Dealing with Dementors

This past Sunday was Balloon Sunday at First Parish Church in Taunton.  My story was inspired by this article I found by Chris Crass.  It’s amazing what can be found on the internet by plugging a few words into your search engine.

The Harry Potter stories have lots of mythical  and magical creatures – some nice and wonderful, some not so much.  One of the least nice of the creatures are the Dementors.  According to Professor Lupin of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Dementors “drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them… Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you…You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.”

And the worst news is…Dementors are real.

In real life, Dementors are not wispy, dark ghosts floating around us.  They are the people that we meet from time to time who tell us that we are not smart enough, that we are not pretty enough or strong enough or skinny enough.  They are the people who tell us that we should quit trying to do great things because we are not good enough.  They tell us that we shouldn’t even try to bring good things into our lives because we are not worth it.

Expecto Patronum!

 

We know how to deal with Dementors, though.  In the world of Harry Potter, they use the Patronus charm and that is how we deal with Dementors in real life, too.  We whip out our wands and shout, “Expecto Patronum!”

Not really.  Although that sounds like a lot of fun and I might just try it some time.

The key to the Patronus charm is not the wand or how loud we shout the magic words.  The true strength of the magic is in our happy memories.  The hope and love in our hearts is what protects us and drives away the Dementors.

So when we meet Dementors – and we will meet them –  we must remember to fill our hearts with happy memories, loving thoughts and hope.  We strengthen those memories and thoughts by filling our lives with people who love us, who support us as we grow into wonderful people and who help us do great things.

It would be way more fun to whip out our wands and shout, “Expecto Patronum” at some Dementor who has been putting us down.  However, as two young girls at church reminded me on Sunday, Dementors can often be driven away by simply ignoring them or telling them that we don’t like what they are saying.  And then go get a piece of chocolate.

The 3 sisters – Hope, Faith and Love

???????????????????????????????????????The theme in February at First Parish Church in Taunton is Hope.  I have been thinking a lot about Hope and Faith lately.  This story, which I told at our Time for All Ages, came from that thinking.

This is a story about three sisters – Hope, Faith and Love.  I think their parents might have been hippies.  Every day, the sisters work to fight injustice.  They march against unfair treatment.  They help kids being bullied.  They sit with parents with sick kids.  They help families struggling to pay the rent and put food on the table.

Each morning, Hope wakes up first and, in her wee happy voice, she sings, “I hope today will be a good day.”  Her cheery optimism helps get her sisters up and ready for the day.  The sisters sing together over breakfast, hum while washing up and dance while getting dressed to start the day.  Bellies full, clean and neat, the sisters head to the door.  Sometimes Hope’s sunny mood dims a little as she considers their work ahead and the challenges they might face.  “I hope today will be a good day, but I am not sure.”

Faith chirps up in a voice strong and determined.  “I have faith that our work matters.  I have faith that things will get better.”  Hand in hand, the three sisters set out to protest, to protect, to educate, to feed and clothe, and to heal the broken places in the world.   They march arm in arm.  They speak truth to power.  They hug and cry with the suffering.  They sing with the brave.  They keep their hands busy with their life giving, world saving work.

The sisters have many friends and partners, but not everyone welcomes them.  Sometimes they meet people who put them down.  Sometimes they meet people who push them down.  Sometimes they are even beat down.  In these dark times even Hope’s optimism and Faith’s determination waiver.

Love in usually pretty quite.  Usually she shows her strength with a gentle touch, a loving smile or a warm embrace.  In the dark times, when the sisters are at their lowest, she shows her true power.  “Get up!” she shouts.  “Stand up!”  “Keep moving!”  When the sisters are almost at the breaking point, it is Love’s power that brings them through.  Love reminds them  why they work so hard every day.  Love reminds them of all the wonderful people with whom they struggle.  Love reminds of all the beauty they work to protect.  With Love, they rise.  With Love, they push forward.

And so the sisters work together each day.  We will find them when we work together for justice.  We will find them when we act with compassion.  We will find them when we stand up and we will find them when we are shoved down.  Each contributes in their own way to help us do what we know is right.

The letter to Santa

One of my responsibilities as the Director of Religious Education at First Parish Church in Taunton is to tell a story or share some thoughts during the worship service.  We call this the “Time for All Ages.”  This past Sunday, I struck  upon a gem.

