Habits of a lifetime

We are more likely to remember that which is most vivid, and closer to us in time. When I think of my father, I am most likely to remember him in November of 2014, the time I stayed with him and watched him go from independent albeit slightly confused, to unable to care for himself in less than three weeks; memories of suddenly having to feed and toilet a parent tend to be very vivid. I imagine my younger sister has far more vivid and immediate memories; she visited him several times a week during his last year, watching him lose mobility and weight and speech.

But let’s skip over the vivid and immediate, and go back in time to 1992 when my father retired from his job as a microwave tube engineer. He would have preferred to continue working, but the company he worked for only allowed full time work or nothing. Full time for Dad meant ten hour days, with at least a 45 minute commute on either end, and that was more than he felt up to. So he retired, and posted a sign over his desk in the basement of their house which said: “Retire and Die.”

One summer afternoon, not long after that, he and my mother and my younger sister were sitting in the dining room when lightning struck the house. Next thing they knew, a fire had started in the attic. They got out of the house, the fire department arrived, and my mother went across the street to a neighbor’s house to make some phone calls. One of the calls was to me. “Hi Mom,”I said. “I think your father is not feeling too happy,” she said. “Why?” I said, aware that her voice sounded very strained. “The house is on fire, and the fire department is here,” she said.

By the time I got there, the fire fighters had chopped holes in the roof, and were throwing smoldering boxes out onto the back yard. The fire was mostly out, but they were still pumping water into the attic. Mom was right: Dad did not look very happy. Pretty soon a couple of guys who claimed to be insurance adjusters, or some such, showed up and started walking around the the yard. Dad was watching the firefighters, and (I have no doubt) already planning the rebuilding effort, so I took it upon myself to show the two guys where the property line was. One of them did turn out to be someone who would serve as your representative to your insurance company, and Dad later got his business card. (I still have my doubts about the other one; my younger sister later said she thought there were looters around that day.) But rather than hire someone else to deal with the insurance company, Dad decided to do it himself.

He also decided to serve as the general contractor in the rebuilding effort. I was working for a carpenter at that time, and Dad hired Ken to do most of the work. A couple of weeks after the fire, when Ken and I had already started working, Ken told me that my father projected that they would be able to move back into the house in the second or third week of December, in time for Christmas. “There’s no way he’ll be able to pull that off,” Ken said, shaking his head.

But Dad had managed more complex projects with much bigger budgets than this one. He made his PERT charts, dealt with the insurance company, managed the subcontractors, and sure enough Dad and Mom and my sister were able to get out of the depressing condo they had rented and back into their own house by mid-December. A few months later, the last of the work was done, well within the time my father had projected. I doubt Ken said so to my father, but when the job was completed on time (and under budget), he admitted to me that he was impressed.

Years later, Dad wrote his own obituary, and said of himself: “He also spent one year supervising the rebuilding of his residence to repair damage caused by a lightning strike, which was an adventure in construction engineering.” I thought then, and still think, that this year-long engineering project was what got him out of the misery into which retirement had plunged him. In any case, the sign saying “Retire and Die” moved to a place of lesser prominence, and eventually disappeared entirely.

(As a footnote to this story: My mother was always convinced that the lightning had been attracted by the antenna Dad had strung up for his amateur radio transceiver. Dad always pooh-poohed that notion, but Mom had me partially convinced. Then a few years ago I learned enough to pass my amateur radio General class license exam. And a year ago, I found Dad’s construction drawing of the antenna in question. Dad was right: there was no way his antenna started the fire.)

Dad was good at facing down adversity and overcoming obstacles, armed with project management, scientific method, dogged persistence, and a quietly persuasive way with other people. Actually, now that I think of it, he was able to use these habits of a lifetime in dealing with his final decline. And that’s not a bad way to remember him.

Bob Harper’s obituary

My dad died this morning, after illnesses lasting two years. As an engineering physicist and R&D man in the for-profit sector, Dad had to be an excellent project manager, so of course he had the foresight to write his own obituary, which you can read here.

Me? I’m feeling mostly relief at this point; Dad’s quality of life wasn’t that great the last couple of months. Maybe Dad is relieved, too, though since he was a non-theist (he said he couldn’t call himself a humanist because he didn’t think humans should be at the center of the universe), the tense is wrong: let’s say: maybe Dad was relieved when he finally died.

