Friday, December 17, 2010

The UUA and Regions/Districts

I was reading the recent NY Times article on population trends and demographic patterns in the U.S., and did the simplest view of the data - zoom out to the whole U.S.  (See, zoom out as far as possible.)  Some of the population groupings are pretty obvious.  Considering the Far West, there is a clump down in Southern California, the Bay Area, and the Portland/Seattle clump (not that close together, but quite a bit closer than SF and LA.)  Note the large, lower density population gaps between them.  Why in the world would we want to make all of these, and everything west of the Mississippi, be one region?  The words from the UUA about virtual communities is mostly nonsense.  I say this as a software developer who spends about 50 hours a week in front of my computer, rarely goes into the office, does phone conferences with my wonderful headset/microphone - virtual communities may be a certain kind of community, but it is an attenuated community.  It sort of works to get work done, but really only if you have a pre-existing relationship with the people that you are working with.  We are physicial beings, living in a physical world, and time and distance matter in establishing real relationships.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

All the Other Ministers

I read several pieces about Theodore Parker recently. (This year is the 200th anniversary of his birth.) One item noted about his life is that he was shunned by nearly all the other Unitarian ministers in Boston. The stories about Parker mostly note this in passing as a sign of the strength of his independence of thought and action.

But what about all those other Unitarian ministers?  We are told that almost no minister in Boston would share a pulpit with him, and no Unitarian publishing house would publish his sermons. And it wasn't as if the population of Boston was out in the streets protesting Parker's heretical views. On the contrary, he had to get a larger hall to accommodate the thousands that showed up to hear him preach each Sunday.

The 1840s weren't the Middle Ages. Parker may have been one of the first but cannot have been the only clergyman to have read any of the Biblical "higher criticism" coming out of Germany. And these ministers were already on the Christian fringe - they were Unitarians - non-believers in the Trinity, catalyzed two decades earlier by William Ellery Channing's heretical non-Trinitarianism. And they had Emerson's Transcendentalists in their midst. So it wasn't as if none of them had encountered or held any unorthodox thoughts about Christianity.

No, it makes me wonder if the other ministers were simply acting in solidarity. Even those that might have had some intellectual agreement with Parker found it more important (or less scary) to maintain solidarity and status with their peers.

Parker's particular heresy might seem quaint or irrelevant in the Unitarian world of here and now, but the tale of all the other ministers remains cautionary. We like to claim descent from Channing, Emerson, Parker, and others dissenters. But on what issues or modern orthodoxies do ministers (or the rest of us) maintain solidarity even when not really in agreement, just because breaking ranks would be scary?

Selected Readings
Parker's Transient and Permanent sermon:

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Review: “1215: The Year of Magna Carta” (Danziger and Gillingham, 2003)

The Magna Carta shows the start of issues still echoing in our own time.

In 1215 the nobles of England were in civil war with King John. The rebellions was a result of many factors – increased taxes, unsuccessful military campaigns to protect John's lands in France, takings of lands as royal "forests", holding the relatives of various aristocracy as hostages, and more.

The nobles drew up the Magna Carta as a unifying document for their various grievances. In 1215 at the meadow of Runnymede the barons and their armies forced John to sign the Magna Carta. Almost immediately he reneged on a document he was forced to sign under duress, and the civil war continued, until John died within the next year. The regents of his son then agreed to the Magna Carta to regain authority and end the civil war.

The Magna Carta combines an eclectic set of broad proscriptions on the king's power with very narrow remedies to specific issues in King John's reign. Each chapter in the book takes one or more clauses of the Magna Carta as a springboard for discussion of the context of the underlying issues. The discussion covers the history, mores, politics, religion, and technology of the time, sometimes ranging a century or so before or after the Magna Carta.

Here are excerpts from selected clauses, showing the range of the general and specific:

In both clauses 1 and 63, the first and last: We wish and firmly command that the English church shall be free.
17:    Common pleas shall not follow the court but be held in some fixed place.
31. Neither we nor our bailiffs shall take other men's timber…
33. All fish weirs shall be removed from the Thames and Medway and throughout all England except on the sea coast.
35. Let there be one measure of wine throughout our kingdom, and one measure of ale and one of corn…
40. To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.
45. We will not make justices, constables, sheriffs or bailiffs who do not know the law of the land…
58. We will restore the once the son of Lleywlyn and all of the hostages from Wales…

The sweeping statement that the "English church shall be free" reflects conflicts where the King was inserting himself into church life: the selection of bishops, heads of monasteries, and taxation or organization of church lands. Clause 17, 40, and 45, and others like them established a regular judiciary – formerly, plaintiffs had to chase the King's court around the country as he moved from castle to castle and judicial positions were for sale. Clause 31, 33, and others roll back "takings" (in modern parlance.) And clause 58 example some of the overreach of John – he had taken various members of aristocracy as hostages to force behavior. The last clause of the charter echoes the first – the church shall be free. Apparently this was a hot button topic.

Reading "1215" gave me a new historical perspective on the American Revolution and founding documents of the United States – the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.

Like the Magna Carta, The Declaration lays out particular grievances of the colonist. In contrast to the Magna Carta, which establishes new constraints on the King, the Declaration chooses to break the bond and says "these colonies are… free and independent states." The Magna Carta's constraints on the King's government structure are reflected in the definition of the branches in the Constitution. From the perspective of colonists used to the rights that started with the Magna Carta, it is clear that the Constitution is an incomplete document – it needs the explicit enumeration of rights and restrictions on the government contained in the Bill of Rights. Almost all of these are generalizations of the broad clauses of the Magna Carta. Like the Charter, the Bill starts out with freedom of religion.

Taking an even longer view, we see multiple steps in the evolving theory of rights. The Magna Carta is mostly concerned with the relation of the king to the barons and knights of England (the rights of armed power holders.) By the time of the American Revolution, rights were extended to non-slave, non-Native American adult male landowners. Property ownership was slowly removed as a requirement (it remained in North Carolina until 1856.)

The U.S. went through another shift with the post civil war amendments to the Constitution – all adult males (possibly excepting Native Americans) could vote, and all persons born here were citizens. In the 20th century voting was extended to women, and the latter part of the century saw battles to actually claim the rights for non-whites that had ostensibly been granted in the Civil War amendments. This puts the Magna Carta as first in a lineage of American rights, and makes it clear that civil liberties are a very long-term evolving, enlarging concept; and that the Constitution and its amendments should be seen in this perspective.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Appreciative Inquiry

This is a posting on a trend that I find distressing within Unitarian Universalism at the national level.  I originally posted it as a shorter response on Linda Laskowki's blog (where she graciously included these critical comments); but I repeat it here to keep it in the stream of essay-form things that I write.
 In the "UUA View from Berkeley", ( Linda Laskowski writes:

... Appreciative Inquiry (AI), a powerful methodology that is based on some interesting assumptions:
  1. In every society, organization, or group, something works.
  2. What we focus on becomes our reality.
  3. Reality is created in the moment, and there are multiple realities.
  4. The act of asking questions of an organization or group influences the group in some way.
  5. People have more confidence and comfort to journey to the future (the unknown) when they carry forward parts of the past (the known).
  6. If we carry forward parts of the past, they should be what is best about the past.
  7. It is important to value differences.
  8. The language we use creates our reality.
 I will respond to this on two levels: first, appreciative inquiry itself; and second, the focus of the UUA board.
When I read this description of Appreciative Inquiry, my bogon shields went up immediately. These are something other than "interesting" assumptions.
  • "In every society, organization, or group, something works." Why should that be true? Some organizations are quite dysfunctional. Or the things that work might not be important.
  • The statements about "reality" are some combination of post-modernist and New Age mumbo jumbo. "What we focus on becomes our reality." No, that's just not true. Reality is out there. What you focus on is in your head. At best, what we focus on might be our model of reality. And it could easily be an incorrect model. I realize what is meant here by "reality" must mean "someone's model of the world", but to then use "reality" to mean that is rhetorical misdirection.
  • Items four through seven ("asking questions influences the group", going into the future, valuing differences) are far from deep insights. In the flow of this, they are a sales job trying to "get me to yes", and might just as well have come from a Successories poster.
This all reads like marketing hype for another management theory. Oh, wait! It is a management theory. A quick check at Wikipedia for Appreciative Inquiry has big warnings about weasel words and sales brochure. The same is true of the page for the Taos Institute, created by the practitioners of AI. This suggests that even in the credulous world of the internet, these words raise red flags.

