A curriculum for families and small groups
What (if Anything) is God?
Week One – November 5th
What is God?
“Fire of the Spirit,
life of the lives of creatures,
glow of charity,
lights of clarity,
be with us and hear us.”
-- adapted from Hildegarde of Bingen
We are Unitarian Universalists (shape hands fingers up to form two “Us”)
This is the home of the open mind (touch fingers to forehead and open out)
This is the home of the flaming chalice that lights our way to truth. (cup hands thumbs out and hold up)
This is the home of the loving heart (fold hands over heart)
This is the home of the helping hands (hold hands out)
Together we care for our earth
And work for peace in our world. (join hands amongst the group)
Or, for older kids:
In the freedom of truth
and the love of justice
We bring all that we are
to shape what we yet can be.
You may wish to start this check-in time with the words “We are a family (or community). What touches one of us touches all of us, and so we take this time to listen to each person remember and share one thing from the past week that made a difference in their life – something that made them happy, or sad, or proud or sorry or grateful.
The Question Bowl
Hold the bowl which you decorated in session one, your question bowl. Introduce question time with something like:
This month, our theological question will be “What (if anything) is God?” We’re going to have a moment of silence to think about what questions come up in our minds when we ask the big question “What is God?” At the end of the silence I’ll ring the bell. Then we’re going to pass around our question bowl, and you’re welcome to say any questions that come to mind for you when you think about God. (As leader, you might want to start of with examples such as “How do we know if God exists?” or “Why do some people think God is in the sky?”)
One of the biggest of the big questions that we call “theology” is “What is God?” Different people and different religions have different answers to the question. About the only thing that everyone who believes in God could agree to is that we can never know everything about God. Whatever God might be, it isn’t something that you can see or hold or put in a box. So people use stories or pictures or symbols to try to describe what they think God might be like. Here’s a story from UU Mary Anne Moore about what God might be like:
Hide and Seek with God
Once upon a time God said, "I’m bored because I don’t have anything to do. I want to play with my friends." And because God is God, as soon as the words were spoken God’s friends were there. When God saw them all gathered, God said, "I’ve been bored because I haven’t had anything to do. Let’s play something." "Good idea," said God’s friends, "What shall we play?" God thought for a minute and then said, "I know, let’s play hide and seek!" The friends all said, "Yeay", for they knew that hide and seek with God was always exciting and different because God was the one who hid and God always thought of wonderful places to hide.
So God’s friends closed their eyes tight and they counted to ten. When they opened their eyes God wasn’t there anymore. So they all went off to look for God.
One friend decided to look close.upon the earth and soon came to a meadow. As he was searching, he stopped to admire the tender new sprouts of green grass pushing their way up toward the sun. As he bent over to look more closely at the tender green, he realized there was something special and amazing and wonderful about it. So he jumped up and ran back to home base, calling out, "I found God! God is green and growing. I found God in the grass"
Another one of God’s friends decided to look for God m the night. She watched the sun go down, and the work-a-day noises stop, and the lights in the houses go out. As it got darker and as the peaceful night wrapped itself around her, she listened very hard, and then she realized there was something special and amazing and wonderful about it. And when it was so still that she could see and hear nothing at all, she suddenly jumped up and ran to home base, calling out, "I found God! God is dark and peaceful. I found God in the night!"
A third friend looked upon the earth and he felt the mystery of the grass growing toward the sun. He stayed and watched the night on and he felt the mystery of the darkness and the stars. He thought to himself, "These mysteries are special and amazing and wonderful". But when he finally came back to home base, he said, "I found wonderful mysteries but I’m not sure if I want to call them God."
A fourth friend decided to look for God where people were. He joined a group of people going home from work and went with them into the store where they bought food. He went with them back out on the street as they started for their homes. He was with them when someone came up and said, "Please, I am very hungry. Could you share a little food with me?" The people readily agreed and as he watched,~he realized there was something special and amazing and wonderful about those people and he suddenly turned around and ran to home base, calling out, "I found God! God is love and sharing. I found God in people who care for others"
Finally, two more of God’s friends, a boy and a girl, decided to look for God together. After a time, they came to a house and they decided to look for God in the house. In the house they saw a room and they looked for God in the room. And in the room they saw a mirror and they looked for God in the mirror. As they looked into the mirror they realized there was something special and amazing and wonderful being reflected in it and they suddenly turned around and ran to home base, calling out, "We found God! We found God in us"
At this God appeared again and said, "I had so much fun! Weren’t those good hiding places? Some of you found me, others weren’t sure, and others are still looking. That’s OK because the most important thing is just to play the game. Let’s do it again because I’m sure I can think of some other good hiding places." And they all called out, "Olly, olly, oxen free, free, free," and the game started all over again.
