Education and Our Congregation

Sermon is copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.

Reading: “For You O Democracy”

Come, I will make the continent indissoluble,
I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,
I will make divine magnetic lands,
With the love of comrades,
With the life-long love of comrades.

I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,
I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,
By the love of comrades,
By the [life-long] love of comrades.

For you these from me, O Democracy, to serve you…!
For you, for you I am trilling these songs.

— Walt Whitman

Sermon: “Education and Our Congregation”

We Unitarian Universalists have our “seven principles,” a statement of values that our congregations agree to. These seven principles are not a creed, mind you; they’re a set of value statements. And one of those seven values statements talks about how we “affirm and promote” … “the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” I will make an even stronger statement than this. We do not just affirm and promote democratic process. I’m convinced our Unitarian Universalist congregations have an important role to play in maintaining a healthy democracy.

Yet in spite of my firm conviction that our Unitarian Universalist congregations help maintain a healthy democracy, I find it difficult to explain how we do this. The role we play in maintaining a healthy democracy is not simple and straightforward; it is subtle and complex. This morning, I would like to speak with you about one of the more important ways we help maintain a healthy democracy. And that is that we train our young people — our children in teens — in the democratic process. Our religious education programs support healthy democracy. It may not be part of the explicit curriculum we teach, but democratic process is central to our implicit curriculum; it is woven into everything our young people do in our congregation.

Our Unitarian Universalist religious education programs have four main goals. First, we aim have fun together and build community. Second, we want children to gain basic skills associated with liberal religion, such as public speaking, skills of cooperation, interpersonal skills, intrapersonal skills, basic group singing, and so on. Third, we aim to teach basic religious literacy. Fourth, we want to prepare young people to become Unitarian Universalists, if they choose to do so when they’re old enough to decide on their own.

Now let me explain how each of these four educational goals helps teach young people how to participate in democracy.

The first of our educational goals is to have fun and build community. On the surface, this is an entirely pragmatic goal. Religious education is but one of a great many options open to children and teens. If our programs are going to compete with sports, robotics, or video games, our programs had better be fun. But on a deeper level, we need children and teens to feel that they are a part of a community before we can reach some of the other goals. For example, when we offer Our Whole Lives comprehensive sexuality education classes, young people need to feel relatively safe talking with one another when it comes time to talk about difficult issues and to think about personal goals.

This same principle applies to us adults. We can work more effectively together on committees if we first take the time to get to know one another. It’s easier to rely on one another for help during life’s adversities, if we’ve taken the time to get to know one another first. Then, too, when the inevitable conflict arise, it is easier to manage those conflict productively if we know one another first.

For both adults and young people, we know the basic techniques of building community and having fun together. Eating together is a great way to have fun and build community. Before starting a Sunday school class, or a committee meeting, we take time to check in with one another, each person sharing something about what’s going on in their personal lives. Working together on a common project is actually one of the most effective ways to build community.

This is true of society beyond our congregations, too. Out in California, I volunteered at a homeless shelter, and one of the other volunteers belonged to the local Christian evangelical church. We strongly disagreed with each other about things like abortion, homosexuality, and climate change, but our shared work at the homeless shelter meant we developed respect for each other. Once people have developed mutual respect through sharing work and fun, we are much less likely to demonize one another when we start debating polarizing political issues. Since demonizing others is destructive to democracy, then we can see how learning to build community helps strengthen democracy.

The second goal for our religious education programs is to build the skills associated with liberal religion. Partly, we want to give young people skills to work together towards common goals. We want them to be able to serve on committees when they get older, so we teach them how to compromise, how to look for common ground, how to disagree respectfully, and so on. We want them to be able to communicate their ideas clearly and without being nervous, so we help them speak in small groups such as classes — and a key feature of our Coming of Age programs for grade 8 through 10 is helping young people to speak with ease and comfort in front of the entire congregation. We teach them interpersonal skills, skills like listening well to others, searching for common goals, being empathetic, and so on. We teach them intrapersonal skills, skills like learning how to identify one’s own feelings, learning where the core of one’s being is, moderating one’s own feelings.

Our democracy would be stronger if more people learned these skills. Our democracy needs people who can aim for the highest ideals but who also know when and how to compromise. Our democracy needs people who know how to speak well in public, not to manipulate others, but to encourage people to work together. Our democracy needs people who have enough self-awareness to know what they feel and to know how to listen to the feelings of others.

