Tuesday, August 13, 2013

New Program: Early Elementary Our Whole Lives

“God gifted us with bodies and emotions to express our spirituality in concrete ways.  One of the ways we affirm the sacredness of life is through healthy sexuality.” – from the New Century Hymnal (UCC)

This fall, First Unitarian Church of Worcester will offer a comprehensive sexuality education course for Kindergarten and 1st grade during our Faith Development classes on Sunday mornings.  In the spring, we will offer the same program for 2nd-3rd grade students. This program is called Our Whole Lives (OWL for short), and the Unitarian Universalist Association has developed age-appropriate curricula for early elementary, upper elementary, junior high, high school, young adult and adult levels.  The UUA considers these programs so important that it requires a weekend-long training for facilitators.  I will be one of the facilitators of the classes, working with Shari Belanger, Kris Johnson, and Jen Reidy.

This program is optional.  There will be other faith development classes available for kids whose parents choose not to participate.  We will offer a parent informational meeting, and parents of participants are required to attend an orientation session.  We ask for a significant commitment to the program.  So why should you consider the OWL program for your elementary age child?

The program is called Our Whole Lives for two reasons.  First, we recognize that sexuality is a fundamental part of the human experience throughout the lifespan.  But the program also encompasses so much more than just the “birds and the bees.”  This elementary program teaches children about their body parts, family relationships, and safety.  The information about sexuality, human development, and sexual health is presented to children in positive, accurate, and age-appropriate ways.

Parents are recognized as the primary sexual educators.  Children learn about sexuality from how people touch them, talk with them, and expect them to behave.  Messages that they receive affect their future attitudes, values and behaviors.  A fundamental goal of this program is to forge a strong partnership between our church and your home, as well as a strong bond between parent and child.  We can provide you with resources to help you talk about sexuality with your children.  But we also provide opportunities for children to explore these topics in a safe, inclusive peer environment.  We let kids know that they are not alone and that differences are “normal.” 

What makes this faith development?  In Unitarian Universalism, we teach that instead of original sin, all people are born with original blessedness and inherent worth.  The body is not shameful or sinful.  We have the opportunity to reinforce this message as we lay the groundwork for lifelong healthy communication, interaction and choices.  We empower children to own their own bodies.

This visual that shows how the classes will be split.  At the very start of the year, K-1 students who are participating in the program will be together, while any kindergarten students not participating will join with the preschool class and any 1st grade students not participating will join with the 2nd-3rd grade class. 

We will have a 1 hour parent meeting for parents interested in either the K-1 or 2-3 program on Sunday, 9/8 from 12:30-1:30 pm. We will provide lunch and childcare.

We will have a mandatory parent/child orientation for participating K-1 families on 9/22.  Children and parents will meet separately during the Faith Development hour (10:45-11:45).  We will provide lunch.  Then a parent/child combined orientation will continue from 12:30-1:30 pm. K-1 classes will run from 9/29-11/24.

The mandatory parent/child combined orientation for participating 2nd-3rd grade families will be 2/9.  Children and parents will meet separately during the Faith Development hour (10:45-11:45).  We will provide lunch.  Then a parent/child combined orientation will continue from 12:30-1:30 pm.  2-3 classes will run from 2/23-4/13.

If you want to register for your children for any of our faith development programs, please fill out an online registration form.  You only have to fill this out once.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Why are we doing a UU Jedi Academy?

Jedi are the guardians of peace in the galaxy.
Jedi use their powers to defend and to protect.
Jedi respect all life, in any form.
Jedi serve others rather than ruling over them, for the good of the galaxy.
Jedi seek to improve themselves through knowledge and training.

We are excited to offer the brand-new Jedi Academy for 6th-8th grade students in 2013-2014 at First Unitarian.  Many of our students are enthusiastic about the use of pop culture in our classes.  But why are we offering this as faith development?

Many “pop culture” stories offer far more than mere fantasy.  As “modern mythology,” these stories of substance have the ability to speak to a modern audience in ways that more traditional sources cannot.  I have experienced the value of modern mythology firsthand through my ten years directing interfaith Harry Potter-themed day camps, and I have now also offered two Star Wars based interfaith camps.

