Lilac Ordination

The lilac bush intoxicated us with her heavy blooms.  The world seemed perfect as was the time to share my inner wrestlings with my Gramma.  We were both on our backs staring up at the clouds looking for familiar shapes.  There’s a little hill next to the lilac bush that was perfect for such moments.

“Gramma?  Can a heart burst?”

“Yes, why?”

“Gramma, I’m afraid my heart is going to burst sometimes.  Sometimes it’s too full with love.  And sometimes it’s too full with sadness.”

“Mmm…” She reached out and squeezed my hand. “So, what are you going to do with that?”

She often asked that sort of question.

“I think I’m gonna to be a minister.”

I said it not quite convinced, as the only ministers I knew were male and Christian and I wasn’t either. They had The Answer and I knew there were many. They saved people from their pulpit.  I felt called to heal with actions and  love just in the regular places of my life. … “I think I’m gonna be a minister.”

“What makes you think you aren’t a minister now?”

The sound of the gulls overhead were drown out by the paradigm shift crashing in my skull.  The deep, deep breath of spring air I took in cut through the lilac drunkenness and the colors all around us intensified exponentially.

A minister was born.

Religious Education happens when we are witnessed deeply, and when our safe people believe in us as our own beliefs are taking form.

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A Note About Gratitude

There were a couple years in which I felt particularly crafty.  I would print out blank cards with black and white chalices for my small children to color.  Or we would make chalice stamps out of sponges or reused Styrofoam.  The back of the card sported a simple chalice and the words:

Come recharge your spirit within our religious community.

<name of congregation>

<address>

<times of worship>

<website>

My children and I would keep these cards handy for times when we saw someone living out our Unitarian Universalist values and send them a thank you note.  Often we’d gather around the Sunday newspaper and search scavenger-hunt style for our values in action.  We’d make a list of people and note their good deeds or courageous decisions.  We’d look up their address, write a thank you note, and then pop it in the mail.  As our little project gained momentum we’d keep a stack of cards in our car and then leave notes in our wake whenever we were out in the community.

I noticed a positive shift in myself and in my children.  We found what we were looking for.  We found Unitarian Universalist values that we hold dear alive throughout our community.  And we started feeling powerful and supportive in our witnessing.

I figured these good vibes would ripple out in some way, but I had no idea of the impact magnitude until I was at a community gathering.  My towns mayor kept looking over at me throughout the evening and then final came over and asked, “Did I do something wrong?  Have I offended you?”

“What on earth?  No.  Why?”

“Well, everyone on City Council has received a note from you in the past year except me…”

I gave him a bear hug and assured him that my children looked up to him and appreciated his job.  I also made a mental reminder to send a note as soon as we could.

When the mayor notices, something is working.  Witnessing, appreciating, thanking is powerful and transforming for both the sender and receiver.

Religious Education is in the noticing and the appreciating.

Note:  If your social justice committee effort has become a checklist of issues, consider picking this effort as congregational justice making. It has real potential to breathe life and love back into a community.

Spark in the Dark

In honor of all the mothers today…

I was curled up with the boys reading bedtime stories.  We were snuggled up with Spark In the Dark, a creation story with beautiful, simple pictures.  The book begins with the swirling gases of the Universe coming together and forming planet earth. Water forms.  Plants form.  Animals form. Humans evolve.

Four-year-old Owen interrupted and asked "what is that state’s name again?"  Having grown accustomed to his tangential interjections, I didn’t blink an eye.  I named off all the states he’s traveled: Oregon, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Washington.  He shook his head...  I started to name cities he’s been to with notoriety.  Still no satisfaction, and he clearly had a specific place in mind, but the lateness of the evening was wearing on him.  Finally he said rubbing his eyes, "No, the place I was before I was born.  What’s the name of it?"

Clarity took hold of and quieted my confusion. "I’m not sure anyone knows the name of it for sure. Do you remember being there?"

