Good King Wenceslas

Here’s another song for Christmas time:— Quite a few people in our congregation like the song “Good King Wenceslas” because it’s a social justice song: King Wenceslas and his page bring food, drink, and fuel to a poor family on the Feast of St. Stephen, December 26 (the second day of Christmas). While they’re trudging through the snow to the poor family’s dwelling, the king’s page weakness and thinks he can go no longer, but Wenceslas provides warmth to keep him going; and this is my favorite part of the story because it seems to me to be a kind of parable about social justice leadership.

Philip, a long-time member of our congregation, pointed out to us that you can produce a nice effect if the high voices (i.e., most of the women and the children) sing the page’s words, and the low voices (i.e., those who sing in the tenor and bass range) sing the king’s words. So that’s how we sing it in our congregation.

Click on the image below for PDF sheet music of the traditional (copyright-free) four-part arrangement by John Stainer, with guitar chords, and sized correctly to fit into the typical order of service:


“We Wish You…”

Every year in our congregation, Paul, one of our resident musicians, teaches the children in grades preK – 3 a couple of Christmas songs. On the day of our No-Rehearsal Christmas Pageant, Paul has the children sing these songs at the beginning of the early service.

One of the songs Paul usually has the children sing is “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Actually, it’s a great song for anyone to sing. I found an old four-part arrangement, simplified it, added guitar chords — and here it is, in a PDF version that’s copyright-free and sized right to go into the typical order of service:

We Wish

Academics and practitioners

A few days ago on the “Key Resources” blog, a blog about faith formation from Virginia Theological Seminary blog, Kyle Oliver asked: “What has the academy to do with congregational faith formation (and vice versa)?”

What prompted this question? Kyle had been at the recent annual conference of the Religious Education Association (REA), which is supposed to be an organization of scholars and practitioners. But he had not been convinced that the REA offers much to practitioners: “I wasn’t entirely convinced of the value of the conference for a non-academically-aspiring faith formation minister in a congregation.”

Speaking as a minister of religious education, I agree with Kyle that the academics, not the practitioners, dominate the conference. Two examples of what I mean when I say the academics dominate: (1) At the 2011 conference, I went to an excellent workshop given by Ryan Gardner on teacher reflection for volunteer teachers; it was the only practical workshop in that time slot; yet only two other people showed up, one of whom admitted she was in the wrong workshop (she stayed anyway, bless her heart). (2) At this year’s conference, I went to a good workshop given by Tom Groome on practical approaches to pedagogy for the local congregation; again, it was the only practical workshop in that time slot; yet the conversation got taken over at a couple of points by academics who wanted to argue rather obscure theoretical points. At the same time, all the academics whom I met were sympathetic to practitioners; some of them appeared to be pleased when they found out I actually worked in a congregation with real, live children and youth. I don’t think the academics want to dominate the REA conference.

Some of the problem may lie in the realities that we religious education practitioners face these days. When I started working as a religious educator in the Boston area, back in 1994, it was commonplace for some of the older religious educators to talk about how they studied with Robert Kegan, James Fowler, Tom Groome, and other scholars. Back then it was also commonplace for lay Directors of Religious Education to have a full-time, well-compensated job; there were many more Ministers of Religious Education; congregations expected us to take time to study and keep up with the field. That’s no longer true. As staff costs for congregations outpace inflation, as organized religion declines in an era of civic disengagement, as society changes rapidly around us, as congregations need more from us and are able to offer less to us — as all this goes on, many of us who work in local congregations feel overwhelmed as we try to do more and more with less and less, as we try to keep kids engaged, as we try to hold on to our jobs and our pay.

