The Day After (They Are Watching)

It’s the day after, and which ever people you supported in the elections, we have a bit of calm after that big storm of ads, debates, predictions, and hype. (Can I get an “Amen” ?)

Now for the real work.

Our children are with us, watching and listening, seeing how we act in these crucial first days after the election. Do we gloat about our candidates winning? Do we bash the winners and tear apart their characters? Do we show the grace and good “sportsmanship” that we wish our children to have. Are we modeling how to build bridges with our former opponents, working toward a better future?

Olympic cyclists put rivalries aside

Our congregation is made up of very diverse people, with divergent theological ideas and also a multitude of political ideas. It is easy for us to begin to think that we are all alike in our politics, but let’s refrain from generalizations about the election results. Take care to be radically inclusive in our words and actions this week- and all weeks.

Unitarian Universalists come in different shapes and sizes, with many theological beliefs and political leanings. Our strength comes from the love and understanding we seek together. Each of us has a piece of truth to offer.

There is a saying, ” We have two ears and one mouth, because we should listen twice as much as we speak.” Let’s listen to each other. Let’s hear the great ideas all of us have to lead the country on a path of love and justice.

This week our Chalice Circle worship will focus on our fifth principle, which in simple language says,

“We believe everyone deserves a say about the things that concern them.”

We will discuss why democracy is important to Unitarian Universalists. We will think about the elections and being considerate of diverse political beliefs. Come, let us worship together!

Mind the Gap

This is -more or less- the homily I delivered in the June 3 Bridging Service.  I wanted to post it for folks who couldn’t be there:

It is a time of year for endings and beginnings. We say goodbye to one phase of life while ushering in a new one. Next week, we will be saying goodbye to our interim minister, John Nichols, who has shepherded us through the transition time of searching for a new minister. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we had guidance for all the unknown experiences or difficult transitions of our lives? A spiritual Sherpa?

We often think of life as a journey, an exciting adventure. Our odyssey as people of faith has many twists and turns. This same imagery also often used to describe our process of faith development.

James Fowler is a renowned professor of theology and human development, whose description of the stages of human faith development are influential in churches and writing religious education curricula. He drew on the work of Piaget and Kohlberg, to establish a model that marks the faith development of children from baby through adult.
Someday, I would like to preach more about these stages, but for today, I will sum them up in a few lines.

According to Fowler, children first follow the beliefs of their parents. As they reach later elementary years,  a growing sense of morality, justice and the importance of mythic symbology and story drives spiritual learning. Which corresponds to our use of stories and social action projects in our RE classes.

A progression generally occurs as children become adolescents – where youth become more focused on their peers, synthesizing their beliefs to a communal ideal. An important stage, where youth groups can be a positive and influential force. It’s also a vulnerable time, when youth can be lured toward cults or repressive influences of group thinking.

Some people stay mired in this stage throughout life. Others find their way to challenging once accepted dogma or a conventional faith, questioning everything and exploring an individual understanding of life’s big questions. The traveler takes personal responsibility for her beliefs. There is an openness to a new complexity of faith, but this also increases an awareness of conflicts in one’s beliefs. It is a very common stage for adults to be in when they first find our Unitarian Universalist church.

Some folks will keep cruising on the path, seeking commonalities in human experiences. They grasp the paradox and transcendence which are in ours and every faith tradition. Conflicts of belief are replaced by a complex understanding of an interdependent “truth” that cannot be explained by any particular creed. They get less concerned with the details and specifics of religious language and find deeper solace in mysteries and unexplainable spiritual ideas.

Fowler’s supposed ultimate destination of faith development is one where few arrive. A person at this highest level has attained a universal understanding of religion, where  self and the universe are one, indistinguishable. Some would describe the Buddha or Jesus as people who exemplify the Universalizing stage.

Now that we have heard a little about those stages, I need to say something very important: the stages are simply labels. What do we know about labels?- that they are not useful for people. Labels are good for cans of soup- but not for people!

Our faith journey is not a European tour, with an itinerary of famous landmarks, we don’t pick up a magnet for each completed faith stage! Instead our journey is a meandering thing. Our path doubles back and spirals around in all sorts of interesting byways. A person’s  faith development can not be judged by their age. Each of us is traveling at our own pace, coming to our own knowing of the world which happens beyond any sort of linear timeline or simple progression. Haven’t you known small children who seem to come into this world with great wisdom beyond their years? Or adults who can get “stuck”, refusing to consider new ideas?

