Monthly Archives: December 2009

New Year’s resolutions

Mr. Crankypants is watching as people write about their resolutions for the new year on their blogs, and on Facebook. Mr. Crankypants says: Hah! half these resolutions will be forgotten within a month, and another third will be forgotten by next Wednesday. And the remaining sixth? — forgotten by tomorrow morning.

Despite that law of nature, Mr. C. will make his own resolution: he resolves to be even crankier in the new year. Especially when it comes to liberal religion and California state politics.

Wait, what was that new year’s resolution? Can’t remember now. Getting crankier and crankier because can’t remember. #@$%!

Not teaching, but still doing religious education

One in a series of entries in my teaching diary. First 2009 entry.

Sunday 27 December 2009

There was no Sunday school today, so I got to go to church to hear the sermon. I arrived a little bit late, and sat down just before the opening words. I could see Marco and Natalie sitting on the other side of the Main Hall with their godmother; I tried to catch Marco’s eye, but I don’t think he noticed me. Roger Jones, the visiting preacher, gave an excellent sermon — I was glad our church brought in a really good guest preacher on this low-attendance Sunday. Marco and Natalie stayed in for the whole worship service, and Roger’s sermon was good enough that I suspect Marco (and maybe Natalie) could pick up something from it; at the very least, the children got to hear the speech rhythms of a good preacher, rhythms which can be hypnotic and entrancing in their own right. I wanted to try to talk to Marco and Natalie after the service to see what they thought about it, but unfortunately I had to leave immediately; but I will make a point of asking them about it the next time I see them.

Later in the afternoon, I took a break and went over to the Baylands Nature Preserve, to go for a walk, and to do some birding. There were hundreds of wintering ducks in the marshlands, and I was standing on one of the dikes looking through my binoculars at a pair of Gadwall when I heard a familiar voice saying, “I don’t know if Dan wants to be disturbed.” It was Lucy, standing there talking to her daughter Dorit, who is in my Sunday school class.

I said hello to both of them. Lucy said she didn’t want to bother me, but I told her (truthfully) that I was pleased to see them both. Dorit is now six and three-quarters. I began talking to her about birds, and quickly figured out that she was interested in birds, and had some basic knowledge of how to tell different kinds of birds apart. “Would you like to look through my binoculars?” I said. Dorit nodded, and we went over to a nearby bench so I could sit next to her (when you’re six foot five, you either have to kneel down or sit beside a child when you’re going to let them use your binoculars, and it was too damp for me to want to kneel). The three of us sat on a bench looking out at tidal flats with American Avocets, various kinds of ducks, and lots of shorebirds. I asked Dorit if she knew how to use binoculars, and she did — she held them up, managed to hold them steady, and used the focusing knob. They were kind of heavy for her, though, and not much fun to use. So we just sat there looking at the birds without binoculars. It was a little chilly, and after we talked for about five minutes, Lucy and Dorit went off one way, and I went off the other way.

Strictly speaking, birds have nothing to do with religious education. But I remember that I liked it when the adults in my childhood church shared their interests and passions with me — it was nice to be treated by adults as a person instead of a child. So talking to Dorit about birding may have nothing to do with religion, but it has everything to do with being human; which I suppose is just another way of saying that it has everything to do with religion.

2009 in review: The year in Unitarian Universalist blogs

Here are four things Unitarian Universalist (UU) blogosphere this past year

1. The slow disappearance of Philocrites Philocrites, once the most influential UU blog, has practically ceased publication. At the beginning of the year, Chris Walton, the author of Philocrites, was posting about once a week, but he has not posted anything since 17 July 2009. Chris is still the editor of UU World (both the print magazine and the related Web site), and I’m glad he’s doing that. But I miss the personal voice of his blog, along with his superb reportorial and intellectual skills. We’re still waiting for another blog to fill that authoritative role Philocrites once had in the UU blogosphere.

2. Peacebang moves to Facebook Peacebang, another prominent UU blogger who prefers to remain anonymous, announced on 3 December 2009 that henceforth she would be ”  ‘mini-blogging’ on FaceBook.” If you have a Facebook account, you can “become a fan” of her page. (Her non-UU blog, Beauty Tips for Ministers, remains publicly accessible on the Web.) Among UU bloggers, Peacebang was one of the best writers, and I miss having her unique voice publicly accessible to anyone, even people without a Facebook account.

