Zombie jokes

It’s Hallowe’en, and Amy, the parish minister here in Palo Alto, is going to preach on the zombie apocalypse this Sunday. All this means it’s time for more zombie jokes:

What does the dyslexic zombie eat?

What did the large animal vet zombie eat?

What does the zombie of Fantasy Island shout?

What does zombie Mitt Romney say?
I was CEO of BAIN!

A zombie walks into a bar, and the bartender says, “Hey, we have a drink named after you, want to try it?” The zombie says, “Sure, give me a Charles.”

Continue reading “Zombie jokes”


Today’s Alban Institute blog post talks about congregations that fear change. The post begins by posing this question: “My congregation has never been very good with change. Whenever a new idea is proposed, it is quickly shot down with the phrase, ‘that isn’t how we do things here.’ … New and younger members … can’t move into any leadership positions. They become discouraged and leave. Or, if they do get involved in a program or a committee, their ideas are always shot down. Is my church the only one that experiences this dynamic? How do other churches deal with change?”

Why yes, Virginia, many other congregations experience this dynamic. (In fact, so many U.S. congregations have become so resistant to necessary change that I suspect it’s one of the factors contributing to the rise of the “nones,” those people who report no religious affiliation on nationwide polls — younger people don’t want to belong to congregations that are mired in the past.) And if you want to promote a healthy attitude towards change in your congregation, you should read the post by clicking here.

Alternative Thanksgiving blessings

What words do you use to say grace at Thanksgiving? Do you use a traditional grace, or are you looking for an alternative blessing for you Thanksgiving dinner? As Unitarian Universalists (UUs), we have lots of options when it comes to saying grace at Thanksgiving.

When I was a UU child, we often had Thanksgiving dinner with my mother’s twin and her family. Our cousins were all older than my sisters and I, and we looked up to them. Both our families were UU families, and one year at Thanksgiving our eldest cousin said she was going to say grace before dinner, using a grace she had heard in her UU congregation’s youth group. My mother and father and aunt and uncle all liked the idea, and told her to go ahead. She had us all join hands, and then said, “Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub, yay God!” I’m not sure the adults at the table were particularly impressed, but my sisters and I were definitely impressed.

Even if you never say grace at any other time of the year, Thanksgiving is a good time to pause before eating, and give thanks for your food. The challenge for us religious liberals is coming up with pleasing ways to give thanks that don’t rely on traditional Christian theology. My UU friend Craig Schwalenberg adapted this grace from his Lutheran childhood:

Cherished family, friends, and guests,
Let this food to us be blessed.
Bless those people who made this food.
May it feed our work for good.

Another friend of mine, Emma Mitchell, grew up as a Unitarian Universalist, and says her family used to say this for grace (and children got to choose whether to refer to God as “her” or “him”):

God is great, God is good,
Let us thank (her) (him) for our food.

I wrote the following grace to remind us of the interdependent web of existence, including farmworkers and the wider ecosystem (there’s a tune that goes with this, and it’s online here):

Praise workers laboring hard in their fields,
May sun and moon increase their yields,
May the soil be blessed by falling silver rains,
As we offer thanks to Mother Earth again.

What’s your favorite alternative Thanksgiving blessing? UUCPA member Kris Geering writes: “For the pagan-friendly folks, I like this grace (there’s a tune you can sing it to, but it’s good as is):”

Give thanks to the Mother Goddess,
Give thanks to the Father Sun.
Give thanks to the plants and the flowers in the garden
Where the Father and the Mother are one.

Rev. Amy Zucker-Morgenstern, our senior minister at UUCPA, sent in the following grace:

Our family grace is to hold hands and say “Thank you for the food,” in as many languages as are known by people at the table. Common variations include thanks to the farmworkers, truckers, people who invented whatever cuisine it is, Mommy or Mama for cooking, etc.

What about you? what’s your favorite non-traditional Thanksgiving grace?

Cross-posted here.

Radical innovation and borrowing

Third in a series of posts on innovation in liberal congregations.

If we implement an old idea in our congregation, is that innovation? For example, megachurches have been projecting the words of hymns on a screen behind the pulpit for decades, whereas my congregation has always read the words to hymns from a hymnal. If my congregation starts to project the words of hymns onto a screen behind the pulpit, is that innovation? Really all we’re doing is adopting an old idea for our own use, but to us it will feel like a big innovation.

So let’s distinguish between several different levels of innovation:

(a) The lowest level of innovation is when we borrow a practice or idea that is widespread in other congregations that are similar to ours. For example, if your congregation doesn’t have a Web site and then you create a Web site, that’s an innovation for your congregation, but it’s a low level innovation. There is very little risk involved; and you can find a great many models and examples to guide you in the process.

