Practicing Compassion

Our Unitarian Universalist congregations covenant together to affirm and promote 7 principles, one of which is “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.” Too often we focus on the justice and equity component of this principle and forget the compassion piece. Too often we focus on “Justice and equity” while leaving out “compassion.”

In seminary one of my professors challenged us to find compassion in those moments when we were most frustrated. He shared with us that whenever someone cut him off on the highway he would take a deep breath and consider for a moment that perhaps they were in more need of the space in front of him than he was; that perhaps they were rushing to the hospital or to pick up their lost child. He invited us to find a way to connect with a different narrative of their story than what our initial instinct might write. At first I thought this was ridiculous – I couldn’t change the way I felt and acted just by thinking their story might be different than the one I made up in my head. But I quickly discovered it isn’t ridiculous, it actually works. And while I still find myself needing to take a deep breath sometimes, I do find that my life is more robust and spirit-filled when I connect with my sense of compassion.

Author Karen Armstrong writes, “Compassion is not an option. It’s the key to our survival.” I agree with her. Compassion is what helps us to be forgiving in moments of anger and frustration. Compassion can motivate us to help those in need. Compassion can build and enhance our relationships with one another. But how do we live a compassionate life and how do we invite our family and friends to do the same? In her book 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life Armstrong offers us this roadmap:

1.    Learn About Compassion
2.    Look at Your Own World
3.    Compassion for Yourself
4.    Empathy
5.    Mindfulness
6.    Action
7.    How Little We Know
8.    How Should We Speak to One Another?
9.    Concern for Everybody
10.    Knowledge
11.    Recognition
12.    Love Your Enemies

I invite you and your family to join me in living out our faith. It won’t always be easy, but as Armstrong says, “It’s the key to our survival.”

Published in: on 1 March 2014 at 20.34  Leave a Comment  

YRUU classroom poster

Similarly to the poster I made for the younger classes, I’ve made a schedule-of-the-day for our Young Religious Unitarian Universalist group. This helps the facilitators keep a consistent flow from week to week, while also giving flexibility for content changes.

YRUU schedule poster 1

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Published in: on 20 January 2014 at 20.48  Leave a Comment  

Entering the Holiday Frenzy

It seems too easy these days to get pulled into the frenzy of shoppers and traffic, frustrations and impatience. Just yesterday, as I was running my weekly errands, I found myself reach what could have been the end of my patience. It took a deep breath and some good self-restraint to not join in the NASCAR-like racing on the roads and the bumper-shopping cart contest in the stores.

This experience reminded me of how important it is for us to take time to feed our spirits and the spirits of our families. Finding a place of center grounding during this rushed holiday season can make the difference between getting pulled into unnecessary arguments and being forgiving of those who do get pulled in.

During this winter season I encourage you and your family to find a spiritual practice that helps ground you together in love. Perhaps it will be to light a chalice at the beginning of the day? Or take a moment at the end of the day to share that for which you are grateful? Perhaps it will be to find some quiet moments to meditate or stretch your body? Or curl up to read an inspiring book? Perhaps it will be playing a game with a loved one? Or knit your next project? Perhaps it will be writing in a journal centering? Or playing a musical instrument? Perhaps you will take a long run? Or come to church on a Sunday morning?

Whatever it is that brings you an inner sense of calm and collectedness, I encourage you to take extra moments during this holiday season and do so. Perhaps like me, you have moments when you just can’t imagine finding the time. I’ve learned that those moments are the moments when I most need to find the time. For without that sense of center I am most disconnected from my values and most at risk to act in ways that I will later regret.

May you find your center and renew your spirit so that you can share with the world your best self.

Published in: on 13 November 2013 at 20.32  Leave a Comment  

Giving to the Church

Not long ago I attended church with a friend and hir family. We enjoyed sitting through the service together, singing the hymns (challenging each other to sing without the hymnal), listening to the sermon, pulling out our wallets to get our money for the offering and worshipping in community. This probably doesn’t sound as remarkable as it felt to me – many of you do this every Sunday morning. What made it remarkable for me was that my friend and worship companion is a 4-year old.

As we were eating breakfast in the morning, ze reminded me that we needed to bring our wallets to church. Ze was concerned that ze didn’t have enough money in hir wallet to give to the offering in the Sanctuary and the one during hir Religious Education class.

I was touched by my friend’s desire to attend church on Sunday morning. And I recall ze was enthusiastic the night before; talking about going with hir parents, discussing what ze liked about worship and Sunday School class and looking forward to seeing “church friends.”

Later that day I asked hir parents how it was that ze was so thoughtful about attending church. The response seems simple enough once you hear it – they began taking hir to church from the beginning. They taught hir that sitting through service was not optional; it is one of the ways that we live our faith and provides a grounding moment during the chaos that we call life. On the ride home and during the week they refer back to what they and ze is learning in church, encouraging each other to put what they’ve learned into practice in their everyday lives.

