Posts Tagged Religious Education

Breaking Ground

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.


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The Art of Play

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 8/23/16 and imagines what it means to be a “people of play.” Our text is based on “The Little Prince.”

This summer has been a reflective one for me. We watched some of our youth graduate from religious education and go away to college. Two of them, one from this year’s class and one from the last, I first met at a youth leadership school I led in our region before I came to our Fellowship. In August about fifty of us, I mentioned in the beginning of the service, enjoyed a week together at summer camp and watched a bunch of about 17 youth full of tears and joys, after being raised with love from their childhood, knowing that it was their last year there. I’m thinking of the parents here today who are suddenly aware that they are empty nesters and other parents who feel like that is so far away but coming too fast.

Brian and I got married and enjoyed a fabulous honeymoon. One that I never imagined I’d have the good fortune to enjoy. This week my friends and I mourned the death of a friend of ours we lost forty years too young. It’s been a reflective summer. If you are new to our community, a large part is celebrating the major transitions in life – we often think of memorials and weddings when we talk about this – but our children are probably celebrated even more. We have a perennial program we do for our younger grade schoolers and we have a really intense coming of age program for our junior youth. The twelfth graders, you will hear in 10 months, from this pulpit, as they graduate our program. Recognizing the mass of life transitions for our children and youth, UUs celebrate a ritual that is a sacred occurrence. A childhood of scraped knees, stressed out test taking and more head colds than anyone but a parent can truly appreciate. Sacred is the most apt word I can name of that moment that this all led up to. That moment that in turn will yield to a life time more. Whether they are graduating or moving away, it is just sort of starting there as well. But before that moment whether we are parents or not, and I probably never will be, there is our first conversation together with our kids around us. Most often we have this conversation with our toddlers. We heard it a little bit ago from the excerpt from The Little Prince. Come and play with me the Little Prince proposed. I can’t play with you, the fox said, I’m not tamed. By a show of hands, who here is a former toddler… most of you then, great. You may not recall asking this to an adult, you are likely too young to remember, but I imagine you can hear the same question asked back at you from our youngest children. One of which shares the chairs with you most Sundays, our children ask us, the whole congregation, the whole Unitarian-Universalist faith, to come play with them, to share in joy and silliness, and chalice lightings and play dough. They come to us asking to be in relationship with us. Only they use the word play, instead of big and fancy words, but it means the same thing in the long run. Hopefully, some of us as adults will remember that when we talk to each other too, right?

How it starts. And the congregation responds, I can’t play with you. I’m not tamed. It takes years to tame us, right? You have to be very patient. First you sit down a little away from me, over there in the grass and I’ll watch you out of the corner of my eye and you won’t say anything. Language is the source of misunderstandings. This is child’s stuff right? But day by day you will be able to sit a little closer. Countless Sundays teaching us through snack times, reminding us of your needs, and the infant’s cries at worship reminding us to take solace in one another. For the goings will not always be smooth. But, even the noise of community is better than the silence of isolation, especially, better. Not in those words, but I think every time I hear a baby cry in here, life is just so much better than not having the baby there to be crying. And it is also true of life, community is often hard or uncomfortable but it is much better than doing it alone. Over the years our children and youth call us back to relevance for them, requesting a worship service that leads us to set aside time for them with the dream that someday the whole thing will make sense. Our youth have taught us to offer an education that speaks to where they are, what they might become and what gives capacity to make the life decisions they’ll need to make. And I bet for those of us that were raised in a different way of thinking, a different kind of religion, we might be trying to create a space that is welcoming to our kids, our children who might not be welcomed other places, or what we might not have been given, particularly around our LGBT youth. They create a space where they can be themselves and they can teach us from that place.

Not all foxes out there learn to do this, but this one has been tamed enough. I realize our role. This fox here, this room, our role is to be tamed, or as the fox puts it, to create ties. We are here to help bring more of our relevance to community with one another. We are here to learn to forge real connections to people that are near us and to develop a sense of compassion for those who are not in safe.  You know so often we find out these platitudes like: be nice to people, be compassionate, try to remember when someone is not around. Oh, yeah, that is easy, we get it, we know that. Okay, how often do we do that all of the time? Anyone, do that all of the time? I think, it is the hardest lesson, the most simple lesson out there, and we say it over and over again because we can pass by it the second someone is nasty to you on the checkout line, everything is thrown out the window. Right? If you are waiting a long time, you get a bit rushed.

So, we are here to forge real connections and this can begin with play, learning to lose with kindness, to trust when we don’t all agree and to win with grace. Do you folks still play board games? Yeah, right? Do you ever play with family? Is that ever stressful? No, no, okay. Whoever says “no,” you can lead the adult education class on temperance next week. Learning to lose with kindness with family and to trust when we don’t all agree and to win with grace, think about those moments, think about those moments when really stupid things become really difficult.