Which brings me to the larger issue: what is it with the UUA trustees and management theories? First we had Policy Governance. Now we have AI. And conveniently enough a person to tell us all about it. There is a case study at the Harvard Business School about using Appreciative Inquiry at a coffee retail chain. The net effect was that they reduced costs by 25 cents per cup of coffee. If you're a coffee chain, that could be big money. But at the end of the day, you're still selling coffee. Is the UUA equivalent of 25 cents per cup the change we are waiting for? It's not my idea of transformative change - it's just better management.

Policy governance, appreciative inquiry, changing the composition of the UUA board, election rules at GA, redistricting - these are all management and process issues. None of them is leadership. Vision is not going to come out of deep listening. From a post on Peter Bowden's blog, quoting Paul Nixon, "Churches that are paralyzed will gain nothing by self-study. They will just use the self-study as a stalling tactic." What do we possibly think would come out of such deep conversations that we don't already know?

All that can happen from these efforts is better management. We can have organized sub-groups rearranging those deck chairs and monitoring the exact distance to that iceberg instead of someone turning the ship around. We need to get back to what is permanent instead of the transience of organization change.

Peter Bowden, "Where does a Church Vision come from?",

Saturday, November 6, 2010

On Clergy

I have been thinking recently about the role and status of ministers.  This is what I came up with.  Treat it as an on-line sermon.  For those who are not particularly drawn to Christian writings - take the readings for their inherent truth and power, not for their source.

Philippians 4:8
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things that are of good report; if there be any excellence, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
Romans 12:3-8
For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.
For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function,  so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.
Matthew 5:13
You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.
Joshu's Koan
A monk once asked master Joshu, "Does a dog have Buddha nature?" Master Joshu replied "mu."

The Essay
At 8 AM in the morning, in the first minute of the first hour of class in my first year of college, the professor in world literature came into the room and wrote the word "arête" on the blackboard. We were about to start reading the Iliad and we needed to understand this concept that was central to ancient Greek culture. Arête is translated to English in several ways: virtue, excellence, or goodness. In Paul's letter to the Philippians, the word "excellence" is the Greek arête. Recall that both Jesus and Paul were speaking in a culture that had been immersed in Greek thought for 300 years. In this essay I want to talk about arête and the clergy.

Historically we have two different kinds of clergy. One kind is a priest. A priest performs religious rites and is an intermediary between God and people. The ancient Jews had priests who made offerings and sacrifices in the Temple. Other religions also have priests with similar special status, including the special status of Catholic priests to perform the Mass. Post-Reformation, we have clergy who are titled minister or pastor.

Protestant clergy are not priests – they do not have a special role with respect to God. In Jewish tradition, there was and continues to be another role besides the priest – the rabbi. The rabbi can be an interpreter of Jewish law; or an active teacher. Jesus was referred to as rabbi.

All occupations have expectations of what the person in the role provides. In The Republic Plato asks what is the virtue or excellence – the Greek arête – of a tool, artifact, or occupation. A shovel is supposed to be able to dig; and if it has too short a handle, or a dull blade, we judge it to be a poor shovel. A good attorney uses their analytical powers and special knowledge to benefit their client. A physician heals the sick. A farmer is expected to provide food that is nourishing and pleasing, and a plumber is supposed to keep the water in the pipes and not on my floor.

To the degree that we view the role of each occupation to be more important to us personally or to society in general, and the degree of self-sacrifice, we accord a higher social respect (if not necessarily money – "they have their reward") to that occupation.

Clergy, whether ministers, priests, or rabbis, occupy a special cultural position. It is not just a profession; they are accorded respect and deference because we expect that they have taken on special responsibilities. They are not the only profession with a special position of social respect. For example, firemen are respected because they have taken on the responsibility to risk their life to save us from a horrible fate.

But the clergy have a very high respect level (even up to the point that our government gives them special recognition in the tax code and other law.) So we as society must associate them the some very special arête.

So we ask, "What is the special arête of the clergy?" There are two responses.

1. Demand the Clergy be Exemplars
Given that society grants a special role to clergy, then what is the arête of the clergy? Is it that they are learned? That cannot be it, for there are many learned professions, and while we grant them some respect, it is not like that of the clergy. Is it that we may speak to them in confidence and receive counsel? We can speak in confidence to an attorney or a therapist, but they are not accorded the position of the clergy.

Paul lists various spiritual gifts, and it is these we expect in the clergy: prophecy, teaching, exhortation, discernment, or pastoral care. These gifts vary between people. We would not expect a minister to have a full measure of all of these. But we do expect them to have a spiritual call and capacity for one or several.

I assert that the arête of the clergy is to be focused and connected to the divine – righteousness, justice, mercy, eternal truths about the human condition, and awareness of the arc of the universe. And it is not just knowledge of these things. If I have knowledge of being a fireman, but don't fight fires, I am not a fireman. If I merely study righteousness, but act the same as everyone else, then I am not acting in the role to which we have given the social respect.

This is a high standard. If a member of the clergy does not have this arête, then we have two choices. Like the shovel with a short handle, we can try to fix it, or we can give up and throw it away. But it is not useful as a shovel, and we should not try to keep using it as such.

2. Reject the Special Status of the Clergy
Picture Paul as a first-century church consultant.

Paul uses the parable of the body in both the letter to the church in Rome and in Corinth. He would not have included the same analogy and warning in letters to two separate churches unless the issue had come up multiple times. What is the issue? It does not take much reading between the lines to understand that some members of the church consider themselves special and separate because of their gift, and that it happened in more than one place.

Luther denounced the doctrine of sacerdotalism – the special status of one who can make offerings to God – arguing for the "priesthood of all believers." So most Protestant denominations have ministers who are not "priests", but still hold a special position and are styled "reverend." But several strains of Christianity before and after Luther went even farther. In England, a century before Luther, the Lollard followers of John Wycliffe rejected the office of priest or minister entirely. A century and a half after Luther the Quakers came to the same conclusion; and in the early nineteenth century, the Plymouth Brethren also.

This leads me to a new understanding of the Quaker use of "thou" and the usage of "brother" and "sister" in some other churches. It emphasizes that all members are equal members of the same body. With this understanding, we would abolish the status of minister as a leftover relic of the priesthood. We would recognize the different gifts of our members, but not raise any member to a higher status because of their particular gift. The answer to the question "what is the special arête of the clergy" is "mu" -- every person has their own special arête.

Gifts of the spirit and parable of the body: I Corinthians 12.

The Republic: - search for physician

Plymouth Brethren: Conservative Christian Evangelical church, started in Dublin c. 1827, first English assembly was in Plymouth. No ministers, officially no name for the church.

Quakers: Reject sola scriptura, believe in continuing revelation, had a Universalist split in N. America 1827, the two sides rejoined in 1955.

A Christian view on gifts:

Monday, September 6, 2010

Church, Religion, and Faith

As a springboard for discussion, my church had the following in the order of service:

We call ourselves the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu. Church implies religion. Are we a religion? Religion implies faith. What roles do faith and religion play in the lives of Unitarians? Reflect on these questions.

Having been urged to reflect to on the questions, I instead found my questioning the assumptions. Do these things really imply each other? Says who, and why? What do these words even mean?

We use the words "church", "religion", and "faith" and react to them without knowing their history and deep meaning. We are the inheritors of several wisdom traditions that use these words. But if we don't know what was meant by these words, we can find ourselves arguing about current definitions that have been divorced from tradition. When we do this, we are then re-inventing all of philosophy and religion with each generation. We are like listeners to a traveler who describes the animal he saw that looked like a camel with spots like a leopard, when we don't even know what a camel or a leopard are. So we spend our time talking about camels and leopards, and never do get around to picturing a giraffe.

Part of our tradition, as exemplified by Michael Servetus and William Ellery Channing, is to consider the original meaning of words and reach conclusions based on that analysis. So let us consider these three words.

"Church" comes from Greek through German, a combination of the word for Lord (kyrios) and place: hence, the Lord's house - very Jewish and Christian sounding. But one step before that, kyrios comes from kyros: power. So "church" comes from works meaning "a place of power." Now it's pretty broad - in those terms, it could even be used in a Pagan tradition. But what does it mean to us? What is the power in our church? Do we claim our power? Do we run away from it? Taking a question from Jesus, do we hide our lamp under a basket?

"Religion" is from the Latin religare, "to fasten, to bind fast", as in "a bond between humans and gods." This is the same root as the word "rely". It did not take on the meaning of "a particular system of beliefs" until the 1300s. So the assertion in opening, "religion implies faith" has been definitional since then. But it evokes a different image if we think of a religion as something that binds us together, something that we rely on. How does our religion bind use? On what do we rely?

