Thanksgiving with family, pt. 2

Dr. Sharpie, Rolf, Ms. and Mr. Bear, and Elephant share Thanksgiving dinner together. They wonder how Thanksgiving dinner went for Muds and Possum. Just then, Muds and Possum come home….

As usual, full text is below the fold. Part 3 coming soon.

Continue reading “Thanksgiving with family, pt. 2”

Thanksgiving with family, pt. 1

Muds and Possum are worried about going to visit relatives at Thanksgiving, because of uncomfortable conversations with relatives who have differing opinions about climate change, gender, and religion….

As usual, full text is below the fold. Go to Part 2.

Continue reading “Thanksgiving with family, pt. 1”

Gender-balanced kids’ book of Bible stories

An interesting new children’s book of Bible stories is being funded on Kickstarter. The goal: a kid’s book that’s gender-balanced. Why? Because for the majority of children’s Bible story books, “female characters are vastly underrepresented in both the stories and the illustrations.” The illustrations are also going to show racially diverse characters. Admirable, and I look forward to seeing the book — which sadly won’t be published till 2023.

The old Unitarian Universalist “Timeless Themes” stories, while not completely gender-balanced, had pretty good representation of women. It would be fun to update that with some multi-racial illustrations. And wouldn’t it be nice if we had a UU children’s book of Bible stories that recognizes that God is non-binary gender? Uh huh, that’s what it says in Genesis 1:27: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Ignore the pronouns (nobody remembers ask ask God what their pronouns are), and it’s pretty clear that all genders are created in God’s image.

Translations of the UUCPA unison benediction

English

Go out into the world in peace
Be of good courage
Hold fast to what is good
Return no one evil for evil
Strengthen the faint-hearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Rejoice in beauty
Speak love with word and deed
Honor all beings.

Spanish

Vete en paz al mundo
Mantén tu valentía
Sostén lo bueno con firmeza
No pagues maldad con maldad
Fortalece a los frágiles de Corazón
Apoya a los débiles
Auxilia a los que sufren
Goza de la belleza
Expresa amor con palabra y acción
Honra a todos los seres.

German

Gehe mit Frieden in die Welt hinaus
Sei guten Mutes
Halte fest das Gute
Vergelte nicht Übel mit Übel
Staerke die Zaghaften
Unterstuetze die Schwachen
Hilf den Leidenden
Erfreue dich des Schoenen in der Welt
Gib Liebe mit Wort und Tat
Ehre alles Dasein.

Hindi
Dutch

Ga in vrede de wereld in
Heb goede moed 
Houd vast aan wat goed is 
Vergeldt niemand kwaad met kwaad 
Versterk de krachtelozen 
Steun de zwakkeren 
Help hen die lijden 
Verheug u in schoonheid 
Spreek liefde met woord en daad 
Eer alle wezens.

Teaching resource

I’ve been looking — for quite a while now — for a teaching resource of some kind that shows how some Christians and some Christian groups do in fact support persons of non-binary gender.

The anti-LGBTQ+ Christians are loud and vocal, and they dominate both media and the popular imagination. But I know there are plenty of progressive Christians who feel their religion is fully compatible with being LGBTQIA+. Unfortunately, as is so often the case in our society, most people think it’s a zero-sum game, so the loudest group gets to take charge of the discourse. In addition, as is so often the case in our religiously illiterate society, everyone seems to assume that all religions are monolithic; everyone assumes that one Christian group gets to represent all Christian groups everywhere, ignoring the fact that Christianity has tremendous internal diversity.

As a religious educator, I’ve long tried to teach people both about Christianity’s internal diversity, and about how some Christians are fully supportive of LGBTQIA people. But in a the context of our zero-sum-game, religiously-illiterate society, I haven’t had much success. I kept thinking: If only I had some great teaching resource that showed how some Christians do not have a binary understanding of gender.

So I was pleased to discover this video, which profiles several interesting non-binary Christians. The interviewer, Grace Selmer Baldridge, happen to be a non-binary Christian, which I think makes this video especially powerful. I could wish that Grace Baldridge had been able to interview some non-white non-binary Christians, but aside from that weakness, the interviewees are diverse in their gender identity, in their age, in their expression of their Christianity.

This video may not work well as a teaching resource for those Unitarian Universalists who suffer from anti-Christian bias. Nevertheless, I’m thinking this video could be a great teaching tool for showing both the internal diversity of Christianity, and showing how some Christians believe their religion calls them to a non-binary understanding of gender.

To watch the video on Youtube, click on the image above.