This month we have been talking about play at our services and imagining what it would be like to be a people of play, what it would be like to not always take ourselves so seriously or so earnestly Not that there aren’t things that are serious. Most of the time you are going to hear me preach very earnestly and very seriously. But that is not always and forever what we are about and I think playing sometimes can open us up to being a little more human. Summer camps can open us up to being a little more human.

And when the time to leave was near, the fox said, I shall leave, but I get something because of the color of the wheat. Then he added, go and look at the roses again, and you will understand that yours is the only rose in all the world. So the rest of our kids have moved away or elders have retired to be closer to their grandkids, or sadly a number of friends or family have died, the color of the wheat in the field is different now for having that. All of life has changed and we are together for but a time, for some of us, thankfully, it might be a lifetime. Where ever you travel remember that you have been here. We are more than a place of people who tend toward an open view in life. We are not the sum of beliefs or opinions. Unitarian Universalism, this congregation, and our relationship is a way of living and acting and interacting. It is religious and it is cultural in differing ways. But essential to this is our commitment to walking together. Even when we are apart, the fox reminds us of this, here is my secret, it’s quite simple, it is only with the heart that one can see rightly. That which is essential is invisible to the eye.

Facts and details give way to relationships. I am personally glad for this point, I was raised up in a faith that gave me the impression that it had given me all of the answers and when I came to the realization that that was far from the truth, I felt a bit lost, because I had put my faith into beliefs and knowing. I found myself searching and I found myself in this faith as a late teen. This congregation, this community of friends and family will remain where ever we go. When you feel backed into a corner, give us a call, or post on a Facebook wall, our pastoral care team is here and it is here for you and my cell is in the Directory. When you call, we very likely will not have all of the answers and on occasion we will have none of them. The answers may still be just as elusive, but we have never been in the business of answers. We have been in the business of building a bigger and closer neighborhood and hopefully, changing the world through that. I know that that might be hard to believe, the bit about a closer neighborhood. This can be true for our folks in our seats this morning. Some of us know you pretty well, some very well and it will feel like a lot of folks barely know you at all. Of course any ordinary passerby would think my rose looks just like you because she is the one I watered.

You know when I first read The Little Prince, as a high school student in French class, I totally missed all the important bits like this because I was so focused on learning the words. It makes so much more sense in English. The message is completely true. I joined my first congregation 20 some odd years ago and whenever I run into them wherever I go, whether it is somewhere in New Jersey or out in the coast of New Hampshire, they look at me with a look of, you are one of us, and that has been true of other congregations I have been a member of and ones that I have served. We even had someone from my last church here visiting his kids and it is that moment that we had, like yes, we are still here, we are still together. You are one of ours. As long as we are here, we will be proud of you, in your successes and ever available in your hardship as best we can. I say all of us convince you with sincerity when I say, reach out to us whenever you need. Not everyone does when they need. And all of this begins with a place a play. We build community from lightheartedness. Remember that when you find yourself stuck in a place of complaint or curmudgeonliness. Staying in a place of harshness keeps the richness at bay and we all do it. And it never really helps but we all do it.

When we take seriously the fox’s last statement, people have forgotten this truth but you must not forget it. You become responsible for whatever you tamed. You are responsible for your rose. This is where it all kind of gets tricky. What does that mean? Who is the rose? We all are at times. You are part of the creation and you both cared for us as this rose is your years of attention and commitment and the caring you have given as a youth or as an adult to our youngest children, or our oldest adults and all of the stories that took place before I got here, a whole lifetime of stories in this community. You are also the rose for all the reasons I mentioned and all those you can imagine. We likewise feel responsible for you as we water you.

Where ever we are on our life’s journey, we are probably a little bit fed up with it. Who here is fed up with where they are on their life’s journey? Oh wow, a lot of enlightened people here. That is amazing. We are afloat, a bit weary for the tides and storms and feel like we have come this way by doing mathematics in the dark of night with nary a compass or sextant in hand and yet this is also the beauty of a faith without neat, clean answers. We get to travel with an ancient star as our guide, a lot of ancient stars as our guides, finding directions as best we can, interpret with the tools we have been given, as a sense of wonder and knowing the story may never truly end. This adventure demands of us the “we” in our lives. We never adventure alone. We always and only do it in relation. So each of you this morning, I ask you to think about, for our new year coming in, where shall we adventure in the months ahead? Where shall we do this together?

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UU Identity Workshop

This coming March 21st-22nd, 2013 I’ll be co-leading a 15 hour workshop on Unitarian Universalist Identity at the Walker Center in Newton, Massachusetts. You can learn more about the training here.


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