How to feel comfortable, or not

Do you like your congregation because it feels so comfortable? Most of us do. We want to be able to go someplace each week where we can feel at home. But I came across the following statement by Bernice Johnson Reagon that makes me think maybe I shouldn’t want to feel so comfortable in my congregation:

“If you’re in a coalition and you feel comfortable it’s not a broad enough coalition.”

Pete Seeger: a brief appreciation

When my older sister and I were young, our parents used to play this one record that I liked to try to sing along to: “Pete Seeger at Carnegie Hall.” I loved all the songs on that album: “Little Boxes,” and “We Shall Overcome,” and “Guantanamera,” and “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” I can still remember Pete Seeger’s spoken introduction to “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus,” when he talks about the violent measures taken against civil rights protesters. I can remember trying to memorize the words to “Little Boxes,” and in the process learning how to be critical of the assumptions undergirding middle class suburban culture, which probably helped lay the intellectual groundwork for my studies of critical theory and Marxism about ten years later, when I was in college. I had already learned from my parents how to be critical of what I was taught in school, but listening to “What Did You Learn in School Today?” made that seem fun and mischievous and delightful, and a few years later when I started working with children the memory of that song gave me a standard by to judge my own efforts as an educator.

Pete Seeger’s greatest strength was his ability to sing for children and young people. He was a teacher as much as, or more than, a musician. When he sang, he taught about big concepts like justice and human rights and racism and social inequality — he taught all these big concepts in a way that a six year old could understand them. His infectious songs and style of singing ensured that the children and young people who heard him sing would remember the lessons he taught for a long, long time. Continue reading “Pete Seeger: a brief appreciation”

How to have sex like a UU?

E., a Quaker and one of my dearest friends, sent me a link to a really good post by Quaker blogger Kody Gabriel Hersh titled “Having Sex Like a Quaker.” In this post, Kody, a self-described “queer, trans, sex-positive, Christian, Quaker youth worker,” outlines some of the basic Quaker ethical and theological principles that should inform sexual ethics and morality:

“Equality. Nonviolence and peacebuilding. Care for the earth. Community. Integrity. The direct availability of God to all people. The presence of something ‘of God’ in every human soul. Listening. Waiting for guidance in our decision-making, and checking out important decisions with our community. Continuing revelation.”

Then Kody goes on to present his own personal “list of sexual of sexual commitments and values,” an evolving statement of personal sexual morality rooted in the above principles.

— So for those of us who are Unitarian Universalists, what would be on our equivalent list of ethical and theological principles that should inform our sexual morality? (And no, the “seven principles” are too wordy and vague, and not equivalent to Kody’s list.)

— Next, based on that, what would be your own personal “list of sexual commitments and values”?

I’ll give my own lists in a follow-up post.

California drought

Good photos of the ongoing Clifornia drought, and summary of long-range forecast possibilities, in a January 25 post at the California Weather Blog.

Here in San Mateo County, our drought level is classified as “extreme,” second highest of the five possible drought levels. The hills of the Coastal Range should be bright green right now, but instead they are dull gray-brown; needless to say, the fire danger is high. We haven’t had any significant rain in over a month, so the air is filled with fine particulate matter. And with a declared state-wide drought emergency, we’re all expecting mandatory water restrictions in the next few months.

On the plus side, we’ve had abnormally sunny and warm weather, with temperatures often in the seventies. while we need bad weather, at least we can enjoy the good weather while we’ve got it.

The green flash

We all knew my mother’s illness had gotten to the point where she had only a couple more years to live. So I decided to go on a ten day hiking trip.

I really wanted to take an entire month and hike the Long Trail in Vermont. I had left one job in June and was about to start another job in August, which meant I had a month to spare. But what if my mother should get suddenly worse while I was on the trail? This was before cell phones, and you couldn’t count on a pager receiving a message in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Finally Carol told me what I already knew: I could not take a whole month to go hiking. I settled on ten days hiking the Long Trail in the Green Mountains of Vermont.

Carol drove me up U.S. 4 to where it intersected the Long Trail, and I started hiking south. It had taken a good three hours for Carol to drive me from our group house to the trailhead, so I only got a half day’s hiking in. I stopped about an hour before sunset to spend the night at Pico Camp, a bunkhouse near Pico Peak. One more hiker showed up to spend the night, a fellow a few years younger than I; he was headed north, through-hiking the Appalachian Trail.

The other hiker suggested we climb up the lookout tower on Pico Peak to watch the sunset. We hiked the steep little half mile trail to the summit of the mountain, and climbed up the old fire tower.

Aviators talk about unlimited visibility. That’s what we had. We could see the Taconic Range in New York straight ahead, the White Mountains in New Hampshire fading into dusk behind us, and the broad ridge of the Green Mountains heading south towards Massachusetts on one side of us, and north towards Quebec on the other side. We didn’t say much, but just looked and looked, amazed at the view.

The sun began to set behind the distant mountains of New York. We watched it touch the horizon and slowly disappear. Just as it disappeared, there was a flash of green light.

“Did you see that?” we said to each other. We had just seen the legendary green flash. It’s a rare sight at sea, and rarer still on land. Just by chance, the two of us had happened to wind up at Pico Camp on a day with unlimited visibility; we just happened to have time to climb the old fire tower right at sunset. We looked at each other, and back at the waning light from the sun.

“I’ve been hiking since February, and this is the best view I’ve gotten, and you get it on your first night out,” said the other fellow, without rancor.