Finally, "faith" is from the Latin fides, the root word of fidelity. This is the sense of faithful or loyal. It did not formerly mean the modern usage of "belief with no proof." The geyser named "Old Faithful" is named after its dependability, not because the geyser believes in something. When Paul writes "now abide these three, faith, hope, and charity", the word in the Greek translated as "faith" means "trust", not "belief." What do we trust? To what are we loyal?

So bring it back to the original questions. I originally found the questions full of hidden assumptions. But after my etymological detour, the set of words are much more intriguing. We are the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu - a church, a place of power. But that power is not inherent in the name, or the physical place. If there are no people to claim that power, it disappears. As Jesus said, "you are the salt of the earth - but if the salt has become tasteless, it is thrown out and trampled under foot." It is only a place of power because of our members, our practices, and our mission. It gets its power from our reliance on one another, our reliance on our inheritance of wisdom from the past, our trust in each other, and our faithfulness to our mission.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Some thoughts from Orwell

We were poking around the other night on our Roku and found the BBC documentary archives with a segment called "Useful Idiots".  (See  They cited a paraphrased quote from George Orwell, "There are some things that are so stupid that only an intellectual could believe them."  In searching for a citation, I could not find this quote exactly; but something very like it appears in an Orwell essay Notes on Nationalism, May, 1945.  He uses the word "nationalism" for something very broad - the belief and defense of the superiority of a group.  This group might be a nationality, or a belief system.  It's still applicable and worth a read:

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Book Review: Stilwell and American Experience in China, 1911-45

Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45
Barbara Tuchman

I had previously read about half of two books by Tuchman – A Distant Mirror and The March of Folly. I had heard the name of this book but did not realize it was by Tuchman, when I found it on the shelf at a vacation rental house. During the vacation I read about half of it and was compelled to get a copy from the library when I returned home.

The Protagonist
Stilwell was sent to West Point as his father’s effort to counter a late-blooming streak of wildness in young Joe. He thrived, found a facility with languages and after graduation was sent to France in WW I before the U.S. entered the war, as an observer in the trenches and studying at the French military institute. When the U.S. entered the war, Stilwell performed successfully as a field commander. After the war, went to China several times starting in 1921. He learned Chinese, and was a military attaché to the Nationalist government. He had an intense focus on mobile tactics and actually knowing what has happening on the ground. Between the wars he was chosen by General George Marshall to run training on tactics for the American officer corps. When in China he travelled alone on foot for journeys of over a hundred miles to get a feel for the land.

The Antagonists
Chiang Kai-Shek (CKS): leader of the Kuomintang (generally referred to in the U.S. as the Chinese Nationalists.) The Kuomintang was an essentially dictatorial, corrupt political party, more focused on internal enemies – first various Chinese warlords, latterly the Chinese Communists – than in fighting the Japanese. Stilwell complained in his diaries that we were working with a regime which seemed as foreign to U.S. ideals as the Fascists of Europe. Following Chinese political and military tradition, CKS was not interested in attacking the Japanese, preferring to retreat indefinitely.

General Claire Chennault: an American military adventurer, leader of the flying Tigers, a group of American pilots fighting in China against the Japanese. They were quite successful tactically, but Chennault had an inflated view of the ability of pure air power to defeat the Japanese. These views were shown false when, as Stilwell noted, an air force isn’t much use without someone to protect their air fields. When the Flying Tigers became a significant threat to Japanese ground forces, the Japanese attacked and captured their air bases. The doctrine of pure air power was also argued by the U.S. General Staff in Europe. Chennault was perfectly willing to promise results to CKS to enhance his position; CKS was perfectly happy to believe Chennault in order to the status and prestige of having an air force in China.

The Chinese Communists: led by Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai. They took the novel (for China) approach of providing their own supplies for the Army (via their own fields and workshops) instead of stealing from the peasants, and fighting instead of supporting the landlord class. The result was an effective fighting force with popular support, and a competitor for power with the Kuomintang.

The Action
Japan invaded China in the 1930s, and the U.S. supported the Kuomintang with Lend-Lease supplies to fight the Japanese. Stilwell was in China and Burma as liaison between the United States and Chiang Kai-Shek when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor followed by Singapore, the Philippines, French Indochina and Burma. He led an escape by his headquarters staff and other American and Chinese soldiers through the nearly impassable Naga Hills to India. All 140 men under his leadership made it through under a disciplined forced march at a regulation 105 steps per minute. He remained as liaison to CKS and was in charge of the Lend-Lease supplies being flown over the Hump (the Himalayas) from India into China. He was also in charge of opening the Burma Road to get land supplies into China. Stilwell believed that Chinese troops, properly trained, equipped, and led could beat the Japanese. He trained Chinese troops who were sent out to India into two divisions, and then led an attack back through the Naga Hills (dismissed as impossible by the both the Japanese and British general staffs) to retake northern Burma. Near the end of the war, after repeated efforts to get the Chinese Nationalists to commit troops to fighting the Japanese in China, the American General Staff presented CKS with an ultimatum – to install Stilwell as commander of all forces in China, both American and Chinese. The loss of face implied by this demand forced CKS to reject it and counter with a demand for recall of Stilwell from China. Stilwell returned home and after a few other commands in the Pacific died in San Francisco in 1946.

Interaction between Stilwell and CKS
CKS repeatedly promised to commit troops to fight the Japanese, but these promises followed Chinese cultural tradition that those promises didn’t really mean anything. Stilwell was aware of this cultural difference but still pushed and hoped he would finally get the troops. In the event, Stilwell got two divisions worth, but he had plans for a Chinese army of 90 divisions to be fielded against the Japanese.

The Final Result
Stilwell never had more than three Chinese divisions under his command. He trained them to a level where they were able to defeat the Japanese forces in Burma. But CKS never really cared about Burma or any other offensive campaign against the Japanese. The troops and the American supplies were only a source of prestige and defense against internal enemies. American headquarters under General Marshal recognized the difficulties of dealing with the Chinese. But there was also value in maintaining the potential threat in China, tying down as many as a million Japanese troops, some of whom might have otherwise been fighting the U.S. in the Pacific. U.S. military and State department observers estimated that CKS and the Kuomintang would only survive the end of the war and U.S. support by six months. When war against the Japanese ended, the U.S. continued to support CKS against the Communists, but eventually the Kuomintang had to flee to Formosa. The “China Lobby” in the U.S. blamed the fall of China on Communist sympathizers in the U.S., not the inherent corrupt, fascist nature of the Kuomintang.

The American political environment
The U.S. public viewed China as proto-democratic, a potential market for our goods, and receptive to Christianity – a view propagated by the American missionary movement at home, raising money for missionaries in China. It seems that we almost viewed China as a huge religious market as well as a commercial market. In the U.S. an important shaper of opinion was Henry Luce, founder of Time and born in China of missionary parents. After the fall of the Kuomintang, the debate over “who lost China” was one of the threads that led to the anti-Communist hysteria of the McCarthy period.

Parallels to Other U.S. Involvements
The book was published in 1970. The publication year, along with other writings by Tuchman, suggests parallels to Vietnam then, and reading it now, to Iraq and even more to Afghanistan/Pakistan. The following are my thought on the parallels.

As a “status quo power” (Tuchman’s term), the U.S. has an attachment to supporting a single central government. Our founding mythology inclines us to look for George Washington figures in other countries – a strong, charismatic, honest figure leading a group fighting for their country. We cast their opposition in the role of the oppressor. In Afghanistan, we know that Karzai is the head of a central government that does not represent all the people (certainly not the non-Pashtun north.) The Taliban, while oppressive, has a certain home-grown appeal. To the extent that they are not corrupt (made problematic by their involvement in the drug trade), they appeal to the puritan Muslim idealism of the young Talibs (students) who originally formed the Taliban.

In Pakistan, the Bush administration insisted that President Musharraf was a good partner to achieve our results there – never mind that his clear strongman non-democratic role. Pakistan is much more complicated than a country yearning to be a democracy – like China, the cultural forces are old and complicated. They see Afghanistan as part of their natural region of influence, which is partly a natural result of the large Pashtun population living on both sides of the Afghan border.

We also place a high faith in our ability to achieve results by air power. While we do not claim that we can “win” anything with Predator strikes, our tendency to believe in purely technological solutions echoes Chennault in China and some commanders in Vietnam.

