God is Love; the Bible Tells Me So

Parting words from Rev. Robin Bartlett

Dear friends,

This is my last day in the office, and my last day as your Interim Director of Religious Education. You are an awesome church, and I love you all so much, Sherbornians. What an energetic, loving, spirit filled church you are, and how lucky to have each other. I have been blessed to know you and learn from you.

A lot of you have been confused about where I am going next year. Rumors have flown around that I am leaving the UUA for the “Christian Church.” No. I’m just going to serve one of our UU churches that remains Christian in practice. As a federated and theologically diverse congregation that houses UUs, Baptists, Quakers, Congregationalists, Lutherans, Christian Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, and everything in between, I will be experiencing the dream that Unitarian Universalism has for the world: unity in diversity. In this church, Christian symbols are the shared symbol-system, but there are few shared beliefs. And friends, it is going to be the hardest thing, because when we are at our best, our work is hard work. I hope you will come to visit this summer! I hear Nathan’s chartering a bus.

As my parting words to you all, I will make a small attempt to explain why I think UU Christianity is important to our tradition, and why I commit my ministry to it, because I think it is important for our shared faith development and for our children. I think it’s important for all UUs to consider and talk about and argue over and wrestle with and get mad at me about and then come back to it later when the anger turns to curiosity again. I share with you a poem.

Stephen Dunne’s “At the Smithville Methodist Church”
It was supposed to be Arts & Crafts for a week,
but when she came home
with the “Jesus Saves” button, we knew what art
was up, what ancient craft.
She liked her little friends. She liked the songs
they sang when they weren’t
twisting and folding paper into dolls.
What could be so bad?

Jesus had been a good man, and putting faith
in good men was what
we had to do to stay this side of cynicism,
that other sadness.

O.K., we said. One week. But when she came home
singing “Jesus loves me,
the Bible tells me so,” it was time to talk.
Could we say Jesus

doesn’t love you? Could I tell her the Bible
is a great book certain people use
to make you feel bad? We sent her back
without a word.

It had been so long since we believed, so long
since we needed Jesus
as our nemesis and friend, that we thought he was
sufficiently dead

that our children would think of him like Lincoln
or Thomas Jefferson.
Soon it became clear to us: you can’t teach disbelief
to a child,

only wonderful stories, and we hadn’t a story
nearly as good.
On parent’s night there were the Arts & Crafts
all spread out

like appetizers. Then we took our seats in the church
and the children sang a song about the Ark,
and Hallelujah
and one in which they had to jump up and down for Jesus.
I can’t remember ever feeling so uncertain
about what’s comic, what’s serious.

Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes.
You can’t say to your child
“Evolution loves you.” The story stinks
of extinction and nothing

exciting happens for centuries. I didn’t have
a wonderful story for my child
and she was beaming. All the way home in the car
she sang the songs,

occasionally standing up for Jesus.
There was nothing to do
but drive, ride it out, sing along
in silence.

I love this poem. As someone who has long worked as a Director of Religious Education in our UU churches, as a mom who knows this intimately and is consistently amazed by it …I love this line:

Soon it became clear to us: you can’t teach disbelief
to a child,

only wonderful stories, and we hadn’t a story
nearly as good.

Friends, this is true. You can’t teach disbelief to a child, only wonderful stories. And it is hard to teach children that “evolution loves you.” It’s our job to keep telling our wonderful stories; human stories. Stories about love and death and hurt and war and peace and cooperation and destruction.

As a people of faith, whether we are parents are not, our job is to pass down our religious story to the next generation. We can’t make up a religion from whole cloth, because human beings don’t make anything up from whole cloth. We stand on the shoulders of giants. And we should never be so arrogant as to assume that we have the whole business of being human figured out more than our ancestors.

We need to know our texts if we are to ground ourselves in a tradition; in a reason for building the world we dream about; in a reason to come together; in a reason to forgive and love our bodies and our neighbors and our God or gods or humanity or our world.

And the Bible is one of our most important texts. Wonderful stories, all, loaded with all kinds of lessons and theology and troubling stuff, and things to wrestle with. It’s hard to teach adults that evolution loves you, too. But a text about being taken back in and loved after having squandered all of your father’s riches? Or a text about loving each member of the human body as if you needed every part? Or a text about justice rolling down like waters and peace like an ever-flowing stream? We need texts like this. We need texts like these now: women being shot down on their sorority house lawns. We need texts like these now: inspiration to love the hell out of this world. We need text like these now: reminders that we are worthy and deserve dignity.

Wonderful stories, all, and we haven’t a story nearly as good.

And friends, like it or not, these stories are ours. We come from the Judeo Christian tradition; a product of the radical Protestant reformation—the reformation that claimed that regular lay people could read and interpret these texts on our own. That we didn’t need priests to have a relationship directly to these wonderful stories, or to God. This is our radical lineage. So please: let’s stop throwing our texts out as irrelevant—giving up our right to them, or distancing ourselves from our responsibility for them—letting fundamentalists have the Bible as if it was ever meant to be interpreted literally and used as a weapon. Let’s reclaim our texts for the sake of our children, at the very least.

Because we need something worthy and worthwhile to teach to our children, and it needs to contain wonder, and it needs to have something to do with love.

