Thursday, October 27, 2011

All Souls Sunday: Talking to Children about Death

This Sunday there will be no faith development classes. All ages will gather in Community Worship for All Souls, honoring our beloved dead, be they grandparents or goldfish, friends or family. A group of children and youth will dramatize the story Ghost Wings about the Mexican legend of the Old Ones returning as butterflies, and congregants will have the opportunity to name their beloved dead in a ritual of remembrance.

Parents, especially those with younger children, we strongly recommend that you take a moment to talk with your children before the service about those they would like to remember. Talking with children about death is never easy, and it's especially challenging since different UUs have such different ideas about what happens after we die. I suggest you follow your children's cues in sharing a developmentally appropriate discussion. On Sunday we will focus on remembrance rather than loss, but I urge you to be prepared for questions and discussions.

There are a lot of great resources available for talking with children about death.

Information for parents:
Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion by Dale McGowan. Written from the perspective of an atheist, this book offers advice for parents in many categories, including death.
The Kid's Book About Death and Dying by Eric Rofes. This is a very helpful book that helps parents find kid-appropriate language for these discussions.
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. One of the most important ways a parent can help their kids understand big issues is by approaching the topics in their own beliefs. This book has helped me personally in my search for understanding.
Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives David Eagleman. I have not read this one yet, but I am very intrigued by it based on a review in UU World. It explores forty different ways of thinking about the afterlife, and it’s on my “to read” list.

Storybooks to share with children:
The Next Place by Warren Hanson. This book offers a vision of what might happen to a person after death. It does not specifically mention heaven or hell, but it opens to the possibility of an afterlife.
The Mountains of Tibet by Mordecai Gerstein tells the story of the death and reincarnation of a Tibetan woodcutter. It gives a beautifully gentle look at one human being dealing with life's choices and possibilities.
Tear Soup by Pat Schweibert is a beautiful book on the process of grief, appropriate for children but also poignant for adults. This book has meant a lot to me personally in times of sorrow and grief. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

I also have learned some very helpful language from books like Harry Potter, which deals a lot with issues of life and death. Professor Dumbledore reminds Harry that those we love never truly leave us for they live on within us. That is one version of the afterlife that we all can understand – those we love are still with us as long as we remember them.

I look forward to seeing you this Sunday. Our service will be joyful and possibly tearful as we remember All Souls.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Learning to Share


“Mine! Mine!” The animators of the Pixar film Finding Nemo gave the seagulls in just one word: “Mine!” And yet, I remember when it seemed that was the only word my little girl knew. Everything belonged to her, and she was very reluctant to share – food, toys, mommy or daddy’s time and attention. As a toddler, it was developmentally appropriate to see the world revolving around her. Everything she saw (even things she didn’t really want), she claimed as “Mine!” While I was working on this article, a friend of mine “shared” an anonymous humor piece on Facebook called “Property Laws of a Toddler”:

1. If I like it, it's mine.
2. If it's in my hand, it's mine.
3. If I can take it from you, it's mine.
4. If I had it a little while ago, it's mine.
5. If it's mine, it must never appear to be yours in any way.
6. If I'm doing or building something, all the pieces are mine.
7. If it looks just like mine, it is mine.
8. If I saw it first, it's mine.
9. If you are playing with something and you put it down, it automatically becomes mine.
10. If it's broken, it's yours!

So I immediately “shared” it. Sharing is quite easy on Facebook, right? But in life, sharing is a bit harder to learn (and many adults still hold fast to the above laws).

In the miracle of growing up, my now preschool child is learning to share. This is also normal between the ages of 3-5. First it started with “proto-sharing” – showing others their toys but not being willing to let go of them. But children of this age imitate the adults, so we tried to give healthy examples of sharing. Sharing food was easy. Sharing toys has been a little more challenging, though preschool is helping. But the abstract sharing of something like “money” with people she can’t even see… way too abstract for her little mind!