As a result, when we practitioners go to any kind of conference, we’re usually looking for relentlessly useful ideas that we can use right now. We’re desperate. John Roberto of Faith Formation 2020 gets this; he gives us practitioners what we need in easily digestible bites. At the recent REA conference, I think Beth Katz of Project Interfaith intuited some of this; she showed us excellent and innovative curricula that were both immediately useful and grounded in interesting theoretical perspectives. Mind you, Katz and Roberto are not exactly academics, though they are academically informed. One academic who gets this is Bob Pazmino: I talked with Bob informally at the recent REA conference, and he not only asked me about what was going on in my congregation, and listened carefully and respectfully, but he was able to present me with some interesting possibilities for new directions based on his academic work.

In short, I think Kyle Oliver is correct when he says that he’s not “entirely convinced of the value of the REA conference” for most of us practitioners. I think the academics might want to pay more attention to Kyle’s critique, and think about how they might better unite their theory with our practical realities.

I would also say that we practitioners have to remember that our praxis should be informed with theory. Perhaps it’s time to get a little more assertive, as Kyle is doing, and help the academics pay better attention to what’s going on in our local congregations.

Marriage as a religious act

I received an interesting and thoughtful comment via email on a sermon titled “Marriage as a Religious Act” which I recently posted on my main Web site. I realized that this sermon relates to some issues you, dear readers, and I have addressed on this blog — most importantly, the sexual revolution within Unitarian Universalism, and the theological basis (if any) for marriage in our tradition. Since this is something we have talked about here, and since I greatly value the comments I get from you, I decided to post this sermon and see what you might have to say about it. The sermon beging below the fold.

Continue reading “Marriage as a religious act”

The year in review, pt. 1

It has not been a great year in liberal religion.

In one ongoing negative trend, most Unitarian Universalists continue to act as though we are part the ruling elite in this country. Mind you, as recently as the 1950s, Unitarian Universalists actually could claim to be part of the ruling elite. Back then, Unitarians and Universalists were considered mainline Protestants, and the United States was run by mainline Protestants, for mainline Protestants. And while the Universalists were marginal at best by the mid-twentieth century, the Unitarians could claim to have some real influence. Most notably, A. Powell Davies preached to a congregation containing a number of high-level functionaries in the federal government, as well as a few elected officials; and the Washington newspapers supposedly held their Monday morning editions until they could get the text of his Sunday sermons. Also worth noting: Adlai Stevenson II, Democratic presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956, was a Unitarian, as were a number of other politically influential people.

Today, however, the mainline Protestant coalition that long dominated the United States is crumbling, and Unitarian Universalists have moved themselves out of, and been pushed out of, mainline Protestantism. As a result, politicians either don’t care about us, or they can dismiss us since we represent such a tiny minority (about half a percent of the total U.S. population). As a religion, we have no real power or influence.

Yet we continue to act as if we do have political influence. The most blatant example of that was the “Justice General Assembly” in June of this year. A few thousand Unitarian Universalists from across the country went down to Phoenix, Arizona, and protested unjust and discriminatory state law. Sheriff Joe Arapaho of Maricopa County used our presence to bolster his carefully cultivated image with his voters — here come these out-of-state leftist hippies, telling me what to do, but I’m standing up to them! — and I’m sure our interactions with him did nothing to weaken his political position; indeed, our presence in Phoenix probably strengthened his political position. As far as our influence on state politics, I could find no evidence that we were even noticed — OK, we made it into the local newspapers, but honestly who cares about newspapers any more? In short, we’re doing social justice as if it’s 1955. Justice GA made us feel good, but had little positive impact beyond that.

On the other hand, there are some Unitarian Universalists who have moved beyond social justice c. 1955. For example, I continue to be impressed with the organizing efforts of groups like the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of California (UULMC). But UULMC represents a quite different approach to influencing politics — UULMC is a separate nonprofit organization that employs ministers who are not serving a local congregation, as well as other staffers, to do organizing around specific legislative issues. UULMC can not only build coalitions with other advocacy groups, it can use the skills and abilities of ordained ministers to influence legislators, without those ministers having their time and attention divided between politics and a congregation.