Of course we know that there are as many problematic, violent, misogynistic, scary texts in the Jewish and Christian Bibles as there are ones about love. And that’s what gives this book of our heritage…this giant we stand on…texture and challenge and richness. This is what makes it dangerous to ignore or throw out or refuse to interpret critically. It is a grand story, after all, of what it means to be human. And being human isn’t all about being born in original blessing and tiptoeing through tulips and marveling at sunsets and nature. Being human has more sorrow and suffering and betrayal and death and joy than that.

And because the Bible can be used as a weapon, we need a theology with which to interpret it. We can’t throw our theology out, either.

A parishioner at a congregation that I pastored for the last two summers recently asked me, “how do I explain the God I believe in to my 9 year old? The god I believe in (if I believe in God at all) is not a person, but a principle. Not a creator, but the ground of being. How do I make that God developmentally appropriate?”

My answer was: you can’t. When our children are adults, they will be more sophisticated and nuanced and intelligent about God. They will also lose so much magic and intuitive knowledge about God. They’ll likely lose God a few times; maybe for good. They will grieve the loss of God, like some of us have, too. And it may hurt.

But we—we as a church and a faith tradition–have a responsibility to say SOMETHING about God because someone else—on the playground, at a friend’s house, at a summer camp–will fill the vacuum we’ve left if we say nothing at all. I choose, therefore, to tell my young children that God loves them—that God loves all people. Everyone’s in and no one is out. Because I need to counter another message about God, which is that God picks and chooses. That some souls—not all souls—are saved.

And we need to teach our children that we stand for SOMETHING as if there is something at stake, because there is.  People are being shot because they are women. People are being killed because they believe the “wrong” religion. Our queer neighbors cannot get married in some churches and in most states. Something big is at stake here. Ceding the Bible and God to people who would use both as a weapon is irresponsible. GOD IS LOVE. God is too big to fit in any one religion. Let’s break the myth that Unitarian Universalists can “believe whatever they want.” That is a betrayal of our rich tradition, leaves our children rudderless, and makes our world more dangerous.

I love you all, and feel so fortunate to have been with you to witness these past two years of our spiritual journey together.

Be bold. You are pre-forgiven for every mistake you make on the path into the heart of God.

With great love and great respect,

Robin

God is love

[Shameless plug: This Tshirt is designed by Rev. Erik Martinez Resly, and will be on sale at the UU Christian Fellowship booth at GA 2014. COME ON BY!]

We Are Not Better II: Retaining Our UU Youth

UU center of the world

I have been asked a lot of follow-up questions about my last post entitled “We are Not Better” (found here: https://uuacreligiouseducation.wordpress.com/2014/04/03/we-are-not-better/). Melissa asked me the following question, and I wrote her a novel of a response that probably deserves it’s own post, so here it is.

Melissa writes:
Can you speak to how the subtle or not so subtle messages of “better” and “not better” may be impacting retention of young (second generation, perhaps?) Unitarian Universalists?

This is a really important question that everyone has been talking about in my circles for the 15 years I have been an adult hanging around the UUA. We know that our retention rate stinks, right? 10% of kids who grow up UU remain UU and we are all dying to know why our churches hemorrhage kids so we speculate a lot about why.

I think it’s a really complicated subject, and I have attacked it from many different angles because there just are a lot of different angles. I think a lot of things impact retention of young Unitarian Universalists, not the least of which is the culture that impacts all Mainline Protestant churches in the United States. The Church is quickly losing its status as the voice of human religion and spirituality. This isn’t Unitarian Universalism’s problem alone, nor is it our fault. I think this problem/opportunity in American religion right now (the loss of our cultural status) very largely impacts UUism. It impacts UUism because UU churches used to be the place where you went because it was the only alternative–-because there was nowhere else to go on Sunday. Now there is somewhere else to go! It’s called Sorella’s–the best brunch place in all of Jamaica Plain, MA–for delicious ginger bread pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream following your kid’s soccer game. Church-going used to be seen as normative and “what one had to do to be a good person,” and so all boats rose together, including ours’. But now church-going is counter-cultural, especially where we live in the Northeast. Now we have to give our children, youth and adults reasons to choose church over other things they could be doing, and that’s a hard task for us.

Many have posited that Unitarian Universalists have a hard time, like all liberal mainline churches, compelling people to choose us over pancakes for the same reason why we have trouble retaining our youth. We churches in the mainline ask very little of our members, and the overwhelming message children receive is that you can “be good” without (God, church, religious community), you fill in the blank. So I think churches like ours ironically contribute to our own demise.

And then there’s this issue of hypocrisy.

We keep hearing that the Christian Church is dying because of hypocrisy, right? Millennials are done with church forever because we all know “those” Christian churches that claim to want to follow Christ and tell us to “love our neighbor”, and then they turn around and have very loud and public fights about who is and who isn’t our “neighbor.” Like the poor United Methodist Church that is being torn apart right now on the gay marriage issue, for instance. We all know that the younger generations just think that’s all a load of baloney sauce, and so they are leaving church in droves. They can see the hypocrisy dripping from it all like syrup on their gingerbread pancakes they are choosing to eat instead of going to church.

Then when you add in the liberal church’s very human tendency toward our own brand of hypocrisy, we have our very own recipe for disaffected youth. Our hypocrisy comes in when we start to self-congratulate ourselves for being the “better” choice: the less oppressive, less offensive, more justice-oriented choice. There are many people who say and think that the reason why we don’t retain our young people is because we haven’t given them the message that we are the “better” choice. That we haven’t cheer-leaded for our own faith enough. That we’ve equated all the world’s religions to the point that it doesn’t matter what religion they choose when they grow. I used to be one of those people, truthfully, and I think this is true in the sense that we don’t do the best job at giving our kids a religious narrative and symbols to use. You know this, because I say it all the time.

