Monthly Archives: January 2013

Are you wondering what we *do* in Coming of Age class?


Your fourteen year olds are geniuses. They are deep. They are astounding. They go to church services religiously (ahem), so you should talk to them. Look at them in the back on the left hand side if you’re facing the pulpit.

They are in Coming of Age class this year, a class that meets every week after church, grounds them in our Unitarian Universalist theological tradition and history, and asks them to add to that rich tapestry of revelation by adding their own beliefs to the mix. At the end, they will present their credo statements, which is just a snippet of what they are asked to do. So far this year they have tackled the subjects of sin, evil, forgiveness, prayer, God, death, after life beliefs, Unitarian Universalism, worship, values and more. And they have another 10 weeks or so to go!

Here’s their assignment for this week excerpted from the email I wrote them. Why don’t you ALL do this homework in support of our youth and mentors? Write your belief statements and favorite quotes in the comments…you might even help them out!


You may remember that for your “homework” you were asked to write 3-4 statements of *religious* belief that undergird the reasons why we come together as a faith community and share the values that we share.

Some guidance:

Remember that I asked you to dig deeper than using statements like “we believe in justice” because that doesn’t set us apart as a *religious* institution. The Human Rights Coalition works for justice. The United States constitution has belief statements about justice. Every church in America, on some level, cares about justice. Why do we work for justice *in this church*? What spurs us to work for justice in this particular context? Why do we come together at all? (Justice is just an example, but you get the idea). What is the theology that undergirds the value?

You can start with “I” statements, particularly since we are going to *work together* to make “we” statements as a group later in our Ten Most Commonly Believed Things Among Us statement. Please try to make sure your belief statements are grounded in our theological tradition(s). We are part of a long and rich tradition of saints whose shoulders we stand on. We don’t make this up as we go along, or “build our own theology.” We build on top of the theologies we have inherited, recognizing that “god is still speaking,” or “revelation is never sealed.” Remember that the humanist tradition is part of our historical heritage, so you don’t have to believe in God to have a theology. [For those of you who jumped up during “All my Friends and Neighbors” as out atheists, be sure to google “the Humanist Manifesto.”]

Here are some examples of belief statements:
“I believe that all people are children of the same God, and therefore I practice equity in human relationships.”
“I believe that humans are capable of both good and bad behaviors, therefore we need to atone for the ways in which we harm others.”
“I believe that this world is our paradise, and all we have, and therefore, we must work to make it peaceful, loving and justice-filled.”
“I believe that God is love, and therefore all are saved (no one goes to hell). Our job is to destroy the earthly hells we encounter every day.”
“I believe that prayer doesn’t change things, but prayer changes people and people change things.”
“I believe in the perfectability of the human spirit, therefore we are all capable of making the world a better place through progress.”

To make sure these belief statements are grounded in our vast and rich tradition, I’m going to ask you to look up quotes by Unitarian, Universalist and Unitarian Universalist theologians/ministers to support your statements. This will also help with your credos, and our “Ten Most Commonly Believed Things Among Us”. This may sound hard to you, but I don’t even want you to go to the library. Google “Unitarian Universalist quotes.” Google Forrest Church quotes. Google Rob Hardies quotes. Google Sophia Lyons Fahs quotes. Google Marilyn Sewall quotes. Google Ralph Waldo Emerson quotes. Google Theodore Parker quotes. Google John Dietrich quotes. Google Bill Schultz quotes. Google Bill Sinkford quotes. Google Marjorie Bowens Wheatly quotes. Google the Iowa Sisterhood. Google Hosea Ballou quotes. Google Mark Morrison-Reed quotes. Google Nathan Detering quotes. Trust me, this will be fun. Just pick one or two that really speak to you. Put it all in notebook paper to add to your journals.

This week, the whole group will be working on choosing a social action project for everyone to do together. You will use your quotes and belief statements to help prioritize which social action projects are most deserving of our time as a church. In other words, we will look at our values, how they are informed by our theology, and choose which projects are our way of doing our unique work of love in the world.

So bring what you have of your belief statements. Bring your hearts.