While reading the book I had repeated thoughts of “why are we in Asia?” The U.S. has a pattern of getting involved in protracted military situations where we have not defined our specific national interest; where the whole of the American body polity have not understood the culture we are dealing with and instead project our political images onto the other country; latch onto a leader or regime as our chosen vehicle; expect that we can win quickly by the application of equipment and technology; and never deal with the real political actors to achieve a narrow result in our national interest. Instead we have an idealistic goal that in a short amount of time the target country will be transformed into a unified western democratic nation-state.
I don’t have a proposed solution to Afghanistan/Pakistan. I expect that we will continue to muddle on, and it will not turn out well because it can’t given our time horizon. Short of a world where we’re trying to make every country into a liberal democracy (which would require a very different foreign policy than we have now), I think our only essential national interest in Afghanistan/Pakistan is that it not be a base for Al Qaeda training camps, and whatever else happens there is a problem that they have to solve themselves.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


I live in a world of ghosts. Not the scary movie kind. These ghosts just drift around muttering. What do they mutter? Various thoughts: "The unexamined life is not worth living." "Whatsoever you did to the least of these, you did unto me." "It still moves." "We hold these truths to be self-evident…" "We will fight them on the beaches…" "Are you now or have you ever been…" "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" "I have a dream…"

These are the ghosts of our intellectual ancestors. Some are good. Some are evil. The ghosts are real, and they are all around us. If you can hear them, you can draw power from the good ones, and they can help you to know how to counter the bad ones. But if you don't know the ghosts are there, they can play intellectual poltergeist or worse.

Ideas define the reality that we live in. I am not saying that ideas change reality. But we act on the reality that we perceive, and that perception is largely defined by the ideas we receive. Galileo did not cause the earth to suddenly start revolving around the Sun, or Jupiter to suddenly have moons. But his writings redefined our view of the reality that we live in, which is almost as powerful as having changed reality itself.

Other ghosts have created false realities, just as compelling. The twentieth century mirage of human perfectibility through Marxist-Leninism, if somehow it could just be carried out correctly, drew in thousand or millions of believers and caused untold suffering and death. The perceived reality of religious fundamentalists of all stripes continues to cause suffering and conflict. These are powerful ghosts.

Many people don't hear the ghosts. They haven't been taught about the good ones or the bad ones. They don't know the grand sweep of intellectual battles between the ghosts. Sometimes this might be comforting: some of the ghosts can be a bit tedious and full of themselves, along with those of the living who spend too much time talking to the ghosts. But ignorance of the ghosts is not a defense against them. They defined the world we live in. Their allies and acolytes work to define the future. If we don’t hear the ghosts, we are at their mercy - and some of them are quite malevolent.

What ghosts do you hear? What are they saying, who are they arguing with, and why? Which ones should you really learn more about?

"A people with no history is like a person with no memory."

Listen to the ghosts. Find out more about them - the good ones to be listened to for advice, the bad ones to be forewarned about their living allies.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Interim Minister Halfway Through the Year

My church has an interim minister, one of two one-year interim ministers as we look for a new settled minister. In January, about midway through the period for this interim, the minister gave a sermon that I gather is sort of stock for an interim – an assessment of where we are, and thoughts on where we could be going as a congregation.

I was very unhappy with the sermon. Not because it was not uplifting or dynamic – not every sermon is or should be. There are also contemplative, chastising, or comforting sermons. I just think it wasn't very good, even in the context of what it was trying to achieve.

Stripping away the body of the sermon, and reducing it to its main points, the sermon said the following.

The interim minister has been here for 4 months, and has observed the following points about our congregation:
  1. Some people have said they want the church to be like a family
  2. Some people have said they want the church to have a social justice mission
  3. We have a culture of being too "nice" and avoid anything that might look like conflict.
  4. We have some (untrue) myths about our history – how big we were or not at some point in the past. Yes, we have lost members; no, we were never huge.
  5. This church has a financial problem: we are not paying our operating costs and are living off a bequest.
It finished with a reading from James 2:14-18. (Faith without works is dead.)

I may have skipped one or two points, but that would not make the above box much bigger. There were also a couple of suggestions about (2) and (5) but they were just suggestive. If the above was the entire sermon – I mean that literally – it would have short and sweet, but probably still not very satisfying.

I agree with the interim that the above are true and important. And I think they could be the launching point for a better sermon. In the next section I give my thoughts on an example.

An Alternate Sermon

A prefatory note – I quote several times from the Christian tradition. This is not common in this particular church. But we cut ourselves off from some important insights if we avoid the Bible. All of the wisdom literatures survived thousands of years, by hand copying and oral traditions, because their words held power. The early Christian writings are perhaps especially relevant because they were also struggling with what it meant to be a new kind of church.

The reading

Matthew 5:13-16
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.
You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

The Sermon

I have been at this church for four months, met with some of you in various settings, and have made the following observations:
  1. Some people have said they want the church to have a social justice mission
  2. Some people have said they want the church to be like a family
  3. This church has a culture of begin too "nice" and avoids anything that might look like conflict.
  4. This church has a financial problem: we are not paying our operating costs and are living off a bequest.
Start with number one, the desire for a social justice mission. Action for social justice is an important part of our identity and history as Unitarian Universalists. But it is not the reason for the church to exist. We are a church, not a social justice organization. There are many social action organizations in the world: the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Doctors without Borders, and many others. If all that we have is a social justice mission, then these other organizations are doing the job, and we may as well close up shop and go work with the organization of our choice. Consider one of the most important social justice prophets of the twentieth century – Martin Luther King. But I just dropped his title – he was the Reverend King. His quest for civil rights and economic justice came from a religious foundation. His person religion and his church gave him the vision and the courage to pursue his fight. Another leader, Mahatma Gandhi, was grounded in the Hindu and Buddhist concept of ahimsa – non-violence. We modern Unitarians sometimes revere the social justice movements and treat their religious foundations as incidental. I suggest that it is the other way around – truly powerful social justice movements require a spiritual foundation.

So what is a church? I suggest that one way of looking at a church is as three concentric circles.  The inner circle is labeled Individual. The next circle is Community. The outer circle is The World.

The world's religious traditions address these circles with varying emphasis. Much of what the Buddha said was about personal spiritual practice – the inner circle. Much of traditional Jewish law is about maintaining the community – the second circle. Meditation, religious education, worship, small group ministry, and pastoral care all work within the first two circles. Social action is the third circle – our vision of a just world. Our church cannot choose to work at just one or two of these levels – we must work at all three.

Without the support of the inner two levels, the third one has no foundation. When Jesus addressed the Jews of his time, he tells them that they are the light of the world – they have a message from God about justice and righteousness – and they are the salt of the earth. The metaphor of salt is important in an ancient context. We think of salt as readily available. But salt in ancient times was very valuable. The word "salary" comes from the Latin "money to buy salt with." Salt is necessary to preserve food, to add taste to food, and to replenish the salt lost from our bodies. But Jesus chastises the Jews – if you have lost your essence as salt, you cannot be a light to the world – you will be thrown out as useless. Paul makes a similar point in the letter to the Corinthians:
If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am a clanging cymbal. If I give all I possess to the poor, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Without an inner spiritual life, social justice is just going through the motions.

Conversely, we cannot stop at just the first and second circles. In the New Testament letter of James, he writes:
What use is it if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? So faith, if it has no works, is dead by itself.
So our church must have all three circles – each as a foundation to the next.

The third and fourth observations are symptoms, not goals. I suggest that they both stem from the same underlying problem: we don't take ourselves seriously enough. When you care deeply about something, you get annoyed and sometimes angry when it doesn't work right or live up to its standards. Jesus was not the sweet person shown in the familiar modern Christian painting. He was a Jew, preaching to Jews, and he was angry at the condition of their religion. He frequently called the church leadership a "brood of vipers" to their face and every time he saw them coming, and he physically drove the money changers out of the temple. He was not "nice", because he cared about his religion.

This congregation has been the beneficiary of a large bequest that is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because it led to a set of activities, such as an expanded religious education program, that helped to create a dynamic church. It is a curse because it lets us be lazy. We do not have to make the hard decisions on what is more important to us, and whether we are willing to contribute to it – we just dip into the endowment. It has allowed us to not take ourselves seriously. Two responses to this state of affairs are "why should I give any more money – it's there already" and "why should I give money to an organization that can't figure out its priorities." I am not a complete optimist of the "if you build it, they will come", but it is certainly true in reverse – if you don't take yourself seriously, the money certainly won't come. We have to take ourselves seriously. Who we are and what we do matters.

Our children's story this morning was Stone Soup. We can link this story to our process of working toward having a new settled minister. A new minister is not going to arrive in town, wave her hands, and suddenly she will make everything better. The young soldier in the story was not a magician. The stones in the soup are not magic. They are merely a guide and a device to encourage us to bring forth that which we already have. If we each tend our own spiritual garden, and combine our gifts together in the community, we can develop the spiritual nourishment that will be ready for other visitors who appear in our church.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

We’re Off to See the Wizard

Today I am going to talk about journeys and wizards. The vehicle for my quest is the Wizard of Oz. The Wizard of Oz is a wonderful movie, rich in symbolism. Like any complex work of literature, we can find multiple meanings in it as we view it through different eyes with different backgrounds. I'm going to look at it a bit differently in this sermon.

