Youth service trip, day two

We worked on a Habitat for Humanity rehab project today. Three of us worked on nailing down oriented strand board on the roof, then putting up drip edge. Four of us worked on painting and other miscellaneous tasks. I posted a couple of photos here. And here’s a photo proving that, even though I haven’t worked as a carpenter for 18 years, I still actually know how to use a hammer (thanks for taking the photo, Samuel):


By the end of the work day, we were pretty dirty, a little sore, a little sunburned, and very satisfied. Habitat for Humanity is a great organization to work for: they are well organized, they have clear goals, and they know how to manage volunteers.

We have another day of work at Habitat, and then we head off to volunteer at an ecology school doing trail maintenance. We’ll be camping at the ecology school, with no Internet access, so don’t expect another post until Saturday or Sunday.

(And, honestly, this service trip is more enjoyable for me than attending General Assembly. I’m doing something to make the world better! )

Youth service trip, day one

I’m on a five-day service trip with a total of seven youth and adults from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. Agenda for day one: drive to Los Angeles, check in at motel, eat dinner and maybe do some sightseeing.

We drove down in two vehicles, with four people in the Neffmobile minivan, and 3 people in my car. They napped in the other car, but our car was very chatty. When Sam joined my car after the lunch stop, the car had a majority of people who liked classical music, so it became the classical-music-and-chat car.

Los Angeles traffic proved to be just as heavy and slow as we thought it would be. The Neffmobile pulled into the motel parking lot just after we did — with brake problems. So we scrapped our plans of driving to downtown Long Beach for dinner and sightseeing, because Robert had to drive the van to a nearby repair shop (which, fortunately, was open until 9 p.m.). The rest of us went to eat at the motel restaurant — the food was just adequate, but it was quite inexpensive so we kept well within our budget.

We’re off to bed early tonight, because we’ll be up at 6 a.m. tomorrow morning so we can get to the Habitat for Humanity work site on time.

What squirrels want

As we walked past the little plum tree this morning, heading towards the car to drive to the church, Carol pointed to the ripe plums that lay on the ground. “The squirrels have been getting to them,” she said.

“You know what I’m going to say,” I said.

“What?” she said, somewhat warily.

“Squirrels just want to have plums,” I said.*

Despite herself, Carol laughed.

We got into the car, and she began singing, “And squirrels they want to have plu–ums / Oh, squirrels just want to have plums….”


*If you were lucky enough to miss the popular music of the 1980s, that’s a reference to a 1983 hit song, with vaguely feminist lyrics, performed by Cyndi Lauper.

Have Yourself a Buy Nothing Christmas

Yes, it’s not too early to start planning for Christmas. More specifically, it’s not too early to start planning if you want to have a Buy Nothing Christmas. A bunch of Canadian Mennonites have been promoting this concept through this Web site, and this Facebook page.

I like them because they’re not afraid to tell the truth about Christmas consumption as they see it, yet they’re not sanctimonious about it. And they play ukuleles in the snow. And they have funny posters.

Geez, how did I miss this?

Geez magazine: Holy Mischief in an Age of Fast Faith — they’ve been around since 2005, and how could I have not heard of them before? Maybe because they’re Canadian, and even though I’m a Canadiophile, there’s enormous cultural resistance here in the States which tends to prevent the in-migration of culture from north of the border. All kinds of good things to read, including stories and blog posts like Reduce, reuse, repent: Earth Day tent revivalA dash of cold water for Christian anarchismChoice and capitalism: A lesson from ecological Marxism.

Good stuff. You might want to check it out. And thanks, James, for turning me on to Geez.

Ron Hargis, an obscure religious educator

The story of Ron Hargis, the minister of religious education at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (then called the Palo Alto Unitarian Church) from 1971-1977, offers an interesting insight into the changes facing congregations in the 1970s, particularly the decline in the number of children, and the emergence of new educational approaches.

Ronald Irving Hargis was born on May 26, 1924, in Battle Creek, Michigan. His father was Gerald C. Hargis (b. Aug. 18, 1896 in Des Moines, Iowa), and his mother was Marian Adelle Howard (b. Mar. 25, 1893 in Newark, New Jersey). I know little about his childhood except that he apparently was raised a Seventh Day Baptist; this denomination observes the sabbath on Saturday.

Hargis received an A.B. from Western Michigan University. He then moved to Connecticut, where he received a B.D. (1949) and an M.A. (1950) from Hartford Seminary Foundation. He did a student pastorate from 1948-1950 in Waterford, Conn. This congregation was founded in 1784, according to the Seventh Day Baptist General Conference Web site [ accessed 12 June 2013 13:25 PDT] Then from 1950-1952, Hargis served as the Executive Secretary in Religious Education of the Seventh Day Baptist denomination. Continue reading “Ron Hargis, an obscure religious educator”

The story of the two wolves

Since some of you like tracing first references of things, I want to alert you to an interesting development in the comments thread of a recent post. Amanda posted a comment in which she said she had been powerfully moved by the native American story of the two wolves, a good one and a bad one, who are fighting; the one you feed the most is the one who wins the fight. I like that story, too, and Amanda’s comment got me wondering which Native people the story came from; the earliest printed reference I could find for the story was a 1964 book on Christian prayer which attributed the story to the Mohave people; in that version, it’s two dogs who are fighting, not two wolves. Then Erp got in the act, and found the story in a 1914 Bible commentary, where the story was attributed to “an Indian.”