As ze was aging they began discussing the lessons of our religion at home, including hir in their conversations about what Unitarian Universalism means in their lives. They shared their appreciation for a community that helped them to struggle with and clarify what they personally believed about life, death and everything in-between. They discussed being a part of a larger community where they can celebrate and grieve and engage in the world with others who believe similarly to them. They taught hir that giving to the church, both on Sunday morning offerings and the annual canvass was essential, not because it keeps the place running but because it gives them a sense of stewardship for this special place; that it is an extension of the love they feel for the place, Unitarian Universalism’s saving message and their religious community. They invited hir to consider doing the same.

I invite you to take time in the weeks ahead to talk with your family about what coming to church means to you. And I wish for each of you the feeling of enthusiasm that my worship companion shared with me.

Published in: on 13 October 2013 at 20.30  Leave a Comment  

The theme for October is Pride

The theme for October is Pride. Pride is an interesting topic to struggle with. Should we discuss the things for which we take pride? Or the challenges of being too proud? What about the things for which we are ashamed, is this the inverse of pride? Does what we are proud of change the conversation about pride?

I have been proud to be a Unitarian Universalist for as long as I can remember. I think it started in kindergarten when I finally managed to memorize the spelling of our faith’s name. My pride deepened in elementary school when I could articulate the idea that our faith revolved around a covenant between people. And it deepened further when in junior high, as the HIV/AIDS pandemic hit the mainstream news and my church’s “About Your Sexuality” class taught us accurate information about how the virus spread, which I was then happy to share with my classmates at school. My pride in Unitarian Universalism has been present each time members of our faith stand up to a bully and speak out for justice.

But the times I have been most proud of our faith have been those moments when I witness individual Unitarian Universalists making connections with each other and with the world-at-large. It is in those moments when one of us is struggling and another reaches out to offer a helping hand that I am most proud. It is in those times of trial and triumph when we help one another make meaning out of our experiences. I feel pride when after difficult interactions we are able to come back to the conversation to again find common ground, perhaps even offering one another forgiveness for not living up to our best selves.

My pride in Unitarian Universalism is really a pride for the people who practice our faith. It is for the many of you, who come to services and Religious Exploration week after week, allowing the messages of our faith to seep deep into your soul. My pride is for those of us who strive to live out our faith in all we do, even when the world around us challenges us to take an easier path. May you find Pride in your faith and may it fill you with connections to each other.

Published in: on 23 September 2013 at 20.21  Leave a Comment  

RE classroom schedule poster

I spent time this past week designing a visual schedule to put in the Religious Exploration program’s class spaces. We wanted something that helped to remind everyone in the class what the order of the day should be. We also wanted to make sure that those who couldn’t read would be able to follow the schedule. The poster below is what I came up with, designed to be printed on 11×17 paper, though we’re considering blowing them up to full poster size.

classroom schedule poster new

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Published in: on 15 September 2013 at 21.44  Leave a Comment  

Repost from Lake Chalice: What Has Queer Theory Done For You Lately?

Lake Chalice has a wonderful blog post addressing identity, theory and is quite timely.  I share it with you in celebration of National Coming Out Day 2011: http://lakechalice.blogspot.com/2011/10/what-has-queer-theory-done-for-you.html

Published in: on 10 October 2011 at 22.54  Leave a Comment  

Mmm…Goodness!

Keynote address given to the St. Lawrence District Assembly on 30 April 2011

I want to start with a story Unitarian Universalist religious educator Barbara Marshman told my Mom, Carol Greve, who told me…

At the edge of the forest stood a large squat toadstool. Next to him grew a spindly plant about the same height with four leaves.

One day the toadstool said to his companion, “Hey Skinny, I’ve been watching you. Tell me this – how come when somebody kicks a toadstool, we fall all to pieces. But when someone steps on you, you can straighten right up again as good as new?”

The skinny plant thought for a while, and then answered, “I guess it’s because I have something down under the ground called roots. They go down deep and when I get stepped on I just hang on tight with my roots until I’m all right again.”

“Hey, that’s a great idea,” said the toadstool. “How do you go about getting these roots?”

“Wellllll,” said his friend slowly, “it takes a long time. I’ve been growing mine for almost a year.”

“A year!” shouted the toadstool, “Who has got that kind of time! A whole year growing something that you can’t even see! Roots may be handy, but that’s the silliest waste of time I ever heard.” And he laughed and laughed.

Finally, he said to his forest friend, “By the way Spindly, when you’ve got all your fancy roots grown, what do you expect to be?”

The Spindly plant seemed to grow taller as he spoke. “Do you see that tallest oak tree standing against the winds on the top of that hill? That’s my mother and someday I’m going to be strong and tall just like her.”

