Explorations into Mistery by Rev. Anthony Makar & Rev. Jonathan Rogers
Early Personal Reflections
I beat Rev. Makar in a game of table tennis this week, so I get to go first…it only took me three tries!
Someone asked me this year as I was getting ready to step into my new role as Minister of Lifelong Learning and Growth: Why is UU RE important to you? My answer is very simple: I would not be who I am without having grown up as a participant in a UU RE program. A serious commitment to systemically improving the lives of others and a sense of playful levity are both essential to who I am. I cannot live without both “saving and savoring the world”, as you put it in a sermon last year. Those are really hard truths to persistently, simultaneously hang onto. Our UU congregations are the only places I have found in my life to consistently honor both of those aspects of who I am, while continuing to meet new folks and share this journey with them. Without having the experience of children’s and youth RE in a UU congregation from 1992 to 2003, I don’t know where I would have developed these two crucial strands of my identity.
So, when I contemplate the opportunity to create Religious Exploration programs for our children and youth where they can become who they are, that is a profound and meaningful responsibility for me. Knowing what UU RE meant to me growing up makes me want to do everything that I can to pass along to the next generation the gifts that I received, and to help our congregation to do everything we possibly can together to pass along those gifts. Even when that means risk, change, hard work and the emotional discomfort that accompanies major change.
One of the great privileges for me this year as associate minister has been seeing the spark in your eyes as we have discussed the opportunities for improving UUCA’s Lifespan Religious Exploration programs. I am curious where that spark comes from for you? What in your life has made it feel like Religious Exploration is important?
When I was six years old, my favorite books in all the world were part of a series called How and Why. I still have some of them. The Wonder Book of Dinosaurs. The Wonder Book of Stars. The Wonder Book of Weather. All were things that aroused curiosity in me, because they were at once obscure and fascinating. They were mysteries. The Wonder Book of Sea Shells. The Wonder Book of Insects. The Wonder Book of Rockets and Missiles.
I confess that I was too impatient to actually read the words–or at least many of the words. I wanted to drink the knowledge in. Which in my case amounted to looking at the pictures–drinking those in. The picture of Triceratops and his three enormous horns, together with the bony shield protecting his head, neck and shoulders. A picture of the Earth positioned in front of the yellow burning Sun, so as to illustrate their comparative sizes. The Earth flea-sized, the Sun impossibly giant….
I felt alive reading those How and Why Wonder books—that’s what I’m really trying to say. Filled with life. My imagination fired.
That’s where the spark in my eye comes from when I think of Religious Exploration and what’s possible through it, for all ages and everyone. Together with hearing stories like yours, Jonathan. Our backgrounds are different. In the religious community I grew up in, I was taught that God loved me but he was also just waiting for an excuse to toss my soul into eternal hellfire and damnation—and in this way, the church of my youth simply recreated my home, where my mother (with her borderline personality) loved me and hated me with maddening unpredictability and I could never know when it would be heaven and when it would be hell.
So I wonder what it would have been like to be six or seven or eight and grow up in a church community that wasn’t a love/hate place but just all love. To grow up learning that religion and How and Why Wonder books go together like peanut butter and jelly….
You bet, I have a spark in my eye!
But now, tell me about your philosophy of children’s religious exploration….
My philosophy of children’s Religious Exploration is that from the earliest times they are able to understand, we teach them our values of sharing, acceptance, love, creativity, and compassion. We do it in age-appropriate ways because we know we have to meet folks where they are. I have always felt like I was loved, to a degree that sometimes seems bizarre for those around me. I think a big part of the reason it has been natural for me to feel loved is that from an early elementary age I was part of a congregational community where I was persistently encouraged and affirmed. I was corrected a lot, too, because that was definitely necessary! But I always knew that I was loved, and that I could go there to be with friends of all ages.
We want this congregation to be a place where children and youth make friends, but not ONLY make friends. It ought to also be somewhere they grow and lead. I believe that the meaning of being human is to participate in the dialectical process of God getting to know God’s self; there is no other time in our lives that embodies this holy, burgeoning self-awareness than adolescence! I think that is the most sacred time in our lives and that we ought to be finding AS MANY WAYS as possible to include teenagers in the life and work and leadership of the congregation.