But in addition to handing down a sacred text, a theology, and some symbols to engage, I think we would do better retaining youth and adults if we were a little more humble. If we didn’t scoff at the religion of our ancestors so much, or the religion of other people so much. (See my post “Children Will Listen” for more of my thoughts on this subject.) Because overwhelmingly what I find is that people (especially our own kids) can sniff out hypocrisy in churches really, really fast. Just the other day I was over at a colleague’s house with our spouses, and we were voicing frustration about other people who were driving us crazy. My 7 year old daughter whispered in my ear the following: “Mommy, Jesus said to love your enemies. You’re a minister now.” I rolled my eyes and said, “Oh good GOD, who told you that?” She’s right of course. Kids are so, so good at telling us the truth. So is Jesus.

AND if we say we are a liberal religion that honors all paths to Truth, and then a visitor comes in and asks for a prayer, and we scoff and say “we don’t do that supernatural mumbo jumbo here,” (and don’t think that doesn’t happen in UU churches because I’ve heard that story too many times) we are falsely advertising. People have to figure out the orthodoxy of our church after they get here by saying or needing the “wrong” thing, rather than just reading our creeds, beliefs, etc. on our website. We need to recognize, with humility, that we are not better than any other church, nor are we less orthodox. And we need to find freedom and forgiveness for ourselves in that. THIS IS THE AWESOME THING ABOUT BEING HUMAN! We aren’t God! We get to mess up all the time and then ask for forgiveness, and then get it, overflowing, back in our laps. But we also need to say it out loud so our kids know that we see our own tendency to fail to live up to our ideals. We are human just like everyone else, and we create in-groups and out-groups and cultural norms, and “right belief” and “wrong belief” just like any other group of humans. The trouble happens when we self-righteously advertise something we can’t actually deliver.

I think retaining our youth starts with being honest about who we are. And our beautiful, fallible human enterprise of a religion blossoms with that honesty, as well. Now go and be good humans. ‘Cause that’s what Jesus would do (according to my self-righteous daughter, anyway).

We Are Not Better

Image

Our 6th, 7th and 8th graders in the Neighboring Faiths class took a trip two weeks ago to a very large, very vibrant, black Baptist church in Boston; a church with which I have a long relationship. I spent some time processing the event with them after church last Sunday. It was great fun.

The class began with the kids talking about their experience. The service made them feel uncomfortable, especially at first. As the only white people in the room, they felt exposed and different. Not only did their physical appearance make them stick out in the room, but they felt self-conscious and awkward as they compared their reserved behavior in the pews to that of the worshippers around them. “There was a lot of clapping and hands in the air and yelling.” “It was so loud! And so long.” “People were dancing around and crying. It was weird.” “They think Jesus solves everything.” The other kids giggled.

“Stop. Here’s what I want you to know,” I said, probably a little too forcefully. “We–our church–we are not better. I’m going to say that again. We are not better. Our faith tradition is not better. If there is one thing I want you to learn in this class…one thing I worry that we don’t teach well in our churches…one thing I worry that NO CHURCH IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA teaches well or at all…We are NOT any better than anyone else who goes to church on a Sunday morning, nor are we better as an institution. Our worship style doesn’t make us better, our theology doesn’t make us better, our history doesn’t make us better, our lack of a need for Jesus doesn’t make us better. We have different ways of doing things based on the circumstances we have found ourselves in. We have different ways of understanding God based on the privileges we hold, or don’t. We have different ways of knowing and feeling and acting. But we are not better.”

The kids looked at me a little stunned, like “Whoa, there, settle down, buddy. Who peed in your Cheerios this morning?” Then they continued talking about the experience at the church they visited, with far more admiration and appreciation than they began with. We talked about how important Jesus might be to some people. We talked about why the idea that Jesus triumphed in the end despite persecution might be a deeply held and beautiful belief to those who live with cultural persecution every day. We talked about the desire to worship a God who used prophetic people to free slaves…to lead slaves out of bondage. We imagined why that kind of God might make us cry, or dance, or shout for joy. Our youth slowly took their armor of skepticism off and admitted that they loved being in that two hour long service. “The music was SO GOOD.” “The people were CRYING and hugging each other!” “I think they really healed that man. I believe he was healed.” “We felt so welcome.” “There was so much spirit there.” “I felt the energy.” They talked about the things we held in common with the church members there, like the beautiful baby dedication they witnessed, and the doxology after the offering. They found beauty in the abandon with which people approached worship. “The people that worship there didn’t seem to care what anyone thought of them while they were in that building! I wish I could be like that at school,” they said.

We are not unlike our youth. I know I’m not. We spend a lot of time “church shopping” for the church that makes us feel most comfortable, most known, most un-offended, most alive. And we care deeply about the values and the theology our church claims. This is good and noble and understandable. But we are not better, and we need to tell ourselves this. We need that humility. When we see every other neighboring faith through our own lenses, we start to lose our ability to look for understanding; to access genuine curiosity. We lose our empathy, and a little bit of our humanity. We fail to live faithfully.

