What is essential is invisible to the eye.

I was so excited to find this recording of my all time favorite story, The Little Prince.  I share it here with you in the hopes that you will find is as enjoyable and inspiring as I have and that you will share it with someone special.

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When Hate Stays in the Closet

One of the best constructed responses to marriage equality opponents. Best thing I have ready today.

The Weekly Sift

answering the most sympathetic and reasonable arguments against same-sex marriage


I found the Marriage Conservation Facebook page when one of my FB friends linked to something “hateful” posted there. And it’s true, you don’t have to read very far to find nasty comments cloaked in self-righteousness.

But that’s not what I found interesting.

In general, I try to discourage my friends from winding themselves up by seeking out other people’s bile. Once in a while I run into some blessedly innocent person who doesn’t understand the depth of irrational hatred in the world, and who (sadly) needs to be disillusioned a little. But I believe that for most of us, the idea that there are crazy, nasty, ugly people on the other side comes to mind far too easily.

What’s harder to hold in mind is all the good, decent, well-meaning people who are trying their best to do the…

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Mamma Dog and the Pile of Yarn

outreach centerThis morning, at my church, we held a ribbon cutting ceremony for our new Community Outreach Center.  The center is an expansion of the Matthew 25:40 Mission that has been a part of our church’s work in the community.  The mission literally grew out of it’s Director’s (Mark Cook) trunk.  The Outreach Center will provide a warming center during the day for our community’s homeless population while connecting people in need to the support and services they need.

As part of the church service that preceded the ribbon cutting, the kids participated in a Blessing of the Blankets.  Just before Rev. Christana Wille McKnight lead the congregation in the blessing, I got to tell this story:

Once upon a time, on a day very much like today – rainy, windy and cold – there was a dog who didn’t have a place to live.  On this rainy, windy, cold day the dog laid down in an alleyway to get a little relief from the weather.  Nearby was a pile of yarn that someone had thrown away.  The pile of yarn saw the dog and rolled over to it and tried to cover the shivering animal.  It meant well and it tried really hard.  It helped a bit.  The dog felt a little warmer and a little drier and was grateful for the effort.  But still, the dog was damp and chilly.

Later that evening, a young woman cut through the alleyway on her way home and saw the dog, covered in yarn, shivering quietly.  She picked up the dog, yarn and all, and brought her home.  While the dog huddled in the corner of the kitchen, the young woman gathered up all the yarn and brought it to her loom.  Turns out the woman was an artist and had a real skill for weaving.  Within a few hours she wove that yarn – in and out, left and right – until she had woven a beautiful blanket.  When she was finished, she took that blanket to the corner of the kitchen, wrapped up the dog and went to bed. puppies under blanket

In the morning, the young woman came down to the kitchen to find that the dog had given birth to 3 adorable puppies.  The blanket was now wrapped around the Momma dog and her 3 puppies, keeping the whole family warm.

What makes a blanket different from a pile of yarn is vision, leadership and organization.  We must always be grateful to those who share their vision, extend their leadership and bring organization to our pile of efforts.  For it is through these gifts that our pile of yarn becomes more beautiful, more durable and more effective.

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?

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.

“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.”

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

The Nurturing Tree

Bravo! I have always been uncomfortable with “The Giving Tree” and this remake is splendid. A few illustrations and it would make a great bed time story for our kids.

Yet another story in the Giving Speaks series–Creating a Giving Culture–One Story at a Time–featuring guest author Dr. Jerry D. Wright*

The Nurturing Tree

Once there was a boy who really enjoyed a tree.

He enjoyed the roughness of its bark when he climbed it.

He enjoyed the springiness of its branches when he swung on them.

He enjoyed the crackle, the smell and the pillowy feeling of its leaves when he gathered them into a big pile and jumped into them, in the fall of the year.

He enjoyed the crunch and tart taste of its apples when he bit into its ripe fruit.

And when the sun was hot, he enjoyed sitting in its shade, leaning against its sturdy trunk, thinking about all the things he hoped to do and have and be as he grew older.

The tree enjoyed the boy, too.

