No one sings in church any more

On the Sacred Harp Friends page on Facebook, Katie posted a link to a blog post by Thom Schulz, titled “Why They Don’t Sing on Sunday Anymore.” Schulz’s reasons why people don’t sing in church: too often services are spectator events; church music is dominated by professionals, to the point of squeezing us amateurs out; sometimes the volume gets cranked up so high people just stop singing; the hymns are unfamiliar or hard to sing.

Katie then noted that Sacred Harp singers do sing, and we sing fervently — because there are no spectators, there are no professionals, it’s loud but not deafening, and Sacred harp singers have been singing pretty much the same tunes for a century and a half.

Actually, in my church people do sing. Amy, the senior minister, and I made a pact some years ago that the first hymn would mostly get chosen from a pool of ten or so hymns; that way, the kids can memorize ten or so hymns and know them by heart. And indeed the kids (and the adults) do memorize those hymns, and they do sing with fervor and gusto. In one recent service, I watched as one of our more cynical upper elementary kids stood on a chair, hung on to dad, and sang with utter abandon; cynicism gone, this child was completely lost in the hymn.

Given my experience, I’m with Thom Schulz: congregational singing does not need spectators, over-professionalism, blare, or crappy songs. Congregational singing can aim towards joy, towards ecstatic union with the universe through song. Congregational singing can be — should be — cynical kids belting out a favorite hymn at the tops of their voices, completely lost in the moment.


Concrete block rocket stove

This past Sunday, the middle school ecojustice Sunday school class cooked on rocket stoves. We based our stoves on design principles developed by Dr. Larry Winiarski, who is affiliated with the Aprovecho Research Center. A rocket stove makes more efficient use of biomass fuels (wood, twigs) through more complete combustion; this also results in fewer harmful emissions. According to the Aprovecho Research Center:

“Improved cooking stoves address at least 5 of the 8 United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals: [1] ending poverty and hunger; [2] gender equity; [3] child health; [4] maternal health; and [5] environmental sustainability.”

So while we don’t really need rocket stoves here in the Bay area (except perhaps in disaster situations), learning about and building them is a great introduction to using appropriate technology to meet ecojustice goals of human well being and environmental sustainability.

If you’re not familiar with rocket stove design principles,Aprovecho Research Center has an excellent introduction on this Web page. Scroll down and click on document no. 8, “Design Principles for Wood Burning Cook Stoves,” June, 2005.

Enough background. Here are instructions for building a concrete block rocket stove, followed by photos of our rocket stove in action:


Click the image above for a drawing of how to build our concrete block rocket stove. You will find other plans for a concrete block rocket stove on the Web, but those plans typically require a concrete h-block, an oddball type of block that we were unable to find. However, most bit home improvement stores carry 8 x 2 x 16 inch concrete cap blocks, and 4 x 2 x 8 inch concrete brick — two cap blocks and two concrete brick can be arranged in an “H” shape to make a stove. In fact, this is a better solution than a concrete H-block, because you can adjust the concrete brick such that you have a constant cross-sectional area throughout the L-shaped combustion chamber (see “Design Principles for Wood Burning Cook Stoves,” principle 7).


Above: The concrete block rocket stove after use. We placed two concrete bricks on the top on which to place cooking implements, etc. The bottom concrete block serves as a convenient place to store fire wood. Notice that our firewood is all salvaged building materials and wood pallets, split to appropriate size for burning.


Above: Cooking on the stove. “Design Principles for Wood Burning Cook Stoves” states that a combustion chamber with a 12 x 12 cm cross sectional area is “usually sufficient for a family sized cooking stove.” Our concrete block rocket stove has a cross sectional area of 12.5 x 15 cm. It put out a good amount of heat for cooking scrambled eggs for half a dozen people. Note that one person is feeding the fuel into the stove, while the other cooks — we found it was challenging to cook and tend the fire at the same time.

We did not try to boil water on our concrete block rocket stove, to see how long that would take. Maybe that’s a task for a future class.

Update, one year on: This has proved to be a good, but not excellent, rocket stove design. The chief problem with this design is that the concrete block acts as a fairly large thermal mass, and it takes a while to heat the block. Once the block is warm, the stove functions pretty efficiently; while the block is still cook, it’s not as good. Another problem is that the stove is finicky, and requires constant attention to feeding fuel in order to maintain a fairly constant temperature. Nevertheless, given the low cost of materials, and the ease of construction, this remains a practical design.

