Carol took our 1993 Toyota Camry down to Dave’s Auto Repair. We thought there was something wrong with the hand brake, but it turned out the reason the brake light was on was because there was a leak in the brake line. It was going to cost three thousand dollars to fix. Carol called me up, we talked it over, and I said I thought three thousand was still cheaper than buying a new car. Carol told the mechanic to go ahead and fix the car. There was a moment of silence, and it became obvious he was not expecting her to say that. He told her that the gas tank was also rusted out, and the floor boards were about to rust through. It was time to get another car.

We looked at used cars online. The next day I rented a car, and we drove to the Toyota dealer in Palo Alto to look at some of the used cars we saw online. When you shop for cars, you enter a never-never-land where nothing is quite what it seems. The mileage posted in the online description did not match the mileage on the actual car. One online description said the car had a moon roof, and the sheet posted in the window of the car also said it had a moon roof, but there was no moon roof. The salespeople will tell you whatever you want to hear: does it have a full-sized spare? yes of course it does; but the spare tire turns out to be one of those little dinky ones. We finally settled on a 2008 Camry hybrid. Of course the price wasn’t what we thought it was. Carol haggled with the salesman; he tried to show her his sales awards, but she didn’t want to look; he went off to talk with his manager; he came back with a price that was still too high; Carol haggled some more; another talk with the manager; we accepted the deal; and when the salesman seemed too cheerful, Carol turned to me and muttered, “We could have gotten the price down more.” Then I went and talked with their finance people, and had to sign away all my rights to sue them if the car turns out to be a lemon — California law protects car dealers, not consumers — and wrote a check. And of course, the next day the driver’s side visor fell down and wouldn’t stay up; this in spite of being assured by the salesmen that they check every car over very thoroughly, which leads me to believe that we should never take the car to that dealer for service, if they could miss something so obvious.

We like the car pretty well, in spite of everything. So far we’ve been getting about forty miles per gallon of gas. But I miss the old car. I bought it from Carol’s mom before she died. It drove us across the continent five times (or two and a half round trips). It looked forlorn sitting in our mechanic’s parking lot as we emptied everything out of it — snow brushes and maps and jumper cables and crumpled coffee cups from under the seat. Now it sits there waiting for the junkie to come and pick it up and take it away.

Another view of the “nones”

Recently, those who study the contemporary U.S. religious landscape have been focusing on the rise of the “nones,” those who check off “none” when asked their religious affiliation on surveys. Many commentators are predicting a gradual decline in religious affiliation in the U.S. In a recent article on the Alban Institute Web site, Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby points out that the rise of the “nones” in Canada began long before it did in the United States, and has not resulted in secularization:

“In Canada, the reality of religious polarization is a far cry from what was anticipated by theories of linear secularization. It is literally A New Day for religion, where market demand remains high, precisely at a time when growing numbers are rejecting religion. Changing demographics and varied market performances are contributing to a restructuring of players. But the inclinations to embrace religion and reject religion co-exist, with the balance always in dynamic flux. Such religious polarization, as I’ve been emphasizing, is found everywhere — even now, as the Pew Forum data remind us, in the United States.”

The Alban Institute article, “Welcome to Religio8us Polarization,” is available here. This article is adapted from Bibby’s book-length study, A New Day: The Resilience and Restructuring of Religion in Canada, available as a free download from Project Canada.

Singing with Coleman Barks

Shelley Phillips and Barry Phillips provided the music to accompany Coleman Barks as he read from his translations of Rumi last night at the First Congregational Church of Santa Cruz. Barks grew up in the south and loves shape note singing, so Shelley asked local Sacred Harp singers if they’d come and sing two tunes.

It’s a long way from San Mateo to Santa Cruz, and Carol and I got to the church about ten minutes before the reading was to begin. All the church’s parking spaces were full, and the school parking lot next door was full, too. We parked on the street.

As soon as I walked into the church, someone spotted the maroon oblong Sacred Harp book in my hand, and sent me to sit in one of the front three rows. I recognized Janet and one or two other singers, but no one else — it’s a long drive, and Santa Cruz singers don’t get up to the Bay Area to sing much.

Coleman Barks began reading. I could hear the cadences of Southern preaching in his voice. Shelley and Barry played — Shaker tunes, Sacred Harp tunes, Bach — as he read. People who study liturgy talk about the continuum from ordinary speech through heightened speech, singing, and finally wordless music. As Southern preachers often do, Barks moved along this continuum from ordinary speech to heightened speech; Shelley and Barry Phillips moved along the other end of the continuum, singing and music.