To whet your appetite, here are some quotes from the video:

“We just have to be honest that using the pronoun ‘he’ for God is a habit, but it has no theological justification.” — Dr. Lizzie Berne DeGear, independent scholar

“When I imagine a trans child coming to understand, ‘I might be a girl in this boy body,’ I’m like, ‘Thank you, God, the child is becoming aware of who they really are.’…. God creates out of love. God creates love out of love. We who are in the image of God are all awesome. So when I’m talking to you, I’m learning a little more about God. Because you’re in God’s image. And when you’re talking to me, the same is true.” — Rev. Dr. Jacqueline J. Lewis, senior minister, Middle Collegiate Church

“As a church, we said: We’re publicly going to affirm the LGBTQIA community. We don’t have to be uniform in that belief right away, we can question it, we can disagree, but this is the stance our church is going to take from here on out.… We lost lots of people. We lost thousands of dollars. And it was such a good move. We can sit here and be comfortable, and say OK, the money’s still rolling in and there’s a lot of people coming through my doors, and we can feel good about that. But when there’s literally people out there who are told that they’re not loved, people whose families are disowning them for this, we need to step up and become safe spaces.” — Jonathan Williams, former lead pastor, Forefront Church, Brooklyn, and son of a trans woman

“We really feel that the only way we can combat that negativity [about LGBTQIA people] is with people of faith standing up and saying: No, this is actually not in alignment with how we understand our faith, that you can be Christian and trans, and you can be Christian and gay, and that they’re not mutually exclusive.” — Jamie Brusesehof, mother of a trans child

COVID games, online curriculum

I just updated the selection of games on my curriculum Web site. In-person games now either have adaptations to make them COVID-safe, or they’re clearly marked “not suitable for COVID.” There’s also a modest selection of field-tested online games for online classes and groups. There are games for all ages from school-aged children up to adults. These games can be used in Sunday school classes, youth groups, adult classes, and other small groups.

Games Web page with COVID-safe games and online games.

We’ve now been teaching my Neighboring Religions curriculum online since March, 2020. This curriculum has transferred extremely well to online teaching. Now I’m writing out the adaptations that we’ve used to make it work so well.

Neighboring Religions curriculum with online adaptations.

If you have any feedback or comments about either the games, or Neighboring Religions, please leave them here.

The Doctor who rode a hyena to Mecca

Another story for liberal religious children. This story comes from Hausa Folklore, stories told by Maalam Shaihua and translated by R. Sutherland Rattray (Clarendon Press, 1913). The Hausa, who live in what is now Nigeria, were one of North Africa’s major trading powers. By the 14th century, many Hausa people had converted to Sunni Islam, and eventually Hausaland became a Caliphate. Traditional Hausa religion (called “Bori” or “Maguzanci”) persisted in the countryside, and still does today. The present story appears to combine elements from older Hausa folklore (talking animals) with Islamic elements (trip to Mecca). This story reminds us that Islam has been a feature of West Africa for centuries.

A certain doctor, a man of great learning who wrote elegant Arabic script and who was well-versed in the complicated legal, historical, and religious learning of the Hausa people, set out to go on the Hajj. This is the pilgrimage to Mecca that all good Muslims hope to make, so that they might add to their rewards in the afterlife.

This doctor had a very thin mare. He saddled her, mounted her, and began the long journey to Mecca. He was deep into the forest when be saw a hyena. The hyena saw that the doctor’s mare was very weary.

“Doctor, where are you going?” said the hyena.

The doctor said, “I am going to Mecca.”

“But something seems to be the matter,” said the hyena.

“It is the mare,” said the doctor. “She is weary.”

“Give the mare to me,” said the hyena. “I shall kill her, and eat her up. Then you can mount me and we shall set out to Mecca.”

The doctor said, “So?”

The hyena said, “Yes, it is so.”

The doctor said, “You must not deceive me.”

She replied, “Come now, Doctor, it is because I have seen that your mare is unable to go on that I speak. For my part, if you mount me, this instant I will carry you to Mecca.”

The doctor said, “All right, catch the mare and eat it.”

The hyena seized the mare, tore it up, picked up the meat and took it home. She ate it with her children. The doctor waited and waited for her to return, but she did not come back. At last a jackal came along and saw the doctor sitting there.

“Doctor, what has happened?” said the jackal.

“I was on my way to Mecca,” said the doctor. “My mare got tired, so I sat down. The hyena came along and asked what was the matter, and I said that that I was on my way to Mecca but my mare was tired.

