by Kristin Famula
Religious Education – Everybody Needs a Rock– August 14, 2016
Everybody needs a rock.
I was introduced to this book early-on in my path as a religious educator – during a workshop on multigenerational worship at General Assembly. I immediately had a strong connection to the story – I loved the gentle symbolism and simple, yet deep message. And I knew I wanted to share it with you today, because it so perfectly explained my vision of RE: the metaphor of finding your ‘rock’ – which will serve as the solid UU foundation that grounds us in life and gets nurtured through religious education.
But, as I was looking up the book online to refresh my memory – I discovered ‘reviews’ of the story.
The first reviews I read were from rock-hounds and teachers: these reviews said things like, “this is a great story! It fit in perfectly with the lesson on geology and exploration of the natural world. We’re going to read the story in class and then go examine rocks and figure out if they’re metamorphic or igneous! ”
These reviews caused me to pause: “Obviously they’re missing the intent behind the book, right? It’s clearly not meant as a book about rock hunting!”
But then I kept reading – (you know how you get sucked in when you’re online?)
One review shared that it’s about paying attention to the small things (ok, I thought, that’s closer …)
Another explained that it’s about holding on to something solid during the tough times…
And yet another described the books ability to encourage you to listen to yourself and not what others tell you.
There were pages of these reviews – each with a completely different explanation of the meaning of the story. I got a bit worried. I didn’t want to use the book if there was no agreement about what it’s about… It wouldn’t fit with my theme of the importance of the ROCK – the solid UU foundation — that gets encouraged in our religious education programs.
One book review simply quoted a sentence in the book: ‘You have to make up your own mind. You’ll know.”
And it dawned on me that actually the story fit exactly what I know from religious education. Yes, RE gives us a solid foundation of ethics and principles to ground us in our faith; but more than that, it encourages us to commit to the ongoing process of rock-shaping.
And that’s the whole point of religious education – helping us stay open to each of our own life experiences that contribute to how we make-meaning and take-meaning from something as simple as a story about a rock.
Last year, members here were asked, “Which of UUCM’s programs and activities would you like to see growth in?” …and, well, the answer seemed pretty obvious.
And that’s not necessarily surprising. In many churches, the answer to that question would be similar – we understand that religious education is an integral aspect of our faith; we know it’s essential to support our families in the hard work of educating their children; and we understand that a strong religious education program leads to committed families which leads to growth in our churches.
However finding a common understanding of what we should be teaching and what the end goal is has continued to evolve in Unitarian Universalism for decades. In part, because we are so committed to not just the content of the classes, but our own ongoing learning.
In earlier days we adults dropped off our children and youth at “Sunday School”, happy for an opportunity to sit by ourselves in the service in silence as we received the solitude, thoughtfulness and adult-time necessary to begin another week of work.
And as the adults sat in the service, UU “Sunday School” usually consisted of our children and youth engaging in a ‘comparative religions’ type curriculum that would introduce them to the world of beliefs that exist. We knew it was important that they form their own opinions about what they believe.
But then we began to realize that just teaching about other religions didn’t give our children and youth anything to stand on when their religious beliefs were being questioned at school or elsewhere.
I was one of those children, standing in a middle school classroom in bible-belt Oklahoma – where my friends, would cry and pray for me about my inevitable path to hell. And while I sincerely appreciated that they cared about me, I wasn’t prepared to advocate on my behalf about my own religious convictions. Simply saying that UUs believe in a free and responsible search for the truth didn’t give me enough leverage when their convictions about heaven and hell were so defined. “I can believe whatever I want about Hell” didn’t give them (or me) any confidence.
For years, our UU children had no language to explain what they believed, only that they were allowed to believe what they wanted. And so we learned that we needed to actually teach about our own faith, not just that of others, and we learned how to teach our children about our own UU theology and helped them develop their own answers to the big questions of the world: Who are We? Why do we exist? What is our purpose?
In our religious education classes we began shaping opportunities for this deeper questioning and wonder. We developed Coming of Age programs so that our youth could learn how to create their own credos – their own statements of belief – and we challenged our children and youth to come up with their own answers to these existential questions.
And then our learning progressed further and we discovered that not only is RE about religion and spirituality, but it’s about living our principles in the world. It’s about understanding what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist in real life. And so we incorporated service and social justice and action into our curricula.
And throughout this time Unitarian Universalism itself was changing – questioning our use of words like Religion, Faith, and God. Incorporating learnings from Humanist, Pagan, and Atheist UU’s…Discarding language that didn’t work, reclaiming language that could… gleaning new understandings of what it means to be a religious community.