Environmentalism: from sacred texts… pt. 4

Read part one


I’m always a little surprised at how much the children seem to like Ecojustice class; we do try to make Sunday school classes fun, but this class seems to be more fun than most. Late last year, I overheard a conversation that helps explain why. A seventh grader told a fifth grader, “You have to take the Ecojustice class. You actually get to do things.” When he said “You get to do things,” that seventh grader—who happens to be a non-praying atheist—did not mean his friend would get to pray or read sacred texts. He had grasped in an intuitive way that the curriculum of Ecojustice class is based on a progressive educational philosophy where “the learning experience is a part of life, not a separated preparation for life.” (23) While we aim to inculcate religious literacy and the core values of our religious tradition, including familiarity with sacred texts, these things cannot be taught separately from the lives we are in the midst of living.


Our progressive educational philosophy cause us to look with alarm at the seeming inability of local faith communities to address the global environmental crisis. We all know people of faith have to address the global environmental crisis, yet in spite of this apparent consensus “that religion must play a central role in building a more environmentally sustainable society, religious organizations and individuals have achieved few tangible results.” (24) Religions have done pretty well at linking their sacred texts and traditions to abstract thinking about environmental justice, but this does not seem to have had much effect in the real world. The specific conditions of the global environmental crisis require a new approach to ecological theology, just as the conditions of Latin America required the new approach of liberation theology; (25) sacred texts and theology cannot be treated separately from the immediate reality of our lives. To put this more directly: when I asked a group of elders at UUCPA about sacred texts and environmental ethics, one replied, “You don’t get your ethics by reading, … you get your ethics by living.” (26)

That seventh grader who urged his friend to do the Ecojustice class knew that words—whether spoken or written words—are not the most important teaching tool. In U.S. culture, we often equate teaching with explaining, which “makes teaching a talkative affair” where we assume that “to teach is to tell.” But this assumption is not accurate, because most teaching is actually nonverbal teaching. Example and experiences will always prove more powerful than speech: “No amount of talk can substitute for the well-placed gesture of the human body.” (27)

The teaching that takes place in the Ecojustice class is always connected with bodily movement and gesture. Before the class even begins, the children take part in the worship service, sitting near to other people of all different ages, standing up to sing, running out the door to their classes. When we arrive in the classroom, we sit in a circle so that we are aware of each other’s faces and bodies. When we say opening words together, we have hand motions to go with them. The children run to get food scraps and dead leaves to put into the composter; they pick up worms in their hands; they peer over a fence to look in the creek; they saw wood, hammer nails, and help hold things that other children are hammering and sawing; they pick up tools and materials and put them away. Of course I and the other teachers explain things with words, but those words are linked to specific bodily actions: hold the hammer like this, don’t forget to put a little water in the worm composter, etc. When we had the ethical discussion of removing House Sparrow eggs from the nesting box, this was not an abstract discussion, we were talking about a living organism that might cause a problem that we had to face with hands and hearts. At the end of class, when we say together “Hold fast to what is good” (based on words from a sacred text), we hold each other’s physical hands.

What these sixth graders, and us adult teachers, experience in the worship service and throughout the class can be understood metaphorically as a form of dance; not high-art dance done as a performance by professionals (e.g., ballet, modern dance, etc.), but participatory social dance done as a community. Even though our congregation rarely includes dance in our formal worship services (as is true of most religious groups stemming from the Christian tradition), you can find elements of informal social dance throughout the worship service, and in the liturgical elements interspersed through the class time: a time to stand and to sit, a time to greet each other in worship; a time to run pell-mell, a time to pick up worms; gestures and movements that express who we are and how we are interconnected. If we did not have these elements of dance, if we did not respect the bodies of all those in our congregation, it is likely that the children would be much less willing to be part of our congregation: “If children are screaming, they might just be having a bad day or else they might be doing what many of the adults feel like doing.” (28) Not that we always manage to respect the bodies of those in our congregation, but at our best, children, teens, and adults embody our values through dance-like moves.

Carla Walter, a dancer and scholar in our congregation, describes a womanist spirituality, drawing on African spirituality, which helps me understand what our post-Christian congregation aspires to. A womanist spirituality, says Walter, incorporating elements like dance, music, oral tradition, direct perception of spiritual matters, and relationships with other people, “draws on ancient knowledge of power in our spirits and communities to move us as it remembers the past, and on today’s hegemonically valued groups to work against intra- and intergroup hatred to build social sustainable structures. Spiritual wholeness is what is sought, in interconnectivity….” (29) This is what we are trying to do with our children and teens: make socially sustainable structures, seek spiritual wholeness. Womanist spirituality, a “struggle spirituality” that was never subject to Cartesian dualism and “the Adam and Eve mythos that informs Western religion,” (30) helps us dance through the resistance to Western religion; rather than correct interpretation of sacred texts to solve environmental problems, it nurtures spiritual wholeness and liberation through interconnectivity.

