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I love this art form, which I discovered when my daughter did some in school last year. I immediately introduced it in our monthly class at church, Exploring Mind, Hands, Spirit and Heart Through Art, and then offered it as a spiritual practice at a ministers’ retreat this week.

The mix of a found- and (for lack of a better antonym) created-art approach helps me get rolling. Words on a page suggest associations, and then the associations stimulate original ideas.

Here are two I made at the retreat.

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Beyond, more time for dreaming

For the first one, the words “an answer” and “caught” caught my eye first. I’d been pondering mystery and my own “irritable reaching after fact and reason” against which Keats counseled. Sometimes an answer prevents me from dwelling in the “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts” from which wisdom might emerge. So right away I knew I wanted to draw the bars of a cell across the part about the answer. I also wanted the piece to suggest a happier alternative, and while the words I found seem obvious now, it took some searching and thinking to figure out which ones to use, and how. When my eye lit on “beyond,” I had that second half.

The second piece ended up being about creativity itself. “A passage opened to her fingers.”

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A sigh hollowed out the chamber of The heart

Our unwitting, but I trust not unwilling, collaborator was Lloyd Alexander, since my copy of The Black Cauldron, from his Chronicles of Prydain, was in several pieces. I hated the cover anyway, which was the poster from the forgotten, and, judging from the drawing, lamentable, Disney version. I’m going to look for the edition with the cover I remember and loved in my childhood, and buy Taran Wanderer while I’m at it: my favorite of the series, which we don’t yet have. (My sister loved them too, and our set was hers, so I’ve acquired my own set piecemeal in adulthood.)

Look at that. I started out writing about art, and ended up writing about books. That tells you why I love this kind of art.

I’d like to share the ones colleagues made as well, but I only asked their permission to put them out on a table at the retreat, not online.

Try one yourself! If you don’t have a falling-apart book or can’t bear to write on one, a photocopy works. To see lots more examples, the best search term is “blackout poetry.”

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During one of our weekly staff meetings several months before my sabbatical began, our Minister of Religious Education, Dan Harper, said, “Well, not that you’re looking for another sabbatical project, but if you were . . . ” It turns out that he sees a real need for a book of stories from the Bible for Unitarian Universalist kids around nine or ten years old. There are UU curricula introducing kids to this heritage (e.g., Timeless Themes), but he would love to have a volume to give each of our Religious Education students at that age. We could publish it ourselves, as he has done with his early history of Unitarians in Palo Alto and the Yuletide Song and Carol Book. In fact, we have funding for such a project thanks to a memorial book fund generously created by the family and friends of Sherwood Sullivan, a former president of our congregation who died late last year.

I wasn’t particularly in search of a project. Living in another country, learning Spanish, making lots of art, meeting regularly with my spiritual director, and expanding a program to teach Unitarian Universalists about modern slavery seemed like enough to grow on for six months. However, this idea sparked my imagination. The book Bible Stories retold by David Kossoff was a staple of my childhood, with its beautiful painted illustrations by Gino d’Achille and the writer’s vivid, down-to-earth voice. For example, when I think of the story of Absalom, who was killed as a traitor in the civil war he’d launched against his father King David, I always, always hear how Kossoff prefaced the famous passage:

The news was brought to David, and the people saw no triumph, no elation. Just a heartbroken man who’d lost a son. “O, Absalom,” they heard him say. “Would to God I had died instead of you. O, Absalom, my son, my son.”

(You can actually hear Kossoff himself, who was an actor as well, reading some of these stories on YouTube–see link below.)

As a religious educator, Unitarian Universalist, minister, parent, and lover of literature, I also have a voice to bring to these ancient, abiding, disturbing, inspiring, confusing tales. When Dan mentioned the idea, I immediately thought of some of the religious questions and ideas I’d developed around the age of nine or ten, and the stories that inspired them. I’d have to tell the story of Jonah, who is one of the most humanly flawed, and thus one of my favorite, characters in the Bible: a prophet, called to summon people to repentance, who is angry and disappointed when they actually do repent and gain forgiveness. And the story of Abraham bargaining with God to gain mercy for the people of Gomorrah and Sodom, which our Hebrew School teachers taught us as evidence that Jews’ God does not desire unthinking obedience, but respects a principled argument–in other words, that we are meant to use our reason and conscience to challenge even the God who gave them to us.