A deep religious faith is like the deep roots of the oak tree. It helps to give us strength to weather the storms of life. Engaging in Multigenerational Multiculturalism requires that we cultivate our roots so that as the ground shakes and we sway, there is still something to which we can hold on.

In hir book, Exile and Pride Eli Clare writes “Gender reaches into disability; disability wraps around class; class strains against abuse; abuse snarls into sexuality; sexuality folds on top of race… everything finally piling into a single human body. To write about any aspect of identity, any aspect of the body, means writing about this entire maze. This I know, and yet the question remains: where to start? Maybe with my own white skin, stubbly red hair, left ear pierced, shoulders set slightly off center, left riding higher than right, hands tremoring, traced with veins, legs well-muscled. Or with me in the mirror, dressing to go out, knotting my tie, slipping into my blazer, curve of hip and breast vanishing beneath my clothes. Or possibly with the memory of how my body felt swimming in the river, chinook fingerlings nibbling at my toes. There are a million ways to start, but how do I reach beneath the skin?”[1]

Where do we start? For some of us, identity is an intensely personal piece of the puzzle that makes up who we are. It is the badge we carry on our sleeves and with our bodies and can not put down. For some of us we have not yet had to think about how we would identify ourselves and our bodies. We have had the privilege of moving through life “fitting in” with the dominant paradigms. For some of us, our identities are defined with labels that others have put upon us; described by words we would not have chosen but have learned to embrace and make our own.

Regardless of what our personal identities are, we all know that navigating the maze of identity labeling can be difficult. What do you call me? What do I call you? Which word or words do I use so that I honor all of who you are? How will I know when I’ve stumbled upon the correct terminology? Will I offend you if I don’t always get it right? Why does language matter so much? Where can I buy the Official Handbook of Identity Terminology?

Words matter. Many of us have labels that do not do justice to our true identities. The words give us power – the power to name ourselves and our own identity. This is important. Too often that power is taken away from the oppressed. Too often identity goes unnamed and individuals are left feeling isolated and without community.

As a child, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t grow up to be the guy that I am today. I’ve known my gender since I was in kindergarten, but back then, and as I was growing up, I never heard the word “transgender.” I saw no reflections of myself in mainstream media or elsewhere in my life. I struggled with how to describe what I knew inside was a truth: my gender wasn’t like the two options everyone else fit into. And because I had no language to describe what I knew, I felt very isolated and alone. I had nowhere to go and no one to talk to. It was over a decade later that I learned about the multiplicity of gender and the importance of labels.

The words we use to label our identities are sometimes more important than the very identity itself. Language can give us power. It can give us the opportunity to name ourselves and find others like us. But the label is not the end of the journey.

In the time since I was in kindergarten my gender and sexual orientation have been labeled: Girl, Woman, Lesbian, Transgender, Transgender Lesbian, Straight Man, Transgender guy, Bisexual, Queer, and Other. They are but some of the many labels; identities I have been in my lifetime. Alone, none of them adequately describe me. Together, with the labels that define my race, ability, class, and other aspects of whom I am; together they offer a glimpse of who I was at a particular moment in time.

This multiplicity of my identity offers a snapshot of who I was, who I am, and who I am becoming. My identity does not exist in isolation, because few of us exist in isolation. We seek out communities of people like ourselves, and in those communities we find common language to name ourselves. What I call you and what you call me is not only about the words – the labels, it is also about the relationship between who I am and who you are and who we are together.

Where do we start? Eli Clare reminds us that “There are a million ways to start, but how do [we] reach beneath the skin?”[2] We can reach beneath the skin by telling our stories and learning each others’ stories. We can pay attention to the words we use. And we can create common language together.

It is important to start any conversation about multiculturalism by understanding and more importantly, acknowledging our own identities and social locations because it is never possible to fully remove them from our perceptions and experiences. So we must be aware of them, knowing that some influence our understanding of our experiences in the world, some grant us more privilege than others, and some cause us more difficulty than others.

Howard Thurman writes in his book The Search for Common Ground, “I have always wanted to be me without making it difficult for you to be you.”[3] Much as I like the sentiment behind Thurman’s comments, I’m not sure it is possible. I know that as I have become clearer and more open about my own identities, I have made it difficult for others to be themselves. And likewise, the more I have learned about other identities, the more I am aware of privileges I am granted, privileges which sometimes I need to be willing to give up to in order to help bring about the complicated world I desire. The world Deane referred to last night – The world where Paradise is here and now.

So where do we start? We start by recognizing who we each are… by sharing our identities and social locations as individuals and learning one another’s passions. I am an “out” transgender queer guy of mixed race, complicated family dynamics, and a life-long Unitarian Universalist. I live with learning disabilities and a deteriorating body. I live in a physical world and society that constantly reminds me that if I am to survive it will be at my own effort, for the world on its own is not moving fast enough to embrace my fullness.