Another of the skills associated with liberal religion is group singing. Believe it or not, group singing can also serve to strengthen democracy. When we sing together, interesting physiological and psychological things happen to us. Group singing releases hormones that help moderate the amygdala. The amygdala, sometimes called the “lizard brain,” generates some of our most primitive and destructive emotions, so moderating the amygdala is a good thing. In addition, when we sing together, our breathing and our heart rates synchronize, and I believe this physiological response can help people of all ages learn empathy at a deep level.

So all these skills associated with liberal religion, even group singing, can help young people build a strong democracy.

On to the third educational goal: religious literacy. This is not an abstract academic educational goal. Several years ago, I attended a presentation by a doctoral candidate who was researching religious literacy. She found that good religious literacy programs in high school and middle school measurably reduce bullying. Her research supports what the American Academy of Religion says about religious il-literacy: “One of the most troubling and urgent consequences of religious illiteracy is that it often fuels prejudice and antagonism, thereby hindering efforts aimed at promoting respect for diversity, peaceful coexistence, and cooperative endeavors in local, national, and global arenas.” So says the American Academy of Religion in their religious literacy guidelines for grades K-12.

You have to understand that for most people, religion has little to do with intellectual assent to doctrines or philosophical positions. Instead, religion has more in common with the expressive arts, with political life, with culture more generally. The big divide is not between religion and science, but between science and the arts and humanities. Just as the arts and humanities teach us how to have a deeper understanding of other human beings, so too does religious literacy.

And thus we can conclude that learning religious literacy will help strengthen democracy.

Finally, a brief mention of our fourth educational goal: we want to prepare children and teens to become Unitarian Universalists if they choose to do so when they’re old enough to decide on their own. Even this educational goal has a bearing on educating for democracy. Large democracies are made up of smaller groups with different priorities and values. In a healthy democracy, people in these smaller groups have a firm understanding of who they are. They have a nuanced understanding of their core values, and they know that they can choose these values freely. This is exactly the kind of self-knowledge that’s involved in helping young people decide if they are Unitarian Universalists. So even this fourth goal of ours strengthens democracy, by helping young people grow in self-knowledge and self-awareness.

So we teach community building. We teach skills that happen to be useful in a democracy. We teach religious literacy, or cross-cultural understanding. We teach self-knowledge and self-awareness.

All these educational goals teach things that lead to a healthy democracy. A healthy democracy needs people who are know how to build community with one another. A healthy democracy needs people who have skills like empathy, listening well to others, public speaking, and many of the skills that are associated with doing liberal religion. A healthy democracy needs people with skills in cross-cultural understanding. A healthy democracy needs people with self-knowledge and self-awareness.

So you see, the ways in which we teach democratic process to our young people are sometimes subtle and often complex. Yet these are exactly the kinds of skills our young people need to learn. We live in a time when our democracy is in danger precisely because so many Americans lack the skills we teach. When we teach our children the things we teach, we are sending people out into the world who have the skills our country needs.

Lidian Jackson Emerson’s educational method

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Parish of Concord, Massachusetts, at 10:00 a.m. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2011 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is from The Life of Lidian Jackson Emerson, by Ellen Tucker Emerson. Ellen Tucker Emerson, born in Concord in 1839, was the eldest daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Lidian Jackson Emerson.

“Mother used to come up to me to hear me say my prayers and my evening hymn, and then pray for me, every night after I had gone to bed, long before Edith [her sister] slept with me. When she [Edith] came she had her prayers and hymn to say, too. When we were very little Mother began to have Sunday readings and I think also daily readings with us. Chiefly hymns and the Old Testament stories, but she used some other books which were not very interesting to us. I believe she avoided the New Testament, for I found it new to me when I began to read it myself…. she seemed to think the Old Testament stories were the children’s part of the Bible. I think so too.

“I was brought up keep Sunday fitly by having tasks to occupy me. Every Sunday I was to learn a hymn [that is, the text of a hymn, not the tune]. Most of them had five verses of four lines, sometimes they had six. After I was sure I could say that smoothly I was to review another. As I advanced in years I had two to review, finally three. By the time this grew easy, the task of writing out the idea of the hymn in prose was added, varied sometimes by rendering one of Mrs. Barbauld’s prose hymns into verse. These were my solitary labors…. When Mother was ready for us [after church and dinner] I had to recite my hymns new and reviewed and the other children theirs. Then she read to us, and as we grew older she was apt to read to us one of Jane Taylor’s Contributions of Q.Q. and she read more from the Gospels. She used to say to us poems….” [pp. 101, 103]


The second reading this morning is taken from the essay “Philosophical issues in spiritual education and development” by Hanan A. Alexander and David Carr. If you don’t do philosophy, feel free to let your attention wander now, because I’ll make the same point in the sermon.

