A lousy human being. Literally. Heh, heh.

We had some excitement at home this morning: we discovered that we have an infestation of head lice in our house. So we’re following the recommendations of the CDC: treat heads with over-the-counter pyrethrin or permethrin preparations; wash clothing and bedding in hot water and dry at high heat (lice die at over 130 degrees); anything that can’t be washed goes in a sealed plastic bag for two weeks (adult lice and eggs die after two weeks away from humans).

And yes, Carol and I being who we are, we did make stupid jokes while dealing with the head lice: [Pointing to one another:] “Hey, you’re a lousy human being. Literally! Heh, heh, heh.” [While applying head lice shampoo, speaking to lice:] “Die for your crime against humanity, you louse! Heh, heh, heh.” And so on.

Why mention this on a religion blog? Because one of the things that liberal congregations have been very good at over the past century or two is promoting public health initiatives. It can be hard to talk about things like lice, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), etc., and congregations have been pretty effective at making it easier to talk openly about such topics. A shining example is the grade 7-9 unit of the Our Whole Lives comprehensive sexuality education program developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ — by the end of that program, young adolescents are able to talk openly and honestly about STDs and sexual health. It’s yet another reason to participate in a congregation.

2011 in review: the liberal religious blogosphere

The most important trend in liberal religious blogging in 2011 was the continued growth of other forms of social media. Facebook and Twitter are obvious cases in point. Compared to blogging, it’s so much easier to post a quick status update to Facebook or Twitter, so much easier to let someone else manage the technical infrastructure, so much easier to stay in touch with your friends and family without juggling RSS feeds. At the same time, Facebook and Twitter (and Tumblr and Google Plus and LinkedIn and Pintrest and all the other multitudinous social media outlets) are different from blogs, they help to spread good blog posts to a wider readership, and they serve more to supplement blogs than to supplant them.

The second most important trend in liberal religious blogging: plenty of people are still writing and reading blogs. The main aggregator of Unitarian Universalist blogs, Uupdates.net, is now tracking over 500 blogs. This represents, I believe, a slight increase over last year, and on the order of a tenfold increase over five years ago. It’s impossible to keep track of that many Unitarian Universalist blogs, and I would say there is no longer a coherent UU blogosphere — there are just a lot of blogs, a lot of bloggers, and a lot of blog readers.

As an example of the ongoing strength of blogs, “Yet Another Unitarian Universalist” continues to rise slowly in readership; last time I checked, back in October, this site was approaching ten thousand unique visitors a month. (I’m not keeping track at the moment — my Web host got rid of their analytic tools, and I haven’t had time to install an alternative.) And there are plenty of other liberal religious blogs out there with bigger readerships.

And speaking only for myself, the third most important trend in liberal religious blogging has been my return to non-Unitarian Universalist blogs. In 2003 when I first started reading religious blogs regularly, there were only half a dozen Unitarian Universalist blogs; you were almost forced to read read non-UU blogs. Then for a while I tried read every UU blog at least a couple of times a year. I continue to look at uuworld.org’s UU blog round up, and I try to scan UUpdates.net periodically. But I I find myself going back to my 203 habits, and reading lots of non-UU blogs. I scan the blog of Steve Thorngate — he’s an associate editor at Christian Century — for religion news, and the intersection of religion and politics. I sometimes read Carol Merritt’s blog “Tribal Church,” mostly about young adults and religion, which is also on the Christian Century Web site. For leadership and growth issues, I regularly scan the weekly Alban Institute “Conversations” posts, which are linked to from their “Roundtable” blog. Recently, I rediscovered The Velveteen Rabbi, and am enjoying the personal take on spirituality there. So yes, I’m reading lots of non-UU blogs these days, and I’ve been enjoying the wider perspective that I’ve been getting.

Ballou on the brain

After spending something like 36 hours editing Hosea Ballou over the Thanksgiving weekend, I’ve got Ballou on the brain. So I can’t resist posting one more Ballouvian quote. This time, I’ve edited and updated the language somewhat. You shouldn’t go reposting this and attributing it to Ballou, but I think my edited version does capture the essence of his meaning for early twenty-first century readers:

The ideas that sin is infinite, and that it deserves an infinite punishment; and that God took on a natural body of flesh and blood, and actually suffered death on a cross to satisfy God’s infinite justice and thereby save human creatures from endless misery; — these are ideas which appear to me to be unfounded in the nature of reason, and unsupported by the Bible. Such notions have, in my opinion, served to darken the human understanding, and have rendered the Bible a subject of discredit to thousands who, I believe, would never have condemned the scriptures had it not been for those gross absurdities….

Another stupid church joke

The finance committee of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Aipotu was trying to develop a budget that would finally pull the church out of the red. One member of the committee presented a severe austerity budget. “If we follow this budget,” he said, “we can cut our operating expenses in half.”

The chair of the committee said, “I have an idea how we can live on less than that.”

“How?” everyone asked.

“Live on two budgets.”

The professor was a fox

The ancient Greek poet Archilochus, by tradition the first poet after Homer, and the inventor of iambic verse, wrote: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one great thing.”

