The Missing Link by Rev. Anthony Makar & Taryn Strauss
HOMILY – Rev. Anthony Makar
A film from 2003 called Children Full of Life documents a fourth-grade class in a school in Japan, where the teacher, Toshiro Kanamori, has established a goal of children learning how to be happy and how to be compassionate and kind.
We just saw one of the ways he sought to achieve that goal: press pause on the business of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Press pause on examinations and anything else that’s typically school-ish. Instead, create protected space in an overwhelming world to engage questions which are fundamentally religious: about living fully and being truly fulfilled as a human.
To do that, Toshiro Kanamori had each kid write a letter about feelings they’re having about events in their lives, and then they read it aloud in front of their classmates.
And so, there is Ren Sueda, who’s missed class for the past four days because his grandmother died. He’s back at school and he’s written a letter about what that whole thing was like. He reads out loud his true feelings. The faces of his classmates are rapt with attention. Eyes begin to fill with tears. Memories and feelings rise up in their own minds and hearts. They start sharing stories about loved ones they’ve lost.
And what is happening, there in that fourth-grade classroom space in Japan, is a mutual feeling forming, of everyone belonging to a shared humanity of love and loss and resilience.
Where there was separation, now there is unity.
To Unitarian Universalism, that is what true religion looks like. True religion is about seeking to expand the circle of Love until all belong, and not through conquest, but through means that are loving and allow people in their full vulnerability to belong.
Watching the documentary, I saw that circle of vulnerable Love expanding right before my eyes, and, in response, a “what if?” question formed in my mind:
What if there was no such thing as religious educators, especially Unitarian Universalist religious educators?
What happens in such a world?
You have children who each have a seed of empathy planted in their hearts, but there are no Toshiro Kanamoris to help them grow it.
The Toshiro Kanamoris of the world are gone.
Imagine what happens. Start where we saw the film clip end. By that time, the emotional boundaries between the students had dissolved through empathy. Start there, and then press REVERSE. All the stories are unsaid. All the feelings of connection, one to the other, are undone. A bond of empathy had been established, but things revert back to a classroom full of individuals who are separated from each other, isolated within the boundaries of their skin.
The children look at each other, and they see strangers.
And when things are like that, what hope is there to do the hardest thing of pushing out empathy boundaries beyond one’s own gender, or nation, or race?
What hope, to learn to see oneself in another and end hate?
That’s a world that’s going to pieces.
That’s what happens when the religious educators go away.
Continue imagining the “what if?” scenario with me, with the great religious educator Sophia Lyons Fahs suddenly disappearing, all that she did, all that she said, such as this: “One of the tragic ironies of history is that such original and creative geniuses as Buddha and Jesus have been extolled as perfect patterns for all to emulate. In the very struggle to be like someone else rather than to be one’s own true self, or to do one’s own best in one’s own environment, a child is in danger of losing the pearl that is really beyond price – the integrity of his (or her) own soul.”
That’s what Sophia Lyons Fahs said, but in our what if? world she doesn’t exist and, just for fun, all the religious education teachers who teach this philosophy—they’ve vanished as well.
That means that a bunch of folks in this very congregation have just popped out of existence, gone *poof.*
So, what happens to a young boy named Tony Makar, growing up in Peace River, in far northern Alberta? There was one night I lifted up my eyes and saw the Northern Lights in all their electric colors, shifting and shimmering, green and orange and purple curtains over the sky. It was all so beautiful and mysterious, and I felt my heart opening up and answering back in a language that I did not even know I had. A language of wonder and awe. When had I ever learned how to feel feelings like that? But they came out of me, as naturally as leaves to a tree. And in that moment I knew that I, as close as I was to myself, was still a Mystery to myself; there was more to me than I knew. In that moment I also knew that I was not the center of the universe, that there are deeper and higher and bigger things, and that I am unshakably connected to them, and that no matter how fractured my life seems to be, no matter what death will do to my loved ones and to me, all will be well, and all will be well.
I felt that.
But what happens next, when I go back out into the world, if there is no religious educator teaching in the style of Sophia Lyons Fahs, teaching me to honor the integrity of my own experience and my own soul?
One of the tragic ironies of history happens to me. I am told that my heart is like an empty bank account, and no money comes from me, it all comes from outside me.
That is what I am told, and because I am naturally impressionable and do not know any better, I believe it.
That experience of the Northern Lights, the transcendent feeling that all will be well?
It means nothing at all.
I am told, “Get with the program,” which is what someone else supplies. The whole exclusivist “one way one truth one life” program. The whole “God’s going to cast you into hell unless…” program. The whole “some are saved, some are damned” program.
Some other kind of someone else’s program.
That’s what happens, and so I am here today to say, from the bottom of my heart:
God bless the religious educators, especially the Unitarian Universalist variety, who saved me from such a fate and save children and people of all ages regularly from such a fate.
God bless the religious educators, for teaching me I could trust myself and reassuring me that the journey is safe, we never stop learning and growing, and perhaps it’s our mistakes that teach us most of all.
God bless the religious educators, for helping me care for more than myself and the people I already love, for teaching me to push out empathy boundaries as far as possible, for strengthening me to show up even when it is hard so I can be a part of expanding the circle of Love until all belong in all their vulnerability and humanity.
God bless the Sophia Lyons Fahs and Toshiro Kanamoris and everyone who teach the children and teach the youth and teach the adults and continue to help weave the fabric of this beautiful faith community and the larger Living Tradition.
God bless the religious educators!
HOMILY – Taryn Strauss
Did any of you out there spend your Saturday watching the footage from the March for Our Lives in Washington, or was it just me? Or maybe you were with other UUs joining the march and watching Atlanta teens speak out for each other’s lives?