There once was a 3rd grade teacher – Mrs. Mello – who asked her students to write a letter to Santa with their Christmas Wish List as one of their assignments.  Third graders are learning to write letters and this seemed like a good way to get the kids excited about their lesson.  The children got busy right away.  When the letters were all written, Mrs. Mello collected them and brought them home to correct that evening.

After dinner, she sat in her comfy chair, got out her red pen, and started correcting and grading the letters.  She skimmed through several letters, not really focused on the stream of “Please bring me a new bike…new doll…new action figure…new computer game…”  It wasn’t the content of the letters that was important.  She was looking to make sure that they used capital letters at the beginning of the sentence, punctuation at the end and enough verbs, adjectives and nouns in the middle.  One letter, though, drew her in.

It started off sweetly enough…

Dear Santa,

Thank you for all the wonderful gifts you brought last year.

But then it took an unexpected turn…

This year, could you make sure that me and my family have a warm, dry home.  And could you make sure that my whole family is safe and healthy.  I would really like it if my whole family could be together for Christmas and there is enough food on the table for everyone to get their fill.

I also want a dry pair of boots so my feet don’t get wet when I walk to school and a warm coat so I won’t be cold.

Your friend,

Billy

Mrs. Mello was shocked and saddened.  She had no idea that Billy and his family were going through such a hard time.  She picked up her phone and called Billy’s home right away.

When Billy’s mom answered the phone, Mrs. Mello shared with her the contents of Billy’s letter and asked if there were anything that the school could do to help her family.  Billy’s mom replied that she had no idea why Billy would write a letter like that because the family was doing just fine.  They had a warm, dry home.  No one was sick and there was plenty of food.  Billy had nice boots and a warm coat.

Billy’s mom thanked Mrs. Mello for her call and after saying “Goodbye” she went to Billy’s room to ask him about the letter.  “Billy, why would you write a letter asking Santa for a warm, dry home?  Why would you ask for the family to be healthy and well fed?  Why do you want dry boots and a warm coat?  You already have all of those things.”

Billy looked at his Mom with a big smile and said, “Yeah, isn’t that cool.  I already have everything I want.”

Play ball!

Image     Once upon a time, there was a girl named Karen whose parents signed her up to play baseball.  Both of her parents loved baseball and lots of kids in their community played baseball so it seemed like a good idea.

Karen started going to practices and the games.  Some of the kids were nice, but not all of them.  The coach was not.  Most of the time he yelled.  He yelled at Karen and her friends to run faster, swing straighter and stop dropping the ball.  When they didn’t run faster he made them run more.  When they didn’t swing straighter, he kept them late at practice .  When they dropped the ball, he threw it harder.

Karen played baseball for years.  Partly because her parents liked the game and enjoyed watching her play.  Partly because she had some good friends on the team.  Karen played baseball for years.  Karen got yelled at for years.  She ran extra laps, stayed late at practice and tried not to drop the ball.  Karen played baseball for years and learned to hate baseball.  She just felt like she was never good enough.

Eventually, Karen stopped playing baseball.  She stopped watching baseball because it reminded her of how unhappy it had made her feel.  In fact, she pretty much gave up on all sports.  The idea of being on a team with a coach just brought back too many unpleasant memories.  She had friends who played sports – some baseball, others football, soccer, volleyball, but not Karen.  No matter how much they told her about the fun they had, the health benefits, parties afterwards…Karen wanted nothing to do with it.  She had been hurt too much.

Some people’s experience with church has been similar to Karen’s experience with baseball.  They’ve been yelled at.  They’ve been hurt.  They’ve been made to feel like they are no good.  They’ve given up.

For those of us who have discovered that we can love the game again, how do we share that love?  How can we show them that there are coaches who don’t yell and teams where all the kids are nice?  How do we let them know that practice can be fun, not hurtful?

How do we convince those who have given up to give it another try?

A foundation of trust

The theme for this month at First Parish Church in Taunton is Trust.

I remember my early days of Psychology courses and recalled that a guy named Eric offered that we learn different lessons about the world at different ages as we grow up.  He taught that the first lesson we learn as babies is about trust.  If babies are fed when they are hungry and changed when they are wet and held when they are scared they will learn the world and people in it can be trusted.  Because it is the first lesson we learn, it could be thought of as the foundation for everything we learn after that.

