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!

Okay, but why?

by Davin Franklin-Hicks 

I remember my 13-year-old self sitting on the altar of a small Southern Baptist church. The altar was brown, carpeted steps. A woman who had shown me incredible kindness sat with me. She was holding my hand. I was wracked with sadness and sobs. She listened to me as I told her about the divorces, the turmoil in my family, the fear that I was not normal (that meant queer, but I didn’t yet have the words for that). She listened. She leaned in. She cared.

After I shared, she opened her Bible and I remember her taking me through “The Roman Road”. I spent most of the time listening for Roman to show up in the story line. The Roman character never made an appearance.

The Roman Road is a fundamentalist evangelical tool often used in explaining the “Plan of Salvation”. I would come to know that well later, but for that moment, I didn’t understand any of it.

This is pretty much how the many conversations would go:

Nice lady (NL): When Eve took that apple and decided to eat from the tree, sin entered the world. We needed a path back to God and we get that through Jesus.

Perplexed 13 y/o Davin (PD): Well, why did God make that tree then?

NL: God wanted us to choose Him. When we don’t we invite sin into our lives and we need salvation.

PD: I don’t get it. If I poisoned candy and put it in a kid’s room, wouldn’t that mean I poisoned the kid if the kid ate it?

NL: blinking with a minorly irritated look.

Our session ended for that day. Two weeks later the nice lady tried again. Same place, ready to dig in, Bible between us.

NL: Okay so please remember that we chose sin.

PD: Yeah, but God kinda made that happen, right? Why did he put that tree there?

NL: Because God wanted us to choose Him.

PD: What? Why?

NL: Because he loves us and wants us to love him.

PD: Then why didn’t he leave out the tree that would ruin everything?

Our session ended again.

We met more and I had many questions:
Why did God make Lucifer if He knew that he would turn into Satan?
Who was Cain afraid of? Wasn’t it just him, Abel, Eve and Adam in the world? Who was Cain afraid would harm him when he was cast out of the garden?
If God made us and the tree of good and evil, isn’t that kinda passive aggressive?
She sighed a lot in those visits.

I was a teenager who just discovered faith community.
I liked the church a lot.
I liked the people.
I liked the adults who worked in the youth group.
I kept coming back and the nice lady kept trying to help me understand why I needed salvation in the form of repentance.

After many sessions with her, I was willing to admit I was a sinner, admit Jesus died for my sins, profess my belief in Christ, invite Jesus into my heart and promise to walk a path of faith, sharing the Good News. This is called a few things in literal, evangelical Christianity: being born again, getting saved, turning my life over to Jesus. Once I was in, I was in. The questions went away and I was determined to be the next Billy Graham.

Much of my theology in those days was slathered with fear and shame. I passed that on to those who took time to listen to my conversion messages. I was going to make sure Heaven was full and Hell was empty.

I was zealous and I was persistent. I was also very scared, brokenhearted, shame-filled and sad. The church kept me busy so my heart didn’t feel so very alone.

I was always angry back then. If you had to find me in a crowd, you could simply look for the kid with arms crossed over their chest, glowering, glaring, guarded and grrrrrr…

All the while I pushed people away, I was super offended when they did not talk to me. Hurt people often long for what they desperately try to convince others they don’t need.

I was creating an emotional wall; I was a teenage emotional construction worker with endless mortar and bricks: Sob the Builder.

There’s reasons for that wall. There’s reasons for everything we think, feel and do. Behavior is to meet a need, or at least a perception of a need. We spend so much time judging actions we rarely think about what is behind those actions. We rarely are compassionate with ourselves.

Everyone’s behavior makes sense to them at the time or else they wouldn’t do it. My fortress was built for a reason. It kept the bad out, but then it started keeping EVERYTHING out.

If I ever write a memoir I will call it “Well, that didn’t work.” And we still try again.

It’s comfortable to think in black and white because there is certainty there. It’s super hard when you let in the colorful world of all sorts of living and needing. It changes everything.

The option of truly being present with someone and learning who they are without an agenda to change them is the only way we get to have honest relationship. I didn’t get that concept for much of my life. I wanted the world to bend, not for me to bend. That’s how brokenness happens, in the not bending and the demanding it be different.

2016 has been awful for me and many I love. It has been the worst year of my life for sure. It also has been a very rich year. I have felt loved more often than not. I have given love more freely than I have in any other year. And 2016 was still the worst ever for me.