(b) The next level of innovation is when we borrow a practice or idea that is widespread, but only in congregations that are substantially different from ours. Continue reading “Radical innovation and borrowing”

The Cup Game

The Cup Game is a staple of church summer camps, youth conferences, and retreats. There are several variants, and this variant comes from Ferry Beach. I know it’s stupid and pointless; that’s what makes it fun.

(You can find online videos which purport to show you how to play the Cup Game, but these videos are all shot facing someone who is playing it. It is much easier to learn if you can look at it from your own perspective, so that the right hand of the person you’re watching is on the same side as your own right hand; my video shows you how to play from your own perspective.)

Here’s a printable cheat sheet that may also help you learn:

The Cup Game

Innovation will be resisted

Second in a series of posts on innovation in liberal congregations.

If innovation in liberal congregations is hard, you won’t be surprised to learn that innovation will be resisted.

Sometimes the resistance will be in the open, and you will be able to identify specific people who are resisting the innovation. For example, I know of one minister who implemented innovations that brought 80 new people into a small congregation in less than a year; the response of the congregation’s board was to hire a lawyer so they could fire the minister. But I suspect that more often resistance will be passive and generalized: the innovator will find him- or herself ignored or encased in a bubble of apathy and inaction. This is why we might want to frame this statement in the passive voice — “innovation will be resisted” — because often it’s not clear who is doing the resisting.

And there are good reasons for us to resist innovation. I’ve already pointed out that innovation requires long hours and hard work, and that much innovation results in failure. Why spend long hours on something that’s likely to fail? If a given congregation is doing reasonably well at the moment (whether or not analysis shows it is declining over time), it makes a lot more sense to avoid innovation. Even in a case where a congregation is not doing well, why invest a lot of time and energy in innovative solutions, since most innovation is likely to fail?

Innovation is inherently risky, which is another reason to resist it. Take, for example, the way liberal congregations raise money. Most liberal congregations raise money today the same way they have been raising money for the past century. Yet in the last twenty years, fundraising in the rest of the nonprofit sector has changed dramatically, and other nonprofits are competing far more effectively for nonprofit dollars than are most liberal congregations. But if you go to your congregation’s leadership and suggest that they adopt some of the common fundraising practices of the rest of the nonprofit sector, you will face serious resistance — what if you try these new ideas and they fail? where will the money come from? The higher the stakes, the more resistance to risk and innovation you will find.

Finally, most liberal congregation seem to have a strong strain of institutional conservatism in them. I suspect that because we are willing to engage in some theological innovation, we are more likely to cling to our institutional forms. Furthermore, all the liberal congregations I know are dominated by a kind of hyper-individualism that gives a great many persons veto power over any decision. When so many people can veto major and minor decisions for any reason or no reason at all, institutions tend to become quite conservative — most decisions (including most innovations) will be vetoed, and the institution will keep on doing things the same way they’ve always been done.

Next: Radical innovation and borrowing.

Innovation is hard

First in a series of posts on innovation in liberal congregations.

We hear a lot of talk about “innovation” in liberal congregations these days. Liberal religious leaders, both lay and ordained, are rightly worried by the downwards trend in membership and attendance in liberal congregations; and many leaders believe that the way to reverse these downwards trends is through innovation. So I’d like to take a closer look at innovation — what is it, how does it apply to congregations, and will it halt the downwards trend in which we find ourselves?

First, some quick definitions: Innovation in liberal religion is the application of new ideas and new ways of doing things. Liberal religion in the most general sense refers to institutionalized religion willing to allow theological change and evolution; liberal religion stands between orthodox or conservative religion on the right, and radical religion on the left; in the U.S., the term “liberal religion” has been claimed mostly by Unitarian Universalists, and some liberal Christians and Jews.

Now on to the first point — Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise: innovation in religion is hard.

Innovation is hard first of all because most of us turn to organized religion for stability. We are trying to make meaning out of our chaotic lives, and liberal religion can help us find that meaning in order to make sense out of chaos, to find a sense of purpose, to come up with some values that can provide stability. Any innovation we carry out has the potential to upset that sense of stability. Innovation is going to be emotionally challenging.

Innovation is hard second of all because it means risking failure. If you’re going to try something that is truly new, you won’t have clear models to follow and you’re going to make a lot of mistakes along the way; one or more of those mistakes may well put an end to your innovation, and even an end to your entire congregation. Not only that, but failure sucks: failing at something can make you feel like crap.

