Fewer committee meetings, more talking about life

It’s still start-up season, that time when many congregations increase their activity levels after a summer slow-down. This start-up season has been as busy as any since I started working in congregation in 1994, and more intense than any other start-up. And then in staff meeting this week, Amy, our senior minister, said she was experiencing a very busy start-up season as well.

Perhaps it is just coincidence that we’re both experiencing busy start-ups at the same time our congregation appears to be on the brink of a size transition, from a pastoral-size congregation to a program-size congregation (that is, from less than 150 average attendance to over 200 average attendance). But I don’t think it is a coincidence. Other ministers who have been in congregations in this same size transition zone have also reported feeling intensely busy; so have lay leaders.

The thing is, sometimes that feeling of intense busy-ness can lead to burnout among clergy or lay leaders. I have documented a few instances of clergy burning out to the point of leaving the ministry. (I’m half convinced that some clergy sexual misconduct can be traced to burned-out ministers in transitional congregations who engage in stupid and/or self-destructive behavior.) Because when a congregation is growing, the first impulse of most people is to do more. You do more, but all it gets you is exhaustion. And it scares newcomers away — who wants to be part of a congregation where the clergy and lay leaders look burned out?

So I’m thinking the best way to handle an intense start-up, especially in a congregation that is on the edge of a pastoral- to program-size transition, is to spend less time doing, and more time just being. Fewer committee meetings, and more time spent in small groups just talking with one another about life. Less email and more face-to-face conversations about matters of the heart. Less writing of reports and more singing. Fewer tasks and more meditation, prayer, and worship. Doesn’t that sound more pleasant?

Finding documents relating to the sexual revolution within UUism, 1965-1985

The sexual revolution has both direct and indirect effects on Unitarian Universalism. Persons who were part of Unitarian Universalism experienced the sexual revolution in their personal lives, the work place, etc., and these experiences indirectly affected Unitarian Universalism; since experiences are not peculiar to Unitarian Universalists, strictly speaking they do not relate to the history of the sexual revolution within Unitarian Universalism.

When I think about those aspects of the sexual revolution that most directly affected Unitarian Universalism, I think of the following, in no particular order: sexuality education, sexual experimentation, LGBTQ rights, theological stances, feminism and the Women and Religion movement, marriage and divorce. Each of these aspects of the sexual revolution had a direct impact on local congregations and the denomination as a whole, as well as on individual Unitarian Universalists.

For each of these aspects of the sexual revolution, I have tried to brainstorm a list of where we might find relevant documents dating from the era 1965-1985.

For all these topic areas, Unitarian Universalist periodicals from that era that should be reviewed for relevant materials, and the two official denominational periodicals, UU Register-Leader (to 1970) and UU World (1970 on), are of primary importance. Independent publications which may contain relevant material include First Day’s Record, published by and for clergy, and Unitarian Universalist Voice. Congregational newsletters may also have relevant information; since there are probably tens of thousands of such documents, a researcher can only sift through a small portion of them.

Here, then, are some preliminary ideas of where we might find documentation dating from 1965 to 1985 on the general topic of the sexual revolution: Continue reading “Finding documents relating to the sexual revolution within UUism, 1965-1985”

Another experience of race

In her book Working-Class White: The Making and Unmaking of Race Relations, sociologist Monica McDermott offers an interesting perspective on the intersection of race and class, based on her field work in Atlanta and Boston. She writes:


“The experience of whiteness in the Crescent [her Atlanta field work site] provides an intriguing example of the ways in which racial cues are bound up with class and the local context. ‘White’ is typically conceived in terms of economic and social advantage and residence in predominantly white, affluent areas. What, then, becomes of the white racial identity of those whites who are poor or working class and live in an area with a substantial black, working-class population?

“The results are not the standard ways in which whiteness typically functions in the United States — as invisible privilege, even for economically disadvantaged whites. Whiteness in this context does not simply function like ‘blackness’ when the usual constellation of class and racial cues is reversed. Instead, whiteness becomes a badge of inferiority — one that is contingent upon a global view of whites as more deserving of nice neighborhoods and good jobs than blacks. It is also bound up with expectations about racial segregation and the characteristics of those who live in racially integrated areas.

“Being a white person in this type of neighborhood is distinctly different from being a white person in a predominantly white area. The underlying assumption in the Crescent and Greenfield [the Boston field work site], held by both blacks and whites of various class backgrounds, was that the whites who lived and worked there were somehow defective; that the least capable whites were most likely to live among large numbers of poor and working-class blacks. As one of the working-class men studied by Lamont (1999) asserts, there ‘is no real reason for a white guy to be a failure.'”


While McDermott is quite clear that her study is limited in scope because of her methodology, nevertheless it occurs to me that that class location frequently influences experiences of race.

