‘Tis the day to talk like a pirate, arr!

Ahoy there, me hearty, ’tis “International Talk Like a Pirate Day.” Avast with that landlubber talk! Hoist up a dipper o’ the finest, strongest grog and drink it down wi’ a wannion, for when ye’re three sheets t’ the wind, ye’ll find it easy enough to belay that landlubber talk. By the Powers, ’tis great grand thing t’ have the the Jolly Roger flyin’ on the yardarm above while ye say “Shiver me timbers!” t’ the parrot perched on yer shoulder.


Survival is overrated

The summary for a recent post on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog reads as follows: “The sector needs to shift the definition of success from organizations that survive to organizations that actually achieve their missions.” The actual post was less interesting than this summary because it narrowly addressed specific challenges faced by social entrepreneurs. I want to rewrite it to apply to congregations….

Congregations need to shift the definition of success from being institutions that survive, to becoming living organizations that actually achieve their missions.

At the founding of a congregation, you can feel the excitement among the founding members. They are thinking, saying, and feeling: This congregation is going to be where we bring into being our dream of a warm community that holds us accountable to our highest shared ideals while supporting us through the difficulties we have in our individual lives. These people are willing to try something new and untried, and it’s exciting.

Sixty years later, in many congregations you can feel the anxiety among all the members: We have to raise money to keep the congregation going, so we need enough new members who will supply that money, but not so many that they will use too much of our existing programs, programs which exist solely to draw in new people who will give us more money.

But the truly successful congregation will feel little anxiety, and a lot of excitement. Sixty years after their founding, the truly successful congregation doesn’t care much about raising money, but does care a great deal about bringing into being our dream of a warm community that holds us accountable to our highest shared ideals while supporting us through the difficulties we have in our individual lives. We are the people who are willing to try new and untried things, and it’s exciting.

I hate Facebook (again)

Facebook has done it again: they have made their inefficient, poorly designed privacy system even worse. Obviously feeling some heat from Google Plus, they instituted something that looks a great deal like Google Plus’s “circles” feature. Except unlike Google Plus, their “circles” feature is hard to customize, and arbitrarily divides your Facebook “friends” into seemingly random categories.

Since I have an intense distrust of Facebook (their motto: “Have we done our evil quotient today?”), I’m assuming they have really just weakened their privacy yet again. So now instead of merely suspecting that everything you post on Facebook goes out to people you don’t want it to go out to, you can now be sure that everything you post on Facebook may be made completely public at any time without you knowing about it.

Not that Google Plus is any better: it still lacks important features that would make it worth while for me. The only thing social networking sites are good for is the purpose for which they were designed: to sell advertisements.

“Domesticated eristic debate”

There’s an interesting post with a long comment thread at the blog Warp, Weft, and Way that touches on the differences between Chinese and Western philosophical traditions. The opening paragraphs captured my attention, but then I found myself questioning whether Western philosophy is defined too narrowly:

A core feature of philosophical culture in the Western tradition is the supposition that debating about abstract matters is productive of insight, and that it encourages (or at least comports with) the attainment of appealing moral and religious goals. The canonical thinkers of classical Greece and China all deplore eristic debate, where the point of articulating and defending theses is simply to gain victory over the opponent. Plato and Aristotle, however, domesticate the procedures of eristic debate, yoking precise definition and dogged discussion of entailments and justification to ideals of friendship and inquiry.

I think this kind of domestication never took place in classical China: the moralists with lasting influence (Confucians and Daoists) were not inclined to think friendship and inquiry well-served by prolonged argumentative discussion….

From my perspective as a former student of philosophy who now does theology, the cases of Plato and Aristotle are interesting and foundational to Western thought — but these two philosophers do not adequately represent the full spectrum of Western thought.

Western theology, which has been understood as both a subset and a superset of Western philosophy, includes several mystical traditions that tend more towards enigmatical pronouncements than towards reasoned debate (or domesticated eristic debate). For example, in the American intellectual tradition, Emerson tends towards mysticism; and it can be very hard to try to engage in reasoned debate with Emerson, since he tends to transrational and aphoristic pronouncements that depend more on intuition than reason. Another example from ancient times might be Jesus of Nazareth’s parables, as reported by later followers.

The Western theological tradition draws not just on Greek philosophy, but also on the deep reservoir of the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish intellectual tradition. This expands the Western theological repertoire well beyond reasoned debate. Neither Ecclesiastes nor the parables of Jesus can be characterized as reasoned debate, yet both have serious intellectual content. None of this is to deny that there is a distinct difference between Chinese and Western intellectual traditions, but whether theology is a subset or superset of Western philosophy, I’m not convinced Western philosophy can be reduced to domesticated eristic debate.

