I can’t help but think that happiness is valued too highly. Happiness arises from forgetfulness: the woman who has been living on the street for too long is happy when she finds a loaf of stale and slightly moldy bread in the trash bin behind a grocery store, for at last she has something more or less edible; but if she remembered what it was to eat a sandwich made with fresh bread and hot chicken breast just sliced from a freshly-cooked bird, she would be filled with despair at her lot in life. Happiness arises from ignorance: the man who lives in an affluent suburb is happy when he purchases what the economists call “consumer goods”; but if he could understand how shallow and meaningless his life is, that he is made happy by purchases, his happiness would dissipate like mist when the sun rises higher in the sky. Happiness arises from self-deception: when we look in the mirror and see something that really isn’t there, we are happy merely because we have fooled ourselves.

We shouldn’t expect happiness to be anything more than a fleeting moment. When you complete some arduous task that has engaged all your best faculties, you are truly happy at the moment of completion; but then, if you are true to yourself, you must move on to the next arduous task, with all its false starts and later disappointments, and no guarantee of success. When parents see their child achieving some milestone — the first step, the first words, the first stirrings of healthy independence — at that moment the parent is happy for the child, pleased at the child’s continuing and successful growth; but in a flash that moment is left behind, for the child must continue growing. Happiness arises in the natural course of growth, but it lasts a moment, then is gone. It is pleasant in that moment, but to cling to it is madness.

Contentment, by contrast, may be valued too little. Many people say they want to be happy, but less commonly do we hear someone say that they strive for mere contentment. We tend to dismiss contentment; good enough is not good enough for us. But if we could be contented with contentment, I suspect we would worry less about happiness, and be the better for it.

Reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson

Yesterday I finally finished reading James Boswell’s Life of Johnson. I can’t remember when I started reading the Life of Johnson, but it was probably during the 1990s. I bought a used copy of a paperback edition, which I believe I found at the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and that edition is a 1987 reprint; so I must have begun reading after 1987. And I was obsessed with eighteenth century New England history during the 1990s; reading Boswell’s account of one of the most interesting lives of mid-eighteenth century London fit right in with that obsession. So it has taken me about two decades to finally finish reading all 1,400 pages of the book.

I made pretty good progress at the start: as I recall, I read the first third of the book in a few weeks; this part of the book takes place before Boswell actually met Johnson, and it takes the form, more or less, of a narrative. But after this first third of the book, my progress slowed. I would read two or three of Johnson’s conversations, as recorded by Boswell, and I’d have to pause — pause to appreciate the beauty of the language, and to think about what Johnson said. A page of my handwritten notes remains between pages 986 and 987 of the paperback, and I copied out this passage in full:

[Sat. 25 June 1763]

After having given credit to reports of his [Johnson’s] bigotry, I was agreeably surprized when he expressed the following very liberal sentiment, which has the additional value of obviating an objection to our holy religion, founded upon the discordant tenets of Christians themselves: ‘For my part, Sir, I think all Christians, whether Papists or Protestants, agree in the essential articles, and that their differences are trivial, and rather political than religious.’

Rereading this, I can see why I thought it worthwhile to copy this out by hand.

Johnson was prone to fits of melancholy — today we would probably call him depressive, an unlikable and clinical word — and on this same page of notes I copied out this brief passage: Continue reading “Reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson”


In this season of “bridging ceremonies,” that peculiar tradition of Unitarian Universalism that tries to convince graduating high school seniors to remain affiliated with our religious tradition, comes an article by Jen Bradbury in the May 29, 2013, issue of Christian Century titled “Sticky Faith: What keeps kids connected to church?”

Bradbury, a long-time youth minister in a Lutheran church in Illinois, begins the article by admitting that in spite of her attempts to make youth ministry relevant to teens, most of the teens who went through her programs left the church. It sounds like the same outcome she would have had had she been doing youth ministry in a Unitarian Universalist church: talk about “friendships, sex, and alcohol” during youth group, then watch the kids leave religion after graduation and never come back.

But, Bradbury says, a six-year longitudinal study called the College Transition Project carried out by Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) offers an alternative; the results of this study have been published in the book Sticky Faith: Practical Ideas to Nurture Long-Term Faith in Teenagers. According to Bradbury, the College Transition Project argues that most youth groups “offer teens a ‘Red Bull experience of the gospel’ — it was ‘potent enough to help them make the right decisions at a party in high school’ but not ‘powerful enough to foster long-term faith.’.”

