Sunday, June 1, 2008

"ROOTS AND FRUITS" (Rebecca Hinds, DRE)

a sermon preached by Rebecca Hinds,
Director of Religious Education, at
the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday June 1, 2008

This morning we have so much to be joyful for. This community, this sacred space, is blessed today with the presence and energy of our children and youth. We have rejoiced in our recognition of the dedication and commitment of our fine RE teachers and volunteers. This is truly a day for celebration.

For those of you who may not have young children or who may be new to First Parish, this business of “RE” probably sounds a bit confusing. You may not be the only one asking yourself, what does RE stand for? Well, today we speak about Religious Education.

Sometimes I feel like the Alphabet Soup of Unitarian Universalism is no where more prevalent than it is in the world of Religious Education. In the last few months as my friends and family have asked me what exactly this new job I have is, it usually takes at least a few minutes to explain precisely what my position as “DRE of a UU church” is all about. When I first began connecting with other local DREs you can imagine my surprise (and delight) upon discovering that not only am I part of a community of DREs, but I am also part of a network of Y.A.D.R.E.s. That is Young Adult Directors of Religious Education. We call ourselves YADREs.

So, what is Religious Education and why does it matter?

It is my belief that everything we do here at First Parish — everything — is Religious Education.

I speak from the perspective of someone who was raised in a UU church.

I speak remembering how difficult it was to explain my religious identity to other children on my block and in my school.

I speak as a former youth group leader and young adult who remained active in her church during the years when most Young Adults drop out of the movement.

And I speak this morning as a DRE who yearns for the kind of education and exploration that will light our spirits on fire.

Throughout this hour together the members of the RE Community and I will be sharing and articulating different visions of Religious Education, allow me to share one with you one that I am particularly fond of. The Rev. Sylvia Stocker once said, “Within a covenantal community, Unitarian Universalist religious education provides tools for individuals of all ages to touch and deepen their inner spirits, to access a sense of awe in the face of mystery and grace beyond human understanding, and to discover and serve the world beyond the church doors. Our goal is to help people grow into their best selves. We learn from direct experience of the world, from world religions, from the stories of wise people, both within our tradition and outside it, and from establishing and living into covenants with one another. ”

Our goal is to help people grow into their best selves.

To that end, RE cannot simply happen during that activity called “Sunday School.” Other denominations may reduce Sunday School and education to book learning and memorization, but as UUs we dare to believe in the radical idea that RE is a lifelong process of growth and a yearning for spiritual depth.

As I mentioned earlier, I grew up in a UU church. I regularly attended Sunday School as a child. In Jr. High and High School I looked forward to Youth Group every week. I have often reflected on my experiences as a young UUer. What was it about the church that kept me going, even in those later years when my parents decided that going to church was no longer important? Was it an intellectual passion for the UU history we studied? Was it the sense of tradition I encountered? Was it the sense of awe and appreciation I developed for the outdoors as we explored the natural world? Maybe it was merely the fun I had with other, like-minded kids. The strongest case, I used to imagine, was that I loved the feeling of being able to make a difference as my church engaged in social action and justice making activities within the larger community. In my experience, being raised a UU provided me with an understanding of activism and the critical need for a liberal religious voice promoting peace and justice in the world. I wanted to change the world and the church gave me a voice.

All of those truly awesome components of my UU background held me in the movement.

But my point is this. At its most basic level, Religious Education and the programming that kept me and will keep all of our young people involved at First Parish is not the curriculum, the teaching method or even the message itself. RE is about community. It is about finding support in our most vulnerable endeavors, those of the spirit.

In my childhood church I felt profoundly held by a loving community.

I felt safe at church.

I knew that the adults deeply cared about me.

And most importantly, I felt supported during the intense joys and sorrows of adolescents.

Of course I will never forget all of the fun my friends and I had. The camping trips, the music we made, the games we played, the anti-war group we formed at school. All of these playful, joyful aspects of Religious community are essential. But UU communities really thrive when children and adults feel safe enough to fully explore their identities and spiritual, religious beliefs.

Religious Education, therefore is not just about what happens on Sunday morning — in this sanctuary, or upstairs in our RE classrooms. Religious education happens, for all of us, everyday. Everything we do at First Parish and as a community is fertile ground for learning. Religious Education occurs in that liminal space between each of us as we create a safety-net for Religious Exploration.

In her essay Doorway to the Sacred, Makanah Elizabeth Morriss writes, “religious education is all about unlocking people…unlocking doors of creative possibilities, unlocking minds with new ideas and the permission to think for oneself, unlocking hearts that may have been hurt by life’s experiences so that healing may occur and joy and compassion may be experienced more fully.”

On this passage Rev. Stocker responds, “I believe that kind of unlocking can only occur when people feel safe. Perhaps one of our growing edges as a denomination is to learn how to build for adults the kinds of safe havens we expect for our children. Because, after all doesn’t everyone deserve to feel held and nurtured? Doesn’t everyone deserve to become his or her best self? If we learn how to be a community that nurtures its members and helps them to blossom, isn’t that one of the ultimate goals of religious education? If we can harness the nurture and love of our community to grow our souls, isn’t that one of the ultimate goals of religious education?”

In our Religious Education programming for children and youth, our young people grow accustomed to talking about theology. This is what kept me going to church as I young person. I needed a place and a community with whom I could discusses matters of spirit and religion. I welcomed the opportunity to debate deep theological issues.

Here at First Parish, children are likewise encouraged to ask questions — to think about and explore their own personal beliefs and theology. RE class is a safe space for children to play, learn, and grow.

Over the years I’ve noticed that many adult Unitarian Universalists appear uncomfortable and shy away from discussions of theology. To be sure, each adult who has made it through our doors has a story to tell about the spiritual journey that brought them here. Many members have stories of exodus and pain from past religious experiences. To those people, our congregation offers support and love. We offer an ear to listen to your story, and a safe haven to create a new spiritual story.

But where, then, is our common ground? At what point do we stop talking about where we have been and what we are not, and begin a discussion about who we are and what we have in common?

As a child, I distinctly remember explaining to my Catholic and Christian friends that I was a UU because I did not believe in whatever issue it was that they were pressing me on. Of course no child may be able to articulate the complex theology and history of Unitarian Universalism, but to any child or adult out there who struggles with the question “what do UUs believe in?” You can always say this. Unitarian Universalists believe in YOU.

Likewise, this church believes in you. Each one of you. Each and every child and teenager and adult in this sanctuary has a beloved community behind them encouraging them to religious exploration and spiritual depth.

How do we grow into our best selves? We continue learning. We push forward. Our religious identity and experience is constantly evolving. We are on this journey together and when we need it, we have one another.

If Religious Education is all about unlocking people, let’s make that happen at First Parish. Let us engage together in the risky business of opening our hearts and discovering the content of our souls.

In each of our encounters, at all of our committee meetings, music rehearsals, pancake breakfasts, and every other activity, may we be held in beloved community, with permission to ask the tough questions and talk about theology.

May this be a church where children, youth, and adults are supported, minds are inspired and opportunities for growth never cease. May we be cradled in the safety-net of community in our never-ending journey of religious education.