Sometimes our UU churches, just like every other church I have encountered, have a tendency to hold up our unique way of doing religion as superior, and more evolved. To that I say “nonsense.” We don’t go to church to attend a pep rally for Unitarian Universalism. We go to church to remind ourselves that we are not the center of the universe. And then we go again next week, because we need that reminder as much as we can get it. We are not the best, nor are we the center of the universe. And thank God for that. We are a flawed community of people just like all the rest. In fact, this is the heart of our saving message. We are more alike than we are different; connected in our sins, our suffering, and in our capacity for good. We are all just trying to get through this life as unscathed as possible, with as much opportunity to feel as possible.

Let’s all try to live that truth and love with more abandon, and a little more humility. Our souls deserve to have their armor removed, and so does the soul of our world.

Amen.

For my Isaac on his baptism day

isaac BL

March 16, 2014

Dear beautiful baby boy,

Isaac, my blue-eyed, happy little tender snip of a little man: I love you with all my heart. I never imagined you in my life, and now I can’t imagine our life without you. You have built a bridge of grace from the beautiful blue-eyed man I have chosen to spend my life with—a bridge to me and to the two precious girls who have been my heart long before you were all conceived—Cecilia and Eloisa.

Isaac, you’re just a little baby. You can’t even talk. And yet you have helped us all to understand ourselves anew, and in relation to one another. I know that a love beyond all knowing is at work in us when I look at smiling, soft little you–when I look at the five of us, together–because you have completed our recently reconfigured family in a way I never could have imagined years ago when I was dreaming up what my family might look like. You and your father came soon after the deepest sadness our family has experienced: a divorce and a new way of living. You came after a death of an old way of life. And you and your father are my proof that there is life on the other side of heartbreak, that Love conquers even death. You have helped us become whole and healed. I pray that this feels like a gift to you more than it feels like an obligation or a burden. Ultimately, I think we were all born to be a bridge and a healing in the world. That we were all called to live on the borders like you do. That’s God work. You will know what it is to be a border person in a different way than others do by virtue of your birth, and this, too, is a gift. And I’m sure it will sometimes feel hard, and burdensome. Your family isn’t easy all the time, but it is real.

Most important of all, I hope that you know that I love you the way God loves you: for all of who you are, and despite imperfection. Since I am not God, I will sometimes fail at loving you well. I hope that you know that your family will try hard to keep you safe in our imperfect love nonetheless. I hope that we also challenge you to take risks that help you grow.

Isaac, today you are being welcomed into a community of faith with your baptism, into the Church Universal. This isn’t always going to be easy, either. It will sometimes feel hard, because being a preacher’s kid isn’t easy all the time. And it will sometimes feel hard because the Church, just like the world, is full of people and people are not always easy all the time. But I believe this faith, this way of life, is worthy of your attention and intention, or I wouldn’t pass it on to you. I hope that you know that we are baptizing you today so that we might express our intentions to raise you well and in Love, with a lot of help from faithful people and from God who is Love. I pray that this feels more like a gift to you than an obligation or a burden, though I’m sure it will sometimes feel like both. The Church isn’t easy all the time but it is real. And I hope that the Church will love you in the way God loves you: for all of who you are and despite imperfection. Because the Church is not God, they will fail sometimes at loving you well. But I hope the Church feels like a safe place to nurture your spirit, and that it doesn’t feel so safe that it won’t challenge you to take risks that help you grow.

And I hope for you the following things:
I hope that you might know yourself beloved. It’s important to me that you know you don’t need this baptism to prove that you are God’s own beloved, because everyone’s in just by virtue of their birth, baby. I hope that you always remember that, too. Everyone’s in.

I hope that you will live your life as a gift—the gift that you already are–to this broken and beautiful world.

I hope that your inevitable heartbreak and despair will never overcome your sense of joy in living for long. The world is brutal and beautiful, and I hope its beauty continues to dazzle you as it does now.

I hope that you will understand yourself not as a consumer of goods, but as a part of the kingdom of God, no less and no more important than any other human being. There will be so many opportunities to numb yourself to feeling. I pray that you don’t get addicted to any of them, because you’ll miss out on so many opportunities to feel. Feeling is hard but it’s good. I promise.

I hope you know that in my eyes, you are perfect just as you are, and in who you are becoming. That I don’t care about your achievement in school, in sports, on standardized tests, in your ability to get into a good college or get a good high paying job. I just want you to be brave and kind. That’s the only kind of achievement that matters in the end.

I am getting baptized with you today, Isaac. And that is because your birth symbolized my rebirth, by the grace of Love.

With all of my love as long as I live,

Mommy

Why I Still go to Church

I go to church
by Robin Bartlett

I love this blog post by Sarah Bessey so much, and I commend it to you:

http://sarahbessey.com/think-community-worth-intention-still-go-church/

There are so many things to think and talk and do about and love in this post, aren’t there?

For me, this post says a lot about why we should worship with our kids. I got chills when Sarah wrote: “I want the tinies to know what my voice sounds like when I sing Amazing Grace.” This is why I want my kids in worship, sitting next to me, the whole time. I’ll be honest. I love when the small humans get sung out to “Go Now in Peace” and leave to go to some class somewhere. That’s my peace time. I don’t want them to leave because I want them to be properly religiously educated, but because I get to be still. That’s my time to listen to the big, long sermon that they squirm through without me having to shovel pipe cleaners in my nose to entertain them.