I don’t mean to suggest that scholars should give up re-interpreting sacred texts, like the Adam and Eve mythos in Genesis 2, to help solve environmental problems. And I appreciate the attempts to describe a straightforward connection from sacred texts to “ecological lived practices that continue to reshape an ecologically conscious social imaginary.” (31) But as a religious educator in a post-Christian congregation in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have found this approach is more likely to lead to restless children and resistant teens, and not a few restless and resistant adults.

DanceService6 copy

Above: a dance choreographed by Carla Walter in a UUCPA worship service

Dance — “the earliest art form” which “allows expression that can’t approximate rational thought” (32) — lies closer to the embodied experience of young people than sacred texts. And while dance may not be prominent in sacred texts, it is there in the texts; in addition to re-interpreting Genesis 2, we might pay attention to texts like Exodus 15:20, where Miriam led women in celebratory dance, (33) as well as many other sacred texts that describe the relationship of human beings, other beings, and the divine in terms of processional dance, ecstatic dance, dances of praise and worship, etc. When we move out of the spheres of Western-style religion, and Westernized scholarship, we may find that dance is valued more highly. Professor Hyun Kyung Chung of Ewha Women’s University in Seoul gave an unusual presentation to the Seventh General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1991:

“Chung entered from the rear of the hall. She was accompanied by nineteen Korean dancers with bells, candles, drums, gongs, and clap sticks … [and] two Australian Aboriginal dancers dressed only in loincloths and body paint. … When they had all reached the stage, Chung and her companions stepped through a synchronized pattern [of dance] which combined Aboriginal movement with traditional Korean folk dance.” (34)

Some of those present experienced Chung’s presentation “electrifying, powerful, evocative,” while for others it was an “abject surrender of Christianity to a pagan environment.” (35) Many of us in the West have come to believe that hierarchies, orthodoxies, and standardized rituals define religion. Thus the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches gave a mixed response to Hyun Kyung Chung’s incorporation of dance into her presentation. Western Christianity (and Western religion more generally) has been preoccupied with hierarchies, creeds, and standardized rituals. But the majority of Christians now live in the global South, Christianity is no longer no longer shaped exclusively by Western-style religious practices, and Christianity is no longer defined by hierarchies, creeds, and standardized rituals. (36) This should cause us Westerners to rethink the definition of religion more broadly. We should remember that before Constantine’s deployment of Christianity in service of empire, Christianity “meant a dynamic lifestyle sustained by fellowships that were guided by both men and women and that reflected hope for the coming Reign of God.” (37)

In a post-Christian congregation such as the one I serve, children, teens, and their parents are rightly wary of religion that serves imperial ambitions; rightly suspicious of Western-style religion imposing its hierarchies and standardization on us. As we move away from standardization, then contemporary poems, like the one Beverly read at the beginning of the worship service I described, may serve as sacred texts. As we move away from standardization of religion, we may listen when an elder in our congregation vigorously asserts that “you don’t get your ethics by reading, you get your ethics by living,” we may notice the persons in our congregation who are preliterate children, and we may conclude that reading sacred texts isn’t as important as it has been in Western-style religion. Our bioregion and cultural context may also influences us: here in the San Francisco Bay watershed, an urban area on the Pacific Rim with a large East Asian population, we may find ourselves understanding religion in Asian terms, in non-Western terms, as “a matter of seasonal rituals, ethical insights, and narratives handed down from generation to generation.” (38)

The fact that we no longer have a centralized, standardized definition of what constitutes religion leads to uncertainty in how we conduct religious education here in the United States. Our closest religious cousins in the U.S., the liberal mainline Protestant Christians, also find themselves in the midst of this uncertainty. The disestablishment of Protestantism in the U.S., which occurred half a century ago, challenged mainline congregations—and post-Christian congregations like ours—to embrace “religious, racial, and cultural pluralism”; since then, we have been uncertain what religious education is supposed to accomplish, and who should do the educating. (39) And the uncertainty within religious education, the uncertainty with Western-style religion, is only magnified by the existential uncertainty of the global environmental crisis.


