Why you hate to sing in services

Do you hate to sing in worship services? I do.

And it’s not for the reason you might think: it’s not because the hymns or songs suck. Because even a suck-y song can sound great if it’s done well.

No, there other reasons I hate to sing in worship services. Some of those reasons are neatly summarized in a post by Kenny Lamm of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.

Here are Lamm’s nine reasons, which I have re-interpreted based on my experiences in Unitarian Universalist congregations:

1. I’m far less likely to sing if I don’t know the song. Yes, I can read music, but unless it’s a pretty straightforward song I’m not going to be able to sight-sing it. And just because a soloist with a microphone sings it doesn’t mean I’m going to be able to sing it the first time through, or even the tenth time through.

2. I’m not going to sing it if the song isn’t really suitable for congregational singing. Those syncopated rhythms that sound so nice when the professional musicians sing or play them? those melodies that go way up into the stratosphere? — most of us out in the congregation don’t have the chops to sing them.

3. I’m not going to be able to sing if the song is pitched to high. The average congregational singer is an untrained baritone or mezzo, which means the comfortable range for them is going to be A up about an octave and a half to E flat. However, if you pitch songs in the lower end of that range, the sopranos and tenors are going to complain; and if you pitch songs in the upper end of that range, the basses (me!) and the altos are going to complain. The best range for most congregations is going to be an octave from C to C. (By the way, Kenny Lamm gets this wrong in the original post; he pitches songs for baritones and mezzos, and forgets about the rest of us.)

4. When I can’t hear the people around me singing, it takes a lot of courage to actually sing, so I’ll only sing songs that I know well (and even then, I’ll be more tentative). That means if the accompanist is too loud, and drowns us out, I’m not going to be able to hear the people around me. And if the ceiling is too high, so all our voices get lost up there, I’m not going to be able to hear the people around me. This is one of the reasons I don’t like singing in the Main Hall of the UU Church of Palo Alto: the ceiling of the Main Hall is so high, it’s hard to hear anyone singing.

5. Musicians and worship leaders who don’t understand the delicate art of accompaniment intimidate me, and I won’t sing. That fabulous soloist or worship leader with the incredible voice? — I’m not going to humiliate myself by trying to compete with them. The “accompanist” who obviously isn’t listening to us and doesn’t know that we’re struggling? — I’ll just listen to them and not bother to sing along. I like a g good accompanist who listens to the congregation and supports us when we sing, but there are very few good accompanists out there. (We’re lucky at the UU Church of Palo Alto that we have two professional musicians, Veronika Agranov-Dafoe and Bruce Olstad, who actually understand how to be an accompanist, and when one of them is playing I’m more likely to sing.)

6. If there’s doubt in my mind whether the worship leaders want me to sing, then I’m less likely to sing. That really awesome worship service with the high production values? I know they don’t really want me to sing, because my voice will just lower the quality. That worship leader who mumbles the name of the hymn and shows no joy that we’re going to be singing it? I suspect they don’t really care about the hymn, they just had to stick something in there. In either case, I’m less likely to sing.

7. Professional musicians like to keep throwing exciting new songs at congregations. Ministers like to choose hymns because the lyrics fit in with the sermon topic. Both these ways of choosing hymns fail to take into account a fundamental aspect of human nature: we like to sing the same songs over and over again. In one congregation, a wise elder told me how to chose hymns: she gave me a list of fifty hymns that she knew the congregation loved to sing, and I chose from that list whether the hymns fit the service or not. Once a year, we would drop two or three under-utilized hymns and add two or three new hymns — and each of those new hymns we’d sing once a week until the congregation knew it. That congregation sang pretty well.

8. If the soloist or accompanist adds all kinds of runs and trills and arpeggios and whadda-ya-call’ems — and if no one is actually singing the melody along with me — I’m likely to give up. And it’s while it’s great to have those high sopranos singing the melody, those of us with voices an octave down would appreciate it if someone could sing the melody in our range, too.