Some of our youth, who have been pursuing their faith development for years, may be more spiritually advanced than a one of our more recent adult members. I’m not saying that faith is a race with frontrunners, We have no gold medal for enlightenment here. I am saying that what we are doing here every week is amazing and important. No matter what our age, religious education is giving time and energy to growing our spirits. Each time we figure out another piece of what it means to be human, we are making our life journey easier.

That is one of the great things about a Unitarian Universalist religious Education. At its best, a child can gather information and experiences to grow and develop, finding areas of nuance, being encouraged to question and trust their beliefs. I often hear adults say, “I wish I had Unitarian Universalism to help guide me when I was younger!” Sadly, not all of our youth stay in our congregation or in Unitarian Universalism. There are many complex reasons for this sparsely populated land between our coming of age youth and the adults finding their way to Channing.

I am reminded of stepping off the subway- and hearing that cautionary phrase, “Mind the gap!” Which is a shorthand way to let you know that extra care is needed because there is a space between the train car and the platform. It is usually a very small space to span, one that hardly anyone would fall into or get caught in. But it tells you to to pay attention, don’t trip and fall.

There is also a very real gap in here this morning. One that we need to be careful of. It is a generation gap. Imagine folks, the 8th graders here among us, have never known a world without iPods, the internet or space shuttles. The bridging young adults have always had a phone with a electronic ringtone, they have never known a world without personal computers, South Africa has always been an integrated society, Richard Nixon, Jackie Onassis and Kurt Cobain have always been dead.

These cultural differences hint at other ways that the Millenials operate and think differently than the Veteran Generation, Baby Boomers and Generation X . Recognizing this gap is crucial to our survival as Unitarian Universalists. Or rather what we do with the gap is important. We can just let that gap widen, increasing until the chasm is too wide, and we become isolated. OR we can build bridges, spanning our differences, learning about each other and finding ways to connect.

The  bridging ceremonies we perform today are more than just rites of passage that connect one phase of life to another. They are also a vital link between the past, the present, and future. A link that unifies our multi-generational faith as a beloved community of spirit, justice, and love. However, we will not have arrived once we cross this bridge, our journey continues!

Remember my plea for a spiritual sherpa? I am quite confident that we have seen and unseen help along the way. It has taken many generations before us, smoothing the road, so we can enjoy “a free and responsible search for truth.” All their efforts bringing us to this moment in time , the celebration of this day.  A path ahead will be explored by the children and youth with us here today. Not in some distant year, because the youth are not just our future, they are the NOW.  Each action we take of connection and love narrows the gap that stands between us. We build a bridge practicing community, faith, learning, prayer, music, and presence.

May these people and practices be our guides, through the rough terrain of life. We raise amazing young people here! And we raise amazing adults, too! May we build bridges between our divisions. May we enjoy the wisdom and personality of our companions of all ages! May we share the fire of commitment that burns in our hearts beyond these walls! And then may our promise find fulfillment, and our future begin.

Knowing is Always Communal

Some folks are drawn to teaching. These lucky folks know that one of the absolutely best ways to expand your own faith is to lead an RE class. Whether in a class with preschoolers, elementary age kids, or youth,  exploring the ideas and stories central to Unitarian Universalism allows teachers to find a piece of their own truth.

I have seen all sorts of people become excellent RE teachers. New teachers often come to me unsure and worried that they “don’t know how” to teach a class. More important than teaching technique, is the ability of religious education teachers to share of themselves in relationship to the participants in a religious education program. We as a congregation need to help the development of a “faith-filled” teacher, not just people with specific techniques, strategies, and procedures.

Parker Palmer writes in Courage to Teach:

If we want to grow as teachers, we must learn to talk to each other about our inner lives, our own identity and integrity.
Knowing is always communal. Knowing is a human way to seek relationship, to have encounters and exchanges that will alter us.
To teach is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced.

This year, we are refining the teaching experience at Channing. Emphasizing the faith development inherent in the act of leading an RE class. Highlighting the positive aspects of being in the class, the personal growth advantages, as well as the way teaching helps the good of our community. There are volunteer opportunities for folks who want to teach a lot, and folks who want to help with less time commitment.

Each season (Fall, Winter, and Spring) there will be a Lead Teacher to organize lessons in each class with help from our DRE and RE Committee. Each lead teacher will teach 9 Sundays. So that means we need 12 lead teachers for the year. These Lead Teachers deserve the respect of the entire congregation for the important role they play in our congregation’s health and vitality!

Supporting the Lead Teachers are Assistant Teachers. An Assistant will be in the class each week, helping as needed. Each assistant will be in the classroom over the course of the year 6 Sundays. So that means we need 20 assistants for the year.

