The “Music” of Our Whole Lives ~ some reflections after the OWL All-Levels Training of Trainers

by Karen Richter

I was really excited to be able to attend the Our Whole Lives Training of Trainers last week in Hawaii. While the Southwest Conference has several churches who offer Our Whole Lives programming, we didn’t have an approved local trainer. I’m especially grateful to the OWL staff person at the national setting, Amy Johnson, Commissioned Minister for Sexuality Education and to the Unitarian Universalist Association who made this training happen and provided a wonderful experience for 22 trainers-in-training.

One really wonderful discussion during the training was about the “music” of the OWL curriculum. This is a rich metaphor, acknowledging that a person who participates in an Our Whole Lives program at any level might not remember any specific information they learned. As time passes, the content (anatomy, active listening checklist, contraception failure rates…) may simply slip away. In this metaphor, the participant might forget the “lyrics” they previously knew… but it’s our hope that they remember the tune.

What’s the TUNE of Our Whole Lives? What is the spirit or culture or tone of the program that becomes the music children, teens, adults, and facilitators come away from OWL humming under their breath?

karen richter OWL booksIt’s VALUES. All of Our Whole Lives curricula is grounded in specific values. For elementary programming, these are Respect, Relationships, and Responsibility. For high school and adult programming, the values are Self-Worth, Sexual Health, Responsibility, and Justice & Inclusivity. Every workshop, every resource, every activity reflects and reinforces these values. Being absolutely clear about the centrality of these values makes Our Whole Lives a gift to families and communities. Building a shared language of values makes awkward (or sometimes just plain funny) conversations a little easier.

It’s a CELEBRATION OF LIVED EXPERIENCE.karen richter open door Besides the values, Our Whole Lives is based on some assumptions, including the natural goodness of our sexual feelings, identities, and behaviors… while acknowledging the real damage done to sexuality by violence and exploitation. All persons are sexual, and exploring this everyday commonality is a formative experience at any age.

It’s a recognition of the CONNECTIONS BETWEEN SEXUALITY AND SPIRITUALITY. Can you think of words that describe healthy sexuality? Can those same words also describe healthy spirituality? The Sexuality and Our Faith resources helps facilitators and participants deepen those connections and develop a sense of gratitude for the gift of sexuality from a loving Creator.

There’s a significant weight of responsibility on OWL facilitators – keeping all these pieces of “music” in your head, being engaging and approachable, planning and executing 90 minutes of instruction and activities. If your congregation has Our Whole Lives programming, hug these wonderful people. They are engaged in life giving, life saving ministry.

If your congregation doesn’t currently offer Our Whole Lives, let’s talk!

Tips for Interacting with Newer Humans, in Your Congregation and in Their Natural Habitats

by Karen Richter

My feminism became much more real when my daughter was born. She’s a native Georgian (with the double name to prove it), born where dressing and grooming your girl child is an expensive and full-time hobby. I was known for being a somewhat relaxed parent (maybe even a slacker), so I got this helpful advice from a friend,

“Oh for gosh sakes, don’t bring her to church with her diaper showing.”

There are, you see, cute, preferably monogrammed, little lace bloomers that one purchases to cover diapers when Baby Girl is wearing a dress.

Gigantic bows and lacy bloomers are not part of family culture in Arizona, for the most part. But it still seems that folks don’t always know how to interact with children in respectful, non-gendered ways. And we so want to make children and families feel welcome in our faith communities! Here are some things to try with young humans in your congregation.