While my particularities may be unique to me, I am not alone in my location; you are not alone in your location. Unitarian Universalism teaches us that relationship is at the core of connections. Our faith teaches us that learning to understand and affirm the differences between us will enhance our relationships.

But this is not easily done, particularly when the present understanding of difference “defines it as absolute otherness, mutual exclusion, categorical opposition.”[4] Such an understanding leads to a conceptualization of those who are different as outsiders, with those belonging to the dominant group having the power to decide what is normative (themselves) and what is deviant (others). As long as this continues to be the prevalent understanding, there is no possibility of having just personal relationships or of creating just societal structures that will not benefit some groups at the expense of others.

Thus it becomes doubly important that when we engage in relationships with people whose lived experience is different from our own, we are careful to do so in ways that do not further this act of “other-izing.” This is particularly difficult to do when we know that personal stories are one of the best ways for people to understand oppression and privilege.

For those of us that benefit form society’s favor and privileges, we are often not aware of the existence of certain types of ‘otherness,’ which in turn suggests that we may not be aware of that aspect of our own identity. This is ok as long as we are willing to be open to learning new things about ourselves, knowing that our process of learning may be uncomfortable for all involved.

For example, my friend Jane is of European-American descent and shared with me that it was not until she began to do anti-racism work that she was even aware of her own “whiteness.” Like us, Jane lives in a society that favors Euro-centric ethnicities over other ethnicities. Before engaging in anti-racism work and because her ethnicity placed her in the dominant group, she never had to become aware of this aspect of her identity. As a result, her encounters with People of Color prior to doing anti-racism work both ignored and minimized the whole person and prohibited her from having “just personal relationships.” Conversely, those she was encountering likewise were prohibited from having “just relationships” with her.

In Jane’s anti-racism work, she attended a training where a small group of People of [some] Color[s] sat in front of the training group and shared their experiences living life where they were not of the dominant ethnicity and/or race. It was in hearing of the pain, suffering and unfair injustices each person had experienced based on their skin color, ethnicity and race that moved Jane towards beginning to analyze the structures of racism and White-Supremacy found within the United States of America.

Jane needed to hear of the pain and suffering the ‘other’ had experienced before she could acknowledge her own privilege and contribution to that pain and suffering. For her, it was a necessity in the equation towards a true encounter with the ‘other.’ And that makes sense – many of us here today have probably had similar experiences.

Accountable relationships require that we also understand the other side of the equation. We need to consider what the ‘other’s’ encounter with us is like.

Bodies

            Transgender artist and photographer, Aiden writes “When you’re gay it can be scary to hold hands in public, but there is an understanding of the gay community. I’m trans and it makes people uncomfortable in a whole other way. It’s different than being thought of as a tomboy or lesbian; people look at me and they aren’t sure what I am. They stare and point and whisper.[5]

While I’m sure that none of you would stare and point and whisper, Aiden’s reminder that transgender and genderqueer people are constantly objectified by the larger society is an important one to hold on to. It happens on the street, at sites of employment, in the classrooms, and in religious institutions. Transgender and genderqueer people are tokenized and expected to teach the wider communities about their existence and “issues.” In the name of curiosity and teaching they are dehumanized and yet at the same time, expected to strive for normalcy; to “fit in;” to not make an issue of their “transgenderdness.” But, as Jason Cromwell writes in his book Queering the Binaries, “However much they may pass, transpeople, whether they identify as trans or not, are always aware of their transness – an awareness situated in their bodies.”[6]

This awareness of one’s body and “transness” becomes more tangible in moments of physical need, such as the use of public bathrooms.

All too often, there is an expectation that the transgender/genderqueer person will “act normal” and “just fit in.” But Shelley Tremain in hir essay We’re Here. We’re Disabled and Queer. Get Used to It challenges us to reconsider ideas of normalcy and the power attached to it. Tremain writes, ”…usually when I come out as a disabled person to one who is non-disabled, she or he…reassures me that she or he would not have suspected that I am disabled if I had not said so, and then tells me that I “look normal.” But, remarks like these are reprehensible regardless of whether I am, or I am not, accustomed to them. In order for one to make such a remark, she or he must already hold discriminatory beliefs about, for example, who counts as a disabled person, what disabled persons look like, what kinds of lives we lead, and how we wish to identify.”[7]

While Tremain discusses normalcy from a disabled queer person’s perspective, the experience of being expected to be or act ‘normal’ is familiar to most people in historically marginalized groups. We must consider the impact of and on thea/ologies that expect any people to conform to a concept of normalcy in order to be respected and welcomed in religious community.