“…[L]iberal society requires that citizens with robust visions of the good actively and substantively participate in democratic debates and discussions…. [T]he quest for spiritual perspectives and values is driven by the failure of thin political liberalism … to provide sufficiently substantial conceptions of the good to guide appropriate and significant life choices…. [A]ny sensible approach to spirituality and spiritual education should aim to steer a middle course between extremes of local cultural attachment and complete disengagement from any and all rooted values. Arguably, however, some such moral and spiritual middle way is a desideratum of liberal polity, insofar as such society precisely aims to foster the critical autonomy necessary for the demands of democratic citizenship without undermining the conditions for substantial identity formation that any society requires for the making of meaningful life choices.”

[“Philosophical issues in spiritual education and development,” Hanan A. Alexander and David Carr, The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence, Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, Pamela Ebstyne King, Linda Wagner, Peter L. Benson, ed., Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, Calif., 2006, pp. 73 ff.]

Sermon: “Lidian Jackson Emerson’s educational method”

It’s good to be back here, preaching to this historic congregation, in the historic town of Concord, Massachusetts. And with this congregation approaching its 375th anniversary, I thought I’d speak with you this morning about the congregation’s most famous family, the family of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Lidian Jackson Emerson. Specifically, I’d like to speak with you about how Ralph Waldo Emerson and his wife Lidian Jackson Emerson raised their children, and how that might cause us to reflect on the way we raise our children.


In the first reading this morning, you heard a little about how Lidian Jackson Emerson and Ralph Waldo Emerson raised their children to be moral and religious persons. Lidian and Waldo used what we would consider to be traditional methods of religious education. Each day, Lidian went up to say good night to Ellen, and Ellen said her prayers, then Lidian said her own prayer over Ellen. On Sundays, religious and moral education continued the whole day. Ellen writes: “Mother’s method in the religious education of her children [was] to have them made familiar with many hymns, and with all the interesting Bible stories[, t]o accustom them to hearing some serious writing read aloud to them regularly, to make it a habit to omit play on Sunday and have it a day devoted to church and to religious study at home.” (1) The family went to church, the children went to Sunday school; the family went home and ate dinner together. The children would then memorize a new hymn each week while their mother went to church again in the afternoon. Afterwards, the children would recite their hymns, and their mother would read aloud to them. And when the children were old enough that they found it easy to memorize hymns, they were sometimes given the additional task of setting a prose hymn into verse.

Over time, the Emerson family changed their Sunday routine somewhat. They still went to church in the morning, and when Lidian went to church again in the afternoon the children still stayed home and memorized their hymns, and recited them to Lidian when she returned home, and listened to their mother read aloud to them. Then at four in the afternoon, the children would walk with their father to Walden Pond, even when it was raining or snowing. When they returned home, they would all have tea with their Mother. Ellen writes: “This was a very easy and happy Sunday to us all, and when we wanted hours of solitude we found space for them.” (2)

Lidian also taught her children the principles of social justice, as it grew out of her Unitarian faith. Lidian was a zealous abolitionist right up until slavery was finally abolished. Ellen writes: “She read the papers faithfully and their pro-slavery tone made her hate her country. She learned all the horrors of slavery and dwelt upon these, so that it was as if she continually witnessed the whippings and the selling away of little children from their mothers.” On the fourth of July in 1853 — that is, a couple of years after the Fugitive Slave Law had been in effect — Lidian was so disgusted by the United States that, rather than decorate their front gate in red-white-and-blue bunting, she hung black fabric instead, as if in mourning. Ellen writes: “I think the children were a little mortified, but Mother said it did her good to express her feelings.” (3)


There you have a brief picture of how the Emerson family taught religion to their children in the middle nineteenth century. Compare this picture to how we teach religion to our children today.

First, consider how many hymns the Emerson children had to memorize. If they memorized one hymn a week, even assuming they forgot a good many over time, by the time they were in high school they would know perhaps two hundred hymns. We rarely memorize verse today, but in the nineteenth century, most educated people had large quantities of poetry and verse that they had memorized. Thus while it seems odd to us, memorizing hymns fit into a larger cultural pattern.