As we re-imagine religious education within our congregation, I find the image of the Web of Life helps to make sense out of the many and varied dance moves we engage in. Bernard Loomer, a theologian affiliated with both mainline Protestant and post-Christian congregations, described the Web of Life as “an indefinitely extended complex of interrelated, inter-dependent events or units of reality,” a complex which includes “the human and non-human, the organic and inorganic levels of life and existence”; what Jesus called the Kingdom of God was also the Web of Life, although this insight of Jesus’s was “covered over because we have surrounded Jesus with religiosity.” (40) In the Web of Life, humans and non-humans and the inorganic are all bound together in a web of relationships; reworking more traditional Christian terms, Loomer says that sin is when we act against this web of relationships, while forgiveness “is a restoration to those relationships.” (41) Loomer adds that as human civilization advances—as we achieve greater freedoms for minority groups, better understand the dignity of the other, etc.—we create the need “for adopting disciplines that are more complex and requiring virtues beyond anything the human spirit has known.” When Loomer said this in 1985, he remained uncertain whether we humans would be able to respond adequately to this challenge: “If the response is inadequate the human organism may turn out to be a dead end.” (42)

Facing this uncertainty, I am sometimes tempted to fall back on old educational models which impose certainty. I could make children and teens find spiritual certainty in a standardized body of sacred texts from which we extract truth. Or — something my congregation would feel more comfortable with — I could have children and teens find scientific certainty in technological fixes to the global environmental crisis. However, the best efforts of both science and Western religion have not decreased the probability of global environmental disaster, nor the probability that we humans will turn out to be a “dead end.” While I wouldn’t advocate abandoning either science or Western religion, they seem to me to be insufficient for making new “virtues beyond anything the human spirit has known.”

Imagine religion as a dance which restores us to the Web of Life, rather than acting against the relationships of the Web of Life. In this dance, we are interconnected with other persons as embodied beings bound in a web of relationships. Those relationships begin in the immediate human community where we are dancing; the relationships extend further into the immediate bioregion of the local watershed; and then still further into the relationships of the whole of the Web of Life. The relationships in the Web of Life are not neat and tidy; rather the Web of Life is a thicket and bramble wilderness filled with the messiness of becoming. In this dance, we communicate the reality of the Web of Life through gestures rather than through words or texts, through the interaction of the whole selves of embodied human beings.

As a religious educator, I hope to restore persons to their relationships of the Web of Life. To that end, the spiritual practices associated with womanist spirituality, including dance, music, narratives and oral tradition, direct perception of spiritual matters, relationships with other beings—spiritual practices that treat human beings as fully embodied beings—help connect children and teens (and adults too) to a spiritual wholeness within the Web of Life.

Our embodied approach to religious education might offer at least three helpful insights to more scholarly or theoretical approaches to mobilize religion to address the global environmental crisis. First, the children and teens in our post-Christian congregation are resistant to Western-style religion, associating it with intolerance and bigotry—associations that seem related to the imperial history of Western Christianity. Second, we see that the children and teens in our Pacific Rim congregation willingly and joyfully participate in dance-like embodied religious education—an educational approach that appears related to changes in global Christianity, and that can be conceptualized through womanist spirituality. Third, an accurate description of what I see in this post-Christian congregation does not lead to neat and tidy conclusions; instead I find myself in a thicket-and-bramble wilderness, where nothing about the messiness of becoming is clear and obvious.

A scholar of religion who walked into one of our classes and saw a bunch of sixth graders building birdhouses might be forgiven for thinking this class didn’t involve religion. Where are the texts, the beliefs, the prayers that define U.S. religiosity? Yet our post-Christian faith community might also be forgiven for thinking that organized religion has, so far, not been very effective in dealing with environmental crisis. It may not look like it on the surface, but our children and teens are dancing their way towards socially sustainable structures of spiritual wholeness. As the poet Marge Piercy says:

Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot tell always by looking what is happening. (43)



(23) This description of progressive educational philosophy is from Robert Pazmino, Foundational Issues in Christian Education 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 120.

(24) Anna L. Peterson, “Talking the Walk: A Practice-based Environmental Ethic as Grounds for Hope,” in Ecospirit: Religions and Philosophies for the Earth, ed. Laurel Kearns and Catherine Kellar (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007), 46.

(25) Ibid., 58.

(26) Cecil Bridges, personal communication, February 23, 2016. Cecil gave me permission to quote his words.

(27) Gabriel Moran, Fashioning Me a People Today: The Educational Insights of Maria Harris (New London, Conn..: Twenty-Third Publications, 2007), 51.