I am not someone who believes life’s trials are there to make you a better person. I don’t believe it is orchestrated in that way. I do believe, though, in every situation that sorrow exists, we can see aspects of living we never would have noticed without the sorrow. I don’t believe sorrow exists as a life lesson. I think it’s just part of life and what we choose to do with it determines a lot.

It’s been almost a year since I was harmed through sexual assault and there have been oh so many layers of pain my family and I have walked through. It has been horrendous and it has been illuminating. It has been heartbreaking and it has been healing. For me, what makes it or breaks it is my willingness to engage life in hard times vs run, run, run!

Engaging in life requires some courage when everything within wants to retreat. When that’s my reality I take the absolute smallest inching forward I can muster to just stay in the world, stay in my life. I have to get open, drop the mortar and brick, and choose to live in the elements, responding to life and love as it comes and as I co-create it. Dear ones, we are creating our inner world as we participate in life. I want my inner world to be a sanctuary and refuge.

The idea of refuge reminds me of my younger brother who tells a story that when he was about 19 years old or so, his AC busted and he had to have more windows and doors open at night to keep cool. He did this regularly in the apartment he lived in so he had adjusted and slept well most of the time.

One morning he gradually woke from sleep with the cat on his belly. He petted her, she purred and nuzzles. Then the slow dawning: “I don’t have a cat.” Yup. A random cat decided to sleep on my brother’s belly.

I love picturing this story playing out. It’s awesome, funny, and it highlights my gentle brother who awakes with welcome.

What I really love most, though, is the cat. The cat went all rogue and decided this house was as good as any and my brother’s warm belly was just the stuff this felonious cat needed to get a good rest.

What’s hurting within you? What’s preventing you from welcoming warmth and companionship into the core of who you are? What is this fortress you are building? What is keeping you from the wander and the wonder that may lead to new relationship?  What is the smallest inching forward you can muster today to answer the pain with hopeful forward momentum?

Whatever it is, I promise you this: the pain you feel in that place is made worse with isolation and vigilance. Peace to your precious, scared heart and peace to your amazing, enduring spirit.

We all have the “why” questions. Keep that up! The questions are beautiful and welcomed. The altar is within you as you seek your heart out.

Knowing this and living this is my road to salvation.

The Kids Are All Right

by Karen Richter

In July, I traveled with a group of Shadow Rock UCC youth to Orlando, FL for National Youth Event. Our little gang of 10 Shadow Rockers was joined by 1 young person from First UCC Phoenix. shadow rock kids at NYE16While there we met with and socialized with many kids from all over the country, including Ktizo UCC in Phoenix and Good Shepherd UCC in Albuquerque. It was a great event overall, with dynamic speakers and workshops.

But as our time together went on, I noticed a couple of problems. Nothing major, nothing catastrophic… just things about the event and our group’s dynamic that I would want to work on or address for our next big travel event. Our last day included some downtime at the host resort, after Closing Worship and before NYE buses would take us to the Orlando airport for the trip home.down time at NYE16 Our Shadow Rock youth director and my traveling companion Brenda Hensley planned to use some of this downtime for some reflection and connection with the group.

I put my thoughts together about the problems and planned to mention them during our meeting time.

  1. Regarding our group dynamic, I recognized some divisions between the older more seasoned youth (some of which were fresh from a camp staff experience) and our younger and often quieter kids. This wasn’t a terrible thing at all, but I think with more guidance and encouragement from the chaperones, our older participants would have done more to include those younger.
  2. The event was July 27 to 30, and the whole world was enchanted by Pokémon Go… including most of our group. Again, it wasn’t anything insurmountable, but I wished we would have helped the group set some boundaries around Pokémon and screen time before we touched down in Florida.
  3. About the event overall, this National Youth Event was the first to be held at a resort and to include a theme park day. It was also my first time attending an NYE, but I wished the venue had been less distracting and less overwhelming. Even for the adult participants, it was occasionally difficult to stay present to worship, workshops, and sharing ideas with the next day at Magic Kingdom looming in our imaginations.

So we sat down on the floor in the convention center lobby of Coronado Springs Resort – a little bit tired, a little bit homesick, a little bit thoughtful. I was ready to share my observations and perhaps, in my daydreams, a little wisdom. But luckily, thankfully (!!!), I listened to these teens first.