The following tale, in which the professor takes the role of the fox and the boatman the role of the hedgehog, gives one interpretation of this saying:

A professor was being ferried across a river by a boatman, who was no scholar. So the professor said, “Can you write, my man?” “No, Sir,” said the boatman. “Then you have lost one third of your life,” said the professor. “Can you read?” again asked he of the boatman. “No,” replied the latter, “I can’t read.” “Then you have lost the half of your life,” said the professor. Now came the boatman’s turn. “Can you swim?” said the boatman to the professor. “No,” was his reply. “Then,” said the boatman, “you have lost the whole of your life, for the boat is sinking and you’ll be drowned.”

Rev. Henry Woodcock, The Hero of the Humber: History of the Late Mr. John Ellerthorpe, Foreman of the Humber Dock Gates, Hull, 2nd. ed. (London: 1880), p. 32.

More than a sermon

Scott Wells has started me thinking about what I’d like to do to introduce an online component to sermons. Here are some preliminary ideas:

  • On Thursday (the day I usually write a sermon), post a reading and a question for reflection on a sermon blog; the reading would be used during the service three days hence.
  • On Sunday morning, just before preaching, post the reading text of the sermon on the same sermon blog. The sermon would have embedded hyperlinks, and bibliographic references for further reading as relevant.
  • In addition to comments on the sermon blog, the order of service would give a hashtag for a Twitter conversation. The sermon would be streamed live online, so shut-ins and people who were traveling could hear the sermon, and participate through Twitter and online comments.
  • After the Sunday service, comments would remain open on the sermon blog, and I’d join in the online conversation when it made sense to do so.

This would fit into my normal weekly work flow: I have often posted a reading or reflection question a few days before I preach a sermon, and I already post a text of my sermons online before I preach them. At present, I don’t have comments enabled on my sermon blog (because I got too many comments by evangelical Christians and Hindus who wanted to argue without listening to anyone else), but it wouldn’t be a big deal to enable comments once again. The only thing listed above that I can’t do right now is stream the sermon live online (yes, I know I’m at a Silicon Valley church, but we don’t have the volunteers who could oversee the streaming, and our Internet connection is woefully slow). And for you diehard Facebook people, there could be a Facebook page with the sermon blog’s RSS feed.

The real question is: would anyone actually participate in a Twitter conversation, or read the sermon online and comment on it? Would you? Or is there some other online enrichment strategy that I’m missing?

Green burials

Carol has a post on her blog about green burial at a Bay area “green cemetery.” I’m in favor of green burial myself, but as a minister I can tell you that it can be pretty difficult to avoid the default burial method of our society: embalmed body in the most expensive sealed casket you can afford, placed in a sealed concrete grave liner in a conventional cemetery, with the most expensive stone marker you can afford. Death and burial has been consumerized like everything else in our society: embalming and caskets are big business; and the funeral home industry is dominated by big chains that put profit margins before family desires. And green burial, which should offer cost savings, sometimes becomes just another marketing ploy. So if you’re hoping for a green burial, it’s best to start planning well in advance. The Funeral Consumer’s Alliance (FCA) has a pretty good brochure on green burial and a short FAQ on green burials. FCA also links to the non-profit Green Burial Council (GBC); I have no personal experience with GBC so can’t recommend them myself.

And I’d love it if any of my readers who have had personal experience with arranging a green burial would tell us about it in the comments.

Universal musical genres

Musicologist Susan McClary writes about how the blues was adopted by white British middle class men in the early 1960s, e.g., by Eric Clapton, and turned into rock:

Thus the priorities of the genre [i.e., the genre of blues music] changed when it was adopted by British rockers — as they had, for that matter, when the blues had passed from Bessie Smith to Robert Johnson. That the principal interests of the British differed from those of the African American musicians they initially idolized became clear when musicians and critics alike announced that they were ready to leave their black mentors behind and move forward into art rock. As Motown historian Dave Morse complained in 1971: “Black musicians are now implicitly regarded as precursors who, having taught the white men all they know, must gradually recede into the distance” ….

When middle-class kids and British art students “universalized” blues by making it the vehicle for their own alienation, many black musicians chose to develop other modes of expression. For some of them, in any case, the blues had come to recall times of rural poverty and victimization — the genealogy sedimented into the blues had moved to the foreground for them, drowning out other registers of meaning. Thus it is no coincidence that rap musicians have worked to construct a different heritage, tracing their roots through sampling and quotation back not to the blues per se but to James Brown and soul — a genre of black music that emerged during the decade when white rockers arrogated the blues unto themselves. For African Americans the blues was always just one particular manifestation of a number of deeper elements that live on in other genres. It was never a fetish, but simply a vehicle for expression. When historical conditions changed, when it became reified, it could be left behind.

Conventional Wisdom: The Content of Musical Form, pp. 58-59.

I read this as a healthy reminder that the genre of rock is not somehow universal — and therefore rock can not become the be-all and end-all of liturgical music; indeed, no musical genre can serve as some kind of a universal liturgical expression.