That got me thinking about this story:

There once was a village far, far, far, far away.  One of the rules in this village is that when someone wanted to start a family, he or she had to build a house and live in it for a year.  One day, a young man decided that he wanted to start a family.  He decided that he wanted his family to be able to see the ocean every day, so he built his house on the beach.  Predictably, as soon as the first strong rain came the sand under his house began to shift and his house fell down within a couple of months.

Luckily, he was not killed.foundation

Having learned from his mistake, he gathered up a pile of rocks and bricks and built his house on the pile.  This worked out pretty well for several months but within 6 months, the pile began to shift and this house fell down, too.

Luckily, he was not killed.

The young man was determined and decided to give it another try.  This time, he built a strong foundation.  He built his house and moved in.  The house on the strong foundation stood for the entire year despite the rain and windstorms.  He found a partner, started his family and they all lived happily ever after.

What if we could see?

The little prince and the fox

One of my favorite books is “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.  It is a great read for all ages.  Young children enjoy the story and, as we get older, we begin to see its rich symbolism and timeless messages.  My favorite part of the book is the relationship between the fox and the Little Prince.  In the end, the fox teaches the Little Prince a valuable lesson:

And he went back to meet the fox.

“Goodbye,” he said.

“Goodbye,” said the fox. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

What if the essential were visible to the eye?  What if we could see?

What if we could see deeper into the hearts of the people we meet?  If we saw the worry about how to stretch a paycheck that is simply too small to provide rent and food and clothes for a family would we be so abrupt, so quick to complain about a meal that is not quite right?  If we could see the sleepless nights trying to get a college paper finished while soothing a baby’s fever hoping not to get sick and miss a day of work, a day’s wages, a car payment would we be more inclined to offer a friendly smile and thank you while we wait patiently for our dessert and coffee?

What if we could see further down the path, see the consequences of our choices?  Would we stop for another fast food meal if we could see the heart attack on the horizon?  Would we dig a little deeper into our pockets to give to the homeless person asking for change if we could see the satisfied look after the first bite, first sip of a first meal today?  Would we tell our children “No” or “Yes” more if we could be sure that it was the right answer?

What if we could see the paths that our friends, co-workers, classmates have walked?  Would we be so quick to label someone “snob” or “slut” or “nut” if we understood the lessons they learned along their journey about how to connect with people or how to get their needs met or even if this is likely or possible?  Would we offer a genuine, “How are you?” and take the time for a genuine response if emotional injuries were as obvious as blood and bruises?

What if we could see how everything is connected?  Would we spend hundreds, thousands, millions of dollars poisoning the planet if every living thing that was killed for our green lawn, fancy flowers, cheap produce, juicy steak was laid in a pile at our feet?  Would we invest our hearts and hands and tax dollars into education, health care, the arts, if we could see the teacher, the doctor, the dancer, in the faces of our children.

What if we could see how my family and your family and their family have so much more in common than we ever knew?  Would we judge the single mother of 3 on welfare so harshly if we could see the inches, the one bad thing, that separates us from her.  Would we stand up, speak up, act up louder and prouder if we could see our family living with the laws and the rules that were made for those families?

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

While our eyes may be blind to the depth and breadth of truth, we need only open our hearts to see rightly.

How will you use your powers?

How will you use your energy today?
How will you use your talents today?

Will you lift people up or put  them down?
Will you open doors or slam them shut?
Will you reach out or push away?
Will you build up or tear down?
Will you build bridges or widen the divide?
Will you try to understand or close your mind?
Will you heal or will you hurt?

How will you use your powers today?

“Mostly dead is slightly alive”

A year ago today, Rev. Christana Wille McKnight began her ministry at First Parish Church in Taunton.  As I look back on the bleak winter days leading up to the early spring in which the Board made the wise decision to answer the door when opportunity knocked, I am reminded of this scene from the movie “Princess Bride.”

 

First Parish Church in Taunton was “mostly dead.”  But, as our wise friend Miracle Max pointed out, “Mostly dead is slightly alive.”  Over the past year, the congregation at First Parish Church created its own miracle, led by our own “Miracle MaxKnight.”

One Year Later, Rev. Christana writes in her blog, “our vision continues to expand, relationships deepen and our ministry grows.”

As we look forward to many years together, my wish for the congregation in Taunton is, of course, “Have fun storming the castle.”