The Star Wars Saga began “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”  In addition to the original trilogy of movies and the prequel trilogy, Star Wars has inspired countless spin-off books, television series, computer and video games, and other fan enterprises, including costume play, conventions, live action role playing, and more.

But, more significant to our purposes, the world of the Jedi has inspired real-life practices of spirituality. The philosophies of Star Wars have been explored, examined, and adopted by many.  Some even consider “Jediism” to be their legitimate religion, though it incorporates beliefs from many different philosophies. The Jedi believe in the 'Living Force', a spiritual presence that surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds all the matter in the universe together. In June I offered a worship service which explored some of the spiritual themes in Star Wars.  You can read the text of my sermon here: A Long Time Ago...

Imagine a world that begins hundreds of years after the end of Return of the Jedi.  After the redemption of his father, Luke Skywalker established a new Jedi Order based on the need for balance with all aspects of the Force.  We will begin the class by exploring the Jedi Code, which now allows for this balance:

            Emotions, yet Peace
            Ignorance, yet Knowledge
            Passion, yet Serenity
            Chaos, yet Harmony
            Death, yet, the Force

Our “Jedi Academy” will offer padawans (students) in 6th-8th grades an opportunity to develop practical spiritual skills.  The curriculum is separated into five training categories:

·      Courage (physical training, including some lightsaber training, along with peacekeeping and how to make good choices despite forces pulling in other directions)
·      Insight (Exploration of big questions – good, evil, death, morality and more)
·      Skill (Mindfulness training and using that to become a positive force for change in the world, even (and especially) when the odds do not seem in their favor)
·      Senses (Connection of the body and physical experience to spirituality)
·      Spirit (Spiritual practices grounded in Unitarian Universalism which will allow them to feel connected to something larger than themselves...a larger purpose, a greater strength, a sense of lineage, etc.)

All of the classes will include components of all five training categories, though each will focus on one aspect. And these classes will not be strictly theoretical or philosophical.  We intend to offer hands-on, active training for our Jedi padawans.  Students do not need to be familiar with the Star Wars movies to participate, though we may schedule some “movie-watching” outside of class time.

The primary classes will be offered from 10:45-11:45 each Sunday morning from mid- September to early June (with the exception of multigenerational Sundays).  Padawans who attend the Sunday School class each week will have the most opportunity to develop their skills as Jedi, but we also plan to offer supplemental “Force Fourth Sunday” workshops throughout the year.  The current tentative dates for these workshops are: September 29, October 27, January 26, February 23, and March 23.  These workshops will be on Sunday afternoon (times TBA) and will be open to students from other churches and senior high youth who wish to register (6th-12th grades only – and if we have enough participation we will split into age groups).  I am open to changing these dates according to the needs of the families (and could even move them to Saturdays if that would work better).  There is a survey here asking for your feedback.  We would have lunch provided on these days for the Jedi class.  These workshops would be 2 hours each and would include valuable supplemental activities.

On Saturday, April 26 (date tentative based on needs of participating families), we will hold an All Ages Jedi Academy, similar in structure to the Hogwarts Halloween offered in the fall.  We will offer similar classes for younger children, and in the afternoon those who have attended enough of the Sunday morning classes and/or all of the Sunday afternoon workshops would be invited to take their Jedi Trials.  If they “pass” the five trials, they will then be ceremonially knighted as Jedi Knights.

Ultimately, this is a type of “Coming of Age.”  Through training of the mind and body, we hope to help our students to discover who they want to be as they move through life. 

If you want to register for your children for any of our faith development programs, please fill out an online registration form.  You only have to fill this out once.

