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

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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Family – unplugged and connected

Aerial of Bovina, NY (Pop 633)

Last week, my mother, my brother and his wife, my sister, her husband and their 2 kids, my wife and I and our daughter and our combined 4 dogs went on vacation to Bovina, NY.  We rented a large house on a small lake and spent the week unplugged.

The nearest mall was over an hour away in Oneonta.  The nearest grocery store was about 1/2 hour away in Delhi.  There was no cell service in a 10 mile radius of the house.  We did have a dish TV, internet connection, electricity, hot running water and just about every other modern convenience.  I know, “What happened to spending the week unplugged, Barry?”  Did you miss the part about no cell service?

OK, so we weren’t exactly on one of those back-to-nature, cooking-on-the-fire, bathing-in-the-brook camping trips.  The kids and several adults brought their electronic gadgets and several hours of on-line time were logged, especially on the rainy days.  And I did watch the US Women’s Soccer Team in that exquisitely agonizing 123 minute semifinal win over Canada which made the gold medal match with Japan almost anti-climactic.  That’s not the kind of unplugged I meant.

We spent the week unplugged from our routine.  Scheduled music lessons were cancelled and replaced with free-spirited singing and music playing.  Nights spent in front of the TV with our favorite recorded dramas were replaced with nights by the campfire filled with those wonderful stories that always start with, “Remember the time…”  Everyday, well-rehearsed chores and duties were replaced with spontaneous trots to the lake for fishing and boating, long walks past acres of farm land, chasing the dogs, being chased by the dogs, watching the dogs chase each other, or just hours of reading and gazing at the landscape.

And eating.  I think I gained 20 pounds that week.  My family can cook!

It seems like, at home, on a regular day, we wake up and hit that treadmill of our routine, scheduled life.  Sometimes it might feel like our life is running us.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love my life.  I love just about everything I do and just about everyone I do it with.  But there is something to be said for getting out of that routine for a little while.

Blizzard of ’78

When I was a kid, I used to love when a storm would knock the electricity out.  It would be out for hours (unless it was February 1978, then it was out for days).

A night without electricity meant no TV but it also meant the whole family playing board games by candle light.  For me, that was a great night.

I know not everyone is as fortunate as we are to be able to take a week off from work and stay in such a beautiful place.  I am profoundly grateful that we are able to do this together each year.  It’s so wonderful to be able to unplug from our routines and take time to re-connect with each other.

We’ve been back for a few days now and, for me at least, I am plugged back in to much of my routine.  Maybe there will be a storm soon.  I have some candles and a board game at the ready.

Without receivers there can be no givers

Last week I celebrated my birthday.  I had all the usual birthday type traditions – family and friends, cake, ice cream and presents.  I was the center of attention, opening envelopes and tearing open wrapped boxes.  As I paused to make a wish before blowing out the candles, I thought about how uncomfortable it can be to be the center of attention.  I thought about how much easier it is to be the giver than the receiver.  I reminded myself of the message I delivered at First Parish Church in Taunton at the Flower Communion in 2011.

Flower Communion is a wonderful service originated by Norbert Capek, the founder of the Unitarian Church in  Czechoslovakia.  During the service, each member of the congregation places a cut flower in a communal vase.  At the end of the service, each person takes a flower home with them.

That is another story.

It is often said, “Tis better to give than to receive.”  It’s true that we are often more comfortable giving than being the one given to.  But, where would the givers be without anyone to do the receiving.

In my message entitled “The Other Half of Giving”, I asked,

Why are we so uncomfortable with receiving?  Why do we not value accepting as much as we value giving?  Maybe it has to do with how we picture people who give and people who receive.  We have a bad habit of thinking about giving and receiving as about “us” and “them.”  Giving is considered a noble act.  We associate it with words like charitable and generous.  We see taking and receiving as more about being needy or dependent or indebted.

In preparing for the service, I read a quote from Shakti Gawain at http://www.livinglifefully.com “receiving and giving…are like inhaling and exhaling.  If you can’t inhale, soon you will have nothing to exhale.”

After reading the children’s book,  “The Giving Tree” I concluded that giving and not receiving is the path to becoming an old stump.  Giving and receiving is the path to gratitude and that is a very good place to be.  We can’t be grateful if we don’t embrace receiving.

Back to my birthday.  In the moment before I blew out the candles, I looked up and saw how happy everyone was.  All these happy givers.  I remembered what a wonderful feeling it is to give to someone else – giving a gift or giving praise or giving encouragement.  In a way, by being a grateful receiver, I am also giving a gift – the gift of that wonderful, happy, warm feeling we get when we see how happy we have made someone by giving to them.

I wished that I would have many more birthdays, filled with family, friends, cake, ice cream and presents.  That I would be a grateful receiver and allow others to be happy givers.

Then I blew out the candles.  Then we ate cake.  And I had the first piece.

Birthday Candles

It’s not the end of the world

The sun shines behind the storm

A funny thing happened on the way to work this morning.

I do my best thinking while driving.  As a social worker and a parent, that means I get a lot of time to think.  Sometimes I think simple things like what I am going to do when I get to where I am going, sometimes I ponder deep, spiritual and social matters.  If I am going to be delivering the message at church on Sunday, I usually get it sorted out in my head while driving then put it on paper when it’s just about finished.  Sometimes I get a good idea for Story for All Ages to share at our worship service on Sunday morning and get the details of the story sorted out on the road.

This morning was different.  I was just driving along and I heard a song on the radio in which the singer tells about feeling broken hearted.  It’s a pretty common theme in music, across just about every genre.  For whatever reason, I started to think about people who are in a dark place and start to feel that it will always be that way.  I was really disturbed by the thought.

Then it hit me.  It came all at once – like a massive iTunes download – straight past my brain and into my heart.  I drove straight to my computer and typed it up.  I have to admit that I was moved, emotionally, while I was typing it.

Now, you have to understand something here.  I don’t, and have never, written poetry or song lyrics or anything of the sort.  I have been known to be a bit of a story teller and I preach a pretty good sermon now and then.  This was different.

It was given to me.  I’m just passing it along.

I know you’re feeling broken and burned
It’s like your whole world is in ruins
You can’t see past the rubble and dust
But I see you and you’re beautiful and strong
So follow my voice

I’m right here, calling to you
There will be joy
The sun shines behind the storm
There will be good times and laughter
There will be joy, again, for you.

I saw you fall into that pit.
Frightened and covered in mud and blood
Nothing but cold walls closing in
But if you just look up, you’ll see me
Listen to my voice

I’m right here, reaching for you
There will be joy
The sun shines behind the storm
There will be good times and laughter
There will be joy, again, for you.

I see you stumbling in the darkness
Tripping, falling, bleeding, crying
Can’t see the sun through your swollen eyes
I’ve been there and I know a way through
So follow my voice

I’m right here, waiting for you
There will be joy
The sun shines behind the storm
There will be good times and laughter
There will be joy
for you.

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