Fewer committee meetings, more talking about life

It’s still start-up season, that time when many congregations increase their activity levels after a summer slow-down. This start-up season has been as busy as any since I started working in congregation in 1994, and more intense than any other start-up. And then in staff meeting this week, Amy, our senior minister, said she was experiencing a very busy start-up season as well.

Perhaps it is just coincidence that we’re both experiencing busy start-ups at the same time our congregation appears to be on the brink of a size transition, from a pastoral-size congregation to a program-size congregation (that is, from less than 150 average attendance to over 200 average attendance). But I don’t think it is a coincidence. Other ministers who have been in congregations in this same size transition zone have also reported feeling intensely busy; so have lay leaders.

The thing is, sometimes that feeling of intense busy-ness can lead to burnout among clergy or lay leaders. I have documented a few instances of clergy burning out to the point of leaving the ministry. (I’m half convinced that some clergy sexual misconduct can be traced to burned-out ministers in transitional congregations who engage in stupid and/or self-destructive behavior.) Because when a congregation is growing, the first impulse of most people is to do more. You do more, but all it gets you is exhaustion. And it scares newcomers away — who wants to be part of a congregation where the clergy and lay leaders look burned out?

So I’m thinking the best way to handle an intense start-up, especially in a congregation that is on the edge of a pastoral- to program-size transition, is to spend less time doing, and more time just being. Fewer committee meetings, and more time spent in small groups just talking with one another about life. Less email and more face-to-face conversations about matters of the heart. Less writing of reports and more singing. Fewer tasks and more meditation, prayer, and worship. Doesn’t that sound more pleasant?

Finding documents relating to the sexual revolution within UUism, 1965-1985

The sexual revolution has both direct and indirect effects on Unitarian Universalism. Persons who were part of Unitarian Universalism experienced the sexual revolution in their personal lives, the work place, etc., and these experiences indirectly affected Unitarian Universalism; since experiences are not peculiar to Unitarian Universalists, strictly speaking they do not relate to the history of the sexual revolution within Unitarian Universalism.

When I think about those aspects of the sexual revolution that most directly affected Unitarian Universalism, I think of the following, in no particular order: sexuality education, sexual experimentation, LGBTQ rights, theological stances, feminism and the Women and Religion movement, marriage and divorce. Each of these aspects of the sexual revolution had a direct impact on local congregations and the denomination as a whole, as well as on individual Unitarian Universalists.

For each of these aspects of the sexual revolution, I have tried to brainstorm a list of where we might find relevant documents dating from the era 1965-1985.

For all these topic areas, Unitarian Universalist periodicals from that era that should be reviewed for relevant materials, and the two official denominational periodicals, UU Register-Leader (to 1970) and UU World (1970 on), are of primary importance. Independent publications which may contain relevant material include First Day’s Record, published by and for clergy, and Unitarian Universalist Voice. Congregational newsletters may also have relevant information; since there are probably tens of thousands of such documents, a researcher can only sift through a small portion of them.

Here, then, are some preliminary ideas of where we might find documentation dating from 1965 to 1985 on the general topic of the sexual revolution: Continue reading “Finding documents relating to the sexual revolution within UUism, 1965-1985”

Another experience of race

In her book Working-Class White: The Making and Unmaking of Race Relations, sociologist Monica McDermott offers an interesting perspective on the intersection of race and class, based on her field work in Atlanta and Boston. She writes:

“The experience of whiteness in the Crescent [her Atlanta field work site] provides an intriguing example of the ways in which racial cues are bound up with class and the local context. ‘White’ is typically conceived in terms of economic and social advantage and residence in predominantly white, affluent areas. What, then, becomes of the white racial identity of those whites who are poor or working class and live in an area with a substantial black, working-class population?

“The results are not the standard ways in which whiteness typically functions in the United States — as invisible privilege, even for economically disadvantaged whites. Whiteness in this context does not simply function like ‘blackness’ when the usual constellation of class and racial cues is reversed. Instead, whiteness becomes a badge of inferiority — one that is contingent upon a global view of whites as more deserving of nice neighborhoods and good jobs than blacks. It is also bound up with expectations about racial segregation and the characteristics of those who live in racially integrated areas.