Please note: This curriculum is not in any way connected to or endorsed by Lucasfilm Ltd. or Twentieth Century Fox and is intended as fair use for educational purposes only.  Star Wars, the Star Wars logo, Star Wars quotes, all names and pictures of Star Wars characters and any other Star Wars related items are registered trademarks and/or copyrights of Lucasfilm Ltd., or their respective trademark and copyright holders.  This is an original curriculum in development by members of the Imaginorium Educational Collective (www.imaginedcollective.org), led by First Unitarian Director of Faith Development Jessica Gray.  Beyond the Star Wars movies, books, and fandom, we are using the following resources: 
·      Coming of Age Handbook for Congregations by Sarah Gibb Millspaugh
·      The Dharma of Star Wars by Matthew Bortolin
·      Star Wars: The Jedi Path by Daniel Wallace
·      Articles based on “Jedi Religion” at altreligion.about.com

Saturday, August 10, 2013

A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

Sermon written and presented by Dr. Jessica Gray
June 9, 2013

I honestly had very little appreciation for Star Wars as a child.  My older brother loved the movies, so I decided that I hated them.  But they wouldn’t go away.  I tolerated them.  I had friends, especially boyfriends, over the years who also loved the stories, but I did not really spend much time considering them until I got to college and studied comparative mythology.

George Lucas was inspired by the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell, and many studies have been done of how the Star Wars saga fits within the archetypal “hero quest,” a structure of story older than the ancient Greeks. These movies are often cited as the most clear modern example of the hero quest, with young Luke Skywalker being called to adventure.  It is also a classic “Coming of Age” story.

With the third movie, they became a story of redemption, when Darth Vader, one of the greatest movie villains, found his humanity again through the relationship with his son. 

The later prequels further explored the story of Anakin Skywalker who became Darth Vader.  The Star Wars movies delve deep into what it means to be human in an increasingly complex world.

Since 1977, the date of the original movie, Star Wars has become embedded in the American culture.  Merchandising and toys did a lot to bring the characters into children’s everyday lives.   You may wonder why we have an altar of “toys” today.  The practice of building an altar shows items in which we find value and inspiration.  For many children, the greatest value they can understand belongs to their toys.
But the toys are incredibly complex.  Children do not just want to play with the heroes.  In fact, the villains are sometimes more popular.

Just look at our villain Darth Vader.  According to Toy Wishes magazine, “Darth Vader is the best-selling toy villain of all time”

Nearly 30 years after the character was created, we have…

·      A HALLMARK Christmas ORNAMENT
·      DARTH TATER, the root of all evil, a mashing success with collectors.”

By playing with these toys, even the Vader toys, children have the opportunity to ask themselves big moral questions.  Which side of the force will they choose?  Will they go to the dark side?  I heard the dark side has cookies.  That’s just a joke, obviously, but the questions raised are very real parts of a child’s moral development.

But even more so, the philosophies of Star Wars have been explored, examined, and adopted by many.  Some even consider “Jediism” to be their legitimate religion.  In 2001, there was a grassroots movement encouraging people to list “Jedi” as their religion on the census in many different countries.  The greatest response was in the United Kingdom where 390,000 people claimed Jediism, making it the fourth largest religion in that country according to the census. 

While some people believe the census phenomenon was a joke, many people feel strongly about Jediism as a religion.  It is a syncretistic religion, incorporating beliefs from many different philosophies.  In some ways, Jediism is very Unitarian Universalist, for there is no defined sense of “God.”  The Jedi believe in the 'Living Force', a spiritual presence that surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds all the matter in the universe together. The Force is the soul of all living things; it exists everywhere. George Lucas once recognized that he created the concept of the Force out of many religious philosophies: “Similar phrases have been used extensively by many different people for the last 13,000 years to describe the ‘life force.’" He also stated during a 1999 interview that while he hesitated to call the Force "God", his aim was in fact to evoke a spiritual awakening in young people. 

From a UU perspective, the Force is the “Spirit of Life.”  It is also the interconnected web of all existence of which we are a part.  And each one of us has inherent worth and dignity.  The Force is strong within us.  As Yoda says, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere.” 