We are now signing up both Lead Teachers and Assistants for next year’s classes. If you would like to expand your faith development, get to know some amazing and curious UU’s, and make a difference to your congregation, please contact Halcyon to find out more!


In Just Spring

When I was a little girl I would often walk the yard with my mother. As soon as it was warm enough to be outside without a coat, we would slowly walk around the yard, noting the progress of the bulbs and other flowers. She with a coffee cup in hand, me trailing along beside her.

We would walk a few steps, stop, admire….she’d tell me the latin names for whatever plant we were near…we would walk a couple more steps, and stop…she would gesture with her hands how tall some shrub would eventually be in 2 or 3 years time and how this nearby evergreen would some day fill in the fence and hide the neighbor’s ugly electric meter…then we would walk a bit farther and my Mom would be still and silent. I could see from her familiar drifty gaze that she was envisioning a carpet of blue tiny flowers that would spread from the few plants now showing. My role was to say, “Ooh! ….Ahh!” at the appropriate times.

From my earliest memories it was like this, sometimes I walked around and tried to take in the information she was sharing…but the greatest gift I got from these walks was a religious education. It was entrancing to be with her, to learn the vision of a gardener.

Thich Nhat Hanh tells us:

“In April, we cannot see sunflowers in France, so we might say the sunflowers do not exist. But the local farmers have already planted thousands of seeds, and when they look at the bare hills, they may be able to see the sunflowers already. The sunflowers are there. They lack only the conditions of sun, heat, rain and July. Just because we cannot see them does not mean that they do not exist.”

Gardeners are perhaps the most successful optimists in the world. Gardeners are people of faith, ones who see beauty and hope where none currently exists. It is easy for most of us to lose sight of the warmer, more plentiful times of year in the fall, when plants are dying back and the sun is retreating. Through the grey and icy winter- how do we keep hope alive? Gardeners do it by securing a promise of bright days under the soil.

As we mark the beginning of Spring- the bulbs we planted in our fall gardens are coming up now- some are even blooming. We are turning the soil in our vegetable patches, preparing to plant for the future. Sure the ground seems bare, but there is great potential and a renewal of what we know is good, and that hope carries us through until colorful blooms and plentiful harvests fill our senses.

The stories of resurrection make a lot of sense in the spring. People have found ways to pass along the wisdom of knowing that even in the darkest of times, there is hope for the future. Hope that we all carry around inside, just like a seed carries all the potential of a sunflower.

(A message delivered to Channing Memorial Church on March 25, 2012. By Halcyon Westall)


Why Bother With Multigens?

Some of the things we do at church are easy to understand. We have classes for children and youth to provide developmentally appropriate understanding of our faith. We have Small Groups to give folks an intimate way to explore ideas together- especially as our membership grows- so we can get to know each other on a deeper level. But some folks recently asked me why we have multigenerational worship? Why is multigenerational worship essential to Channing, to faith development, and to the future of Unitarian Universalism?

Let me back up- What is a Multigenerational service? That is a worship service where all ages are together in the service for the whole time. We used to call those “intergenerational”, but then realized that we have up to SIX generations in the room, so we better make the term more inclusive, since “intergenerational” suggests exchange between two generations only. Our Multigenerational Services (or “Multigens”) usually happen around big holidays (Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving) or times of special significance for our congregation (Ingathering, Flower Celebration, Celebration Sunday) occurring about once a month.

These services are planned with great consideration. Worship planners work together to find a balance of content that speaks to people young and older. Our goal is not to “dumb down” the service to a Second Grade level, but to make different parts of the service accessible to different types of understanding… some for adult, some for youth, so that no one is left out.

Multigens are important so everyone has the opportunity to worship together. How can we be in relationship if we do not spend time celebrating together? How can children and youth learn how we “do” church if they aren’t in the room?  How can Unitarian Universalism continue, if our children don’t experience what being an adult Unitarian Universalist looks like?

Lest you think that only the children benefit in this arrangement, think again. A multigen service explores different learning styles. Lots of adults enjoy using movement, song and story in worship. Multigen services tend to incorporate shorter elements into the hour, creating a dynamic flow. The traditional model of adult worship is one that has been successful for several generations, but times change, and the younger generations of adults as well as our children, are looking for a different structure.

All this is good for us to know and explains why we offer multigens. But folks- here’s the part that’s hard to hear: It really doesn’t matter if we have the best, most fulfilling multigen worship ever … if you don’t show up. I guess there are several kinds of people who are not coming to multigens:

  • Parents who are worried their kid will wiggle or be bored.

