Education is the most powerful tool for changing the world. I know that all of us as Unitarian Universalists want to change the world. We want to make it a better place than when we first arrived; we want to right the injustices we see daily; and we want to leave a legacy that will far outlast the span of our earthly beings. There is no better way to do this than through our children. Investing in our children’s development from the earliest stage is the single most important contribution we can make to the world, but then again, I did major in child development, so perhaps that is the only acceptable answer for someone like me.
There is a quote from Dr. Haim Ginott that I love that says, “Children are like wet cement. Whatever falls on them makes an impression.” This statement is so simple yet could not be any more true.
Most parents have had that “uh-oh” moment when they hear their child repeat a derogatory phrase or curse word, and of course it always happens in front of a crowd or their dear, sweet great-grandmother. While it makes for a great story later on, it also reminds us all of something. Children are incredibly intuitive and perceptive to the world around them, and one of the most important things we as adults can do is model the kind of person we would like for them to be. We never know if one simple gesture could impact that child for the rest of their life, which can at times feel daunting to parents and educators. No, your child will not end up in therapy because you made them clean their room, but perhaps they will become a better human being if they see you stop and help someone in need. Much to the chagrin of us as adults, children often close their ears to advice or greet it with an eye roll. The thing is, though, they open their eyes to example.
If we all stop and think about it, every person in this room can name at least one person who positively affected their lives. ... I wonder who that person is for you. Some of us are blessed with many people who come to mind, but it only takes the one to change you forever. Personally, I am lucky enough to have had many teachers and adults in my life growing up who made me into the person I am today. There are several that pop into mind when I think about the meaningful relationships I had in my childhood. There is my kindergarten teacher, who inspired me to become a teacher myself; there is the elderly gentleman from the church I grew up in who I used to sit with each Sunday at coffee hour telling jokes and sharing stories.
The most important relationship I’ve ever had, even to this day, is the bond I shared with my grandfather. He lived just a few miles from my house, and I would ride my bike over to visit him as often as possible. Weekends were usually spent with me spending the night; we would stay up late at night watching movies or reading books, and he would cook my grandmother and me a big breakfast in the morning.
My grandfather, Bill, was one of the most charismatic people you could ever meet. He was a true southern gentleman and charmed everyone he came into contact with, which is probably what made him such a successful businessman. Everywhere we went we saw someone he knew. He knew the names of all the cashiers at Publix, every staff member of his doctor’s office, all of his neighbors; as a child it felt like he surely must know everyone in town.
He passed on many important things to me, such as treating people with dignity and respect, the art of striking up a conversation with the person behind you in line at the store, and how to work hard and diligently to achieve your goals. Of course, one of the best things he passed on was his southern idioms. Everything from ‘Bless your little heart’, to ‘What in tarnation’, ‘Lord have mercy’, ‘Heavens to Betsy’, ‘Gimme some sugar’, and of course ‘chewin’ the fat’ and ‘chompin’ at the bit’…OK, I’ll stop, but I could go on and on! He wasn’t a Unitarian Universalist, but he sure behaved like one!
The most important lessons I remember learning from my grandfather revolved around helping other people. He always told me that if I could do anything at all to help another person, then I should. No questions asked, don’t overthink it, just do what you can. He would tell me about how, as an elementary school student during the Great Depression, no one really had much of anything. His family, however, had more than some of his friends. So, he would bring his friends to his house for lunch (as most of you probably know, this was during the days when kids went home from school for lunch and then returned…all by themselves! No parental supervision!). They would all share a lunch his mother would make -- lard sandwiches. Two pieces of bread with lard in between. That sounds awful to us, but to my grandfather and his friends, it was a blessing.
Above all else, my grandfather showed me how to have a kind soul by sharing with me experiences I won’t ever forget. He would always provide help or resources to those who needed it. My grandfather was the president of the West Palm Beach Rotary club, and he would take me with him to deliver turkeys at Thanksgiving, hams at Christmas, and school supplies before the start of school. We would visit families in neighborhoods that were beyond anything I had ever seen before, and I would play with the children while he chatted with the adults. I remember the first time I went with him on such a delivery, and as we got back into our air-conditioned car, I told him how guilty I felt for having the things that I did. He told me, Darlin’, don’t worry or feel guilty, just turn that feeling into action; strive to do as much as you possibly can whenever you can. You don’t need to feel guilty for your blessings; simply share them with others. He also told me something that I always kept in mind when I was teaching -- every day you have the opportunity to change someone’s life. It was not meant to overwhelm, but to inspire.
Imagine if we all woke up every day and sought to change another person’s life. How would our actions differ? Could we perhaps be less annoyed when, after a long day, the children ahead of us in line at the grocery store are screaming at the top of their lungs while their overwrought mother tries to regain control, or when we are cut off in traffic, or when the coffee shop gets our order wrong? Most of us seek to infect the world with kindness, but this often gets lost in translation when we become caught up in the technicalities of day to day life.
So, the question is, how do we make this world into the place we want it to be? I believe the answer starts with our children. I know some of you may be thinking about how you don’t have children of your own, or about how your children are grown adults. This is where I urge you to think of the children who we see here on Sundays. We all have a responsibility as members of this Congregation to nurture and support the children in it. Life learning is about respecting the everyday experiences that enable children to understand and interact with the world and their cultures. How do we do that?
Well, adults teach children three important things: the first is by example, the second is by example, and the third is by example.
What we learn becomes a part of who we are. So, what are we going to teach our children? Reaching the children is an important part of growing a church. Many of us here today recall memories of the church we grew up in. Why not make those memories for the children we serve today positive ones? As Unitarian Universalists we believe that faith is a journey we take together. Religious education takes a lifetime. It happens both within and outside of the Congregation’s walls. We support one another as individuals, families, and communities in an ongoing search for truth and meaning. We strive to guide one another -- all ages among us -- in religious questioning, personal change, and discovering ways to better live in faith. Through continually learning and growing together we encourage and support another, and our children, to know and express our moral agency.
From anti-racism to environmental justice to personal spiritual growth, UU religious education taps the wisdom of diverse sources. One of those diverse sources is the members of this Congregation. Just imagine all the stories each one of you have to tell. I often have people tell me that they feel they are inadequate to teach a children’s lesson, whether it be that they have never spent much time with children or that they are new to the faith or that they simply don’t know what it is that they would say. My response is this -- say whatever comes to mind. Teach whatever you feel is relevant to the day’s lesson. Share stories of your own and invite feedback as much as possible. After all, you never know what one little interaction could turn in to. Perhaps you can be that person in a child’s life who will transform them forever. Plus, children are the best in that they don’t have a judgmental bone in their body. It is one of the things that first attracted me to working with children. You can walk in as you are, and they do not care about the clothes you are wearing or whether you’ve lost those ten pounds. They see you as you are, for the soul within and not the physical embodiment. Every child has a story that needs to be heard. Maybe you are the one meant to hear it. In the words of Socrates, education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel. May it be so.
Sermon delivered by Beth Mathews, director of 1stUUPB Child and Youth programs, at 1stUUPB, Sep 13, 2015.