9. Finally, to state the obvious, if the worship leader isn’t paying attention to make sure I’m following along, don’t expect me to sing. For example, when the worship leader tells me how much they love this song, and they sing at the top of their lungs but they don’t help me sing it well and, worse yet, they’re not even aware that I’m struggling out here in the pews — not only am I not going to sing, but I might just ignore the sermon as well.

That’s my take on Kenny Lamm’s original post (and thanks to Carol for pointing the post out to me!).

Now: what do you think? Why don’t you sing in worship services?

ARC-5 radios

We’ve been cleaning up Dad’s condo, and I got the job of going through nearly 70 years’ worth of amateur radio gear. I found some lovely old radios, including these military surplus ARC-5 series “command sets.” I don’t know when Dad got these. He was licensed as W2YLY not long after he got out of the service; he might have gotten these while he was still finishing college, but I’m guessing he purchased these around 1950 after he got his first job (he doesn’t remember any more).

ARC-5 radio BC-459A

Plenty of ARC-5s are still on the air, and W1IS is helping us to find them a good home. I like to think that some day I might wind up contacting one fo Dad’s old radios.


Taweret is one of the deities who was a fairly common presence in ancient Egyptian households. Sculptures of Taweret have the head of a hippopotamus and the body of a female human being, and the arms and legs of a lion (note 1); though of course the physical manifestations of ancient Egyptian deities were not thought to adequately represent the actual deity. Sculptures of her “held the attribute of the sa [an ancient Egyptian symbol of magical protection] in her hands and sometimes also the ankh or a torch, the flame of which was supposed to expel typhonic forces” (note 2).

A statue of Taweret would typically stand in a niche in a house, with perhaps an offering table. A Taweret sculpture might also be placed in bedrooms, to prevent sleeping humans from being assaulted by demons or ghosts. According to some accounts, she was married to the god Seth (note 3).

Below is a fine tiny sculpture of Taweret, made of faience sometime in Dynasties 26-30, now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (accession number 64.2252). She is holding the sa, and you can see her hippo head, human body, and lion limbs. She is fearsome enough to give you a measure of assurance that she will indeed protect you, as a household god should; but she also appears friendly enough that I would not mind having her in my household.



1. Garry J. Shaw, The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends (Thames and Hudson, 2014), p. 155.

2. Manfred Lurker, An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Egypt [Thames and Hudson, 1980/2006], English language edition of Gotter und Symbole der Alten Agypter, rev. and enlarged by Peter A. Clayton, p. 119.

3. Shaw, pp. 152, 158, 55.


Aprhodite’s nature and deeds are well enough known that they don’t need to be repeated here. This head of Aphrodite, carved between 300 and 300 BCE, is sometimes called the “Bartlett Head.” It was once attached to a complete figure, and likely would have been part of a temple; many Greek sculptures from this era were painted. Now the temple and the rest of the figure are lost, and this isolated head is on display in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It is worth remembering that when we see religious art in museums, what we are seeing has been removed from its original religious setting and purpose, and put into a completely secular context where it has no purpose except to be gazed at for its presumed artistic beauty.



Ma-ku is a Taoist deity of longevity. In the image below, she can be identified by her hoe and a basket of the fungus of immortality. This Ching dynasty porcelain presentation dish was made sometime in the eighteenth century, and is now in the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco (accession no. B60P376):


Today in the West, Ma-ku’s name is sometimes translated as “Hemp Maiden,” which has led a number of Westerners to misappropriate her as the patron deity of pot smokers; you can find plenty of Web sites that state this as an absolute fact. Note, however, the iconography of Ma-ku often shows her, not with marijuana, but with a basket of the fungus of immortality. And so, not surprisingly, other Western writers have jumped to the conclusion that Ma-ku is not the goddess of marijuana, but rather the goddess of psychoactive mushrooms. Obviously, psychoactive mushrooms do not produce longevity, but we Westerners do love to superimpose our own meanings on the gods and goddesses of other times and other cultures.