(28) Ibid., 81.

(29) Carla S. Walter, Dance, Consumerism, and Spirituality (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 49.

(30) Ibid., 48.

(31) Anne Marie Dalton and Henry C. Simmons, Ecotheology and the Practice of Hope (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2010), 105.

(32) Walter, 86.

(33) Ibid., 88.

(34) Harvey Cox, Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 1995/2001), 213.

(35) Ibid., 217.

(36) Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 174.

(37) Ibid., 174, 179.

(38) Ibid., 221.

(39) Charles R. Foster, “Educating American Protestant Religious Educators,” Religious Education, 110 (2015), 548-550.

(40) Bernard C. Loomer, Unfoldings: Conversations from the Sunday Morning Seminars of Bernie Loomer (Berkeley, Calif.: First Unitarian Church, 1985), 1-2.

(41) Ibid., 3.

(42) Ibid., 19.

(43) Piercy, 128.

Short practical guide to grief

You can find tones of books about grief, but (speaking as a minister) I haven’t seen a short practical guide to grief — the practical things I find myself saying to lots of people right after someone close to them (spouse, parent, child, sibling, etc.) has died.

Everyone is different and experiences grief differently, but many peole experience the following:

— The first seven to ten days after the death, the grief is pretty raw. You may find yourself bursting into tears at the slightest provocation; and if you find yourself laughing at some memory the next instant, that’s normal too. It often helps to be with family, or if you don’t get along with family, then to be with good friends. You know how Jews sit shiva for a week after someone dies? That makes total sense. If you only get two or three bereavement days off from work, still you can cancel all your other commitments.

— After the initial shock and raw grief, numbness sets in for most of us (thankfully) for about three months. The grief is still there, but you can pick up with your ordinary life — although from the outside you may look a little out of it at times.

— When that initial numbness wears off, often about three months after the death, that can be the toughest time. Co-workers, friends, and family often expect you to have moved on with your life, and no one is bringing you dinners at home, or treating you extra gently. But here’s the grief, coming in waves, back again as strong as ever. Because grief tends to come in waves, so you might be fine one minute, than overtaken by a wave of grief the next. Be careful when driving!

— For most people, grief lasts about 18 to 24 months. The first year is often the hardest, and the first anniversary of the death can be very tough indeed. In fact, do yourself a favor, and don’t plan anything big on the first anniversary of the death — or do something like plan to have the gravestone installed, or some other commemorative thing like that.

OK, that’s the basic timeline. Remember, grief comes in waves, so you can be fine one minute, and not very functional the next — one minute you might have energy to start working on a project, or start cleaning the house, or whatever, and the next minute about all you can do is sit and cry.

Remember to eat regular meals, you need the energy. Exercise is a good idea, too. Don’t forget to sleep. Breathing is also a good idea; nice slow relaxing breaths can help a lot.

And of course, the reason I’m finally writing this post is that my dad is about to die. So this is a good way of reminding myself of what I need to pay attention to.

My pick for president

I’m tired of the whining presidential candidates calling each other names. Calling each other names is so 2008. We need a REAL presidential candidate who goes beyond name-calling.

That’s why I’m supporting Cthulhu of the Elder God Party.


Of course the Mainstream Media are not taking the Elder God Party seriously. But if they did, imagine a debate with Clinton, Cruz, Sanders, Trump — and Cthulhu.

The other candidates quake in fear as Cthulhu comes on stage, its face a mass of feelers, the scaly rubbery-looking body looming over the other candidates, the prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, the long narrow wings behind. Cthulhu’s supporters begin to chant, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!”

Donald Trump points to the Elder God and says, “I’d like to punch him in the face.” Cthulhu eats him.

Bernie Sanders shakes his finger and says, “We are living in a world where greed has become for the wealthiest people their own religion, and…” Cthulhu interrupts him by eating him.

Now only Cruz and Clinton are left standing. By this point, both are quaking in fear. But Cruz is packing a handgun, and he pulls it out, points it at Cthulhu. “If you are one of the gun grabbers and come after our guns, then what I say is ‘Come and Take it.’” One of the tentacles around Cthulhu’s mouth reaches out, takes the gun from Cruz, then pulls the screaming human into its vast mouth.

Clinton looks at the audience, all of whom are now wailing and moaning in mindless terror, then she looks up at the Elder God and says, “Everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion.” Cthulhu grasps her in one great foreclaw and eats her. It grabs Megyn Kelly and Anderson Cooper, both screaming uncontrollably, and eats them.

