“The Spiritual Power of Study”
Rev. David Carl Olson, Minister
and Karen Lee Scrivo, Interim Director of Religious Education
The free and responsible search for truth and meaning, a hallmark of our Unitarian Universalist faith, can be fulfilled in a lifetime of learning. We learn about ourselves. We learn about our world. And we study our own lives and the choices we make. Our Interim DRE introduces herself and her work in a conversation with our Minister.
Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar, The Gift of Faith, pp. 78-79
We all, children and adults, need acceptance and affirmation. We need it first in the family’s embrace, but as we grow and expand, we need to find it in other places and faces as well. We need affirmation of what we do, validating our skills and talents, but on a deeper level, we ned to be accepted simply for who we are. In schools and workplaces, and in deed in most spheres of society, it is our doing and achieving that is affirmed. In worship, it is the whole self that is engaged and embraced.
We need a sanctuary, a safe place, to open the tender true center of who we are, to open it to ourselves as well as to others. Good, healthy communal worship offers such a sanctuary, a place made safe by the shared needs and trust of the worshippers there and by the covenant they make with one another. Sometimes this covenant is explicit. In my congregation we say in unison each Sunday an affirmation that we will be loving, accepting and peaceful with one another. But even when such a covenant is not spoken, in a healthy, nurturing congregation it is implicit. The religious community is a cherishing community, especially in the hour of worship when we are most engaged with the holy spirit of life; it is a time and place of safety. We can be authentically who we are, and we will be accepted as we are, “warts and all,” as someone once said.
In a religious community we are held and affirmed, but we are not the center of attention. To be in community is humbling. It is to be one among many, and it is a corrective to the kind of egocentric spirituality that can grow if we encounter the holy one only in private ways. Humility is a deeply spiritual quality—not self-debasement of denigration, but understanding the self as an integrated piece of the larger circle of humanity, indeed of all of life. It is to understand oneself as singularly beautiful and significant—as every other person is also singularly beautiful and significant.
This morning and this month, we will be talking about Power. This is a word that strikes many people of faith as difficult and even dirty. We learn, in many religious setting, to be people who are humble, “Blessed are the meek,” Jesus said, and so many of us think that having power, wielding power, is somehow not religious. “Power tends to corrupt,” we have been told, and we hope that we are not corrupted, that our leaders will not be corrupted.
A more functional understanding of power tells us that power is simply the ability to act. When we have power, we can turn on a lightbulb—or even Valeri’s lights, for that matter. When we have power, we can pass legislation that expresses our values in the world, as we have for marriage equality and raising the minimum wage. When we have power, we can achieve things that are consistent with our ethics, our morals, our principles, and can teach and tutor children at the Paca School and plant a garden with the residents of Dayspring Programs. Power is capacity, and the ability to get something done.
I believe the first power that any of us has is the deep knowledge of our own story, which reveals our values, our intentions. We can study our own lives and see the powerful choices we have made, or the times we made choices where we needed more capacity and found ways to get what our values called us to get done. Karen, I wonder if you would be willing to share some of your story, your powerful witness to your own capacity, your own power.
I’m Karen Lee Scrivo, and am honored to be your new interim director of religious education and following my inspiring colleague – Becky Brooks. This is my fifth interim assignment. I’ve served at the Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda; Paint Branch UU Church in Adelphi, Md., and the UU Congregation of Columbia (Md). I got my start in my home congregation Goodloe Memorial Congregation in Bowie before interim training strongly advised against doing this work in your own church.
It’s been a long and winding road that brought me to Unitarian Universalism, becoming a religious educator and now pursuing ordained ministry.
I grew up Catholic—attending mass, making my First Communion and Confirmation. It was at my liberal Catholic high school in Lorain, Ohio, that I learned about Eastern religions, meditation, ethics and classical logic. But I strongly disagreed with the Catholic Church over contraception, abortion and its refusal to ordain women.
Still, I loved playing guitar with my friends at the contemporary mass each Sunday and enjoyed spirited debates with the liberal priests, nuns and teachers at my high school.
My maternal grandmother took me to lively Pentecostal Protestant services, prayer meetings, and miracle services. I loved the music and hearing the Bible stories but we were worlds apart theologically over her use of the Bible to justify racism, sexism and condemn homosexuality.
