October’s Theme: Celebrating Unitarian Universalism

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Our theme for Religious Education classes in October is “Celebrating Unitarian Universalism”.  We are starting the year off with a look at our own faith tradition: its history, heritage, and current identity.  Of course, we began with the 7 Principles.

The Principles are what most UU’s turn to when they try to wrestle with that question of “what do UU’s believe”, but that is really the wrong answer to the wrong question.  UU’s don’t believe in common; a diversity of theological views and ideas and the absence of a creed are a defining characteristic of our religious tradition.  The Principles are not statements of belief, either.  What the 7 Principles represent are communal affirmations of values and are aspirations for us to try and live up to, which was beautifully articulated in a recent UU World article, I don’t believe in the 7 Principles, by Doug Muder.

With our youngest class, the preschoolers, we express the Principles as being Promises that we make as we try to create a loving community.  The 7 Promises are taught through symbol and story and the memory device of the rainbow of colors: Red for the 1st Principle (Respect Everyone), etc.

With our elementary class, we explored the Principles as a vision of what we hoped for in the world and students could choose to explore through active games where they tried to put the Principles into action with how they treated one another, through making a necklace with a word to remind them of their aspirations/principles, or through creating a poster to show the 7 Principles.  I had imagined that they would just write the 7 Principles on their poster with symbols or maybe organize them into a rainbow or a tree or something – how delightful that they actually drew the world as they wish it was and said “Care for our Earth and Respect Everyone”.

Finally, our youth group explored the Principles and whether they personally live by any other principles in their small group discussion questions, and then painted stones with their foundational principles on them.

This is a great place to start off with our Celebration of Unitarian Universalism!  Next up, we will pull in each of the two traditions (Unitarian and Universalist) with stories from their history and explorations of Heresy and Radical Love.

For now, I will leave you with this song version of the 7 Principles.

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September’s Theme: We Light This Chalice

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Each month this year the Religious Education program I work for will be organized around a different theme.  This month’s theme is “We Light This Chalice”.  We will be exploring the origin of the Flaming Chalice, how it came to be the symbol of Unitarian Universalism, what the symbol means to each of us, and how we identify ourselves as Unitarian Universalists.

It’s a bit of a goofy video, but I made this to show the kids the story of the Flaming Chalice.

The Story of the Flaming Chalice from Olympia Unitarian Universalist on Vimeo.

We’ll also be making chalices and establishing our classroom covenants this month.  It will be a good month!

Cosmic Education

Here’s one of my favorite Symphony of Science videos!

Yesterday I attended the annual Spirit Play conference and got to see a presentation by Jennifer Morgan, the author of the Born with a Bang trilogy of books.  I love these books, and have used them as the spine for a week long Chalice Camp I’ve offered twice for my congregation.  Just meeting an author I admire is exciting enough, but Jennifer was also a very inspirational storyteller and advocate for cosmic education.

What is cosmic education, you ask?  It is an idea that Maria Montessori developed toward the end of her life, to give children the story that science is telling – the context that we exist as a part of an evolving universe.

How does cosmic education fit in with religious education in a Unitarian Universalist context?  Well, for one thing this story of an evolving universe is the story that science is telling us and science, reason, and humanism form one of our Six Sources of inspiration.  And it is an inspiring story, a story that reveals our interconnected relationships not just to all other humans, but to all life on our planet and ultimately to all that forms the universe.  This is a story that calls us to respect all of creation, to see ourselves within a larger context, and to see the big picture of time (which seems to be the foundation of ultimate optimism to me).

I got a great dose of inspiration yesterday, and I am so thrilled that I get to do this work with children!

A Discussion Guide for The Fault in Our Stars

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I’ve been listening to the audible edition of The Fault in Our Stars.  You may be aware that this is a hugely popular book, with a movie version currently in the movie theaters.  But did you know that this story is almost perfect for engaging young people in theological conversation?  That this is a very UU friendly novel?

As I listened to the book I kept thinking – yes! this! we should talk about this!  And, knowing that many of our congregants (probably ages 11-99) are reading this book, here is a discussion guide I put together for it:

A Discussion Guide for Unitarian Universalists reading

The Fault in Our Stars,

by John Green.

