Not raptured

It’s easy to make jokes about the end of the earth that didn’t come yesterday at 5:59 p.m., as predicted by Harold Camping. There were so many things wrong about Camping’s prediction — the convoluted interpretation of the King James Bible, Camping’s past track record with false warnings of doomsday, the inability to see how culturally conditioned such predictions are, the notion that only one person would have access to such a prediction, etc. — that it’s really tempting to mock him. I did it myself, multiple times, this morning at church.

But it’s not really funnyr. Lots of people believed Camping, and some gave away everything they had thinking they wouldn’t need earthly possessions after yesterday. And everyone I know is capable of fooling themselves, and it’s a rare person who doesn’t delude themselves about something in their life; it’s better not to mock others about something for which we ourselves can be mocked. Finally, Camping’s well-publicized failure has brought out the anti-religion fundamentalists who are now gleefully declaring that because Camping was wrong all religion must be bunk.

I found one of the nicest responses to Camping’s message buried deep in story on the National Public Radio Web site:

…people from more than one religion — and even a few atheists — admitted to being a bit introspective about the world on this particular weekend.

That was true for Maddie Calhoon, a Unitarian Universalist from St. Paul, Minn., who was at a gathering Saturday night that guests renamed a “rapture party.”

“We said, ‘We’re just glad we’re all together.’ And it was a joke,” said Calhoon, 24. “But of course it made me think about things, and about how I don’t reflect often about what I’d do if my time was coming to an end.”

Nice response to this craziness: go hang out with some friends and reflect on what’s most important in life.

Raptured

I got on a BART train today at about two in the afternoon. An ad next to the door of the train proclaimed:

Judgment Day
May 12, 2011
THE BIBLE GUARANTEES IT!

At six o’clock, the predicted time when Judgment Day was going to come (725,000 days after Jesus was executed, or something like that), I was sitting eating dinner with some friends. “We’re still here,” someone said.

I just went to check the Web site of Family Radio — that’s the Web site controlled by Harold Camping, the guy who’s been predicting the end of the world. Their Web site is still up and running, and it still says:

Judgment Day
May 21, 2011
THE BIBLE GUARANTEES IT!
00 days left

And their radio station is still broadcasting (they stream it live on the Web site if you want to check it out) — and the announcer just said that he’ll back back again tomorrow.

I guess that means the Rapture is off. So what happened? Was it supposed to be 7,250,000 days, not 725,000 days? Does God count in hexadecimal? Or maybe God prefers prime numbers (this is a prime number year after all) so it’s going to be the next largest prime, 725,009?

I’m sure they’ll come up with some reason or another why the Rapture didn’t come today. And I would love to hear your speculations on where they did their math wrong.

Bike party

We came out of the theatre at about eleven o’clock and looked to see if it was safe to cross the street. A whole passel of bicycles was coming at us. “Bike party!” said one of the bicyclists as they came near. We watched for about five minutes as clumps of bicycles passed by. There was a break in the bikes, and I scurried across; Carol wiated for another couple of minutes for another break in the bikes before she got across. There were enough bikes that we weren’t going to be able to get the car out easily, so we stood on the sidewalk and watched. Hardly anyone seemed to be talking to one another, except that everyone once in a while someone say, “Bike party!” A few of the bikes were playing recorded music ranging from rap to norteno to classic rock. Two daredevils rode too fast and weaved in and out of the other bikes, but most people just rode along fairly sedately. It looked a little boring to me, but then I never was one for making long bike rides in a group. Finally, along came two motorcycle cops, a few stragglers on bikes, and that was it. We got in our car and drove home.

Nests

At lunchtime, I went for a walk at Baylands Nature Preserve along the Bay in Palo Alto. One of the first things I saw was a baby American Avocet, still with downy plumage, sweeping the water for small invertebrates. American Avocets are a precocial species, so this little baby was pretty much on its own; there were no adult birds nearby.