Rather than imposing Western values on Ma-ku, I’m more interested in learning her role and place in Chinese culture. I found it difficult to locate good solid information about Ma-ku in English. But Mesny’s Chinese Miscellany (1899), though not a scholarly work and probably biased by a colonial outlook, has a useful entry on Ma-ku under the general heading of Gods and Goddesses:


Ma Ku: A Taoist immortalised female saint or Hsien Nu; a portrait of Ma Ku is very popular as an emblem of longevity, and is one of the very best presents a person can make to his superiors on the occasion of a birthday feast.

During my stay in Kuei-chou, I received several such presents, in the form of a portrait of Ma Ku with a pilgrim’s staff and a basket of flowers over her shoulder, the whole embroidered in fancy coloured silk floss, on a scarlet satin tablet some 8 or 10 feet long by about 3 feet wide.

Mayers writing of Ma Ku says that she is “One of the female celebrities of Taoist fable. She is said to have been a sister of the immortalized soothsayer Wang Feng-ping (see Wang Yuan), and like him to have been admitted into the ranks of the genii [i.e., the immortals]. It is related that once when Fang-ping revealed himself in the presence of Ts’ai Ching, whom he chose as his disciple and taught, by corporeal sublimation, to free himself from the bonds of death, the genii was accompanied by his sister Ma Ku, who appeared in the semblance of a damsel of eighteen or twenty, arrayed in gorgeous apparel, and who waited on her brother and his pupil with strange viands served in platters of gold and chrysoprase.

“The wife of Ts’ai Ching was newly delivered of a child, seeing which Ma Ku took some grains of rice and threw them on the ground, where they at once became transformed into cinnabar (the magic of the alchemists). Fang-ping seeing this exclaimed with a smile, ‘Sister, do you still indulge in child’s play?’ to which the damsel replied: ‘Since I have been our handmaid, thrice has the eastern sea become fields where the mulberry grows!’…

“Hence the Tsang Sang Chih Pien, signifying the cyclic revolutions of nature and cataclysms occurring upon the earth’s surface such as beings of immeasurable longevity alone are priveleged to witness more than once.” It is on this account that the image or portrait of Ma Ku is so highly prized by the Chinese as an emblem of extreme long life and happiness.

— William Mesny, ed., Mesny’s Chinese Miscellany: A Text Book of Notes on China and the Chinese, vol. III, (Shanghai: Shanghai Mercury, 1899), p. 286.


Dahwoodi Bohra mosque

Recently, a new mosque opened in Palo Alto, which is affiliated with a specific group of Shia Muslims known as Dahwoodi Bohra. I’ve been looking into Dahwoodi Bohra, and have found that it challenges some of my notions of Islam.

Dahwoodi Bohra is a branch of Isma’ili Islam, along with the better-known Druze; and Isma’ili is a branch of Shi’a Islam. Isma’ilism has Seven Pillars, instead of the more familiar Five Pillars of Islam. The Isma’ili consider the Shahadah — “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet” — to be the grounding statement of all Seven Pillars, and therefore not a pillar in itself. The Seven Pillars of the Isma’ili include the familiar Salat (prayer), Zakat (charity), Sawm (fasting), and Hajj (pilgrimage). The three additional pillars are Jihad (struggle), Walayah (guardianship of the faith), and Taharah (purity). Although I usually think of Muslims performing Salat, prayer, five times a day, the Dahwoodi Bohra pray three times a day, since they perform some of the prayers at the same time.

The Dahwoodi Bohra have characteristic clothing which they may wear at religious ceremonies. The men wear a white tunic and coat, with a hat known as a topi (on Youtube, I found instructions on how to properly starch a topi here). Women typically wear head scarves, but rather than the subdued fabric I usually see Muslim women wearing, Dahwoodi Bohra headscarves tend towards the bright and spangly.

In common with other Shi’a Muslims, a major ritual is the Mourning of Muharram, which is observed in the first Islamic month; this observance is generally not performed by Sunnis. And there is much more to learn about the Dahwoodi Bohra: they have their own language; the largest number live in Gujarat, India, and Karachi, Pakistan; the women sometimes perform genital mutilation of girls, yet the men may be unaware of this; etc.