This approach to influencing public policy is significantly different from the 1950s approach in which Unitarians assumed they were part of the ruling elite and deserved special access; it’s also very different from the 1960s model of protest politics, where the grounding assumption was to disrupt the ruling elite. Justice GA remained mired in the 1950s and 1960s — you have to pay attention to us because we’re important! and — we’re going to be angry protestors just like in the 1960s! UULMC have moved forward into the very different realities of the 2010s.

Tomorrow: The year in review continues, with thoughts on why UU ministry to children and youth sucks

Jingle Bells

So James Pierpont, the guy who wrote “Jingle Bells,” was a Unitarian, and worked as the music director at the Unitarian church in Savannah, Georgia, before the Civil War — and before that church has to close down because it leaned strongly Abolitionist. But “Jingle Bells” is not in any Unitarian Universalist hymnal. If you want to sing it during a Sunday service, here’s an arrangement laid out on a half-letter-size sheet, that you can stick into the typical order of service:

Jingle Bells (PDF)

(This arrangement is from an early edition of Pierpont’s sheet music, available online at the Library of Congress.)

Free weddings in Palo Alto, if Prop 8 goes down!

If the Supreme Court declines to hear the appeal on the lower court’s ruling overturning Proposition 8, same-sex marriage will be legal again in California. And if that happens, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto ( will offer free weddings for one day about a week after the Supreme Court announcement — we’re saying about a week afterwards, because it’s unclear how long it will take Santa Clara County clerks to issue marriage licenses. The deal goes for opposite-sex couples, too.

We can’t set a firm date yet, for obvious reasons. In the mean time, please help spread the word — if Prop 8 goes down, we’ll do free weddings for a day!

Innovation and big egos

Silicon Valley innovator John McAfee is currently a “person of interest” in a murder investigation in Belize; he is on the run with a teenaged girl and hiding from Belizean police.

“Silicon Valley culture really rewards a certain kind of single-minded pursuit of success,” said Leslie Berlin, a historian with Stanford University’s Silicon Valley archives and a fellow at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences. “It’s a culture that rewards success with financial rewards and with a real lionization of the entrepreneur who really leaves it all on the field. The inevitable question becomes, ‘What next?'” (Dan Nakaso and Mike Cassidy, “Eccentric path put McAfee on wild trajectory,” San Jose Mercury News, Monday, November 19, p. 1)

Entrepreneurial innovation often comes as part of a package with enormous ego and a certain lack of concern about other people’s emotional needs and feelings. To certain innovators, what is important is the need to be hypercreative, to create whole new structures and patterns, regardless of who gets hurt when the old patterns are demolished. And once they start innovating, sometimes they can’t stop.

“A lot of times (Silicon Vally entrepreneurs) go a little crazy, and the end result is they get in trouble,” said Rob Enderle, a San Jose technology analyst. “They don’t want to be that one-hit wonder. They get excited about the celebrity of it all, and they start chasing that celebrity. Your behavior changes substantially.” (Nakaso and Cassigy, “Eccentric path put McAfee on wild trajectory”)

What is true for Silicon Valley innovators can be true for innovative religious leaders. The most familiar example a pastor grows a huge Christian megachurch, begins to think he (it’s usually a “he” in that field) is somehow exempt from ordinary rules, and next thing you know he’s embroiled in a sex scandal. The same kind of thing has happened to yoga gurus, and to Unitarian Universalist leaders.

We often seem to assume that innovation comes only from people that have big, overbearing egos, where the health of that person’s ego isn’t as important as their single-minded pursuit of success. I suspect this assumption is wrong on at least two counts: first, the innovator can have a healthy ego rather than an unhealthy singleminded ego; and second, I’m willing to bet that innovation isn’t ever the product of a single person (even if it’s only one person who gets credit). Or to put it another way:

“A lot of times (Silicon Valley entrepreneurs) go a little crazy, and the end result is they get in trouble,” said Rob Enderle, a San Jose technology analyst. “They don’t want to that one-hit wonder. They get excited about the celebrity of it all, and they start chasing that celebrity…. (Nakaso and Cassigy, “Eccentric path put McAfee on wild trajectory”)

This is precisely the kind of thing we want to avoid in congregations. We want innovation without leaders who get in trouble.