We want our child to grow into a compassionate and giving adult. So I am consciously creating an atmosphere of giving now. Once a child reaches elementary school, he or she can begin to understand the abstractions – that there are people in this world who are suffering from lack of healthy food, clean water, medicine, education. Some of them even live right here in our country or our community. When we have resources, should we keep them to ourselves? Or should we share? As Unitarian Universalists, we live our faith by learning to share. We share our search for truth and meaning. We share acceptance with one another despite our differences. We share our worship experiences. And, yes, we share our resources.

One way we share our resources is through action. The Interfaith Hospitality Network families move into the church this week, and it will take an active sharing of many in the congregation to share with families who need so much. Sharing time is so valuable, and families who share together in helping with IHN have an opportunity to grow together in so many ways.

We also share financial resources, both within the church and in the world. First Unitarian relies entirely on financial donations to continue its work, but we also make a conscious effort to raise funds for others several times during the year. We support local organizations, family-based organizations, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and disaster-relief. And, once a year each Halloween, we participate in raising money for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund.

“Trick or Treat for UNICEF” was started by kids who decided they wanted to make the world a better place so all children can grow up healthy and safe. They began taking the orange boxes with them while they went door to door, asking for donations along with their candy. Since 1950, when Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF started, kids have raised over $164 million in total! All together in 2010, American kids and other contributors collected more than $4.35 million to help UNICEF help kids — isn’t that incredible? Kids have the power to change the world, because it only takes pennies to save a life! When we raise money by Trick-or-Treating for UNICEF, our donation helps UNICEF get children basic, but very important things they need to stay healthy. Things like medicines, safe water to drink, food, and education.

We have the power to make a difference. For example, nearly 900 million people around the world don’t have access to clean water. And nearly half of those people are kids —just 25 cents would pay for enough clean water in a day for 10 kids. So if we raise a dollar, how many kids would we be helping with clean water? 40 kids. What if we raise $10? 400 KIDS. What if we raise $500? We could help UNICEF give 20,000 kids clean water for a day!

First Unitarian Church of Worcester has a long history of participating with Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF. Every year the YRU2 Halloween party proceeds have gone to UNICEF, and individual kids took boxes to collect donations when they went trick-or-treating. This year the Family Ministries Team is working together with YRU2 and BYKOTA to host a UNICEF Halloween Festival and Dance Party on Friday, October 28. The festival, from 5-7 pm, will include a costume contest, arts & crafts, games, a Tarot reader, a toddler room, and a pumpkin decorating contest. Parents are asked to attend with their children. We will collect donations at each of these stations. We also will have information available so people can really see where their donations are going. Then we will transition into a Dance Party for youth and adults. Our goal is to raise at least $500 for UNICEF.

I look forward to sharing with you all next Sunday how much our festival raises. As the icing on the cake, so to speak, the YRU2 will sponsor the traditional UNICEF cakewalk next Sunday during coffee hour. And then our children will be encouraged to take the boxes out again as they Trick-or-Treat on Halloween. UNICEF does not ask kids to sacrifice their Halloween candy. Donations are usually collected in addition to the candy. So even though they are still collecting candy, they are also collecting donations that will help other kids.

My little girl may not be old enough to understand what we’re doing and why, but we’re going to take the little orange UNICEF box with us when we go trick-or-treating on October 31. In this time of the year when we recognize harvest, together we can create a season of giving. We can teach our children to share through our example. May our efforts truly make a difference in the world.


Monday, October 17, 2011

Upcoming Events in Faith Development


• We will have a rehearsal for “Ghost Wings,” our dramatic story for All Souls Sunday, this upcoming Sunday (10/23) from 11:50-12:30 in the sanctuary. A dozen kids are signed up to be “Butterflies and Monsters” and should attend this first rehearsal along with our 8th grade main characters.

• UNICEF Halloween Festival & Dance Party! Friday, October 28. The family-oriented Festival will be from 5-7 pm and the teen and adult oriented Dance Party from 7-9 pm. Come in costume and invite your friends to this community-wide event. (And if you’re unable to attend but still want to support our UNICEF cause, go to our party website to donate. .