Yet learning even this little bit about the Dahwoodi Bohra has shown me the extent to which I have assumed that Sunni Muslims are normative. I should know better: every religious tradition I have started investigating has proved to be far more diverse than my original assumptions allowed for.


And here are some links to news stories on the local Dahwoodi Bohra mosque: here, here, and here. There’s not much about the congregation on Salatomatic, but for reference, their listing is here. Finally, the “official” Dahwoodi Bohra Youtube channel, which appears to be mostly audio files, is here.

Updating Web site security

This site, as is true of many Web sites, has been experiencing attacks for some years now; one such attack took down this site in early 2011. Believe me, having your Web site go down definitely sucks. Since 2011, with the expert help and advice of my Web hosting service, the security on this site has been continually upgraded. Among other measures, Wordfence has been installed on the WordPress installations, Cloudflare is in use, and the site was moved to servers optimized for WordPress.

And now, finally, thanks to Dennis at Deerfield Hosting, this site is using SSL certificates. SSL Labs now gives this Web site an “A+” rating on its SSL report.

Some things to look out for:

1. Dennis writes: “I have purposely limited the cipher suites available to deliver the site. Analysis and specifics here. Some people will and do disagree with doing that. Some visitors will not be able to see your site. I’ve looked at the stats and the numbers are very low, to the point where calling these cases very rare is accurate.” If you can’t see the site, you obviously won’t be reading this. But this is still a reminder to use up-to-date software. Also, one possible browser upgrade you might be interested in is the “HTTPS Everywhere” plugin for Firefox, Chrome, and Opera, available from the Electronic Frontier Foundation here.

2. This Web site should automatically redirect an “http” link to an “https” link, but there may be occasional problems. If you find such a problem, please let me know (so far I’ve heard from one Web manager who found this problem).

3. In a similar vein, I am updating internal links. Until I have finished doing so, some internal links may not work. Please let me know if you find one, and I will fix it ASAP.

4. Web geeks will be interested to know that Dennis also switched this site to HTTP/2. He writes: “Your site is now among the first sites on the Internet to employ HTTP/2, the successor to HTTP/1.1. Only about 2% of sites have this distinction. One of the advantages is faster site delivery. Page components are requested and delivered asynchronously over a single connection. More information here.”

Finally, I can’t thank Dennis at Deerfield Hosting enough. Most Web hosts these days just provide a commodity, and it’s great to be with a Web host that still provides actual customer service.

To clarify a little, software which will be unable to establish a secure connection with this site includes:
— Android 4.3 and earlier
— Internet Explorer 6-9
— Safari 5-6
If you’re reading this, your browsing software is reasonably up-to-date. Yay, you!

Welders and philosophers

Marco Rubio is an ass. I say this both as a philosophy major, and as someone who has worked with his hands for a living.

In Tuesday’s Republican debate, Rubio stated, “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.” Let’s take that first pronouncement first. Forbes.com researched the statement, and when the compared teachers of philosophy with welders, they found that philosophers earn more than welders. So Rubio is wrong.

But let’s assume that Rubio is talking about anyone with a philosophy degree. My graduating class in college had about 50 philosophy majors. The majority of them went to to law school; an undergraduate degree in philosophy was then a well-respected pre-law degree because philosophy gave you experience in debate, critical thinking, reading lengthy and mind-numbingly boring texts, and putting up with incredible amounts of bullshit — all valuable skills for lawyers. Note that Rubio is in fact a lawyer, and probably is professionally close to more than one well-to-do philosophy major; he must know the value of philosophy training to lawyers. So it’s hard to know why he puts down philosophy majors, unless perhaps he is jealous of the superior legal skills of those with degrees in philosophy.