3. Rate of growth slowing in UU blogosphere? UUpdater, the administrator of the UU blog aggregator site UUpdates [pron. “oop-dates”] is now reporting 414 UU blogs. A year ago, UUpdates had something like something like 350 UU blogs. In February of 2005, when I started this blog, there were a little over 40 UU blogs, and the growth curve was very steep for about 3 years thereafter — but now it appears to be leveling off. Are the various social media sites drawing writers away from blogging? Or have we simply found all the Unitarian Universalists who want to blog about liberal religion?

4. Kudos to prolific and long-term bloggers I continue to be astounded by two long-term, prolific UU bloggers. Rev. Scott Wells has been blogging at Boy in the Bands since May, 2003 — and not only does he post at least once a day (sometimes more often), he’s literate, knowledgeable, and fun to read. Chalicechick has been blogging for exactly five years tomorrow, but before that was acknowledged as the doyenne of the UU forum at Beliefnet — she doesn’t post on her blog as often as does Scott, but she has an active Twitter feed, and both blog and Twitter dispense her trademark mix of snark, heart, and good writing.

Though he’s not a blogger per se, I continue to be astounded by the work of UUpdater, mentioned above. His blog aggregator gets an enormous amount of traffic, and I hate to think what he pays for Web hosting. Yet year after year, UUpdater writes code, deals with maintenance issues, and delivers a feed of UU blogs that I absolutely depend on — all out of the goodness of his heart. He gets too little credit for his work — so send him email telling him how much you love what he does.

5. Help from a professional As I said last year, I feel the Unitarian Universalist blogosphere is simply too big for one person to comprehend any more. This is a good thing — the more we talk about our liberal religion, the better I like it. But that means it’s impossible for me to keep up with all these UU bloggers any more. Thank goodness for the bloggers at The Interdependent Web blog, part of the Web site — they must read an enormous number of UU blogs each week, finds the best posts, and then they summarize and link to them. I’m glad the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has paid staffers Chris Walton, Kenneth Sutton, and Shelby Meyerhof working The Interdependent Web — another reason to make sure your congregation pays its fair share to the UUA.

2009 in review: Trends and possibilities I’ll be watching in 2010

As the new year approaches, here are some trends and possibilities that I think may have an effect on liberal religious organizations:

  • Obviously, I’ll be watching the 2010 national census carefully. We won’t be getting real results from the census for a while; nevertheless, I’ll be watching the news about the changing demographics of the United States. How multicultural are we now, and how big is the disparity between the people in our congregations, and the wider population? Where are the population growth areas, and where is population declining?
  • I’ll be paying close attention to the economic news; in particular, I’ll be watching the unemployment figures and the level of charitable giving. In tandem with the economic news, I will be watching to see how many local congregations do one or more of the following: cut total staff; move to part-time ministry or eliminate paid ministry; reduce or eliminate paid religious educator positions. I’d love to be able to know how much maintenance will be deferred, as local congregations delay necessary expenditures on their physical plants, thus forcing future generations to deal with exponentially increasing problems. Finally, I’ll be looking for success stories, congregations that manage to improve their financial position — and trying to figure out how they do it.
  • I’ll be looking at the numbers of children both nationally and locally. Birth rates were predicted to go down last year due to the economic situation, but we’re still in the middle of a baby boomlet: there are large numbers of babies and young children in the U.S. right now. At the Palo Alto church we’re seeing a small uptick in average Sunday school attendance this fall. I’ll be watching to see if other local congregations manage to attract larger numbers of children — and again, trying to figure out how they do it.
  • Thanks to Terry here in the Palo Alto church, I’ve been learning about ISO 9000 (Wikipedia has a short introduction to this set of standards). This is a set of standards for quality management: ideally, ISO 9000 provides ways to monitor processes and procedures in an organization, checking actual outcomes against desired results. Terry assures me that ISO 9000 standards have been usefully applied to nonprofits; she is currently working on implementing some ISO 9000 principles at our church. I don’t foresee local congregations seeking out ISO 9000 certification (although it’s an interesting possibility for denomination headquarters), but I do think we can learn from the principles behind the standards.
  • I’ll be paying close attention to new and existing social media, and to the ways nonprofits and churches use social media. Along with that, I’ll be watching to see if there are changes in social interactions as more and more people try out new social media. Will the tyranny of email finally be broken? — and will it simply be replaced with a new tyranny, e.g., the tyranny of Facebook?