Again, rubbing his eyes and yawning, "Yeah.  I liked it.  When do we go back?"

I didn’t know the answer until it came out of my mouth, "When we die, honey."

Owen, "That’s right.  I’ll meet you there."

And then he snuggled into my arms and went to sleep. I was left holding sweet Owen as he went off to dream land knowing that I was holding one of the greatest teachers I will ever know.

Religious connection, Religious Education started before we were born.  It usually entails simply bringing us back to ourselves, to our Source.

Popcorn Theology, curriculum review and suggestions

I picked up Popcorn Theology for my family.  We watch a lot of movies together as a family.  I have two teenagers who are ripe with religious questions. Perfect.

Michelle Richards wrote Popcorn Theology for Unitarian Universalist middle school age youth with youth groups in mind. Each session features a movie that highlights the values lesson.  Rather than show the whole movie, excerpts are suggested and excellent activities make it all come together. I’ve not used it in a classroom setting, but the sessions are so clearly written that I would feel confident picking it up and facilitating a class just as it is designed in the book or with miner adaption.

But I have to say, it’s awesome for families!   It hasn’t taken much to translate the activities or change them slightly for the home environment. We started out with the movie Contact, because that’s my favorite movie ever.  We lit a chalice and shared a reading from Carl Sagan, which elevated the mood of movie night immediately. We played the Faith or Fact (p. 73) game before the movie to warm up.  After I had problems remembering to stop the movie at the designated times for the questions and discussion, my eldest son took over that job.  (He likes to be in charge and does it well.) We waited until dinner time the next night to do the Leap of Faith exercise, which was actually kind of nice, because it kept the momentum and discussion going.  Other movies we’ve watched using Richard’s guidebook have been equally rewarding.

Suggestions for Congregations

What if congregations created Popcorn Theology Kits that families could check out? Some of the lessons require props or light assembly.  A religious community could conserve resources by having one kit for each movie/lesson that is checked out and returned.

What if a congregation didn’t keep this gem to the middle school or high school group, but made it a multi-generational offering?  Part of a larger religious education series?  With a youth and adult co-facilitating?  Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

How else could you envision using Popcorn Theology?

Themes and Movies of Popcorn Theology

In response to Dove’s question in the comments…

The Choices We Make

  1. Back to the Future
  2. Star Trek Generations
  3. Forrest Gump
  4. Saved!
  5. Little Buddha

The Search for Truth

  1. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
  2. Oh, God!
  3. Bruce Almighty
  4. Heaven Can Wait
  5. Contact

Working for a Peace Fair World

  1. Bowling for Columbine
  2. Hotel Rwanda
  3. Jurassic Park

Acceptance of One Another… and Ourselves

  1. Dances with Wolves
  2. Willow
  3. Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring
  4. Hoosiers
  5. Field of Dreams

More Enthusiastic Plugs

Michelle Richards has a new book  called Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting.  And she writes the UU Parenting Blog that I’ve been enjoying.  For more about Michelle and her other resources go to her website.

I recently got to meet Michelle at the Central MidWest District Religious Education Conference.

Spiritual Support Plan

Many families have a safety plan in case of a fire or an earthquake.  We have squirreled away flashlights, batteries, candles and water.  We have given a list of emergency contacts to care providers and schools.

But what about a Spiritual Support Plan?  Do you know what each person in your family or church team needs when life has thrown them a challenge?  What is your family ritual to get back on track?  Is it a batch of Gramma Erma’s cookies and the movie Princess Bride with you all piled on the coach together? Perhaps one person needs you to rub their back and sing a childhood lullaby to ground them in their family roots.  On your church team maybe it’s a walk down by the river or coffee at a nearby bakery.

What is your collective plan and individual plans?  What is the code word or phrase for help? What is the signal that you can send across the crowded room to let your loved one know that you see them struggling and are sending special love lives, that they are not alone?

