Sermon: Teaching as a Spiritual Act
Rev. Dr. Gaye W. Ortiz
Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta
September 8, 2013
This past week saw Jews all over the world celebrating Rosh Hashanah, which means "beginning of the year" in Hebrew. One of the popular practices during this time is to eat apples dipped in honey, symbolizing the hope for a good year to come. And may it be so.
Earlier we commissioned the volunteers and staff of Children’s and Youth Religious Education. They have been working hard to prepare for the beginning of this year’s classes. The teachers will introduce new curricula to our young ones that will be a true opportunity for growth, but only if it comes alive to them, and with some age groups that takes a lot of effort, ingenuity, and creativity. I would imagine that, in addition to being exhausted by the packed hour they spend in class, the teachers will also be satisfied when they see their kids learning and really entering into a collaborative effort in the classroom.
But would they agree that teaching is a spiritual act?
Writer and educator Parker Palmer defines spirituality as "the diverse ways to answer the heart's longing to be connected with the largeness of life." (The Courage to Teach, 2007 Tenth Anniversary Edition, as quoted in http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/blogs/maps.php?id=16445 ) With that perspective, spirituality is not just one way but encompasses ‘diverse’ ways. I think we see that spirituality here every Sunday, when each of us is driven by our heart’s own longing for connection.
This morning I would like to speak about my own search for spirituality through connection in the context of education; I had reason to reflect on this connection when I was preparing for my credentialing interview with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. I wrote an essay about my philosophy of religious education that informs much of what I am feeling today as our young people go into the classroom. I am hoping that they will encounter the largeness of life through an encounter with religious education.
When I turned 18 I did two things that shaped my life: I got married, and I became a Sunday school teacher. Tomorrow Wil and I celebrate 41 years of marriage. I’ve spent many of those years as a teacher in religious education, and in higher education – but I have also been an educator, as many of you have, through my own family connection with children. Two daughters and four grandchildren have put me in close proximity to teaching the lessons of everyday life. Being a grandparent is to me a rewarding and incomparable religious experience!
Maybe, if your upbringing included church and Sunday school, you have never forgotten your early experiences. My childhood memories of Protestant Sunday School include one Sunday of utter terror, when the lesson was about the creation of the world. I became panicked at the thought that once upon a time there was nothing - I can’t imagine any teacher being able to calm my fear, my mind was reeling with the thought of nothingness.
Outwardly, probably, I must have looked okay, but reflecting on that feeling has taught me to be sensitive to the sometimes overwhelming effect of knowledge on little ones.
Later - in my pre-teen phase of attending the Church of God of Holiness with my grandparents - I was memorizing dozens of Bible passages every week for the Sunday School quiz. I enjoyed doing it but many of the quotes were obscure or just didn’t make much sense; I was memorizing just for the sake of a competition.
But 41 years ago, the excitement with which I approached teaching Sunday School for the first time (when I was still really a child myself) says a lot about the role model I had prior to taking on that responsibility. As a Catholic in high school, my favorite Sunday School teacher was an Irish nun, Sister Odile, and I loved her kind and patient way with our class. She made me eager to learn because of how she presented the material. I really did want to be like her for a short while, and I even took a weekend trip with her to visit the Franciscan convent in Savannah; I had visions of becoming a nun teaching inner-city children…but instead, I married after graduation. I was excited about teaching a 4th grade Sunday school class and I took a correspondence course in religious education so I would feel competent in it. This was the first of many courses on religion that I would take in my life!
I’m aware that I sound like a real freak, an 18-year old girl, married, with an enthusiasm for teaching religious education! But my love of teaching blossomed after having my children. When we moved to Yorkshire in 1983, I had an ambition to take art classes, and for a year I did. But I also taught 4th grade RE again, and became the Director of RE for a small Catholic parish; I prepared children for their confirmation as well as teaching Sunday school class.
