General Assembly 2009 Event 5009
Sponsored by Skinner House Books. Speakers: Patricia Frevert, Rev. Phillip Lund, Rev. Jeanne Nieuwejaar, Rev. Keith Kron and Anne Bancroft.
The workshop leaders each told a story from their lived or professional experiences in the spiritual dimensions of childhood, and then connected their stories to a theory or theology of faith development as well as some practical thoughts about what people might “do.”
Patricia Frevert, Editorial Director of Skinner House, recounted her seeking as a young, unchurched child. When she made her way to a church, without her parents, she was given a birthday blessing by the priest, a ritual of that church. She recited the blessing, still in her memory today.
Anne Bancroft is Director of Religious Education, First Unitarian Society in Newton, MA; a member of the Skinner House Editorial Board, and a ministerial intern. She spoke of her experiences of telling and retelling a story, and poking at the accretions of meaning. One of her learnings from those experiences was the value of allowing space for "not knowing." Bancroft spoke also of cultivating wonder—both as a sense of awe and as a wondering curiosity. She encouraged adults to “have fun with what you’re doing and encourage that wonder.”
Religious educator Phil Lund, Lifespan Program Consultant for the Prairie Star District, spoke of the importance family rituals can have in the religious lives of children. He described the practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS, commonly referred to as the Mormons) in support of family religious growth. In the early 20th century the LDS church declared family nights among the religious practices expected of observant members, and later codified it by creating a designated weekday evening when no other church meetings or commitments were to be scheduled, thus allowing families time to play and pray together.
Unitarian Universalist families can and should do likewise, protecting time for family religious life. Lund went on to say that although there are many “generic” spirituality resources, we should begin family rituals with something distinctly Unitarian Universalist, in order to set our own religions context on any story, discussion or song that might follow. The most obvious and accessible one of these is the lighting of a chalice, particularly when the chalice is lit at church. Religion and spirituality, Lund said, carry a greater resonance when church and home are connected through a shared ritual. In addition to counseling families to sing and tell stories together he also referenced resources—Come Into the Circle, by Michelle Richards, and Come Sing a Song With Me, from the Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network.
The Reverend Jeanne Nieuwejaar, minister of the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Wilton Center, NH, and author of The Gift of Faith, described childhood “meadow moments” when she lay in tall grass, watching the sky, feeling the sun, at peace – in the mystical moment a child experiences whether or not they have the language to describe it as such. She encourages families to allow children time to stop doing, time to imagine, time in nature and time alone so they can tap into their innate spiritual natures. In addition to these things, Nieuwejaar says that adults need to talk to children using religious language with some sense of comfort. She notes that “we need to do so much work with adults if we care about the spiritual lives of children,” and that adults need to develop their own confidence and clarity around what religion and theology are to them. She used, as an example, the acquisition of meaning around the word “love” Intonation, touch and other cues begin “teaching” its meaning very early. Even though our understanding becomes more complex and layered over a lifetime, the early meaning is still true at any age. She asked the rhetorical question “If we don’t wait until a child is 44 to use the word love, why are we going to wait until they’re 44 and old enough to understand the word god?” At every age their understanding is just as true, but it changes and layers itself over time. And “when do we every stop understanding the word love and it’s meaning?” We wouldn’t dream of withholding the term ‘love’ until they’re "old enough to understand." As we use god language, children understand the words, if the language is natural.
The final speaker, Reverend Keith Kron, Director of the Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Concerns for the Unitarian Universalist Association, described a day in his former work as an elementary school teacher, where reading a thoughtful and challenging story—Faithful Elephants by Yukio Tsuchiya—to children created a container in which they could speak of difficult and complex issues and, in one child’s case, find an altruistic response.
In reflecting upon what makes a story “work,” Kron said, “What matters is the way you tell it. The children are watching for what that story means to you. There are so many networks, the child’s connection to the story, your connection to the story and the child’s connection to you. The most powerful stories have all these.”
Reported by Rebecca Kelley-Morgan; edited by Bill Lewis.