Roots and Wings

Once there was a girl named Sophia Lyon. Sophia Lyon. That’s a fun name to say, you can say it out loud if you want to try it. Sophia Lyon. Now, today when we who are readers see Sophia’s name written down, most people would pronounce it a different way, which must have been very frustrating, (said Rev. Misha who got called Meechee at Del Taco last week. )

But, before we get too far into the life of the amazing Sophia Lyon, let me tell you why we are going to talk about her today. This month we are focusing on the word “Sacrifice” which means to give up something important to you for a very good cause. For example, some people who are worried about keeping our earth safe have decided to sacrifice, or give up, some of their old ways of doing things in order to help make the world a little bit healthier, safer and cleaner. Some people have decided that because clean water is hard to find in some places, that they will turn on a timer when they are in the shower and ONLY shower for five minutes, no more, maybe less. Some people who love eating meat have decided to stop eating meat to save the animals, and to help clean up the planet in other ways that are out-of-balance because humans eat too much meat. 

And so, wow, what a downer it could be if we tried to focus all our Sundays in October on giving stuff up, right? No thank you. It’s important to understand sacrifice, though, and I think I understand maybe why a lot of Unitarian Universalists got together and decided that this could be a good theme for a congregation to spend a month discussing, but how many of you want to show up for church for a whole month to talk about giving things up? Not me. 

But it got me thinking. What if we talk this month about people who were Unitarians or Universalists, or Unitarian Universalists, who made sacrifices for our faith and helped us to become who we are today? And who better to begin with on a Sunday when we are all together, all ages, than Sophia Lyon Fahs. Who started her life as just Sophia Lyon. And so, that is who we will be talking about today. 

One thing that Sophia Lyon did not believe in is boring history lessons. She was not willing to sacrifice one more second of her time being bored and sitting still than she had to. Do we all remember what the word sacrifice means? To give up something for a very good cause. And so, in that spirit, I invite you to maybe stay where you are, or maybe move around a little bit if you need to, so that you can have a very short conversation with someone. I encourage you to choose someone who is not in your family or maybe not your best friend, but just one other person, of you choose to, or you may just want to listen in on other’s talking. For just one short minute per person share something that you have sacrificed in your life to make our world a safer, better, more loving place. Or, something that you are thinking you might be willing to try to sacrifice. 

[Two minutes of discussion]

[Get attention] When I say Sophia, you say Lyon.  Sophia… [until congregation is refocused and quiet]

Sophia Lyon was born in 1876, which was 143 years ago. Her father was a Presbyterian missionary to China, and that is where Sophia was born. And so, being the daughter of a minister in a very strict religious home, Sophia was expected to behave in a very, very specific way as we might all imagine. You should all probably sit up a little straighter and listen a little better to get the idea of what going to church might have been like for little Sophia. No fidgeting. No toys. No talking to your neighbor. No coloring pages, only listening. For a couple of hours, at least. Now that’s quite a sacrifice, isn’t it. Do you think you would be able to sit very still and just latent to me talk and talk and talk for your whole Sunday? Even I would get bored and fall asleep, I bet. But that was what Sophia’s life was like. And she began at a very early age to figure out that there just must be a better way for children (and I would argue, people of all ages) to learn in church! And so, since Sophia Lyon was a young girl, and women had no power in the worship services themselves, she thought that maybe she could have some kind of say-so over what happened with the children, at least. 

Sophia Lyon thought that taking the children out of the boring worship service and giving them a space of their own for religious education might be something that she could help make happen, if she focused her life and her education on religion, and people began to respect her scholarly achievements and listen to what she had to say about kids and church. Now, mind you, Sophia was not a Unitarian at this time. She was still very much a Presbyterian, which is a certain kind of religion within the Christian religion. So, she went to college, which was not nearly as common for women as men in 1893, but she did it anyway. And by that time, in her religious faith, they already had begun having Sunday School, or Religious Education time for children. But. It. Was. Not. Fun. She taught her first Sunday School class that year as a college freshman, and the thing she was tasked with teaching kindergartners was how to memorize and recite the Ten Commandments, exactly as they were written in the Bible. In those days, Sunday schools—even in Unitarian churches—focused only on the Jewish and Christian scriptures; the goal was getting kids to memorize the words in the book. Do you think Sophia Lyon was happy with this? No, you are correct, she was not. And so, she began to look for better ways to help children learn and want to learn. And as she learned more and more in her studies about children’s development—and about modern biblical scholarship—her theology –what she believed about God and religion, and all the important things in life—began to change, too. A lot. 