Bradbury suggests ways that congregations could revise their youth ministries in order to foster life-long faith in teenagers. Continue reading “Bridging”


I took a week of vacation last week, which I mostly spent in historic downtown San Mateo — Carol was working this week — but I did take a day trip in to San Francisco to visit City Lights Bookstore, where I got A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri (trans. Brian Massumi [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1987]; originally Mille Plateaux, 1980]). I got interested in A Thousand Plateaus through reading a chapter on Deleuze in Biblical Interpretation and Philosophical Hermeneutics by B. H. McLean (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University, 2012).

What particularly fascinates me about A Thousand Plateaus is the way Delueze and Guatarri contrast “aroborescent” or tree-like thinking with rhizomatic thinking. In the Western tradition, we often structure our thoughts like trees: there are roots and branches, and a central trunk linking the two. Our thoughts have ramifications, just as branches ramify from the central trunk out to the twigs. However, as Deleuze and Guatarri point out: “Arborescent systems are hierarchical systems with centers of significance and subjectification, central automata like organized memories.” [Dleuze and Guatarria, p. 16] Thus, arboresecent thinking is related to distinctions between subject and object, to hierarchical thinking, and even to power structures like dictatorships.

Deleuze and Guatarri comment: “It is odd how the tree has dominated Western reality and all of Western thought, from botany to biology and anatomy, but also gnosiology, theology, ontology, all of philosophy…: the root foundation, Grund, racine, fondement. The West has a special relation to the forest, and deforestation; the fields carved from the forest are populated with seed plants produced by cultivation based on species lineages of the arborescent type” [p. 18, ellipsis in the original]

Another image that can be used to understand thinking is the rhizome. In describing the rhizome, and rhizomatic thinking, Deleuze and Guatarri are not trying to set up a dichotomy, a dualism between rhizome (good) and tree (bad); they make it clear that rhizomatic thinking can lead to its own forms of despotism. Instead of creating another dualism, they are employing “a dualism of models only in order to arrive at a process that challenges all models.” And they summarize the principal characteristics of a rhizome as follows:

“Unlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and it traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states. The rhizome is reducible neither to the One nor the multiple. It is not the One that becomes Two or even directly three, for five, etc. … It constitutes linear multiplicities with n dimensions having neither subject nor object, which can be laid out on a plane of consistency, and from which the One is always subtracted (n – 1)….” [pp. 20-21]

Why should any of this be of interest to you? B. H. McLean points out that “our arborified minds have been trained to essentialize things as isolated entities, rather than as mobile entities that enter into dynamic interconnection with other entities. Thinking ecologically does not come easy to us.” [p. 282] Rhizomes have no beginning nor end, only middles. Bernard Loomer says the great intellectual achievement of Jesus of Nazareth is his articulation of the Kingdom of God, what we would call the Web of Life; I think Jesus’s thought is an example of rhizomatic thought, a non-Western idea which sidesteps subject and object, which sidesteps isolated entities; and like the Kingdom of God or the Web of Life, “a rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance. The tree imposes the verb ‘to be,’ but the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction, ‘and…and…and…'” [Deleuze and Guatarri, p. 25, ellipsis in the original] And so if we come to an impasse, it may help that a rhizome has multiple entryways.

Online petition regarding clergy sexual misconduct

The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville’s “Safety Net” has started an online petition at Change.org, asking that all candidates for the UUA Board and for Moderator to open up a conversation about clergy sexual misconduct in U.S. Unitarian Universalist congregations:

We, the undersigned, are asking the candidates for UUA Moderator and Board of Trustees to publicly indicate their willingness to start a new national conversation on clergy misconduct in the UUA, and to ensure that survivors of misconduct have a real voice in that conversation. We ask them to commit to using the powers of the Board to take ownership of the recommendations of the Safe Congregation Panel, to update them as needed, and to hold the staff accountable for implementing them fully. And we ask them to investigate the accountability relationship between the Board and Ministerial Fellowship Committee, with an eye toward balancing the need to protect institutional interests with a pastoral responsibility to care for victims of misconduct.