The next day, the polls show Cthlhu with an approval rating of over 87% from both Democrats and Republicans, and the Elder God is leading all the other candidates — though that’s a moot point, since the other major candidates are dead, and Kasich hastily concedes (glad that his poll numbers were so low he wasn’t allowed to participate in the debate). Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un try to claim that they can take on Cthulhu, but the Elder God flies over and eats them both. Eventually Cthulhu eats all human beings — thus ending global climate change, and the threat of nuclear armageddon — and sinks back beneath the seas to wait in silence until the stars are right once again.

That’s the kinds of candidate we need to lead America. Vote Elder God Party in 2016.

Environmentalism: from sacred texts… pt. 3

Read part one

The worm composter and the tire garden are right next to Adobe Creek, and some of the children look down to see how much water remains from the rain we had last week. Adobe Creek flows for about 14 miles from Black Mountain, a peak on the Monte Bello Ridge west of Palo Alto, to San Francisco Bay, draining about 10 square miles of land. (14) The creek runs in a concrete channel for its last two miles, including the stretch past the church. (15) The children stretch over the chain link fence that keeps people from falling in the ten foot deep channel to look. Water just covering the bottom of the creek flows quickly past. One of the children points at a pair of Mallards in the water.

Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 11.08.06 AM

Every time we visit the worm composter and the tire garden, we look in the creek, and we once made a special point of visiting Adobe Creek after a big rain storm so the children could video the turbid chocolate-brown waters rushing past. We are trying to make the children feel connected to our local watershed. Anabaptist theologian Ched Myers argues that too often environmentalists and eco-theologians tend to think in broad abstractions while neglecting their immediate ecological context, a tendency that can lead congregations to engage in environmental justice work that is merely “cosmetic.” Myers wants religious communities to engage in what he calls “watershed discipleship,” environmental justice centered on the bioregion of their local watershed. (16) For Myers, “watershed discipleship” should be rooted in scripture, in the Bible, though he is careful to add that the natural world is a kind of scripture; and he argues that “liturgy and spirituality” and “church practices” should also be firmly rooted in the specific bioregion of a watershed. (17) We’re teaching sixth graders in this class, most of whom are still at the concrete operational stage of cognitive development, and we’re in a post-Christian congregation. But even though Myers’s “watershed discipleship” is too abstract and too Christian to accurately describe what we’re doing, it helps explain why I and the other teachers insist on taking the children to see dirty water flowing through a concrete channel.

We walk from Adobe Creek back to our classroom, then out the back door to a covered patio to work on the half-finished nesting boxes. Before we start working, I bring up our conversation from the previous week, about House Sparrows, an invasive species, who sometimes take over nesting boxes, thus depriving native swallows of nesting habitat. Last week, I had told the children that ornithologists recommend removing and destroying House Sparrow nests in swallow nesting boxes. The children did not like the idea of destroying House Sparrow eggs, even if theses birds are a destructive invasive species. This week I admit that I probably couldn’t destroy a House Sparrow nest myself, and I ask what they think we should do. Zoe finally says she would be willing to remove a House Sparrow nest, though she wouldn’t destroy it, she would put it on the ground somewhere. “What if a cat gets the nest?” asks Toby. “Well, at least we didn’t kill it,” Zoe says.

This is our third week building nesting boxes. By now, most of the children know what to do. Catalina, who hadn’t worked on the nesting boxes before, is taken in hand by some of the other girls, who show her the plans, and some partially assembled nesting boxes. Soon Catalina is sitting on a board to hold it while Eva cuts it with the hand saw. I’m at the table where we drill pilot holes for nails. We have a system where one person holds the piece of wood, another person holds the handle of the hand drill, and a third person turns the crank handle. We keep working until the worship service ends. Frank, an older adult, happens to walk past us, and stops to see what we are doing, and soon he is working, too. The children want to keep on working , but both Lorraine and I have other commitments, so we have to end the class.


“OK, everyone stand in a circle and hold hands,” I say. “You, too, Frank.” When everyone is in a circle, and more or less holding hands, I ask everyone to say one thing that they learned, or that they’re taking away from today’s class. “Sawing is hard.” “I learned how to drill.” (Becky doesn’t say anything.) “Fun!” “Our worms are happy.” Finally we all say the unison benediction that the adults say at the end of each worship service:

Go out into the world in peace
Be of good courage
Hold fast to what is good
Return no one evil for evil
Strengthen the faint-hearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Rejoice in beauty
Speak love with word and deed
Honor all beings.