Both Unitarian Universalism and Jediism focus on action more than common belief.  The actions of Unitarian Universalism are most clearly defined in the seven UU principles which call for kindness, acceptance, responsibility, and justice.  The Jedi are warriors of peace, and are not ones to use force to resolve a conflict; it is through peace, understanding and harmony that conflicts resolve.  Jedi accept and encourage one another without judgment.  Jedi are serious about following the Jedi teachings in their own lives, because the Jedi teachings lead to personal growth, and help them to be conscious of their connection to the Living Force which is within.  The ideals, philosophies, and practices of the Jedi define the belief of Jediism, and the Jedi take action on this path for self-improvement and to help others. Jedi are guardians of peace and justice. They embrace justice, protecting and preserving the fundamental rights of all living creatures.  It’s a very Unitarian Universalist philosophy.

Jedi students are called Padawans.  In the past two years, I have had the great fortune to help create a UU Jedi Academy. I directed this program for all ages as a week-long summer camp in Louisiana.  We are now developing it as a day-long workshop which we can share with many churches.  But here, we will be offering the Jedi Academy as a year-long Sunday School class for 6th-8th grades.  In our Jedi Academy, we train young Padawans in the ways of the Force.  Jedi must pass five trials to be knighted, and each of these trials brings up more big questions for students to explore.

In their Courage training, padawans practice the physical aspects of light saber sparring, but they are especially encouraged to practice control.  We have discussions about how not to fight.  Self-discipline is incredibly important.  The “fight” can also be metaphorical, fighting for social justice.  And courage sometimes means taking risks – having the willingness to imagine that you could have a different life.  Think for a moment about times in your life when you faced a challenge with courage.

In the Skills training, padawans learn about feeling the Force, nonverbal communication, and conflict resolution.  This reminds me again of the work of the Center for Nonviolent Communication.  These are life skills we all need.  Think for a moment about times in your life where you faced conflict without violence. 

In their Insight training, padawans explore through meditation.  The star meditation we shared earlier in the service is an example of one of these meditations.  In insight training, padawans consider how to face their fears and share loving-kindness.  Think for a moment what insights you have gained thus far in your life.

In the Senses training, padawans learn to pay attention to their own exploration of the world through their senses.  In the original Jedi Academy, young Jedi were trained to suppress their senses and deny their flesh.  However, after Vader’s redemption when Luke began the New Jedi Order, the new Jedi were taught how to integrate the world of sensation into the path of the Jedi.  The training of the senses teaches a student to be present and mindful.  Think for a moment about a time when your senses were stimulated by beauty or touch, smell or taste.  How have your senses enriched your life?

In the Jedi Academy, I teach the “Spirit” training.  Padawans learn about how to listen to their own inner spirits.  We learn techniques and ways to pray, ways to connect to the Spirit of Love and Mystery that some people call God.

In Spirit training, we talk about how people of different faiths can learn together, work together, and grow together.  We are better together than we are apart.  We create a sacred Jedi temple, invoking the Living Force.  The students construct their light sabers not on the battlefield but in the temple, for the light saber is an extension of their individual spirit – the hilt is like the chalice and the blade is like the flame.  And the light saber can be used not only for necessary combat, but also to direct energy as a prayer. 

Think for a moment about your own spiritual path.  How do you connect to the Living Force?  Do you draw strength from the rocks, the trees, the stars?  Do you find the Force in your relationship with others?
How do you remember your own inherent worth?  Your own luminosity and power?  Is there a place in your life for discipline and control?  And how do you use your power for peace and justice.  How do you make a difference in this world?

Star Wars touches on our human inclination to reach toward the heavens.  In some of the earliest scripture, the account of the creation of the world, humans noticed these bodies of light in the sky.  We long to reach toward it, to touch the sky.   This beautiful story tells us of a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but this Earth is our vessel, the ship on which we can travel through the universe of stars.  We have the opportunity right here and right now to make a difference in the world.  Do you have the courage?  Do you have the skills and the insight?  Are you mindful of your senses?  Will you listen to your spirit?  Perhaps, if we work together, we will bring balance to the Force.

The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.  May the Force be with us, always.