While we might vaguely understand the idea of memorizing hymns, the idea of Lidian setting her daughter the task of rendering prose hymns into verse is completely alien to us. I don’t know of any liberal religious parents who would ask their children to write anything on a religious or moral topic. We expect the schools to teach children how to write, but it is a rare family that asks children to write verse or prose compositions on moral and religious topics.

Keeping Sunday as a Sabbath day, a day of rest focused on moral and religious thoughts, is also foreign to us today. For today’s families, Sundays are as active as any other day of the week: in the morning, there are sports practices and games, and for a few families there might be regular or irregular attendance at Sunday school; the afternoons may be taken up with errands and household chores, and the evenings are most likely devoted to homework in preparation for school on Monday. If there are any spare hours on Sunday, they are filled with social media and video games and similar pursuits. Not many families find space in their lives for “hours of solitude,” even if they should want solitude.

We do share some things in common with the Emerson family. Liberal religious families are still devoted to social justice. We may not hang back fabric on our front gates on the fourth of July, but parents might wear t-shirts that express a desire for justice in the world, and mortify their children in the process. We still teach our children about humanitarian causes, and explain to them the moral reasoning underlying those causes. Beyond teaching our children about social justice, I know of some families today who still take walks together on Sunday afternoons, just as the Emerson family did in their time.

But in general, we devote far less time and energy to intentional religious and moral education of our children than did the Emersons. We fit in religious and moral education when we can, but it is quite impossible to fit in as much religious and moral education as did the Emersons.


Not that I believe we should go back to the ways of the Emerson family. Our society today is not the same as society in the middle of the nineteenth century. We do not live in a society where the home, the schools, the church, and the town government are all founded on liberal Protestant ideals. First Parish of Concord stopped receiving direct financial support from the town government a mere six years before Ellen Tucker Emerson was born, and in her day the church was supported by income from pew rentals, where the wealthiest families paid the most and got to sit in the best pews. There was not yet a Roman Catholic church in town, there certainly weren’t any Jews, and the schools openly taught Protestant Christian values and religious concepts. A few free African Americans lived in town, and more than a few escaping slaves passed through this town on the Underground Railroad, helped on their way by families close to the Emersons; but blacks had no political or social influence, and this was a white town. That is not a society to which I would like to return.

Nevertheless, we lost something when we progressed beyond that old society. Religious education scholar John Westerhoff says that mid-nineteenth century small town America had a “robust ecosystem” of religious education, where the home, the church, the schools, and the community all taught similar religious values. (4) Ellen Tucker Emerson received substantial religious and moral education at home, and that education was supported by the church, the schools, and the whole community. That old educational ecosystem is now broken, and the average child today gets very little time spent in religious and moral education; a child might attend Sunday school perhaps twenty-five hours a year, with perhaps some additional moral instruction at home.

A democratic society needs citizens who have thought deeply about what it means to live a good life. A great part of the success of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s was due to its roots in the highest moral and religious ideals of the black church. Democracy does not work well when people vote selfishly on the basis of what they think will benefit them; democracy needs people to have a larger vision of a good society.

We need a middle way between two cultural extremes. On the one hand, Ellen Tucker Emerson’s family and community lived lives and taught values that were too narrow, and did not include racial and religious diversity: African Americans, Catholics, Jews, all were left out of the Emerson family’s narrow cultural ideals. On the other hand, today’s society goes too far to the other extreme: we offer so little religious and moral education to our children that our democracy has devolved to the point where many people only vote to protect their own selfish interests. (5)

We cannot change the way families live their lives in this complicated world we inhabit — we cannot tell people that they must devote an entire day each week to focus on moral and religious thoughts — no one is going to do that. Indeed, we want people to be immersed in the wider democratic society, engaged with citizens with different values, engaged with all the problems and challenges of the broader world.

We cannot change the way families live their lives, so we must figure out the best ways to help people grow and learn, religiously and morally. We’ll still have our Sunday morning services, and we’ll keep Sunday school, too — both continue to serve us well. But we will add to them, and I would suggest that we should add intensive short-term retreats and camps and conferences.

Last week, I was at just such a camp, Ferry Beach Religious Education Week. Over the past couple of decades, this annual conference has become a sort of laboratory for religious education professionals and ministers to experiment with creating a week-long intentional community that welcomes children and teenagers with their parents, and other adults with no children including both young adults, empty nesters, and people like me who have never had children.

