Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area

As promised to E, photos of Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, from my birding trip there yesterday.


This wildlife area is huge. It covers about 25 square miles along the Sacramento River, and when you’re in the middle of it, you’re more than a mile from the east and west boundaries, and maybe five miles from the north and south boundaries.


About a third of the land is still farmed, and you can see some of the fields on the right of this photo. While I was there, they were prepping several fields for rice cultivation. Rice farming is getting a bad name in California right now because of the drought, but migrating birds love rice fields. Diverting water away from rice fields to big cities is going to reduce the number of places migrating waterfowl have to rest during their travels.


This Turkey Vulture flew quite close overhead. Notice the worn primaries — P5 on the left, and P3 on the right — as well as the missing left tertials.

Poems as theology

I have a tough time reading academic theology, and prefer to get my theological fix from poetry. I’m promiscuous in my theological tastes when it comes to poetry — how can I resist the cranky Buddhism of Gary Snyder? or the strange pacifistic Roman Catholicism of Denise Levertov? or the Black humanism of James Weldon Johnson?

Of course, sometimes it’s good to be parochial, and engage with one’s co-religionists. When I started listing some of the poems by Unitarian Universalist poets which have most influenced my theology, I realized that I prefer poets who are mystics and Transcendentalists. Since mystics and Transcendentalists are theologically suspect, I further realized that I shouldn’t be wasting my time getting theology from poetry rather than from works of academic theology.

Yet I’ll bet there are other people out there who get their theology in poetry. If you’re one of them, which poems have most influenced your theological thinking? If you happen to be a Unitarian Universalist, which poems by Unitarian Universalists are your theological mainstays?

And in the interests of full disclosure, below I’ll list some of the poems by UU poets that influenced me. Continue reading “Poems as theology”

Palo Alto Unitarians and the 1906 earthquake

Palo Alto Unitarians were getting ready to build their first church building when the great earthquake of April 18, 1906, struck.

1. A first-hand account by a Unitarian

Gertrude and I were rudely awakened by the shaking of the house and the accompanying rumble, roar, and crash. “What is it?” said she. “It’s an earthquake — and it’s a bad one,” I replied. “What shall we do?” “Stay right here. This little house will last as long as anything.” I knew the sturdy construction of our bungalow … but in my heart I felt that nothing could survive such a vicious shaking—that this was the end for us. It was like a terrier shaking a rat.

— Guido Marx, husband of Gertrude V. D. Marx, a charter member of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto; quoted in Sandstone and Tile, vol. 30, no. 1, Winter, 2006 (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Historical Society, 2006), p. 3.


2. Unitarians join the relief effort

Palo Alto.— The hall in which services have been held was wrecked by the earthquake, and there has been but one regular meeting of the church since that event. The men and women of the church have been most active in relief work. All the churches and societies united for relief work, with headquarters at the Congregational church. We undertook an employment agency for men and women, and this was one of the valuable helps in the restoration to normal living. Of a sum of money sent to Mrs. Stone [wife of Rev. George Stone, AUA Field Secretary] by the women of our Alliance in Detroit, $25.00 came to us. Never was such a sum stretched to cover many wants,— clothes for babies and uniforms for nurses. These nurses had been burned out and lost everything except the clothes they wore. They had volunteered to form a new hospital for the care of children with contagious diseases. When discovered they had worn their clothing a week among these contagious cases, and their only supply of water had to be carried entirely by hand. It was hard to decide whether the Women’s Alliance which made the uniforms, or the nurses who received them, were the happier.

Many of our church members are connected with the University, and as soon as work closed there they left town. Those of the Alliance who are still in Palo Alto met on the 12th of June and each woman pledged herself for a contribution of articles for the fall sale.

Our hearts are full of gratitude for the bright future. To know that our church building is assured and that Mr. Snow has accepted the call of the parish is a constant inspiration. The great opportunities of a university town lie before us. We shall try not to be unworthy of them.

The Pacific Unitarian, San Francisco, vol. 14, no. 8, June, 1906, p. 260.


3. Architectural plans destroyed Continue reading “Palo Alto Unitarians and the 1906 earthquake”

How to fail sex ed

One of the wonderful people who teaches comprehensive sexuality education in our church sent along a link to a post on Imgur headed: “Two years ago today, my then 14 year old sister got suspended for submitting these answers for her sex-ed class. I’m so proud of her.” Then there’s a photo of a worksheet titled “Objections to Condoms.” Kids were supposed to come up with possible responses to various excuses for not using condoms.

So, for example, one of the excuses for not using a condom was: “Condoms are gross; they’re messy; I hate them.” To which this creative girl replied: “So are babies.”

Condoms are messy -- So are babies

Mind you, a couple of the replies are just plain unconvincing, e.g. — Excuse: “I’d be embarrassed to use one”; reply: “Look at all the fucks I give.” Yeah, whatever.

But some of the replies, while very snarky, just might actually work in the real world, e.g. — excuse: “I don’t have a condom with me”; reply: “I don’t have my vagina with me.” This is not a good response to put on a worksheet that a public school teacher has to read; but a snarky early adolescent girl who needs to use a little humor to get through to a boy might find that reply useful.