Both my parents taught me to think for myself and ask questions. My father was a journalist and my mom, a former secretary, were never ones to go along with the crowd. So after high school, I stopped attending church and considered myself an agnostic.
It wasn’t until some 10 years later that my soon-to-be husband Ken introduced me to Unitarian Universalism—a denomination not covered in my high school World Religions class. Ken discovered Unitarian Universalism at the UU Congregation of the Quad Cities while working in Davenport, Iowa. I was working as a journalist in Kent, Ohio.
When we moved to Maryland and started attending the UU Church of Annapolis, I knew I had found my spiritual home. We were married some 30 years ago by the Rev. Fred Muir, who was in his first year there. Rev. Muir is still there and we’re still married and have a nearly 24-year-old son! A short time later, we joined the newly-formed Bowie UU Fellowship, closer to our home.
The church has since changed its name to Goodloe Memorial UU Congregation, to honor Don Speedsmith Goodloe, one of the first African-Americans to graduate from then Meadville Unitarian Seminary. When Goodloe could not find a Unitarian congregation to call him, he founded the Bowie Normal School for African-Americans, which later became Bowie State University.
My first involvement with the Bowie church was as a youth director since I often worked Sundays as an Associated Press reporter. I later become an OWL leader, led Coming of Age, and taught Neighboring Faiths. I learned so much about Unitarian Universalism through teaching and working with the youth. So when the DRE in my congregation went on sabbatical, I happily filled in.
It was not until years later that I applied to be an interim DRE position at the UU Congregation of Columbia when a Montessori teaching job didn’t work out. I soon found that interim work that made good use of my experience as a teacher, writer and lifelong learner. And, I worked for a wonderful minister, the Rev. Paige Getty, who inspired me to see my work as ministry rather than simply education.
While at Columbia, I took an online class at Starr King School for the Ministry on children’s literature and religious education and began to think about ministry. The next year, I took a class on UU Polity at Wesley Seminary with Rev. Rob Hardies, the senior minister at All Souls Unitarian in DC. It was there I decided to answer the call to help people of all ages in their spiritual search. A call, I realized that I had first heard in Catholic high school but didn’t know how to translate.
I knew I wanted to attend UU seminary. There are only two – Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California and Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. Starr King had the earlier deadline. In the process I learned more about Starr King and its commitment to anti-racism and creating communities that counter oppression and decided that that it was the best fit for me. It’s been an amazing and transforming journey. And I hope to be graduating this May!
Choosing Unitarian Universalism is your story of exercising the power of thought, of expressing your personal power. Becoming involved in churches, and then discerning a call to full-time ministry, this is a story of engaging congregational power, and especially a congregation learning the power of study together. I want to share a story of Gift of Faith (p. 93).
There is a story of a little girl who asked her parents, as they drive to church one Sunday morning, “What do we get at church?” In response to her parents’ puzzled looks, she said, “At the library, we get books; at the bank we get money; at the grocery store we get milk. What do we get at church?”
It is the wrong question, of course. Although we “get” much at church—strength, knowledge, challenge, spiritual insight, ethical clarification, moral support, healing, friendship—“getting” is not the appropriate intention to bring to this experience. Nor is the intention of “doing.” Although in fact we may listen, talk, pray, think sing, hug, and wash dishes, the “doing” is not the primary intention either.
In our society of agendas and tasks, action items and deliverables, religious community stands apart. We gather not to get, or to do, or to achieve, but simply to be, to be together in particular ways—ways of seeking and celebrating and supporting, ways of connecting, binding together the fragments of our lives into a unified, centered whole, binding together the solitariness of individuals into the strength of community. The binding together is never complete, however. It is an ongoing process. This is what religious community is—process, beingness.
And so my question, not unlike that of the little girl: what do we get from this Interim time? Why do we have an Interim Director of Religious Education?
What’s an Interim DRE?
One of the best descriptions of interim religious education work I’ve heard from what’s known as the “Romero Prayer,” written by Bishop Ken Untener for a celebration of departed priests. Archbishop Romero was the leader of the Catholic Church in El Salvador, who spoke out against poverty, social injustice, government assassinations and torture. Romero was assassinated while offering Mass in 1980. The words of the prayer, while attributed to Archbishop Romero, were never spoken by him. I’ve taken the liberty of shortening it a bit.
