Toward Religious Exploration

This January term, two of my three classes were focused on the culture and environment of learning within a congregation, and what that might look like. We saw and heard about examples of how churches are re-imagining “Religious Education,” moving away from the old school classroom, teacher as font of knowledge model and toward a whole culture of curiosity and spiritual formation for all ages. I am on fire with the possibilities and implications of this approach.

When I was a young person, I wanted to change the world. Specifically, I wanted to change the world of education, as I had experienced it in the public schools. What is odd is that I actually loved school, at least the academic side. I learn well by writing and note-taking, and school back then was heavy on these two things. I loved mental challenges and was also tractable and well-behaved. So teachers liked me, usually.

What I didn’t like about school was the free-for-all social environment when the teacher wasn’t standing right there. We were not taught how to be kind to each other; no one helped us empathize with children who had differences or challenges. I did not have much physical grace or speed in grade school (it didn’t get much better!), so I was chosen last for team sports and dance festival groups. No adult participated or intervened in these group decisions; no one noticed or seemed to care that it hurt not only my feelings, but my self-image as a competent, valuable person.

Well, I didn’t change American education. In fact, I have since watched many people try, and not that much has changed. But as I look over my life, I have made some contributions to the world.

I have raised eight children. They are pretty cool people. I don’t take credit for that, but I do claim that I managed to set up conditions, at least part of the time, for their innate coolness to develop and even to thrive. I home schooled all of them for at least part of their growing up years, and I learned as much from them as they learned from me.

I have team-taught in a couple of little co-operative schools, and learned a lot of great things about what helps kids keep the native curiosity and confidence that they are born with. I also realized how much a caring adult can do to help children learn to set up a more kind social culture than the one I grew up in at school.

One thing has become very clear to me: it takes more than one or two teachers or parents to make a real change in a culture. It truly does take a village. It takes the kind of Beloved Community that Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to, where every adult cares about every child, and every other adult. A group of people who begin at home, and within their church home, doing the hard work of learning to treat each other as beings with worth and dignity. Even when they disagree. Even when they make mistakes. Especially when they make mistakes.

I have returned from my January term with a more clear vision for ministry. I can see ways to facilitate and support people in their pursuit of a deeper sense of Beloved Community. I can see a growing movement within our UU denomination that promises to give wider support of intergenerational engagement. I have lots of empirical evidence as to why this might be a positive direction to move in; I have a lifetime of experience that tells me this is a good thing. Most important, everything in me stands up and shouts “hallelujah!” when I consider the real impact on individual people’s lives – especially the children, our future.

So perhaps I won’t change the whole world. Not even the world of American education. But perhaps, as a minister, I can help change someone’s world. And for them, that will be everything.

Missing Church

Missing Church

It hit me kind of unexpectedly. I chose a seat in the back row, because I had entered the room just before the worship service started.  The windowless classroom was filled with rows of chairs, facing two projector screens.  The packed crowd was already on their feet, singing the opening song.   By the time I arranged myself and my stuff, the song was over.  We all sat down.

The first speaker stood up, and began to talk about his call to ministry.  Why it grips him and keeps him striving.  Why he feels UU ministry is needed in the world.  And what sustains him through the tough parts.

That’s when it hit me.  I hungered for the words he was saying, and the spirit behind them.  I needed to hear some real preaching from the heart, from the spirit of life.  Without even realizing it, I had been sorely missing church.

Oh, I have been going to church, every Sunday.  Even though I am only a part-time student ministerial intern, I have spent every Sunday this fall in my intern congregation.  I have participated in most of those services in some way or other, either preaching, telling the children’s story, lighting the chalice, doing a reading, singing in the choir, or just straightening the chairs and passing out hymnals before the service started.  I have even sat in the congregation a couple of times with no responsibilities.  And I have enjoyed all of it, and I have gotten a lot out of it.

But I had not realized that, because it is my job to learn by doing and by observation, I had been keeping myself from just letting go and experiencing the service in a way that let it fully into my heart.  The intellectual part of my brain remained in control, and emotionally I was somewhat apart from the service.  I was getting enough spiritual sustenance to keep me alive, but I was not getting fully fed.

I’m in a distance learning Master of Divinity program.  This particular service was the opening of January term, when the students come together on campus for fellowship and instruction.

Sitting in that school room worship service, tears actually rolled down my cheeks. I felt myself being lifted up, and held, and fed in a way I haven’t in months.  I needed that.  Now I understand why ministers are supposed to take one Sunday off each month.  From now on, I will try to make sure that I take that one Sunday and just show up for the service, open and receptive.  Just to consider and lift up in my mind and heart the things of worth, the songs, practices and ideas that feed my spirit.  Just to worship.