We Sacred Harp singers sang right after the intermission. Sacred Harp singing moves between heightened speech and singing, so we occupied the middle ground of that continuum from ordinary speech to music. Shelley led us in no. 178 Africa; Barks read one of his poems that mentions Sacred Harp singing, then we sang no. 59 Holy Manna (vv. 1, 3, 5). Barks came to sing with us on Holy Manna, standing in the bass section a couple of people to my left.

I think that was about the deadest place I’ve ever sung Sacred Harp in: I could hear a little of what the tenors were singing, and I could hear the bass I was standing next to, and I could hear Shelley, who was standing facing us; and that’s about all I could hear. So it wasn’t the ecstatic experience Sacred Harp singing can be when you can hear and respond to all the other singers; but it was probably a more musical experience for those who weren’t singing. When you’re singing for an audience, I think Sacred Harp tends to morph from an ecstatic form of heightened speech into musical singing — which, honestly, is a kindness to the audience; ecstasy doesn’t sound so good when you’re not singing along with it. Carol was siting out out in the audience, and she said we sounded fine.

Then Barks continued reading his translations of Rumi: poems of ecstatic and transcendent encounters with the divine; poems about mystic experiences, experiences which cannot be adequately communicated to an audience.

Cross-posted here.

Tragedy in Boston

By now, you’ve probably seen the news online: at least two people were killed by bombs placed near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Latest reports have another explosion at the JFK library as well. Live coverage at the BBC Web site show people being wheeled away from the site in wheelchairs, some of them with blood or obvious injuries.

Still don’t know who’s behind this — could be a U.S. group, just like the Oklahoma City bombings. I’m sure groundless accusations will abound out there on social media. Which is a good reason to stop looking at social media for a while.

One minor trivia point: today is the day that Patriots Day is celebrated, commemorating the Battle of Concord and Lexington, and the beginning of the American Revolution (the BBC described Patriots Day as commemorating the evacuation of Boston by British troops, but they’re thinking of Evacuation Day, celebrated on March 17). Patriots Day is such an obscure holiday, it’s hard to imagine this bombing is related to it. Rather, the bombing doubtless targeted the second-biggest sports event in the U.S., measured by media coverage, after the Superbowl.

New District Executive in PCD

Today, Susan Lankford, Acting President of the Board of Pacific Central District (PCD), sent an email message officially announcing the new District Executive of PCD:

“With great pleasure the Pacific Central District Board of Directors announces that Joshua Searle-White has accepted the position of Pacific Central District Executive. Josh will be attending the Pacific Western Regional Assembly later this month, General Assembly in Louisville, KY, and will assume his position in the PCD on July 1. Continue reading “New District Executive in PCD”

What I like at the UUA

After writing a cranky-snarky post about the survey just put forth by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Board, I got to thinking about all the good, talented, effective UUA staffers I have seen at work, and whom I admire and respect. In spite of organizational problems, what we might call systemic issues, there are so many people who do so much good work at the UUA that it’s past time I listed some of them.

So here goes, in no particular order: Continue reading “What I like at the UUA”

Memorial Day

Carol and I went to Wisnom’s hardware store across the street. I had to get some supplies for this Sunday’s Judean Village project in the Sunday school, and she went just because it’s an interesting place.

One of the guys who works there who knows us asked if I was finding what I was looking for. I said I was, and then asked why there were so few people in the store.

“Maybe because Easter was Sunday,” he said. “Maybe because school vacation’s this week. Maybe because Chinese Memorial Day’s tomorrow.”

“Chinese Memorial Day?” I said.

“April 5,” he said, “solar holiday, so it’s the same day every year. On Chinese Memorial Day, everyone goes to family graves. I went yesterday.” He bowed to an imaginary grave. “There will be lots of people up at Skylawn cemetery tomorrow. Flowers everywhere.”

We started talking about visiting graves, from a New England and a Chinese perspective. I wanted to hear more about Chinese Memorial Day, but Carol had to get back to work, so we cut our conversation short.

Ching Ming Festival

Click the Chinese characters above for photos of this year’s Ching Ming Festival in Skylawn cemetery.

Which one would you attend?

An old friend called me up yesterday, and told me a story. They were traveling, in a strange city over a weekend, and wanted to go to church. The sermon topic at the local Unitarian Universalist church: “Consciousness.” The sermon topic at the hip Christian church in town: “Bad Girls of the Bible.”

If this were you, which church would you attend? — and why?