As we start out, poor Dorothy can't seem to make up her mind. There she was back in Kansas, singing about going over the rainbow. Next thing you know, a twister picks up her house and dumps it down in Munchkin Land. The first thing she says, after her understatement that "I have feeling we're not in Kansas anymore" is "We must be over the Rainbow." This should be great – she got her wish! But no, a few minutes later all she wants to do is get back to Kansas. Granted, the Wicked Witch of the West isn't helping things, but shouldn't she be checking things out a little bit in the place that she was longing to be? Well, anyway, the local Zen Master Glinda says it's pretty easy – there's a Wizard that knows everything, and it's a very simple Path – just follow the Yellow Brick Road.

So she starts off down the road, and a little bit later it isn't quite so simple: the Path has a fork in it. What's up with that – what does "follow the yellow brick road" mean when it has two ways to go? She stands there wondering.
Dorothy: Now which way do we go?
Scarecrow: Pardon me, this way is a very nice way.
Dorothy: Who said that? [Toto barks at scarecrow]
Dorothy: Don't be silly, Toto. Scarecrows don't talk.
Scarecrow: [points other way] It's pleasant down that way, too.
Dorothy: That's funny. Wasn't he pointing the other way?
Scarecrow: [points both ways] Of course, some people do go both ways

The Scarecrow must have Unitarian tendencies. Well, Dorothy and the Scarecrow get through their introductions, and he joins on to her quest to go get help from the Wizard. They dance off down the Yellow Brick Road, singing the first rendition of their travelling song:
(Choir interrupts, directed vigorously by choir leader)
We're off to see the Wizard, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
You'll find he is a whiz of a Wiz If ever a Wiz there was.
If ever oh ever a Wiz there was The Wizard of Oz is one because,
Because, because, because, because, because.
Because of the wonderful things he does…..
(Choir leader, stopping them in mid-song): Wait! What did you say? Because, because, because? You're going off to see a Wizard and the only reason you can give for this trip is "because"?
(She turns back to preacher):

Great. This sounds promising. We're off to see a Wizard whose only positive attributes are the same as Mom's answer to the three year old who keeps asking "Why?" "Because!" Just "Because," with no reasoning or evidence behind it.

So Dorothy continues onward. She picks up a couple of more seekers on her Path to the Emerald City and they suffer some misadventures. But finally they arrive. Then they have more another telling interaction about the nature of the Wizard:
[Dorothy knocks]
Guardian of the Emerald City Gates: Well, that's more like it! Now, state your business!
Dorothy: [Dorothy and friends, all together] We want to see the Wizard!
Guardian: [gasps] The Wizard? But nobody can see the Great Oz! Nobody's ever seen the Great Oz! Even I've never seen him!
Dorothy: Well, then how do you know there is one?
Guardian: Oh, you're wasting my time!

Only when Dorothy establishes her credentials by way of the talisman of the Red shoes are she and the others admitted. We find out that those in the Emerald City don't actually do any work, and even though the Guardian has let them in, they still aren't going to be able to see the Wizard. Finally the Doorman relents, and the see Oz the Great and Powerful, who dismisses them with an impossible task to prove that they are worthy – get the broom of the wicked witch.

When they return after surprisingly accomplishing this feat, he tells them to return tomorrow.
Do you presume to criticize the Great Oz? You ungrateful creatures!  Think yourselves lucky that I'm giving you an audience tomorrow, instead of twenty years from now!

Still we're being stonewalled by the Great and Powerful Wizard. But when un-curtained by Toto, the Scarecrow expresses our outrage: "You Humbug." The Wizard agrees.  Then Dorothy says "You're a very bad man", but the Wizard protests. "Oh, no, my dear. I'm a very good man. I'm just a very bad Wizard." He is right.

What does the wizard give to Dorothy's three companions? Depending on how you look at it, he gives them nothing, or a great deal. He gives them three silly symbolic gifts. He most definitely does not give them a brain, a heart or courage. They have already demonstrated these qualities during their quest – it was the Scarecrow who tricked the apple trees into giving up their apples by taunting the trees; the Woodman has been emoting every chance he gets; and when Dorothy and Toto are trapped in the Witch's castle, the Lion overcomes his fear to volunteer to go in and rescue her. So the Wizard could not and did not bestow these qualities on the Three. Yet his gifts have power - they all felt like they received what they were looking for from him. So what did they receive? The Wizard comes from the culture of travelling carnival or circus, and fortune tellers. Successful carnivals, circuses, magicians, fortune tellers, tarot card readers, astrologers and confidence men have no magic. What they do have is insight into human nature. The Wizard recognizes the qualities already possessed by the Scarecrow, Woodman, and Lion, and gives them symbolic gifts that provide self-affirmation. This is not too different from what a good psycho-therapist does. There is no magic, and no one can "give" us anything that suddenly provides a brain, a heart, or courage – the most someone can do is help to provide self-awareness of our own natures. So in one sense, he gave them nothing. But he gave them self-validation – a little bit enlightenment.

Dorothy also had to reach her own bit of enlightenment – she's been able to go home all along, she just has to realize that she wants to.

So the inhabitants of the Land of Oz have it both right and wrong. Someone new came to their land that saw things differently. They decided he must be a Great and Powerful Wizard. The Wizard is not unique. We humans have a habit of creating very bad Wizards from very good men. I am going to talk about a few others.

Siddhartha Gautama delivered a message about spiritual practice. The message is both simple and deep. He gave truths and paths which can lead to a cessation of suffering and achieve self-awakening. But people could not leave that alone. The message was modified so that some branches of Buddhism became a salvation message via ritual practices. Temples and huge statues of the Buddha were erected across Asia. Nothing in the Four Nobles Truths or the Noble Eightfold Path says anything about building temples to Buddha, or chanting his name to reach paradise. The profound message of the Buddha was decorated with icons and rituals.

Jesus had another simple, radical, and hard message: love and justice. But this wasn't good enough, oh no - when his message hit the Greco-Roman world, they turned Jesus into God. Not a new God, mind you; but a mystical three-for-the-price-of-one God – the old one of the Jews, the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit thrown in to make it be a trinity. Why a Trinity? Religions seem to like threes. The Greeks had the three Fates – Clotho, Lacheseis, and Atopos, who spin, measure, and cut the thread of life. Hindus have Trimurti: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. The Christians took it one better. This Trinity somehow represented both the monotheistic innovation of the Jews with three mystically separate but not separate persons inside. It's a pretty good magic trick. The Romans took this new Trinitarian God and made it their state religion. But like any government, they decided that if they were going to have a state religion they needed to pin down what it was all about, and came up with a creed to define it. Several creeds, actually. Anybody who disagreed was a heretic.

I pondered this pattern: take a message and build it up into a religion with icons and magic, and thought hmm, not everybody does it - the Jews managed to avoid it. Oh, wait a minute, they didn't. Remember? While Moses was away on the mountain, the Israelites decided that they needed something to worship and built the golden calf. When Moses came back, he was so angry that he broke the tablets of the Ten Commandments, went through the camp the sons of Levi and killed three thousand of the Israelites, and then he had to go up the mountain again and ask God for a new set of tablets. "And you Israelites had better stay good this time - if I come down and see something like again, somebody's really going to get it.") So the creation story of Judaism has a very powerful cautionary tale against creating images and complicating the simple idea of an invisible monotheistic god. Much later, after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, some Jews started down the path of giving the Ten Commandments to an iconic status – reciting them each day in the synagogue, and arguing that the Ten Commandments were the only important part of the Law. This was countered by discontinuing their daily recitation. So we see the tendency in Judaism also, but they have an antidote.

As an aside, Unitarian history also comes into this story. The original Unitarian martyrs – Francis David in Hungary, Michael Servetus in France – weren't burned at the stake because they advocated loving one another and tolerating other viewpoints. Their crime was reading the New Testament in the original Greek, and concluding that there wasn't anything in there about Jesus being God. They were killed because they denied the Trinity – they said Jesus wasn't God. This really didn't go down well with the Christian hierarchy. They thought they had settled all this back in 325 A.D. Once a church has established itself as Great and Powerful, it doesn't like people challenging the established order.