Another look at sources of sacred song

Music geeks, this post is for you.

Jay Atkinson mentioned to me that he is tracking down errors in the attribution of some of the readings in the 1993 Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, and I told him that there are also misattributions in the music. He asked me to give him some examples, and with very little effort I came up with the following:


279, “By the Waters of Babylon,” with words taken from Psalm 137, is attributed to William Billings in Singing the Living Tradition. However, this tune does not appear in the definitive four volume Complete Works of William Billings; there is a tune titled “Lamentation over Boston” with the words “By the rivers of Watertown,” a Revolutionary War era parody of Psalm 137, but the tune is utterly different. The second edition (1998) of Between the Lines: Sources for Singing the Living Tradition makes a partial correction, stating “This tune is frequently attributed, erroneously, to William Billings.” On his 1971 album “American Pie,” pop singer Don McLean performs this tune almost precisely as given in Singing the Living Tradition, and attributes it to William Billings; wherever McLean got his misinformation, no doubt this once popular album has spread the misinformation far and wide.

Where, then, does the tune come from? Continue reading “Another look at sources of sacred song”

Alternative Thanksgiving blessings

What words do you use to say grace at Thanksgiving? Do you use a traditional grace, or are you looking for an alternative blessing for you Thanksgiving dinner? As Unitarian Universalists (UUs), we have lots of options when it comes to saying grace at Thanksgiving.

When I was a UU child, we often had Thanksgiving dinner with my mother’s twin and her family. Our cousins were all older than my sisters and I, and we looked up to them. Both our families were UU families, and one year at Thanksgiving our eldest cousin said she was going to say grace before dinner, using a grace she had heard in her UU congregation’s youth group. My mother and father and aunt and uncle all liked the idea, and told her to go ahead. She had us all join hands, and then said, “Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub, yay God!” I’m not sure the adults at the table were particularly impressed, but my sisters and I were definitely impressed.

Even if you never say grace at any other time of the year, Thanksgiving is a good time to pause before eating, and give thanks for your food. The challenge for us religious liberals is coming up with pleasing ways to give thanks that don’t rely on traditional Christian theology. My UU friend Craig Schwalenberg adapted this grace from his Lutheran childhood:

Cherished family, friends, and guests,
Let this food to us be blessed.
Bless those people who made this food.
May it feed our work for good.

Another friend of mine, Emma Mitchell, grew up as a Unitarian Universalist, and says her family used to say this for grace (and children got to choose whether to refer to God as “her” or “him”):

God is great, God is good,
Let us thank (her) (him) for our food.

I wrote the following grace to remind us of the interdependent web of existence, including farmworkers and the wider ecosystem (there’s a tune that goes with this, and it’s online here):

Praise workers laboring hard in their fields,
May sun and moon increase their yields,
May the soil be blessed by falling silver rains,
As we offer thanks to Mother Earth again.

What’s your favorite alternative Thanksgiving blessing? UUCPA member Kris Geering writes: “For the pagan-friendly folks, I like this grace (there’s a tune you can sing it to, but it’s good as is):”

Give thanks to the Mother Goddess,
Give thanks to the Father Sun.
Give thanks to the plants and the flowers in the garden
Where the Father and the Mother are one.

Rev. Amy Zucker-Morgenstern, our senior minister at UUCPA, sent in the following grace:

Our family grace is to hold hands and say “Thank you for the food,” in as many languages as are known by people at the table. Common variations include thanks to the farmworkers, truckers, people who invented whatever cuisine it is, Mommy or Mama for cooking, etc.

What about you? what’s your favorite non-traditional Thanksgiving grace?

Cross-posted here.