• You can also create your own “costumed” UNICEF photo. If you “buy” the upgraded “costumes,” it adds to our UNICEF total contributions. You can also continue to raise awareness of UNICEF by posting your photo on Facebook.

• We will continue the UNICEF weekend with the traditional Cake Walk on Sunday, October 30. With more than 20 cakes and pies to choose from, you’ll have fun trying to win your favorite! The Cake Walk will be after church during Coffee Hour in Unity Hall. This is sponsored by the YRU2 Youth Group.



• We are eager to begin developing an organized adult faith development program, and we need to hear from the adults in the congregation about their wants and needs! There will be an Adult Faith Development Listening Session on Tuesday, November 15 at 7 pm. We are also actively working to form the Adult Faith Development Team. If you would like to contribute to the church through this team, please contact Jessica at jgray@firstunitarian.com.

A Gentle Journey H.O.M.E.

An account of an inter-church U.U. Youth Mission trip
by Robin Caracciolo
Director of Religious Education at our sister church,
Unitarian Universalist Church of Worcester on Holden St.


Last Friday morning, 35 of us gathered in the UUCW parking lot. There were 14 high school teens from UUCW, 2 from First Unitarian, 2 from Brookfield UU Church and 5 from the UU Church in Westboro. Together with the twelve adult chaperones, we circled up and looked at each other. We were suddenly co-journeyers full of high hopes, fear, excitement, and apprehension. Our individual threads were in small clumps, and some entirely separate. Aaron Payson, in a worshipful send-off, spoke to us about our journey. Still, we wondered what was in front of us, and how we all, so different, could become the woven volunteer “group” helping at H.O.M.E.

The 5 hour trip to H.O.M.E. in Orland ,Maine took 8 hours including stops, lunch and traffic. Traveling with a convoy of 5 vehicles proved to be a challenge.

Our arrival at H.O.M.E. was a rude awakening to many of us who were returning for the second time. With a heavy heart, I saw that the shelter had suffered a tough year and fallen into disrepair. Our accommodations were “rough”, most showers were not working and the two that were had no hot water. The water pressure was extremely low and the toilets were clogging. The kitchen was dirty and Friday night’s dinner took a long time to arrive. People felt tired and hungry, and wary

At our evening “circle” we processed the joys and challenges that were part of our day. There were many challenges present in that circle. The joys were the new friendships that were forming and the weather report of sunny skies and 80 degree temperatures. The challenge was the “sweaty work” we’d all be doing with the prospect of no showers.

Then, the magic happened. The tapestry was rapidly woven. The amazing kitchen crew led by Lee Hill and Lydia Proulx got the place sparkling and the food cooking. Bart Hill , Art Shea and Paul Vigneau Jr. got the showers, lights and toilets fixed. Paul Vigneau Sr., Robin Ganesan, Mohammed Salmassi , Pauline Sciarappa , Nancy Ackerman, Nick Choquette, and Sue Bartlet and crew cut the wood, stacked it, cleaned out the bargain barn and the community garden, and stocked the food pantry.

In our final circle on Sunday night, we sat around the fire and lit sparklers. Shoulder to shoulder with our fellow co-journeyers and the beautiful families living at H.O.M.E., the joys of accomplishment, perseverance and community (and a warm shower) outweighed everything else.

Thank you : Alison Lanyon, Cameron Root, Susan Mayes, Katie Cooney, Dessie Fung, Kahlia Salaices, Drew Lanyon, Robbie Johnson Erickson, Olivia Mandile, Joannah Houghton, Althea Ostrow, Charlie Buress, Luke Sciarappa, Paul Vigneau Jr., Nicholas Smith, Juliana Ruivo, Mithra Salmassi, Jenn Ostroff, Alex Ostroff, Lydon Davis, Rebecca Siegal, Natalie Ackerman, Gillian Ganesan. Thank you, adult chaperones.