So back to the main story. In Oz, Buddhism, Christianity, and even Judaism, we see a pattern. Someone with a different, new message appears. We ignore their simple message and instead turn them into an idol, a god, or decide they have magical powers. The simple message is still there, but it has been hidden behind a guardian, a doorman, and a curtain. Somehow we humans act out this pattern over and over.
Let me introduce two terms: a "salvific message" and a "salvific figure." The word salvific means "providing salvation or redemption." Various teachers, religions and cultures have their own version of a salvific message. For example, Buddha offers a personal path to escape from suffering. Jesus offers a better way of living together with love and justice. But we often take the bearer of the salvific message and turn them into a salvific figure – and then instead of focusing on the message, we focus on the figure. I suggest that one reason we do this is that it absolves us of really listening to the message. If the person who brings the salvific message is really, truly different from us, then they are capable of thoughts and feats that we cannot achieve. We can worship them instead of listening to them. If Buddha and Jesus are different from you and me, then we can take a call to release ourselves from all cravings, or to love your neighbor as yourself, as something that only a supernatural being can achieve. If Jesus and Buddha are human beings like ourselves, their message is much more challenging – we are called to follow the same path as these role models.

My inspiration for this sermon was a series of conversations with other church members about our church's search for a new minister. It seemed to me several times that there was an attitude that things would get fixed, or we would figure things out, once we got a new minister – they would know what to do. But a minister is not a wizard. We're definitely not in Kansas anymore, and we are already part way down the Yellow Brick Road. But what do we expect from the minister? Do we expect that she or he will have magical answers to the problems that we have not figured out? What will be in those answers that we aren't already capable of? Like Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion, a minister can't give us anything we don't already have. I do not suggest that a church does not need a minister – it is good to have someone whose focus and training is on religious and spiritual issues for individuals and the community. But we've been doing church for a long time now; if we have been listening, we have learned some lessons already. We have already identified some issues and desires as part of the interim minister process. There is no need for these to be in limbo until a settled minister appears. As a self-governing community, we will have to address these now or later – why not do some of it now? Simply pretend that I have bestowed all of you with a heart, and a brain, and courage – that you already have.

Sunday, February 28, 2010


Every family has their own traditions, and habits. They range from the mundane – which car window does each kid sit by, who eats mustard and who eats ketchup – to seasonal rituals, and particularly holiday rituals – do you open Christmas presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, and what are the traditional holiday meals? These traditions develop over the years, and seem unremarkable within the family circle because that's the way that it is always done. When I met Mary and took her to Tillamook for our first Christmas with my family, she was confronted with our unusual traditional Christmas Eve dinner of clam chowder and hot dogs. The roots of this tradition lay thirty years earlier in my childhood.
My family, my parents, and three grandparents grew up in Tillamook County, Oregon. Tillamook Bay is the second largest bay on the Oregon coast, about six miles long and several miles across. It is fed by five rivers and surrounded by the great forests of the Coast Range. During the early part of the twentieth century, this was a major logging area.
But in 1933, a great forest fire known as the Tillamook Burn destroyed a huge area of the forest. It was the largest single forest fire in North America until the horrible western fires of 2002. But the 1933 wasn't alone. More fires happened on a six year cycle in 1939, 1945, and 1951, feeding on the downed trees and also burning additional acres.
One result of all these forest fires was that a large amount of mud and silt was carried from the hills into Tillamook Bay. At low tides, the mud becomes exposed as great expanses of tide flats. This is not a smooth bed of mud - it has features that become exposed as the tide falls. Some areas are sticky mud, others are relatively sandy. From high tide to low tide, the water in the Bay falls almost twelve feet. There are intricate networks of channels carved by the water as it flows out of the bay twice each day. The larger channels can be as large as four feet deep and tens of feet across, filled with rushing water escaping the bay. Imagine a badlands landscape lurking underneath the flat surface of the full bay at high tide.
The sandier sections of the bay bottom are home to a kind of clam called a cockle. They are good in clam chowder. Like other fishing and hunting activities, the state sets a limit on how many cockles you can take. When I was little, the limit was 36 cockles per "hunter" per day. So sometime around the age of six, my brother and I became assistant cockle hunters.
The areas where the cockles live are not necessarily nearest the shore of the bay. (Or if they were, someone else probably cleaned out those easy pickings long ago.) So we had to walk quite a ways out on the tidal flats to get to the clam beds. The best way to allow enough time to walk out, find clams, and walk back before the tide comes back in is to go clamming at an extra low tide. Extra low tides happen during a full or new moon, and the low tide itself is when the sun and moon are on the horizon - either dawn or dusk. Dusk is not an option - it would leave us out in the bay after the sun went down. So going clamming meant getting up in the dark, well before dawn, so that we could be at the tide flats and walk out on the bay as the tide was still falling toward its lowest point.
Clamming trips happened mostly on Saturday mornings. School days were not an option, because we would have arrived back home too late to go to school, and Dad had to go to work. But there must been have times when Sunday had a lower tide than Saturday, so I think we occasionally got to skip church in order to go clamming.
As a six year old, getting up before dawn was a tough sell. It was certainly not clear why we had to get up in the dark, put on barn boots, and drive to the bay. When we arrived at the bay, we drove out on a jetty that had two split-level single lane roads. The lower road, on the side of the jetty, was outbound, and the road on top of the jetty was the return direction. When I was six, I was always concerned about what would happen if we encountered a driver that didn't understand the directional system – there was no room to pass. (This was before I understood things like "one-way" signs.) Once parked, we walked a half hour or more out over a cold, foggy, muddy bay bottom, carrying cockle rakes and buckets. The route was not straight - we had to skirt or wade the various channels of water draining the bay. Some of these were fun to splash across; some of them Dad had to help us or carry us; some were so big that we had to go upstream to find a crossing. The mud was horrible. You have to learn to walk with your feet well apart. Each foot gathers a large clump of sticky mud. If your feet brush against each other, the clump of mud spreads a little higher on each boot as you walk, until eventually, the entire inside of your legs are smeared with mud, up past your boots and onto your jeans. There is a never-ending new supply of mud on your boots, so more and more mud climbs up your legs. In the early years, I always arrived home a muddy mess. Adding to my discomfort, the rich ecosystem of the tidal flats has a strong fishy smell.
Cockles are not wily prey. They live a few inches under the sand. You rake the sand with a cockle rake - a three or four prong rake with very long teeth. When you hear or feel a click, you have hit either a buried rock or a cockle. Luckily for cockle hunters, cockles do not have an advanced escape behavior. When you click against them, they "clam up" - they close their shell tightly and hope you go away. Against most predators, this works. In the case of the cockle hunter, you just make a deeper stroke over the same area where you heard the click, and up comes a cockle. Or a rock.
To be within the letter of the law, we had to carry our cockles in our own bucket, our own cockle rake, and dig up the cockles ourselves. When we very young, Dad would find likely areas, possibly even getting a click, then we would dig them up. By later grade school years, we got the hang of finding them ourselves. The clams have a little feeder hole running to the surface, and sometimes they will squirt as you are walking above them. You also eventually develop a feel for what patches of mud and feeder tubes are going to yield a clam. Travel also got faster, because we could wade the same channels as Dad and not take as many detours, and I eventually got the hang of walking with my feet apart so that I just had the muddy clump on my feet and not all the way up my legs. Later my sister joined us as another clam gatherer, and we could share the job of helping her over the deep spots. As I reached teenage years, I also grew to appreciate the sight of the sun rising over the tree covered mountains surrounding the miles of wide bay and tidal flats, often to then disappear into the layer of coast overcast. (Although I did not appreciate it enough to turn me into a morning person - I may have seen as many dawns from staying up late as from getting up early.)
We gathered clams for a couple of hours, depending on when we had arrived and when the tide began to turn. The return trip was a much heavier load. Large cockles can be four or five inches across, about as big as a fist, so a bucket of thirty-six became quite heavy. The return route might be easier if the channels has emptied more water since the time we went out; but depending on when we arrived compared to the low tide, water might be starting back in and we would have to choose a different route.
Once we got home, the next phase began. We had a large copper kettle that we filled with water, dumped in the clams, and built a fire under. As the water heated, the clams would begin to open. This would allow Dad to pry them open with a stout knife and cut the clam away from the shell. In my teenage years, I also took on this task. You have to be careful - prying open a clam with a sharp knife requires just the right pressure and direction, or you wind up cutting yourself instead of the clam.
Once the clams were out of the shell, they became Mom's domain, for making clam chowder. Clam chowder was a Sunday evening meal. Mom, Dad and Grandma liked clam chowder. We kids didn't. It's a dish that takes some time to prepare. I thought of it as a long, smelly process. It began with frying chopped bacon, adding chopped onions when the bacon was partly cooked, and cooking until the bacon was crispy. As a kid, I hated the smell of frying onions in bacon fat. (Telling it now, it sounds pretty good.) The bacon and onions were added to a big pot with the clams, water, diced potatoes and seasoning, and the whole thing placed on low heat for a long while, adding condensed milk near the end. Clams have a somewhat fishy, gamy smell, which just added to my olfactory distress.
So at Sunday dinner, this was a meal for Mom, Dad, and Grandma. But in the interest of learning new foods, we were each required to eat a token amount of chowder on the bottom of our soup bowl. We hid the clam taste by adding an equal volume of saltine crackers. We discovered that if you place an unbroken cracker in the thin layer of chowder, it will slowly expand to almost double its original size as it slowly absorbs the liquid. Once we had finished playing with crackers and eating our chowder, we were allowed to have one of our favorite foods: hot dogs. The net result was that we actually looked forward to clam chowder days, because once we got past the chowder, we could have hot dogs.
Many of the clams were frozen for later in the year. Besides Sunday dinner, clam chowder was also the traditional meal on Christmas Eve, accompanied by fried oysters (also from Tillamook Bay.) This meant there were also the requisite hot dogs. As we kids got older, we all acquired the taste for clam chowder; but the hot dog chaser never went away. It just seemed obvious that chowder went with hot dogs. And it remained that way thirty years later when I took Mary home for Christmas.
-- Tom Wilson, San Francisco, 9/11/2005