I’ll continue this list in a later post….

2009 in review: Liberal religion in the news

In 2009, the mainline Christian denominations continued to be drawn into conflicts around wedge issues such as same-sex marriage and ordination of women. These conflicts over wedge issues may be exacerbated by religious conservative activists, including the misnamed “Institute on Religion and Democracy” (IRD), and overseas groups such as the conservative Anglican bishops in Africa who continue to intervene in the U.S. Episcopal Church. Indeed, according to some observers, groupslike the IRD use wedge issues to deliberately sabotage mainline and liberal Christian denominations.

2009 saw growing rifts in the Episcopal Church, and ongoing conflict in the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), etc. I was unable to determine if the United Church of Christ continued to face the problem of conservative individuals funded by outside groups taking over local congregations. Back in 2006, in an interview with Dan Wakefield, theologian Harvey Cox said, “The energy of mainline Protestant churches has been absorbed by the battles over abortion, and over gay rights and gay marriage that’s divided entire denominations in recent years. There’s nothing left over for the kind of battles that were fought in the past for peace and justice in the nation and the world.” (The Hijacking of Jesus, p. 102) Three years later, the situation has not changed.

Unitarian Universalism, closely related as we are theologically and historically to the mainline churches, has been affected in different ways by the continuing conflicts over wedge issues. Because we embrace same-sex marriage, women’s right to choice, and ordination of women, Unitarian Universalism has become marginal in U.S. political culture; it is difficult to believe that any Unitarian Universalist could become president of the United States. We Unitarian Universalists seem to have embraced our politically marginal status to the point where many Unitarian Universalists automatically stake out politically liberal positions — without ever determining if political liberalism and the Democratic party can be equated with religious liberalism. This peculiar politico-religious orthodoxy continued to hamper open conversations about, and honest critiques of: second-wave feminist theology; identity politics; and the way we are beholden to consumer capitalism. Yet second-wave feminism primarily benefits upper middle class white women; identity politics forces the kind of binary identity choices that we say we deplore in theology; and consumer capitalism directly contradicts several of those “seven principles” that we tout.

In another part of the region where liberal religion and politics intersect, the religious right has been doing a very good job or helping liberal Christians (and, to the extent they bother with us, helping Unitarian Universalists) stay on the margins. A very public example of this marginalization is Barack Obama. Religious conservatives forced Obama to repudiate his liberal Christian UCC church during the campaign, and since then the Obama family has not settled on a regular church to attend — I suspect that the Obamas can’t stand the theology of the politically acceptable churches, while Barack Obama can’t stand the political consequences of attending another UCC church, or any liberal Christian church for that matter. The situation has gotten bad enough that, to the best of my knowledge, the Obamas did not attend church on Christmas eve. (A BBC commentator has suggested that the Obamas would best fit in with Florida Street Friends Meeting [Quaker] in D.C., and I suspect he’s right — but such a church choice would be political suicide.) Obama is but one prominent example of the marginalization of liberal Christianity in U.S. political life.

As a religious educator, I can’t help adding that this is not good for the religious education of the Obama children. Their children need exposure to a living religious community in addition to whatever home-based religious education the Obamas may provide. Michelle, forget the political cost to Barack — take the kids to Florida Street Meeting!


One can only hope that in 2010 we religious liberals — especially we Unitarian Universalists — learn to start from liberal theology, rather than starting from liberal politics. Instead of toeing the politically liberal party line, let’s clearly articulate the religiously liberal party line: that individual salvation is not good enough because we have to save the whole world; that it’s most important to help those who are poor, those who are suffering, and those who have been pushed to the margins of society; that women are just as good as men; that consumer capitalism treats human beings as mere consumers, and falsely states that the highest good in life is buying more stuff. From a pragmatic point of view, maybe we’ll be doing many of the same things — but we’ll have religious, not political, reasons for doing them.

And if we can do that, we’ll really be newsworthy.

2009 in review: Graduating from college in a bad economy

2009 will probably be best remembered for the “Great Recession.” And for those who graduate from college this year, the recession may continue for many years.