  1. Recognize that children have moods just like adults. I have been in faith communities where the children’s behavior is seen as a direct reflection of the parents’ character. It was not fun. Accept that children don’t always welcome interaction with adults they don’t know well. Smile, and move on. It may be that we can learn something from kids who don’t hide their cranky moods, even at church. They are being real – you can do it too.
  2. Physical touch needs consent. When you see a child upset or sad, ask, “Would a hug or a back pat help?” For happy kiddos, you can say, “Are we fist-bumping today?” This can feel a little awkward at first. Practice… and know that you are doing a small part of changing our culture around consent and body autonomy! Plus it’s good for Safe Church culture. New families and parents visiting for the first time may be wary of adults who seem overly familiar with their children. When safe adults model consent, it makes unhealthy adult behaviors more obviously out-of-the-ordinary and protects all children.
  3. Strive for gender-neutrality. OMGoodness this can be hard! I’ve observed that adults most often make comments to little girls on their appearance and comments about ANYTHING ELSE to little boys! Discipline your reactions; respond mindfully and intentionally. Here are some conversation starters you might try…
    • How are you today? (It’s a classic!)
    • Is there something you’re looking forward to this week?
    • I saw a bunny/lizard/fast car on my way to church this morning! Did you see anything cool?
    • We are singing ‘Blahblahblah’ this morning… it’s my favorite! Do you have a favorite church song?
    • Replace “Boys and Girls” as your default way of addressing a group of children! Try Young Ones, Friends, Beloveds, Children of God… Be creative and find what feels natural for you.
  4. Learn kids’ names and help them learn yours. It feels good to be known by name. Decide how you would prefer to be called by children: Mrs. Smith or Ms. Sally… Mr. Johnson or Bill. Parents may feel uncomfortable with family titles like Grandpa Joe.

Are you cringing, thinking about that sweet kid just the other week whose sparkly shoes and hairbow you complimented? Or are you annoyed… seeing my suggestions as political correctness run amok? I recognize that our culture doesn’t encourage open-minded open-hearted ways of communicating with young humans. It’s a place where we can grow and learn – because there’s never a time in which children don’t deserve our best efforts. We must find ways of talking with one another – at all ages – that are true to the values of inclusion, respect, and inherent human dignity.

Let’s keep talking!

Not Your Kids

by Abigail Conley

A story flashes across my screen. Philando Castile. Charleena Lyles.

“Not your kids,” a voice says from somewhere inside.

It’s the voice of relief, a promise really, “not your kids.”

June is Pride Month, so there’s an array of rainbow everything on that same screen.

Pictures of happy couples, of families with moms or dads, of chestfeeding and breastfeeding, of pronoun etiquette and label etiquette. Amid those happy pictures, happy shares of stories, there are stories of rejection intermingled.

“Not your kids,” says the same voice from deep inside. I rest assured that my LGBTQ+ kids know they’re safe at church, if nowhere else.

I know the hijabs the little girls wear set them apart from their friends and neighbors. I know the color of their skin does, too. Their families are from Pakistan. I cannot imagine what many of them have been through in their lives. These Muslim children joyfully welcome their Christian neighbors, snuggling up to the adults who are more familiar. I wonder how often they are not safe outside these walls.

“Not your kids,” comes the same voice.

This is the echo of privilege. The fears that accompany so many people do not accompany my kids—the ones from my church, the ones of my own I may have some day.

Children seem to be the great equalizer among people. Children are easier to play with and easier to talk to. They seem to more easily embrace any adult willing to play with them. They worry less about language barriers. My Spanish is even perfect for hanging out with preschool kids, where I can quiz them on colors and shapes.

I remember a plea made in my own denomination that stopped some of the fighting about LGBTQ+ welcome: our kids are dying.

Even the naysayers realized that’s the worst sort of pain.

The voice comes often, “Not your kids.”

If it’s not your kids, it’s easy to forget the sort of desperation that comes with it is your kids. It’s the kind of desperation that dragged Jairus from his home to find a man he’d only heard about. It’s the kind of desperation that made him pull Jesus along with him through the city streets, to a house where mourning had already begun. It’s the desperation that will do anything to save a child’s life.

“Not your kids,” will echo, again. Our privilege will remind us of the fears we don’t have for our children. I wonder, can we learn the answer, “But they’re somebody’s kids”?

Theology of the Nursery

by Karen Richter

This blog is dedicated to all church nursery staff and volunteers! You too are loved!

Where is faith birthed?

What early experiences correlate to a lifetime of prayer and service?

What opportunities are we overlooking or missing or failing to maximize for congregational vitality?

These are the questions that occupy me, especially on my commute to and from Shadow Rock UCC. As a parent and as a church staffer in the area of faith formation, these are crucial inquiries.