Zen Knitting-Master Grandma

My grandmother taught me to knit. And a way of thinking about doing things. But it's a round-about story.

Grandma lived in Bay City, where my mother had grown up, a long 9 miles from our house. Every week we went to the little Methodist church in Bay City, brought Grandma back to our house, and Dad drove her home in the evening after dinner. Grandma sat in her big comfy chair at our house and knitted.

In fifth grade in Tillamook, all the kids in grade school automatically belonged to 4-H. Each 4-H member chooses a project for the year. The project consists of something that you will produce, a budget, a work plan, a review after you have completed it, and finally submitting the project for judging at the County Fair. I forget what my project was for the fifth grade. For some kids the project was obvious because they lived on farms, and their project was raising a calf to be shown at the Fair - and such a project was a tradition that they all knew from siblings and cousins. My family was rural but not farmers, so raising an animal wasn't as easy an option for me. (We did raise and have butchered three beef cattle during the time I grew up - but that was a once every few years event.)

So ignore my fifth grade project. The crucial part for me was at the end of the year. We all went to a week-long 4-H camp - my first time away from home. We lived in cabins amongst dunes at the beach, ate in a mess hall, went to classes in the morning about trees, plants, and crafts, and in the afternoon signed up for activities of our choice. The activities were the high point for me.

Rowing boats on a lake - my first time in a rowboat, and none of us were very efficient at it. But we charged around the lake, and discovered that the coffee cans intended for bailing out water were also very efficient water cannons for flinging water at other boaters.
And the swing ride around the tall tree. On the side of a ridge, the camp had cut all the branches from a large spruce for the first seventy feet, and attached a cable to a high limb. At the end of the cable was a rope loop, which a camp counselor carefully attached as a sling around our torso and under our arms. Then we ran up a path along the ridge until the cable went tight, lifted us into the air, and we circled around the tree and landed again. Because the tree was on the side of a fairly steep ridge, during the middle of the ride we had a lot of empty air beneath our feet. It was especially a long way down to a to a fifth grader. Of course, once this maneuver had been completed, the cable was wrapped once around the tree. The counselors or selected big kids had the job of unwinding the cable by going in reverse. This was tougher because they landed on the path running downhill and had to stop by themselves. But they got lots of rides as result.

I was hooked. 4-H camp was the coolest thing ever - I wanted to row boats and ride the big swing, even if it meant putting up with crafts and classes about identifying trees, ferns, and mosses. But after fifth grade, you were on your own. 4-H wasn't offered via the school. You had to find your own 4-H leader and group, choose your own project, and carry it through yourself. What was I to do?

Well, my grandmother was a 4-H leader for knitting. I think she actually had three knitting groups at once - two of all girls, and a small group of boys. So she allowed me to join the boy's 4-H knitting group, with some special arrangements. Grandma's boys' knitting group was in Bay City, which was too far away to attend after school. (This was before the days of parents taxiing their children to all their many events.) So I couldn't attend the regular meetings of the group. Instead, we had our 4-H meetings each Sunday when she came to our house after church. She took this seriously. For one hour each Sunday afternoon (after I had already endured the boredom of Sunday School and the church service) I had to show her my progress for the week and knit while she knitted, observed me, and talked to my mother. For that hour, to me, she was not my grandmother; she was the 4-H leader. I sat beside her chair, and if my attention wandered, she would rap me on the top of the head with her thumb, which was armored with a heavy metal thimble.

Each stitch had to be correct. There are many ways to make an incorrect knitting stitch. Every stitch has to be picked up and transferred from the left needle to right needle. If you don't, the fabric will have a run all the way down the to start. Every stitch has to slide from the left needle to the right with the correct twist. This is difference between a knit and a purl, and one lies flat and the other poufs out. Do it wrong and you have the wrong pattern on the fabric. Every stitch has to be picked up without splitting the yarn in the needle. If you do this wrong, it's a split stitch and causes a weak spot in the fabric, because the yarn isn't completely interwoven. Every stitch has to pick up the same stitch in the same row, not from the row below, or you will have a pulled spot in the fabric. Every stitch has to have exactly the same tension as you pull it tight - otherwise the fabric will have tight and loose spots.
My grandmother did not allow incorrect stitches. None. Zero. Zip. She reviewed my work, and if there was a mistake, I had to rip out the rows back to the mistake and reknit it. Some errors can be fixed without ripping out the rows, if you have the knowledge and skill, so sometimes she would relent and fix those for me. Later I had to learn to fix even these myself, or rip out the rows back to the mistake.

You start by knitting potholders. Even badly done, a potholder has a certain sense of accomplishment. It is functional - it will insulate the hand from when picking up a hot pan, it can sit under the pot as a hot pad, and even if it is truly misshapen, it can function as a dishrag. Of course, as with children's pottery coffee mugs, there is a limit to how many potholders a home really needs.

Fortunately, knitting clicked with me. (Pun not intended, but I'll take it.) I have an inclination for this attention to detail. (Other people have had other names for it.) I soon had perfectly square, tight, thick pot holders. We advanced to slippers. Some of these were submitted to the County Fair, and I got blue ribbons for them.

But more importantly, I got to go to 4-H camp again! This time, there were fewer kids, because it was not the entire sixth grade, but just those who had continued on in 4-H. So it also drew kids from other school districts - I met the other boys in my phantom Sunday knitting group. And there were more chances for rowing boats, and shorter lines on the big swing.

This 4-H camp was also different for me because the kids from other schools didn't have preconceived stereotypes of me. At my home school, I was the slowest runner, last picked for baseball (really), and first picked for spelling bees. But at 4-H camp, we were all unknowns to each other. It was great. At sixth grade 4-H camp, I even met a girl from another part of the county and had a huge grade school crush on her. I think her name was Martha. I don't think I ever saw her again.

I was hooked (on 4-H camp!) But there was a catch. Each year, the 4-H project had to be more complex. I could not just keep knitting potholders and slippers. I had to advance to sweaters. So for seventh grade, I had to make a sweater. And for each year of 4-H, the complexity of the sweater had to increase.

A sweater is a big step up from a slipper. There are only a few designs for a knitted slipper, and your teacher just gives you one and you make it. For a sweater, you have to first go through pattern books and find a pattern you like. Your teacher has to approve the pattern as being a step up but still within your potential for that year. If you're lucky, you find a pattern you like, and within your abilities, in one of the pattern books that your mother or grandmother already has. If that fails, you have to take the traumatic step (for a boy) of visiting a fabric store to browse the pattern books. Many of the patterns in my mother's and grandmother's books were beyond me, so I had to visit the fabric stores.

Once you choose a pattern, there is the question of what color and how much yarn to buy. You have to buy all the yarn for a sweater at the same time, because it all has to be from the same dye lot (color batch from the factory.) You cannot go back to the store later and get another skein or ball of yarn, because the colors don't match exactly between different dye lots. So you have to choose from the available colors that have enough skeins available for your pattern. Or you have to go to another store to see what they have.