And it’s not like that process ever ends… in adulthood we are still very much in the act of becoming. Often it is when things change or break down that we are suddenly most open to the process of becoming. That is why we have linked the Lifespan RE and Pastoral Care programs under the responsibility of one minister. That will be a place from which to grow in this congregation. So, that is my philosophy of Religious Exploration; how do you approach this work philosophically?
There’s an old Hasidic story where a disciple asks the rebbe, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words IN our hearts?” The rebbe answers: “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”
Yes, when life changes or things break down, we are opened up to the next phase of our becoming. This is for sure a part of my philosophy of Religious Exploration too.
Another part has to do with the conviction that there is a natural hunger in the human psyche for experiences of deep connection and meaning. Our brains are hardwired to seek out intimacy and ultimacy. William Ellery Channing spoke of our “Likeness to God”: Ralph Waldo Emerson borrowed from the Quakers when he invoked the image of the “inner light.” That’s what they’re talking about. This big spiritual hunger we’re born with.
And single experiences of satisfaction are never enough. If you are physically hungry to the point of hangry, sure, a big meal will fill you up. But you’re guaranteed to get hungry again. Same thing goes with spiritual hunger. We always want more. It’s big.
Now, in itself this big hunger is neutral, which leads to a very important point: It can be shaped to serve good ends or bad ones. There is nothing in the desire to seek out intimacy and ultimacy itself that prevents it from being linked to unworthy ends. Racism has its own definition of intimacy and ultimacy; and so does fascism, so does militarism, so does sexism, so do all the other kinds of –isms, and the ultimate result is you have someone who murders innocent people for God instead of being the sort of peace that God really is. Instead of Dr. Martin Luther King, you have the Christian terrorist and Planned Parenthood shooter Robert Lewis Dear.
We must very carefully tend to the spiritual hungers we are all born with. We don’t have a choice in this. The hungers are just there, hardwired in. And they’re BIG. They can be destructive if not cultivated carefully and directed to serve the ends of love and justice.
That’s why we exist, why Unitarian Universalism exists. We protest against anything that twists people’s natural spiritual hungers and makes them serve unworthy ends. We profess religious values and engage people in ways that aim to put all that spiritual power to better use, to beautiful use.
We protest and we profess. Religious Exploration is a key part of this.
Which leads to our own Religious Exploration program here at UUCA…. What are your thoughts on this, Jonathan?
Why Our RE Program is Important
Being religious is a transgressive act. Affirming the inherent worth of every person in a capitalistic society where we are each commoditized is transgressive. Creating spaces where the voices of traditionally marginalized folks are heard, not just those lifted up by the dominant culture, is transgressive. If we accepted the mainstream stance on everything, Religious Exploration would be a trivial matter, because we could content ourselves with not exploring beyond everyday societal messages in any important way. But since we collectively choose to transgress against unjust practices in our world, Religious Exploration is not a trivial matter.
If this were a trivial matter, we could show a movie to the children, roll out a basketball for the youth, and make cooking classes our central offering for adults. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE movies, basketball, and cooking. But we are called to the difficult and persistent work of transgression with our Religious Exploration, to teach ourselves and each other non-trivial values at every level. If we really want to get better at social justice work, at the work of anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism, at saving and savoring the world, worship is a necessary but not sufficient element of that. We also need to find a way to persistently incorporate Religious Exploration for ourselves as well as our children. I really believe that that is what’s at stake here, how about you?
One of Jay Leno’s favorite jokes goes as follows: “I went to a McDonald’s yesterday and said, ‘I’d like some fries.’ The girl at the counter said, ‘Would you like fries with that?’”
I can just see that girl in my mind’s eye. She is not listening. She is on autopilot. She is sleepwalking. Aliveness is slipping away, but she is numbed out and doesn’t know….
Another favorite philosopher of mine speaks to this: John Stewart Mill. In one passage, he describes healthy spiritual hunger as “a very tender plant, easily killed.” “People,” he says, “lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time nor opportunity for indulging them; and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures, not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are either the only ones to which they have access or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying.” In other words: “would you like fries with that?”
I am here, and I believe you are here, because you don’t want to be sleepwalking through life. What you want is a way of life that keeps your high aspirations alive and carves out space and time to indulge them. What you want is a practice and a discipline that empowers you to resist inferior pleasures.
Our Religious Exploration program, together with everything else we do, wants to meet you right there. It wants to support you in that.
Which is why we are so hopeful today!