AND THEY MENTIONED, THEMSELVES, EVERY SINGLE THING I SAID ABOVE… 1, 2 AND 3. I didn’t need to say a word, so I didn’t.

So smart. So compassionate. So aware.

It was a gift to be with them. The kids are all right.

To Seek With Heart and Soul

by Talitha Arnold

They entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their ancestors, with all their heart and with all their soul.” – 2 Chronicles 15: 1-15

This May 22 at the church I serve, we celebrate the “Rite of Initiation and Confirmation” with six young people from the congregation. The service marks the end of a two-year journey for the young adolescents and also the beginning of their adult lives, or the “initiation to adulthood,” as we call it.

Right now the Youth Confirmands are working on their Statements of Faith to present to the congregation that Sunday. Each young person will share what they believe about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Church. Some of their answers are long, others quite brief. A youth once wrote about the Holy Spirit: “I don’t know what it is or what it’s supposed to do. Do you?”

Whether their answers are long or short, and whether or not they choose to confirm their faith and join the church, the Youth Confirmands are living into the kind of covenant with God that the Book of Chronicles records the people of Israel made centuries ago—a covenant not to obey God or follow God or even love God. It is, instead, to seek God, “with all their heart and with all their soul.”

United’s Youth Confirmands may not be ready, even after two years, to confirm their faith this May. That’s okay. What we truly hope is that they will continue to seek God, with heart and soul.

In so doing, may they know something of God’s presence and grace. As the Greek author Nikos Kazantakis wrote in his book, St. Francis, “What is God but the search for God?”

Prayer

Thank you, God, for the journey and for the questions. Amen.

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.

They Don’t Need Glitter

by Jeffrey Dirrim

Matthew 5:47-48 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

“And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

The smell of wet glue and drying paint lingered near the kitchen table filled with new arts and craft projects.  My sister asked if I could tell which of the creative pieces had been made especially for me? I nodded no and then she slowly began to point out all the ones with glitter. We hadn’t yet talked to the kids about my sexuality, but as an out gender-queer gay person I chuckled with her at what my young nieces and nephew had seemingly picked up on.

I’m not personally a fan of glitter, but it’s been around a long time. It can be traced all the way back to cave paintings in 40,000 B.C.  Ancient civilizations (including the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans) used it. It’s quite possible glitter could have been a part of any number of our Bible stories. Maybe the dramatic Bathsheba wore it in shimmering make up long before the androgynous Ziggy Stardust in the early 1970’s? Maybe the prodigal son had celebrated with it like the New York City club kids did in the 1990’s?

The at-risk and homeless LGBTQ youth I minister with LOVE glitter for all the reasons I don’t. Glitter reflects light, it covers up imperfections, and it has a dark side. Yes a dark side, because it gives a false impression. For these beloved youth, glitter brings sanctuary. Through their experiences they’ve been taught they’re unattractive, unworthy, and disposable. The glitter hides deep scars and makes the ugliness of their world appear more beautiful. God knows they deserve some beauty.

Skylar Lee became a statistic this week. He was a 16-year old high school student and transgender advocate with a bright future. He was an accomplished writer and had just published a story about his difficult journey to self-discovery. Identifying as a queer transgender person of color, he found it difficult to survive while sharing messages of hope to other young struggling trans teens. Last Monday Skylar posted a suicide note on Tumblr and then took his own life. Social media was abuzz.

We act surprised. We grieve. But let’s keep it real. A 2014 analysis of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey by the Williams Institute found that more than 50% of the students who were bullied in school due to anti-transgender bias had attempted suicide. If that wasn’t bad enough, the number of reported suicide attempts jump to 78% for students who’ve experienced physical or sexual violence at school. And surveys of shelters in 2011 & 2012 found that 40% of homeless teens identified as LGBT. That number is staggering when you consider what a small percentage of homeless teens actually identify as LGBT. These are our children. Why are we so apathetic to their plight? Why do we reinforce the negative lessons they’ve learned, through our silence? Why aren’t we diligently working to create positive systemic changes for them? Why don’t we realize they’re dying?