This brings up an interesting point of educational philosophy. A core element of my educational philosophy is to start where the learner is. Some early adolescents learning about sex and sexuality may be most comfortable using snark and f-bombs to talk about sex. Of course we want to move them to a more reasoned form of discourse, a way of speaking that will allow them to talk about sex with potential partners openly, humanely, and with emotional intelligence. But we may have to listen to their f-bombs for a while before we get them there.

Ancient Greek marriage laws and same-sex marriage

During the Supreme Court argument session on Obergefell v. Hodges, according to the transcription, Justice Alito had the following exchange with Mary Bonauto, Esq., representing the petitioners:

JUSTICE ALITO: But there have been cultures that did not frown on homosexuality. That is not a universal opinion throughout history and across all cultures. Ancient Greece is an example. It was ­­– it was well accepted within certain bounds. But did they have same-­sex marriage in ancient Greece?
MS. BONAUTO: Yeah. They don’t ­­– I don’t believe they had anything comparable to what we have, Your Honor. You know, and we’re talking about —
JUSTICE ALITO: Well, they had marriage, didn’t they?
MS. BONAUTO: Yeah, they had ­­– yes. They had some sort of marriage.

[p. 14 of the official transcript]

I have some interest in ancient Greek thought, and so I’d like to stop right there for a moment. What sort of concept of marriage did the ancient Greeks have, and is it something we would look to as analogous to our present-day concept of marriage? Continue reading “Ancient Greek marriage laws and same-sex marriage”

Old news

I lose consciousness of ugly bestial raid
and repetitive affront as when they tell me
18 cops in order to subdue one man
18 strangled him to death in the ensuing scuffle (don’t
you idolize the diction of the powerful: subdue and
scuffle my oh my) and that the murder
that the killing of Arthur Miller on a Brooklyn
street was just a “justifiable accident” again

That’s from June Jordan’s “Poem about Police Violence,” from way back in 1980. The poets have been telling about this for at least thirty five years, longer than a lot of you have been alive. And if we forgot (because who reads poetry any more), there was Oscar Grant. And Eric Garner. And now Freddie Gray.

June Jordan said:

People have been having accidents all over the globe
so long like that I reckon that the only
suitable insurance is a gun
I’m saying war is not to understand or rerun
war is to be fought and won

Didn’t Malcolm X say that back around 1960? And — OK, I hear you, violence is not the answer, and I agree with you on that one. But then what is the answer? Because we seem to be hearing the same old news again.

Retelling our story

The following is excerpted from “Symbolic Storytelling, Freedom Movements, and Church Education: Cesar Chavez as a Virtuoso of Identity,” Ted Newell, Religious Education, vol. 109, no. 5, p. 550:

“Worldviews draw on assumptions, on storied answers to the most basic questions of humankind. Their presuppositions are not irrational but pre-rational. A worldview framework is required for thought itself. Worldviews are the lenses through which humans see the cosmos and themselves within it. Accordingly, an attempt to adjudicate between worldviews by means of reason is likely to be a disguised attempt of one worldview to subdue another. Reason is not neutral but is particular, drawn from its own presuppositions — scientific reason included (Kuhn 1996; Harding 1986; Milbank 2006). There is no neutral ground on which to stand.”

There’s nothing here that is new or surprising, given the ongoing conversations about multiculturalism and postmodernism. But what does interest me is where Newell takes this argument: he calls for us to re-tell old stories for new times: “The older meaning-making matrices have broken down. New expressions of old stories or perhaps new stories are needed.” Newell is speaking from within a Christian worldview, and so he calls for new “holistic story-weavers” to re-tell the story of Christianity in order to bring renewal.

It would be interesting to try to re-tell the story of Unitarian Universalism in order to bring renewal. But what is our story? Is ours a story of a new reformation of Christianity that has called us into a post-Christian worldview? (This is a story Dana Greeley hints at in his 1971 memoir Twenty Five Beacon Street.) Is ours a story of human beings struggling to manifest in our religious communities a worldview of justice for all persons? (This is a story that Mark Morrison-Reed sometimes tells in his books.) Or maybe this — we don’t have one central compelling story that we can all unite around, in the way Ted Newell says that “Christianity must always be called back to [the story of] the Cross” — is ours a story of not having one story? (And this may be the story we most often tell about ourselves — “You can believe anything you want” — but I don’t think it is a very interesting or compelling story.)

Actually, instead of asking about our stories, it might be more interesting to ask about who are storytellers are: Which Unitarian Universalists are currently telling compelling new stories, stories which may bring renewal? The best example of a Unitarian Universalist “holistic story-weaver” that I can think of is Mark Morison-Reed. Aside from Mark’s stories, the Unitarian Universalist stories I’ve been hearing are either too particular to be holistic, or they rely on reason to subdue and subjugate competing worldviews.

The story that I’m waiting to hear will begin with the story of the relationships between humans, and how humans can manifest justice in their relationships with one another. But it will also tell about the relationship of humans to transcendence. It will also tell about the relationship of humans to non-human beings.

And it will be a really good story, one that won’t put me to sleep — which means it will be a story that’s good enough, and deep enough, so it can be told to children without having them slump down in their seats from boredom.