This is our version of a widely-used benediction derived from 1 Thessalonians 5:13-15, 21-22, (18) adapted by other Unitarian Universalists, and further adapted by our church’s senior minister when she added the phrase “Rejoice in beauty.” Most of the children in the class have memorized our version of the benediction; they mostly like saying it together; sometimes their comments make it seem that they have even thought about its meaning. I suspect that some of them would be displeased to learn that the benediction they like so well comes from the Bible.

Many of these children are from families in the middle of what political scientists Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell call “a gaping chasm between those who are highly religious and those who are highly secular.” (19) They fall in the middle because they’re both religious and secular at the same time. They are secular because, like the senior minister and more than half the congregation, they are atheists, they don’t pray, and/or they rarely read sacred texts—they are secular by definition, since religiosity is commonly determined in the U.S. by belief in God, the act of praying, and devotional reading of the Bible or other sacred text. (20) For further confirmation of the congregation’s “secularity,” I have learned from listening to and talking with the children and teens that most of them think of “religious” persons as intolerant; in this, their views correspond to the views Putnam and Campbell have found in highly secular Americans. (21) Yet the sixth graders in this class are “religious” if we measure religiosity, not by belief in God or prayer, but by regular attendance in a local faith community. Some of them are aware of their awkward status as both religious and secular, and sometimes they’ll say that they don’t like telling their friends they go to church because it’s hard to explain that their church doesn’t make them believe in God.

The teens in the class I teach later on Sunday morning feel this awkwardness more acutely—these teens are older, in grades 8 and 9, ranging in age from 12 to 15. They are in our “Coming of Age” class, which corresponds roughly to a confirmation class in a Protestant Christian church, or a bar/bat mitzvah class in some Jewish synagogues. In a recent Coming of Age class, I led a session on Biblical literacy, reviewing material about the Bible to which they had already been introduced in previous years in Sunday school. When I asked some pre-assessment questions, I found that the fourteen teenagers in the class could say little about the Bible; even though I know they had been exposed to this knowledge in other Sunday school classes, they are very resistant to remembering anything that smacks of “religion.” I am sympathetic to their resistance to “religion,” given how religion has been used in the West as a form of “colonial control.” (22) Given our congregation’s commitment to social justice, no wonder our children and teens resist a label that that they associate with the opposite of social justice. Yet I also I hear from teens and from their parents that they love coming to the Coming of Age class, because they get to talk about big religious questions like the nature of human beings, good and evil, etc.; they resist the label, but they love the content. All this presents a formidable pedagogical challenge: introducing children and teens to the resources of religion, without provoking further resistance.

With that in mind, let’s return to the sixth grade Ecojustice class, to see what happens after the closing circle: After the closing circle, several children volunteer, without being asked, to stay and help put away tools and materials. Several of them, almost half the class members, walk back and forth between the covered patio and my office, carrying half-finished projects, supplies, and tools. It takes fifteen minutes to get everything put away, and some of the children linger, ready to stay longer if there is something to do; but I have to get ready for the Coming of Age class, so they drift away. These sixth graders show no resistance to the religious bioregionalism of Ecojustice class; exactly the opposite: they like to know how they are connected to Violet-green Swallows and House Sparrows, to worms and compost, to Adobe Creek.

On to the final section.



(14) Chris D. Pilson, “Urban creek restoration, Adobe Creek, Santa Clara County, California” (Master’s thesis, San Jose State University, 2009), 10, 13.

(15) The channelization of Adobe Creek is just one of many human-induced changes. Adobe Creek may have originally terminated in a “bird’s foot distributary pattern” before it reached the bay, perhaps close to the present-day location of the church (Pilson, 58). It is probably no longer possible to reconstruct what the creek was like before Europeans arrived, and rather than focusing on the past we want children to know the creek as it is now.

(16) Ched Myers, “From ‘Creation Care’ to ‘Watershed Discipleship’: Re-Placing Ecological Theology and Practice,” The Conrad Grebel Review 32, no.3 (2014), 257, accessed March 31, 2016: link.

(17) Ibid., 266-268.

(18) Versions of this benediction, used widely in U.S. mainline congregations, may be found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and in the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship.

(19) Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), 494.