It helps, now and then, to take a long view.
… Nothing we do is complete.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness,
No program accomplishes our mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
We cannot to everything,
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders
Ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
The interim period for religious education is like that. It is a time of reflection, conversation, dreaming and goal-setting. It comes during a transition in religious education leadership and provides a chance to step back and assess the RE program—what’s working, what’s not, and most importantly what are the congregation’s hopes and dreams for life-long learning for children, youth and adults. It helps the congregation see where they’ve been, where they are now and where they want to go.
As an interim religious educator, I’m not here to change things but to help you discern and articulate what you hold dear and where there are new opportunities for growth. To do this, I will be asking questions and reflecting back what I hear and see. And sharing with you the current trends and best practices in religious education.
There are several specific tasks that we will be working on together:
1) Understanding this congregation’s religious education history
2) Discerning your unique religious education identity (Who are we today?)
3) Connecting with the Unitarian Universalist denomination
4) Understanding and planning for leadership changes
5) Creating a vibrant and robust religious education for the future.
We’ll start by looking at the congregation’s history of religious education. The rest of the tasks don’t necessarily happen sequentially, and often overlap. Every congregation is different in its focus and approach. We’ll be talking about this more in the future.
In the meantime, I’d like you to be thinking about what kind of person you want a youth who has graduated from your religious education program to be? What values and qualities would s/he exhibit?
This Interim Time is usually a time of one or two years. We’ll be with you for these next five months, and then I hope we’ll be working with another religious education professional for the next year—giving ourselves the time to sort things out, to begin to see the right mix of gifts needed for a diverse, downtown church like ours with the gifts of paid and volunteer staff that we bring. But I—who inhabit the historic role of being the pastor to this congregation and the public teacher of morality to our neighborhood—I think religious education happens far beyond this place. Here’s what Jeanne Nieuwejaar has to say: Gift of Faith (pp. 56-57)
Parents are the primary religious educators, and the home is the center of religious development. Although the larger religious community is an essential component in growing a lasting faith—for both parents and children—the home, especially in the early years, is where the child’s living unfolds, where meanings and values are rooted, where both crises and celebrations are most likely to occur.
Attitudes in the home are conveyed to children every day—attitudes of patience, respect, affection, generosity, hospitality, deep listening, an open heart and mind. Art and other images in the home [and church] also convey values and spiritual meanings, both subtle and explicit. Green plants, bowls of shells or rocks, mobiles or wind chimes to catch the movement of the air, windows open to a garden beyond—all of these bespeak a spirituality.
The power of our faith, the power of our quest for new ways of being more fully the best that we can imagine, this power arises from an outlook on life, an enthusiasm for humanity, and a confidence in our capacity to learn and to grow. I wonder, what is your philosophy of religious education?
What’s My Philosophy of Religious Education?
When people ask me about the purpose of religious education, I think of the words of two Unitarians : 20th century religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs and 19th Century minister: William Ellery Channing.
Sophia Lyon Fahs said:
“The religious way is the deep way, the way that sees what physical eyes alone fail to see, the intangibles of the heart of every phenomenon. The religious way is the way that touches universal relationships; that goes high, wide and deep, that expands the feelings of kinship.”
And Rev. Channing said:
“The great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own; not to make them see with our eyes, but to look inquiringly and steadily with their own;
not to give them a definite amount of knowledge, but to inspire a fervent love of truth; not to form an outward regularity, but to touch inward springs;
not to bind them by ineradicable prejudices to our particular sect or peculiar notions, but to prepare them for impartial, conscientious judging of whatever subjects may be offered to their decision;
not to burden the memory, but to quicken and strengthen the power of thought; not to impose religion upon them in the form of arbitrary rules, but to awaken the conscience, the moral discernment.
In a word, the great end is to awaken the soul, to excite and cherish spiritual life.”
It is my hope that together we will work to “touch universal relationships“ and “awaken the soul” and “excite and cherish spiritual life” in our children, youth and adults.
Amen and Blessed Be.