We’re going to play our own game of hide and seek with God. Here’s how we’ll do it. All of us are going to roam around (your RE space, your house, the back yard, whatever works for your situation) and look for things that make us think about what God might be like. If it’s something that you can pick up, bring it back to our circle. Otherwise, when we’re done searching and we come back together, when it’s your turn to share we’ll all come to the thing you’ve found. (After searching, have children share what they found and why they think it might be like God.)
In the story we heard earlier, two of the kids found a mirror, and found God in themselves. In honor of that idea we’re now going to play a game of hide and seek where we look for each other. But since one idea about what God is like is that we find God in our relationships with each other, instead of playing regular hide and seek, we’re going to play sardines. To play sardines, we choose one person who is It. The person who is It isn’t going to seek, they’re going to hide while we count to 50. Then we’re all going to seek. If you find the one who’s It you join them in the hiding place—so It has to choose a hiding place where more than one person will fit. We just keep looking, and hiding with the other hiders when we find them until we’re all found and squished in the hiding place together.
Discussion In our “hide and seek with God” we ended up all together. Do you think that a group of people together could come up with a bigger or better picture than one person alone, or do you think that you would have a better understanding if you just looked on your own?
Have each person share what they would draw on a puzzle piece if they were helping to make the puzzle picture that shows God.
Week Two – November 12th
What is God? – Humanism, John Dietrich and Curtis Reese
Supplies Needed: Large roll of paper, markers
Opening Words and Chalice Lighting
Light chalice. (See week one.)
Check-in: See week one.
Centering: Close your eyes and breathe deeply and slowly. Imagine that you are next to a blue whale – the biggest animal there is. It is well over the length of two school buses. How do you feel next to such a big, gentle animal?
Now imagine that you are at the foot of a giant sequoia tree, the tallest tree there is. It is 350 tall, three times the length of the blue whale. You look up and up and up its slender trunk and up into its branches, seeing the blue sky beyond.
Now imagine you are standing at the bottom of Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. It is over 29,000 feet high, rising almost five and a half miles straight up into the sky. It fills your whole view, and you are just a speck at the bottom.
In your imagination you rise up, up, toward the top of the enormous mountain, flying higher and higher. Your imagination lifts you up past the snow-covered top, up and up, beyond the earth’s atmosphere, up into space, where you can see the whole, blue, cloud-streaked planet. You can see that our planet earth is just one planet circling our sun, and that our sun is just one star out of the 200 billion stars in our galaxy, with galaxies beyond that stretching out into space. You are a part of all this, but only the tiniest little speck of something so much more enormous and complex and old and continuing than you can imagine.
You pause in that amazing space before coming back down, down, down, back to our home the earth, and to this room right here.
Last week we talked about the idea of God, and how different people have different images of what God might be like. Today, however, we’re going to talk about a still different view – the idea that there is nothing that it makes sense to call God, and that we have to look to ourselves and other people to find meaning in life and ways to live a good life.
I want to tell you a little bit about a man, Curtis Reese, who added a great deal to the discussion about theology in Unitarian Universalism, and beyond. Reese grew up in very religious household. He once said: “One of my paternal great-grandfathers was a Baptist preacher, one of my paternal grandfathers and two of my paternal uncles were Baptist preachers, my father is a Baptist deacon, two of my brothers are Baptist preachers, and a sister married a Baptist preacher.” So it’s not surprising that he took his religious life very seriously. As a Baptist, Curtis Reese had been taught that once a person was old enough to decide for himself, if he refused to become a Christian and if he died in this lost condition, he would spend eternity in hell. Believing that he was capable of making such an important decision, nine year old Curtis stood before his church and confessed that he was a lost sinner and that he had trusted Christ to save him. Although it was mid-winter, he was baptized in an outdoor creek with some other converts – since the Baptist ritual of baptism includes having your whole body dunked in water, you can bet it was very cold!