A little further on I saw a line of Cliff Swallow nests on a building. The swallows pick up some mud in their bills, then fly up and apply it to the nest, gradually building the structure out so as to completely enclose the nesting birds except for small entry holes. The two nests closest to the camera are darker around the entry holes; that’s where mud has been recently applied, and the damp mud is darker than the dried mud.

I kept walking out the dike along Charleston Slough, past other birds that are I guessed were nesting, though I didn’t actually see a nest or babies: Forster’s Terns, Marsh Wrens, a Northern Harrier, Snowy Egrets, Mallards. About a mile and a quarter from the parking lot, I could finally see the California Gull nesting colony. The gulls were screaming and flying in swirling circles above the colony, and as I got closer I could see why: two researchers had kayaked out to the colony, and were walking around with clipboards checking out the nests. The gulls were divebombing them, and through my binoculars, I could see that the researchers were wearing helmets and jackets for protection.

I watched for a while; I like watching gull nesting colonies, and the addition of the invading researchers made it even more entertaining. Then it was time to head back to work, so I walked back to the parking lot, my mind completely emptied of everything except for birds, sun, mud, and nests.

Sex in the news

Three of the biggest stories in the news today involve sex or sexual morality: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund, is in the news for allegedly committing sexual assault on a housekeeper at a New York hotel; Arnold Schwarzenegger has admitted that he fathered a child with a woman who was a domestic worker at his mansion; and the Roman Catholics say that the incidence of priests sexually abusing minors increased greatly during the 1960s due to the sexual revolution.

Each of these news stories centers around someone in power engaging in sexual acts with someone who was relatively powerless — a domestic worker, a low-wage hotel worker, legal minors. Or to put it another way, these stories aren’t about sex so much as they are about the misuse of personal power.

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.

Link to report on District Assembly

Although I went to the annual meeting for Pacific Central District (also known as “District Assembly”), I spent most of my time on business that had nothing to do with the business of the district.* Fortunately, my good friend Pastor Cranky has written a long and detailed report on District Assembly so I can find out what I missed. If you want to find out what happened at Pacific Central District’s annual meeting, go read Pastor Cranky.

* I’m the secretary of the district chapter of the Liberal Religious Educator’s Association, and incoming Good Officers Person for the district minister’s chapter, and needed to do some face-to-face communication relating to those two positions; I also did lots of professional networking with district staff, other ministers, and other religious educators. Important stuff, to be sure, but not exactly district business.

Chalice edge matching puzzle

Most children’s programs in congregations are pretty touchy-feely, which means that kids (and adults) who love logical/mathematical thinking can feel a little left out. So here’s an edge matching puzzle, with obligatory flaming chalice designs so it can masquerade as religiously educational, which can be fun for both children and adults (since this type of puzzle is NP-complete, there is no fast and easy solution). The image below links to a PDF, with instructions for cutting out the nine puzzle pieces and solving the puzzle.

PDF of Chalice Edge Matching Puzzle, 13 May 2011

P.S. No, I’m not going to give you the solution, because I know you don’t really want it.

In vain

Old Isaac Watts has a poor reputation among religious liberals. He’s old-fashioned. He writes those four-square hymns we love to hate. He’s rooted in the Bible and talks about God as male. Bad hymnodist!

Yet here’s an Isaac Watts hymn that would be a very nice addition to today’s liberal religious hymnody:

In vain the wealthy mortals toil,
And heap their shining dust in vain;
Look down and scorn the humble poor,
And boast their lofty hills of gain.

Their golden cordials cannot ease
Their pained hearts or aching heads,
Nor fright nor bribe approaching death
From glitt’ring roofs and downy beds.

Thence they are huddled to the grave,
Where kings and slaves have equal thrones;
Their bones without distinction lie
Amongst the heap of meaner bones.

“The Rich Sinner Dying,” Hymn 1:24 from Hymns and Spiritual Songs by Isaac Watts.