“Being a white person in this type of neighborhood is distinctly different from being a white person in a predominantly white area. The underlying assumption in the Crescent and Greenfield [the Boston field work site], held by both blacks and whites of various class backgrounds, was that the whites who lived and worked there were somehow defective; that the least capable whites were most likely to live among large numbers of poor and working-class blacks. As one of the working-class men studied by Lamont (1999) asserts, there ‘is no real reason for a white guy to be a failure.'”

While McDermott is quite clear that her study is limited in scope because of her methodology, nevertheless it occurs to me that that class location frequently influences experiences of race.

Singing school, part one

We had a good turnout for the first session of our Sacred Harp singing school at the Palo Alto church: we had set out 54 chairs, and at one point every chair was taken. A dozen or so experienced Sacred Harp singers showed up to help support Marsha Genensky, our singing master for the day. The new singers were about evenly split between people who had sung a few times at a local Sacred Harp singing, and people who had never sung Sacred Harp before but who had some singing experience.

Marsha traced the background of solfege syllables from the Middle Ages up to the development of the “fa, sol, la, mi” syllables used in early American singing schools. She demonstrated how the scale worked with only four solfege syllables: fa, sol, la, fa, sol, la, mi, and back to fa. She showed the class how early American hymnals printed the syllables “F, S, L, M” to indicate pitch. Later, these same syllables were printed beneath standard round-headed notes, and finally notes with different shaped note heads were developed to help make it easy to sight-read a piece of music: fa corresponded to a triangular note head, sol to a round note head, la to a rectangular note head, and mi to a diamond-shaped note head. (Link to a sample scale in shape notes.)

Marsha then organized the class into a scale: some people sang a low fa, a different small group so, the next group la, and so on up the scale. Then she told us to sing our note when she pointed at us — and by “playing us like a marimba,” she had us sing the tune to “Amazing Grace.” (She also told the class that the name of the tune is actually “New Britain,” while the name of the hymn or poem is “Amazing Grace.”)

By this time, the class was ready to sing some songs, and Marsha led us through a couple of easy songs. She had each section — altos, trebles (with men and women singing an octave apart), tenors (the melody line, with men and women singing an octave apart), and basses — sing their part separately and slowly, using the “fa, sol, la, mi” syllables. Then she put us together so that we were singing in four parts. The experienced singers kept us on our parts, and there were plenty of other fine voices in the room, so we sounded great!

After an hour of the singing school, we segued into the regular bimonthly Palo Alto singing. The tempo of the songs picked up, and at times some of the new singers got a little lost, but from where I sat in the back of the bass section, everyone I could see was enjoying themselves, and enjoying the music.

Historical note: The singing school was a regular feature of eighteenth century American life, and persisted well into the nineteenth century in America outside of urban areas. The singing school continued through the twentieth century in the rural South in the tradition of Sacred Harp singing (so named because the tune book used by the tradition is titled “The Sacred Harp”), and today is enjoying a revival outside the South in northern and Western cities, and abroad in Ireland, England, Australia, and even Poland. The singing school remains an excellent way to teach people how to sing, which is why I brought a singing school to our Unitarian Universalist church in Palo Alto.

Yet another set of 9/11 memories

Somehow I had managed to arrange to take a day off on a Tuesday. I was going to theological school half time while working three-quarters time as a director of religious education at First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts. Late summer is always a busy time for religious educators — kids are back in school, they’re coming back to Sunday school and youth group, and you have to take care of a thousand and one details before they return. I had been working non-stop for quite a few days, but finally on that Tuesday I had managed to schedule a day off.

I slept late. It must have been nine o’clock when the phone rang. I came immediately awake, my heart pounding from adrenalin; my mother had died twenty-two months before that, after a long illness, and I still dreaded phone calls that came while I was asleep. “Hello?” I said.

It was Ellen, the assistant minister at First Parish. “Hello,” she said, and paused. “Have you seen the news yet?”

“What?” I said. “No.”

“A plane hit the World Trade Center in New York,” she said. We turned immediately to business. The senior minister was out of town, and Ellen thought we should have a candlelight vigil that night. Continue reading “Yet another set of 9/11 memories”

Story from the Ramayana

We went in to the Bali exhibit at the Asian Art Museum this afternoon, and saw a demonstration of Balinese puppets. The puppeteer enacted a short bit of the Ramayana, weaving in sly references to San Francisco. It was entertaining, funny, beautiful, skillfully done; and the puppeteer slipped in a serious moral message at the end. It was really a quite brilliant mix of religion, entertainment, and the lively arts.