Guide to visiting other faith communities

Here’s a five-minute video I made about what to pay attention to when you visit services at a faith community that’s not your own. Drawing on Ninian Smart‘s seven dimensions of religion, the video suggests that when visiting another faith community it’s most interesting to focus on three of Smart’s seven dimensions: the emotional/experiential, social, and material dimensions.

Look. Listen. Feel. Visiting other faith communities.

I’m in the process of updating our congregation’s “Neighboring Faith Communities” course for middle schoolers (available online here).

The introductory video for this curriculum might be of interest to readers of this blog, so here it is:

I’ll put the script for the video below the fold, as some group leaders might want access to it. Continue reading “Look. Listen. Feel. Visiting other faith communities.”

Painting with Jello

My sister-the-children’s-librarian keeps telling me how much fun it is doing process art and sensory art with kids. So this Sunday I decided to do jello-painting in Sunday school. (The term “Jell-o” is a a registered trademark of Kraft Food Groups, but I’m using “jello” as a generic term for any gelatin-based sweet dessert.)

At the local supermarket, I found jello in all the colors of the rainbow: cherry for red (it looked like a deeper red than strawberry or raspberry), orange for orange, lemon for yellow, lime for green, some random berry flavor for blue, and grape for purple. Since I was expecting 8-12 children, I got six ounces of each color — er, of each flavor — whatever you want to call them.

I figured jello-painting would take about twenty minutes, so we did some other activities first. Then we went outside to the picnic tables, where I had already set up a can full of paint brushes, a whole bunch of little cups to mix colors in, wooden stirring sticks, and several cups of plain water to clean brushes in. The packages of jello powder were on a separate table, along with a big pot of very warm (but not hot, for safety’s sake) water with a couple of ladles.

I gave a quick demonstration: pour some jello powder into one of the little mixing cups, add some warm water, stir with one of the wooden stirring sticks, then paint on the paper. Then I gave each child a piece of watercolor paper, and let them figure out the rest for themselves. It took them a moment to realize that Barb and I were just there to facilitate the process, but we weren’t going to tell them how to do things. Then they liked the idea that they could just play with the materials. Barb helped this process — he quickly started making his own painting, asking the other children if he could borrow some of their orange jellopaint for the sunset he was making.

Below is a photo of Barb mixing some of his own jellopaint — you can see the pot of very warm water with a ladle in it, to the left:

(I really like the fact that I have a photograph of a Moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association — the highest elected office in our denomination — mixing jello to use as paint.)

Continue reading “Painting with Jello”

Parama Pada Sopanam

I’ve written before about Moksha Patam, one version of the Indian board games from which the classic Snakes and Ladders game is derived. A few weeks ago, I decided to order the real thing — I ordered Parama Pada Sopanam, another version of Moksha Patam, from Kreeda Games in Chennai, India. Kreeda’s mission is to promote traditional Indian games, by “learning through play.”

I ordered two games for use in our religious education programs (plus one for my own use!), and they arrived today. I was more than pleased with the games. The cloth game board is beautifully designed. The traditional long dice are fascinating and satisfying to throw and use. The wooden pawns, though smaller than I would like, are a pleasant shape with good colors. The game box is made out of corrugated cardboard, which sounds cheap, but the bright printed designs on the box make it look exactly right. I liked the little cloth bag in which the pawns and dice are stored. And nothing in the game is made of plastic, which makes it all the more satisfying.

Kreeda’s games are aimed at modern families (and educational programs) who want to retain a connection to traditional games and culture. The best part of Kreeda’s version of Parama Pada Sopanam are the brief stories for each of mythological names of the “snakes.” If you land on a square where you are to slide down a snake, you can read aloud the brief story of that mythological figure. Thus, this game is not just fun, it is a way to become introduced to some traditional Indian myths.

Mind you, ordering a game from India is not exactly easy. The cost of shipping from India is more than the cost of the game; however, the game is inexpensive, so the overall cost is not prohibitive. The bank had a hard time when we wired money to Kreeda. And the U.S. staff of the international courier, DHL, proved less than competent in delivering the package: we saw the DHL truck drive right up to our house, then were notified that the driver could not find our house; when I called the national office in Arizona to straighten things out, the woman on the phone was less than polite, and wanted me to go pick up the package at their warehouse; and when the package finally arrived, one of the game boxes was partially crushed (which is OK by me, given that it will get wrecked anyway in our program, but it is annoying). If you decide to order a Kreeda game from India, be patient — and ask if you can pay Kreeda to pack the game in a sturdy box to prevent DHL from crushing it. What I really wish would happen is that someone in the States would import this game, and other games made by Kreeda — that would lower the cost, and make delivery easier.