Bright blessings to all of you,


Lord, Grant Me The Courage to Parent a Two Year Old


When explaining why she brings her son to church, Anne Lamott says this:

“The main reason is that I want to give him what I found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want–which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy–are people with a deep sense of spirituality . They are people in community, who pray, or practice their faith; they are Buddhists, Jews, Christians–people banding together to work on themselves and for human rights. They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful.” -Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

I bring my kids to church so that they can follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle. But sometimes I have to follow a brighter light than the glimmers of my kids’ candles when I am at the end of my parenting rope. That’s one reason why I bring MYSELF to church. Please never forget that even though you put your kids ahead of you all the time because you love them sacrificially and wholly, your spiritual development is more important than your kids’. If you don’t believe me, you’ll just have to trust me that this is true until you know it deep in your bones. You need to apply your own oxygen masks before you apply your kids’, just like on the plane.

My kids are the lights of my lives, just as your kids are the lights of your’s. I try to remind myself of that after a long day listening to whining about how “boring” the MFA is, and how “I NEED EGGIES/ORANGE JUICE/CRACKERS RIGHT NOW”, even though I know that none of those items will be eaten once they are brought to the table.

Last night, after a complain-y, tantrummy day at the MFA, and many disappointing mealtimes, the lights in our house went out right around bedtime. There was suddenly no power because of a neighborhood snafu in some electrical box somewhere. This was enough to send my kids into an excitedhyperwhineycrying explosion of tired jumpy mess. My two-year old just keeps getting more “two” lately. This power outage was enough to put her “two” into hyper drive.

I lay helplessly and silent on the couch saying to myself, “maybe if I just lie here drinking tea they won’t see me and they will eventually find their way up the dark stairs and put themselves to bed.” I give up on parenting sometimes like this because I can’t summon up the chutzpah. I hide in the dark having a conversation with myself. “Do I have to get up? Maybe they will become more independent if I let them figure out how to find their way upstairs in the dark by themselves.” This justifying and bargaining with myself lasts for 5 minutes or 20, not enough for someone to call CPS to press neglect charges against me or anything, but enough for my sweetie to get significantly annoyed with me.

In those moments, I’m just following the light of my own candle, and its burning at both ends. In those moments, I forget that nobody, not even mommy (especially not mommy), can find their way upstairs in the dark by themselves.

In those moments, I need something. I need to check in with God to come back out of my “Calgon take me away” moments. And God reminds me of my pledge to love my children even at their most unloveable, and to come back into the world. My prayers are not all that gracious and loving. “Lord, grant me the courage to get up off of this couch and shepherd my children to their beds even though they are acting like wild boars, and I have to call the electric company and drink more tea and think about Very Important Adult Things. Parenting is tiring and frustrating and sometimes more boring than the MFA, God.” And God says to me, “Robin, your job is to help provide your children a path and a little light to see by. You are only human and doing your best, and you can do this too. Of course you have to help them ascend a dark staircase with a flashlight. That’s your job.” In these moments, powered only by faith and duty, I get up off the couch and try to raise them in a way that lets them know that even if I check out sometimes with a smart phone or a blank stare or a nap, I am present, and my love is patient and kind.

So, I follow them up the stairs to their room, and my two-year old holds the flash light, screaming at my 6-year-old every time she tries to yank it out of her sister’s hands. And I roll my eyes heavenward at God. But I sing them songs from the 1980s movie “Fame”, and tuck them in anyway.

My two-year old has never been a “normal” blankie stuffed animal type. She likes her transitional objects to be small plastic non-cuddly toys. I don’t know what this says about her development. As a younger toddler, she had to sleep with three pacifiers–one in her mouth and one in each hand. Last night, she wanted to sleep with the hard plastic flashlight. I’m sure the fact that the whole world was dark all of a sudden made her yearn for what little light she could cling to. And we all do that when the world is dark, don’t we; cling to the light?

So we Bartlett Barraza girls FOUGHT OVER THE ONLY LIGHT WE HAD.

We had forgotten for a moment to share it. That we were all in this dark house together.

My 6-year-old, having realized that my 2-year-old was not going to give up the flashlight, gave her three glow-in-the-dark plastic stars to hold while she slept as an alternative. And my 2-year-old was delighted. She would not go to sleep until every star was wedged between her two fists. She was also so grateful for her sister’s kindness. When we said our evening prayers, my 2-year-old began loudly so God could hear, “Dear God, I’m thankful for my stars, and my sister, and my glories, and my powers.”

I cursed those stars all night last night, as they were the source of my sleeplessness. Every time my two-year old woke up in the middle of the night, she screamed incessantly until I came upstairs and found every single one of her plastic stars, so she could ball them back up in her fist and sleep. Once I was awake, I would lie awake in my bed for hours, the song “Stars” from Les Miserables stuck in my head on repeat.