Lisa Kahn, an economist at the Yale School of Management, believes that graduating from college in the middle of an economic downturn has serious long-term effects. In her paper, “The Long-Term Labor Market Consequences of Graduating from College in a Bad Economy,” she takes data from a longitudinal study of white males who graduated from college between 1979 and 1989, and analyzes the data to see what effect, if any, the serious recession of the early 1980s had on the job prospects of these people. Not surprisingly, she found immediate “negative wage effects” for those who graduated in the worst years of the recession — common sense dictates that when you enter the job market for the first time during a recession, you’re lucky to find a job at all, let alone find a job that pays well.

Kahn also found that those negative wage effects persisted through the entire period of the longitudinal study. The people who graduated from college during a recession never made as much money as those who graduated during better economic times. This does not augur well for those who just graduated from college — or for anyone just entering the job market for the first time during the Great Recession.

I worry about those entering the job market right now, because I was one of those who graduated from college during the recession of the early 80s. [Update: But see Jean’s comment below for another view.] To a large extent I fit that pattern that Kahn describes in her paper. I had great difficulty finding a job right after graduation, and I wound up spending more than a dozen years working in jobs that did not require a college diploma. For a few years during that time I had a decent salary, but at another time I could have qualified for food stamps. If my experience was at all representative, those who are graduating from college during the current recession may struggle financially, may experience feelings of personal failure, and may find it difficult to find a job related to their education or training.

If there’s one thing we remember about the Great Recession in the years to come, I hope we remember that those who entered the job market in these years may need extra moral and financial support from all of us.

The good dinner phenomenon

Carol and I have noticed this phenomenon many times in the past: I just get back from eating a huge Christmas dinner with some friends — pot roast, Yorkshire pudding, roasted vegetables, mashed potatoes, fried sweet potatoes, stollen, cookies — and even though I thought I couldn’t eat another bite while I was there, as soon as I got home I felt hungry and ate an apple. Is it merely that we associate arriving home with eating something? I don’t know, but I’m going to go make a jelly sandwich to eat with my tea.

Random stupid thoughts arise at odd moments

At tonight’s candlelight services, Amy, our parish minister, did the reading from the second chapter of the gospel of Luke. By the time the second service came around, my concentration was slipping a little.

“And it came to pass in those days,” said Amy, “that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be texted.”

Oh, I thought to myself, great idea. Caesar could just text everyone in the Roman Empire to let them know that they had to go….

“And all went to be taxed,” said Amy, “every one into his own city.”

Taxed, I thought to myself, not texted; Caesar Augustus did not have a Twitter feed in 4 B.C.E.

The story of the Christmas candles

Here’s the story I’ll be telling to start off our Christmas Eve candlelighting services this evening….

Each year on Christmas Eve, we come together as Unitarian Universalists to hear the old, familiar Christmas story through words and songs. We also light candles together. It’s pretty obvious why we tell the Christmas story — because it’s Christmas time! But why do we light candles? For one answer this question, I would like to tell you the story of the Christmas candles as I heard it from Dana Greeley in the Unitarian Universalist church of my childhood.

We begin with a single light. This single candle stands for the light of the ages. The light of the ages is the truth and the light that is known to all peoples, in all times and places. Unlike the candle that symbolizes it, the true light of the ages never dies out. The true light of the ages is everywhere, and can be found by anyone, if we would but seek it out.

From the light of the ages, I’ll now light these next two big candles. These represent the prophets and sages. Every culture and every generation has at least one prophet and sage, men and women of exceptional wisdom and insight who bring the light of the ages to their generation. Jesus of Nazareth was one of those prophets and sages, and tonight we remember his wisdom and insight.

After we sing the first carol, we’ll light the flame in the chalice, which has become a symbol of Unitarian Universalism. That small flame will represent the prophets and sages in our religious tradition, many of whom have been inspired by Jesus — people like Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Hosea Ballou, and Eliza Tupper Wilkes, the woman who was the very first Unitarian minister in Palo Alto.

A little later on, I will light these candles here in front from the candles representing the prophets and sages (see if you notice when I do). These smaller candles represent the teachers, those who pass on the light of the ages to the rest of us. These teachers might be schoolteachers, but they are also mentors and friends and parents and grandparents, everyone who teaches us.

And finally, at the end of this Christmas Eve service, when we each receive a lit candle, we will symbolize the way the light of the ages comes to us, passed on to us from our teachers, who in turned received it from prophets and sages. And when we get done here tonight, it will be up to us to take our own light out into the world, to make our world a better place.