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.

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?

What is OWL?  These two young women do a great job describing:

“In OWL you are exploring what goes on in relationships…which is really important at our age… and we learned about all the things that go along with the actual physical what goes on…”



What Turns a Busy Day Into A Great Day?

I had a great day Sunday-

I was pressed for time (as usual!) so I walked into my office, found a template for paper dreidels in my files, copied some off and made an example dreidel for the Preschool-Kindergarten class… and zipped over to the Sanctuary…
Wrote out some announcements to be read in the Sanctuary (and brought in the traveling chalice- and got stopped by the usher for questions and the layleader for other questions)…head back to Channing House…
Got the movie on the Children’s March (how children made a difference in the 1963 Civil Rights Movement) prepped for the Fifth-Sixth grade class…turn on the heat in there!.. gathered teacher binders…and headed over to Parish Hall…
Set up a couple of couple of classrooms, putting away random flotsam that seems to wash up during the week…..check in with the folks in the Re-Gift Store…. paid the childcare gals….got the supplies together for the pencil case making craft (for the schoolbags for Haiti) happening during Fellowship …unlocked the playground….and back to Channing House!
Prepped my notes and handouts for the parent information meeting for Our Whole Lives also happening during Fellowship!….Then I grabbed my notes to help teach the Neighboring Faiths class on Islam, which was an amazing and engaged group…after class, I whisked into the Library to set up for the OWL meeting, including dragging the totally heavy and tippy TV cart from the Fireplace Room and cued that movie.  Ack!  beter try to dash over to Parish Hall for a cuppa coffee!
Drat!  Only decaf left!

Pour a bit before checking in with the Haiti craft….I’m stopped by parents who want to lead a snow tubing evening for the Junior Youth social night- so we plan to check in later…see lots of people I would love to talk to, but knowing I have to get to the OWL meeting I do no more than briefly check in with the teachers and parents I see and move on (with a few stops to help direct adults to meetings here and there)…Have a few unexpected young folks at the OWL meeting, so we gather some Legos and set up for a multi-gen meeting!  A great hour is had with thoughtful parents and leaders- energizing!…  Then quickly clean up and scoot back over to the remainder of the pencil cases craft in Parish Hall!…Great connections with the folks there then clean up and do everything in reverse order to shut down for the day.

Certainly it was much like many of my Sunday mornings at Channing- (quieter than some!) but this one left me especially energized, hopeful and ready to take on more.

SO what made this wild ride of a morning have such a good feeling?  After thinking it over for a couple of days, I think what makes me so blissful is seeing programs come together that have been slowly gathering interest and momentum over the past few years- Elementary OWL and Youth Programs.  Both programs have special meaning to me, and it has been my dream to see both areas of Channing’s ministry grow.  Now it is happening!

In the third year of offering Elementary Our Whole Lives, we have a fourth trained leader and a big class of children who might join.  Even before “official” registration, the class is half full!  Channing has always been a great supporter of Junior High OWL, and we have shown that Elementary OWL is important to us, too!

It is a little more amazing that the youth program is taking flight so strongly.  We are offering Sunday Morning Neighboring Faiths classes, monthly Coming of Age and Social Nights.  There is a lot of overlap in the youth who attend these three parts of the program, so the youth are getting to know one another and make real bonds.  Kim Shute and I are leading all three elements right now, so we get to know the youth well also!  It has been very rewarding.  When I hear a youth ask what we will do next month for social night with an expectant tone and SMILING – well, that’s the best!

I could go on and on, but I’ll keep it short.  Part of me wants to hold on to these happy feelings, but I know it would be healthier for the program for me to share some of this joy with other caring adults, too.  I have LOVED planning lessons on Islam and creating a 6 foot banana split trough, but I need to also have time to administrate lessons and communicate more with our other teachers!  SO I am hoping that this amazing energy can be carried on for the youth…perhaps you are ready to have this busy/happy feeling, too?  Something important is happening at Channing for the youth, something that we can keep going, and building!  I had no idea the youth would be so responsive, so fast to the attention we are paying to their classes and programming.

One of our activities in class was drawing what we envision G-d to look like.  Well, I see G-d in just about everything, and especially in the relationships we people have with each other.  So when I have a day where relationships are strong and vital and since I have had a challenging Fall, I am singing:

What Wondrous Love Is This (Hymn 18 in Singing the Living Tradition)
link to mp3
What wondrous love is this,
O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this
That brings my heart such bliss
And takes away the pain of my soul, of my soul
And takes away the pain of my soul

When I was sinking down,
Sinking down, sinking down,
When I was sinking down, sinking down,
When I was sinking down
Beneath my sorrows ground,
Friends to me gather’d round,
O my soul, O my soul,
Friends to me gather’d round, O my soul

To love and to all friends, I will sing, I will sing,
To love and to all friends, I will sing
To love and to all friends who
Pain and sorrow mend,
With thank unto the end I will sing, I will sing,
With thanks until to the end I will sing.

American Folk Hymn,
New words by Connie Campbell Hart, UUA

The Fountain of Youth, And Why We Need It Back!

>No – I don’t have a secret to end aging…this post is about our young Channing folks, the junior and senior high age Youth.  Quite often I am asked, “Where are the high school kids at Channing?”  That’s a complicated question to answer…

I hear stories about a vibrant senior high group, YRUU (Young Religious Unitarian Universalists) at Channing.  I hear anecdotes about how some years the group has been bigger than others, but always some Youth were around and gathering.  Right now we don’t have a senior high group.  Is there still a place for Youth at Channing?

Our Youth are living in a hard world.   Life is even more fast paced for teens than it is for adults! Youth need time to connect face to face, comforting each other and celebrating each other.  Youth group at its best provides spiritual sustenance, community and fun.  And for youth who might not fit society’s norms, having a safe place to be yourself is essential.

The many suicides of boys and young men around the country this fall has made me realize more than ever that we need to build our youth group at Channing because it will save lives.  A strong youth group of caring peers will counteract brutal bullying that causes our young people to give up hope.  Yes, especially for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth a loving environment is healing, but really all youth benefit from affirming company.

Here’s what Rev. Meg Riley says about our calling to make the world better:

Whatever the reason for the decline of Youth Group at Channing, we have a chance to rebuild our  program and make it stronger than ever!

Now is the time to spend extra energy building the connection of the junior high group of Youth.  These 5th, 6th and 7th graders are excited about Channing and more so about each other.  These junior high youth are ready to spend time together, so let’s give them what they want BEFORE they lose interest!

It is going to take some commitment from parents.  The effort you put in, helping with a social night or driving will be well worth the gains in leadership, friendship and reinforcement of UU values that Youth Group provides.  In just one night a month we can lay the groundwork for a rocking youth group!

I am excited to see what develops!