Today, I feel grateful for my oldest child for sharing those stars with her sister. That night, they were my littlest one’s only source of light, her protection and strength. Her sister, her glories, and her powers were all wrapped up in those little plastic choking objects. This is why I bring my kids up religious. So that they have symbols to cling to in the middle of the night when their worlds are dark and scary. So they have little sacred objects that they share with one another to drive fear away. So they will follow a brighter light than the flicker of their own candles with purpose, heart, gratitude and joy.

And I bring myself up religious so I can power through the terrible twos. I bring myself up religious because we are all in this dark house together. I bring myself up religious because I can’t ascend a dark staircase by myself; not without light. I bring myself up religious so I may remember these lessons when I am awake at 3:30 am with a screaming toddler, searching her room for stars.

I spared you from the Russell Crowe version of this song. You’re welcome.

Can Unitarian Universalism be a “Religion for Our Time”?


by Robin Bartlett Barraza

Have you all been paying attention to the NPR series on the rise of the “nones”? The “nones” are people who check “none” when asked which religious organization they affiliate with, and they are now famously growing like gangbusters spelling doomsday for all religion in America. The “nones” have some characteristics in common. The majority of them don’t claim to be atheist, but they do claim to be skeptical about organized religion. The other major commonality that they share is that most “nones” are in the younger generations. As people for whom church makes a difference in your life, I hope you are paying attention to this trend. It matters for us. It particularly matters for those of us who are attempting to shepherd the younger generations into faithful adulthood. The reality is this: most of our young people won’t choose to be participants in faith communities as adults. Not unless we can bring our churches into the 21st century, anyway. I think this is a thrilling challenge set before us that we need to rise to. Not for the sake of keeping our historic buildings and our historic silver and our historic hymns and our historic Sunday Schools and our historic ways of bickering about things that don’t matter. I think we need to rise to this challenge for the sake of the soul of our nation and world. Some people won’t agree with me that religion matters this much. But I think that religion offers us a sacred narrative to be a part of; a narrative that orders and gives meaning to our lives. I think that entering and continuing a story about humankind in unbroken line with our ancestors–a story that has more to do with Love and transformation than the story of empty consumerism–this matters a lot.

Listen to the series here:

So how does Unitarian Universalism fit into this trend?

We are in an era of Unitarian Universalism that is unprecedented. Church as we know it in our culture is declining. People no longer feel as though they “need” church in order to be good people, or to appear to others as though they are good people. We can all meet our needs for community, social justice organizing, consumerism, and moral discernment, at many different secular organizations. As a faith tradition, we are tiny and declining. We are finding ourselves at a crossroads and on the brink of survival, needing to reclaim and reposition our niche within the meaning-making spectrum. People aren’t coming to church simply to reject the church that they came from anymore. There is nothing in the broader culture to compel them to go to church on Sunday morning, particularly in our part of the Northeastern United States. Therefore, as a denomination, we are finding that people who come through our church doors aren’t just looking for a healing method of “doing church” anymore. In addition, they are looking for a healing message; one that says something about the nature of humanity, life, death, brokenness, God and suffering.

Angus McClean once said that our “method is our message.” It is true that the method we have used to organize our churches and our religious education programs was radical at one time, and even healing, to our adherents. In the past fifty years of our history, we have claimed our covenantal (not creedal) tradition as the message in and of itself. Our covenantal method, after all, is a departure from the orthodox and dogmatic traditions many of our congregants have come to us from.

However, as Unitarian Universalists, we are increasingly finding that our method is no longer particularly unique in the secular or religious worlds. Schools, social justice organizations, liberal Christian, Buddhist and Reformed Jewish congregations (among others) use similar methods to teach morality, justice, and the tenants of their traditions. For instance, there are UCC churches that use their own version of Neighboring Faiths. There are Episcopal churches that stress deeds rather than creeds. There are public schools that empower our children with messages of their inherent worth and dignity. There are Human Rights organizations that work for equal marriage and immigrant justice. And so on.

So, Unitarian Universalism finds itself struggling to answer the question: what is our unique, bold message? Our seven principles, a beloved covenant between our congregations written in the 1980s, are often held up as a statement of our shared beliefs. At the same time, they are criticized by some as too creed-like, or as a set of principles that could be appropriated for use in the American constitution or any human rights organization. “What makes them uniquely religious?” People have rightly countered.

