Aloha Xmas

Ms. M and Oz let us know that they were going to hear slack-key guitarist Patrick Landeza play Hawai’ian Christmas music at the San Leandro Public Library, and would we like to meet them there? I found out that Herb Ohta Jr. would be playing too — Herb Ohta Jr., son of Ohta-san himself and one of the best ‘ukulelists alive! — and told Carol that we had to go.

We arrived in time to eat the Hawai’ian dinner plate (rice, chicken teriyaki, macaroni salad, but no spam). The hall was filling up, and it was a nice crowd — older people, middle-aged people, young parents, kids. Haoles were definitely a minority. By the time Ms. M and Oz showed up, there were some two hundred people in the hall and we could not find seats together.

Carol entered us in the raffle, and before the music started Patrick Landeza raffled off several items. A young girl got a bag for wine bottles. Next to be raffled off was a little bag with a bright floral pattern, obviously perfect for a young girl. Landeza joked that it was a “man purse,” then started laughing when he pulled out the name: “It’s going to a man: Dan Harper!” I went up and claimed my little floral purse. And against all odds, Carol also won something in the raffle: a little Hawai’ian wreath for a Christmas tree ornament.

The music was perfect Christmas music — what could be better than traditional Hawai’ian songs at Christmas time? What could be better than hearing a master like Herb Ohta Jr. play “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” on the ‘ukulele? What could be better than hearing “Silent Night” sung in Hawai’ian, and interpreted by a hula dancer? And to top it all off, I got my man purse signed by Patrick Landeza and Herb Ohta Jr.:

A new look at reducing poverty

As a religious person, my primary political goal is reducing poverty. With that as my main criterion for judging U.S. political parties, I generally consider both the Democratic party and the Republican party failures. While Democrats are somewhat willing to provide expensive programs to alleviate poverty, these days they seem unwilling to address the basic structural problems within the United States that lead to poverty. While many individual Republicans are very devoted to reducing poverty, not least because many Republicans are devoted Christians for whom reducing poverty is a requirement of their religion, as a whole the party still seems mired in trickle-down economics, which is really a form of Social Darwinism: let the rich thrive, and the poor may eat the leavings from their tables.

Given that both Democrats and Republicans pay at least lip service to the goal of reducing poverty, why have they both been so ineffectual on this issue? Probably because both parties have gotten important things wrong. Ron Sider, in a review of Lew Daly’s new book God’s Economy: Faith-Based Initiatives and the Caring State in the Christian Century magazine, says this about George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative, which has also been embraced by Barack Obama:

Bush was right in rejecting the dominant Reagan-Republican push to abandon governmental responsibility to alleviate poverty. (Liberal critics who said that government abdication of responsibility was the real goal [of Bush’s initiative] were wrong.) Bush was also right to embrace a much wider role for nongovernmental, including religious, organizations in the delivery of government-funded anti-poverty programs. (Liberal critics who charged that is was discriminatory to protect the freedom of religious organizations, especially their freedom to hire staff who share their faith commitments, were wrong.) Tragically, Bush failed to provide enough funding to combat poverty and failed to how an unrestrained market economy threatens families and communities just as much as an all-powerful government does. (Liberal critics were on target here.)

This is an interesting argument, and I’m going to have to read Daly’s book. Perhaps there is a way to make Bush’s and Obama’s faith-based initiative work. However, I remain skeptical of the faith-based initiative for at least four reasons. Continue reading

Scrooge fail

This evening, Carol and I went out to dinner at our favorite cheap Chinese sushi place. I kind of prefer going to Asian restaurants in December, because there’s a pretty good chance that I won’t see any holiday decorations, nor hear any holiday music. My hopes were fulfilled: no holiday decorations, no Christmas carols for background music. But the woman next to us was talking about making latkes. And then we went out after dinner and heard holiday music coming from the street: “Later on, we’ll conspire / As we dream by the fire / To face unafraid the plans that we’ve made….” It was the Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony in downtown San Mateo. There was a firetruck. There were lots of families with children. There was a countdown, and Santa climbed up the ladder of the fire truck and flipped the switch to turn on the Christmas tree lights. An amateur choir sang “Silent Night,” accompanied by someone strumming a guitar. The kids were singing, but it wasn’t just kids singing because Carol said she saw one middle-aged woman standing by herself and singing along. I guess I might have hummed along a little bit; it was all kind of nice.

