A film from 2003 called Children Full of Life (see video here, and watch from 1:52-5:00) documents a fourth-grade class in a school in Japan, where the teacher, Toshiro Kanamori, has established a goal of children learning how to be happy and how to be compassionate and kind.
We just saw one of the ways he sought to achieve that goal: press pause on the business of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Press pause on examinations and anything else that’s typically school-ish. Instead, create protected space in an overwhelming world to engage questions which are fundamentally religious: about living fully and being truly fulfilled as a human.
To do that, Toshiro Kanamori had each kid write a letter about feelings they’re having about events in their lives, and then they read it aloud in front of their classmates.
And so, there is Ren Sueda, who’s missed class for the past four days because his grandmother died. He’s back at school and he’s written a letter about what that whole thing was like. He reads out loud his true feelings. The faces of his classmates are rapt with attention. Eyes begin to fill with tears. Memories and feelings rise up in their own minds and hearts. They start sharing stories about loved ones they’ve lost.
And what is happening, there in that fourth grade classroom space in Japan, is a mutual feeling forming, of everyone belonging to a shared humanity of love and loss and resilience.
Where there was separation, now there is unity.
To Unitarian Universalism, that is what true religion looks like. True religion is about seeking to expand the circle of Love until all belong, and not through conquest, but through means that are loving and allow people in their full vulnerability to belong.
Watching the documentary, I saw that circle of vulnerable Love expanding right before my eyes, and, in response, a “what if?” question formed in my mind:
What if there was no such thing as religious educators, especially Unitarian Universalist religious educators?
What happens in such a world?
You have children who each have a seed of empathy planted in their hearts, but there are no Toshiro Kanamoris to help them grow it.
The Toshiro Kanamoris of the world are gone.
Imagine what happens. Start where we saw the film clip end. By that time, the emotional boundaries between the students had dissolved through empathy. Start there, and then press REVERSE. All the stories are unsaid. All the feelings of connection, one to the other, are undone. A bond of empathy had been established, but things revert back to a classroom full of individuals who are separated from each other, isolated within the boundaries of their skin.
The children look at each other, and they see strangers.
And when things are like that, what hope is there to do the hardest thing of pushing out empathy boundaries beyond one’s own gender, or nation, or race?
What hope, to learn to see oneself in another and end hate?
That’s a world that’s going to pieces.
That’s what happens when the religious educators go away.
Continue imagining the “what if?” scenario with me, with the great religious educator Sophia Lyons Fahs suddenly disappearing, all that she did, all that she said, such as this: “One of the tragic ironies of history is that such original and creative geniuses as Buddha and Jesus have been extolled as perfect patterns for all to emulate. In the very struggle to be like someone else rather than to be one’s own true self, or to do one’s own best in one’s own environment, a child is in danger of losing the pearl that is really beyond price – the integrity of his (or her) own soul.”
That’s what Sophia Lyons Fahs said, but in our what if? world she doesn’t exist and, just for fun, all the religious education teachers who teach this philosophy—they’ve vanished as well.
That means that a bunch of folks in this very congregation have just popped out of existence, gone *poof.*
So, what happens to a young boy named Tony Makar, growing up in Peace River, in far northern Alberta? There was one night I lifted up my eyes and saw the Northern Lights in all their electric colors, shifting and shimmering, green and orange and purple curtains over the sky. It was all so beautiful and mysterious, and I felt my heart opening up and answering back in a language that I did not even know I had. A language of wonder and awe. When had I ever learned how to feel feelings like that? But they came out of me, as naturally as leaves to a tree. And in that moment I knew that I, as close as I was to myself, was still a Mystery to myself; there was more to me than I knew. In that moment I also knew that I was not the center of the universe, that there are deeper and higher and bigger things, and that I am unshakably connected to them, and that no matter how fractured my life seems to be, no matter what death will do to my loved ones and to me, all will be well, and all will be well.
I felt that.
But what happens next, when I go back out into the world, if there is no religious educator teaching in the style of Sophia Lyons Fahs, teaching me to honor the integrity of my own experience and my own soul?
One of the tragic ironies of history happens to me. I am told that my heart is like an empty bank account, and no money comes from me, it all comes from outside me.
That is what I am told, and because I am naturally impressionable and do not know any better, I believe it.
That experience of the Northern Lights, the transcendent feeling that all will be well?
It means nothing at all.
I am told, “Get with the program,” which is what someone else supplies. The whole exclusivist “one way one truth one life” program. The whole “God’s going to cast you into hell unless…” program. The whole “some are saved, some are damned” program.
Some other kind of someone else’s program.
That’s what happens, and so I am here today to say, from the bottom of my heart:
God bless the religious educators, especially the Unitarian Universalist variety, who saved me from such a fate and save children and people of all ages regularly from such a fate.
God bless the religious educators, for teaching me I could trust myself and reassuring me that the journey is safe, we never stop learning and growing, and perhaps it’s our mistakes that teach us most of all.
God bless the religious educators, for helping me care for more than myself and the people I already love, for teaching me to push out empathy boundaries as far as possible, for strengthening me to show up even when it is hard so I can be a part of expanding the circle of Love until all belong in all their vulnerability and humanity.
God bless the Sophia Lyons Fahs and Toshiro Kanamoris and everyone who teach the children and teach the youth and teach the adults and continue to help weave the fabric of this beautiful faith community and the larger Living Tradition.
God bless the religious educators!