H.O.M.E. Inc., established in 1970 as a craft cooperative, is a multifaceted organization involved in economic reconstruction and social rehabilitation. In its 30+ years of existence, it has grown from the single retail store where home crafters could sell their goods into a small community offering jobs, food, education, temporary shelter and home ownership to families in need www.homecoop.net

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Well Begun is Half Done

I like movies – a lot. And books. Stories in general. In fact, they are like myths to me. But when Tom asked me to speak to the adults and older youth about my philosophy of religious education, I planned to focus on something more “serious.” But then an idea just “popped” into my mind, and whatever I did, she wouldn’t leave. So, I decided to speak to you today about Mary Poppins.

When I was a child, I was enchanted by the music and the magic of this film. She was my heroine. I wanted to live in a world where toys cleaned up after themselves and carousel horses left the merry-go-round. For many years I considered myself “too old” for movies like “Mary Poppins,” but when I watched it again as an adult, I was blown away – and not like the nannies at the beginning of the movie with their umbrellas. Pretty soon I found myself saying “Poppisms” – short aphorisms or sayings from the movie that embody general truth. When I began working as a professional Religious Educator, Mary Poppins quickly became an avatar - an embodiment of who I would like to be.


I titled this sermon after one of my favorite Poppisms: “Well begun is half done.” I have this quote at the top of the “To Do” list in my office. I like to look at it every day because it inspires me to get started. Sometimes beginning is the hardest part of any project. When I was writing my dissertation in graduate school, I remember countless days of staring at a blank screen. Anyone who has written something knows about the blank screen of death. Beginning is at least half the work.

Mary Poppins calls the first game she plays with the children “Well begun is half done.” Basically, the game is cleaning up the nursery. But Mary keeps it interesting. Another Poppism: “With every job that’s to be done there is an element of fun. You find the fun and –snap- the job’s a game.” When she snaps her fingers, the nursery cleans up after itself. When I approach a task, I try to think about how it could be fun, especially if it involves kids, but most adults like to have fun, too. Granted, it would be more fun to do tedious tasks if I could make things fly through the air by snapping my fingers, but there are plenty of ways to find the fun in everyday life. Of course, fun looks different to everyone. Jerry Bellows told me the other day that he carries Sodoku in his pocket for the moments in between when he can just get lost in the numbers. Lisa McWalters, our new Youth Ministries Coordinator, likes to listen to audio books on long drives or while doing tedious tasks. She once had a job where she was scanning item after item into a computer, and she listened to a whole library of audio books.

My husband does most of the laundry at our house (lucky me), and he likes to sort our clothes into the rainbow colors. We’re colorful people, so sometimes we actually have a load for each color. He sorts them into the rainbow colors, washes them in that order, and then even hangs them in order of the rainbow in the closets. Sometimes he even hums the song “Rainbow Connection” while he’s doing the laundry – that was our wedding song. Like I said, we’re colorful people. When I clean the floors in my house, I like to turn on music and dance with the broom and mop. I especially like showtunes – imagine that. At the airport or in other public places, I like to make up stories about the people I see going by – where they are going, what they will do there.

I even turn parts of my spiritual practice into a game. When I’m waiting for the extremely slow elevator here at the church, I say mantras. That’s something I learned in India – waiting in line is a great time to do repetitive prayers – and there’s a lot of waiting in India. But while waiting for the elevator, I make it a game. How many mantras can I do between the first and third floor? My current record is 76.

But life is about more than games. In “Mary Poppins,” once the nursery is clean, she gives another Poppism: “Enough is as good as a feast.” It’s very interesting that this has become a mantra for me because it seems to contradict another of my personal mantras: “More is more.” Some people say “less is more,” but for me, “more is more.” I like to do things in a big way – dramatic, colorful, exciting. I especially like organizing special events – like the Halloween Festival we’re having on October 28. When Linda Wyatt brought up the idea of an evening event instead of the smaller coffee-hour carnival, I jumped on board. (Yes, I stuck an advertisement in the middle of my sermon – but it’s a big deal!) A friend of mine recently told me that he could not remember a time when I said a job or event was too big. But, at the end of the day, “Enough is as good as a feast.” The best dissertation is a finished dissertation. My deadline in this job is Sunday – I’ve got to get everything done by Sunday. I will always have more ideas than I can bring into reality. Whatever gets done, that has to be enough. I am enough.