It won’t come as much of a surprise that Curtis decided that, like most of the men in his family, he wanted to be a minister. In 1910 he graduated from a Baptist seminary, and was ordained into the Baptist ministry. But something happened to Curtis while he was in seminary. The more he studied the Bible, the more he began to wonder whether the things he had learned as a child about God and the Bible were really true. Would God really send everyone who wasn’t a proper Christian to hell? Was every word in the Bible really directly from God, the absolute, literal truth?
One day Curtis brought some Baptist pamphlets over to the Unitarian church in St. Louis, where he was studying for the ministry. While he was there he also picked up some of the Unitarian materials, including a pamphlet called “Salvation by Character” which suggested that people might be saved, not by Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross, but rather by our own efforts to be good people. Curtis Reese went on to become a Baptist minister, but his beliefs became less and less in line with traditional Baptist thinking, and finally he decided that he could no longer preach to a Baptist congregation. He considered different liberal denominations, including the Universalists. However, he decided to become a Unitarian, in part because of what he had read from Unitarian Francis Peabody about the “social gospel,” the idea that most important part of the words and life of Jesus is his teaching to care for the poor and hurting of the world.
Needless to say, Curtis’s family was less than happy about his change of religion. Reese said: “My mother said very sincerely that she would rather have seen me dead. This is understandable, for had she heard of my death she would have had the satisfaction of knowing that I was flying around with angels in heaven. But now she was sure that if and when I died, I would burn in hellfire and brimstone forever and ever.”
Reese became a Unitarian minister, and he dedicated himself to living out the social gospel ideals of working to make life better for the poor. He went on to become director of the Abraham Lincoln Centre in Chicago. The Centre had a counseling center and sponsored “study classes, social service, a boys' and girls' camp, a public library, domestic science classes, instruction in music with glee clubs and an orchestra, various special activities for boys and girls, and dramatics.” For over forty years he also worked as editor of the liberal magazine Unity. The articles, and, later, books that he wrote were surprising even to many Unitarians. Reese said that there was no need for religion to include a belief in God at all, and that there was no reason to believe that there was any such thing as God. He said that people should be led by science and reason, and that the role of religion was to help people to live out their natural tendency to want to be good and kind. He said that religion should encourage us to work for a better world for all people, but that we shouldn’t need the idea of God punishing or rewarding us to try to be our best selves. He helped to create a document called the “Humanist Manifesto” which set out these ideas and more as a general statement of what humanists believed.
Plenty of Unitarians were shocked by the idea of religion without God, and were unhappy with the humanists’ ideas. But there were also many Unitarians – and Universalists – who embraced the humanists’ beliefs, putting their faith in people’s ability to build a better world, rather than relying on a God who could not be scientifically explained. To this day Unitarian Universalists range in their beliefs about God, from those who say they have a personal relationship with God to those who say that the whole idea of God doesn’t make any sense to them at all.
Activity: Humanism centers on what UUism calls “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” – the belief that each and every one of us is special and important. Have each child lie on a full-body size piece of butcher/roll paper. Trace the outline of the child’s body. Have younger children color themselves in, and write or draw one thing about themselves which is special. Have older children, in addition to any drawing/decorating they might want to do, write a religious belief they have in the head of their figure, what they consider a religious feeling on the heart of their figure, and what they consider a religious action by a hand of their figure. If you aren’t able to obtain a roll of paper for this activity you can cut paper dolls from regular-sized paper and do much the same with them, but big is more fun!
Curtis Reese’s religious beliefs changed a great deal during the course of his life. Have you ever changed what you thought about God or what happens after you die or another religious subject?
Have each person share their drawing. Close by singing “Be Ye Lamps Unto Yourselves.” (You may wish to talk through what the words mean before singing.)
“Be ye lamps unto yourselves.
Be your own confidence.
Hold to the truth within yourself
As to the only lamp.”
Music available here.
Week Three—November 19th
Thanksgiving Celebration – Who do we thank?
Supplies Needed: tea lights (or other candles), birthday candles, matches, Thanksgiving/harvest items for altar decoration if desired, box, markers or paints, apples slices
On a summer morning
I sat down
on a hillside
to think about God —
a worthy pastime.
Near me, I saw
a single cricket;
it was moving the grains of the hillside
this way and that way.