The Hebrew word for “perfect” is “tamiym.” It’s translated as without blemish, whole, and complete.  I believe our LGBTQ youth/young adults are perfect. They’re almost all survivors of the worst neglect and/or abuses. I thank God every day for the miracle that they are still alive, and fighting to remain so. A few have served time in prison, a few have issues with alcohol and/or drugs, a few sell their bodies for food and shelter; and I’d like to believe in God’s eye’s they all remain unblemished. We need to be the adults. We need to take responsibility for relegating so many of our own children to the gutter. We’re the imperfect ones, we should be carrying their scars.

In faith we are asked if we are greeting anyone besides our own brothers and sisters.  We are asked to move into perfection ourselves by caring for the unlovable stranger. I’ve heard it preached that perfection in the Bible is often referred to as blameless.  Skylar Lee was blameless. We failed to teach Skylar of his worth and now he’s gone. No doubt there will soon be another announcement of an LGBTQ youth/young adult committing suicide.

Isn’t Skylar’s life enough?  What are we going to do? What are our churches going to do? When will we attempt to move toward perfection by making a difference in the lives of today’s LGBTQ youth and young adults? They don’t need glitter. They need us.

PRAYER

While dreaming of a world where glitter is no longer needed, we pray to our unlimited and unconditionally loving God. You have called us toward perfection. May we be moved toward you by loving the unlovable. May we be moved toward you by giving voice to those told they are disposable. Move us through our complacency to action as we bring health, wholeness, and justice to our LGBTQ children. Amen, let it be so.

DID YOU KNOW?

The first American transgender suicide helpline, entirely staffed by transgender people, has just opened. God’s transgender children can call the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860.  Please share some light and spread the word.

A White Boy and His Toys

by Tyler Connoley

When I was fourteen, I got my first computer — an Apple IIe. Actually, it was my family’s computer, and my dad used it pretty much all day doing his work. However, at night, I was allowed to play on the computer. I remember one time when I stayed up all night writing a simple program in BASIC. The next day, I proudly showed off what the computer could do, as it went through it’s paces of answering questions based on the users “Yes” or “No” inputs. I thought about that Apple IIe this week when I heard the story of Ahmed Mohamed’s arrest for building a clock and bringing it to school.

You see, when I was a geeky teenager, no one thought anything of it. Kids like me — white boys — were allowed to be geeks, and were allowed to dream of building robots like R. Daneel Olivaw, who captured my imagination when I was sixteen. My parents joked with their friends about my silly BASIC program, and everyone thought it was funny and cute and a sign of great things to come. I was on my way to becoming the smart, successful man I was expected to be.

If I had been a girl doing the same thing in 1984, people might have thought me strange. There might have been a worry that I was too masculine. (Believe me, that was never a worry with me, but that’s another story for another time.) I sometimes wonder what my sister could have done with our Apply IIe, if it hadn’t been hogged by her brother who figured she should be doing girly stuff anyway.

Or what if I’d been born a person of color? We now have the rise of the Blerds, but in 1984 — five years before Geordi La Forge — black nerds were unheard of. Even today, we feel the need to give them a special category and their own term, because we find them so exotic. What message does that send to a young black man who loves to goof around with technology?

And then we have Ahmed Mohamed. Like me, at fourteen, he spent the night creating a fun project that he wanted to show off. However, unlike me whose white skin is a blank slate onto which I’m allowed to paint any future I want, all people could see in young Ahmed was a potential terrorist. He kept saying, “It’s a clock,” and everyone around him kept looking at those wires and those digital numbers and thinking, “It looks like a bomb.”

I also remember my first digital watch. My Grandma gave it to me for Christmas, and it made me feel like James Bond. It never occurred to me that someone might think of me as the villain in the story, because I didn’t have a deformity, or an accent, or brown skin, or boobs. That’s what happens when you grow up in our society as a white boy.

I pray for a day when the same is true for every little Ahmed or Levar playing in his room with wires and digital clocks or reading books into the wee hours of the morning.

Rev. Tyler Connoley is the pastor of Silver City United Church of Christ, a new church start in Silver City, New Mexico. Tyler has a Master of Arts in Religion and a Master of Divinity, both from Earlham School of Religion, and is the co-author of The Children Are Free: Re-examining the Biblical Evidence on Same-Sex Relationships, which has been translated into multiple languages including Spanish (Dios Nos Ha Hecho Libres). In 2014 and 2015, Tyler worked as the Immigrant Care Coordinator for the Southwest Conference. He lives in Silver City with his spouse, Rob Connoley, who is Chef at the Curious Kumquat, a restaurant they own together.