Can you think of a time when you learned something new and it blew your mind? Something that made you think, “WHOA! This changes everything!” Maybe it was in school, and you learned how to spell a new word and you finally knew for sure that you could learn to read, even though you really, really thought you would never get it. Maybe it was something that someone said in a movie, or a song, or a cartoon, or a video game, and it made you think, “Oh, I never knew that people of that culture do that thing!” It could be anything. Something you learned from your best friend, or your doctor, or your grandchild or your grandparent. I invite you now, if you want to, to put a hand on your head to remind us that we’re doing some thinking. Now, think, just for a moment, about something that you learned that made a difference to you. I’ll give you one example, in case your brain needs a nudge. I recently found out that I can find my way around Atlanta and all the suburbs by thinking of the area as a big clock and asking where things are on the clock. Sandy Springs, in my mind, is at about 11 o’clock. Okay, if you haven interesting thing in mind that you learned that is pretty cool, why don’t you share it with someone near you. One minute or less per sharing.  Go!

[Two minutes of discussion]

[Get attention] When I say Sophia, you say Lyon.  Sophia… [until congregation is refocused and quiet]

Here’s what Sophia Lyon ended up doing as an adult person who was tired of boring church and boring religious education, straight out of an article in the UU World, written by Chris Walton, paraphrased a little bit by Misha Sanders:

She embraced progressive educational principles while completing a degree at Columbia University’s Teachers College in 1904, where she taught in an experimental Sunday school. In 1923, when her children were grown (oh, I forgot to tell you she got married to a man and added his last name to hers, thus becoming Sophia Lyon Fahs, and then she became a mom), when her children were grown,  she enrolled at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Already a prominent religious educator and the author of two children’s books about missionaries, she was one of the first two women to join Union’s faculty in 1927.

In the late 1920s, as the debate about Fundamentalism raged in Protestant circles, Fahs (who was still a Presbyterian, remember) sided with the Liberals. “To build the beginnings of faith in God on a conception of the universe that our generation no longer regards as true,” she later wrote, “is to prepare the way for a loss of respect for the Bible.” A modern faith, she argued, must take science and modern attitudes seriously; faith, she believed, is rooted ultimately in a person’s own experiences. Educators in many denominations agreed, but few took her conclusions as far as she did.

Now, during this time, the American Unitarian Association had embraced graded curriculum—lessons designed for different age levels, a progressive innovation—in 1909 with its “Beacon Series.” But by the 1930s, Unitarianism was in crisis. Membership had dropped to alarmingly low levels. Our faith was dying. When the Christian Register (predecessor of the UU World) reported widespread dissatisfaction with Unitarian Sunday school programs in 1930, the editor pointed to Sohphia Lyon Fahs’s ideas as a way forward. The 1937 election of the Rev. Frederick May Eliot as AUA president brought a wave of reforms, including a call for new curriculum. Fahs was hired as Children’s Editor for the new project, although she did not join a Unitarian church until 1945.

From 1937, when she was 61, until her retirement in 1951, Fahs helped lead a Unitarian religious education revival. “The New Beacon Series,” which she edited and for which she wrote or co-authored more than a dozen books, addressed children directly using vivid stories from around the world. Drawing on anthropological and psychological research, the children’s books were dedicated to one goal: “We wish children to come to know God directly through original approaches of their own to the universe.” The series’ child-centered approach appealed to many young “baby boom” parents, and the curriculum’s popularity in the fellowships that sprang up across the continent was arguably the leading factor in Unitarianism’s post-war resurgence.

Her curriculum The Church Across the Street (which she wrote in 1947), has morphed into our modern day Neighboring Faiths curriculum, which is still alive and thriving. Just last Sunday we welcomed a Neighboring Faiths group from our siblings across town at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta. They participated in our animal blessing service, they engaged with us in coffee hour, and we may have never met them, had it not been for the pioneering work of Sophia Lyon Fahs. 

She finally decided to go ahead and become an ordained Unitarian Minister at the excellent age of 83 years old, and went on to serve our faith for nearly two more decades, passing away at 101 years old, in 1978.

Sophia Lyon Fahs devoted her life to her passionate belief that faith cannot take root if our children are not allowed to flex their wings.  She spoke that truth before it was accepted in the religious world that human development and faith development have stages, that they matter, and that if we say we want our children to learn, then we better be teaching them in the ways that they learn, not trying to get them to learn in the ways that we teach.

Sophia believed in wings. Does anyone feel the need to move around and stretch your wings? I do, sometimes. You may do that now, if you wish. You may stay seated, or stand up, move into the aisle so no one gets wing-slapped… whatever you need to do, while still listening, if we still can. Universal inclusion means many things, and one of them is that when we accommodate the learning styles of children, then all of our ways of learning, grown-ups, can be included, too. When we let kids fidget in church, and we welcome youth to be an integral part of worship, then all of us are invited into a more expansive way of being together! Win / win! 

At least once per month, our services are inclusive of all ages now. And that means taking more risks. Doing things differently.  Probably progressively more differently as the months go by. Because they will not only be youth-assisted, but going forward the entire worship on these multi-gen weeks will be some combination of youth collaborated, youth-assisted-youth-led, and youth created. Expect newness. Expect root deepening and wing expansion. Expect a bit of sacrifice of church as usual. But, mostly, expect stronger connections with each other, expanding understanding, radical inclusion, and deeper love. 

Now, let’s sing together.

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation

October 6, 2019

© Rev. Misha Sanders