The fact that the same God, four chapters later, told the same man to sacrifice his beloved son like a sheep, and honored him for being willing to do it, raised so many painful questions. Were we supposed to be obedient after all? What the hell kind of God would ask such a thing? How did Isaac feel about it?

How will I introduce “texts of terror” like this? . . . that’s one of the many questions before me. But however I manage it, encouraging children’s questions and independent thinking is one of my goals for this book. Whether they’re UUs or just curious, engaged thinkers, they should wrestle with the text and the tradition, just as the Biblical Jacob wrestled with his brother, God, and himself–another story that will probably need to be included.

And I’ve got a reader on hand to raise questions and give me feedback from the target readership: a bright, questioning Unitarian Universalist nine-year-old. She’s also interested in creating illustrations, which I have promised she may do. I might do a few of my own as well, if the spirit so moves.

What stories would you include?

Bible Stories: the story of David, part 1, as read by the reteller

A BBC story reports that the US has the worst rate of death from child abuse or neglect of any industrialized nation, with 1,770 kids killed in 2009. (A recent Congressional hearing estimates that the real numbers are even higher.)

So how do these other nations differ from us? By and large, they have lower poverty rates, lower crime and imprisonment rates, universal health care, better family-leave and child-care policies, better pre-school options, and much better networks of help for families with children.

Another thing we learn when we compare ourselves to the countries that are doing much better is that they have markedly lower rates of teen pregnancy. Very young people with unplanned children, unstable relationships, a curtailed education and therefore low earning potential, and lots of contempt from their community* are at an elevated risk of killing their kids. This paper compares measures of US teens’ sexual health (rates of pregnancy, abortion, STDs, HIV) with the teens of Germany, France and the Netherlands–you must click, just to see how much higher our teen pregnancy rate is than these countries’–and concludes that we would do well to adopt their approach of “Rights, Respect, Responsibility” regarding teenage sexuality.

That sounds a lot like the sexuality education program we offer at church, Our Whole Lives. OWL was developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ, but you don’t have to be UU or UCC, or religious in any way, to enroll your kid, and–speaking for my own congregation–we won’t pressure you to join our church or ask you to donate money. It’s part of our ministry to the community. (It’s also not only for teens; there are developmentally-appropriate versions for K-2, 4-6, and adults of various ages, too.)

I know we save lives through this program when we teach young people that it’s okay to be gay, that it’s not okay for your partner to mistreat you or for you to mistreat your partner, and that sex is supposed to be safe (as well as fun, loving, and pleasurable), but I hadn’t thought about the impact on the next generation. I have no doubt that if every teenager in the US received a comparable education, we’d see a huge drop in those child death numbers within ten years.

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*A babysitter of ours, then 17, said that she got lots of dirty looks when she and Munchkin were out alone, such as on their happy trips to the playground. Apparently we had all too many neighbors who (a) had never heard of babysitters, (b) disapproved of teen moms, even one who was taking excellent care of the child, and (c) thought they ought to express that disapproval. Did they imagine that that was somehow helpful?

The Gleaners. Millet created a scandal by portraying a conventional Biblical theme of Ruth in the fields as a picture of actual poverty

I’m busy uploading a course for the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF) that starts Wednesday. Darcey Laine and I taught a version of it several years ago when we were colleagues in Palo Alto, and now we’re teaching it online.

It’s interesting to revisit this with my new awareness of modern slavery. The Bible’s view of slavery is complex, to put it mildly. I have been looking for the source of a quote I remember from somewhere, of an American slave saying of the church services he had to attend on the plantation, “I don’t know why they need all those pages for the Bible, when it only has one verse, ‘Slaves, obey thy masters.'”

