UNCO arts and crafts

UNCO is not all talk.

Deb brought supplies from her crafts closet to UNCO 14, and set up a table with collage materials, including a couple of old hymnals. She put a placard on this table: “Revision A Hymn.” Yesterday I found a hymn written by the British Unitarian Sarah Flower Adams — “Nearer My God to Thee,” set to a tune by Lowell Mason — and spent half an hour revisioning it while I chatted with other people who came to play with Mod Podge and paper and cloth:


Totally meaningless collage. But I do admit to loving Lowell Mason’s enjoyable singable humn tunes.

UNCO 14 West day one

The theory behind an unconference: some of the most interesting conversations take place in the times between the formal sessions. The reality of an unconference: some of the most interesting conversations take place in the times when nothing is scheduled.

At dinner tonight, I wound up talking to Jeff and Amy who have started Sanctuary for the Arts in Oakland. They offer monthly kinesthetic arts-filled worship services, based in part on InterPlay improvisational movement. I wound up talking to Amy about her theological grounding for movement-based worship services. She found theological grounding in process theology (in the sense that creativity is co-creation, that it is with our hands that God creates), in feminist theology (in the sense that worship cannot be in the head alone, it must be fully embodied), and also in post-colonial and queer theologies (in the sense that bodies which have been subjugated and colonized can be decolonized).

And during the social hour after dinner, I talked with J.C., a Disciples of Christ minister. The Disciples of Christ, like the Unitarian Universalists, refuse to have creeds, and last year J.C. and I talked a little about our common non-creedalism. J.C. talked about how the German Confessing Church had to define what it meant to be a Christian, not in the sense of having a creed, but in the sense of being able to stand up against evil in the world. We both agreed that our non-creedal faiths could be so reluctant to adopt anything that sounded like a creed, that we went so far as to not adequately define what our religion stands for (or stands against, for that matter). I can’t comment on the struggles that the Disciples have in this matter, but in our own quest for non-creadalism we Unitarian Universalists have too often equated religion with politics, or with inadequate an inadequate profession of faith.

Some excellent, thought-provoking conversations. This is why we go to unconferences.

Only a fool

Children and youth attendance at the congregation I serve was up 45% in September, compared to the same month in 2013. These are not large numbers — up from about 50 to about 70 — but the increase in attendance has been enough to require more staff time, more volunteer time, more space, and to generate more conflict. No wonder I am writing so little on this blog recently.

If you are wishing for your congregation to grow, remember that growth injects stress into the institution. In the short term, it is much easier and more pleasant to stay the same size, even if it does mean chasing lots of newcomers away. Only a fool, or someone committed to making the utopian ideals of liberal religion accessible to all who want them, would seek congregational growth.

Winter melon

What would you do with a half a winter melon? I’ve gotten friendly with a farmstand that specializes in Asian vegetables at the San Mateo Farmer’s Market. The woman who runs the farmstand knows I love bitter melon, and has told me about its health benefits. She probably figured this white guy needed to expand his Asian melon repertoire, so today she gave me half a winter melon, and said, “Try it in soup.”

There are lots of winter melon soup recipes online, and I’m leaning towards a simple one with dried black mushrooms, chicken broth, a little bit of chopped meat, and some slices of ginger.* But — what would you do if someone gave you half a winter melon?


*Two weeks later: And here’s the recipe I have been using for winter melon soup:

Half of a five pound winter melon, cut into 2 inch pieces (about 2 pounds of melon)
1 quart of chicken broth
1 knockwurst, cut into 1/2 inch circles
8-10 dried black Chinese mushrooms, soaked in hot water for 20 minutes
half a dozen slices of ginger root, peeled, and slivered
salt to taste

Bring the winter melon to a boil in water to cover, then simmer covered for 20 minutes.
Drain the water off.
Add chicken broth, mushrooms, ginger, and knockwurst to the cooked winter melon. Simmer for 20 minutes.