I’m looking forward to playing this game with the early elementary children in our program. I expect the children in our program will have fun, and enjoy absorbing a little bit of one of the greatest cultures in the world.

Arjuna’s Choice

A story from a series for liberal religious kids; this story comes from the Bhagavad Gita.

Once upon a time, two armies assembled at the Kuru Field. On one side was the army of Yudhishthira [Yut-ish-tir-ah], who was the nephew of Dhritarashtra [Dri-tah-rahsh-trah], the great blind King of the Kurus. On the other side was the army of Duryodhana [Dur-yo-tahn-ah], the eldest of Dhri-tarashtra’s hundred sons. Twenty years before, Dhritarashtra had decided to give his kingdom to his nephew Yudhishthira, instead of to his son Duryodhana; for he knew that Duryodhana was wicked and selfish.

———

As the battle was about to begin, great heroes, their bows and arrows at the ready, stood in their chariots behind their charioteers, who were busy controlling the horses pulling each chariot. Other great heroes also stood at the ready, armed with many different kinds of weapons, each of them skilled in war. (In those days, in that place, only men fought wars, so everyone there was a man.)

Ajuna was one of the heroes who stood in in chariots. His was a large and fine chariot, pulled by magnificent white horses who were driven by a skilled charioteer.

Suddenly, somewhere a warrior blew on a conch shell, making a loud and terrifying sound, to signal that the battle was to begin.

Other warriors took out their conch shells and blew them. Still other people beat on drums and cymbals, and blew loud horns. All this made an incredible noise which sounded over all the earth, up into the sky, making everyone’s heart beat faster.

Someone let loose an arrow, and other warriors responded by shooting their own arrows.

At exactly this moment Arjuna said to his charioteer, “Drive the chariot in between the two armies. I want to look at all these warriors standing eager for battle, those people I’m about to fight.”

His charioteer drove the chariot out in between the two armies. The sound of the conch shells, the sounds of the drums and horns, was just dying away. The two armies are about to join in battle.

Arjuna stood in his chariot, alone in the middle of the field, all prepared to fight. As he looked across the field, he recognizes many of the people in the other army—uncles, teachers, cousins, and friends of his. He saw fathers who had sons in his army, and brothers who were about to fight brothers in his army.

Arjuna thought to himself: “Here are friends and relatives on either side of Kuru Field, about to try and kill each other. This does not make sense.”

Arjuna turned to his charioteer and said, “My mouth is dry and my mind is whirling. I feel that we are about to do a bad thing. What good can come of it if brothers kill brothers, if fathers kill their sons? I feel it would be better if did not fight at all, and simply let the other side kill me.”

Arjuna could not decide what to do next. Should he throw down his weapons and let the other side kill him? Should he go forward and kill his friends and relatives? He did not like either choice, yet he must do something.

And his charioteer turned around, and gave him an unexpected answer….

To Be Continued….

Source: Chapter 1, the Bhagavad Gita

Story book

Over the years on this blog, and on its predecessor, I’ve published a number of stories for liberal religious kids.

You can now locate these stories using the tag “story book”:
link to “story book” tag on this blog
link to “story book” tag on the old blog

Additional stories for liberal religious kids appear in thre curriculums I’ve written; some of these stories are revised versions of the stories found on my blog:
Greek Myths
From Long Ago
Beginnings

Amar Chitra Katha

Someone in our congregation lent me a copy of a comic book biography of the life of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. Aimed at middle readers, I think it would work for older kids (and adults) too — a concise, easy-to-understand summary of Guru Nanak’s life and principles.

That comic book is published by Amar Chitra Katha, a publisher with over 400 comic books on hand, with titles like “Guru Nanak,” “Buddha,” “Buddhist Tales” and “More Buddhist Tales,” “Kalidasa,” and “Rabindranath Tagore” (the Nobel prize winning poet much beloved of mid-twentieth century Unitarians).

The one I really want to get is the forthcoming title “Valiki’s Ramayana,” a 960 page graphic novel treatment of the Ramayana. Most of us in the West know far too little about this major Indian religious work — and most of us aren’t going to read the full Ramayana, so I’d love to structure an adult education course around this graphic novel.

Amar Chitra Katha has lots of comics that would work great for children and youth, too. They have a U.S. branch, so the prices are pretty reasonable.

Game development

In our congregation, we decided we need to pay more attention to resources that can support the curriculums. We want resources that are fun for kids, don’t feel like weekday school, don’t require any teacher preparation, and support the learning that takes place in the regular curriculums.

Like, for example, board games and card games. We already use a couple of board games in our Sunday school: (1) Wildcraft, a cooperative board game that teaches about herbs, supports some of our ecology courses; and (2) Moksha Patam, a board game that simulates karma, rebirth, etc., supports one of our world religions curriculums.