Watching the youth from Chicago to Newtown to Parkland perform poems they had written, sing songs they had composed, share scripture and quotes that held deep meaning for them, tell stories of friends and family members who had died in the streets or the schools, it all felt strangely familiar to me. The moments of striking poise, the moments of uncontrolled awkwardness. That moment when Sam had to stop suddenly in the middle of her poem, only to rise back up and scream, I just threw up on national television, and I feel great!
The four minutes and 26 seconds that Emma stood staring at the crowd, holding sacred silence with the power of a thunderclap. Some of you in this sanctuary have been privy to moments like these, sitting in hushed disbelief that you are blessed to witness such intimate, ecstatic expression of authentic sharing. That stage could have easily been a youth coffee house at the Mountain Camp and Retreat Center. It could have been a late night confessional at a YRUU lock-in. Even if you were here for last Sunday’s youth service, you were not surprised that youth can speak so powerfully, so cogently, so passionately, for themselves, and for others. They can give a healing word, and I thank God for the chance to just be present and witness their truth and their power. The world is taken aback by these teenagers’ righteous anger, their open feelings, their hopeful determination, but we UU’s, we already knew what everyone else now knows: if they are fully supported and passed the mic, the youth can transform a nation.
Were you taken seriously as a child? Were you invited to participate actively in your spiritual discernment? Or were you objectified by your church’s God, and told you had to believe as your parents and pastor did? Unitarian Universalism’s legacy is taking children’s spiritual lives seriously; not valuing them for who they will grow up to be, but valuing them for who they are now.
I have experienced the deep blessing of leading worship for children, and I’m not talking about teens now, I’m talking about five year olds who can meditate, for real. Who can share their joys and their sorrows with each other, just like those kids you saw in the Mr. Konamori’s class, but who also can learn the ministry of honest witness. The gifts of practicing deep listening to one another. Children who can hear a sermon and ask questions of wonder about the theological messages within, who need our honest, thoughtful, not concrete answers. I remember one seven-year-old child who approached me very seriously one Sunday, asking in earnest, “did Jesus truly walk on water?”
I replied, “I believe Jesus did a lot of amazing things, like helping poor people get food when there was no food, and helping sick people feel better before there was medicine, and those things were so special and amazing, that it was just as amazing as someone walking on water. It was as if he had walked on water.” Does that make sense? I asked, doubtfully. “I understand,” he replied. “For people to believe he could heal others, then maybe they also had to believe he could walk on water too.” I walked away completely stunned at his ability to hold this ambiguous truth. I had colleagues in seminary who had trouble with this depth of theology!
I wonder if you have heard of Jeff Foster, the AP Government teacher at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas high school. The morning of the massacre at his Parkland, Florida high school, Foster taught the AP Gov students about special interest groups, like the NAACP, American Medical Association, and the National Rifle Association. His lesson plan that day included a discussion about the Columbine and Sandy Hook school shootings, with emphasis on how every politician comes out afterward a tragedy to say the right thing about changing gun regulation. The students learned how the NRA goes to work as soon news reporters and the public move on to the next story.
The following day, the day after the shooting, these students were scheduled to have a test on the special interest chapter. The exam was supposed to include a free response question asking students what techniques the NRA used to be successful. The students were supposed to discuss how the NRA used mass mobilization, campaign contributions, and litigation to push their agenda forward. Some people would call this God’s plan, others may call it coincidence; I call this holy synchronicity.
High schoolers Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, so articulate and clear in their message they have been accused of being actors, had already taken Foster’s special interest lesson by the time the shooting happened. It was this same teacher, Jeff Foster, who organized 100 Parkland students to travel to Tallahassee the following week to meet with legislators. I say this not to discredit these brave, brilliant youth or suggest they are the puppets of an adult agenda, because this is not the case. I am suggesting their teacher, Mr. Foster, liberated his students from institutional oppression by equipping them with the skills of argument and the inner workings of our government. His trust in them, his insistence that they deserved all the information about their world, bestowed true liberation and empowerment onto them. That is education as liberation, and that is what can happen right here every Sunday.
At our UU church, we have the benefit of freedom from grades, from tests, and we have an entirely different metric from traditional education. Rather than depositing information into the empty vessels of young minds, we engage in a free and equal interchange of ideas. After all our kids have the best access to our first source, to that ‘direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.’
Because as we age, I believe most of us lose our proximity to this first sacred source.
Did you see it, reflected in Mr. Kanamori’s classroom in the video? How the children were moved to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life?
Their lesson was empathy, their learning goals were vulnerability and truth and they excelled at all of it.
In our religious exploration classes here, we are free to explore these same themes.
We can teach the power of vulnerability and story-ing your truth.
We can teach the skills of deep listening, and demonstrating empathy.
We can teach compassion.
Our kids are deeply attuned to the stressors of the world around them. They are overwhelmed by assignments, grades, violence, the pressure of a rapidly changing world.
But here, at church, they are known not for what they can do. They are loved simply for who they are.
Do not underestimate the power of this love.
Imagine yourself in this free learning environment, liberated from administrative pressures, grades, and even lesson plans. Amidst a world that demands rigid answers to concrete questions, that so often shows us cynicism in the face of hope, our RE classrooms can be little sanctuaries where we:
Greet questions with wonder.
Greet conflicts with compassion.
Greet frustration with active, deep listening.
Greet silliness with laughter.
Greet tears with tenderness.
Greet fear with honesty and love.
We cannot protect our community’s children from the terrors of this world. We can only lovingly build resilience in them and while building resilience in ourselves, and right now, right here is your chance to join the healing, liberating ministry of teaching.