Historically, religions have been used to create and reinforce the very boxes that limit a person’s possibility. At its core, any and all religion can (and should) be used to provide a wealth of possibility for becoming.

Christina K. Hutchins writes, “The space of becoming resides in the instability and incompleteness of the categories we live by, always shrinking or expanding according to the ways in which we iterate and articulate our becomings. The expansion of public space for the discourse of becoming carries significance for and beyond the political. In the language of religious institutions, such expansion embodies the motion of the holy.”[8]

To depict the holy as something in motion and not as a fixed entity is of importance in this work. Process theology lends itself nicely to this piece of the conversation, providing room for the holy to exist as events constantly in motion, with infinite possibilities yet to become. When considered as such, divinity can then be found in the differences between people rather than within the sameness.

Such a concept begins to challenge our very understanding of Imago Dei. That is to say that if our image of God (or the Sacred) shifts from a static image to a dynamic image, one that is always becoming, than I believe we can begin to embrace difference as part of the holiness of life rather than view difference as a threat to life and/or what is considered “sacred.”

The biological, physical, and metaphysical world teaches us that life is pluralistic. From micro-organisms through to the stars and beyond, difference is in abundance. The boundaries that separate these differences are porous, not closed.

Do you know Edwin Markim’s poem? “Heretic, Rebel a thing to flout; he drew a circle that shut me out. But love and I had the wit to win, we drew a circle that took him in.” In a sense it is like an amoeba, broadening the boundaries to encompass all that is around us, but different in that unlike the amoeba which absorbs and assimilates everything else, this new organism allows for each of the cells to remain individual and connected. It’s as if we are creating a whole new being.

Yet we mere humans continue to attempt to treat the differences between us as threats to fixed boundaries rather than as examples of the holy.

“When an individual occup(ies) a space that transgresses borders [boundaries], [we feel] challenged and when [we] feel challenged, [WE] GET UNCOMFORTABLE and [blame the transgressor] because, of course, the only goal in [the individual’s life] is to MAKE [US] FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE![9]

The burden of imagination is put on those individuals who transgress the boundaries (those ‘others’) because these boundary crossers are already in the uncomfortable role of bringing the unimagined into being. In order to both survive and thrive, a new world must be imagined.

Our Unitarian Universalist faith teaches that all things in this life are connected, not just to each other but also to what was, what is, what is becoming, and what could have been.

Religion’s Role

            What is religion’s role? Religion’s role is to offer an understanding of salvation that embraces all of life: past, present, and future. A salvation that, as Stephanie Mitchem puts it, “is found not in formulaic answers but in the search for wholeness. Redemption is a journey that begins by daring to care for oneself in the face of repeated assaults on one’s identity and value. Salvation is born of the struggle to reconcile some assigned “place” in the world with a self-determined identity that springs from hope and is grounded in faith.”[10]

Religion’s role is to provide places where “otherness” can be appreciated and affirmed for all that it is, without a need to conform or assimilate to a dominant societal view. Religion’s role is to defend the porous boundaries, not so that the boundaries become firm but so that the porous quality of those boundaries is always mushy and moving. Religion’s role is to imagine and bring forth a new world that embraces the messiness and mixidy of life. A world that acknowledges that each one of us has something to offer and together the puzzle will make sense.

You hopefully are familiar with the story of the Elephant in Dark House as told by Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi …

The elephant was in a dark house; some Hindus had brought it for exhibition.
In order to see it, many people were going, every one, into that darkness.
As seeing it with the eye was impossible, [each one] was feeling it in the dark with the palm of his hand.
The hand of one fell on its trunk; he said: “This creature is like a water-pipe.”
The hand of another touched its ear: to him it appeared to be like a fan.
Since another handled its leg, he said: “I found the elephant’s shape to be like a pillar.”
Another laid his hand on its back: he said, “Truly, this elephant was like a throne.”
Similarly, whenever anyone heard [a description of the elephant]. he understood [it only in respect of] the part that he had touched.

If there had been a candle in each one’s hand, the difference would have gone out of their words.

In Rumi’s rendition of the story, each person is invited to sit together at the end of the tour and share hir experiences and observations. He points out that only through this sharing can “The Truth” be found.

Another story …

A young boy once approached his father to ask, “Dad, why does the wind blow?” to which the father responded, “I don’t know, son.” “Dad, where do the clouds come from?” “I’m not sure, son.” “Dad, what makes a rainbow?” “No idea, son.” “Dad, do you mind me asking you all these questions.?” “Not at all, son. How else are you going to learn?”[11]

We learn not only by asking questions, but also by observing what is happening around us. As a child and young teen I often accompanied my parents to congregational meetings at the First Parish in Framingham, where I have been a member for almost 40 years. One of my favorite experiences was attending the annual meeting. Every year up until a few years ago the members of the congregation debated the same issue at each meeting – whether to take an offering during worship services. Both sides of the debate had valid points: One side believing that passing the collection plates allowed the gathered worshippers to make a token donation thus keeping the connection between finances and spirituality tangible and visible. The other side believing that to pass the collection plates during worship gave members the false impression that what was put in the collection plate would be enough to financially sustain the congregation.