Even the documents that are seemingly so fundamental to Unitarian Universalists were transformed. The most recent version of our 7 principles was only agreed upon in 1985 – revised from a version of “The Six Principles” passed in 1961 – with the merger of Unitarians and Universalists. The original principles referenced “God” and the “Dignity of Man” and was clearly not inclusive enough for our evolving understanding of the world. This new framing of our principles also finally included our commitment to the earth. In 1995, they were edited again – this time recognizing earth-centered traditions as part of our sources.
Throughout our existence as a religion (as Unitarians and Universalists and Unitarian Universalists) we have shifted and changed to meet the evolving needs of our congregants and our understanding of the world around us. And in parallel, our UU churches adapt new learning opportunities and expand and transform our philosophy of education in order to reach those new needs. It is a deliberate process. Grown from the UU foundations we set in place, and yet with an intentional commitment towards the progression of our learning – even if it means challenging our own foundations.
I share this history with you because it’s important to remember that the “who, what, why and how” of religious education is constantly transforming – even the name changes! And our growth as a faith is dependent on the purposeful dedication to the process itself.
In the past decade I noticed a shift in RE again as churches recognized a new philosophy of religious education being “all the time; for everyone; everywhere”. And that has once again modified the way we engage in RE practices. At first it was just a new emphasis on the importance of adult education offerings. Now we are beginning to see UU churches leaning in to an emphasis not just on the rock foundations of being UU, but on the importance of this life-long process of learning and changing and meaning-making. Our churches are finding a new appreciation that everything we live daily is religious education.
So if our rock of religious education actually reminds us to commit to our ongoing growth and learning – what does that mean here at UUCM?
What does an RE program look like that encourages us to keep searching for our own truth and also to understand someone else’s truth and be shaped by it as well?
This year, the staff team has committed to theme-based ministry and education. We’ve learned that if everyone is challenging themselves through the same theme (in age-appropriate ways of course) that we can go deeper in our learning. We open up new opportunities for finding our truth, because we’ve given ourselves additional openings for conversations with others in our community. If we’re all exploring the theme of ‘love’ – we can talk to each other about. Our children can ask you, during coffee hour, what you learned about love. Oftentimes we don’t make enough space for learning from each other – especially from our younger ones. Many of our young people have been raised in UU churches (while many of our adults are later-in-life UU converts), and so often-times our faith-elders ARE our young people – they’ve been steeped in our UU principles and have clear ideas about the world.
I have this distinct memory of sitting at the kitchen table with my mom when I was younger. She was encouraging me to write a thank-you note to a family friend. My parents are liberal UU’s who encouraged all of my foundations of ethics and values in the world. I remember after writing the letter that I was addressing the envelope and wrote “Lynn and John Smith” on the front. My mom scolded me and told me that the formal and appropriate way of addressing the letter was to write, “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith”. I was shocked that my mom, model of all things progressive and good, could possibly think that referring to a woman as “Mrs. John Smith” would be appropriate! I responded with self-righteous outrage while she sat in reflective silence.
This memory seems silly, but it was a key moment in our shared learning – that the values I had learned (that she had taught me, along with many UU’s) were now helping to shape new cultural norms; and my mom’s willingness to take in that new thinking, born of the same foundational principles she herself had taught me and allow the new thinking to sink in to her own truths – was part of the ongoing learning and shaping. We are invited to be willing to listen to one another and be open to our truths being shaped and transformed.
Sarah van Gelder, an editor of YES! Magazine, which offers stories about positive changes happening in the world, once wrote in her editor’s letter, “As a child, I remember thinking adults reached a magical age when they became “grown-ups” and were therefore done growing. Now that I have reached that age myself, I realize that we’re not done—we have the option of continuing to develop throughout life. We need people who choose to continue learning.”
I really resonate with her call for people who CHOOSE to continue learning. We get to be intentional about the fact that we’re always learning throughout our lives and we can be deliberate about putting ourselves in places where our growth is guaranteed and supported. UUCM is one of these places. Helping us grow in our understanding of the world; helping challenge us to be more creative, loving, and authentic.
It was the courageous UU’s throughout our history that continued to shape the very foundations of our faith because they were committed to ongoing learning and a dedication to incorporating that learning into our changing understanding of the world – and it will be us, helping shape our future.
None of this learning is confined to just one age group. No one needs it more than anyone else. Elders, seniors, children, teens, young adults, however you identify. Religious education is for all of us. It’s about learning how to live our lives as Unitarian Universalists. It’s about how we show up as authentically as possible and make meaning of the situations we find ourselves in. It’s how we stand grounded in our principles, and also allow ourselves to be shaped by the process – always willing to keep learning and growing – always willing to reshape our truth and be shaped by the truth of others.
We need people who choose to continue learning.
We need people who know that more than just searching for the perfect rock, it’s about committing to the journey, and allowing yourself to be shaped by the process and practice of the search.
May it be so.