Yet another post on a topic of perennial concern

Kari Kopnick over at the blog Chalice Spark is concerned about Directors of Religious Education (DREs) who are resigning from Unitarian Universalist congregations due to burn out and poor working conditions, and she offers some very practical tips for retaining DREs — pay for professional expenses, give adequate time off, provide sabbaticals, etc. The sad truth is that most Unitarian Universalist congregations provide inadequate pay and tiny professional expenses budgets for their DREs, they provide punitive rather than supportive supervision, congregations expect more hours of work than they pay for, and they believe that it’s cheaper to hire a new DRE every three or four years than to provide sabbaticals.

Every year, I get a call or two from a DRE who is resigning from her job because of the way her congregation is treating her (I use the feminine pronoun because about 95% of all DREs are women, and yes part of the reason DREs are treated poorly is because the work is seen as women’s work and is therefore devalued). If your congregation’s DRE tenders her resignation this year, you might wish to challenge your minister and lay leaders to take an honest look at working conditions and compensation.

And thank you, Kari, for raising this issue.

P.S. Every time I write a post about how DREs are treated poorly, I get an email message or two from an angry lay leader or minister who thinks I’m talking in public about what’s going on in their congregation. If you think I’m specifically referring to your congregation’s treatment of your DRE, I’m not. However, you may wish to examine your conscience to figure out why you’re feeling guilty about this issue.

More bah humbug from Mr. C.

Mr. Crankypants is tired of these Christmas lies that we are feeding to children. So it’s time to tell the truth. No, Virginia, there is no —

—wait, what’s that sound? Who’s that over in the corner? What’s— It sounds like the pitter-patter of little feet—

—oh my God! The elves! The elv—

Lecture four: Religious humanist communities

Fourth and final lecture for a class on UU humanism

For me, it is a basic axiom that religion is lived out in human communities. In the culture wars of the past half century, our society has somehow gotten the mistaken notion that religion can be boiled down to irrational beliefs; that is to say, religion has become equated with a certain narrow subset of ontotheology. From my point of view, however, religious practice comes first, and the explanations come along later to try to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing. Praxis antedates theoria; liturgy and practice trump ontotheology. That being said, I think it is worth examining some religious humanist practices in order to better understand the religious side of humanism.

Let’s start with the stereotype of a religious humanist community. According to the stereotype, religious humanism is a religion of the head, not the heart and body. Therefore, religious humanist communities spend their time in endless debate about intellectual matters. Because intellect is highly valued, and because intellect is somehow equated with the possession of college and graduate degrees, status in this stereotypical community is determined in part by an individual’s level of academic attainment: post-docs rank far higher than bachelor’s degrees, and if you only have a high school diploma you’ll be expected to keep your mouth shut. Furthermore, the sciences outrank the humanities by at least two degrees, so that a bachelor’s degree in science trumps a doctoral degree in English literature. This stereotypical religious humanist community vigorously roots out anything that looks, sounds, or smells like more traditional Western religions, so there are no sermons (though there may be lectures and talks), no candles nor much in the way of visual interest, no hymns or psalms (though songs might be allowed), and no reading from scriptures.

Now obviously I have drawn a caricature of religious humanism here. Continue reading

Just in time…

Against all my better judgment, I’m presenting the following hymn, a metrical rendering of 2 Maccabees 10.1-7 in the KJV — just in time for sunset of the first night of Hanukkah. You can sing it to any Common Meter tune, although it goes well with Consolation (no. 53 in Singing the Living Tradition).

