I have been spending the past few days with Unitarian Universalist religious educators. The annual conference of the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) is this weekend, and this year’s conference is in Baltimore. My first job after graduating from seminary was as a Minister for Religious Education, and I continue to feel that religious educators are “my people” at least as much as colleagues in other religious and counseling professions. I plan to catch up on the programs I’m missing this morning through recordings, but my brain and my heart are already pretty full.
The theme of this year’s conference is “Theologies of Suffering and Wholeness: Companions in Liberation.” The Board of LREDA invited faculty from our two Unitarian Universalist seminaries to come and lead some of the programs. This theme matters. Religious education is more than administrative details and implementing curricula, though those are some of the tools of the work.
When we take faith development and the religious professionals who lead that work seriously, we very quickly run into real life. Faith development means being a companion to a family facing death. Faith development means helping families whose households encircle intersections of race, nationality, religion, class, and/or ability to navigate their roles with spiritual and emotional depth. Faith development means not being afraid to create space to encounter the real struggles and challenges and hurts and questions that human beings of all ages live with; because it is through honest engagement, community support, and spiritual reflection that we can grow and perhaps heal from our direct experience. Religious education is all of these things.
In classes with children and youth, we do address big issues in structured ways. Just taking today as an example, the main ideas our children are exploring include concepts of belonging and community, sharing as a spiritual value, and democratic process and ethical discernment, among other things. Religious education classes look at real life stuff with a spiritual and emotional lens, just as we do in worship. Classes also provide peer relationships of manageable size and age-appropriate rituals. Religious education is worship and worship is religious education. Both have value, big group and small group, peer relationships and multigenerational community, a place for individual questions and a place to be part of something larger than yourself.
It wasn’t always this way. Up until at least the 1930s, religious education in Universalist and Unitarian and most Protestant congregations was about lecture, Bible, and catechism. Classes focused on memorizing the right answers to important questions. There was a wave of Religious Educators who helped change that, the most well known in our movement being Sophia Lyon Fahs. Unitarian Universalists don’t have sainthood as a class of ancestors elevated and separated from other ancestors, but if we did, Sophia Lyon Fahs would be right up there. In case you are like me and did not grow up learning the biographies of famous Unitarian Universalists, let me quote from a 2003 article from the UU World Magazine:
From 1937, when she was 61, until her retirement in 1951, Fahs helped lead a Unitarian religious education revival. “The New Beacon Series,” which she edited and for which she wrote or co-authored more than a dozen books, addressed children directly using vivid stories from around the world. Drawing on anthropological and psychological research, the children’s books were dedicated to one goal: “We wish children to come to know God directly through original approaches of their own to the universe.” The series’ child-centered approach appealed to many young “baby boom” parents, and the curriculum’s popularity in the fellowships that sprang up across the continent was one leading factor in Unitarianism’s post-war resurgence.
Some titles, like The Church Across the Street (1947), have clear contemporary successors, like the UUA’s Neighboring Faiths curriculum. From Long Ago and Many Lands, published fifty years ago, is still in print.
She was ordained in 1959—aged 83—by what is now the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Maryland, in recognition for a lifetime contribution to the liberal religious movement. (So ends the excerpt.)
Sophia Lyon Fahs was among the generation of religious education innovators who knew that people of all ages come into religious community with questions arising from their everyday experience. She knew that a sense of wonder is indispensable, and can be invoked with nothing more than observation and consideration of direct experience. She said:
“Life becomes religious whenever we make it so: when some new light is seen, when some deeper appreciation is felt, when some larger outlook is gained, when some nobler purpose is formed, when some task is well done.” (End quote)
What I think she is saying here is that the gift of our attention makes something a religious experience. Being fully present, allowing ourselves the vulnerability of feeling awe, opening our minds to questions that may not have immediate answers— all of these are spiritual practices.
The optimism of twentieth century Unitarian Universalism comes through clearly as we look back on the contributions of Sophia Lyon Fahs. She didn’t just change what happened in children’s ministry, she changed the idea about who we could be as a people, what it meant to experience faith formation at any age. Acknowledging the sacredness of our direct experience is a gift that still sustains us.
On the other hand, I think we have forgotten about half of that gift. It is true that direct experience with those things that uplift us, those things that lead us to wonder and curiosity, those things that remind us of our connection to the universe— these are meaningful. We should also remember that our direct experience with things that are not uplifting are also part of our religious and spiritual lives.