Autumn watch

Even though the temperature got up to nearly eighty degrees today, it feels like fall. The sun is noticeably lower in the sky, and daylight is noticeably shorter than nighttime. I went for a walk up in the hills overlooking Half Moon Bay, and once you get out from under the redwoods into the chaparral, the plants look tired and dry and worn out, ready for the winter rains. Even the fall asters look faded now, with blossoms that are almost white instead of pale violet.


Above: Honeybee pollinating asters at Purissima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve; the asters are probably the Common California Aster (Symphyotrichum chilense)

During the long climb back up to the trail head, I kept stopping to admire the way the afternoon sun shone gently on the steep hills and canyons that descended to the ocean; admiring the view was also a good excuse to stop and catch my breath when the trail was steepest. After one particularly steep stretch, I turned and saw a Golden Eagle below me. This was a perfect excuse to stop for a moment. I watched the eagle ride the breeze down the canyon until it disappeared from my view behind a forested ridge.

Attitudes towards religious diversity

A paper published in the May-June, 2014, issue of Religious Education: The Journal of the Religious Education Association explores attitudes towards religious differences among adolescents in the United Kingdom. The authors used standard social science techniques and statistical analysis to find out if adolescents who attend faith-based schools, that is, day schools run by organized religions. They pose this research question: “whether students educated in schools with a religious character are more or less conducive to life in a religiously diverse society,” as compared to students in secular schools.

Their study indicates that the “individual religiosity” of adolescents, and other personal factors, has more influence on their attitudes towards religious diversity than the school they attend. Some of their findings:

— females have a more positive attitude towards religious diversity than males
— neuroticism correlates with a positive attitude towards religious diversity, and psychoticism with a negative attitude
— adolescents who pray regularly have a more positive attitude towards religious diversity
— adolescents who attend religious services regularly have a more positive attitude towards religious diversity
— however, “none of the variance in … attitudes toward religious diversity can be attributed to attending schools with a religious character.”

The paper is “Church Schools Preparing Adolescents for Living in a Religiously Diverse Society: An Empirical Enquiry in England and Wales,” by Leslie J. Francis and Andrew Village (in Religious Education, vol. 109 no. 3, May-June 2014, pp. 264-283).

Francis and Village address a fairly narrow question, in a cultural context different from most regions of the U.S.; I don’t think it would be wise to try to apply their findings to a U.S. context, or to try to draw larger conclusions from the findings. Nevertheless, I think this paper does suggest some interesting possibilities for research in the U.S. Wouldn’t it be interesting to research attitudes towards diversity among adolescents who are affiliated with mainline churches, evangelical churches, non-Christian faith communities, etc.?

And wouldn’t it be really interesting if the Unitarian Universalist Association or one of our seminaries funded similar research of adolescents who are affiliated with Unitarian Universalist congregations? If I were conducting such research, I think my initial hypothesis would be that a board sampling of Unitarian Universalist adolescents would not have significantly more positive attitudes towards religious diversity than adolescents affiliated with other faiths; though based on Francis and Village’s paper, I would definitely look for evidence that religious adolescents in general have a somewhat more positive attitude towards religious diversity than secular adolescents.

P. G. Wodehouse on individualism

P. G. Wodehouse, a novelist of ideas? How absurd!

And it is true that most of his dozens of novels are bits of fluff, with no more intellectual content than the brain of Bertie Wooster, one of his most famous characters. But in some of his earlier novels, Wodehouse occasionally gets philosophical — as in this passage from the 1918 novel Picadilly Jim, where Jimmy, the wealthy twenty-something protagonist, comes to the sudden and unpleasant realization that he has been pretty self-centered for much of his adult life:

“…Life had suddenly taken on a less simple aspect. Dimly, for he was not accustomed to thinking along these lines, he perceived the numbing truth that we human beings are merely as many pieces in a jig-saw puzzle, and that our every movement affects the fortunes of some other piece. Just so, faintly at first and taking shape by degrees, must the germ of a civic spirit have come to prehistoric man. We are all individualists till we wake up.” [chapter 6]

Of course, Wodehouse was writing nearly a century ago. We have progressed further in the development of civic spirit since then: the jig-saw puzzles of the wealthy and the rest of the world are no longer connected to one another. If he were alive today, Jimmy could enjoy his wealth without having ever to wake up.