Mammal signs

Yesterday, Carol noticed some scat and other mammal signs in our garden. First, something has been eating the tree kale Carol has been growing. The bitten-off leaves and stems are some 425 mm / 17 inches from the ground:


This seems a little high off the ground for rabbits. According Jameson and Peeters Mammals of California, the rabbit most likely to be found in our area is Audubon’s Cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii). The total length, from nose to tail, of Audubon’s Cottontail is 370-400 mm, or about 15 inches; it would be a stretch (but possible) for a rabbit that size to reach up 425 mm to nibble on stems and leaves.

Right next to the tree kale is a deposit of scat: many small pellets, all about 5-7 mm in diameter. This, according to Olas Murie in A Field Guide to Animal Tracks would be absolutely typical of cottontails. But it may be coincidence that there’s a deposit of cottontail scat right next to the bitten-off twigs, and it could be that a deer got into our yard; Carol has seen deer down the cul-de-sac on which we live, and we suspect that they move up and down San Mateo Creek, which is less than a block from our house.

There’s another scat right next to another of our garden beds. Here’s my sketch of it:


The lack of taper on the ends, and the relatively large size, leads me to believe that these are raccoon scat. Murie says that raccoon scat can be difficult to identify, and “may be confused with the larger skunks and opossum.” But given the size — on the large size for raccoons, probably too big for skunks or opossums — and the fact that we regularly see raccoons at night in our garden, I’m going to guess this is from a raccoon.

Sacred Harp Convention

Once every three years, the All-California Sacred Harp Convention comes to the Bay area. It’s going on this weekend.

What is Sacred Harp, you ask? It has nothing to do with harps, but you sing from a book called The Sacred Harp. At a Sacred Harp convention, you sing for three hours in four-part harmony at the top of your lungs along with 150 other singers who range in age from 8 to 80-something. Then you break for this fabulous potluck lunch, where you eat more good food than you can believe. Then you go back sing again for another three hours in the afternoon. Then you go back the next day and do it all over again.

16 brick rocket stove

In our middle school ecojustice class, one of the things we’re doing is experimenting with alternative low-cost, low-impact cooking methods, such as a solar oven made out of cardboard. Now we’re experimenting with rocket stoves, designed originally by Dr. Larry Winiarski and colleagues at the Aprovecho Research Center. Rocket stoves use biomass to cook, but are much more efficient than traditional cooking fires, and because they’re more efficient produce fewer pollutants such as smoke and harmful gasses. Not really something we need in the first world, except in disaster situations, but a huge advance for the developing world.

Last week in class, we put together a simple brick rocket stove but couldn’t get it to light. So I spent some time this week building and using a simple rocket stove made of 16 bricks. This stove is based on Larry Winiarski’s 16 brick stove, but instead of using adobe bricks I used clay bricks commonly available at masonry supply houses and building supply centers. Specifically, I used nominal fifteen 8 x 2-1/4 x 4 inch clay bricks, and one 8 x 1 x 4 inch clay brick, as shown in the sketch below:


For fuel, I split an 18 inch long 2 x 10 into finger-sized pieces. To light the stove, I balled up a piece of paper and dropped it down the center hole, dropped some shavings, small scraps of wood, and slightly larger scraps of wood on top, then dropped a lighted match in. When the fire was burning well, I began feeding 3 to 4 pieces of fuel in from the bottom, adjusting the air intake gap as needed to get a hot flame.

The rocket stove needs you to pay attention to it. The fuel burns pretty quickly, and you have to keep pushing it into the combustion chamber, adding new fuel as needed. Once the fire was going strong — which took seven or eight minutes — I got ready to cook.