She enjoyed watching him…

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Grandma’s church is dead

When I was a kid, I would visit my grandmother on the weekends.  She would sometimes take me out for errands and shopping.  I didn’t much care for the errands, but I liked stopping at Burger Chef for lunch.  We always stopped at Burger Chef for lunch.  She always bought meat at the same butcher shop.  “What have you got for me today, Arthur?”  “A very nice pork roast, Ma’am.”  “That sounds nice, I’ll take it.”  She always bought fish at the same fish market, too.  She always bought shoes at the same shoe store.  She always got her hair done at the same hairdresser.  It always seemed to go the same way.  “What have you got…I’ll take it.”  On Sunday, we went to the same church her parents went to.

I think a lot of people in my grandmother’s generation were like that.  They went were they always went.  They got what was available.  I imagine there might have been days when they weren’t completely happy with it, but they still came back every week.

Those days are over.  That world is gone.  That boat sank.  That train has left the station.

When my family goes shopping now, we look at the flyers, check the websites, visit several stores, compare prices and if we aren’t happy with the service, we go somewhere else.  Choosing a church was like that, too.  We chose a church that meets our spiritual needs, respects who we are and helps us be the people and the family we want to be.

A few days before I attended the Faith Formations training in Connecticut, I read a story in USA Today entitled “Survey finds 19% without religious affiliation.”  The author of the article begins “Unbelief is on the uptick.”

The article spoke about the increasing number of Americans who are reporting that they have no religious affiliation.  They are the “Nones.”  Anyone involved in church leadership knows this is true because almost all denominations and churches are experiencing declines in attendance and membership.

The Pew researcher who authored the study offered:

 “Young people are resistant to the authority of institutional religion, older people are turned off by the politicization of religion, and people are simply less into theology than ever before.”

My grandmother’s church is dead.

I don’t believe that “Unbelief is on the uptick.”  I believe that a new spiritual and faith-filled world is rising from the ashes of the old world.  As many as a third of Americans describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”  This tells me that people still have faith and hunger for a spiritual life.  Some call us “religious tinkerers.”  I call us “spiritual consumers.”  Spiritual consumers are searching for places to grow spiritually that will meet their needs.  We won’t simply take what is being offered.

Faith organizations that will survive in the new world have to be organized around meeting people’s needs.

If you left your church because they stopped meeting your needs, there is good news.  You don’t have to figure it out on your own.  Churches are getting the message.  Go shopping.

Learning from the kids

Image

 Ask any child what they want to be when they grow up and every one of them will give you some kind of answer.  Firemen, princesses, soldiers, teachers and some pretty unexpected things as well.  Sometimes the answer is, “I don’t know.”   The answer you will never get…never is such a big word but I’ll go with it this time…The answer you will probably never get is “I want to be a 1st grader forever.”

Ask an adult the same question and all but the most clever will probably look at you funny and say, “I’m already grown up.  I am already who I am going to be.”

This should come as no surprise.  Kids spend pretty much every waking moment exploring, asking, learning and growing.  It’s their job and they know it.

This is where kids are smarter than we adults are.  They know that they are not finished.  They are still works in progress.  The truth is…we all are.  Sometimes we adults forget that.

The need to learn and grow and explore is never more true than in our spiritual growth.  The sacred is so mysterious and grand that none of us can really feel that we have finished growing spiritually.  We feel it at our core.  Sometimes we recognize it.  Sometimes it just feels like something is missing.

Spiritual growth is like growing a rare and delicate flower.  It requires work and attention and some special conditions.  You can’t nurture your spirit behind the wheel of your car while you are racing down the highway, late for a meeting.  You can’t nurture your spirit at the drive-thru.

Church is one of those places that is ideally suited for nurturing your spirit.  It’s why we go to church.  We often talk about coming to church because we like to see our friends or we like the music or we like to feel a part of something.  You can get those things pretty much anywhere.  I believe that, whether we are aware of it or not, we come to church to grow spiritually.  We know we can’t do that just anywhere.

We come to church to explore the Great Mystery, to ask big questions, to learn about the many ways to experience the sacred and to grow spiritually.  Like that rare flower that needs just the right amount of water, light, soil conditions, elevation…our spirit needs a special environment to grow.  At church…at First Parish Church in Taunton…is just such a place.

Watch the kids embrace their not-knowing and their curiosity.  We can learn a lot from the kids.

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