My Easter story

Easter window

from New England Church Project

I have said many times that some stories are true, some are not and some are a little of both.  Many of our sacred texts are like that.  Often we spend a great deal of time trying to prove that a particular story is true or not true and miss the fact that there is truth to be found even in the most fantastical stories.

Today is Easter and Christians around the globe are telling the story in the Christian bible about Jesus dying and then, three days later, rising from the dead.  My reasoning mind tells me that people who are dead do not come back to life.  I have never known of someone who is dead, coming back to life, so I don’t believe that this bible story is factually true.  However, from my personal experience, I know that when someone we love dies, we can often feel them, see them and hear them long after they are gone.  My father died four years ago.  I still see his face when I look in the mirror.  I still hear his voice coming out of my mouth.  So I can believe that Jesus’ friends and family felt him, saw him and heard him.

I can believe that a man named Jesus walked around teaching people to love one another and that there is more to life than just grinding out a living.  I can believe that there were people who felt threatened by this and killed him.  I can believe this because there are other people who have done the same and faced the same fate.  Martin Luther King went around trying to teach people about justice and love for all people.  Some folks really did not like that and killed him for it.  Gandhi went around trying to teach people about peace and freedom.  There were people who didn’t like that either and he was killed.  So, yes, I can believe that a man named Jesus was killed for preaching about love and salvation.

Church window

from New England Church Project

I can also believe that Jesus’ message endured well beyond his lifetime.  I can believe that his message of love so inspired the people who heard it that we continue to preach this message and work to bring love and peace to the world thousands of years later.  I believe it because I see people every day who have been inspired by powerful messages carrying on the work of those who have fallen.  The messages of King and Gandhi could not be silenced by their murders.  Susan B. Anthony never got the chance to vote but she and others inspired a movement that could not be stopped, not even with her death.

For me, this is the truth in the Christian Easter story.  We are engaged in a struggle between Love and Fear.  And Love always wins.  Because Love is stronger than Fear.  Love is stronger even than Death.

Sorry Dr. Channing, I want more

William Ellery Channing

The Unitarian preacher and theologian Dr. William Ellery Channing is often quoted by Unitarian Universalist religious educators:

The great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own…to awaken the soul, to excite and cherish spiritual life.”

These words are at the cornerstone of UU religious education.  Sunday schools in UU churches can be quite different from the religious education in other churches.  It is our stated goal not to tell children what to believe or fill their heads with memorizing prayers, scripture and rules.  Instead, in our churches, we encourage children to, as we say in the fourth of our Principles, to undertake a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”  We want our children to develop a spiritual curiosity and a critical mind to embark on a life long adventure with the sacred.

I am totally down with that.  At First Parish Church in Taunton, our Sunday School program gives our children room to explore and experience the sacred in themselves and in the world around them.

With all due respect to Dr. Channing, though, we need to do more.  While his words may well equip our children for the journey ahead, I fear that Dr. Channing has left them without any roots, without an anchor, without a home to base their spiritual journey.  I didn’t grow up to be exactly like my parents, but I have always known who I am, who my family is and where home is.

In addition to the spiritual awakening and curiosity that Dr. Channing wrote about, I have 2 other goals for our children.

The first is that I want our children to love coming to church.  I believe that our children learn best when they are having fun.  While there are lessons in each activity, the kids are busy at Sunday School doing things that are fun – art projects, skits, singing, dancing, getting dirty.  It’s the fun times that families spend together that forge the bonds that carry us through the difficult times.  Happy memories call us home when we get lost.

One parent told me last year that her children had woken her up at 5am, “Is it time to go to Sunday School, yet?”  It was Wednesday.  Winning!

The second is that I want our children to feel that they belong at our church – that we are a part of them and they are a part of us.  One of the first things that children learn is their first and last name and their address.  Their first name tells them who they are.  Their last name tells them to whom they belong.  Their address tells them where home is.  I believe that there is a monumental difference between hearing someone say “I go to a Unitarian Universalist church” and “I am a Unitarian Universalist.  This is my church.”

I agree with Dr. Channing that our children do not need to memorize our seven principles or even know that William Ellery Channing was a Unitarian minister, but I think we can set the bar higher.

My name is Barry Sanders.  I am a Unitarian Universalist.  First Parish Church in Taunton is my spiritual home.

I pray that our kids can say the same.  Except for that first part about my name is Barry Sanders.  That would be weird.

Family fun

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