Singing school, part one

We had a good turnout for the first session of our Sacred Harp singing school at the Palo Alto church: we had set out 54 chairs, and at one point every chair was taken. A dozen or so experienced Sacred Harp singers showed up to help support Marsha Genensky, our singing master for the day. The new singers were about evenly split between people who had sung a few times at a local Sacred Harp singing, and people who had never sung Sacred Harp before but who had some singing experience.

Marsha traced the background of solfege syllables from the Middle Ages up to the development of the “fa, sol, la, mi” syllables used in early American singing schools. She demonstrated how the scale worked with only four solfege syllables: fa, sol, la, fa, sol, la, mi, and back to fa. She showed the class how early American hymnals printed the syllables “F, S, L, M” to indicate pitch. Later, these same syllables were printed beneath standard round-headed notes, and finally notes with different shaped note heads were developed to help make it easy to sight-read a piece of music: fa corresponded to a triangular note head, sol to a round note head, la to a rectangular note head, and mi to a diamond-shaped note head. (Link to a sample scale in shape notes.)

Marsha then organized the class into a scale: some people sang a low fa, a different small group so, the next group la, and so on up the scale. Then she told us to sing our note when she pointed at us — and by “playing us like a marimba,” she had us sing the tune to “Amazing Grace.” (She also told the class that the name of the tune is actually “New Britain,” while the name of the hymn or poem is “Amazing Grace.”)

By this time, the class was ready to sing some songs, and Marsha led us through a couple of easy songs. She had each section — altos, trebles (with men and women singing an octave apart), tenors (the melody line, with men and women singing an octave apart), and basses — sing their part separately and slowly, using the “fa, sol, la, mi” syllables. Then she put us together so that we were singing in four parts. The experienced singers kept us on our parts, and there were plenty of other fine voices in the room, so we sounded great!

After an hour of the singing school, we segued into the regular bimonthly Palo Alto singing. The tempo of the songs picked up, and at times some of the new singers got a little lost, but from where I sat in the back of the bass section, everyone I could see was enjoying themselves, and enjoying the music.

Historical note: The singing school was a regular feature of eighteenth century American life, and persisted well into the nineteenth century in America outside of urban areas. The singing school continued through the twentieth century in the rural South in the tradition of Sacred Harp singing (so named because the tune book used by the tradition is titled “The Sacred Harp”), and today is enjoying a revival outside the South in northern and Western cities, and abroad in Ireland, England, Australia, and even Poland. The singing school remains an excellent way to teach people how to sing, which is why I brought a singing school to our Unitarian Universalist church in Palo Alto.

Yet another set of 9/11 memories

Somehow I had managed to arrange to take a day off on a Tuesday. I was going to theological school half time while working three-quarters time as a director of religious education at First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts. Late summer is always a busy time for religious educators — kids are back in school, they’re coming back to Sunday school and youth group, and you have to take care of a thousand and one details before they return. I had been working non-stop for quite a few days, but finally on that Tuesday I had managed to schedule a day off.

I slept late. It must have been nine o’clock when the phone rang. I came immediately awake, my heart pounding from adrenalin; my mother had died twenty-two months before that, after a long illness, and I still dreaded phone calls that came while I was asleep. “Hello?” I said.

It was Ellen, the assistant minister at First Parish. “Hello,” she said, and paused. “Have you seen the news yet?”

“What?” I said. “No.”

“A plane hit the World Trade Center in New York,” she said. We turned immediately to business. The senior minister was out of town, and Ellen thought we should have a candlelight vigil that night. Continue reading “Yet another set of 9/11 memories”

Story from the Ramayana

We went in to the Bali exhibit at the Asian Art Museum this afternoon, and saw a demonstration of Balinese puppets. The puppeteer enacted a short bit of the Ramayana, weaving in sly references to San Francisco. It was entertaining, funny, beautiful, skillfully done; and the puppeteer slipped in a serious moral message at the end. It was really a quite brilliant mix of religion, entertainment, and the lively arts.

On the edge of summer

We have had a chilly summer. Of course, summer doesn’t really come to the Bay area until September; that’s when we get our hot days. But summer this year has been cool even by Bay area standards, with below normal high temperatures for June, July, and August.

This past week has been the first week that has felt like real summer. We still haven’t had any really hot days, but at least the high morning fog blowing in off the Pacific has burned off early enough to allow the days to warm up a little bit.

And just in time for summer, some of the trees are starting to turn. Some of the leaves on the trees across the street from us are beginning to curl up and turn yellow and brown. I drove by a sweet gum tree in Berkeley early this week that was completely red. And the trees around the parking lot at the church are beginning to be tinged with red.

“The day that changed the world”

With the tenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, coming up, it made sense that the exercise for our monthly writing group at church would be on some related topic. But of course not everyone was affected by the September 11 attacks in the same way, and for some people other events had a bigger impact on their lives than did the September 11th attacks. So the writing exercise for the month was to write something about the day that changed the world — as in, the day that changed the world for you, the day that changed your world.