A couple of years ago, we were struggling with a mid-week after-school program. So many families couldn’t commit to regular attendance, and adult volunteers available 4 pm to 6 pm on a Wednesday were hard to find. For a time, we had a low-key program with several activity centers that required minimal adult direction. Different and often more cynical questions were asked: are social and play-oriented activities worth investing in? what kinds of experiences do kids need in the midst of the school week? where’s the proper balance between relationship-building and content for children’s faith programming?

In the end, we discontinued the program, but the period of questioning bore fruit for me. A vision for what children must experience in their spiritual community emerged: Church is where people love me.

I’ll say it again: Church is where people love me.

Church is where I am LOVED.

These wacky people really care about me!

When my teenage son was a wee Cub Scout, he got a little note from a church member congratulating him on a successful scout food drive. Under her signed name, she wrote (one of the church people you probably don’t really know). When I asked him about it, he said, “Of course I know who that is. She says hello to me every week.”

All of the life of faith, all service and care of people and creation, and all growth in faith, understanding and spirituality – the whole of what we do! – hang on this kind of experience. There will be time later to learn Psalm 23 and the Beatitudes, time for skits about Jesus calling the fishermen, even time for wrestling with Romans chapter 8.

But it starts in the nursery. The warm safety of the place, the gentle hands of nursery workers and volunteers, the opportunity to make connections and first friendships… for babies and toddlers, it’s their first Sunday learning.

So this week, show some appreciation and gratitude to those people who make this wonderment happen. Hug a nursery person. They might be a little sticky (or worse!), but it’s worth it.

In Relationships, Small Things Count

by Amos Smith

Recently, I dreaded weekday mornings. Getting Luke up and ready for school was a chore. We butt heads. I would wake him, then he would get mad and say he was tired. Then I would prod him. Eventually he would start the day reluctantly and grumpy. It was a gridlocked negative pattern.

Then one day it dawned on me that I could change the dynamic. So now, instead of wake him, I set my iPod in his room and turn on his favorite songs at moderate volume. Then after a few minutes I lay beside him on his bed and talk to him about the day ahead (he likes to know about plans ahead of time). Now he wakes up happy.

Most people do creative problem solving in their relationships like the example above. Yet, since my centering prayer practice has deepened, I’ve noticed that habitual letting go and out-of-the-box ideas come more frequently.

Out of Touch with the Poor in Africa

by Amos Smith

After graduation from high school I worked for Habitat for Humanity in Uganda, East Africa. I’ll never forget Semunyo, an elderly gentleman with an oozing foot infection. When my friend Matovu first took me to see Semunyo, his leg had begun to swell and gangrene was days away. It was obvious to me that he needed penicillin. The sorry fact was that Semunyo didn’t have enough money to pay for penicillin shots at the local clinic. So Matovu and I put him in a wheelbarrow and rolled him to the clinic, where I paid five dollars for penicillin which saved Semunyo’s life.

Many Americans have lost touch with the Semunyos of the world. Semunyo is the tip of the iceberg. In fact, Semunyo is a tame example of “third world” realities.

If a jumbo jet went down in North America it would be headline news. If two jumbo jets went down on the same day in North America it would be huge news, congressional committees of inquiry would form, a media shakedown would commence, and reparations would be made.

Every day the equivalent of five jumbo jets goes down in Africa. In other words, over three thousand Africans die from AIDS daily. This is a travesty. We add to the inhumanity of the situation by turning away. Where are the headlines in the daily paper and blog? Where are the congressional committees meeting around the clock to solve the crisis? These human beings are flesh and blood. They’re Christ’s body.

Values stink.

by Karen Richter

Why do you bring your children to church? Why do you think there are children sitting in the pews of your church?

If you ask parents this question (or if just now, you answered this question for yourself), you might hear answers like this:

“It’s important for me that my child learns the values of our church community.”

“I want my kid to be a good person.”

“Church provides my family with moral guidance.”

Values stink. by Karen Richter, Southwest Conference Blog southwestconferenceblog.org United Church of Christ
Can we agree than authenticity is better than shiny and happy?

Nope. Sorry – nope nope nope.

Church is not about values. Not only are there OTHER places in our society to expose your children to good values, there are BETTER places in our society to teach good values.