I signed it. You bet I did. They provide a space for comments when you “sign,” and here’s what I wrote: “As someone who has served as both parish minister and religious educator in congregations suffering from past clergy sexual misconduct, I have seen the effects such misconduct has on both adults and legal minors. I have also seen first hand a high level of denial about the seriousness of clergy sexual misconduct on the part of UUA leaders. It’s way past time the UUA addressed this more fully.”

Mind you, I have my doubts whether such petitions effect much change. I also have grave doubts about whether the culture at the UUA, or in many local congregations, is going to change; Unitarian Universalists have a tendency to want to solve other people’s problems before trying to address their own problems; we’re great at sending money overseas or working on immigration problems here in the U.S., but we’ve been very unwilling to tackle problems that occur in our own homes and hearts, problems like domestic violence, racism, classism, the overconsumption that goes with upper middle class lifestyles, and so on.

But in spite of my doubts, I signed the petition. It’s easy for me to sign this petition; I’m a minister, I have a vested interest in cleaning up my profession. Now it would be nice if lots of respectable laypeople, good solid institutionalists — people who are pillars of our local congregations, people of impeccable morals — it would be good if many such people also signed the petition.

Maker Faire and lobsters

Carol and I went to Maker Faire today. It was held just a couple of miles away in San Mateo, so we were able to walk there — which was good, because so many people attended that some of the parking lots were four miles away from the event. If you’ve never heard of it, Maker Faire is kind of like a state or county agricultural fair for geeks and engineers.

We saw the gee-whiz showy things you’d expect to see at Maker Faire: strange metal constructions that belched fire; all kinds of robots; people riding around inside giant self-propelled cupcakes; a Rube Goldberg-style giant mousetrap powered by simple machines and a bowling ball; the CO2 eruptions that happen when you drop Mentos into carbonated beverages. My favorite gee-whiz showy thing was the Sashimi Tabernacle Choir, an art car covered with fish and lobsters that danced in carefully choreographed movements:


And we saw the geeky technical things you’d expect to see at Maker Faire: conventional automobiles converted to electric power; too many projects made with Arduino microcontrollers; robots; drones; giant soap bubbles; a blacksmith; ham radio operators.

We also saw things that you might not expect at Maker faire: goats; chickens; beekeepers; a guy selling New-Agey devices to protect you from EMF radiation; a steam-powered scale-model train; lessons on how to walk on stilts; a really good drummer who used plastic trash barrels and other found objects for his drum set.

It was very satisfying, if for no other reason than being able to spend time hanging out with thousands of other geeky people who like to make things instead of consuming things.

Update: Because a commenter asked, here’s a video (taken by Carol) of the Sashimi Tabernacle Choir:

A time of growing cruelty

In a recent post on her blog, Alice Walker writes about how the FBI has called Assata Shakur a terrorist. At one point in the post, Walker, being a poet, diverges from commentary on current events into a meditation on the prevalence of cruelty in the United States today:

“What is most distressing about the times we live in, in my view, is our ever accelerating tolerance for cruelty. Prisoners held indefinitely in orange suits, hooded, chained and on their knees. Like the hunger strikers of Guantanamo, I would certainly prefer death to this. People shot and bombed from planes they never see until it is too late to get up from the table or place the baby under the bed. Poor people terrorized daily, driven insane really, from fear. People on the streets with no food and no place to sleep. People under bridges everywhere you go, holding out their desperate signs: a recent one held by a very young man, perhaps a veteran, under my local bridge: I Want To Live….”

In recent months, I’ve been trying to understand why I feel there is something morally unsound in our society recently — and yes, I know that every era thinks their time is morally unsound. But every era does have its own particular moral unsoundness, and I think Walker is on to something: our time is a time when we are increasingly tolerant of cruelty, even amused by cruelty.

Out the window

Carol and I recently completed a mind-body wellness class offered (for free!) by our health care provider. One of the things that our instructor said was that a good way to reduce stress is to spend time “in nature.” Further reading in the text book for the class revealed that our brains becomes fatigued by doing all the things most of us have to do in our jobs: staring at computer screens, meeting deadlines, sitting in meetings, etc. The natural world engages different parts of our brains, allowing the fatigued parts to rest. — I may not have this exactly right, but I think I have the gist of it.