Now let’s look at this from the point of view of people who have actually worked with their hands for a living. Which, by the way, Rubio himself has never done. Welding is a great job, and recent jobs posted on the Jobs in Welding Web site include positions ranging from really creative jobs, e.g., welder to work on experimental and production welding — to straightforward production jobs, e.g., working as a boilermaker welder in a railroad maintenance facility. Yes, these are great jobs, but as with any job where you work with your hands, you have to worry about getting hurt, and you have to worry whether your body will physically hold up until retirement. Speaking as someone who spent five years working as a carpenter, I can tell you that these are non-trivial worries, and that because of this many manual labor jobs are far more stressful than white collar jobs. Furthermore, manual labor jobs are constantly in danger of being off-shored, out-sourced, or made obsolete by new technology (e.g., robots now perform many welding tasks; so-called manufactured homes are cheaper than stick-built homes; etc.) — and these dangers just add to the stress.

At this point, we could get into an interesting argument about whether Rubio’s economic priorities are more likely to help or hurt manual laborers, but let’s hold off for a moment. Let’s just say that I’d feel better about Rubio’s pronouncement if he knew what it was like to work with your hands, the constant worry about getting hurt, the seasonal lay-offs. Given that he is a soft-handed law school graduate who has always had cushy, white-collar jobs, his comment about philosophy majors and welders makes him come across as an ass.

I’m using “ass” in a philosophically precise sense, as a shorthand version of the more offensive word “asshole,” a word that has been precisely defined by philosopher Aaron James as someone who “is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people” (Assholes: A Theory, New York : Doubleday, 2013). While James’s book may be problematic in some areas, his definition of “asshole” is a good one. Since Marco Rubio comes across as having a great sense of entitlement, with no awareness of how other people perceive him, he fits James’s definition of an asshole, and it is in this sense that I call Rubio an ass.

So at this point, let’s look at Rubio’s second pronouncement: “We need more welders and less philosophers.” Sad to say, too many of our politicians are persons who, like Rubio, have become immunized to their sense of entitlement. As a philosophy and moral theologian, I would say that what the American political scene needs as much as anything is a healthy dose of humility and moral reflection — something that we philosophers are well-trained to supply. No wonder Rubio wants fewer philosophers: we are the ones who can point out that he’s being an ass, and tell him how to stop.

In summary, although we could use fewer people like Marco Rubio, we actually could use more of both welders and philosophers.

List of faith communities near Palo Alto

I’ve been compiling a list of religious organizations mostly in Silicon Valley, from San Jose to San Francisco. The middle school class of our congregation visits other faith communities, and this list is designed to be used as a resource to help the class find places to visit.

Even though I was familiar with the work of Harvard’s Pluralism Project, even though I expected a wide diversity of religious traditions, I was still astonished at the religious diversity I found: there are hundreds of faith communities, ranging from Anabaptists to Zoroastrians, within an hour’s drive of our congregation.

Most of the research I did was online. It proved difficult to research some faith communities online, as quite a few do not have Web sites, or they have Web sites that are so outdated you don’t trust them. Yelp proved to an excellent source of information about many faith communities, especially when there were recent reviews (search for “Religious organizations” in a given locale). Youtube also proved a good source of information in a few cases; sometimes faith communities have inadequate Web sites but their members may post videos that provide useful information. One or two congregations had Facebook pages that provided the most recent information.

This list also relies on some real-world research. Our middle school class has visited some of these congregations, as noted on the list below. I also relied a lot on word-of-mouth information — people telling me about some faith community that they knew about, or had friends in, or belonged to.

Perhaps the most difficult part of making this list was figuring out a reasonable way to organize it. I started with the eight major world religions identified in Stephen Prothero’s book God Is Not One; added Zoroastrian, Sikh, Baha’i, and Jain to the list; then finished off with a list of New Religious Movements organized according to the categories in the book New Religious Movements, ed. Christopher Partridge. That takes care of the major divisions. It was more difficult to know how to categorize sub-groups within Christianity and Islam. Christianity is arguably the most diverse of the major world religions, and I did the best I could based on various scholarly reference works. Islam was also challenging to categorize, and I finally decided to use the categories from the Salatomatic Web site.

If you live in Silicon Valley, I’d love it if you looked over the list — then let me know if you see any errors or obvious omissions.

And now: the list! Continue reading “List of faith communities near Palo Alto”