Ideally, we’d like to have one relevant board game per quarter per age group that we can give to teachers. And while we were talking this over in the curriculum review committee, I started dreaming up a card game about Moses leading the Israelites to freedom across the wilderness. Then I had a day of study leave today, so I could prototype this game, provisionally called: “Exodus, The Card Game.”

The game borrows its basic structure from the classic card game Mille Bornes (if you don’t know Milles Bornes, it will be easier to understand this blog post if you first read the Wikipedia article).

Although I’m borrowing the basic structure of the game from Mille Bornes, there are significant differences. Mostly, Exodus is a faster-paced game, more suited to the short time allotted to Sunday school classes. And I had to make other changes to fit the narrative of the book of Exodus — I wanted to make sure that as you play you get some sense of the narrative of Exodus…such as the fact that G-d released fiery serpents that attacked the Israelites, but then G-d told Moses to make a brass serpent that would heal serpents bites (Num. 21:6-8). Before researching this game, I didn’t even remember about the fiery serpents. It’s a pretty strange thing to include in the narrative, and one of my learning goals (and part of my theological interpretation) for Exodus, The Card Game is to help kids understand that the story of Exodus is pretty weird. It’s not trying to be an accurate historical account, nor is it some kind of scientific explanation — rather, it is a narrative filled with fantastical elements that reveal G-d’s character.

My other big learning goal and theological component for the game is, not surprisingly, to give some understanding of G-d’s character. First and foremost, G-d is not all kittens-and-rainbows, as for example when G-d sends the fiery serpents to bite the Israelites. Second, G-d does not follow human logic and is ultimately unknowable by humans; this is symbolized for the Israelites in part by spelling G-d’s name without vowels: “YHWH” (this idiosyncratic spelling is retained in the game in the English name for G-d). Third, while G-d is not omnibenevolent, G-d does want justice for humans and for the land; this theological interpretation of G-d’s character is communicated by the social justice flavor of the G-d Given Right Cards. A lesser fourth point is that G-d’s power do have some limits to them; G-d is not wholly omnipotent. So it is the game tries to help the players get a small sense of G-d’s character.

If I ever put the game into production, I’ll let you know how you can get a copy….

Update 4/14/18: Major revisions to game rules and narrative now complete. I won’t revise this post any more; any future rules revisions will be incorporated into the production game (if it’s ever put into production).

Update 9/7/18: The game is now available as a professionally-produced card game, so I’m removing the outdated rules and card designs. To see the final game, click here.

What’s killing Sunday school

A follow up to this post.

If Sunday school is going to die, what’s going to kill it? Let’s look at four social and economic factors that are leading to declines in U.S. Unitarian Universalist Sunday schools — and when I talk about decline, I’m talking about decline in enrollment, decline in attendance (which differs from enrollment), decline in interest among children and teens, and decline in interest among adults.

(1) The biggest single demographic factor affecting Sunday school enrollment has to be increasing diversity in the U.S. population. The majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations remain racially and ethnically segregated. That segregation may result from one or more of several causes: (a) Many Unitarian Universalist congregations are located in racially homogenous municipalities, typically upper middle class white towns that have the political power to keep people of color out. (b) Power structures in many Unitarian Universalist congregations are dominated by older white people who remain uncomfortable with the increasing racial diversity of the world around them, and enforce the whiteness of their congregations through a variety of means, including so-called microaggressions, blindness towards their congregation’s biases, talk about how “those people” wouldn’t want to be Unitarian Universalists because they’re all Catholics, or all Buddhists, or what have you; and still other means beyond these. (c) The way Unitarian Universalist congregations tend to imagine diversity primarily in terms of a white congregation adding a few black members, thus ignoring the stunning racial, linguistic, and ethnic diversity of much of the country, including the incredible diversity of people who are lumped together as “Hispanic” and “Asian,” and also including the way that some racial or ethnic groups get obscured by overly broad categorizations (such as Lusophones who are lumped in with Hispanics, or the treatment of “blacks” as a monolithic ethnic group).

For many people, our workplaces, schools, and community groups all have some racial and ethnic diversity. Thus, a parent who walks into a Unitarian Universalist congregation that is overwhelmingly white — and this includes a white parent — is going to feel that this is a strange place, and maybe a place they don’t want their children to be part of.

How can we address this demographic factor? Continue reading “What’s killing Sunday school”

Is Sunday school dead?

Many liberal religious educators these days are talking about “the death of Sunday school.”