When I learned this, I thought to myself: and where are we supposed to find the natural world in downtown San Mateo? This is not Tokyo where, according to my Aunt Martha, who lived there for two years, the residents cultivate little pockets of natural beauty throughout the city. Here in San Mateo, we could walk over to Central Park where the Japanese American community maintains a Japanese garden; but that garden is only unlocked for a few hours a day. Like many densely populated areas in the United States, downtown San Mateo has little to offer in the way of natural beauty; it combines urban density with dreary suburban sprawl; and even where there is some natural beauty, someone will have dropped trash there: fast food bags at the base of a tree, malt liquor cans thrown in among flowers, women’s underwear draped in the branches of a tree overhanging San Mateo Creek (I’m not making that up).

At some point during our wellness class, though, I realized that we have created a little oasis of natural beauty on our little balcony. We have nothing to compare with Japanese bonsai, but over the years we have accumulated quite a few plants. At the moment several of them are in bloom: the purple flowers of the potted lavender; the orange and gold of the nasturtiums; the vivid pink flowers of the succulent Carol can’t remember the name of. I was staring out the window at these flowers this morning. Carol walked into the kitchen and asked, “What are you looking at?”

“Nothing,” I said. “Nothing at all.”

How to take your Sunday school back to the year 29

Every couple of years, we run a five-week Sunday school program called “Judean Village,” in which we travel back to the year 29 to be in a predominantly Jewish village in the Roman-controlled territory of Judea.

The Judean Village program has us travel back in time during Sunday school. We gather in the village square, where the artisans and shopkeepers of the village (i.e., the Sunday school teachers) exchange gossip and rumors — gossip about what the hated tax collector has been up to this week, what the Roman overlords are doing, etc. — and rumors about the wandering rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth who is rumored to actually sit down to share meals with tax collectors (horrors!), who is rumored to be healing people and even raising them from the dead, and who may or may not be planning a revolution that will drive the Romans out of Judea and reestablish Jewish rule. The artisans and shopkeepers are all wearing long tunics with rope belts and head cloths (available from www.christiancostumes.com). We supplemented the costumes we purchased with ones made by volunteers in the program.

The village song leader comes by, and teaches the villagers a song: Continue reading “How to take your Sunday school back to the year 29”

What I did with my weekend

I spent this past weekend singing Sacred Harp music: six hours of singing on Saturday, and another hour or so on Sunday. Sacred Harp is a kind of four-part a capella singing which originated in eighteenth century New England, migrated to the South in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and which is now undergoing a renaissance among postmodern urbanites in the northern and western parts of the U.S. Rolling Stone magazine described it as “a robust, harmonically intricate of country joy and unearthly drone.”

This is sacred music; many of the texts are by Isaac Watts, which means this music would never be sung in most Unitarian Universalist congregations, where people tend to squirm at the mention of God and Jesus. Even though I don’t agree with the theology of most of the songs we sang, nevertheless I got more religion out of singing Sacred Harp than I generally get in a Unitarian Universalist worship service. I’ve been thinking about why that is so, and here are four of my reasons:

(a) Sacred Harp singing is DIY — do-it-yourself — music. There is no paid choir director, no soloists, no experts; there are no performances or performers; everyone participates in order for the music to happen. By contrast, Unitarian Universalist worship services feel like performances in front of an audience; if I don’t show up, it won’t make much difference.

(b) Sacred Harp singing can be, and often is, an ecstatic experience. Ecstatic and transcendental experiences tend to make Unitarian Universalists very uncomfortable.

(c) There’s a broad distribution of ages among Sacred Harp singers, from the late teens to the eighties and nineties. Unitarian Universalist congregations tend to be made up mostly of people who are fifty and older.

(d) The singing is loud, exuberant, and enthusiastic. The tunes are pitched so that ordinary singers can sing them comfortably. By contrast, singing in Unitarian Universalist congregations tends to be restrained, and the tunes are pitched so high that those of us with ordinary voices can’t sing them.

I still love my Unitarian Universalist church; Sacred Harp singing would not be an adequate substitute for what I get out of my religious community. But I can still wish the Unitarian Universalism would embrace the DIY ethos, welcome ecstasy and transcendence, include younger people, and sing better.