Towed away

Yesterday Ned and Judy, who belong to a congregation I used to serve, were in town visiting relatives. I was supposed to meet them for lunch at the church down in Palo Alto. Bay Area traffic being what it is, I allowed an extra ten minutes beyond the usual twenty-five minutes driving time. But when I walked down from our apartment, I saw that someone had parked their car at the end of our driveway. I couldn’t get out.

I called the police. They wanted to know what kind of car it was, and I told them it was an older model Toyota Camry, dark green, and gave them the license plate number. I didn’t bother telling them about the statue of the Virgin Mary on the dashboard. They said they’d send someone right out.

I called the church, and Debra said she’d leave a note on my office door saying that I would be down as soon as I could get there. Then I stood there waiting, and hoping that whoever owned the car would come along right then, and I’d tell them that they really shouldn’t park in someone’s driveway, and they’d look embarrassed and drive away — that would be the fastest solution to my problem.

After about fifteen minutes, one of the city’s little three-wheeled traffic enforcement vehicles rolled around the corner. The traffic officer, a pleasant, soft-spoken young man, shook his head when he saw where the car had parked. He radioed for a tow truck. Continue reading “Towed away”

A scientific and theological take on nature, humanity, and freedom

Unitarian theologian Charles Hartshorne was also a serious amateur ornithologist. As an ornithologist, he was perhaps best known for his 1973 book Born To Sing: An Interpretation and World Survey of Bird Song (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), in which he investigates the evolutionary importance of bird song. Most of the book will be of little interest unless you’re something of a field biology geek and your idea of a good time is reading a book with statistical analysis, long tables of data, commentary on evolutionary theory, spectrograms, etc.

However, the last paragraph of Born To Sing is, I think, of interest to anyone who is interested in the relationship between humankind and other species. Written before people thought of degenderizing language, it takes the form of a theologically liberal reflection:

“Nature apart from man [sic] is basically good. So is man, although he has unique capacities for evil as well as good. This is because every increase in freedom increases the dangers inherent in freedom. Man is the freest, hence most dangerous, of terrestrial animals. He needs to meditate upon this elementary but not trivial truth much more than he has. The Greek fear of human conceit, hubris, was entirely justified. We need to recover from that fear. Technology makes man loom large in this solar system, but among the galaxies and island universes he is as small as ever. Science, given a balanced interpretation, fully justifies the old values of reverence and love toward what is other than, and in its encompassing aspect incomparably greater than, man and all his works, actual or potential.” [p. 229]

I’ve cast this in the form of a degenderized responsive reading, which appears after the jump…. Continue reading “A scientific and theological take on nature, humanity, and freedom”

What the pope said

La Civiltà Cattolica, a Jesuit publication, got an exclusive interview with Pope Francis. America: The National Catholic Review, the major Jesuit periodical in the U.S., published an English translation of the interview here.

New media are making a big deal out of this interview, because in it Pope Francis says that the Roman Catholic church should place less emphasis on its opposition to “gay marriage,” abortion, and contraceptives; for although he says that he still fully supports Catholic teachings on those topics, he feels that Roman Catholicism should focus on what he calls “the essentials, the necessary things”; and the most necessary thing, he says, is “the proclamation of salvation.” I would have guessed that the most necessary thing on which we should focus would be poverty and social justice; this is what I get from Jesus’ teachings; and to my mind, this change in emphasis — putting “proclamation of salvation” before opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion, and contraceptives — is slight indeed. Nevertheless, the media have pounced on it as if it is a complete change in Catholic teachings. Pope Francis is a bit of a media darling, isn’t he?

I was more interested in the pope’s seeming willingness to consider that the institution of the Catholic church should grow and evolve over time. When asked about the “enormous changes in society,” the pope replied, in part:

“…Human self-understanding changes with time and so also human consciousness deepens. Let us think of when slavery was accepted or the death penalty was allowed without any problem. So we grow in the understanding of the truth. Exegetes and theologians help the church to mature in her own judgment. Even the other sciences and their development help the church in its growth in understanding. There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning. The view of the church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong.”

While the pope does not go as far as the process theologians, who would assert that God actually grows and evolves, he nevertheless makes an important point: that a religious institution must grow in understanding, as the world grows and changes around the institution; and that a religious institution must draw upon “the other sciences” (which I understand as a broad category that includes both the natural sciences, and other areas of systematic human inquiry such as philosophy, etc.) to move towards ever greater maturity of judgment.

It is this point — rather than the pope’s rather weak statement on same sex marriage, abortion, and contraceptives — that I find to be the most compelling point in the interview. For this leaves open the door that someday, probably in the distant future, the Roman Catholic church could find its way to a greater maturity of judgment on, for example, its view of women.

Down by the docks

This afternoon, I went down to the marina, and stood on one of the docks. Plodding along the dock came a tall, strong, heavy man with a tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, muttering under his breath and occasionally breaking out into song:

  Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest,
      Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum…

He sang in a high, old tottering voice that sounded like it had been tuned and broken at the capstan bars. As he came closer, I could see a scar across one cheek, an old sabre cut that now showed a dirty, livid white on his nut-brown face. Continue reading “Down by the docks”

The price of growth, the pleasure of growth

The latest attendance figures for our congregation here in Palo Alto show a significant increase in our attendance. In the twelve month period from August, 2012, to August, 2013, average attendance in the worship service was up 10%, and average attendance in children and youth programs is up 25%.