But when I’m really being my best parent self, my best church self, my best good self, the truth is, I want them to stay. I want my tinies to sit with me, snuggled up in the peace of God. I want them to hear what my voice sounds like when I sing Amazing Grace. I want them to hear what my voice sounds like when I choke out the covenant, or the responsive reading. I want them to see that I sometimes shake when I take communion for the privilege it is to come to that open, welcoming welcome table; the gratitude I feel to be fed. I want them to see the other members of our beloved community shaking, too. I want my kids to see the adults around them cry, and I want them to see these people pray. I want them to be bored because someone else in the room needs a good, long message of hope. I want my kids to know what our tradition is and what it means in the form of worship. I want them to be able to return to that worship years from now when they feel like they are failing or falling, or when they feel like love maybe doesn’t conquer death after all. Because they are going to feel that a lot. I want them to have church because I fear the day that they know real suffering. And I’m glad that church is here for when they realize that suffering is just as present for all of us as joy is.

And the other part that stands out to me in Sarah’s blog post is this: “because my greatest wounds come from the Church, so does my greatest healing.” YES. YES. Friends, can I get an amen?

I keep choosing this small family for love and hope and joy. May you do that, too.

Don’t Go To Church for Your Children

going to church

by Robin Bartlett

Many of you know that I go to church in the late afternoons in my neighborhood, and that I bring my children there with me. It’s too long a day for them here in Sherborn, so I don’t bring them here much. I’m here from 8:30 am-2:00 pm on Sundays, and I can’t mom and work at the same time. I’ve never been good at that. (Yes, I just made the word “mom” into a verb).

The church I go to is UCC. Theologically, it is both Unitarian and Universalist, in my humble understandings of those two theologies. These are two theologies that have taught me everything I know. They rest in my bones and in my heart as a life-long UU. That’s one reason why I love my UCC church, because it reflects the best of my own faith tradition and allows me to worship from that deep well.

And folks have asked me this before: “aren’t you worried that the church you are bringing your children to isn’t UU, so you aren’t, in effect, raising your children UU? Isn’t that a problem for a UU minister?” This is a good question. The question has many answers, but the first answer is this: I don’t go to church for my children. I go to church for me. Basically, as long as my kids are safe and there is sometimes childcare for the little ones, and there aren’t any sharp objects like rusty nails jutting out of the floor, and they are made to feel loved and known, that’s all I care about. I picked my church for entirely selfish reasons. 1) Because I need to worship on Sundays, and I can’t when I’m running an RE program. 2) Because this particular church gives me what I need from church: which is to say a reminder that I am not alone, that grace is real, that I am loved just as I am and that I am expected to repay the world with my love because I have been offered that grace. I am sure my kids get the same message, but they are completely secondary in my choice of churches.

And, as a long-time religious educator, the following is a conversation I am very accustomed to. Does it sound familiar to you?

Robin: So, Jane, why did you start coming to this church? What led you here?
Jane: I came to this church originally because my children started asking me questions about God;
or
I came to this church because my child’s grandmother died, and she started to ask me about heaven, and I didn’t know what to say because I don’t believe in heaven;
or
I came to this church because I wanted my children to have a good understanding of Unitarian Universalist principles and the world’s religions in a high quality, well-run religious education program with lots of other kids in it.
or
I came to this church because I want my kid to have a religious education without being indoctrinated into a specific faith.
And so on, in different variations.

“I started going to this church because it is good for my children.” I think that’s one reason why churches like ours’ stay in business, or at least one important way we attract newcomers. And I’m not knocking it, because as parents we are accustomed to considering our children first.

A lot of what we do with our time is “for the children.” We enroll our children in private music lessons and drive them there every Wednesday after school, ensuring that we won’t be able to eat dinner at the appointed hour. We stand in the freezing cold on the soccer field clutching our coffee and yelling enthusiastically for our not- particularly-sporty 8 year old. We bring our children to the doctor to get shots, to school to gain knowledge, to our parents’ houses so that they might know and love their extended family. We even go to the germ factory that is Chuck E. Cheese to kindergarten birthday parties on the weekends, and God knows that’s not good for us. These things are all “good for our children”, and so we do them regardless of whether we’d rather be doing something else.

Therefore, it makes sense that we go to church simply because it will be good for our children, too. We want our children, after all, to know themselves beloved, to know themselves as part of a community in which their doubts will be cherished, their questions will be encouraged, their mind will be broadened, their spiritual explorations will be nurtured, and their friendships will be predicated on shared principles and a deep sense of purpose. Church is good for them, and so we take them with dogged determination, regardless of whether we’d rather be home reading the Sunday paper. I admire that determination.

But I’m going to say something I think is important. I don’t want you to come to church if you are only coming for your children. That’s a fine reason to come in the first place, to get in the door, but I don’t want it to be the reason you stay. Go to church for you. Go to church because of your own needs: for community, for learning, for solidarity, for a good word, for love, for hope, for comfort, even for salvation. Go to church because you can’t imagine not going. Go to church because your church claims you and demands of you. Go to church because you cry in the worship service at least once a month. Go to church because you look forward to seeing the people. Go to church because your church forces you to put your money where your mouth is–to use your financial resources to make a statement about what has worth. Go to church because you are known here. Go to church because you want to be known. Go to church because you pray for this same imperfect, rag-tag group of people all week until you meet again. Go to church because you need to in order to get through your week. Go to church because if you miss a week, you feel like something was really missing in your life. Go to church because your church community helps you to go deeper; to risk transformation; to yank you further down a path–to ultimate reality, to truth, to God–kicking and screaming. Go to church because it is a statement to yourself and your children about what has value and meaning. Go to church to find your purpose and live it. Give yourself the gift of church.

