

According to the Dolittle prints of 1775, the bridge came up a little in the middle but it’s a stretch to say it arched. The flag carried by the Minutemen and militia-men was the Bedford flag, not the stars and stripes. Not all the militia were farmers, though most were; rather than embattled, they were really the attackers in this skirmish. And the good folks of Lexington would argue that one of their shots, fired several hours earlier in the first skirmish of the day-long battle, was the shot heard ’round the world.

  The foe long since in silence slept;
  Alike the conqueror silent sleeps,
  And Time the ruined bridge has swept
  Down the dark stream that seaward creeps.

A number of His Majesty’s troops died at the site of the bridge, and today the approximate location of their graves is marked. The bridge washed out in a spring flood a few years after the battle. The Concord River is indeed dark from tannin.

  On this green bank, by this soft stream,
  We set to-day a votive stone,
  That memory may their deeds redeem,
  When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

The monument of 1837 was set up on the side of the bridge defended by His Majesty’s troops. Not until 1875 was a monument put up on the side of the river commanded by the colonials — the famous Minuteman statue, by Unitarian sculptor and Concord native Daniel Chester French.

  O Thou who made those heroes dare
  To die, and leave their children free, —
  Bid Time and Nature gently spare
  The shaft we raised to them and Thee.

No comment needed, only shed a tear for those who died on both sides of the conflict.

Spring watch

Carol is friends with Eva, and Eva is a farmer who grows organic greens primarily for the restaurant trade. Carol and Eva have a deal: Carol goes now and then to pull weeds for Eva, for it is hard to find weeders, and in return Eva gives greens and other produce to Carol.

Today Carol went to Eva’s place and picked some greens in the green house: baby spinach, arugula, various kinds of lettuce, miner’s lettuce, and some other things that we couldn’t identify. These are the first locally-grown greens I’ve eaten all winter. The flavor was stunning.

All the “fresh” food they ship from California (or even farther away) is a couple of weeks old by the time it reaches the supermarket, and has lost most of its flavor and goodness. As for frozen and canned food, about all you can say is that it’s edible, and at this time of year it’s often better than the so-called “fresh” produce. And this is what we have to eat for most of the winter: it keeps you alive, but it doesn’t taste like much.

A month ago, I did manage to get some wintered-over parsnips which had been grown nearby, and they were very good indeed. But I had forgotten just how good fresh greens can be.


Yup, you can now get a pen made out of the invasive strain of Phragmites or Common Reed, a plant which is choking out wetlands in North America. The Phragwrites pen has a body made from Phragmites reed legally harvested in New Hampshire (legally harvested means a permit was obtained, and seeds or roots were not dispersed to infest new areas). But… we’ll have to buy lots of pens to make a real dent on the Phragmites population. Via.

William Howard Taft Attack Ad

In the 1908 U.S. presidential election, William Howard Taft was attacked for his Unitarianism. He refused to respond to the attacks, and won the election. But imagine if his opponents had had TV attack ads in their arsenal….

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A note about the historical facts behind this attack ad….

The [1908 presidential] campaign was notable for the vicious attacks on Taft’s Unitarianism, particularly in the Midwest. Evangelical Protestants, in a flood of letters and newspaper articles, accused him of being an infidel, a Catholic, etc. His religion was no secret. He attended All Souls Church faithfully. Roosevelt and others responded sharply to the attacks. Following his own instincts, as well as the advice of the President, Elihu Root, and other Republican leaders, he said nothing himself in response. Bryan did not attack Taft personally, but he would not criticize those who did, thereby implying that he agreed with them. (Link.)

Any resemblance between the content of this attack ad, and attacks on the religious liberal running in the 2008 U. S. presidential primaries, is entirely intentional. 1:27.