I loved that this agenda item was proposed from the floor of the annual meeting under the last article on the meeting warrant, the “any other business” article, keeping in practice the ability and right of the congregation’s membership to propose business alongside the elected leadership. I also loved this issue because while on the night of the meeting it divided meeting participants into sides, these sides never lasted longer than the meeting. Through my observation (and eventual participation) in these annual meetings I learned the importance of keeping community even in the midst of disagreement.

One of the important lessons I have learned growing up as a Unitarian Universalist is the power of community, particularly as it applies to a learning community. It is one thing to read and reflect on an experience or idea, but to do so engaged in conversation and study with other members of the congregation can be a powerful experience. By learning together we challenge one another to think outside the box and at the same time hold a mirror of faith to one another as a reminder of our individual and collective values. We learn together how best to live out our faith, not just on Sunday mornings but all week long.

I have been practicing our faith my whole life. This I can say for certain: Our faith is not an easy one to practice! It demands of us that we be in constant awareness and dialogue with the world. Unitarian Universalism requires religious engagement, not just when it is convenient or easy, but in every moment. One of the greatest strengths Unitarian Universalist thea/olgies offers is an image of life that is in motion and pluralistic. Through our focus on community and covenant, we learn that the holy takes place in our connections to and with one another.

Participation in religious community should help each of us to answer life’s questions. It should teach us holy engagement not only on holidays and at social justice rallies, but also in everyday life. It should challenge us to become better people and provide us with the tools to live out our religious values. It should help us to clearly define and articulate what we individually and collectively believe about life’s deepest (and not so deep) questions.

Sufism, the mystical side of Islam offers us this story:

A small boy banged a drum all day and loved every moment of it. He would not be quiet, no matter what anyone said. Various people were invited by the neighbours to do something about the child. The first person told the boy that he would burst his eardrums, if he continued to make so much noise, – but this was too advanced an idea for the child. The second told him that drum beating was a sacred activity and should be carried out only on special occasions. The third offered the neighbours earplugs while the fourth gave the boy a book. Some of these cures worked for a short while, but none worked for long. A Sufi [traveler] came along. He looked at the situation, handed the boy a hammer and chisel, and said, ‘I wonder what is inside the drum?’

The Sufi traveler reminds us that sometimes we need to approach each activity as a learning/teaching opportunity. We learn through asking questions and finding answers. We learn through engagement with materials presented to us. We learn through observation of what is happening around us. And we learn by noticing what is not happening around us. Therefore, everything that happens in congregational life is part of a multigenerational religious education curriculum.

Maria Harris, in her book “Fashion Me a People” offers us the idea that “…a fuller and more extensive curriculum is already present in the church’s life: in teaching, worship, community, proclamation, and outreach. Printed resources that serve this wider curriculum are in the treasury, of the church, especially the comprehensive curricular materials designed over the last century in the United States. These, however, are not the curriculum. The curriculum is both more basic and more profound. It is the entire course of the church’s life, found in the fundamental forms of that life. It is the priestly, prophetic, and political work of didache [teaching], leiturgia [worship], koinonia [community], kerygma [proclamation], and diakonia [outreach]. Where education is the fashioning and refashioning of these forms in interplay, curriculum is the subject matter and processes that make them to be what they are. Where education is the living and the fashioning, curriculum is the life, the substance that is fashioned.”[12]

Harris’ theory that it takes all aspects of church life to complete the curriculum of religious education makes sense to me. Within the children’s religious education program there is not enough time to teach all that needs to be taught. Let us pretend for a moment that each child in the congregation of East Cupcake was going to be present for every class – their annual classroom instruction (not including special activities for holidays, school vacations, etc.), would amount to approximately 24 hours of religious instruction. In one year’s worth of living they will have spent 1 day engaged in formal religious education. That’s just not enough time to teach everything we want to teach them! And we adults spend even less time (if any at all) in classroom-based religious instruction.

But by using Harris’ framework for what makes the curriculum we can note that we are teaching and learning through all that we do. Our use of fair trade coffees and teas, our commitment to lessen our impact on the environment and our work with communities outside our doors keeps our focus not only on ourselves but on the rest of the world as well. These are important aspects of our curriculum of outreach.