Be there. Yes- your kid might get bored. So what? We have kids do all manner of boring things- most of which are far less worthwhile than worship. Kids learn how to be in the service very quickly. There’s also the chance they will enjoy it! With our crazy lives it is hard to find an hour to share as a family. Don’t miss this one.

  • Older adults who are “done” with young children.

Really? This is a church, not a retirement village or a social club. Being with younger people enriches your life and makes you happier. Being exposed to new ways of approaching life’s big questions is why we are involved at Channing.  Be open to what you can learn from children.

  • People who think Mutigenerational is code for “Worship Lite”.

Show up anyway. Planners work hard to try to make multigenerational worship meaningful, not empty. The more we practice mutigen worship together and receive your feedback, the better we can meet the needs of everyone in the room. Boycotting multigens doesn’t help at all. Not attending is letting down your community.

OK- that’s my frank (perhaps frustrated by low attendance?) words about why you should come to our multigen services. Here’s some inspiring words as well from A Unitarian Universalist Minister In The South‘s blog:

Why Multigenerational Worship?

Because the more opportunities we have to relate to people who see the world from a different point of view the better we are at being able to function in a multi-cultural and pluralist society.

Because science has told us that the presence of children raises the chemicals in our adult bodies that produce the desire to nurture, to have compassion, and to have empathy for the other.

Because it is important for adults to have a glimpse at the future through our children in a worship setting.

Because the expressions of joy, of sorrow, of celebration, of grief, of transcendence are different in people of different ages and to see them expressed in multiple ways is expressing the fullness of our humanity.

Because our society has fractured the family into so many divided segments that to worship multi-generationally is a counter-culture act to reclaim what is being lost.

Because children help our seniors remain connected and vital.  There is nothing like witnessing a spontaneous hug from a child with an elderly person of 90 plus years and seeing the elder’s eyes light up.

Because children benefit from getting to know other adults who are not their parents by participating in the multi-generational choir and other worship activities.

Because children learn the importance of coming together as a worship community where all are valued for who they are.

Because children learn they are not just on display when they are in the full service like they could be when they are only allowed to be in part of the service and then ceremoniously ushered out.

The Traveling Chalice and Sanctuary Chalice

See you Sunday, folks!

Making It Up As We Go Along?

Continuing our theme of Creativity, our Chalice Circle last week focused on creative storytelling. It was a simple lesson, but one with much laughter! Using improvisational storytelling, each person in the circle added a few lines to a spontaneous story, making it up as we went along. What began with a girl and her stamp collection, soon turned to exploding pickles and alligators and all sorts of wild elements with two endings.

The concepts I hoped the children took away from this were:

  • connection to their bubbling creativity
  • thinking about storytelling as connected to faith (these two classes are using Bible based curricula this year and learning about Jewish and Christian stories)
  • connection to each other
  • a feeling of safety, as our church is a place to experiment and stretch our ideas together

Did I tell the children that these were my goals? No.

Do I worry that they didn’t “get” the lesson I had in mind? No way!

The circle I was lucky to be a part of last week was totally embodying all these concepts and more! That is the beauty of our Religious Education program. The children, youth and adults are doing church with each interaction, each caring conversation, each ribbon glued, coin collected or bulb planted. Our groups are in constant relationship, interchanging ideas, information and personalities which gives practice for responding to the world as Unitarian Universalists.

SO even when is seems that over in RE, we are just laughing and being silly, there is a whole lot more going on. And it is good.

Creativity in Religious Education

This year, the theme for our Chalice Circle worship is Creativity. Each month, we will explore a new aspect of spirituality and the creative process.  Creativity in music, movement, prayer, art and service. I am inspired to weave together this theme I see in this year’s curricula, You the Creator, Super Heroes Bible People and Bibleodeon. While the theme of Creativity is explicit in You the Creator, the Bible curricula might at first seem less concerned with creativity.

As Unitarian Universalists, we understand the Hebrew and Christian Bibles as a creative response by people to the necessity of making meaning out of their lives. The people who passed down the oral traditions and later wrote the books of the Bible had different needs expressed in each book, some as historical record, others as teaching tools, and still others as poetry. Each trying to stir a response from the reader, furthering the reader’s process of faith. Like those ancient people, we are still making meaning in our lives. Each day begins anew the creative process of living.