How great was its energy,
how humble its effort.
Let us hope
it will always be like this,
each of us going on
in our inexplicable ways
building the universe.
— Mary Oliver
(from Why I Wake Up Early, Beacon Press, 2004)
Check in See week one.
Sing “Gathered Here”
“Gathered here in the mystery of the hour,
Gathered here in one strong body,
Gathered here in the struggle and the power,
Spirit, draw near.”
Music available here.
Today is the Sunday before (American) Thanksgiving, so it seems like a good day to honor that holiday and give thanks. As we celebrate thankfulness, and the gift of all the things we have, it’s also a good time to think about how we can show our gratitude.
One of the traditions of the Jewish religion is called brachot. Brachot are blessings, short prayers of thankfulness. There are brachot for bread and for wine, for books and for teachers, for seeing the ocean and for lighting candles. There are brachot – blessings – for pretty much anything you can think of.
There is a story from the Talmud, Jewish books of religious commentary, of a man named Natan who, after years fighting the Roman army, found himself without food or shelter as he tried to return home to his family. He was trudging across the desert, mile after hot, dry, dusty mile. Just as the heat became unbearable, and his hunger intolerable, Natan saw a tree in the distance. It was not a mirage, but a real tree, filled with juicy apples and large limbs under which he could rest. He picked up a fallen apple and bit into it with a sharp snap, the juice running down his chin. The shade from the tree and the nourishment of the apple started to revive him, and he reached up again and again to pick a red and green apple from the tree, only to sink down again to let the sweet, tart flavor, the crunchy flesh and the juice that slaked his thirst fill him with relief and joy. Finally, he could eat no more. Resting in the shade, Natan said the apple tree, “You many not know it but you saved my life. What can I do to show my gratitude?”
Natan paused to consider what he might do for the tree. He realized that he did not have anything but an empty pouch and tattered clothing to give the tree. He had no water to give it, no fertilizer, nothing that would be helpful to a tree. Suddenly, he jumped to his feet with excitement. “Who says I have nothing to give you!” he cried. “Everyone has something to give no matter how poor he or she is. A blessing! I can give you a blessing! A blessing is a gift everyone has to give.”
Natan, however, was stumped. What blessing does one give a tree? He knew the blessing over the wine and over the bread. But that wouldn’t do for an apple tree. He knew the Priestly Blessing that Moses and Aaron had blessed his ancestors with during their days of wandering. And so he said the blessing over the tree: “May God bless you and keep you. May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May God look kindly upon you and give you peace.” And then he added, “My blessing for a tree as noble and gracious as you is for all trees planted from your seeds to grow up as wonderful and giving as you are.”
And so Natan blessed the tree and headed home to his family. But he never forgot the tree whose generosity saved his life, and he tried always to be as generous to those who came to him in need as the tree had been to him that hot, dusty, desperate day.
What are you grateful for in your life? How can you show your gratitude? What are grateful words? What are grateful actions? How does feeling grateful change how you might act?
Light a candle on your table/altar. Have enough additional tea lights for each participant, and birthday candles that they can use to transfer the flame from one candle to another. Think for a moment about the things in the world which make your life good. When you are ready you can come forward and light a candle and say a blessing for someone or something that you are grateful for.
One of the best ways to express gratitude is, like Natan, to make a practice of generosity towards those in need. UU congregations all over express their gratitude and generosity by participating in the UU Service Committee’s “Guest at Your Table” program. Participants put a special box on their table on the first Sunday before Thanksgiving, and leave it there until after Christmas. Each night at dinner they put some money into the box (or jar, bowl or other suitable receptacle), representing the “guest” whom they have invited. At the end of the time period they add up the money collected and send that amount to the UUSC to support the many ways that the UUSC partners with local organizations around the world to make life better for people in need. You can find out more about Guest at Your Table at http://www.uusc.org/guest , and you can donate to the UUSC at www.uusc.org (much easier online than mailing a bunch of coins!)
Take turns decorating a box (or, if you’re ambitious, use acrylic paint on a glass jar) with things you’re grateful for to use as your Guest at Your Table box. If you have a group of children from different families, each child can decorate their own box.