“And the hyena said, ‘Oh, this thing can never take you to Mecca. Give her to me to eat so I can increase my strength, then I can carry you to Mecca.’ I then said,” the doctor went on,, “‘Hyena, you must not deceive me, by eating my mare then running away.’ But she replied, ‘Why would I do that? it is the truth I told you.’ I thought what she told me was true, but after she caught the mare she went off and I haven’t seen her again.”

“Stop worrying, Doctor,” said the jackal. “I will bring her to you.”

The jackal took up all the horse tack — the saddle and saddle-cloth, the bit and halter, the spurs and whip — and off he went. On the way, he found a lump of meat and took it along as well. He dropped the tack, piece by piece, dropping the saddlecloth last of all, when he was near the mouth of the hyena’s hole.

When he got to the hyena’s hole, he stood and announced his arrival.

But the hyena had told her children, “Whoever comes here looking for me, you must say I am not here.” So when the jackal hailed, the children said, “She is not here.”

“Allah curse her, she has no luck,” said the jackal. “Here I have brought her good news, and bad luck prevents her from hearing it. For a cow has died, a very fat one, and I have come to call her and show her. But you say, she is not here. So I will leave.”

Then the hyena said, “Who is seeking me?”

“I am seeking you<” said the jackal. “A fat cow has died, but these children say you are not here. Here, I cut off a big lump of meat and have brought it to you”

“There is no God but Allah!” said the hyena. “You worthless children, I was asleep, but you say I am not here.” And the hyena came out of her hole.

The jackal offered her some of the lump of meat, saying, “Taste it.”

She swallowed the meat, giving none to her children. Then she said, “Let us be off.”

The hyena was eager to get to the fat cow, and she was a long way in front of the jackal. “Here,” said the hyena, “you cannot walk fast enough. Climb up and ride me so that we may go quickly.”

The jackal rode her, and soon they came to the saddle cloth. The jackal said, “Let me spread this thin on your back, for the hair on your back is getting ruffled.” When he had the saddle-cloth on her, he mounted once again and they rode off.

Soon they came to the bit and halter. “Let me lift up this thing and put it in your mouth,” said the jackal. “Perhaps it will be better for me to hold.”

“Put it on quickly and let us get on,” said the hyena. The jackal put on the bit, took hold of the halter, and they rode off again.

Soon they came to the spurs and whip. The jackal dismounted, took up the whip and put the spurs on his feet, and mounted again.

As they drew near where the doctor was waiting, the hyena said, “You must not take this way.” For she did not wish to meet the doctor again, so she took another path. But when they were opposite where the doctor sat, the jackal struck her with the spurs and turned the bit towards the doctor. Then the hyena sprang forward, saying, “Oou, oou.”

The jackal pulled up in front of the doctor, dismounted, and said, “Doctor, behold your debtor. Mount her, and do not get off until you reach where you are going. If you dismount, even at the water, do not take her to a stream of water.”

The doctor replied, “I have heard.” He mounted, and did not dismount until they had ridden all the way to Mecca, over a thousand miles.

When he got to Mecca, his dismounted from the hyena. He asked some children to hold her, saying, “You must not mount her, and you must not take her to the stream.” Then the doctor entered the mosque where they were praying.

But the children did not listen. They mounted they hyena, and rode her to a nearby stream. As soon as she got out of the town, she began to gallop into the bush. She threw them off, and ran away. So when the doctor came out of the mosque, he saw neither the children, nor the hyena.

That is all.

The Mood Pillow

Another story for liberal religious kids. I think I originally wrote this story for the First Parish in Watertown, Mass., back in the mid 1990s. I rewrote it in 2004 when I was at the UU Society of Geneva, Ill., and then forgot about it. Here’s the 2004 version:

Once upon a time, about a hundred and fifty years ago in the town of Concord, Massachusetts, a family lived in a house they called “Apple Slump.” There were four children in the family, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, along with their father, Mr. March, and Marmee, their mother. At the time this story takes place, Mr. March was far away, serving in the army during the Civil War.

Jo had long, chestnut-colored hair. She was a tall tomboy who didn’t really like being a girl. Jo also had a terrible temper; she had a hard time controlling their anger. But Jo figured out a way to keep her temper under control. She had what I think of as a “mood pillow.” 

“Apple Slump,” the house that the March family lived in, was a big, old, rambling New England farmhouse. Jo thought the best room in the house was the garret, a room up in the attic that had a nice, sunny window. Next to the window stood an old sofa.

The sofa was long, and broad, and low. It had been the perfect thing for the girls to play on when they were little. They had slept on it, ridden on the arms as if they were horses, and crawled under it pretending they were animals. As they got older, they had long, serious talks sitting on it, they lay down and dreamed daydreams on it.