We stayed up in the fire tower another fifteen minutes. But it was getting cold and dark and late, and we both had a long day of hiking ahead of us the next day. We climbed down the rickety steps of the tower, hiked down the spur trail to Pico Camp, and went to bed. The other hiker headed north to Mt. Katahdin in Maine, and I headed south to Mt. Greylock in Massachusetts. Of course I never saw that other hiker again; I’m told that the rickety old fire tower is gone from Pico Peak; and I’ve never seen the green flash again.


I managed to get bronchitis and laryngitis at the same time (I always think it’s amusing when preachers, who make their living by talking, get laryngitis). This slowed me down: I haven’t had much energy for a week, and my brains feel like Swiss cheese.

But I did have enough energy to finally update The Folk Choir Song Book, which was first published in 2009 (when I was coming off two years of directing a folk choir at a UU church). I’ve corrected many typographical errors, removed one song that turned out to be covered by copyright, and added some fun stuff that didn’t make it into the first edition.

Update, 2023: this book is no longer available.

Amiri Baraka: a brief appreciation

When I was in college, I wanted to take a course that was being offered on the history of jazz; but I was still a physics major, and didn’t have the time. So I bought the main book for the course, Blues People by LeRoi Jones, and read it on my own. I was listening to a lot of jazz at the time, and Jones — who had changed his name to Amiri Baraka by the time I read the book — showed me how jazz grew out of the historical and social experiences of people of African descent in the United States. It was one of those books that changed the way I understood the world, and started me off on an intellectual journey that led to Harry T. Burleigh and James Weldon Johnson and Sun Ra, and (by a circuitous route) to James Cone and William R. Jones.

Blues People has, I think now, a deep theological strain to it. When I read James Cone’s The Spirituals and the Blues, I couldn’t help comparing Cone’s understanding of African American music to Baraka’s understanding, not entirely favorably. Cone focuses too much on Christian doctrine, and I think that tends to exclude some of the irreducible African-ness of the spirituals and the blues, and later jazz. Baraka, on the other hand, showed how African Americans remained a part of the African diaspora, keeping their spirituals in some sense separate from the white man’s religion, and he showed (I thought so, anyway) the way so-called secular music could made sense out of lived experience, could bring meaning to life. I later learned — heard, really — how jazz could incorporate the lived experiences and meaning-making of other cultures, particularly Latin American cultures, but also various white North American cultures. Baraka opened my eyes to how jazz can express cross-cultural thoughts and longings and meaning-making, and so I came to understand it as the religious music par excellence. And so it was that Baraka opened my heart to William R. Jones’s Is God a White Racist? (the answer to the title is a nuanced and qualified yes). I don’t think you can understand God in the same way after you’ve read Blues People.

Baraka’s poetry had less of an impact on me. I love some of his individual poems: “Numbers, Letters,” for example, had some exquisite lines that have stayed with me for years, that match or surpass anything written by Allen Ginsberg or the more famous white Beats:

If you’re not home, where
are you? Where’d you go? What
were you doing when gone? When
you come back, better make it good….

…I am Everett LeRoi Jones, 30 yrs. old.
A black nigger in the universe. A long breath singer,
wouldbe dancer, strong from years of fantasy
and study….

That’s what I wanted to be: a long breath singer who is strong from years of fantasy and study; but I never made it, though the poem stayed with me. Some of Baraka’s poems have been living inside me for years: “Numbers, Letters” of course; and “For Hettie” and “Legacy” and “Poem for Speculative Hipsters” and others. But I could never sit down and read a whole book of his poems, the way I could with Langston Hughes or Elizabeth Bishop (I must have read “Geography III” a few dozen times) or Denise Levertov or Lucille Clifton. The fault is mine, I know. I can recognize Baraka’s brilliance, I can appreciate the bracing clarity of his moral insight, I need the white heat of his anger — but I feel that he demands something of his readers (and of himself) that is beyond human ability; or at least beyond my ability. It’s hard to read a whole book of poetry when you know that you’re going to fall short of what the poet demands of you; when you know that you or any error-prone, love-befuddled, smelly, awkward, confused and all-too-human being can not live up to what the poet demands. Adrienne Rich is a little that way, too: when I read poets like Baraka and Rich, I know I’ll never be good enough, never be able to transcend my humanness, never be able to get to that land towards which they point. It’s tough to read a whole book that makes you feel that way.

And it’s hard to know what we’ll do without Amiri Baraka. We need people who will hold us to impossible standards. I miss him already.

What we do at committee meetings

One of the things we do in committee meetings in our congregation is we wind up talking about other subcultures of which we are a part. Beth, for example, is part of the autoharp subculture. And, said Beth, one of the things they sometimes do at autoharp conventions is they have an autoharp toss. What’s that? we asked. That’s when you take an old autoharp that’s beyond repair, and see how far you can toss it. So we interrupted committee business to watch a Youtube video of autoharp tossing….

Autoharp Toss

When I showed this video to Carol, my partner, she thought it was silly. She’s obviously not a sports fan.

Indiana Universalism, 1807-1916

Back in 1917, Rev. Elmo Arnold Robinson published a two-part history of Universalism in Indiana in the Indiana Magazine of History; the numbers of the journal were vol. 13 no. 1 (March, 1917) and vol. 13 no. 2 (June, 1917). You can find these articles in various places online, but perhaps the most convenient way to obtain them is through JSTOR; unusually for JSTOR, both articles are offered free of charge.

“Universalism in Indiana,” part one

“Universalism in Indiana,” concluded

Robinson later wrote the book-length history The Universalist Church in Ohio (Ohio Universalist Convention, 1923). And yes, there is a connection to Palo Alto: Robinson served as the minister of the old Palo Alto Unitarian Church from 1921 to 1926; he was fellowshipped as both a Unitarian and a Universalist minister.