Natan, in the story, was grateful to the apple tree, and grateful that he could turn to God in order to give a blessing to the tree. But whether or not we believe in God, or believe in the sort of God who would change things for a tree, all of us can feel grateful, for all of us receive the gifts of life from things beyond our control. One way to be grateful is to give back, to return generosity with generosity. Another way to be grateful is to enjoy what we are given, appreciating all the small blessings of our lives.
Sing “From You I Receive”
“From you I receive,
To you I give,
Together we share,
And from this we live.”
See here for tune.
Share apple slices.
Week Four—November 26th
What (if Anything) is God – My Opinion
Supplies Needed: God ideas poster (see below) whole and cut into individual strips. Pencils and notebooks from September session.
Opening Words and Chalice Lighting
Light chalice. (See week one.)
Check-in: See week one.
Sing “Gathered Here” (see Week Three centering)
This month we’ve been talking about different ideas about what God might or might not be. The Jews believe there is one God who cannot be seen or named, but who is involved in each person’s life, and can change how things happen in the world. Christians believe in that one God, but see the one God as having three parts – the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit. Hindus believe in one God that is both inside people and beyond them, but they imagine that God as being expressed by lots of different gods. Buddhists, for the most part, don’t have God as part of their religion. Pagans vary, depending on their particular tradition, but often see god/goddess as very much connected to the natural world. Humanists generally don’t believe in God at all, and think that we should look toward science and our highest goals as human beings to lead us. But what, you might wonder, do Unitarian Universalists believe about God? Well, any of those beliefs above, and a whole lot more.
Here’s what a few Unitarian Universalists had to say about their beliefs about God:
From Stories About God
by Mary Ann Moore
The first idea about God comes from Mildred, a Unitarian Universalist woman. When we asked her what she thought God was like, this is what she said:
"Most of the time I’m not really sure but every once in a while when I am in my garden, I have I feeling that I do know what God is. When I’m down on my knees digging in the earth, and putting tiny seeds into the ground and when I’m closing the earth over those seeds knowing that they will grow into beautiful plants, I feel so amazed that something like that can happen. I just can’t imagine what it is that makes those plants grow that way and I think that must be what God is."
The second idea comes from Donald, a Unitatarian Universalist man, When we asked him what he thought, this is what he said:
"Well, it might be easier to tell you what I don’t think God is. I don’t think God is a man with a long beard, sitting up on a cloud who tells us what it should do and not do. But if I have to say what I think God is, well, let’s see, how can I put it? I think God is like the fiery yellow-orange-red power that comes out of the big explosion they call the Big Bang that happened at the beginning of the world. I think that power traveled out into space and slowly over the years became all the things in the universe, even you and me. It is in everything, even the things that we think are bad. I guess that’s what I think God is."
The third idea comes from Ellen, another Unitarian Universalist woman. When we asked her what she thought here is what she said:
"I think God is love. I think of God as being in people’s hearts whenever they are caring about other people and trying to help those who need help. If I were to draw a picture of God I would draw a circle of people all holding hands and I would put a picture of a big red heart on each person. And I would put a smile on the face of each one of the people, a smile that showed that they were happy and feeling peaceful. That’s my idea of what God is, the love that we have for each other."
We’re going to have a try at playing “God Idea Charades”. I have a poster here with some different ideas about God listed on it. I also have that poster cut into little strips of paper. Everyone will have a turn to choose a strip of paper and try to act out the God idea that is on that strip. You can look at the poster to get clues about which one the actor is trying to show. (Note: with younger children you will probably just want to pick a few that are easier to portray.)
Different Ideas about God
Agnosticism: Haven’t decided whether they think there is a God or not.
Animism: Everything in nature has a soul or mind.
Atheism: There is no God.
Deism: There is a God who created the universe, but who doesn’t listen to prayers or change things.
Duotheism: There are two gods, either one male and one female (paganism) or one good and one bad (Zoroastrianism)
Henotheism: There is one God, but many gods and goddesses that show aspects of that God
Monotheism: There is one God.
Pantheism: God is the spiritual essence of everything in the universe.
Polytheism: There are many gods and goddesses
Trinity: There is one God, but that God has three parts or aspects (Father, Son and Holy Spirit)
Clearly, there are a lot of different views of God. Do you think it is possible to tell who is right? Do you think it is possible for everyone to be right?
Have everyone write (or draw) in their notebook their personal ideas about God.
Share what people wrote in their notebooks.