If church is not a gift for you, it won’t be a gift for your children. You know that old trope that we borrow from plane instructions we hear read by flight attendants–that you have to apply your own oxygen mask first before you apply your child’s, right? Well, you are your child’s religious educator and oxygen mask. Not me. Not our UUA’s religious education curricula. Not our volunteer teachers. Not even our minister. You. That’s a big responsibility, and I know you don’t feel up to the task because none of us do. But if we aren’t getting our spiritual needs met–our religious yearnings satiated; our deepest cries in the night soothed; our need to serve and be served; our God-sized hole occasionally filled, emptied and then filled up again– then we are never going to be up to the task of helping our children do the same.

Don’t go to church for your children; go to church for you.

You deserve it. Your children deserve it. And this brutal and beautiful world needs you to.

Charge to the Minister by the Children

il_570xN.359914421_iz43

by Rev. Robin Bartlett

The children wrote this charge for the Reverend Nathan Detering on the occasion of the ten year anniversary of his installation at the UU Area Church at First Parish in Sherborn, MA. I think all of my colleagues should read it, because it is a charge to all of us. I think all congregations should read it, because it is likewise a charge to congregations.

Children and youth of the congregation, please stand up. Please stand proud. These are the children and youth of this church. Nathan and congregation: these are all of our children. We share the task of caring for them with one another, don’t we? Ten years ago, they were entrusted into Nathan’s, and the congregation’s shared spiritual care. This is a big responsibility, to tend to the spiritual lives of children and youth. Helping these children grow spiritually demands that all of us grow spiritually, am I right, Nathan and congregation? Children and youth, I want you to raise your hand if Nathan is the only minister you have ever had. I want you to keep your hands raised if this is the only church you have ever had. You may sit down.

I asked the children to charge you, Nathan. Kids and adults, if you don’t know what a “charge” is, it’s a fancy church word that means you get to tell Nathan what to do. This is the only charge that you will hear today, in fact. I think that’s appropriate, since it probably matters most what our children see and know. And as we look ahead to the next ten years, we stand poised on the brink of expanding our children and youth ministry here at First Parish, making room in your shared ministry with the congregation–for a new minister dedicated to these kids. We are able to explore this new frontier because of the ministry you have built here with the congregation in the past ten years, Nathan. So this is what the children of all ages of this congregation have to say to you, and about you.

About “Mr. Nathan”, the kids had this to say:

Mr. Nathan is…
caring,
nice,
a friend,
good,
“I love you.”
“Nathan is like Merry Christmas.”
“When I picture God, I picture Nathan.” (I’m definitely adding a class on “idolatry” to the RE rotation in the coming weeks).
He’s the minister of our church and a good one at that.
He loves to rejoice.
He loves to come to our church; it’s like his second home. He loves church.

The children are grateful for your ministry; for who you are, and who you are to them. So here is your charge from the children:

The kids think that in the next ten years, you should do more stuff with them; and interact with them more. Come downstairs and play with us, they say. We have lots of cool art activities, and we have fun. We think you should reference things we understand in the sermons more, because we love when you do that, and we listen to your sermons. We would also charge you to use more technology stuff. We think you should take care of yourself: get more sleep, and make schedules. In particular, we charge you to stop rooting for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Most of the children who wrote this charge with me know you as the only minister they have ever had. You have been here for ten years, and for almost all of them, that’s a lifetime. They know what a good minister looks like because they’ve been watching you. Here’s what the children think are the qualities of a good minister—what a minister is–based on what they’ve learned from you, and they want you to continue to embody these qualities for them:

A good minister is generous and kind.
A good minister is funny.
A good minister knows what they’re talking about and believes it.
A good minister doesn’t have a monotonous voice (that’s from your son).
A good minister has a good heart.

This is what the kids know a good minister does, and they want you to continue to do these things well, along with the congregation:

A good minister teaches the people.
A good minister makes sure everyone is safe.
A good minister is a good neighbor just like in the story of the Good Samaritan.
A good minister says goodbye to people before they die.
A good minister helps people with their problems.
A good minister helps people.
A good minister helps people create peace.
A good minister breathes, just like all people.
A good minister uses big words.
A good minister preaches to the people.
A good minister guides people like the northern star.
A good minister teaches life lessons and laughs and always forgives.

So, Nathan: may you continue to guide us like the northern star, helping us and forgiving us while you guide. May you continue to minister, rejoicing, like “Merry Christmas.” May you continue to teach us, and preach to us about things we understand and don’t yet understand, and may you continue to keep us safe. May you continue to know what you are talking about, and more importantly, may you always believe it. May you continue to be a good neighbor. May you continue to take care of yourself, breathe, and laugh. Nathan and congregation, you have been charged by the children.

Amen.

Children Will Listen

children-will-listen

by Rev. Robin Bartlett

I want to talk about growing up UU since our kids are growing up UU, and I know something about it. Not many of us adults know about growing up UU from experience. Apparently, 90% of our congregants in UU churches weren’t raised in our churches. I like to think that my rare experience gives me an interesting perspective on the children entrusted into our spiritual care.

And I want to urge us to be careful with our children’s souls.