I think our attachment to our principles, and the desire for our principles to be used as a catechetical tool within our own congregation, is indicative of a deeper search for truth and meaning by modern Unitarian Universalists. We crave a message, one that is inclusive, but still contains religious meaning; a message that says something about life, death, creation, human unity, interconnectedness, God, suffering, Love.

I believe that our method needs to be informed by our message, and not the other way around.

There is also a great fear in Unitarian Universalist churches of claiming a bold message of faith, one that includes a robust theology, or one that re-claims our Judeo-Christian texts, for fear of offending our current constituents. As a result, we remain timid in the effort to nurture the inherent spirituality of our children. We run the risk of becoming a mile wide and an inch deep because of this fear. I believe we hemorrhage our children as a result of this fear, as well. 90% of them do not remain Unitarian Universalist as adults.

But there is hope!

I believe Unitarian Universalism can, in fact, become a religion for our time. I see this era of Unitarian Universalism as an incredible opportunity for growth, if we are willing to be bold. Our historic theological traditions make bold theological claims. Our Unitarian tradition reminds us that we derive from one sacred source, therefore we are connected to one another and to the earth, and are capable of committing Godly acts of love in the world. Our Universalist tradition reminds us that we are fated to the same destination, and that our liberation is bound up in one another’s. We believe in this-earthly salvation. Therefore, it is imperative that we love our neighbor as ourselves, and that we work for justice in human relationships—that we help save one another in Love. We believe that Truth comes in the form of sacred scripture from our own Judeo-Christian tradition, and from all of the world’s religious traditions. Therefore, we engage our Jewish and Christian scriptures and other religious texts, mining them for metaphorical truth. We believe that all people contain the spark of the divine. Therefore, art, poetry and our lives themselves are inspired texts. We believe that we must be stewards of this earthly paradise, which is the heaven we have been given. Therefore, we uphold the interconnectedness of all existence and take care of the earth on which we dwell. We believe that hell is also on this earth, and comes in the form of separation from our best selves and one another. Therefore, we strive to create Beloved Community wherever we go by loving one another with humility, curiosity and respect.

We have a message beyond our method, and our method is inspired by our message.

With an emphasis on the healthy, multi-faceted spiritual development of our children, the Religious Education Committee at UU Area Church in Sherborn embarked in December on the important project of boldly naming the fundamentals of our Religious Education program. The RE Committee seeks to create a statement of faith that might help provide a lens through which to interpret sacred story, evaluate curricula and write new curricula, develop programming and ensure excellence and depth of meaning at all levels of child, youth and adult religious education and faith development.

Below is a draft of the “message” the RE Committee would like to convey at all levels in our faith development program at the UUAC in Sherborn. While we have yet to develop this into a terse statement, I thought you might be interested in our initial brainstorm.

At the Unitarian Universalist Area Church in Sherborn…
• We have respect for minds, bodies and souls.
• We believe that grace is real, and that we must be grateful for unearned gifts.
• We believe that revelation is continuous. We are seekers, questioners and stewards of hope.
• Love is our religious ethic.
• We believe that the universe is benevolent. Love wins.
• We know that we are connected to one another in our humanity: in our celebrations, our capacity to love, our sorrows, and our brokenness.
• We believe that suffering is a part of life, not a punishment for living
• We believe that God offers us presence, not protection.
• We believe that God is bigger than any name we give God, and any religion or doctrine that tries to contain God.
• We believe that religion is horizontal, not only vertical. God is present in relationship.
• We offer a ministry of radical hospitality. We are hosts who provide a grand welcoming table for all.
• We believe that we must not think alike to love alike.
• We believe that to whom much is given, much is expected, and thus we use the gifts we have been given wisely – We believe that STEWARDSHIP MATTERS.
• Our task is to grow souls so that we may send forth visible saints into the world.
• We seek to build what Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to as the Beloved Community. We come to church not to be a beloved community, but to practice the ethics of the Beloved Community for use outside our church walls. Practicing being beloved community means treating all people who we encounter as though they are beloved, unique, children of the divine.
• As such, we see church not as a sanctuary from the world, but as a training ground that helps us to live in the world in a way that transforms the world.

May we be a place where these truths are practiced and realized. : the end of ichurch

“We Unitarian Universalists have ar­rived at a breakthrough moment where we must write a new narrative. We have an urgent need for telling, writing, and living the story of who we will be, who we are becoming. We must speak and live the Unitarian Universalist story we want others to know.” -Fred Muir


Have you read this article yet? What do you think? Discuss! : the end of ichurch

via : the end of ichurch.

