Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Religious Experience for kids

The first religious experience (by which I mean, an experience in church, which is not necessarily a religious experience and in my case, certainly not) that I can remember, I must confess, involved those markers that smell fruity. We had each been given a copy of the 23rd Psalm, and were decorating it with markers and such. I had never encountered those markers and thought they were terrific. I keep sniffing my 23rd psalm later to see if the smell remained.

That is also the last experience at that Unitarian church that I can remember with any detail. I was about 12, we'd moved to an area closer to a UU church, so my parents took me. I finally complained to them that all we did was "talk about our feelings and eat donuts." They had already done the whole church thing with their first set of kids, so they were happy to go back to Sunday mornings of reading the newspaper and puttering around the house.

About a year later, I went to UCC Summer Camp with a friend of mine, who went to a UCC church. One week of being in nature, staying in screened cabins and taking cold showers, singing "I found happiness, I found peace of mind, I found the joy of living, perfect love sublime, oh I found real contentment, happy living in accord, I found happiness all the time, wonderful peace of mind, when I found the Lord."

I remember that week, and the week the following summer when I returned, in great sensory detail. The feeling of holiness sitting on a stone bench during the worship time. The feeling of warmth and closeness when we discussed God. Praying, s'mores, crafts, friendship. Singing, singing, singing. Silently meditating, sitting on the stone bench, the only light coming from the moon.

Now, it's not fair to compare the two. Sunday morning and summer camp are two different things. But it makes me think about what opportunities we're giving our kids for religious experiences.

And adults, for that matter.


I had already written the above post when I found this sermon of Rev. Anthony David's. It's good. "Amen" out loud good. What Kind of Unitarian Universalist Are You?


fausto said...

My UU parents pulled me out of UU Sunday School in 1st grade when we did a curriculum about dinosaurs. They sent me to a UCC church instead, where we colored coloring books illustrating Bible stories, wove palm fronds on Palm Sunday, and were told that God gave every single one of us our own unique gifts. They were right; the UCC experience was more religious, at least for me. On the other hand, only a few years later the dinosaur program produced PeaceBang.

Transient and Permanent said...

My earliest coherent memory of religion is also a church school one. I recall in our UU second grade sunday school class that we learned about evolution and how many creatures had lived at different times in the past (such as dinosaurs). We also learned about Noah's Ark that year and I recall playing with a model ark and all the little animals. I can see that classroom very vividly, but I wouldn't read too much into that memory since I continued to attend that church throughout my life and indeed ended up as an assistant to the second grade teacher when I was a teen, back in that same classroom.

Actually, now that I am trying I can think of another memory that is from about the same time period, probably even earlier. While my parents are UU, my paternal grandmother attended a conservative Presbyterian church in rural Texas. I recall her taking me there one time as a young boy, and being given a coloring book to keep me occupied during the service. I colored a picture of a bald eagle, and was complimented on my good (i.e. quiet) behavior. At the time, I found the Presbyterian experience to be OK because I got to color, but the UU experience was much more stimulating because I got to (and was expected to) learn and participate, and we were told various stories about how things were and invited to explore them.

Later childhood memories include many camp retreats with my UU church. I will agree with Lizard Eater that these were especially rich religious experiences, but I also note that not only was this a totally different kind of venue, but I was also older (though still a child) and thus able to have a richer experience that I don't think was fully available to me when I was very young. So I don't know how these different factors all account for the variations between church and camp experiences.

Green Monk said...

I could not agree more. Would that churches do more to help kids of all ages have the spiritual experiences. Thanks for your blog!

Masasa said...

I think that’s part of why I have become a fan of the Spirit Play methodology of religious education, at least for young kids.

I wrote about it a bit here: http://firstunitarianworcestermemos.blogspot.com/2009/10/becoming-practitioner-by-sierra-marie.html

I’m trying to find ways to nurture the natural openness to those religious experiences that can happen anywhere at anytime, whether at camp somewhere or visiting a newborn baby or something entirely different.

What I want for my own children more than anything, perhaps, is for their religious senses not to be dulled as they grow older. I want to counteract the dulling cultural experience.

Masasa said...

Oh, and didn't say in my comment, but for what it is worth...

My 1st memory of my UU church school was from about 3 or 4 years old. I remember sitting in a circle and having a discussion. I don't remember what we were talking about, but I remember the fabric curtain that separated our class from the one next to us, the rug we sat on, and the fact that the adults were asking us questions and listening to hear what we thought.

I remember a woman in church took a shine to me and would sew clothing for my little dolls. I have a random memory of cultural misappropriation in which we made "Native American" (generic) costumes to wear. I also remember a lesson involving finding a baby doll hidden in a cake.

I remember watching (in awe) the high schoolers finishing worship services in the parking lot as youth cons our church had hosted were coming to a close early Sunday morn. I remember the youth lounge had graffiti walls, and I remember looking forward to making "my own mark." I remember sneaking into that room and practicing my "speeches" for when I would some day run for district youth office LOL.

I remember going to a 7th Day Adventist diabetic camp in the summer and feeling very close to God at times and also feeling a lot of weight around the dogma.

I also remember a lesson at church school in which we made fondue. And I remember my teacher in particular because he was my friend's father who died of complications of alcoholism a few years later.

I remember "Church Across the Street" and in particular I remember the evangelical church we visited and the heart pins they gave every visitor, the synagogue and the beautiful singing of the Rabbi, and a black Baptist congregation where we had a delicious lunch. I remember being mortified by a particular pro-choice shirt a friend wore to one church. He was a radical atheist back then, and has since become a fundamentalist Christian.

I remember the kid who came to Sunday School every now-and-then and who lit my dress on fire one year at the renaissance festival.

I remember the infamous 9th grade trip of the Mountain Dessert District, and its transformative potential that was diminished by adults who mis-used power and were not equipped to relate to certain types of youth, including me (and certainly couldn't deal with my chronic illness).

I remember a middle school con, hosted by the high schoolers, and the older youth in the district who took my punk butt under their wing and really helped me slowly grow. In fact, one just got back in touch with me over facebook and it has been wonderful to catch up.

I remember Coming of Age. I still have the letters written to me by adults in my life, all of which were presented to me in a ceremony the night before the COA worship service. I still cry nostalgically when I hear the Enya song my friend and I danced to in that worship. That was definitely a spiritual experience for me.

I remember amazing experiences I had at many youth cons, and how we talked about wanting a UU boarding school where we could all live with each other. And I remember bad, lonely experiences at the cons too.

This has gotten long and rambly, but I definitely think that my upbringing in the UU church was formative for me, in good and bad ways, even if in a non-linear and non-specific fashion. I do believe that my sensitivity to my relationship with God comes in part from these formative experiences, though I wouldn't be able to articulate the connection.