Louise Marcoux,Director of Religious Education (DRE)
Blog posts and the latest Religious Education news.
I’d like to share my blog-space with another talented religious educator from our congregation: Christian Roulleau. Christian shared these remarks during Time for Teachers on Religious Education Sunday on March 29, 2015.
Well, at this particular moment, I know that I’m here to share with you what I’ve learned from teaching the Pre-K and Kindergarten RE class. That’s an easy one.
I like that joke because I can poke fun at myself, but it’s also a pretty good credo. As definitions of my religion go, ‘a dialogue with others on the great questions of our shared existence’ … ain’t so bad.
It’s also exactly the question that many of us hear from our children every Sunday: Why am I here? Why do we come together here every week, whether downstairs in RE classes, or here in the sanctuary for family service at 10, or at 10:30 for ‘grown-up church’, as my daughter calls it?
We choose to come together here because, while we countenance a broad range of answers to the “Big Question” of why we are here, we share a few basic principles to guide the dialogue. Well, seven principles, officially, derived from six sources. I’ve been attending UU services for a few years now, and I couldn’t accurately list all those principles and sources, and certainly not in the right order.
But I’ve got the covenant down cold, and I’m sure many of the kids do too. It’s a nice summary of the seven principles, but it still contains some big concepts — doctrine, sacrament, prayer, the divine — that are not self-explanatory.
Can it be boiled down into something even simpler?
We’ve all heard the phrase ‘explain it like I’m a four year old’. But notice that the people who say that are never actual four year olds. We all need it stated simply sometimes.
That’s why I love the chalice-lighting words you heard the kids do such a great job with this morning. They open every class with these words.
We light this chalice to CELEBRATE Unitarian Universalism.
Above all, each class is a celebration. Simply coming together for music, stories, conversation, and reflection is really FUN, just as much up here as downstairs.
We are the church of the OPEN MIND.
We come together to open our minds to new information and new perspectives, to possibilities we hadn’t considered, recognizing that we’re never done learning and that, in the words of Oscar Wilde, ‘the truth is rarely pure, and never simple’.
We are the church of the LOVING HEART.
We come together to open our hearts to the joys and sorrows of life, sharing them with each other to magnify the joys and ease the sorrows, recognizing that our emotions are not a sign of weakness, but a source of strength.
We are the church of the HELPING HANDS.
And together we work toward peace and friendship in our world.
We come together to turn our curious minds and compassionate hearts to concrete action in the world, to make our society fairer, healthier, and more peaceful.
So those words are a nice summary of our covenant for the kids, but what I’ve learned from working with these kids is that their minds are already open, their hearts are already loving, and they already take pride and satisfaction in helping. As teachers, we are simply here to nurture that instinctual curiosity, kindness, and altruism.
And often, I’m the one who needs the reminder most of all.
Not a day goes by that I don’t experience some frustration, hopelessness, anger; at the violence and injustices of the world, or at some ultimately insignificant personal problem — someone cutting me off in traffic or slighting me at work.
That’s when I think of sitting in a circle with the kids on a Sunday, holding their small hands and celebrating all the best things in ourselves, each other, and our world.
And I think, “Why am I here?”
Some links to interesting articles I’d like to share:
A fun piece about increasing communication with your child(ren): 25 Ways to Ask Your Kids ‘So How Was School Today?’ Without Asking Them ‘So How Was School Today?’
What are the pros and cons of segregating people by age? What is the takeaway for our families, our congregation, our town? What ‘Age Segregation’ Does to America.
This article is really about cultivating empathy and kindness in our children. Anyone want to discuss it further? Are You Raising Nice Kids? A Harvard psychologists gives 5 ways to raise them to be kind.
Monet and the Open Mind
How do we teach children about the fundamental messages of Unitarian Universalism? Real life provides all the stories we could ever need.
When I learned that the worship theme was French Impressionism, all I could think of was the scathing commentary Monet’s pioneering work received from the Paris Salon of 1874. The story I shared with the children is a loose imagining of that pivotal moment in art history.
Today’s worship service is about French Impressionism – which is a beautiful approach to painting. So I thought it would be fun for us to meet an artist who created Impressionist paintings. Claude Monet’s paintings are world famous treasures that are exhibited in art museums all over the world. So let’s meet Monet when he was a young artist.
– Is that supposed to be a boat?
– It’s so blurry! A real artist’s work is more detailed.
– What strange colors! Yuck!
Wow! What’s going on here?
I think that these folks expect Monet’s work to look like other paintings they’ve seen. They aren’t used to his way of looking at things. And they don’t know what to make of it.
But the problem is, they are being closed-minded. I wonder what it would be like if the same people came by again with open minds. When our minds are open and we see something we have never seen before, our minds are filled with questions instead of criticism. We’re curious.
So let’s see what happens:
Here’s Monet again. And here are some open-minded people checking out his work.