Now I’m really interested in this question. If you can find an earlier printed reference to the story, I’ll send you a fair trade chocolate bar, in addition to which you get bragging rights.

And thanks, Amanda, for starting us off on this interesting quest.

Portrait of a religious education program

This is a portrait of the religious education program at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA), where I am the Associate Minister of Religious Education. While I focus on religious education for children and youth in this portrait, I also look briefly at religious education for adults.

While this is way longer than the average blog post, nevertheless I thought some of you might be interested in reading this portrait — both to see what another religious education program looks like, and as an example of one approach to describing religious education programs. I wrote this portrait based on questions asked by Dr. Mark Hicks for the course “Religious education in a changing world.” Continue reading “Portrait of a religious education program”

A new myth

Lady M’Leod asked, if no man was naturally good? — Johnson. ‘No, madam, no more than a wolf.’ — Boswell. ‘Nor no woman, sir?’ — Johnson. ‘No, sir.’ — Lady M’Leod started at this, saying, in a low voice, ‘This is worse than Swift.’*

In our society, it is widely fashionable to think that human beings are basically good, and, to go along with that, that we are rational beings. Some people, mostly traditional Christians, hold an unfashionable view which is opposed to this, that human beings are marked by original sin. Most of those who hold this unfashionable view would also assert that rationality is not the first thing that strikes you when you look at human actions and moral decisions. But this unfashionable view is held by a minority of people in our society, and is dismissed by religious liberals like me.

Why do so many of us believe, against a great deal of evidence to the contrary, that human beings are good and rational? I suspect many of us hold on to this irrational belief merely because we don’t want to have anything to do with the unfashionable Christian belief in original sin. We don’t want to be accused of being “too Christian,” or accused of being “religious”; so we reject original sin, and without wondering about other possible alternatives, we irrationally believe in the myth that humans are good and rational. And this irrational belief of ours is strengthened by the myths promoted by economists: that we are each a rational actor making rational economic choices, and the general trend of our economic choices is to improve the human condition. Our inability to address global climate change and overpopulation puts the lie to the economists’ myths; yet we continue to believe them.

Samuel Johnson said humans are not naturally good, “no more than a wolf.” Given what now we know about how well wolves treat each other within the wolf pack, Johnson’s comparison overestimates human goodness; at least, his comparison overestimates human goodness in our society in which individualism is valued more highly than communal endeavor. At least the wolf can and will do good to other members of the pack; individualistic humans reject allegiance to the pack, and won’t do good to other humans except when it serves their own private and personal interests.

But we need not feel we have to choose between the unfashionable traditional Christian myth of original sin on the one hand, and on the other hand the combination of two myths, the Romantic myth of natural human goodness and the Enlightenment myth of human rationality. I think it’s time for a new myth. But I don’t yet know what it is.


* The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. by James Boswell, 1786 (ed. R. W. Chapman [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970], p. 300).

Favorite crossing guard

“Favorite crossing guard” read the sheet of poster paper someone had taped to the green-painted steel utility box that stands next to the traffic lights at Nelson and Charleston Roads. Another sign taped to the utility box read “Charles, you’re the best.” Whoever had taped up the signs left pens and markers so that passers-by could leave their own message to Charles, who is retiring, and whose last day at the crossing was Thursday.

Earlier this week, I had been talking with Charles about his upcoming move to Georgia, where retirement money goes a lot farther than here in the Bay area. But we didn’t stay long on that topic. Years ago, Charles had been a case manager in Cleveland working with emotionally disturbed children, before he moved to the Bay Area and became a custodian. (I never asked him about the career change, but moving from a burnout job with low pay, to a stable union job, sounds pretty attractive to me.) As is inevitable when two people get together who work with kids, we started talking about kids we had known and worked with. I’ve seen some troubling things in my career as a children and youth minister, but of course Charles had seen much worse.

This was one of the few uninterrupted conversations we have ever had, in the two years Charles has worked at this crossing. I probably saw him once or twice a week on my way to get lunch at the supermarket across the street, but mostly he spent his time talking to the kids from the nearby elementary school and middle school who went past. He seemed to know them all by name, and if a child came up while he was talking to me, he’d immediately greet that child, and turn his attention to them. It’s an unusual adult who can do that without being creepy; I like adults who treat adults and children with equal respect, and I like the more unusual adult who will end a conversation with another adult in order to have a conversation with a child. But on this day, I happened to come along when no kids were coming by, so we talked about kids: happy kids, troubled kids, kids who needed to talk with an adult who has excellent listening skills. Both of us have been trained to keep confidentiality, so there were no names or identifying characteristics; you can still have a good conversation of this sort without breaking confidentiality.

So on Thursday, I walked up to those two posters someone had left, and I read some of the things the kids wrote to Charles: they mentioned little in-jokes he had had with them, they wrote how much they’d miss him. I thought about signing one of the posters, but it seemed more appropriate to let the kids have their say, on their own. I wished Charles luck in my head, and walked on by.

News story about Charles here. As it happens, it was a member of our church who created the retirement posters.