This piece was taken from a workbook called REjoice, REfresh, REcharge:  Spiritual Care for Religious Educators and Other Religious Leaders.  It is free to download by clicking on the title above.  It is a PDF formatted for legal size paper.  If you print it out on both sides it assembles nicely into a booklet.   If this is a resource you’d like to offer your RE team and would like to personalize it, please contact me and I’ll email you the document in Publisher:  tkoerger@uua.org.

Knowing Who We Are

I remember the day I first met Angelica.  She waltzed into the Kindergarten classroom in a floaty pink party dress like a fairy princess.  Her mass of blue-black curls framed her face when she giggled and her whole face alit, eyes squished upward.  Her pictures were as crayon-colorful as the stories that accompanied them.  If you took a poll in her kindergarten class most children would identify Angelica as their best friend.

That first memory of Angelica is so different than my image of her on the day she joined our family as my foster daughter.  She arrived with a plastic bag crammed with cast-offs from the school clothing bank. Her choppy hair was a violating reminder that “she told” on her perpetrator.  Angelica came bewildered and exhausted and off-center.

We offered her respite, the safety of routine, and the time to grow her hair and replenish her collection of pink, frilly dresses. With time she began to breath more easily.

Family dinnertime was new to her.  She loved to light the chalice and help choose the reading each night. At first, Angelica was hesitant and silent during our Family Dinner Questions: What did you learn today? A question chosen randomly from a jar full of cards (taken from the Ungame.) And what/whom are you thankful for? Over time she came to clap her hands in delighted anticipation.

One night the question from the jar “What is your favorite meal from your ethnic heritage?” provoked a quizzical look from Angelica. “What is ethnic heritage?”  My husband tried to explain the term by asking more questions.  We knew that Angelica’s mother was from an area Indian tribe with French ancestry and her father is Mexican. Finally, Angelica moved her gaze to the floor, “My daddy calls us Beaners.”  The oxygen was sucked out of the room.  Finally we took a collective sigh.  Beaners. The derogatory term for Mexicans. Clearly Angelica got the message that her heritage was a thing of shame.  My partner asked, “What does that mean to you?”  Angelica shrugged her shoulders and asked to be excused from the dinner table.

I prayed on it and let my dreams take over.

The next morning as I helped Angelica get ready for school.  I took her by the shoulders and steered her toward the mirror.  I picked up a brush and began working on Angelica’s imaginary mane of long curly hair.  I smiled to her beautiful face in the mirror.  She bashfully looked back at my reflection.  Do you know whom I see?  I see Angelica Marie Esperanza LaClaire Guerrero.  You are Nisqually, Hawaiian, French and Mexican.  She is a strong young woman in a long line of strong, wise women. You are a creative, a dancer, an artist, a writer, and a reader.  I like many things about you.  I’ll name three right now.  I like the bright colors you use in your drawings.  I like your clear voice when you read me books. I like how curious you are about the spider building her web on the front porch. What do you like about yourself, Angelica?…”  She covered her smile with her hand. I could almost see her thought: “My foster mother has lost her mind.”

This became our daily ritual. As we got ready for school I would brush out her short crop of hair as if it were the curls thickly framing her face in my mind’s eye.  Angelica began mouthing the words with me.  “I see Angelica Marie Esperanza LaClaire Guerrero.  She is Nisqually, French, Hawaiian, and Mexican. She is a strong young woman in a long line of strong, wise women. She is a dancer, an artist, a writer, and a reader.  I like many things about you.  I’ll name three things right now. I like the outfit you picked out for school today.  I like how you picked up your toys last night. And I have to tell you that your smile melts my heart.  Would you add anything, Angelica?”  She grinned and added, “I didn’t get scared last night getting up to go to the bathroom.” Our eyes locked in the mirror and we got lost in each other’s smiles.