 

Created by Sara Lewis, CRE

Director of Lifespan Religious Education

Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation

http://www.ouuc.org

 

 

  1. Death is a natural part of life. Unitarian Universalist minister, Forrest Church, wrote: “Death is not a curse to be outwitted no matter the cost. Death is the natural pivot on which life turns, without which life as we know it could not be.” What does a novel about death reveal about the truth of life?
  2. The Reverend Forrest Church died of cancer, and wrote a book called Love and Death: My Journey through the Valley of the Shadow. He had a lot to say about death, and you can see excerpts here: http://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/children/riddle/session6/sessionplan/stories/157217.shtml
    1. Do you think the author of The Fault in Our Stars would agree with the Rev. Forrest Church about death? Why or why not?
    2. Rev. Church says “religion is the human response to being alive and having to die”. But in The Fault in Our Stars neither Hazel nor Augustus turn to religion to explain their dying – why do you think that is?
  3. What is the significance of the words Always and Okay for the characters? What do those words imply? How do they relate to a comfort with uncertainty? Which word are you more comfortable with?
  4. How do Hazel and Augustus differ from other teens, other than that they both have cancer? Could they have been the way they were without being sick?
  5. What is the significance of The Imperial Affliction to Hazel Grace and why is she so obsessed with it? Is there any book that has that much importance to you? Why?
  6. Is Hazel’s and Augustus’s relationship deeper than most teenage love stories, or is it just compressed because they are short on time? Were they foolish to fall in love? Why or why not?
  7. Hazel and Augustus visit the Anne Frank house when they are in Amsterdam. How do their lives-cut-short compare to Anne Frank’s life-cut-short? Anne Frank’s diary revealed what many adults believed were unusually deep thoughts for someone her age, and Hazel and Augustus also have unusually deep thoughts for their age. Is it because they will die, or do you think everyone has deeper thoughts than we give them credit for?
  8. Augustus fantasizes about big ways to make his life count, or to make his death count, by saving other lives or some other grand gesture. In the end, he cannot fulfill that wish. For some people, Universalism means that God loves us all, no matter what, or that Love is for us all, not to be earned. What would Augustus have thought of that message? Would it have made it easier for him?
  9. The title of the book derives from a line of Shakespeare: “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves” – meaning that it is not fate at fault. Why choose that line, and why reverse it? What is John Green saying about fate? And does he present fate as determined by some force or as random?
  10. At one point in the book, Hazel asks her father what he believes. He says he doesn’t know what he believes, that he thought being grown up meant you would know but it doesn’t. Is this a Unitarian Universalist sentiment? Is it possible for this to be a comforting sentiment in the face of death?
  11. The author once served as a chaplain in a children’s hospital, and afterward said that he now saw life as utterly random and capricious, yet that randomness did not rob life of its meaning. How is that possible? Can life be both random and meaningful?
  12. This book is about young people trying to live their lives, even though they know they are dying. How is this a book that could inform your religious or spiritual understandings? Did it inform your understanding of the meaning of life? How? Why or why not?
  13. What do you think about the “hero’s journey” narrative of terminal illness? Are cancer patients heroes and inspirations to us all? How can those who are not sick best help and remember those who are? Does remembering someone ultimately matter, and why do we all seem to hope that we will be remembered after we die?
  14. As a Unitarian Universalist, was your personal theological understanding changed at all by this novel? Explain.

If you want it as a pdf: A Discussion Guide for Unitarian Universalists for The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

 

The Fallacy of “You Can Believe Whatever You Want”

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I recently allowed my daughter to choose a hair color and dye her hair.  This is one of the things she can choose because I want her to have as much freedom as is reasonable for her age and maturity.  But it got me thinking about what we can change and what we can’t, and how much of our identity is a choice and how much is something deeper from within us.

When children and youth describe Unitarian Universalism, they often say “we get to believe whatever we want to believe”.  This is not true.  Within Unitarian Universalism, you cannot choose to believe in the superiority of one group of people over another group of people.  You cannot choose to believe that you have a right to treat other people poorly.  You cannot choose to believe that the people have a right to exploit or abuse, or that some people are destined for horrible eternal punishment.