In this week-long intentional community, people of all ages live for a week in a community governed by the liberal religious ideals of Unitarian Universalism. In addition to explicit moral and religious education — classes, chapel services, and so on — this week-long camp provides a great deal of implicit religious and moral education. The conference center provides vegetarian and vegan food, and more than one teenager has made the moral decision to commit to a vegetarian or vegan diet while at this camp. The inevitable conflicts that arise are managed by referring to shared religious and moral values — and if you really want to put your values to the test, try resolving a conflict based on your values. The camp has a culture that allows any responsible adult to guide or correct a child when needed. Teenagers play games with children; young adults reach out to and mentor teenagers; all adults mentor each other, and all the other age groups as well. (6) This year, I had a long conversation with a young man whom I have watched grow up over the years, whose marriage had just ended;– and for my part, other adults listened to me talk about my own personal and career struggles.

Consider a child who attends this Unitarian Universalist camp. In one short week, this child gets more than a hundred hours of explicit and implicit religious and moral education. Compare this to the child who attends Sunday school for one hour a week on twenty-five Sundays a year. The child who attends this week-long summer camp gets the equivalent of four years of Sunday school in one intensive dose. Some years ago, a teenager of my acquaintance described her experience this way: all year long she would be on a sort of plateau, and then she felt as if she made a quantum leap upwards in her personal development in a week-long Unitarian Universalist camp; then she would proceed on pretty much of a plateau until the next summer camp. This teenager is now thirty years old, and after working in the public sector, moved to a job in the non-profit sector where she does conflict resolution. This is exactly the kind of spiritually developed and religiously grounded individual who can participate in democracy with a robust understanding of the good.


As you listen to me describing this camp, you’ve probably become aware that there are problems to be solved. Week-long camps of the kind I have just described are expensive, and not everyone can afford them. And many week-long camps are not intentional communities that provide solid religious and moral education of the type that serves democracy. And many week-long camps are not good at including the older generations, the grandparents and great-grandparents, people who can provide so much rich religious and moral insight and instruction.

Well, we will have to solve these problems: we’ll have to have scholarships, and better intentions, and we’ll have to include grandparents and great-grandparents. And we’ll have to try other formats:— weekend retreats in addition to week-long camps; extended families and other multigenerational groups; evening events and small groups; and more. We are in the beta testing phase; we will need to keep refining these ideas until we get it right. And you are already doing many of these things here at First Parish of Concord;— you will keep refining them, keep on working to make small groups and extended families and weekend retreats into intentional communities that help us to grow religiously and morally.

And when you come right down to it, we have the same goals that the Emerson family had. We want our children to grow up into adults with high moral values. We want our adults to keep on growing and refining our religious and moral understandings, so that we can better work with others to infuse the highest values into our democratic society. We want to support each other as we grow, and we want to hold the wider society accountable to the highest moral values.

This is what the Emersons wanted to do. This is what this congregation has been doing for the past 375 years — guiding people towards the highest moral standards, nurturing people who will go out and create an earth made fair and all her people free.

Notes and additional information

Continue reading “Lidian Jackson Emerson’s educational method”

Children’s Religious Education Sunday

The homily below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 worship services. As usual, the text below is a reading text; the actual homily contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Homily copyright (c) 2010 Daniel Harper.


“Putting in the Seed”

You come to fetch me from my work tonight
When supper’s on the table, and we’ll see
If I can leave off burying the white
Soft petals from the apple tree.
(Soft petals, yes, but not so barren quite,
Mingled with these, smooth bean and wrinkled pea)
And go along with you ere you lose sight
Of what you came for and become like me,
Slave to a springtime passion for the earth.
How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed
On through the watching for that early birth
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,
The sturdy seedling with arched body comes
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.

From Mountain Interval, 1914, by Robert Frost.


The story was “Starry Time” from The Moral Intelligence of Children, Robert Coles, pp. 13-15. Due to copyright restrictions, it is not included here.