Robert W. Lynn and Elliott Wright concluded their 1971 history of American Protestant Sunday school, The Big Little School: Sunday Child of American Protestantism with the observation that people have repeatedly predicted the end of Sunday school. And 1971, the year they published their book, was a low point in the history of Sunday school: the Baby Boom was over, people were rebelling against organized religion, and Sunday schools were failing left and right. But during the 1970s, a new way of doing Sunday school emerged, exemplified in Unitarian Universalist congregations by the Haunting House curriculum, which began development c. 1971, with its activity centers, its songs and stories and creative movement, its frank discussion of birth and human sexuality, and its organizing metaphor of being at home as a religious search.

Another low point for Sunday school was 1934. The immense economic dislocations of the great Depression kept many people from being able to participate regularly in local congregations; there were in addition social trends that led to a decline in interest in organized religion. The old ways of doing Sunday school — the opening exercises, the single sex classes, the reliance on verbal instruction — no longer worked very well. In the year of 1934, Angus MacLean wrote something that could have come from today’s debates about the death of Sunday school:

“One or two of our most widely known religious educators have recently suggested that perhaps the church school should be abolished, because of its ineffectiveness. The ineffective church school should be abolished, but it would be foolish to give up the attempt to educate for the good life, until what is known of child nature and human need is taken more seriously. In any case, the most effective way to abolish anything that is worthless is to change it so that it becomes useful. Most church schools are in need of such change. What first steps can religious educators take towards transforming the church school?” — Angus MacLean, The New Era in Religious Education: A Manual for Church School Teachers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1934), pp. 31-32.

MacLean’s answer to transformation was to use the playbook of progressive education (one of the books on progressive religious education that he cites is Exploring Religion with Eight Year Olds by Sophia Lyon Fahs). The chapter titles of his book give an overview of what he thought most important in religious education: Studying Personal Relations, Measuring Society, Re-Living History, Finding Great Companions, Sharing in Imaginative Experiences, Exploring Nature, Growing in Faith. And eventually, many Universalist and Unitarian congregations followed his lead, and found great success in so doing.

But all this brings me back to the beginnings of Sunday school. Do you know what the original purpose of American Sunday school was? — it was developed to provide literacy training for children who had to work in factories. It took place on Sunday because that was the only day when child factory workers could go to school. Because Sunday school took place on Sunday, and because it was sponsored by churches, there was a good deal of religious instruction included; and a primary purpose of literacy for American Protestants was so that everyone could read the Bible. But within a generation, Sunday school had changed into something quite different from literacy training.

Is today’s Sunday school dead? I think there’s a good chance that Unitarian Universalist Sunday school is dying. Here are my reasons for saying this: 1. There are too many parish ministers who do not see themselves as having to bother with children. 2. Congregational costs are rising faster than congregations income (due, e.g., to health insurance increases), and you can easily cut costs in the short term, without big reductions in income, by reducing programs for children and teens, programs which tend to require a lot of staff time and a lot of building maintenance. 3. Sunday schools require a lot of volunteer hours, and many Unitarian Universalist congregations are not particularly adept at volunteer management; as a result, it’s increasingly difficult for many congregations to find adequate volunteers. 4. I’m not seeing much in the way of new, theologically rich, intellectually stimulating, and spiritually deep curriculum resources.

5. Finally, there seems to be an infatuation among Unitarian Universalist thought leaders for what they call “faith formation.” My understanding of faith formation is that it comes from liberal Christian world religious educators who find great inspiration in the Biblical book of Isaiah, where it says: “Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” (64.8) So the dominant image for faith formation is of children as unformed clay, who need to be formed in their religious faith. Sunday school is indeed ill-suited to faith formation imagined in this way; if you want to mold children into a certain kind of vessel, there are better ways of doing it than the usual chaos of the Unitarian Universalist Sunday school.

So yes, Unitarian Universalist Sunday school is probably dying — if it’s not already dead.

But I don’t think Sunday school needs to die. Since the first Sunday schools devoted to literacy in the late eighteenth century, the phenomenon of Sunday school has repeatedly changed to meet the needs of different times.

And I don’t think Sunday school should die. I don’t like the image of children being molded like clay. I’m too much of an existentialist to be able to believe in a Christian God who molds passive humans the way he wants, nor do I believe in unbridled behaviorism as an educational philosophy. Instead, I prefer images that are more in line with what I do in Sunday school: the image of a pilgrimage, where adults and young people are traveling together towards some goal they have in common; the image of a community or collective, where we each are transformed while transforming others; the image of a support network, where we support each other as we make meaning in an absurd world.

I am too much of a progressive and an existentialist to wish for the death of Sunday school — I don’t wish for the death of collectives, or the death of of pilgrimages, or the death of shared existentialist meaning-making.

Go on to read “What’s killing Sunday school?”