Scouting, team sports, community theater, chess club, school-based values curricula, VeggieTales… these are excellent sources for parents to teach their children the importance of fairness, teamwork, honesty, and cooperation. The kiddos will make friends along the way – it’ll be great!

Church MUST be more than values instruction. I’ll risk overstating my point (and annoying my readers): if we structure programs for children in churches with the goal of teaching good values, we will lose. Not only are the organizations I listed above doing great things with kids, the Gospel of grace always trumps morality.

What then takes the place of values instruction? In progressive churches, we’ve somewhat abandoned old-timey instruction. I haven’t seen a good fill-in-the-blank Bible worksheet since I was 10 years old. We’re working on abandoning a school-based model and even in some churches we’re getting rid of a star-earning, funfunfun carnival model.

What’s left? Just two principles guide children’s ministry in the post-modern era, and the earlier a child can communicate and internalize these, the better.

“At church, people love me just as I am.”

This means prioritizing relationships and connections over curricula and content. This means children participating in worship – not as cute props for adults to coo at, but as full members of the worshipping community.

“At church, I can ask questions.”

Values stink. by Karen Richter, Southwest Conference blog southwestconferenceblog.org United Church of Christ
Our kids can be like Jesus: more questions than answers!

Whether it’s a deep question like this one I got during Advent, ‘How do we know that Jesus was God’s son? What if he was just a good person?’ or it’s a question from the Our Whole Lives question box or just an everyday ‘Why?’ – questions are at the heart of the spiritual journey for every person. When our churches are safe places for questions, doubt, experiential pondering, they will thrive.

In fact, what would our churches look like if every person at every age and in every situation can express these same ideas:

“At church, people love me just as I am.”

“At church, I can ask questions.”

So, yeah, values stink. The Good News we have is so much better, deeper, and wider than values.

Peace to us all in 2016.

Be a Good Parent. Be Selfish.

by Karen Richter

Parent friends, can we talk? It’s rough out there, right? Parents get a lot of conflicting messages about how to be the best we can for our kids. Tough but compassionate. Attachment and yet independence. Respecting their agency but retaining authority. Let them make choices… but not too many. Say no and mean it, but stay positive. Be available for your children, but take care of your primary partnership.

And yet we wouldn’t trade it for the world.

I’m convinced that parenting is a fantastic spiritual discipline. When I was a kid, I daydreamed about being a nun. Since I was born and raised in the South and never met a single Catholic person until college, this was never a likely scenario… But I think it had something to do with selflessness and dedication – the idea of spending your life doing something worth doing. And maybe it was a juvenile fantasy about Maria from The Sound of Music – that’s a possibility too. But what is parenting, if not dedicating your life’s energy, and sometimes the last cinnamon bagel, to something worth your best efforts?

Be a good parent. Be selfish. by Karen Richter - Southwest Conference blog
Good for babies…and my most faithful prayer discipline ever!

We parent to make our children good human beings and along the way, we become pretty good too.

At the same time, I see a lot of parenting anxiety. I see parents putting their children’s wants and needs ahead of their own – not out of dedication but out of fear. It starts as soon as the stick turns pink, with nutrition and playing music and avoiding stress. About the time my first child was born, new brain development research began to be available to popular audiences. The importance of second language acquisition, “windows” of prime learning, speech development, and stimulating learning environments for babies… I was convinced that any moment that wasn’t full of stimulation was a waste!

Now I see it more with afterschool activities, music lessons, tutoring, drama, and sports. Our families are stressed out. And it’s hard: hard to say no to the opportunity to play with a competitive traveling volleyball team; hard to step away from the pressure to perform; hard to insist on time for your child to just BE.

Be a good parent. Be selfish. by Karen Richter - Southwest Conference blog
Does this look familiar at all?

So start with you. Be selfish. Be a role model for selfishness. Take care of your own spiritual self. Find something that feeds your own soul.

I see families… good loving wonderful families… who are involved in a faith community for their children’s sake. Goodness knows, that’s not a bad thing, but those parents need to hear this loving and gentle instruction: you too are a child of God. Find something spiritual for you.

You.

You are unique and unrepeatable.

You – the universe becoming self-aware.

You, sent by the Spirit to the world to learn and grow all your life long.