Jo liked the sofa more than the other girls. It was her favorite place to read. She would curl up in one corner with a good book, and half a dozen russet apples to eat. As she sat reading and eating her apples, a tame little rat would stick its head out and enjoy her quiet company.

But sometimes Jo went up into the garret for a different reason. She had a terrible temper, and sometimes she would get in a horrible nasty mood. Sometimes, when she was in a particularly bad mood, she just needed to be alone.

She would run up into the garret, and pick up the pillow that was on the sofa. This was an old, hard, round pillow shaped liked a sausage. This repulsive-looking old thing was her special property. If she stood it on its end, that was a sign that any one of her sisters, or her best friend Laurence, or her mother, was allowed to come and sit down next to her on the sofa and chat; but if it lay flat across the sofa, “woe to the man, woman, or child who dared disturb it!” When they were younger, her sisters and Laurence had been pummeled mercilessly by this pillow, and now they knew better than to try to sit next to Jo when it lay flat.

I call this her “mood pillow,” and I think it’s a great idea. When Jo was in a bad mood, or angry about something, or when she just needed to be alone, she could use the pillow to let her family and friends know that they should leave her alone for a while. That way, she wouldn’t hurt those around her when she was in a bad mood.

When you’re in a bad mood, what do you do to keep from hurting those around you?

P. T. Barnum’s elephant

Another story for liberal religious kids. Originally written c. 2000 for First Parish in Lexington, Mass. I dusted off this old story and fixed it up a little because my current congregation’s Sunday school will be learning about P. T. Barnum this year. This story comes from his 1872 autobiography, Struggles and Triumphs.

He was the greatest showman in America! He was a man who was known and loved everywhere, the most famous person in the United States in the nineteenth century! He was the man who created “the greatest show on earth”! His name was Phineas Taylor Barnum.

P. T. Barnum was a showman, the greatest showman of all time, a man who put on shows of strange and wonderful things in his giant Museum in New York City. He exhibited the very first live hippopotamus ever seen in North America. His museum was known for its amazing and incredible animals. He even exhibited the amazing Feejee Mermaid. (Well, actually he later admitted that the Feejee Mermaid was a fake that had been glued together.)

He was a showman, but more than that he was an expert at making money. He had a two-part secret for making money. First, give the public good value. Second, get all the free advertising that you can. Here’s an example of how Barnum gave good value, and got free advertising for his fabulous American Museum….

P. T. Barnum brought thirteen elephants Asia to North America. He exhibited them in New York and all across the North American continent. After four years, he sold all but one. He kept that one for his farm in Connecticut. He figured out a way that the elephant could draw a plow. Then he hired a man to use the elephant to plow a tiny corner of Barnum’s farm, which just happened to be right next to the main line of the New York and New Haven Railroad.

P. T. Barnum gave this man a time-table for the railroad. Every time a passenger train was due to pass by, the man made sure the elephant was busily engaged in drawing the plow, right where all the passengers could see.

Hundreds of people each day rode the train past Barnum’s elephant. Everyone who saw it was amazed and astonished. Barnum was using an elephant to draw a plow! Reporters from all the New York newspapers came to write stories on this amazing spectacle. People wrote letters to Barnum from far and wide, asking his advice on how they, too, might use an elephant to draw a plow on their farms.

When Barnum responded to these letters, he always wrote: “Now this is strictly confidential, but for goodness sake don’t even think of getting an elephant. They eat far too much hay and you would lose money. I’m just doing it to draw attention to my museum in New York.”

Pictures of Barnum’s elephant pulling the plow began to appear in newspapers all across the United States, and even overseas in Europe. People came out to Connecticut on purpose just to see Barnum’s elephant at work. They would say, “Why look at that! That’s a real elephant drawing that plow! If Barnum can use an elephant on his farm, he must have all kinds of animals at his Museum. Guess I’ll go to Barnum’s Museum next time I’m in New York city.”

One day, an old farmer friend of Barnum’s came to visit. This farmer wanted to see the elephant at work. By this time, that six acre plot of land beside the railroad had been plowed over about sixty times. The farmer watched the elephant work for a while, and then he turned to Barnum and said, “My team of oxen could pull harder than that elephant any day.”

“Oh, I think that elephant can draw better than your oxen,” said Barnum.

“I don’t want to doubt your word,” said his farmer friend, “but tell me how that elephant can draw better than my oxen.”

Barnum replied, “That elephant is drawing the attention of twenty million people to Barnum’s Museum.”