To start us off, I read a passage about Pearl Harbor day from Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese American Family by Yoshiko Uchida (Seattle: University of Washington, 1982, 2000):

It was one of those rare Sunday when we had no guests for dinner. My parents, sister, and I had just come home from church and were having a quiet lunch when we heard a frenzied voice on the radio break in on the program. The Japanese had attacked Pearl harbor.

“Oh no,” Mama cried out. “It can’t be true.”

“Of course not,” Papa reassured her. “And if it is, it’s only the work of a fanatic.”

We all agreed with him. Of course it could only be an aberrant act of some crazy irresponsible fool. It never for a moment occurred to any of us that this meant war. As a matter of fact I was more concerned with my approaching finals at the university [of California at Berkeley] than I was with this bizarre news and went to the library to study. When I got there, I found clusters of Nisei students anxiously discussing the shocking event. But we all agreed it was only a freak incident and turned our attention to our books. I stayed at the library until 5:00 p.m. giving no further thought to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

When I got home, the house was filled with an uneasy quiet. A strange man sat in our living room and my father was gone. The FBI had come to pick him up, as they had dozens of other Japanese men. Executives of Japanese business firms, shipping lines, and banks, men active in local Japanese associations, teachers of Japanese language schools, virtually every leader of the Japanese American community along the West Coast had been seized almost immediately.

Actually the FBI had come to our house twice, once in the absence of my parents and sister who, still not realizing the serious nature of the attack, had gone out to visit friends. Their absence, I suppose, had been cause for suspicion and the FBI or police had broken in to search our house without a warrant. On returning, my father, believing that we had been burglarized, immediately called the police. Two policemen appeared promptly with three FBI men and suggested that my father check to see if his valuables were missing. They were, of course, undisturbed, but their location was thereby revealed. Two of the FBI men requested that my father accompany them “for a short while” to be questioned, and my father went willingly. The other FBI man remained with my mother and sister to intercept all phone calls and to inform anyone who called that they were indisposed.

One policeman stationed himself at the front door and the other at the rear. When two of our white friends came to see how we were, they were not permitted to enter or speak to my mother and sister, who, for all practical purposes, were prisoners in our home.

By the time I came home, only one FBI man remained but I was alarmed at the startling turn of events during my absence. In spite of her own anxiety, Mama in her usual thoughtful way was serving tea to the FBI agent. He tried to be friendly and courteous, reassuring me that my father would return safely in due time. But I couldn’t share my mother’s gracious attitude toward him. Papa was gone, and his abrupt custody into the hands of the FBI seemed an ominous portent of worse things to come I had no inclination to have tea with one of its agents, and went abruptly to my room, slamming the door shut. [pp. 46-47]

Then each of us talked about the day that changed our worlds. I and one or two others spoke about our experiences on September 11, 2001; someone else spoke about Pearl Harbor Day; another about the Kennedy assassination; still another about a personal experience that was life-changing, even life-shattering. For each of us, it was the intersection of an exterior and catastrophic event, combined with a life-altering personal experience, that led to a “day the changed the world.” And then we spent an hour writing about our “day that changed the world.”

The varied experiences of our writing group made me curious about how other people define the “day that changed the world. So here’s a question for you, the reader of this blog: What was your “day that changed the world”? Was it 9/11, or Pearl Harbor Day, or JFK’s assassination, or MLK’s assassination — or something else? What happened on that day — both the world events, and your own personal events?

Pangu and the beginning of the universe

Another story for liberal religious kids; this time, from Chinese mythology.

At the beginning, there was little difference between heaven and earth. All was chaos, and heaven and earth had no distinct forms, like the inside of a chicken’s egg. Within this chaos, the god Pangu was born inside the egg.

Pangu grew and grew inside the egg. After 18,000 years, the egg somehow opened up. Some say that Pangu stretched himself inside the egg, and shattered the egg’s shell into pieces.

Once the egg had shattered open, the lightest part of it, the part that was like the white of a chicken’s egg, rose upwards, and became the heavens. The heavier part of the egg, like the yolk of a chicken’s egg, sank downwards and became the earth. Pangu took a hammer and an adze, and cut the connections between earth and the heavens. Then to keep earth and the heavens from merging together once again, Pangu stood between them, serving as the pillar that kept them apart.

Pangu lived within earth and the heavens, standing between them. And one day he began to transform. He became more sacred than the earth, and he became more divine than the heavens. The heavens began to rise, going up one zhang, or about ten feet, each day. The earth began to grow thicker, thickening by one zhang each day. And as the heavens rose, so too Pangu grew; he grew one zhang taller each day. And this continued for 18,000 years: each day, the earth grew thicker, and the heavens rose higher, and Pangu grew taller. Continue reading “Pangu and the beginning of the universe”