I grew up UU in the very late ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s in a church where, as the old joke about us goes, the only time you heard the word “Jesus” was when the minister tripped on his way into the pulpit. I knew very well what words we weren’t allowed to say from a very early age (God, Jesus, heaven, hell, sin, salvation, Ronald Reagan). My mother was the music director, and she would always get complaints if she programmed, say, the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. “Too much God talk,” people would protest. “We may offend someone,” or, “I am offended.” We were an Orthodox church.

I want to be very clear that I think Unitarian Universalism has changed tremendously since that time, but we still have a lot of work to do holding our orthodoxy up to the light, examining it, naming it, and critiquing it. This matters particularly for the children in our churches, because they listen to us. They listen to what we say, what we don’t say, and what we’re not allowed to say.

And I want to tell you the message that was given to me, both implicitly and explicitly, because I believed it with a fervor based on what my church taught me:

People who believe in God and Jesus are stupid. They aren’t as smart or well educated as we are, so they haven’t figured out that God can’t possibly be real. Either that, or they are poor (and that’s not their fault).

I believed this as a child. I also evangelized this. I was an evangelical atheist UU child. And it wasn’t because I was a jerk. I was precocious, but not a jerk. I earnestly believed that if enough people knew there wasn’t a God, the world would start to be a better place because people would be smarter like me, and stop believing in magic and fairy tales that weren’t real. It took me a long time to deprogram myself of this belief that Christians are stupid…to unlearn it. [It’s easy to unlearn this misconception fast if you have the privilege of going to a hot shot Christian seminary like I did. These people–my professors and my colleagues–were all smarter than me. Philosophers, theologians, scientists. Some of the smartest people I have ever met.]

And friends, as an adult I understand that the message I received as a child–that “real” religious people are stupid–was a defense for all sorts of religious woundedness. There were all kinds of hurts happening in that UU church of mine. Former Catholics who were kicked out of the church after a divorce. Gay, lesbian and bisexual people told they were going to hell. All kinds of people done wrong by Christianity; done wrong by God. It was real; this pain. Christianity has hurt a lot of people. So has bad theology. So has God! Unfortunately, kids don’t understand that negative messages get conveyed because there is woundedness and nuance and loss in the religious stories of the adults trusted with their spiritual care. They just hear “religious people are stupid. And dangerously stupid, to boot.” That’s all I heard, anyway.

So I went to school, walked around in the world, interacted with the diversity of humankind, all with the underlying belief that religious people–theists, especially Christians–are stupid. Not educated. Not sophisticated. I don’t think that message I received from my church helped me to be kind or loving. I think that message undermined the real message of Unitarian Universalism: that we all come from the same source, are fated to the same destination, and we are loved beyond belief.

This is why I am very intentional about talking about God and Jesus with our children in my ministry. I worry that we adults will quash their growing spirits by what we refuse to say. Just imagine what ills the message I received might unleash in the hearts of our UU children–when they experience their first yearnings for God. Imagine what ills that message might unleash in the hearts of our children when they experience their first desire to pray, or to make sense of death by imagining another world. “I must be stupid.”

Let’s focus on healing our own religious wounds fast and often so that we don’t keep unintentionally passing this message down through the generations, my friends. Our religious wounds deserve our attention, and even our fury. But our children need our healing message: that Love puts flight to all fears; that God is love; that there is no “stupid” and “smart” in the beloved community–there are only different, unique people in the form of good gifts; that we are more alike than different; members of the same human family.

Be love.

We Share the World with People and Other Hard Things

love_thy_neighbor

by Robin Bartlett

I have two kids who were born and raised in the city of Boston, and they are city kids. Both girls. Both are terrified of bugs, but particularly my three year old. This summer, every time a bug came near my three year old, she burst into hysterical tears. And I have been using the mantra, “Eloisa, we share the world with bugs. You have to get used to it. We have to share the world with bugs.” I have said it so many times that Eloisa uses it as her own mantra now. You can hear her every time my older daughter whines about a bug bite. I’ll hear her say, “Cecilia, we share the world with bugs.” Or outside, she calms herself by muttering under her breath, “we share the world with bugs.”  My three year old’s fear, anger, reassurance, and resignation to the fact that we just have to live in the same world with bugs is a daily spiritual practice in our household. It grounds her.

Mark Twain famously used the common fly as proof of the lack of existence of a divine creator; as justification for his atheism. A fly’s existence, he said in an essay, was clearly not an application of pure intelligence. None of us would create a fly as part of the careful planning of a perfect universe. Who among us is friend to a fly, and sees a fly’s purpose as anything but to congregate around horses, to maniacally pester the sick child by circling his head, and persecute the wounded soldier by swarming his festering wounds?

And while that was a tongue and cheek essay by Mark Twain meant to poke fun at the idea of belief in God, there are certainly people who exist on the earth who I know have made us doubt the existence of God. What kind of God would create such imperfection in humanity….so many humans whose seeming only purpose is to pester and persecute and swarm and bug and harm and destroy and scare?

The fact is, sharing the world with all of these people can make us doubt the very idea of a universe oriented toward love. We have to remind ourselves that we share the world with people constantly, with the same itchy annoyance, fear, acceptance and resignation that my daughter has when it comes to the reality of sharing her world with bugs. Its our spiritual practice.

