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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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,


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.”

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.

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

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

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.

Ice cream with Dad

I had ice cream with my father in April for his birthday and again on Father’s Day.  It was nice.  They were both beautiful days.  The sun was shining.  It meant alot to me.

I started this little tradition a couple of years ago.  I take a few minutes out of my day to visit my Dad.  I sit quietly, eat ice cream and tidy up his grave site a bit.  You see, my father died 3 years ago.  Cancer.

My Dad really liked ice cream.  He and my mother would have ice cream at night pretty regularly.  He’d say, “I’m pouring, do you want some?”  It’s an inside joke and an expression that my family still uses occasionally when someone offers to spoon out some ice cream after dinner.

While I was standing at my father’s headstone, enjoying the warm sun and the cold, sweet ice cream; it occurred to me how very present my father continues to be in my life.  I think about him all the time and, because I think I look a bit like him, I see his face when I look in the mirror and hear his voice when I open my mouth.  I don’t need to go to the cemetery to feel close to him, but taking some time to make this short trip a few times a year feels good.

Explaining death to children can be unsettling and emotional especially when our kids start asking questions about family membrs who have recently died.  We are uncomfortable with the topic ourselves and may be still hurting.  When I talk to children about loved ones who have died, I try to keep a few things in mind.

Tell the truth and be honest.

I see these as different.  I believe in telling the truth about death.  Whatever your beliefs, children need to have the facts.  When someone we love dies, it means their body stopped working.  We won’t be seeing them anymore.   Keep it simple.  Answer their questions.  I am not a big fan of  telling children things like “God needed him in heaven” or “She went to sleep for a long time.”  Children are very concrete.  We don’t want our kids to be mad at God or be afraid to fall asleep.

Be honest about how you feel and what you believe.  It is important for children to learn to grieve and they learn it from us.  When someone dies it hurts and its sad.  Talk about what you believe happens after someone dies.   Remember, keep it simple.  Children will ask questions that they are ready to have answered.

Keeping people who have died present in our lives can be an important thing for kids and adults.  Keep pictures of deceased loved ones.  Talk about them and your memories of them.  Develop traditions that can help keep these connections real and meaningful.  Like having ice cream at the cemetary.

We are gathered by the fire

My family goes on vacation together every summer.  Much effort goes into finding the right place each year.  There are three deal breakers.

1.  They have to allow dogs.
2.  There has to be water nearby.
3.  There has to be a fire pit.

The most important one for me is the fire pit.

No matter what else we do on vacation, my favorite part is everyone sitting by the campfire at night.  We gaze into the flames.  We talk.  We laugh.  We connect.

Each Sunday morning, I sit by another fire – at church.

Most, if not all, Unitarian Universalist churches light a chalice at the beginning of each worship service.  In 2005, I wrote the following as part of a special chalice lighting ceremony for one of our worship services at First Parish Church in Taunton.

In the early days of the first people, fire meant life.  It meant warmth and protection.  It also meant community.  The people would gather by the fire and share its light and heat.  At these times, the people would also share their stories, passing on their traditions to future generations.

The flame was always cared for and protected.  If it was lost, so would they all be lost.

Today, we cherish our flame as a symbol of our church community.  Around it, we gather each week to share its warmth and light – a spiritual warmth and a guiding light.  We gather around the fire each week to share our stories and pass along our faith.

Today, we celebrate and share the flame that is the symbol of our proud Unitarian Universalist history.

Like the flame, our faith is not diminished as we share it.  It grows, spreading its warmth and light.

We are gathered by the fire.

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