In addition to all the knitting mistakes I listed above, a sweater also presents the problem of "gauge." Gauge is the number of stitches per inch and rows per inch. A knitting pattern is written to create a garment of a certain size, assuming that the knitter knits at a specific gauge. Potholder gauge doesn't matter much, because potholders can come in any approximate size. Slippers will stretch, or if too large, a fifth grader will grow into them in six months. But sweaters must have the right gauge.

To knit at a specific gauge, you have to knit at the same tension as the designer of the pattern. You have to maintain this tension consistently for the whole time you work on the garment. If you don't do this, your sweater will be the wrong size or be misshapen. Or you may run out of yarn - leading back to the dye lot problem; but the foresight solution to this is to always buy one extra skein. (You can always use the leftovers for slippers.)
So first you create a test swatch - using the size of needles specified in the pattern, about three inches by three inches. You measure this against the pattern gauge. If you are lucky, you match the gauge, rip out the test swatch, and start the sweater. If not, you change the size of needles you are using and try again to match the gauge. If you are very clever, you can knit at more than one tension, and you retry the test swatch at the same needle size and different tension. But this requires you use the same unnatural tension for the entire garment. I think my grandmother could do this - I can't. But I was lucky - I had natural "standard gauge" - my test swatches almost always matched the pattern. My mother was a little jealous - sometimes she had to change needle sizes.

Sweaters also have a pattern. Potholders are made by always doing knit stitches. Slippers can be done the same way, or by a combination of all knit and all purl. But the intricate patterns on sweaters require combinations of knit, purl, slip, twist, and so forth that vary with each row. So your mind and hands have to pay attention to each stitch in a more complicated fashion.

My seventh-grade sweater was solid sage green with three cables up the front. I finished it to my grandmother's satisfaction. Early that summer, there was again the pay-off of another week at 4-H camp.

At the end of summer came the Fair and a surprise. County Fair judging for knitting and sewing has two separate competitions. One is called "construction" - how well is the garment made. For potholders and slippers, this is the only category, and the one that that I had been competing in. But for more complicated garments, there is also the "style" competition. This has two phases. First you wear your garment in front of a panel of judges to see how well it fits. At the County Fair, these are usually a bunch of other knitting teachers also my grandmother's age who have you stand in front of them, turn, raise your arms, and examine you like a prize heifer. They also ask you some questions about how hard it was to make, how you like knitting, and so forth. This phase happens a day or so before the fair opens for the public. The second phase is truly terrifying: the style show. It happens during the Fair itself, and is attended by all the parents, dragged-along siblings, knitting teachers, and all the old knitting and sewing ladies of the town. You have to walk out a runway, do a 45 degree turn to one side of the audience, walk across the base of the runway, do another turn, and walk back, with perfect posture and smiling all the while.

My grandmother and mother had not told me until the Fair that I was also entered in the style competition. Seventh-grade boy me, and about 200 girls from seventh grade through seniors in high school. All in front of an audience of several hundred strangers.

So I spent an afternoon learning to walk, turn, and smile. And keeping my hair straight, and trying not to sweat. And smile. There was a practice session with all the contestants, so we could make sure we knew who we followed, and could keep the show on schedule. I was helped by the fact that my year-older cousin Sharon was also in the competition. She didn't count as a girl - she was just my cousin. So at least there was somebody there I could talk to.

Well, the sweater fit, and I smiled and turned, and won Reserve Champion in the junior high category. Which meant the next night I went out with the five other (girl) champions and reserve champions and be presented a large ribbon in front of the entire grandstand at the closing ceremonies of the Fair. It also meant that I went to the State Fair as a contestant from my county. So in late summer, Mom and Dad took me down to the State Fair and dropped me off to stay overnight for the competition. I didn't get any special prizes, but at least there was one other boy in the knitting competition. After we did the practice the first day, he and I spent all evening on carnival rides that the fair - which were a whole step up in excitement from the rides at the County Fair.

For eighth grade, I made the big step up to a ski sweater. A ski sweater has a multi-colored pattern. To do this, you knit each stitch with one of the colors, and carry the other color woven in the back of the garment. The extra thickness makes the sweater thicker, so that it would only be worn in very cold weather - hence a ski sweater. So now there is a colored pattern, that changes with each row, and two sets of yarn to keep track of and make sure they are interwoven so it the inside of the fabric is smooth. The pattern I chose was emerald green and white with a striking horizontal and diamond pattern over the entire sweater.
Everything went as usual, knitting on the sweater each evening during fall and winter. Come spring, I was all done. One afternoon, I was in the final stretch. I had sewed the seams on the sleeves, and was sewing up the side seams between the front and the back. Halfway up the back I found something horrifying. The front and the back patterns did not match up.  At first, I thought that maybe I had just mis-sewn farther down and just mismatched the pieces. But I checked and the seam so far was correct. The reason for the mismatch was that I had skipped two rows in the pattern on the back of the sweater. The knitting above the missing two rows was about thirty or forty hours of work.

I looked at it for a couple of minutes, and then I called in my mother to confirm the mistake. There was really no discussion. We looked at the sweater lying on the floor for a few minutes, and then I tore out the half-finished side seams. We sat down and each of us took a color and started carefully ripping out the interwoven knitting on the back piece down to the point of the missing rows, carefully rewinding the yarn onto balls. My father came home during this process and saw the piece on the floor and asked what were doing. I explained about the missing two rows and how we had to tear it out. He said something like "I'm sure glad I don't knit."

So after we had torn it out, I reknitted the back correctly and sewed it together.
That summer, I didn't go to 4-H camp. As a pre-high schooler, I went to 4-H Summer School. 4-H Summer School was held on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis. We had to apply and be accepted with an allotment per county. We stayed in the dormitories with a roommate, and ate in the cafeteria or the student union. In the mornings we selected classes to attend, a lot of them about college and career choices. In the afternoons we selected activities like swimming. We also had discussion groups to talk about a range of topics.

Girls weren't quite as scary as they were last summer at camp. I met one girl and we hung around with during the time, and on the next to the last night at summer school, I kissed a girl for the first time. It was about as awkward as you might expect. I think she had kissed a boy before.

The county fair came, with both the construction and style review competition. This year there were a couple more boys from my grandmother's knitting group in the style review, including my one-year-younger brother. I won Champion in my age class. At the completion ceremonies at the end of the fair, I once again went out to the review stand in front of the grandstand. They announced the winners in each category. There was one final award in the fashion competition - the Grand Champion across all age classes, both knitting and sewing, for both construction and style show. This award was a secret until the final ceremony, and usually went to one of the junior or senior high school girls for something like an evening gown. But that year I won the Grand Champion trophy. It came with a two-foot high trophy that had the each year's winner engraved on it, and stayed at our house until the next year. I don't think I have ever been more surprised by anything in my life. (Maybe equal, but not more.) I think the crowd was a little surprised also, with an eighth grade boy winning over the high school girls.

So I went to State Fair again. I remember the review judges from that year. At the State Fair, they were fashion professionals, not just the other knitting teachers. Oregon at that time had an active knitting-based industry - Jantzen, White Stag, and Pendleton were all Oregon-based. One of the three judges was a man, and he asked if I had ever considered a career in fashion. I didn't even know that there were such things as "careers in fashion", but I told him that I planned to become an astronomer or physicist. I think I won a blue ribbon at State Fair that year. And I think I met another girl at the style review - one boy to two hundred girls is pretty good odds, after all - and we went on a bunch of rides at the Fair.

I made more sweaters in freshman and sophomore years, which progressed to additional levels of complexity. One of them was a calf-length car-coat for which I had to cut, sew, and stitch in a cloth lining. But I also gained other interests in high school, especially speech and debate, which also offered frequent chances to go to other places and meet people. My other sweaters went to State Fair in construction and got blue ribbons, but I never placed as highly again in the style review. My sophomore year was my last year in 4-H and 4-H Summer School.

My grandmother was not well during her last few years. As a child and young adolescent, I wasn't aware of all the details, but I know she had breast cancer, diabetes, and heart problems probably related to being very overweight. In September of my senior year in high school, she was in the hospital in Tillamook. One evening my mother received a call from the hospital and she and I drove the three miles to Tillamook General - Dad was away from home that night. Another member of our church congregation had already arrived at the hospital. Mom went into grandmother's room, and came out a short while later. I don't know if grandma had died before we arrived or after but it doesn't really matter to my telling of the story. My mother came over to me and hugged me and cried on my shoulder. I drove home.

Grandmother's memorial service was one of the largest ever held at that church. I was just one of her many knitting students. Today I am a software architect. Programming is a lot like knitting, but that's a different story. I think I owe a lot of my success in software, and in life, to my grandmother.

And I still have the ski sweater.

-- Tom Wilson, San Francisco, July 12, 2005