P. T. Barnum later became famous for his circus, but not many people know that he was also a Universalist. He’s one of my favorite Unitarian Universalists, precisely because he wasn’t perfect. He didn’t always tell the truth, but at least he later admitted when he tried to fool people. He made too much money, but he made sure to give lots of his money away to help other people. He gave money to poor people, and he gave money to help people stop drinking, and he built parks that everyone could use, and he gave lots of money to his Universalist church. I like P. T. Barnum because I know I’m not perfect. But even though I make mistakes, I can follow Barnum’s example and help make the world a better place.

“Elephantine Agriculture,” engraving from the book Struggles and Triumphs by P.T. Barnum (1872). Public domain image courtesy Project Gutenberg.

What I see in an old photo

Cleaning out the files on my laptop, I came across an old low-resolution photo from 1999, showing a dozen people posing for the camera. It was a photo of the participants in the first “Essex Conversations” colloquium. Using GIMP, I increased the size of the photo to see if I could recognize those people…

I think I can identify most of them. From left to right are Lena Breen, then head of the religious education department of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA); Ginger Luke, minister of religious education; Jeanellen Ryan, leadership development director in the UUA’s religious education department; Frances Manly, minister of religious education; Tom Yondorf, parish minister; Susan Davison Archer, minister of religious education; Susan Suchocki Brown, parish minister; and Susan Harlow, professor of religious education at Meadville/Lombard.

In the front row at left is John Marsh, parish minister; a woman whom I’m sure I know but whose name I can’t remember; me, then a lay director of religious education; and Tom Owen-Towle, parish minister.

Several things struck me when I looked at this photo. Everyone is white. At 38 years old, I was the youngest person in the photo. And today, I’m the only one still active and working in a Unitarian Universalist congregation or organization (see the notes at the end of this post).

After looking at the photo, I dug out the essay I presented at that colloquium in 1999. It holds up surprisingly well in a number of areas, especially in its critique of the limitations of developmentalism, and in its insistence on talking about real live learners — I thought then, and think now, that too much theorizing about religious education is done without having real live children and teens in mind.

But it’s also fun to re-read that old essay to find all the things I no longer agree with. First, and perhaps most importantly, my essay didn’t adequately address how it is that learning and individual development depend on social interaction (I read Vygotsky a couple of years after I wrote it). Second, the world has changed a great deal since 1999, and Unitarian Universalist religious education faces new challenges, especially the ongoing decline of religious education enrollment in UU congregations, and the rise of religious disaffiliation, two linked trends that have been accelerated by the COVID pandemic. Third, over the past decade I’ve become increasingly aware of just how religiously illiterate most North Americans are, and I’ve seen research showing how religious literacy improves cross-cultural understanding, and how improved cross-cultural understanding can reduce violence and conflict in our communities; I wish now I’d made religious literacy integral to the essay. Finally, I’m less critical of schooling than I used to be, since I now believe some of the favored alternatives to schooling promoted in UU circle are artifacts of upper middle class white culture; yet because most children in North America attend school, schooling is can be more easily accepted across racial, cultural, and ethnic boundaries.

A revised version of my 1999 essay was published in the book Essex Conversations: Visions for Lifespan Religious Education (Skinner House: Boston, 2001); a book which, somewhat to my astonishment, is still in print. I think it’s past time for another generation of UU religious educators to write new essays about the future of religious education. Unfortunately, a colloquium like the one I attended costs a lot of money, and I suspect the declining financial health of the entire denomination means there won’t be another one in the foreseeable future. And religious education is no longer the priority it once was for Unitarian Universalists, partly because religious education enrollment has been declining since 2005 — but also because the current generation of children is majority non-white, and any attempt to encourage a bunch of non-white youngsters to come into our 95% white denomination is going to run smack up against the systemic racism that pervades the UUA.

Nevertheless, I wish we could put together a group of thoughtful people who are dedicated to religious education, who could spend a long weekend together to talk about what’s needed in religious education for the current generation of children. I wish we could have a new book of essays that address today’s religious education challenges — essays that address how we might keep Unitarian Universalist religious education from completely dying out.

Notes about the people in the photo:

John Marsh died in June. According to the UUA directory of professional religious leaders, Lena Breen, Ginger Luke, Jeanellen Ryan, Frances Manly, Susan Davison Archer, Susan Suchocki Brown, and Tom Owen-Towle are all either retired or no longer active. Susan Harlow, who was a United Church of Christ (UCC) minister, is retired from People’s Church in Chicago. Tom Yondorf left the ministry in 2000 to become a school teacher.