Continue reading “16 brick rocket stove”


I’m writing lesson plans and teacher resources for a curriculum for upper elementary grades on Greek myths. The core material in the curriculum was developed with Tessa Swartz, a middle school student who had taken classes with me where I piloted some of the preliminary material. Tessa proved to be a valuable collaborator, especially given her sensitivity to the essentially alien nature of Greek myths, and her willingness to go beyond the common trite interpretations of many of these myths. As we developed the core material of the curriculum, both of us got interested in the figure of Medusa. Here’s an excerpt from this new curriculum, a teacher resource on Medusa:

Medusa as imagined by the artist CarvaggioWhen we chose stories for this course, both of us placed the Medusa story at the top of our lists. What makes Medusa such a fascinating figure? The face of Medusa contains great power: the power to freeze others into stone. On the other hand, we considered Medusa’s killer, Perseus, to be little better than a bully, a strong-arm man who coerces others into doing what he wants through violence or the threat of violence. So the story of Medusa can lead to interesting explorations of power, and the use of power.

Let’s look at Medusa first: Continue reading “Medusa”

Kurt Kuhwald’s thoughts on Starr King

Recently, I talked with Kurt Kuhwald, former professor at Starr King School for the Ministry, about the school’s search process for a new president. Kurt had some interesting things to say about the search, and the conflict that erupted during and after the search.

Before I get to Kurt’s thoughts, you may want to review what happened at Starr King. I have a short post about the situation here. Since I wrote that post, the New York Times covered the story in a balanced and well-written article here, and UU World did a carefully-written article in November which you can read here. Now back to Kurt.

Kurt is someone for whom I have great respect, particularly in his thoughtful and passionate approach to ethical issues, and to issues of prophetic importance. I was lucky enough to have lunch with Kurt a couple of weeks ago, and we talked about several prophetic issues: global climate change; the protests following Ferguson; and the mess at Starr King. We wound up spending most of our time talking about Starr King, not because it is of greater importance than Ferguson or global climate justice, but because it was so fresh in the minds of both of us. Actually, mostly I listened — Kurt has a unique and powerful interpretation of the Starr King situation, and I wanted to hear what he said.

Kurt has been kind enough to send me several documents that he is willing to make public, and with his permission, I am posting them here on my blog. You can click on one of the links below to go to a specific letter, or just scroll down to read these four documents in order:

Kurt’s letter of resignation from Starr King;
An addendum to that letter giving more detail on his reasons for resigning;
A letter to the Ad Hoc Committee set up by Starr King to investigate the situation;
A letter to the members of the UUA Board regarding Starr King.

As I talked with Kurt, it struck me that there was a deep current of theology running through everything Kurt said. He is talking about a theology of power; he is critiquing one way power is wielded in contemporary religious institutions. This is an incredibly important critque. I believe it would behoove anyone with an interest in the mess at Starr King to read or re-read Bernard Loomer’s important 1976 essay “Two Conceptions of Power.” Finally, out of respect for Kurt’s deep theological insights, I’m going to say that if you’d like to comment here you should exhibit some theological thinking. If you’re not sure how to think theologically about this issue, read Loomer’s essay.

As always, I reserve the right to delete or edit comments that I feel are discourteous, rude, or off-topic.

Scroll down to start reading Kurt’s letters….

Update, 14 January 2015: Kurt Kuhwald asked me if I’d be willing to post Dorsey Blake’s letter of resignation from Starr King; until January 9, he was Associate Professor of Spirituality and Prophetic Justice. Since Kurt Kuhwald and Dorsey Blake timed their resignations for the same day, and since they share a prophetic vision for liberal religion, I felt it was appropriate to add that letter to this blog post. Having received Dorsey Blake’s permission, I have added his letter below:
Dorsey Blake’s letter of resignation

Continue reading “Kurt Kuhwald’s thoughts on Starr King”


Recently, I stumbled across the AntWeb site, sponsored by the California Academy of Sciences. Once you create a login (and all you have to provide is a username and password, no other info), you have access to tons of photographs of ant specimens, taken through a powerful microscope. Of particular interest to me is the online field guide to California ants, with photos of nearly all of the 270 resident species. The curator of the California pages writes:

“Prominent California ants include seed-harvesting species in the genera Messor, Pheidole and Pogonomyrmex; honeypot ants in the genus Myrmecocystus; a diverse array of species in the genera Camponotus (“carpenter ants”) and Formica; native fire ants (Solenopsis spp.); velvety tree ants (Liometopum spp.); and the introduced Argentine ant (Linepithema humile). This last named species is particularly common in urban and suburban parts of California, where it establishes dense populations and eliminates most native species of ants.”