When I’m in a small group and we talk about our hopes for a project together, I’m usually the one with huge, bombastic goals: I’ll want the outcome of our weekend retreat to be an instantaneous elevation of all the world’s people to another level in Fowler’s stages of spirituality. Or for our 8-week adult RE course to conclude in the United States government experimenting with Democratic Socialism. In reality I know that we can only do what we can do.
I tend to be less concerned with whether everyone shares my goals than whether we are working effectively toward the ones that we do share. Too often, it seems like our strategies for working toward spiritual maturity or justice-making run along the lines of shaming, panicking and quitting. We are talking about some of the hardest endeavors in a human lifetime, and yet if we are not careful, it’s easy to resort to shaming ourselves and each, panicking that the work wasn’t done yesterday, and storming out in a huff because we did not get our way. I’m qualified to comment on that process because I happen to be an expert in all three! But there are better ways, and we have to give ourselves better opportunities to practice them. That’s what Supercharged Sunday is all about. I’d love to hear how your hopes tie into that!
My hopes…. How about that Donald Trump stops saying that he has the world’s greatest memory—or world’s greatest anything?
Far more reasonable and realistic are these hopes I have for Religious Exploration at UUCA:
The hope to make Religious Exploration classes and experiences for all ages more widely available. The challenge here is mainly people’s crazy busy schedules. Most people have time only for “one stop” at church during the week; and if we can make worship and Religious Exploration for all ages more easily available in one stop, we will create a much greater capacity for involvement.
A second hope: to strengthen children’s and youth Religious Exploration programming. But to do this with a special focus on adults. Karen Bellavance-Grace, the 2013 Fahs Fellow for Innovation in Multigenerational Faith Formation, says that “Our [UUA] curricula and Religious Education ministries have been largely created and supported with a goal of helping children and youth grow into Unitarian Universalist adults. At the same time, we know that an excellent indicator of youth and young adult religiosity is the consistent religious practice of their parents.” To the degree we develop the consistent religious practice of parents and other adults, we will support the religious practice of our children and youth.
Hope number three: more support for Religious Exploration teachers. No more having to miss worship; no more choosing between teaching and singing in the choir; no more showing up to teach at 9:30 only to find just 1 or 2 students in your class.
Hope number four: doing better at growing lifelong Unitarian Universalists. Students ages 11 and up attending worship more regularly, which will not only make UUCA a more well-integrated worship community, but it will also help our teenagers to grow spiritually as UUs.
These hopes and more: we’ll make progress, I believe, by implementing what I’m calling the “SuperCharged Sunday” initiative. Starting in August of 2016, we will make Religious Exploration classes FOR ALL AGES more easily available on Sunday morning. Statistics show that participation in church decreases as people feel that they are making little headway in developing and deepening their faith. For this reason, we must provide as many opportunities for faith formation experiences as possible, far beyond what we do now.
In conversation with lots of folks, I am considering several paradigms for “SuperCharged Sunday” which have already been implemented in other UU congregations around the country. One is the “Middle Hour” paradigm, in which we maintain our two services (in shortened form) and expand the time between them so that Religious Exploration classes can take place then, during that “middle hour.”
Another paradigm is the “Multiple Worship Space” paradigm, in which we start Sunday morning with a single service in the sanctuary and stream that service simultaneously to multiple other spaces in the building such as the Family Room in process of being developed, the Chapel, 209-210, the social hall), and perhaps others. We’d want each of the spaces to feature a unique worship experience; as in, the Family Room would be boisterous and child-friendly; the Chapel would be quiet, and so on. Following the single service would be a 15 minute transition time in which folks could grab some coffee and have a quick chat, and then we’re all off to a Religious Exploration class. People of all ages will have something wonderful to go to. Following that second hour, there’d be more time for coffee and conversation—and that’s Sunday morning at UUCA.
Hearing this, I imagine you might be teeming with questions. To pull it off, we must manage the logistics very carefully, we will need to have lots of conversations, and we will. But may we keep one eye constantly on the big picture. Our Long Range Plan envisions UUCA as becoming “among the most engaging and enriching congregations in Atlanta” and an obstacle to this is the fact that some of the ways we do things are out of sync with the changing times. We need to get in sync. So we are trying things. For the sake of our Mission, we are being experimental and bold.
Annie Dillard once wrote that “At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world, now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening.” This is what I hope for—that UUCA is going to be there for as many people as possible when they are ready. When they say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, to the world: I am ready.
Let’s be ready too.