You are a gift to the world, so take care of that good gift!

And Merry Christmas to all.

Let’s Pray the Announcements: a modest proposal for church ‘communication’

by Karen Richter

Recently, someone from our church board asked me about how we communicate.

“Too much,” I replied, to her surprise. “We communicate too much.”

How often – in our passion for mission and service – do we add to the noise and informational clutter of the lives in our care? Specifically, how many times in an average week does an average congregant hear from their church? Email, Twitter, Facebook, paper newsletter, bulletin boards, verbal announcements… And with how many organizations does our average congregant have a relationship? Are they getting an equal number of communication attempts from Heifer International, ACLU, Amazon Watch, Alzheimer’s Association, First Things First Arizona, and United Way?

Is there a better way?

I’ve observed with my own children that sometimes they listen more closely to a whisper than to a shout.Let’s Pray the Announcements: a modest proposal for church ‘communication’ - Southwest Conference blog Maybe the folks in the pews feel the same way. Maybe they are tired of being invited to participate in our ministries with enthusiastic shouts. Let’s try whispering. Even more, let’s try trusting the Spirit to move people’s hearts to action.

Let’s pray the announcements.

Now, if your church is like mine, this is going to take some discipline. Everyone wants to chat on Sunday morning, and everyone thinks that their announcement is important and needs to be conveyed with some flair. I get it.

But instead of treating the Sunday morning announcements as if they were separate from worship, what if we approached them in a prayerful spirit? Sometimes we say, “Please hold in prayer the leadership and mission of our church.” Let’s do it – right then!

Lay participation in a community of faith is a spiritual practice. What would it look like to treat it as such? Maybe it looks and sounds like this…

“There are several opportunities to serve our community and the world this week. Please look at the announcements in the newsletter with me:

On Monday at 5 pm, the prayer shawl group will meet to knit and to pray over the shawls that are ready to be distributed.

Saturday, a group will gather at 7 am to repair the bricks on the patio.

Children in grades 2-4 have a sleepover next weekend. Volunteers are needed to prepare and serve dinner.

We are looking for liturgists and song leaders for Christmas Eve services at 7 pm and 11 pm.

Please take a deep breath and join me in prayer:

Holy One, we strive to be a faithful and compassionate people. We pray for your blessings on the activities and ministries of our church this week. We trust that you move through this week with us. In a spirit of discernment, we pause to ask ourselves: what work is entrusted to me? What part of our ministry together might be mine to do? We move forward knowing that our works of service on behalf the world will bring us joy and peace. We ask for energy and passion to fulfill our calling. With the faith of Jesus our brother, we pray. Amen.”

It’s a little thing… a tiny pivot in the spirit of our time together on Sunday mornings.

I believe that churches are called to be countercultural – little outposts of God’s Realm in the midst of the world. That means we do things differently. We don’t need a hard sell – we need invitation. We don’t need marketing – we need to tell our story. We don’t need more communication – we need more prayer.

 

Dance, Dance, Wherever You May Be

by Teresa Blythe

Lots of congregations sing “Lord of the Dance” on Sunday mornings, but really, what would most of them do if someone lost their inhibitions, took the song literally and began to “dance, dance,” right there in worship?

It is so rare to see a real outburst of spontaneous celebration of God’s Spirit in most established (especially white) churches that when it occurs we generally go in one of two directions. If we are inspired by it, we then want to control it ending up with predictable liturgical dancers—eyes and arms lifted toward heaven (in case we don’t understand that they are glorifying God)–or acceptable movement such as a little swaying and clapping. If we are embarrassed by it, we avert our eyes, ignore it and hope it goes away.

We could instead embrace it. Understand that we do not “have” bodies, we “are” bodies and sometimes those bodies want to move or otherwise express themselves in worship. We could, as they say, let the children, young adults and those with nothing to lose lead us toward a more embodied worship experience.

Embrace that Swing

Several years ago I had the privilege of working part-time at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson—one of the few multicultural progressive churches in Arizona. On this particular Sunday, children’s time had just ended, but, as was the custom at Southside, the children were not yet dismissed to their respective church school classrooms because the choir had not yet sung. With the children sitting on the flagstone floor of the Native American-style kiva sanctuary, the choir sang a rousing gospel rendition of the old favorite, “Love Lifted Me.”