And the kids know that.  It’s not really like a silly UU joke I’ve heard:

The children have all been in their Religious Education class and when they come out to coffee hour their parents ask them: “What did you do today?”.  “Oh, nothing … we talked about cannibals.”  The parents are taken aback.  “Cannibals?  What did you learn about cannibals?”  The kids say breezily “Oh, we learned that we have to make up our own minds about cannibals.”

This is the parody, the misconception that I have to work against.

The problem is, I think, a confusion between two types of freedom:

Freedom to be authentic, versus Freedom to choose

We can choose our hair color, our style, and so many other things.  But then there are things we cannot always choose:

  • We cannot always choose who and how we love
  • We cannot always choose who we will truly feel friendship or kinship with
  • We cannot always choose our passions, our callings
  • We cannot choose the belief or faith that comes from deep within us

We have to have the freedom to discover or discern these things about ourselves, not the freedom to choose them.  I explain this to kids and youth like this sometimes:

I used to think, many years ago when I was your age, that I would like to be a really cool and tough woman.  I wanted to ride a motorcycle and kick butt (they like it when I say butt).  I thought I could just choose to be like that.  But it turned out that I didn’t like to ride motorcycles – I didn’t even like to go fast down hill on my bicycle.  I also found that I was happier reading a book in a coffee shop than I was running around being tough.  So, I thought I could make a choice about how to be, but really I found out I actually needed to be true to who I really was, inside.  I needed to be my authentic self.  And what we believe in can be like that.  We can really, really want to believe in a God.  We can try, but discover that we just can’t.  Or we can really, really want to believe there is no God, but keep finding one in our heart anyway.  When I was growing up I had the freedom to either be a tough motorcycle babe or a geeky coffee-loving reader, whichever one I truly was.  And, as UU’s we also have the freedom to believe what we must believe in our hearts of hearts, but it’s not just an idle choice.  It’s the freedom to be our authentic selves, not to make idle choices.

 

This is why (as is noted in the curriculum Articulating Your Faith) it is not that UU’s believe whatever they want to believe, but rather believe what they must.  We are a tradition of free-minds, hearts, and souls, seeking to grow into our own authentic faith in a community of love, hope, and freedom.

To be true to oneself is a far more challenging proposition than the phrase “believe what you want” can ever represent.

 

A Few Awesome UU Women

In honor of International Women’s Day (March 8th), here are a few awesome Unitarian, Universalist, or Unitarian Universalist women you should tell your kids about:

1.  Susan B. Anthony (Unitarian and Quaker)

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2.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton

3.  Judith Sargent Murray

4.  Julia Ward Howe

5.  Lydia Maria Child

6.  Olympia Brown

7.  Margaret Fuller

These were all women who were born before women could vote in this country.  They were born in an era that did not respect women’s independence and intelligence, but they did not accept that as the way things had to be.  Many of the rights and opportunities that we enjoy now as women and girls owe much to the efforts of these women who came before us.

For a more kid-friendly version of this story, you could read this story from Tapestry of Faith to your children tomorrow.  And then you could also discuss some of these current women’s equality issues as well.

Happy Women’s Day!

Water Communion

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Many Unitarian Universalist congregations mark the late summer/early fall with a Water Communion service, which invites everyone to bring water from their summer (travels/journeys/adventures) and pour their water together into a communal bowl.  The symbolism is easy: every drop is important, our individual life streams flow into the life of one community, water is in a constant dance around the world and connects us all, water is the essence of life and without it we would not exist.

I really like the Water Communion, but I also recognize that it is not without its difficulties.  A good argument for how it can be classist was written here.  The congregation I serve has (partly) overcome the travelogue by calling people up as though they are coming (symbolically) from one of the four directions or the center.  The music director sings a little “Spirit of the East” call, the celebrant describes the characteristics of that direction (East is the direction of new beginnings , etc.), and anyone who feels they are coming from that direction comes forward and takes their turn pouring their water in and saying a little bit about it.  This encourages folks to mark other things besides world travel: the last water I took from the tap of my home before I sold it to another family, the water from the bottom of my fishing boat, etc.