I would like to add an additional component to the curriculum Harris refers to – that which happens in the family. Religious education happens when we share our thoughts and questions with family and friends. It happens when we engage in the world and reflect on those experiences. It is my hope that our religious education programs provide us all with the tools needed to make sense out of our everyday lives. Religious education does not happen solely in the church building, but also at home and at hockey practice, it happens during music rehearsals and while running errands. It happens at the dinner table and while watching television.

The Reverend A. Powell Davies wrote, “Religion is not something separate and apart from ordinary life. It is life – life of every kind viewed from the standpoint of meaning and purpose: life lived in the fuller awareness of its human quality and spiritual significance.” I hope that at its core, Religious Education teaches this message of the inextricable connection between religion and life. I hope that through religious education we cultivate our roots in order to better bend and sway to the changing times.

            Sofia Lyon Fahs, who served as the American Unitarian Association’s National Director of Religious Education in the late 1930s through to the 1950’s and who is often considered the grandmother of Unitarian Universalist Religious Education, focused on incorporating experiential learning into religious education programs as well as tried to keep us focused on recognizing the spiritual needs of our children. While her writings often mention only children, her ideas are applicable to all of us regardless of age.

            In her book, Today’s Children and Yesterday’s Heritage, first published in 1952 she writes, “Instead of helping children to think about ‘religious things’, we need to learn how to help children to think about ordinary things until insights and feelings are found which have a religious quality. And what is this religious quality or way of studying?

The religious way is the deep way, the way with a growing perspective and an expanding view. It is the way that dips into the heart of things, into personal feelings, yearnings, hostilities that so often must be buried and despised and left misunderstood. The reli­gious way is the way that sees what physical eyes alone fail to see, the intangibles of the heart of every phenomenon. The religious way is the way that touches universal relationships; that goes high, wide and deep, that expands the feelings of kinship. And if God symbolizes or means those larger relationships, the religious way means finding God; but the word in itself is not too important. It is the enlarged and deepening experiences that bring the growing insights and that create the sustaining ambition to “find life and to find it abundantly” that really count most. When such a religious quality is the goal, any subject, any phenomenon, anything, animate or inanimate, human or animal, may be the starting point.”

While Fahs directs her writing to the needs of children I offer that the need to think about ordinary things in such a way that they touch our hearts is not age-specific. Engaging in the practice of thinking so deeply about something that we feel it – this is religious work. Learning the tools with which to do such engagement is Religious Education for the Soul. It is at the heart of why we gather in religious community, regardless of our age, and can be the common ground from which we grow our multigenerational multicultural efforts.

Sandra Cisneros offers us an important lesson on multigenerational engagement in her poem Eleven:

What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two and one.

And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t.

You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today.

And you don’t feel eleven at all.  You feel like you’re still ten.  And you are—underneath the year that makes you eleven.

Like some days you might say something stupid and that’s the part of you that’s still ten.

Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your mother’s lap because you’re scared, and that’s the part of you that’s five.

And maybe one day when you’re all grown up maybe you will need to cry like you’re three, and that’s okay.

That’s what I tell Mama when she’s sad and needs to cry.  Maybe she’s feeling three.

Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next.  That’s how being eleven years old is.

You don’t feel eleven.  Not right away.  It takes a few days, weeks even, sometimes even months before you say Eleven when they ask you.

And you don’t feel smart eleven, not until you’re almost twelve.  That’s the way it is.

Multigenerational…

            connections made across the generations and ages. Groups of people made up of many generations, many ages – working together for a common cause or purpose. But more than working together, multigenerational means that we are being intentional about honoring each of the generations and are making space for those not already present.

This might mean changing the time we hold meetings or classes or social events so that those who don’t drive at night and those who go to bed early can both be with us. It might mean that we older adults intentionally invite the youth to join us, or that we remember to advertise our events through Facebook and Twitter. It might mean that worship becomes more interactive, uses multimedia and different music, or meets at a different time. It might mean that sometimes we are uncomfortable with how things are being done, but because we are in community we trust that sometimes we will also be as comfortable as we need.

Multiculturalism…

what exactly do we mean by multiculturalsim? There is no good definition of it. Some would say that it is to honor and celebrate a multiplicity of cultures and identities. I would offer you that while this is true, I think that it is an action – it is a way of being in the world; living with an openness to new things and the messy complexity of life.

I suspect that Multigenerational Multiculturalism is already happening in your congregation. Our children’s and youth religious education programs tend to be hotbeds of multicultural activity. The foundation of what most of our congregations teach is not necessarily found in the curricula used every week, it is found in the ethos of the programs. This is in part because the bodies that make up our children and youth religious education programs is often more ethnically and racially diverse than the adult make-up of the congregation.

It is also because we are teaching our children from the earliest ages that it is important to recognize each other’s differences and to honor those differences. But there is more that we can do in their programs and throughout the curriculum of the church.