I’ve always thoughts ants were interesting creatures. Now having looked through dozens of photos of ants I will go further and say that they are beautiful creatures. Even the Argentine ant appears beautiful, in spite of the destruction it does to native arthropods.

I am also fascinated by the written descriptions; these descriptions have their own kind of beauty, which may be found in their economy and laconic precision. Here, for example, is how to identify the Argentine ant — remembering that you will need a powerful binocular microscope to see all these details:

Diagnosis among workers of introduced and commonly intercepted ants in the United States. Antenna 12-segmented. Antennal scape length less than 1.5x head length. Eyes medium to large (greater than 5 facets); do not break outline of head; placed distinctly below midline of face. Antennal sockets and posterior clypeal margin separated by a distance less than the minimum width of antennal scape. Anterior clypeal margin variously produced, but never with one median and two lateral rounded projections. Mandible lacking distinct basal angle. Profile of mesosomal dorsum with two distinct convexities. Dorsum of mesosoma lacking a deep and broad concavity; lacking erect hairs. Promesonotum separated from propodeum by metanotal groove. Propodeum with dorsal surface not distinctly shorter than posterior face; angular, with flat to weakly convex dorsal and posterior faces. Propodeum and petiolar node both lacking a pair of short teeth. Mesopleura and metapleural bulla covered with dense pubescence. Propodeal spiracle bordering posterior margin of propodeal profile. Waist 1-segmented. Petiole upright and not appearing flattened. Gaster armed with ventral slit. Erect hairs lacking from cephalic dorsum (above eye level), pronotum, and gastral tergites 1 and 2. Dull, not shining, and color uniformly light to dark brown. Measurements: head length (HL) 0.56–0.93 mm, head width (HW) 0.53–0.71 mm.”

Time, like the tide, sweeps over the new year

The following poem appears in A Collection of Hymns on the Most Important Subjects of the Gospel, edited by Thomas Humphrys (Bristol, England: Biggs & Cottle, 1798), pp. 14-15, as a meditation on the new year:

My days, my weeks, my months, my years,
Fly rapid like the whirling spheres
Around the steady pole;
Time, like the tide, its motion keeps,
Till I shall launch those boundless deeps
Where endless ages roll.

The grave is near the cradle seen,
How swift the moments pass between
And whisper as they fly;
“Unthinking man remember this,
“Thou midst thy sublunary bliss
“Most groan, and gasp, and die.”

Eternal bliss, eternal woe,
Hangs on this inch of time below,
On this precarious breath:
The God of nature only knows,
Whether another year shall close,
Ere I expire in death.

Long ere the sun shall run its round,
I may be buried under ground,
And there in silence rot;
Alas! one hour may close the scene,
And ere twelve months shall roll between,
My name be quite forgot….

These late-eighteenth century sentiments probably soundm foreign to most early-twenty-first century American minds. Contemporary American culture insists we be optimistic about the future, so this poem may strike you as morbid. Certainly I do not agree with the theology of the poem, which the poet goes on to wonder whether he or she will go to heaven or hell after death, and in the concluding verse prays: “Help me to choose that better way” that will lead to heaven.

Yet though I do not agree with the theology, it’s not a bad idea to remember that death is just around the corner. We needn’t think obsessively about death and dying, but it can be freeing to realize that many small things that loom large in daily life are not that important. What is important is striving to be the best person possible, which in turn should help us realize that self-reflection and self-knowledge take priority over striving to buy consumer goods or striving to get a promotion at work or striving to get your children into Ivy League schools. In this realization lies freedom.

I don’t know who wrote the poem originally. Humphrys does not attribute this poem to a specific author. Another version of this poem was printed in The Poetical Monitor: consisting of pieces select and original for the improvement of the young in virtue and piety: intended to succeed Dr. Watts’ Divine and moral songs, etc., edited by Elizabeth Hill (London: Shakespear’s-Walk Female Charity School, 1796), pp. 64-65. The poem appears under the tile “On the Eve of the New Year,” and Hill lists the author as “Green.” Perhaps an astute reader can track down the author. Continue reading “Time, like the tide, sweeps over the new year”