Poppism: “Never judge things by their appearance... even carpetbags. I'm sure I never do.” When she first arrives in the nursery, Mary Poppins surprises the children by pulling unexpected items out of her carpet bag, including a lamp, a full-length mirror, and a potted plant. The children are encouraged to discover the extraordinary within the ordinary, to look at the world through mystery and wonder. Liberal religious education has always placed a high value on the direct experience of mystery and wonder. Sophia Lyon Fahs was a foundational religious educator who worked from the 1930s to the 1960s. She wrote curriculum and trained other religious educators, teaching that children naturally explore sacred truths through their direct experience of the world. In the early 19th century, William Ellery Channing spoke on the subject of religious instruction in the passage we read earlier today. He reminds us “not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own… to awaken the soul, to excite and cherish spiritual life.” Even prior to Channing, in the 1828 Christian Teacher’s Manual, teachers are encouraged “not to infuse a soul into the little being before him, but to bring out the soul that is there in its native purity.” Each person has the ability to wonder, to explore, and to find their own answers at each stage in their growth and faith development.

What is faith development? One of the many factors that contributed to me choosing this job over other professional opportunities was the unique job title this congregation developed. My fellow religious educators have many different job titles: Director of Religious Education, Director of Religious Exploration, Coordinator of Religious Education or Exploration, Lifelong or Lifespan Learning Director, Program Director. The list could go on and on. In this church, I am the Director of Faith Development Ministries.

Faith development is the process by which people attempt to discern answers for the big questions - life, death, the Mystery. It is more than “education,” and it’s especially more than babysitting. Mary Poppins may be a nanny, but she is never just a babysitter. Faith development indicates a process of discovery that extends throughout one’s entire life. It is a process rather than a product, a journey not a destination. The vision statement this congregation created for Faith Development Ministries includes a broad spectrum of spiritual exploration. Our Sunday classes for children and youth are incredibly important, but you envision vibrant educational programs appropriate for all stages and ages. It is my job to help you bring your vision of faith development into reality.

Poppism: “Practically Perfect in Every Way.” The final item Mary Poppins pulls from her bag is her all-important “tape measure.” She wants to see how the children “measure up.” Michael’s measurement is “extremely stubborn and suspicious.” Jane is “rather inclined to giggle; doesn’t put things away.” Finally, Mary Poppins measures herself as “practically perfect in every way.”

This measuring could be seen as a sort of judgment, a label of who the children are, but I see it more like a continuum. Both of the children are still growing. Mary Poppins uses the tool of the measuring tape to see where the children currently are, but also to show them where they could be. Through the course of the movie, she helps the children and their parents begin to recognize and transform their obstacles. They are on the same continuum as Mary Poppins, and they all have the opportunity to someday measure as “practically perfect in every way.”

I believe we are each “Practically perfect.” The foundation of our Unitarian Universalist covenant is the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Each person is completely unique and practically perfect in his or her own way. In our elementary Spirit Play classes, we use the symbol of a “gift” to represent this first principle of inherent worth. The teacher shows a small gift box and says, “Each person is like a gift. You are special just by being yourself. You are a gift. We don’t know all the wonderful things about each other until we learn about each other and find out all of our gifts. We are all precious so we treat each other as a little part of the Mystery.” This is what we teach in our youngest classes.

The scripture we read earlier speaks of how we are each “fearfully and wonderfully made…intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” You are a child of the universe, just as valuable, just as important, as the trees and the stars. You have been practically perfect since long before you were born, and you will be practically perfect long after you die.