In the middle of the song, with not a shred of inhibition, a six-year old girl leaps to her feet and starts free-form dancing. Now we’re all familiar with the one or two children in the church who enjoy making a scene during children’s time. But this little girl wasn’t in it for the attention. The motivation appeared to be pure adoration and praise. Most of the adults in the congregation were smiling—some had tears in their eyes—at the freedom the girl felt to “dance, dance, wherever she may be.”

When the song ended, the pastor, John Fife, stood to say, “That’s the difference between children and adults. She was inspired, so she got up and began dancing. Many of us were inspired as well, but we just sat there and let her dance all by herself!” Since then, when people at Southside feel so moved by the choir, they stand up and move.

That 6-year old dancer has a prophetic message for the larger church. On a base level, we have to understand how music moves the body and soul. I’m talking about music with full-bodied rhythm—and let’s be honest, most people just don’t feel like dancing to the pipe organ. Yes, saying that can start up a “worship war” in your congregation, but it doesn’t change the truth of the matter.

What this girl demonstrated was that if our churches want to be welcoming and attractive to people younger than your average church member, we had better be alive and ready for anything to happen in inspired worship.

(Which is why it thrilled me this past Sunday at First Congregational UCC Phoenix to turn around during a high-energy gospel song and see one of the young adults who was running the media center in the back moving and dancing to the music the way God intended! I only wish everyone there had turned around to see how much fun he was having at church.)

Embrace the Awkward Illustration

Sometimes spontaneity is thrust upon us by those who have long ago lost the usual societal inhibitions. I once visited a Presbyterian church in Albuquerque as a wild-haired, scruffy older man in a heavy coat had a burden to share in worship. Rising during announcement time, he proceeded to the pulpit to confess to a number of “sins of the flesh.” The young pastor appeared to know this man, and was not exactly surprised at the pop-up confession but was at a loss for what to do. So, he let the man speak.

As fate would have it, the sermon that morning—from the lectionary—was the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Jesus saying that the one who “beat his breast” saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner” was justified. What a brilliant sermon illustration! Unplanned and awkward, yes. But, frankly a bright spot in the liturgy.

Was this celebrated as a happy coincidence? Or even a Godly moment? Hardly. No mention is made of the event after the man is escorted away from the pulpit, because his interjection is seen as an embarrassing disturbance.

We’ll need to shed this self-consciousness and a desire to control if we want God’s spirit to blow around in worship. If something bizarre but meaningful happens in worship, let’s make the most of it. It sure beats the Easter Sunday I spent at a mainline church in the Bay area where I counted at least three people in their twenties fast asleep during the sermon.

Let’s embrace the crazy outburst as important data for discerning when and where God’s Spirit is moving within the congregation. How can we follow it more closely? How can we stay open to those times when worship goes slightly awry, seeing what those moments have to teach us? Savor them, in all their ickiness, and you’ll soon become more comfortable with the unusual, the ecstatic, the surprising.

Honoring the Body

Church leaders could start to honor the body in worship by incorporating call-and-response music, drums, incense and a variety of simple prayer postures. Make worship a feast of all five senses, not just the ear and eyes. Instead of bringing on the approved liturgical dancer why not go into the community and hire a professional contemporary dancer to do an original dance illustrating the theme of worship that day? Lift our eyes from the bulletin by posting what we need for worship on a screen or even an old-fashioned poster board up front. Leave us on the edge of our seats by writing sermons with cliff-hanger endings, like the serial dramas on TV do each week. Ask us to yell out “Amen” to your sermon when we feel it. And then entice us with God’s word so that we want to.

Making room for the spontaneous will not be easy for people set in their ways. It requires an attitude of hospitality that says whatever is done in authentic response to the Word or the Spirit is OK with us.

It requires being brave enough to admit that if our music, preaching and prayer aren’t filled with enough of God’s Spirit to move people in some pretty significant ways, we’re in trouble and need to plead for God’s mercy. Remember, boring people in worship is a sin.

The good news is that the Lord of the Dance is the one who saves us.