Wow. I’ve never seen a painting like this before. Why have you left out so many of the details?
Monet: I’m trying to capture the way the fog is lit up by the rising sun. My eyes can’t really see all the details. So I’m just painting the shapes that come through the fog.
Oh, so that dark shape in the middle is all you can see of the boat out there?
Monet: Yes. I focus on what my eyes are actually seeing instead of what I think is out there.
How do you choose the colors?
Monet: I’m really interested in light and shadow and how the colors of things change as the light changes. I like to include all the colors that I see in my paintings.
So how was this different than the first time?
(The children surprised me by saying, “They like it!” I wondered with them about that: “They asked open minded questions about what they were looking at. They found out a lot about what the artist was trying to do with the paint. They are being curious and open-minded. But I don’t know whether they actually like the painting or not. ”)
How do we keep our minds open? We don’t expect things always to be the same. We ask questions about things that aren’t familiar to us. We avoid criticism – and focus on our curiosity.
Keeping an open mind isn’t always easy. Sometimes we’re tired or cranky and it’s hard to deal with new things.
Unitarian Universalism tells us that when we keep our minds open, we will meet more people, have more cool surprises, and experience more beauty. Open mind, helping hands, loving heart.
I have been reflecting on something Pope Francis said during a homily in October: “Faith passes, so to speak, through a distiller and becomes an ideology. And ideology does not beckon [people]. In ideology there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid always, in every sign, rigid.” Later on he remarked, “The faith become ideology and ideology frightens, ideology chases away the people, distances, distances the people of the Church and the Church of the people.” http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2013/10/21/pope-francis-describes-ideological-christians-as-a-serious-illness-within-the-church/
While this translation is on the turgid side, I recognized his point. Faith is not an ideology – but it can be turned into one if we focus so hard on ideas and being right that we forget about compassion and relationship and mystery. And when that happens, it isn’t faith anymore.
In mid-November, the worship service focused on the current situation in American political dialogue – providing me with the opportunity to share my meditation on the pope’s homily with the children and adults of this congregation in mid-November.
People often see things differently from one another. And sometimes those differences can make it hard for them to get along with one another. How can people find ways to listen to each other despite their differences?
Here are two friends talking. I wonder what we could learn from their conversation.
(I step to the right and put on sunglasses to be Tom; I step to the left and remove sunglasses to be Fran. They didn’t have names that Sunday – I made that part up more recently.)
Tom (wearing sunglasses): My religion tells me that having pets is wrong. It says so in our holy book.
Tom: Yes. Pets just distract people from focusing on what is important in life. Look over there. That woman is totally ignoring her little boy because she’s paying attention to her dog. That is wrong. She is a bad person.
Fran: Is your whole religion about not having pets?
Tom: No. We don’t talk about it at church on Sunday. But a group of people in my church began focusing on this pet problem. And then I met a bunch of other people online who also realize what a big problem this is.
Fran: So what do you talk about at church?
Tom: Well, the main message is love. God loves us and calls upon us to love one another.
Fran: So where does this business about pets come in?
Tom: Well, someone pointed to a story in our holy book that was about things that got in the way of our loving connections with one another and God. And in the story, one person was more interested in her cat than anyone else. The more we thought about that story, the more we realized that everyone can be more connected to God if only they will get rid of their pets.
Fran: Okay. I want to tell you something. I really like the way that your church encourages you to love one another. My church encourages me to love too.
One thing that I don’t understand, though, is why you are focusing so much on one idea that makes you judge people like that lady over there so much. You told me that you think she is bad. But you really don’t know her at all.
Tom: But I do know. I can tell just by the way she is with her pet. She’s bad.
Fran: Hey, where did you get those glasses? They’re cool.
Tom: Yeah. Everybody in my no-pets group at church wears them. They’re ideological glasses. They help me see in great detail all the things that are wrong about having pets. The first time I put them on, it was like — NOW I GET IT. I could finally see how there was nothing good about having pets.
Fran: What would happen if you took them off?
Tom: I don’t know. I never take them off. Why should I? They help me see everything so clearly.
Fran: Why don’t you take off your ideological glasses just for a minute — just to notice what a difference they make?
Tom: What would be the point? I wouldn’t be able to see as well.
Fran: I don’t know. Maybe you’d just see differently.
Tom: Oh, okay. (takes off glasses)
Hmm. Hey, look over there. There’s someone’s grandmother sitting all alone on the park bench. She looks sad — and lonely. And look, there’s a boy who’s walking his dog. And the dog is coming up to the grandmother. And she’s petting the dog. And she and the boy are talking to one another. The boy is sitting down now, too. And, look, she’s smiling a little.
When I had the glasses on, I could just see the badness. It was so clear. But with the glasses off, I see everything that is happening. I see the kindness and the caring and the way that pets can bring strangers together in a friendly way. It’s just a lot more complicated.