Homily — “The Children of This Church” — Dan

I’ll start by telling you a story. When Theodore Parker, the great Unitarian minister, was a little boy, not yet four years old, his father took him out somewhere on the family farm; then his father sent him home again. As little Theodore walked home, he passed a small pool of water, and there was a turtle sunning itself in the water. Little Theodore had a stick in his hand, and he raised it up to strike the turtle — but suddenly he heard a voice saying, “It is wrong.” Theodore went home, and told his mother what had happened. He asked her what was the voice he had heard, and she told him that some people call it your conscience, and some people call it the voice of God. Either way, the most important thing to do is to listen hard to that voice, for, she said, that voice will always tell you the correct thing to do; but if you neglect that voice, it will gradually fade away, leaving you with no guidance at all.

I told this story to some children this fall, and afterwards they wanted to talk about it. One child tentatively wondered aloud what “conscience” meant, but at almost the same time a girl asked about God. I said what I though Theodore Parker meant by God, and then she asked if we Unitarian Universalists believe in God. I said I did not believe God was supposed to be a man with long white hair and a beard sitting on a cloud; but if we meant something else by “God,” then some of us do believe in God. This answer obviously did not satisfy this girl; she wanted an answer! “How many of us believe in God?” I said. “Raise your hands if you do.” Less than half of us raised our hands. “How many of us don’t believe in God?” I said. Fewer of us raised our hands. “And now, how many people aren’t sure?” I said: still fewer, about of third of us.

The girl who asked the question still wasn’t entirely happy with my answer. “There’s another way to answer this question if you’re a kid,” I said. “You can ask your parents whether or not they believe in God, and then you can say, ‘I’m going to believe what you believe for now, and when I get old enough, I’ll make up my own mind.” This satisfied her, for the moment.

I remembered that someone had started to ask what “conscience” meant. Amy, our parish minister, was visiting class that day, so I asked Amy to define conscience for us, which she did. One boy had his own definition: Conscience is just plain old common sense. I said that many people think that conscience seems to come from inside, while for some people the voice of God would come from outside you; but for some of us, conscience also comes from outside, because conscience comes from other people. This made sense to the children. One child mentioned that we are influenced by what other people think of us, another child said we learn how to act from other people.

This kind of conversation is fairly common in this church, at least in my experience. The children in our church are quite thoughtful about moral issues, not just once in a while, but often. They may not always act on their values; of course, adults have the same problem. But they think and reflect, they wonder about things they’re not sure of, and they are willing to accept ambiguity.

One Sunday, I listened as Melissa van Arsdel told a Sunday school class the story of Queen Esther from the Bible, which is the story that underlies the Jewish holiday of Purim. It’s a long story, so I can’t retell it now — look it up on the Web if you’re curious.

Melissa told the story very well, and the children listened attentively. At the end of the story, Melissa asked the children what they thought of the story. One girl said she thought there might be a lesson to the story, and Melissa asked her what she thought that lesson might be. She gave her idea: that we should be nice to people. Other children said what they thought: that Haman got what he deserved, that you have to be careful whom you trust, and so on. Then one girl spoke up passionately, but not very articulately, saying the story meant we should stick up for our ideals. Melissa said the story could indeed mean all these things; in fact, it does mean all these things.

Then another girl asked if the story were true. When it comes to Bible stories, that’s the question we all ask, isn’t it? Some of the older children, two boys in particular, were quite certain it wasn’t a true story. The girl who had spoken so passionately earlier said decisively that it was a myth. The discussion grew a little chaotic, but the children understood that while this wasn’t factual history the way we know it today, nevertheless it contained truth — or as some of the children put it, there was a “lesson,” or a moral, in it. Even though we live in a world of binary oppositions, a world of black-and-white choices, our children can and do grasp subtleties of truth and meaning; they are willing to live with ambiguity, and to talk about the most difficult issues you can imagine, if we give them the space to do so. And looking back at my teaching notes from this past year, I see that I have had conversations with children on topics like death, and suicide, and how it’s scary to grow up, and what do you do when others betray you. Never once did we come to a final answer in any of these conversations.

Life, death, betrayal, growing older — I’m still struggling with these questions myself! — obviously I don’t have final answers to pass along to our kids. Instead of final answers, let me speak in metaphors. What I say might be truth, or a myth, or a fairy tale, or it might have a lesson in it.

All we can do — all any of us adults can do — is invite children to plant seeds with us. When we’re done putting in the seeds, we can stay there in the garden and watch as the seedlings shoulder their way up, shedding earth crumbs, always growing up towards the light. And if we stay in the garden long enough, the warm night will come, and the moon will rise, and one by one the stars will begin to shine above us, until the whole sky is a blaze of glory; and we will know that we are a part of it all.