I’m looking forward to some good discussions with thoughtful people about work and sabbath, wealth and inheritance, fair lending, what responsibilities we have to others, what a just economic system would look like . . . (If you’re interested, you can register here–no need to be a member of the CLF or a UU.)

Being an environmentalist and a parent of a young child, in my stroll around the ‘net I naturally stopped to read a blog entry called “Six Ways to Raise Eco-Conscious Toddlers.” The most important thing I do to try to teach my daughter environmental responsibility wasn’t on the list, so midway through commenting I realized I needed to write about it myself.

It isn’t explicitly about ecology at all. It crops up, not when we’re brushing teeth and I turn the water off, or when she’s learning that buses are a fun way to travel. It’s an opportunity that occurs many times every day, and if you spend any time with children, it does for you too:

Teach them to clean up after themselves.

As I said, I’m the parent of a three-year-old, so I know it’s easier to clean up yourself than to get kids to do it.  But children who find, “if I let it fall, it’s magically picked up and put away” grow into adults who think, “whatever mess I make isn’t my problem.” And that’s why they choose to believe that “The oceans / the air / the landfills have plenty of room” for whatever they throw “away.” They come to believe that there is such a thing as “away.” As grownups they assert, against the evidence, that “The earth can take care of itself” no matter what we do to it.

So when we say to our kids, “We need to put away the Legos before we get out the fingerpaints–here, I’ll help you,” we are teaching them sustainability and giving them a life skill that may keep our planet fit for human habitation.  If it isn’t too late by the time they are our age . . .

I think about this as a religious educator (and yes, parish ministers are religious educators, which is why I belong to LREDA*) and I strongly believe that in our religious education (RE) programs, cleaning up should be part of the hour, unless we want to teach children that messes magically clean up themselves–or are someone else’s problem.

We Unitarian Universalists (UUs) frequently do include environmental education in RE, where it absolutely belongs, a lively part of a basic moral education whose principles include:  don’t take more than your share; think ahead; think of others’ needs as well as your own; know the difference between needs and desires; take responsibility for the consequences of your actions.  To give examples just from the congregation I serve, the kids have made recycled paper, cooked lunch in solar ovens, written letters to paper companies, and played with models demonstrating what happens to a town built on permafrost when the Earth warms up.  They vote each year on where their collection money goes, and have voted many times to give it to rainforest protection.

That’s all good stuff. But even when the topic is “holidays and holy days,” “our religious heritage,” or “wisdom from the world’s religions,” an environmental lesson can be a part of every Sunday.  The kids get that lesson when the teacher says, “Ten minutes left.  Time to clean up, everyone,” and makes sure that everyone participates.

As with my three-year-old, who is much more motivated to throw her Legos in the box if I’m sitting beside her throwing too, we don’t have to make them do it all themselves. The teachers can help. The littlest kids don’t have to put things on high shelves. And we can explain that the kids’ parents pool their funds to pay our custodian to mop the floors and change the lights so that the kids have more time to learn (though I think a rotation of cleanup among all church members, children and adults alike, would be a good supplement to a paid custodian in any congregation). The important point is that they realize that the person who made the mess is ultimately responsible for getting things back to their original state. (Maybe I’m an environmentalist today because Montessori education, with its “everyone cleans up” philosophy, got its hooks into me when I was only 3. My preschool bears no responsibility for the cluttered state of my office, however. Hey, at least I live with the mess instead of expecting someone else to clean it up.)

As my UU colleague, Robert Fulghum, wrote in “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” the key lessons are there:  “Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours.”  The folks running BP, and the folks in Washington who let oil companies write environmental laws, and the folks all over the US who voted for them, and the folks all over the US who wrung their hands and stuck a “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Gore” sticker on their cars instead of taking action (I confess that I appear in that list), apparently didn’t fully absorb those lessons in kindergarten, but it’s not too late for today’s 5-year-olds. So, UU churches: who cleans up in your classrooms?

*Liberal Religious Educators’ Association

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