What can we learn from this conversation between friends? Let’s breathe into that question for a moment and reflect on it.
The message from our church is Love. Love, love, love. If we want to be loving people, we need to avoid ideological glasses. Ideological glasses can make us focus in on little things too much and judge people harshly. Ideological glasses can make us lose sight of what is really important in life.
Don’t get me wrong. Unitarian Universalism is definitely for thinking and ideas. It’s good to have ideas and to test them out and explore their meaning. But when an idea becomes more important than love — when an idea tells us that we should stop loving and caring because that idea is truer than love — that idea has become an ideology that doesn’t fit with the main message of our faith, LOVE.
Ideological glasses can be hard to notice some times. I hope you’ll talk with your parents about how to notice them and what to do with them.
Open mind, helping hands, loving heart.
Some thoughts on Religious Education — shared with the congregation last spring on Religious Education Sunday:
Clay Vessels I
Every day each of us is showered with experiences. We taste something sweet or salty. We see something we’ve seen before or something totally new to us. We hear someone familiar speaking to us or we hear a scary unfamiliar sound. We hold someone’s hand. Or we fall down on the ground and skin our knee. Every day, each of us is showered by experiences. Like rain falling on us.
Some of those experiences just wash over us and drip off us and that’s the end of them. Others we may want to hold onto, but they just sort of slip through our fingers and are gone. And some stick with us – somehow there’s something inside of us that holds onto those experiences. Something that makes them containable.
So why is it that some experiences stay with us and some just slip away?
I like to imagine that inside me there are little bowls that catch those raindrops of experience. Little bowls that hold the water of what has happened to me. Little bowls that give a shape to that water. By holding the water, the little bowls let me look back at things that happened to me yesterday or two weeks ago. By holding all these different experiences together, the little bowls help me discover connections among the many different things that have happened to me. And by giving shape to the water, the little bowls help me reflect upon what all those experiences, put together, might mean to me.
Let’s breathe for a moment and try to imagine the little bowls inside each of us. Are they open and ready to catch the raindrops of our experiences? Are they covered up? Let’s breathe, and prepare them to receive what will be shared today.
Clay Vessels II
When I was 9 years old, I got to watch a potter working with clay on a wheel. The clay turned round and round on the wheel. The potter’s touch was so light and gentle, yet the clay changed dramatically with each turn. It was magical.
When I was 29 years old, I took my first pottery class. In each class, the teacher would have us follow the same routine. We would wedge our clay – knead the clay to get rid of the air bubbles. Then we would center our clay on our wheels. The teacher would demonstrate how to make something. He would talk about what he did and tell us about tricks he used to get the clay to move. Then it would be our turn to try to make the same thing ourselves – or at least to try out some of the tricks he had told us about.
As you can imagine, making that bowl was a lot easier for the teacher than it was for us. We weren’t used to working the clay. Sometimes what started out as a bowl would suddenly transform into a strangely warped, yet oddly beautiful piece of modern art. Some days my hands wouldn’t be in “a bowl mood” – try as I might to make bowls, my hands kept producing cups. Sometimes the clay would tear in our fingers. Sometimes we’d use too much water and the clay would get all sloppy. That clay ended up in the clay recycling bin – which, in a few days, would get reprocessed into usable clay. And sometimes, I would make a bowl. The finished bowl would get moved from the wheel to a board on a nearby table.
Imagine that table as it got covered with bowls. First, there was the teacher’s example. And then there were all the bowls that the students made. None of them was exactly the same. But after a while, as more and more bowls were made, you’d see families of bowls – bowls that were clearly related – families of bowls that bore the mark of the person who created them.
Now you make think this is funny, but I see a lot of parallels between that pottery class and the way we do religious education at this church. First of all, the teacher’s goal was to engage students in working with clay. The most important thing was the doing.
Second, the teacher understood that each student had to find their own way of throwing on the wheel. Each person’s way was a little bit different – based on the size of their body, the size and strength of their hands, whether they were right-handed or left-handed. The teacher’s job was to support students in finding their own way of throwing pots, not to show them the one right way to do it.
Third, the teacher expected and affirmed variety. There is no one right way for a bowl to look. Sure there are some things that are not bowls, but there’s a pretty broad range of shapes and sizes that could all be called a bowl.
Fourth, the teacher didn’t expect perfection from students. Not every attempt at a bowl was going to work out. We learn from failures as well as from successes.
The results varied from pot to pot. But over time, a student who kept at it became confident with clay.
Here at church, the teacher’s goal is to encourage children to make connections between their lives and the big fundamental human questions – what is the purpose of my life? How do I lead a good life? Why do we suffer?
The goal here is to help each child become confident in working with the clay that is his or her life – in forming that clay into meaningful shapes and containers that hold and reflect his or her experiences.
We don’t expect perfection. We encourage variety. We know that each person has to find his or her own way. The most important thing is the doing.