And this takes us back to “Well begun is half done.” How do we begin? We are not born with original sin. We are born with original blessedness. I first heard this term, original blessedness, from a real-life heroine of mine, the Rev. Rebecca Parker. As a Unitarian Universalist theologian, she teaches that our inherent worth and dignity stem from the human relationship with God. According to Rebecca Parker, early liberal Christians argued against the dismal view of human nature taught by Calvinists. She writes, “The liberal message emphasized instead that humanity’s divine origin is never fully defaced or erased by human folly and sin… Radical inclusiveness is the mark of Christian love, for all bear the image of God.” We are able to be inclusive because of our recognition of inherent worth. The Hindu greeting “Namaste” recognizes the value in the other, “the divinity in me bows to the divinity in you.” You bear the image of God. You are practically perfect in every way.

If this is true, why are there some times when we just don’t “measure up”? Remember, we’re “practically perfect,” not completely perfect. “Practically perfect” is still human – full of flaws and challenges. But perfect nonetheless. Complete perfection is not necessary, but recognizing our inherent perfection is good enough. We are perfect in our imperfection.

The final Poppism I wish to speak on was not said by Mary Poppins but by her friend, Bert, the chimneysweep. Throughout the movie the children’s father has long since forgotten how to balance work and fun. He loses control and loses his job, and as he is bemoaning his misfortune, Bert reminds him that “childhood slips like sand through a sieve... And all too soon they've up and grown, and then they've flown... And it's too late for you to give.” To give.

The father has to learn how to give to his children before it’s too late. He has to find and use his own unique gifts. Clearly he has gifts in business and finance, and he gives his children a financially stable home. That has much value. But the children want and need him to give them time and attention. Like so many of us, he learns that he needs to find balance between work and home. His greatest gift is time.

The final word in my job title is “ministries.” The word “ministry” literally means “service.” A minister is one who serves. I am honored to serve this congregation, and I look forward to helping you find your own unique ministries, the many ways you will share your gifts with the congregation and the greater community. Service brings “faith” into action. Ministry is our opportunity to share our practical perfection with others.

Each person’s idea of perfection is different. What is your practical perfection? And what will you do with it? Will you lose track of it in the tedium of everyday responsibilities, the grind at the grindstone? Or will you seek to find the element of fun in every job? Will you give your precious and unique gifts to the world? You already have everything you need - if you are willing to open your heart and mind. Rebecca Parker writes, “God’s imagination and longing, felt by every event-in-process, invites each particular thing to its potential part in the advance of peace, joy, healing, beauty, zest – abundant life.” We can change the world with our abundance.

Well begun is half done. We are made in the image of the divine. Whoever you are, whatever you are, wherever you are, you are well begun. Life is short. You may not even be half done. Share your gifts. And take joy, for we are “practically perfect in every way.” Namaste.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Halloween Festival and Dance Party!


Friday, October 28

First Unitarian Church of Worcester
90 Main St.


Halloween Festival
5-7 pm
And “Dance Party with a Purpose”
7-9 pm

The Festival will be focused on family-oriented games and activities, while the Dance Party is intended for teens and adults (though kids are welcome if supervised).

• Costume Contest for all ages
• A preschool area with games (the “Lil’ Pumpkin Patch)
• Games and crafts
• B.Y.O.P. (bring your own pumpkin) for pumpkin decorating and pumpkin fashion show.
• “Ghoulish” snacks (feel free to bring some to share)
• Tarot readers and/or fortune-tellers
• A live DJ with lights, music and more!

All proceeds benefit UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund). We will accept donations at all activities and ask a $5 donation if you’re only coming for the dance party. Questions? jgray@firstunitarian.com or (508)757-2708 x105.

Every dollar raised will help UNICEF save children’s lives by providing nutritious food, medicines, clean water, and access to an education, all luxuries we take for granted daily. Thank you for joining UNICEF to do whatever it takes to save children’s lives!