We participated in this ritual for weeks. Angelica began offering more things that she liked about herself.  She began asking what it meant to be Niqually, French, Hawaiian, and Mexican.  We encouraged her to ask her aunties family stories when she visited and she would come back to our home shattering away about her family history.  Mexican friends of ours stepped in to share their family rituals and recipes. We noticed that Angelica went through a physical growth spurt as well and was standing taller.

She was the kind of girl who was gregarious with people she knew but held back with strangers. I began taking her to the neighborhood playground.  At first I would play with her.  Then I would sit nearby and watch closely.  But I finally got to a place where Angelica would go play without holding on to my hand and I would sit and read a book.

One day while Angelica was swinging on the swings a girl stomped over to her.  The girls’ a body language caught my attention and I looked up to watch. She had her hands on her hips and her mouth was screwed up in a sneer. The girl said something to Angelica. Angelica said something back and continued sitting on the swing.  The other girl pointed at Angelica and threw words while bobbing her head for emphasis.  Angelica stood up, hands on hips, and said something back.  The girl looked surprised, shrugged, and walked away.

Angelica continued playing on the swings, and when no other children came to play she came back to me.

“Angelica, what happened with that girl?”

“Oh. That girl called me a bitch.  But I told her she was mistaken.  I am Angelica Marie Esperanza LaClaire Guerrero.  I am Nisqually, French, Hawaiian, Mexican-American, a strong young woman in a long line of strong, wise woman… I asked her who she was but I guess she didn’t know.”

Religious Education is in the stories we tell that hold us and mold us.  When you look in the mirror, what is the story or affirmation that you tell youself?

Power of Prayer on the Playground

The phone call from the principal confused and distressed me.  This was not the son predisposed for fighting.  I walked in to the school office and put my arms around the little boy staring off into space, eyes rimmed in red.  He immediately started sobbing, “The ambulance, Mom.”

“Honey, did you kick someone on the playground?”

He sniffed and nodded, “but the ambulance.”

The disconnect made me pause.  “Ambulance?”

“An ambulance went by the playground during kickball.  I stopped to send positive energy so the workers could do their job and the hurt person wouldn’t be scared. And Charlie said he was going to send bad energy so they’d all die…”  He choked back a sob.  “I kicked him so he’d stop.”  Then he looked at me eyes wide and whispered, “Mommy, what if they all died?”

The depth of the moment washed over me as I put the pieces together.  We’ve always taught our children that’s it’s not okay to hurt someone.  But here my son thought someone was trying to kill another person with no time to lose. So he did the best he could with a swift kick to the crotch. Once the other boy was rolling around on the ground clutching himself, Charlie could spare no energy to direct hatred toward the ambulance.  My son went back to praying trying to erase any damage done from the few waves of negative energy cast the way of the ambulance.

And so the playground monitor came upon the strange scene of Charlie howling on the asphalt and my son with his head bowed, eyes scrunched shut, whispering prayers like life depended upon it.  No matter how many times the monitor asked my son what happened, urging him to own up to the violation, nothing would break his prayerful concentration. And his is how I found him in the office.

I took a deep breath, “Honey, I have to believe that in this world, our positive prayers overpower hurtful and misdirected energy.”

He looked up at me open to this big life lesson before us.

“The person in the ambulance will be at the hospital now. Do you want to send them positive energy?”  He nodded wildly and closed his eyes in expectation.

“Do you want to say the words, or shall I?”

He opened one eye and pointed to me.

“Spirit of Life, known by many names, please be with the doctors in the hospital that they may do their job needed to bring healing to their patients.  Give them clarity and patience.  Please be with those sick and scared that they may be comforted and have courage. May the healing power of love move throughout the halls of the hospital so that good medicine may do its work.  And please be with Charlie so his private parts and heart mend just fine.  Please be with Sagan and Charlie that they may find understanding and friendship. Amen.”

With the amen, my son through his arms around me and nuzzled into me. I carried him out and took him home.

I have to believe that the positives overpower the negatives in life.  And sending positive energy to ambulances makes a difference. Otherwise my grandmother would not have told me so.