This child-friendly sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 8/28/16. It explores the challenges of bringing our values with us during times of challenge and change.
As our year of formal religious education begins this coming month, (as does the secular school year) we have begun by blessing our backpacks in our service. Each of our students also received a copy of our Seven Principles as part of the tags on their backpacks. We carry our best values with us wherever we go. Fellowship and religion happen in our walls, but they don’t begin or end here, they travel with us when we’re our best selves – everywhere. Could you imagine wearing your best selves as a tag on your clothing? That’s the spiritual practice our kids and youth are trying out this year.
Part of our religious education program is about growing up. We cover many of the corners of the world that our secular classrooms don’t touch every day: relationships, identity, peer pressure, helping over receiving, giving over getting; and in the teen years – scientifically accurate sexuality education – and this last bit is something that the law still doesn’t even require to be scientifically accurate in all our public schools. I’m grateful that our community is so supportive of this critical education. Religious education is about moving through our years’ always striving to be more fully human, more fully alive. It’s not always obvious, but in living for one another, and for community, we can grow into fulfillment.
When I was entering kindergarten for the first time, or moving onto grade school, or junior high, or High School, I don’t remember any formal opportunity to reflect on what I was going through. Sure, when I was a bit older, I talked with my friends about the changes, my hopes, and what was scaring me, but I don’t remember any adults, or my church community, or really even any teachers, helping me along my way. The public schools were sometimes good at helping me get most of the facts I needed, but they never put much energy into helping me sort through the values – the choices – I would have to wrestle with in light of the facts of growing up.
Is this different for folks here? If you’re new to our community, let me help with you a little bit of a map of the year. We have our weekly Sunday school classes, and almost monthly opportunities for our kids to do social service or social justice work. We recognize some of our grade schoolers every year or so as they complete a special period of study; our junior youth will have a year long period of study for Coming of Age and what we call Our Whole Lives and be asked to speak before their family, friends and Fellowship community about their religious values – or Credos. Our graduating 12th graders do something similar again by reflecting on a childhood or a teenage of growing up UU – and they also speak before a Sunday service toward the end of the year.
By a show of hands with our adults – who here received at least 27 hours of education – like OWL (Our Whole Lives) prior to entering High School? Which of our adults received religious support from their communities in sorting through some of these life changes. I’m often amazed at how much more care and support our UU raised children and youth receive in these matters than folks do from society at large. It’s a necessary, powerful and potentially life-saving ministry we offer here.
As we begin this new year of education together, it’s also a time of some upheaval – a time of some change. The ground before us in every new year can feel a bit shaky. What will my new teachers be like, what challenges will my kid bring to the dinner table this year, how well will our new home or job really treat us? It’s in times of change, when the earth below us feels a bit wobbly, that we really learn who we are. Ideally, we you want to make sure that we got the basics down before times of struggle, and that’s a part of why we as a Fellowship are here, but it’s the times when we’re breaking new ground that those lessons take root.
As we don our backpacks and go into a first or new year of school, or start a new job, or move into a new home, when we’re breaking new ground, try to remember “why you are.” It’s an odd phrase. I’m going to try to explain it in two stories. One that’s personal, and one that’s a little mythical. (Well, to be honest, both are a little bit personal and both are a little bit mythical in their own ways.) And then we’ll come back to how that relates to all our next steps.
First, the personal story. One time when my husband and I were still newly dating, we were strolling through the West Village on Saturday enjoying the perfect weather. When we got to Washington Square Park, we heard piano music playing. Apparently, a fellow had rolled in a full-size piano into the central walkway of the park, close to the east side of the square. He had the obligatory two giant tip buckets spaced far enough apart that you couldn’t miss them while you passed by. Not that you could miss the piano from 100 feet away for that matter. It was an iconic NYC moment. Brian and I sat down to listen to the music for a while. He was an excellent pianist. I found myself wondering how he got the piano into the park (curbs are rough on giant unwieldy square instruments after all); where did it come from – did he push it himself, or did he have helpers to get around the tight corners and mostly 7 inch curbs.
It was a surreal moment for sure. A little bit of whimsy, culture and quirkiness rolled into one. Like you’d expect from the typical hipster classical musician you’d find playing the piano in the park, he would offer odd little ironic quips after each piece. (In tired droll voice) “And that piece was Ave Maria, composed by Franz Schubert. In my humble opinion it was the only piece he composed that was of any good.” He would also end every performed piece with the driest, “I do hope you enjoyed it.” The affect was so opposite his performances, which were lively, skilled and largely moving. I wanted to go up to him, jump up and down, and yell “Buddy, you’ve gone through the trouble of creating a little bit of faerie-land here in NYC by dragging your piano God knows how far through the Village. Cheer up!” The spiritual message of “why are you here” rings softly, or I guess maybe not so softly if it’s a UU minister jumping up and down in the park yelling it at you. Thankfully, I didn’t do that… this time.
Sometimes in life, we go through all the trouble of making something happen that we really want, and then we don’t allow ourselves to live into it. Anyone here ever desperately want to go to the beach to relax. Then you finally make it through the hours of travel, sun block, prepping sandwiches, screaming/crying children/siblings/parents and lay out – only to realize that you can’t stop thinking about all the things that were stressing you out that you’re trying to get away from for a little while? You can’t sit still long enough to relax? The “why” of where you are is just out of reach. The sun, and spray, and sand might as well be miles away still. I’m hearing a lot of stories of folks frantically trying to get in one last beach trip for the Summer – when you do – just do it – leave the rest at home for those hours.
I want to share with you that second story now. It’s written by a UU minister. It’s called Stanley the Very Fine Squirrel. When I first heard that my colleague was publishing this children’s story I got really excited. I grew up hearing another odd little story about “Stanley the Christmas Squirrel.” It was a totally different squirrel named Stanley (who was dealing with his home getting upgraded into a Christmas Tree for someone else’s living room, but that’s another tale entirely.) But it’s notable because still to this day, my parents and I call every squirrel we see, “Stanley.” Even my childhood dog knew the name. If we would say, “Look, it’s Stanley!” my dog would jump up and make a bee-line for the squirrel. (I don’t recall him doing that if we just said squirrel. And no, he never caught Stanley, thankfully.)
(…tell the story of Stanley the Very Fine Squirrel…)
So let’s try to answer the Owl in the story. “Why are you?” Why are we here for? Feel free to call out a word or two response. If I can make out what you said, I’ll repeat it back into our microphone so that all can hear. (to love, show compassion, sow peace, to teach, parent, grow, nurture, to learn etc.) How often do we hold all these things in our hearts and minds throughout our daily activities? In this religious community, we can probably all agree that we’re here at least in part to show compassion, to nurture those around us, to sow peace. How easy is that to remember when we’re sitting in our third period class, or when we’re memorizing math formulas, or when the person with the full grocery cart races us to cashier? But the boredom, or the work, or the addiction to work or schedules can help us forget our purpose. Why are you? Why are we? When you figure out the answer, live by it, and the rest will follow.