But when I became the DRE I realized that I had more questions than answers, and it was then that I found…the nuns again! Sr. Mary Bernard Potter and the Leeds Diocesan RE Center provided all kinds of RE resources. Those connections made me eager to teach RE in schools, and so I began looking for a degree course in Theology and Education. The college I applied to, a Catholic college of the University of Leeds, had no more places in that degree but did have openings in Theology and Media. Before I knew it I’d graduated and was teaching priests how to write church newsletters and give radio interviews! And when I finished my Master of Theology at Edinburgh University I became a full-time university professor teaching exciting courses on theology and film, Judaism, feminist theology and ethics. I spent 20 years as an educator in higher education, the first 10 years at an English university, and then communication studies and cinema at Augusta State University.
I was a student at the same time for some of those years, working on my Ph.D. thesis while teaching full time. It was valuable and insightful to experience both sides of learning.
When I became a Unitarian Universalist, I was thrilled to learn how seriously UUs take learning. The way some people refer to Religious Education as ‘Religious Exploration’ made me aware of the value that is placed upon the right to question, the appreciation of reason, that makes UU history and theology so rich. Shortly after joining this church I asked the board to let me develop an adult RE program here, assessing and planning curricula and facilitating classes. We had a great Wednesday evening program, and it grew as other church members found an enthusiasm for teaching courses. Almost every classroom was filled during some seasons of Wellspring Wednesday with people – children and adults – eager to learn and play together.
My many years of teaching university students and adults didn’t really prepare me to work with children, even though a few times as a lay ministry associate I took responsibility for the Story for All Ages during Sunday service.
It was only when I went to the Aiken Unitarian Universalist Church as a guest speaker one Sunday – even before I became a ministerial candidate – that I realized connection with the largeness of life could come through teaching children. The worship coordinator in Aiken – who was Naomi Frost-Hewitt – told me I would be doing a Time for All Ages, and really did not let me off the hook even though I was feeling pretty intimidated when she told me about the group of pre-teen girls there.
During my service they were so engaged in my story, which was set around a bag of childhood memorabilia I’d brought to share with them – they didn’t sit still, they commented and asked questions and were a real part of the story.
Little did I know then that I would go back to Aiken as Consulting Minister and they would be teenagers! I learned to get through the often rambunctious Time for All Ages during Sunday services as well as Children’s Chapel several times a year.
One memorable Sunday I was showing photos of nature, including one of a fallen tree, its roots up in the air. I asked the children, “What do you think made this tree fall over?”
One of the middle school girls answered right away, “Gravity.” This was a moment of epiphany for me! Never assume you know what answer a child will give to your question; it was, in fact, such a Unitarian Universalist answer – confident, thoughtful, reasoned, and one of several possible answers! I was expecting ‘wind’ or ‘a storm’ or even ‘drought,’ but as soon as gravity was invoked it made such sense and provoked an enjoyable moment – the entire congregation warmly clapped and laughed in delight. We praised and affirmed that student’s authentic response.
That experience has caused me since then to reflect upon what I hope to be the fruits of religious education for both teachers and students.
The MRE serving the Shelter Rock Congregation, Dr. Barry Andrews, says “the best education our volunteers can receive about managing a classroom or what it means to be a practicing Unitarian Universalist is through the experience of teaching itself.”
Dr Andrews states that “The essential qualities of a good church school teacher are a love of children, a sense of wonder about life, empathy and the ability to listen, and a willingness more to share who you are than what you know.”
That stated, let me share five main points in my holistic philosophy of religious education:
First, It Takes a Village: RE is an opportunity for the congregation to appreciate and participate in the curricula that is available through the UUA and chosen by our RE staff. I believe that the assumption that parents will naturally be the teachers, so other members need not concern themselves with it, is short-sighted and not indicative of the covenantal relationship that we have as church members. People who volunteer to be RE teachers will be sharing their faith – sharing who they are, as Dr Andrews says - and can be living examples for our children of how UUism continues to be relevant to their identity as they grow up into adulthood. Teachers can be role models just like Sister Odile was for me.