Sophia Fahs did not ignore the big questions that come with feelings of sadness, grief, and hopelessness. She addressed death in stories and in lesson plans. Yet, as I go back and look at some of the materials from that period, sometimes the approach seems intellectual. It’s possible that what I’m looking at are notes and frameworks, and the human element came alive in the classrooms and sanctuaries of the day. I am not a life-long UU, so maybe some of the folks here who used these resources as children can tell me if they sparked classroom conversations, worship services, and practices that helped people cope with direct experiences of violence, death, forced migration, oppression, or any of the other things that people were on people’s hearts in the fifties and sixties in UU congregations. There were people in UU congregations who had experienced two world wars, some of them arriving here as refugees. There were African Americans in UU congregations who knew what it was like to raise a family in a segregated society. There were people dealing with addiction and long-term illnesses, and there were families with more fractures than they wanted to talk about. How did this faith of direct experience, this faith that honored the religiousness of attention to real life, help people to hold all of that in ritual, story, and community?
Realism in religious experience can be positive. This is the faith I draw on when I say that the Source of Life did not pre-ordain a path of suffering just for you. I do not suggest that we find meaning in deciding that oppression or disease is a punishment, a test, or essential to the plan for ultimate good. The Unitarian Universalist faith that honors human experience tells me that, if there is a God, God is not the source of oppression or suffering; usually, humans are. When we exploit the earth and other people, heedless of the consequences, humans cause profound damage. When we refuse to see ourselves as responsible to one another, part of a society with a call to care for one another in justice and truth, we are committing and are complicit in oppression. When our need to regard ourselves as good prevents us from noticing or acknowledging our mistakes, we cause harm. This faith of honoring direct experience, this faith of finding religious meaning in what’s right in front of us, does not let us end the conversation by blaming a mysterious source for the suffering to which we must respond. There are those among us who find meaning in the companionship of a higher power through their times of suffering, but that’s not the same thing as seeing the Divine as the author of suffering. The Source of Blessing as we understand it to be may bring us strength and courage and even ideas, yet it is among humans that we find practical responses to human-caused problems. As Teresa of Avila observed, the Eternal has no hands or feet but ours.
Thandeka’s poem that we heard earlier reminds us that, to renew our lives, we first come to terms with what is. We turn to “the world, the streets of the city,” with all of its forms of alienation and pain. We see the holy glimmering within the human beings we encounter, even with the “rage and pain in the faces that turn from me / afraid of their own inner worlds.” Thandeka goes on:
This common world I love anew,
as the life blood of generations
who refused to surrender their humanity
in an inhumane world,
courses through my veins.
From within this world
my despair is transformed to hope
and I begin anew
the legacy of caring.
As the poem suggests, our calling here is to refuse to surrender our humanity, which is what we would do if we attempted to ignore the pain of our neighbors or ourselves. We refuse to surrender the humanity of those we encounter in the midst of their suffering. We refuse to surrender the humanity of those who made it possible for us to be here in the face of the unimaginable. There is religious meaning in being fully present, and in following the call to address brokenness in human relationships.
Let me be clear, for some of us, sometimes, brokenness is either something we caused or something that’s part of a system we’re benefiting from at the expense of our beloved neighbors. If one of those things the case, we have a greater responsibility to acknowledge it and address it. Even in the places where the pain just is or where we are in a marginalized group, noticing the pain around us is a necessary step to opening up to our full humanity. We don’t have to dwell on it, we do have to recognize it. We can renew our participation in this river of time; this stream of hope and caring, compassion and healing. Being part of something larger than ourselves, having access to the full range of delight and wonder and pain and sympathy— this is how we are transformed. This is how we help each other get ready to be fully present to whatever comes next.
Sophia Lyon Fahs said, “Life becomes religious whenever we make it so: when some new light is seen, when some deeper appreciation is felt, when some larger outlook is gained, when some nobler purpose is formed, when some task is well done.”
Let us seek out new perspectives by paying attention to the whole range of direct experience, our own and those of our neighbors. Let us appreciate one another, and let us appreciate all of the challenges and gifts that come to us through the legacy of Unitarian Universalism. Let us engage with each other authentically, honestly, and kindly, so that we can offer each other a larger outlook. Let us form noble purposes in making repairs and responding with compassion. There is meaning to be found in the whole world, the uplifting and the difficult, when we place ourselves in the legacy of caring. So be it. Blessed be. Amen.