I tried to keep my interpretation of the KJV text to a minimum. So before you ask, yes, the original text mentions boughs, branches, and palms, and the fact that they remembered their last feast which they spent hiding out in the mountains. It’s easy to forget how weird some of these Bible stories are. I did add the references to freedom and to tyranny, though I feel they are implicit in the story; ditto the reference to the curséd idols.

1. When Maccabeus and his band
Did free Jerusalem,
When they did cast the tyrant out,
‘Twas God who guided them.

1. Good Maccabeus and his band:
They freed Jerusalem.
They cast the wicked tyrant out,
For God was guiding them.

2. The altars which the heathen built
Out in the public square,
They pulled them down, and then destroyed
The curséd idols there.

3. They cleansed the temple, kindled flame,
Gave thanks they now were free.
They then besought God keep them safe
From barb’rous tyranny.

4. They celebrated eight glad days,
Rememb’ring their last feast,
Which they had held in mountain dens
Where they had lived like beasts.

5. Therefore they bore fair branches forth,
Green boughs, and also palms.
They praised the strength that set them free:
To God they raised their psalms.

What about a metrical hymn for Hanukkah? Nah…

The story of Hanukkah comes from the Talmud and the Mishnah, although there are references to a very similar story in the Apocrypha. 2 Maccabees mentions a Hanukkah-like festival in a passage beginning:

Therefore whereas we are now purposed to keep the purification of the temple upon the five and twentieth day of the month Casleu [Kislev], we thought it necessary to certify you thereof, that ye also might keep it, as the feast of the tabernacles, and of the fire, which was given us when Neemias offered sacrifice, after that he had builded the temple and the altar. [2 Maccabees 1.18, KJV]

There’s another, more interesting, description of a Hanukkah-like purification of the Temple at 2 Maccabees 10.1-8. I love this story; besides which, the successful fight against the tyrant who prevented the Jews from practicing their own religion has a certain poignancy today when it is dangerous for Christians to practice their religion in some parts of the world, dangerous for Muslims to practice their religion in many Western countries, and still dangerous for Jews to be Jews in many places in the world.

I’d love to have the talent to take the gorgeous prose of the King James Version of 2 Maccabees 10, and turn it into a metrical rhyming version of this story. I’ve been working on this, and have several partial verses, like “When Maccabeus and his band / De dum de dum de dum / De dum invader’s heavy hand…”; and “…public square, / De dum de dum, and then destroyed / The cursed idols there.” I’ve also got one whole verse:

They cleansed the temple, kindled fire,
    Gave thanks that they were free;
And asked the Lord to keep them safe
    From barbarous tyranny.

Or maybe it should be “blasphemous tyranny” — the passage at hand offers both possibilities.

Of course, if I ever did manage to write such a hymn, it would be unusable in any Unitarian Universalist congregation:— the term “Lord” (which is the way the translators indicate “Adonai,” as opposed to “God” for “Elohim”) would not be acceptable; it would be a hymn by a non-theistic Unitarian Universalist interpreting an apocryphal Christian text which we ordinarily ignore and which doesn’t really tell a Jewish story which means it’s probably cultural misappropriation; and it would be filtered through my liberation theology but Unitarian Universalists don’t really like songs and hymns that talk about freedom unless they’re African American songs or unless we’re talking about freedom to think what you want as opposed to literal freedom from bondage and oppression.

This is my main failing as a hymnodist. It’s bad enough that I can’t write good rhymed metrical verse, but it’s much worse that the hymns I want to write are hymns no one would ever want to sing.

Site news

Our Web hosting service had a server go down, and of course all our Web sites were on that server. It took most of Monday and part of today to install a new server, transfer the data over, have it go down, and bring it back up again. This is the worst failure we’ve had with this Web hosting service. It’s not a problem for me, but Carol’s businesses depend on her Web sites, so she is thinking about migrating us to a new Web hosting service. We’ll see what happens.

Thank you to those of you who sent me email letting me know that you couldn’t access this site — I do appreciate it!