This Sunday, January 13, 2013

Dear church friends,

This Sunday, children in grades 1st-7th grade will gather in the children’s church for a service on burning, burying, and throwing away grudges with the story “What if Nobody Forgave?” We will sing, pray and meditate, hear a healing message, and ritualize our forgiveness together. We will begin in the sanctuary before being dismissed to the children’s church service. We are psyched to be joined by musician Valerie Anastasio again!

Our babies, toddlers, preschoolers and kindergarteners will meet in their classrooms per usual.

“How clear the path of one who believes, he lives with honour, with honour he leaves.” ( Guru I, Japji)
Our 8th grade Neighboring Faiths class is going on a field trip to the Milford Sikh Temple with their guest speaker from last week, practicing Sikh Ilene Gillespie, and teachers Brad Palmer and Brian Howland! The will meet at 10:00 am in the Fahs room, and leave soon after to get to the 10:30 service at the gurdwara. We expect that they will return at around noon. For more information on the Temple, see this link: PARENTS: BRING YOUR PERMISSION SLIPS!

Coming of Age friends: COME TO WORSHIP. Then come to class. We will be discussing forgiveness by reading the Bible. For those of you who think the Bible is boring, you clearly haven’t read the parables carefully enough, or the frightening and wrathful judgment of the God in the Hebrew scripture. We will read examples of both on Sunday. You are going to love this class.

See you in church,


On Forgiveness: To Love Another Person is to See the Face of God

les mis
by Robin Bartlett Barraza

I just saw Les Miserables in the movie theater when it opened on Christmas Day. Have you seen it yet?

As a young girl, Les Miserables was the STORY OF MY LIFE. I was so miserable, and Les Mis TOTALLY GOT ME. I was a forgotten orphan wearing rags like Cosette (or really, a suburban white kid in New Hampshire whose parents refused to get me a Nintendo), I dreamed a dream in time gone by when hope was high and life worth living like Fantine, and I suffered stabbing unrequited love on my own pretending he’s beside me as a teenager like Eponine. (I just didn’t put myself in the way of the bullet for the guy like she did, thank God. I read in a blog somewhere that Eponine would have benefited from the book “He’s Just Not that into You”. So would have I. Unfortunately, it hadn’t been written yet.)

Those familiar dramatic miserable story lines didn’t have an impact on me as much when I watched this film as an adult. This time, when I watched Les Miserables, I noticed a story line that didn’t get my attention at all as an angsty child or teenager. The character who got my attention this time was the priest played by Colm Wilkinson. You are rolling your eyes right now, I know. “Oh jeez, how predictable,” you are thinking. “Robin is studying to be a minister, so now Robin identifies with the priest. Plus, it’s Colm Wilkinson, who is basically the second coming if you are a musical theater freak.”* The thing is, I don’t actually identify with the priest in Les Miserables, but I want to.

For those of you who don’t know this story, Les Miserables is about Jean Valjean, a man who goes to prison for stealing a loaf of bread for his poor pregnant sister who doesn’t have food to eat. He is in prison for like 27 years before he is finally released on parole, permanently labeled a thief and a criminal for his entire life. After he leaves prison, he can’t get a job because this stigma follows him around. He lives on the street, begging for work and food when a kindly priest takes him in. The priest offers him food at the table with his finest linen and china, which Jean Valjean wolfs down savagely. The priest offers him a warm bed with clean sheets.

Jean Valjean waits until the priest is asleep, steals as much silver as he can carry from the parsonage, and runs out into the streets of France. He is quickly caught and beaten by the police, who bring Jean Valjean and the silver back to the priest’s house. The police say to the priest snidely, “Father, we have found a thief who stole your silver. He tells us you gave it to him.” The priest answers, “I did give it to him.” He turns to Jean Valjean and says, “In your haste to leave, you forgot these,” and hands Jean Valjean two silver candle sticks. The police leave, surprised and angry. The priest says to Jean Valjean, “remember this my brother, see in this a higher plan, you must take this precious silver to become an honest man…I have bought your soul for God.” Jean Valjean is radically forgiven, and sanctified with that forgiveness.

Jean Valjean then goes into a virtual tizzy of guilt and spiritual crisis. His heart hardened by all of those years doing slave labor in jail, he feels so shocked to be captured by the love of God that he goes into a church to cry out in anguish. “Yet why did I allow this man to touch my soul and teach me love? He treated me like any other. He gave me his trust. He called me brother. My life he claims for God above. Can such things be?…I feel my shame inside me like a knife. He told me that I have a soul. How does he know?”