There is still an element of travelogue, which can be very classist (and it can be long and boring when people ramble, one after another.)  And there is also a note of assumption that we have been “gone” all summer – when in fact our summer services remain well-attended and we even stay at two services per Sunday all through the summer now – but the ritual is from a time when people didn’t come to church in the summer.

 

And yet, despite those difficulties, I still like the water communion. (Perhaps because it’s one of the only worship services I get to attend all year?)

 

Like a drop of water, joining a stream and flowing to the ocean, we come together to join our lives in community.

Curriculum Review: Heart Talk

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I’ve just finished a week of “Peace Camp” for 7-10 year olds for my congregation.  A co-teacher and I led this day camp for 15 kids, using the curriculum “Heart Talk” for the spine of our lessons.

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It’s a non-violent communications curriculum, set up for pre-1st grade, 2nd-4th grade, or 5th-7th grade. Conflict-management and communication skills are one of my main goals for the children and youth (part of what I’m starting to think of as our “values-based community life skills”), so I was delighted to find this curriculum.

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Overall, we were impressed with it.  The lessons were thoughtful and by building up to conflict by first talking about feelings, judgements, needs, requests, and empathy it avoids the problem I find in a lot of conflict lessons for kids – that the kids are asked to jump straight into a conflict scenario and frequently seem to just enjoy the idea of the conflict rather than work to solve it.  Those sort of “what would you do if someone did x, y, or z to you?” scenario games have never felt effective to me, although some kids do enjoy them.  Heart Talk focuses on a deeper understanding of what leads us to act the way we do, which I appreciate.

Sometimes the kids complained that the lessons were “boring”, and I did wish for a few more “fun” games, but it was easy enough to add in some drama improv games.  The books used in the curriculum were readily available (a problem with the older curricula and something that will eventually date this program as well, but it’s new enough they are all in print) and good, with the exception of The Indian in the Cupboard which we did not use because of its stereotypes of Native Americans.  Other than that one ill-chosen selection, I thought the other choices were lovely.

So, with just a few minor quibbles (and I always find something to change about anything I use as a teacher, and I know other teachers would find something to change about anything I created – it’s in the nature of teachers to tweak lesson plans to suit themselves), I heartily recommend this as a great resource for other UU religious education programs.

Declaring Our Independence

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For our summer Religious Education program, the kids in RE selected Create a Country.  Yes, they selected the summer program – this is part of the Children’s Annual Meeting here.  The author of this curriculum, or rather “simulation”, gives a barebones outline for how to do this with a group of middle schoolers.  I wanted to do it with an All Ages (but for practical purposes at our church in the summer that means preschool-6th grade) class, so I’ve adapted it a lot.

Today was the second class, and we wrote a “Declaration of Independence” at each service.  It was so much fun to hear what the kids thought was wrong with the country as it is!

First Service:

We, the children of the UU church, do not want to live in the United States anymore.  These are our least favorite things about the U.S.:

1.  Parents Make Us Eat Vegetables

2.  Unfair Jail Rules and Too Many People in Jail

3. Capital Punishment and Executing People

4.  Racism

5.  Obama Didn’t Answer my Letter and All I got was a Form Reply

6.  Government Doesn’t care About Us Kids

7.  Not Enough Polka Dot Walls

8.  We Don’t Want to Be at War Anymore

And that is why we are declaring independence.

 

Second Service:

We, the people of the UU church, declare that we aren’t active enough and need to be more active.  We sit too much and eat too many hot dogs, and that is not right.  And we pledge to peace and community.  We need to share food, and put less sugar in our food.  We pledge to be less spoiled.  And we want more polka dot walls and pokemon and Hello Kitty.  Small crimes do not deserve the punishment of prison.  We must not have racism because it is a horrible thing that discriminates against equal rights.  Discrimination based on religion is horrible and we should not do it.  Gay and Lesbian people should be equal to straight people.  Lastly, nothing is worth killing and the death penalty should be erased.

 

There was debate on different points, and a few times it was settled by majority vote.  We had volunteers read our Declarations for a video which will be shown in a worship service at the end of the summer, when the new “countries” we create will be the topic of the service.  I’m really enjoying this program so far!