We’re paying a price for this growth.

Just a couple of years ago, regular attendees had more of a feeling that they knew all the other regular attendees in the congregation — or at least they felt they could know all the other regular attendees with a little effort. Increasingly, I’m hearing from regular attendees that they no longer have that feeling. This is particularly true across the two different worship services: if you regularly attend the 11:00 service, you may feel that you just don’t know anyone in the 9:30 service.

As a staff member, I pay a different price for growth. I’m feeling the strain of trying to deal with expanding attendance, e.g., we had to add another Sunday school class to deal with increased attendance, which meant recruiting more volunteers. I’m working more hours than I usually do at this time of year, and it’s a challenge to make sure I don’t get sucked in to working too many hours, and neglecting my own personal and spiritual life. (And part of the price I’m paying for growth is a lack of time and energy to write much of anything for this blog.)

We’re also beginning to see benefits from this growth.

I’m definitely feeling a shared a sense of pleasure and low-level excitement. It is pleasant and mildly exciting to be part of a successful, growing organization. It’s flattering to think that people come to visit us, enjoy what they find in our congregation, and stick around. This benefit is somewhat vague, and even hard to pinpoint or define — nevertheless, it’s real, and it feels good.

In the children and youth programs, there are much more tangible benefits. In a small Sunday school or youth group, a child or youth may be the only person of their age and gender — yet most kids want to find a friend of their own age and gender. When there are more children or youth in a given age group, an individual child or youth is more likely to find one or more friends. I think this effect is larger with middle school kids, who really like it when there’s a good sized group of people their own age.

That’s a quick summary of the price we’re paying for growth, and the benefits we’re seeing for that growth. If your congregation is thinking about making a real effort to grow, I’m thinking you might be particularly interested in reading this report from someone who’s in the middle of it. And you might be asking yourself: Is it worth it? From my point of view, exhausted though I am right now, spending as I am a great deal of time and energy to get the new Sunday school year going. Kids are happier and think our congregation is more fun; that alone would be worth it. Parents and guardians are happier because their kids are happier. From my point of view, then, as someone who cares about kids and families with kids, as someone who thinks that one of the primary functions of a congregation is to help raise up the next generation — yes, growth is totally worth the inconvenience.

Labor Day picnic

Carol and I went to a Labor Day picnic in Alameda today. But this wasn’t your typical backyard barbeque. I’ve started singing with the Bay Area Labor Heritage Rockin’ Solidarity Chorus again, and the Chorus got invited to sing at a Labor Day celebration sponsored by the Alameda County Coalition of Unions.

Carol and I got to Alameda Point Park a little early, so we had time to wander around. Several of the unions had booths set up, and Carol got to talking with a nurse who was at the booth that said: “Lemon-Aid To Save Pediatrics.” The nurses union is trying to convince Kaiser Permanente not to shut down a pediatrics inpatient unit. The nurse told us that Kaiser is building a new hospital — a good thing, since the old Hayward hospital does not meet current state requirements for earthquakes — but the new facility will not include a pediatrics inpatient unit. We talked about the craziness of the health care industry these days, and we all agreed that Kaiser is one of the best health care providers out there — yet the health care market can cause event hem to make bad decisions.


The nurse had to go serve lemonade to someone else, so we walked around some more. I saw all kinds of people from all kinds of unions: teachers, nurses, cops, firefighters, electrical workers — I saw a sign for IFPTE Local 20 Engineers and Scientists of California, lots of t-shirts that said AFL-CIO, someone was wearing a button that said International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. This being the Bay Area, no one racial or ethnic group predominated. I saw parents with babies and little children; Carol pointed out one big man with a little boy on his lap; the man had a colorful Rosie the Riveter tattoo on his right bicep. Bigger kids without any parents nearby were running around playing together. Some firefighters from Alameda drove a big ladder truck around the periphery of the picnic area, and waved out the windows at the kids.

At some point, it hit me that we were all representatives of the eroding middle class. The people around me were people who managed to make it through the Great Recession still holding on to their decent middle class jobs with benefits. I’m one of those people. Even though Unitarian Universalist ministers aren’t unionized — all we have is a professional organization that is pretty toothless — ministers fit right in with cops and nurses and teachers and electricians. All of us in the middle class are facing the same problems: we feel lucky to have jobs, we’ve lost ground in terms of real wages over the past couple of decades, there are fewer full-time job openings than there were ten years ago. But we’re holding on. The middle class keeps shrinking, but we’re still in it. For the moment.

The director of the Labor Chorus showed up, and she found us a place at the opposite end of the picnic area from the rock band that was playing. We warmed up for a few minutes, then the rock band quit and it was time for us to get up on stage. Carol said that when we went on stage, it took awhile for people to realize that we weren’t going to be singing rock ‘n’ roll. It took a few minutes, she said, but then you could see people realizing that we were singing labor songs. Up on stage, I noticed that when we sang phrases like “We’re talking about dignity,” or “All we need is unions,” or “Don’t you cross that picket line,” I could hear some cheering. When we got to the final three songs, “Roll the Union On,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and “Solidarity Forever,” Carol said people started singing along — as you can see in this thirty second video clip of the final chorus of “Solidarity Forever”:

After our half hour set was over, we in the chorus all hung around for a while at the picnic, and ate hot dogs and veggies burgers cooked by guys wearing AFL-CIO t-shirts. It was a good way to celebrate Labor Day.