A third reason innovation is hard is that it requires hard work. It’s much easier to keep on doing things the same way you’ve always done them. When you innovate, you’re going to be pouring extra hours into the innovative project. You’re also going to be pouring extra effort and attention into the innovative project.

So innovation is emotionally challenging, innovation means risking failure, and innovation takes lots of work. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise: innovation is hard.

Next: Innovation will be resisted.

Peace Pilgrim and universalism

Peace Pilgrim, the woman who achieved some small measure of renown for traveling “25,000 miles on foot for peace,” was a pacifist deeply rooted in Western religious traditions. Not surprisingly, she held a universalist theology (note the small “u”; I’m speaking of her theology, not implying she was a member of the Universalist denomination). In the collection of her writings, I find this brief response to a correspondent who asked her, “Do you believe there is both a heaven and a hell?”

Heaven and hell are states of being. Heaven is being in harmony with God’s will; hell is being out of harmony with God’s will. You can be in either state on either side of life. There is no permanent hell. — Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words, 5th compact edition (Shelton, Conn.: Friends of Peace Pilgrim, 2003), p. 150.

In the first two sentences, Peace Pilgrim expresses sentiments that can be found in such classic Universalist writers as Hosea Ballou; really, this is a notion that extends back in Western thinking at least to Plato.

The third sentence is at odds with Ballou’s Universalism; for Ballou, God’s power is such that you get saved and put in heaven after death whether you want to be there or not, whether you’re worthy of it or not. By contrast, for Peace Pilgrim your freedom of will continues after death, and remains strong enough to go out of harmony with God’s will. In a sense, Peace Pilgrim is somewhat like the Restorationist Universalists who allow for a time of punishment after death; at least, insofar as moving oneself out of harmony with God can be considered a form of punishment.

The final sentence is a clear statement of universalist theology: “There is no permanent hell.” Whatever denomination they may belong to, universalists all affirm this truth.

The author of Mark Tidd

When we were kids, my sister Jean and I discovered the Mark Tidd books, written by Clarence Budington Kelland, while we were staying at our grandmother’s house in Staten Island, New York. I remember one of the books was inscribed “To Bobby” — that was my father’s name when he was a boy — from his mother.

Jean and I loved Mark Tidd. He was smart. Even though he looked funny (he was fat, and he stuttered), he always got the better of potential bullies. He and his three buddies got into all sorts of interesting adventures — in one book they took over a failing newspaper, in another book they ran a store, in another book they rented an entire broken-down deserted resort hotel — and they were always saved from looming disasters by Mark Tidd’s brains.

I tracked down some of the Mark Tidd books a few years ago, to see if I would like them now as much as I liked them when I was a kid. The plots and characters were pretty good, as juvenile series books go — the plots and characters obviously look to Tom Sawyer as a model (Tom Sawyer is explicitly mentioned in the opening pages of the first book; see also “Michigan Authors and Their Books,” Michigan Library Bulletin, vol. 16, no. 4, Sept-Oct. 1925 [Lansing, Michigan], pp. 22-24) — but as an adult I picked up on some undercurrents that made me uncomfortable. In the first book, Mark Tidd and his three friends form a secret society, which they model on the Ku Klux Klan; even though there’s no overt racism in the book (everyone in the story is white), even mentioning the Ku Klux Klan positively made it hard for me to like the book. (The later books don’t mention the KKK.) In the rest of the books, Kelland extols the virtues of hard work , honesty, and financial know-how — these are values I can affirm — but he doesn’t seem to recognize that a key ingredient to Mark Tidd’s success in his various enterprises is the backing of his father’s immense capital.

Recently I tried to find a biography of Kelland. Continue reading “The author of Mark Tidd”

Your Web site on different devices

Carol pointed me to the Screenfly tools on QuirkTools, which allows you to preview any Web site as it appears on various devices, including Android and Apple smartphones and tablets, desktop computers, and televisions. To try this out, try comparing our congregation’s main Web site with our religious education blog; I just updated our congregation’s religious education blog with a “mobile-first” responsive Web design, while the main Web site does not have a responsive design, and there’s a big difference in the way each appears on phones and tablets.

(1) First, open the Screenfly tool in a new window by clicking here.

(2) Next, enter the following URL, and try viewing it as desktop, mobile, tablet, and television:

(3) Now enter the following URL, and notice how it responds differently to a desktop, mobile, tablet, and television, displaying legibly (and differently) on each):


Isn’t QuirkTools’s Screenfly great fun?