That’s why we come to church. We come to church because on some level we believe that sharing the world with people should be done well, no matter how hard the task. We could spend Sunday morning communing with nature in the woods, but instead we choose to be with a bunch of people that we wouldn’t necessarily choose; even people we don’t like. This is being church. This is faith. Believing in the power of love and goodness enough to trust our hearts and lives and children’s lives with other people. Believing in the power of love and goodness to conquer hate and fear despite evidence to the contrary.

We also come here to this church to get help sharing the world with people in the other parts of our lives. People can be hard and mean. You and I can be hard and mean. And we come here because church calls us to love ourselves and other humans anyway. All the time. The way we imagine God’s love to be.

We know how to love our kids and our partners at their most hard and mean. It’s not easy, but we do it because they are our beautiful creations, and our chosen loves. But its hard to love people we don’t feel socially contracted to love.

It’s particularly hard to love people who have wronged us; who have hurt us. Jesus tells us that we should love our enemies. He says (I’m paraphrasing), if you love just those who love you, how is that impressive?  How is that big shakes? Loving people who already love you—that’s easy as pie. Even sinners can do it. But loving people who are your enemies? That’s Godly. That’s where the work is. That’s where the reward is. That’s where you will receive the “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, back in your lap.” (Luke 6: 27-37)

Don’t you love that? Abundant love; running over, back in your lap. That’s earth as it is in heaven. But loving your enemies feels impossible. And what does Jesus mean by love, anyway?  Are we to hug our abusers? Let people who have betrayed us back into our lives so they can betray us again?

Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “Another way that you love your enemy is this: When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it. There will come a time, in many instances, when the person who hates you most, the person who has misused you most, the person who has gossiped about you most, the person who has spread false rumors about you most, there will come a time when you will have an opportunity to defeat that person. It might be in terms of a recommendation for a job; it might be in terms of helping that person to make some move in life. That’s the time you must do it. That is the meaning of love. In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.”

So I want us to get creative this week. I want us to rise to the level of love. I want you to think of someone who you think of as totally unlovable in every way. Maybe it’s your step mom, or the kid in your RE class with a behavioral disorder, or even a prisoner in a high-profile case you know about who killed somebody. And then I want you to find one thing you have in common. Then I want you to find something we could do to safely care for them. Maybe forgive them for what they have done to you or to others. Or maybe refuse to defeat them when you have the chance. Or maybe pray for them nightly for a week, or write them a letter you never send. Maybe just refuse to let your anger for them diffuse your own kindness and lovableness.

This stuff changes the world. It transforms us and it transforms the world.

We share the world with people and it’s a mess—inconvenient and confusing and scary and ugly and painful. And sometimes, the people we share the world with make us doubt the very existence of some sort of divine order to things. So it is our job to restore that sense of divine order for one another. May each of us be given the grace of abundant love in the midst of our most unlovable moments, and may we bestow that grace of abundance on everyone we can muster up the courage to love.

Edited to add that Jason Shelton just sent me this video, and it’s perfection:

We are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For

by Robin Bartlett

Sometimes, Unitarian Universalists ask: “Why do we celebrate Christmas? Haven’t we become post-Christian? Won’t we offend some of our congregants if we sing carols and perform the Messiah or have a Christmas pageant?” We’ve even gone so far as to create a new winter holiday called “Chalica” celebrating our seven principles by lighting candles each night for seven nights in an attempt to be more authentic to our current day practice and theology.

We have become so literal and so earnest about “right belief”, y’all, so averse to religious symbol. It hobbles us in the meaning making department.

Christmas is the most authentic of all Unitarian Universalist holidays. That’s what I want to say. You’ll hear folks talk about Christmas as authentically “ours” because our ancestors were responsible for bringing the Christmas tree to America, or Americanized the Santa Claus we now understand as THE Santa Claus, or that Charles Dickens was Unitarian, or even that a Unitarian wrote Jingle Bells. All true. But I’m just gonna go ahead and say that Christmas is a Unitarian Universalist holiday BECAUSE JESUS.

Christmas is a holiday that celebrates the incarnation, humanity as God with skin on. Unitarians throughout history reminded us again and again of two things: 1) that God is God, and 2) that the fact that Jesus was not fully God is important: Jesus was born to tell us that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for; proof that we humans can do God stuff. The Messiah is among us, born in human form again and again. revealed in the most unlikely of places, like a manger or a jail cell. That God’s kingdom is inside of us, among us, beneath our feet. That we are responsible for making it so.

And Universalists remind us that God is love. That God so loved the world that God gave Jesus to us, to remind us that we are each God’s own beloved. Sisters and brothers of spirit, one. He appeared and the soul felt its worth. This revelation demands that we sing about it, reveling. And then that we DO SOMETHING about it: helping, saving, repairing, caring.

And this is a Unitarian Universalist holiday because whether or not we believe in a supernatural God, a Godly Jesus, or that God’s banner over us is love, we Unitarian Universalists are humanists, and Jesus was the ultimate humanist. Jesus believed in the human capacity to love the hell out of this world. And if we truly believe that we are alone down here, then we better get at it, ’cause no big man in the sky’s gonna do it for us.

We know that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for, that we are worthy, and that we need to show one another extravagant, wasteful love to make this broken world whole again. Let’s stop arguing over who owns this holiday, who is worthy of celebrating it, who believes it the most piously and reverently. Let’s stop being so gosh darn literal. Let’s stop worrying who we might offend among us by singing about angels and kings, and start living the incarnation instead. We know that we have this lifetime to repair the world, and that we don’t have much time to do it.

Go get ’em. Be princes and princesses of peace.