Creating this multicultural ethos means that we are making space for multiple learning styles and physical abilities. It means making sure that our buildings and meeting sites are physically accessible and affordable. It might mean that we pool our collective financial resources together to ensure that who might not otherwise be able, are able to represent our congregations at General Assembly and other such events.

Being a multicultural community means that we are learning about people and communities around the globe and honoring the dates important to them, particularly when members of those communities are part of our church community.

I ask the teachers in my program to begin with the assumption that diversity is present in the room, whether they recognize it or not. I ask that instead of relegating one session a year to a “diversity” session, we make sure that the stories that we choose and the language that we use models the multiculturalism that we hope will be present.

This sometimes means changing the relationships of people in the stories in order to reflect multiple sexual orientations. This sometimes means assuming more than two genders, that we make room for a multiplicity of gender identities. This sometimes means using pronouns that are not “he” and “she” … using pronouns such as “ze” and “gher.” I challenge my teachers and myself to always use “ze” and “gher” or other non-traditionally used pronouns whenever the gender or the character is not important to the story.

This takes work and intentionality, but it is worth it. I invite my volunteer teachers to continue these practices even after they’ve finished teaching. I challenge them (and today I challenge you) to continue these practices in their daily lives. I also encourage them to stretch themselves to be aware of the places in their lives where they have privilege and power – inviting them to use their power to help shape the world toward justice.

Being a multigenerational multicultural community also means that we are willing to make mistakes and are willing to be called to task on our mistakes. It means that we are willing to accept that when we or others make mistakes it is despite best efforts and good intentions and thus we must be willing to be gentle and forgive one another. It means that we give one another permission to fail and permission to pause when the going gets rough; trusting and nudging each other back on the path after a spell. It means being willing to take risks and catch one another; remembering that we are never in this alone! It also means that at times we must be willing to return to past choices and reconsider our decisions.

And with that in mind I ask you to join me in holding the Thomas Jefferson District Assembly in your hearts and prayers today as they meet to reconsider changing their district name to the Southeast District.

The impetus for this reconsideration of the name was a challenge brought by people of color and white allies at the 1993 General Assembly at which was scheduled a Thomas Jefferson Ball. GA participants were encouraged to attend this ball dressed in costumes of the period. African Americans asked the Assembly to consider what they should wear, suggesting perhaps “rags and chains.” In 1996 the district board began a serious discussion about how the name disenfranchises some Unitarian Universalists, especially those of African descent, Native American, and women. They began a two-year period of study that culminated in a vote at the 1997 District’s Annual Meeting in Charlotte. The motion to change the name was supported by the majority of delegates present (achieving a simple majority) but because of the two-thirds super majority required for passage, the motion failed by a slim margin.

After the vote, a second proposal was made that asked the board to bring the name change amendment back for reconsideration in five years. That motion carried and went to vote last year, again achieving a simple majority but not the required super majority.

Five congregations in their district petitioned to have the discussion and vote placed on this year’s agenda and at 3.45p this afternoon they will begin that piece of their agenda – may their deliberations be fruitful and may they know that they are not alone.

May we all know that we are not alone; indeed only by working together can we bring about the multigenerational multicultural that “Mmm… Goodness!” that this hurting world so desperately needs.

May it be so; and may we be the ones to make it so.

ENDNOTES


[1] Clare, Eli, Exile and Pride (South End Press: Cambridge 1999) 123.

[2] from Exile and Pride, p. 123

[3] Thurman, Howard. The Search for Common Ground. (Richmond, IA: 1971), xiii.

[4] Young, Iris Marion, Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990) 169.

[5] “Transfigurations” [online: Jana Marcus 2003-06]. <http://www.jlmphotography.com/recent/TransPresentation/sld034.htm>

[6] Cromwell, Jason, Queering the Binaries: Transsituated Identities (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press 1999) 128.

[7] Tremain, Shelley, Pushing the Limits: Disabled Dykes Produce Culture (Women’s Press 1996) 15.

[8] Keller, Catherine and Anne Daniell, editors, Process and difference: between cosmological and poststructuralist postmodernisms (Albany: State University of New York Press 2002) 132.

[9] Unpublished email exchange between author and Ibrahim Farajajé, 7 December 2005.

[10] Mitchem, Stephanie. “Womanist & Unfinished Constructions of Salvation” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. 2001: 99.

[11] Source unknown

[12] Harris, Maria. Fashion Me a People. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 1989) 63-64.

Published in: on 30 April 2011 at 10.39  Leave a Comment  

Pronouns

Published in: on 30 April 2011 at 9.00  Leave a Comment  

Greve Gender Model

This model does not include all possible genders – it was created to suggest that the multitude of genders often placed under a transgender umbrella exist outside/off the man/woman dichotomy.

Published in: on 30 April 2011 at 8.55  Leave a Comment