In his Tapestry of Faith curricula, “Making Music Live”, musician Nick Page writes,

“We are all creative. Making a shopping list is a creative act. Conversation is a creative act. …  I see creativity from a spiritual perspective. In his epic poem, “No More Secondhand God,” Unitarian Universalist thinker Buckminster Fuller said, “God is a verb, not a noun.” …We normally think the word table describes a noun, but a table is actually made up of billions of whirling atoms in the act of being a table; from this perspective, table is a verb. This concept requires a paradigm shift. You go from seeing the earth as a planet with life on it (in other words, a noun) to seeing the earth as a living planet (a verb). The verb that is the universe is constantly evolving. The universe is creative. We take after our universe, but there’s more. The universe is also compassionate, what scientist Brian Swimme calls “the ultimate compassion.” The act of creativity, the act of making the world a more beautiful place, is a compassionate act. It is our gift to each other. “

If a traditional idea of RE is rote memorization or empty craft projects, please know that’s not what we are about in UU Religious Education. We want to help our children and youth strengthen their own creative powers. This is our gift. We seek to give them ideas, tools and space to experiment, risk and ask questions. We show and tell them what we know, then empower them to build on that base. We support creativity in Religious Education to help children and youth develop their own response human life. These amazing young people will grow up to be the creative thinking adults shaping our world!


Progress Looks Like Our Youth

Several years ago, our middle schoolers on a Sunday morning looked like this:

(Were are they?  Well, there IS no picture, because there were no middleschoolers around on Sunday mornings!)

Yes, it’s true, we had a solid OWL program for 7th and 8th grade, but it was rare to spot the elusive Junior High Youth in RE Classes.  There are many complicated reasons for this, but I do not want to focus on them. I would rather bring the celebratory news that times have changed!

Here’s what the middle school group looks like now:






Thanks to the long term thinking and caring of MANY adults combined with the great attitudes of youth I am so happy to say there is a blossoming youth program at Channing both on Sunday mornings and for OWL!

The group is full of terrific, energetic and thoughtful youth who care about each other and this community.

Thanks to everyone who has chaperoned, taught, assisted, been a mentor, bought cookies at fundraisers, voted for additions to the youth budget and lent your energy to this growth!

Yes, the numerical growth is great, but the growth in faith development is really remarkable. The youth group held a cottage meeting for the Minister Search last week. On the whole, the youth had well thought ideas about what is important to them as Channing moves into this next phase. This great group. I heard laughter. I saw welcoming of new members. I witnessed maturity in bridging the differences between 6th and 8th graders. They understand community.

What can the adults learn from this youth group?

Life Is Unfinished Business

A friend of mine sent me this poem, and I thought perhaps, in this busy time, you might like to read it, too!

Life Is Unfinished Business

written by Richard S. Gilbert

In the midst of the whirling day,

In the hectic rush to be doing,

In the frantic pace of life,

Pause here for a moment.

Catch your breath;

Relax your body;

Loosen your grip on life.

Consider that our lives are always unfinished business;

Imagine that the picture of our being is never complete;

Allow yourself to be a work in progress.

Do not hurry to mold the masterpiece;

Do not rush to finish the picture;

Do not be impatient to complete the drawing.

From beckoning birth to dawning death we are in process,

And always there is more to be done.

Do not let the incompleteness weigh on your spirit;

Do not despair that imperfection marks your every day;

Do not fear that we are still in the making.

Let us instead be grateful that the world is still to be created;

Let us give thanks that we can be more than we are;

Let us celebrate the power of the incomplete;

For life is always unfinished business.

Religious Education According To Ms. Frizzle

An invigorating day at Murray grove Heritage Week!

Today we spent time learning about the first era of religious education for Universalists and Unitarians up to 1900.  Part of our learning was using a lesson from a period catechism.  My group spent time with Judith Sargent Murray’s 1782 catechism, which is a question and answer format lesson which would have been taught in the home by the head of the house.

Judith Sargent Murray

It is so interesting to notice how different the approach to learning was in this early period from our present day Sunday classes!

A most notable difference is that students of the 18th century were not allowed to ask questions about the lesson or interpretations of theology. The focus was memorization and transmission of concepts without individual exploration.

This makes me incredibly thankful that I am a religious educator of the present day!  One of the most dear values of our program is that children, youth and adults are ENCOURAGED to ask questions, mull over the material and consider what has resonance in how to live their lives.

I remember once at age 4 or so being told by a patient mother to stop asking “so many questions1” to which I replied, “But, Mom, how am I going to find out anything if I don’t ask questions??” Most of my greatest understandings of faith have come when I reach out and question.

Let’s explore together!  History, faith development, theology, how to be together…all these topics and more…

Maybe our motto can be (as they say on The Magic Schoolbus):

Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!