In our Sunday services, before children go off to classes, we regularly have a Time for All Ages; adults as well as children should be able to benefit from the lessons learned in this segment of intergenerational worship within a caring community. Time for All Ages, when planned as carefully as the other elements of the service, makes learning fun for us all. It should not just be a book read in a monotone voice to the children sitting in front (I have experienced this in more than one church, and if I was losing the will to live, I can just imagine how the children felt). Just as we can inspire and entertain children with a creative delivery, we can also easily bore them without one.
Second, Teaching is a Spiritual Practice: For this building block of my philosophy of religious education I cite the essay “The Soul Only Avails: Teaching as a Spiritual Act” written by Dr Barry Andrews (www.uua.org/re/teachers/framing/15417.shtml). In it Andrews articulates the vision I have of the educator as mentor and companion for children as they undertake their religious life journeys. When I use the term ‘spiritual practice’ it is in the sense that teaching demands an openness to something larger than myself; a relationship between me, the student, and learning; a relationship that commands respect and reverence.
Third, Children’s Chapel: I am a firm believer in children being present in a worship service, so they can catch the infectious feeling of a worship service that is well-done, and so they know the adults in the church and see how we enjoy worshipping together.
This year we also have opportunities for them to help plan and participate in Children’s Chapel. There is a lot of care with which the elements of the service are considered and allocated to the various classes, and there is creativity in using all forms of art, music, role-play, and interactive and inclusive communication. The religious education of our children must not only comprise the ‘usual suspects’ of principles and sources, history, sexuality education, values etc, but also how to do meaningful worship well.
Fourth, Growth: I learn something every time I interact with students, and I would hope that this is also the experience of all RE teachers and volunteers. It is both humbling and inspiring when we all learn from each other, and the content of a curriculum is only part of the learning experience. My expectation is that RE will enrich the learner and the educator as we rediscover and grow in our faith. To quote Emerson, “Be the companions of their thoughts, the lovers of their virtue.” In any communication encounter between two people, both should come away changed in some way, and to be admitted to the sacred ground of children’s learning is a special encounter indeed.
Fifth, Our Whole Lives: There is one more piece to my philosophy, and that is a firm commitment to the OWL curricula. We are a denomination that has been ahead of its time in many ways, and the development of OWL with the United Church of Christ has been so timely and valuable.There are trained facilitators in more than half of all UU congregations. Thousands of children, teens and adults have taken and have been enriched by OWL programs. Not only do they learn about sexuality, they learn about UU identity.
The website for “Our Whole Lives Program Ministries and Faith Development” says that: “Every faith tradition has its own approach to sexuality. Unitarian Universalism has a long history of supporting comprehensive sexuality education in our congregations. We also advocate publicly for sexuality education and equal rights for people of all sexual identities. Sexuality is about biology, identity, relationships, responsible choices, justice, inclusivity, and self-image… all of which are intertwined with our faith and values. Some of the most important “milestone” decisions we make in our lives, such as marriage/life partnership and creating families, involve relationships and sexuality. Intentional sexuality education is especially important in a world in which people of all ages are constantly bombarded with social and media messages about sex, and misinformation about sexuality.”
“Our Whole Lives recognizes and supports parents as the primary sexuality educators of their children. It creates a partnership between the family and the congregation through parent orientations. Many congregations also offer parent education programs.”
I believe in the continual training of teachers in, and regular scheduling of, the OWL program in every UU congregation. I intend to support and advocate for OWL and other sexuality education curricula for our congregation.
The Congregational Study Action Issue chosen at General Assembly last year for the next 3 years is Reproductive Justice. Because we are so fortunate to have the OWL curricula, we have a real part to play – the part of reason and enlightenment - in the culture wars we see being acted out in legislative sessions across the country.
Learning and education never really stop; in fact, in our society I believe they are more important than ever.
And so I welcome this new year of Religious Education with great appreciation for the spiritual joy and growth that it creates, and I hope that you will reap the benefit of that by volunteering.
Remember that “Thomas Jefferson once said that he was content to be a Unitarian by himself. If we all felt that way, Unitarian Universalism would be a one-generation phenomenon.” (Andrews) Walk the spiritual path with our children and rediscover the sense of wonder, connection, and community for yourself.
GWO – 9/4/2013