(20) Putnam and Campbell measure religiosity by asking “How frequently do you attend religious services? How frequently do you pray outside of religious services? How important is religion in your daily life? How important is your religion to your sense of who you are? Are you a strong believer in your religion? How strong is your belief in God?” (Putnam and Campbell, 18). Since half these questions involve belief and prayer, atheists who don’t pray will not be scored as highly religious. Putnam and Campbell admit there might possibly be some bias in these questions (ibid., 20).

(21) Ibid., 499-501.

(22) Robert F. Shedinger, “Jesus and Jihad: Transcending the Politics of the Sacred,” in Sacred Texts and Human Contexts: A North American Response to “A Common Word between Us and You” (Rochester, New York: Nazareth College, 2014), 120-121.

Pot-in-Pot Preservation Cooling System

This system, developed by Mohamed Bah Abba of Nigeria, cools food by evaporation, using no electricity. The Arabic term for this device is transliterated as “zeer,” so it is sometimes called a “zeer pot.”

How it works: The Pot-in-Pot Preservation Cooling System consists of two nested porous clay pots, with fine sand in between them, and a cloth covering the opening. You pour water into the sand, until it soaks through the outer pot. You also soak the cloth in water. As the water evaporates from the outer pot and the cloth, it cools the inside. The sand and pots act as both water reservoir, and thermal mass (so the pot stays cool when you open the lid). The moist interior is especially good for cooling fresh produce (which is what it was originally designed to do).

How cool it can get (theoretically): The inside temperature of the Pot-in-Pot Preservation Cooling System depends on outside air temperature, humidity, air flow around the pot, and whether the pot stands in the sun. Under ideal conditions, the inside temperature should get close to what meteorologists call “wet-bulb temperature.” Some users report temperatures as low as 40° F. I will track the temperature inside this pot over time.

How I made one:

1 – 12″ dia. terracotta pot
1 – 14″ dia. terra cotta pot
6 – small pottery feet
2 – corks to fit the holes in the pots
1 – 12″ dia. pot saucer
1 – old T-shirt
25 lbs. of fine sand

Note that dimensions of terracotta pots are variable, so you may have to adjust things to fit what you can get.


Sand the holes in the pots until the corks fit smoothly inside. Cork the holes. Place 3 of the pottery feet in the bottom of the 14″ pot so that the 12″ pot will fit inside without the corks bumping. Then fill the rest of area with sand, leaving room for the cork in the 12″ pot. Now put the 12″ pot inside, and fill the space between the pots with sand with a funnel — I made a funnel from a cut-off seltzer water bottle — to within an inch of the top of the outer pot.


Place the whole assembly on the three remaining pottery feet, so air can circulate on the bottom, which will increase evaporation and cooling slightly.

Pour an inch or two of water into the 12″ pot, wetting in the inside of the pot. Next, slowly pour water into the sand, letting it soak in. The idea is to give the water time to soak into the sand and the terracotta pots. It can take several hours and up to a gallon of water to fully charge it. I found if I rushed this step, the inner pot started floating up; then I had to weight the inner pot with a cinder block to keep it in place until the water soaked in. Some people suggest tying the inner pot down with a strap or rope; others use threaded rod with nuts and washers (expensive and sure to rust). I had a cinder block on hand, and that worked fine.


The pot saucer isn’t entirely necessary, but it helps keep the inside clean, and where we live it helps keep the squirrels out of the food (the cinder block might even keep raccoons out). Pour some water into the saucer, soak the old T-shirt, and cover the pots with the T-shirt, adding even more evaporative surface. It gets pretty windy where we are, so I tied the T-shirt in place.

Total cost: about $55 (if you have to buy sand), with no cost to run it ever. Mohamed Bah Abba sells them for 40¢ ea. in Nigeria, a brilliant example of low-cost yet highly effective technology from the developing world.

More about this invention here.

In the clouds

We decided to go for a hike up in the redwoods late this afternoon. As we drove up into the hills, we got closer and closer to the clouds, until finally we were in them. The trail started close to two thousand feet above sea level, then wound down the coast side of the hills. The clouds were blowing in from the ocean against the hills, so we were in the clouds all the way down to where we turned around, at about twelve hundred feet elevation. In fact, the clouds (or was if fog?) got thicker the lower we got.


It continues to amaze me that we can start driving from downtown San Mateo, in the city a mile from the bay at maybe twenty feet about sea level, and in twenty minutes we can be hiking in the mountains among Douglass fir and redwoods two thousand feet above sea level. This is one of the benefits of living in a seismically active region: mountains right next to the ocean.