Radical forgiveness causes us to feel the shame of what we’ve done to hurt and harm.
Radical forgiveness reminds us that we have a soul.

Jean Valjean decides to start a new story of his life–one where he works tirelessly to become a benevolent mayor, a worker for justice, and the devoted father of an orphaned girl. Because Jean Valjean is offered forgiveness by another human being and told that he matters, he believes finally that he has a soul, forgives himself and uses his life for good. When Jean Valjean dies, his friends are there to help him die in peace singing “just remember the truth that once was spoken: to love another person is to see the face of God.” That’s the whole message of the musical.

Radical forgiveness heals us, transforms us, and allows us to transform the world in love.

After all, forgiveness means loving another person (including most especially yourself) at one’s most unlovable moments, and is nothing short of a holy act.

But it is not easy. Forgiveness takes trust like the priest showed to Jean Valjean–trust that you have a soul, and that the person you are forgiving has one, too. It takes the ability to recognize your own need to be forgiven–we have greater empathy for the person we are trying to forgive if we recognize our own propensity toward harming others. It takes a great deal of courage–because it involves letting go and being vulnerable, and letting go and being vulnerable is hard. You have to be courageous to let go of old patterns of anger and self-protection. When our heart is softened, it is more easily wounded.

Have you ever been forgiven after you did something that you can hardly forgive in yourself? I have. And I remember thinking at the time, “He told me that I have a soul. How does he know?” I have never felt more wounded, or more loved.

I ask my kids each and every night what they are sorry for. I don’t ask them so that I can rub in their faces the ways in which they have screwed up that day, or to force them to repent of their sins. I ask them so that I may follow up with the assurance that they are forgiven, and always held in my love. I assure them that nothing can separate them from the love of God. I tell them that God loves them the way I do–that nothing they can do is unforgivable.

I do this because I want them to forever have access to their souls. I want them to freely forgive others. Most of all, I want them to freely forgive themselves. I know I need this forgiveness and assurance, so I give it to my kids. Truthfully, it is easy to give it to my kids, who are young and still fairly innocent, and who I love more than anything on this earth or in heaven.

It is much harder to offer this love to the people with whom I am at odds, with people I don’t know or don’t trust, with people who have harmed me. This is why I want to be like the priest in Les Miserables, but have fallen far short. So this year, I’m vowing to forgive as freely as I can. Join me if you’d like, and share your story here.

In the words of Rumi:

Forgive the harm that anyone does.

We are here to be a forgiveness door through which freedom comes.

I weep when I ask that the door not be shut.


This is Colm playing Jean Valjean in a concert version of Les Mis.

*In my “Making of Les Miserables” video from childhood, after Colm Wilkinson, who plays the original Jean Valjean, sings “Bring Him Home” in front of the cast for the first time, one of the cast members says, “I knew that this was the part when we would hear ‘the prayer’, but I didn’t know you were going to actually bring God in to sing it.”

This is a great post on the missional church.

Sunflower Chalice

I am not a fan of the fascination with Church Growth.  Not because there is anything wrong with growing your church or churches in general or even your denomination such as the Unitarian Universalist Association.  What bothers me about the focus on church growth is that I often find the discussion limiting and limited.  Rarely does the conversation leave the topic of numerical growth. How many members? How much money is in the budget?  My concern is one that is at least 40 years old in the Unitarian Universalist Association (see my previous post about Rev. Harry Hoehler’s statement on growth from 1969). The concern is that when we focus on numerical growth, all our mission in the world becomes is to make more of us – more of us in our congregation, more of us in the Unitarian Universalist Association, or more of whatever your faith community…

View original post 527 more words


Repent sinners

by Robin Bartlett Barraza


That’s how I began my first sermon during my intern ministry last fall. It was Rosh Hashanah, and the topic was repentance and reconciliation in the new year as we got ready for Yom Kippur the following week. Most of the congregation cracked up laughing when I said this. I mean, a new intern in a UU church beginning her first sermon with “sinners, repent”. Of course they laughed. The response was probably a cross between a “she can’t be serious!” hilarity and an uncomfortable, “maybe she’s serious!” guffaw. Those are words I had certainly never heard from a UU pulpit in my entire life, after all.

Incidentally, I re-preached the same sermon for a sermon class at my Christian seminary later in the week. I was the only UU in the class. I said the same line, “Sinners, repent!!”, wagging my fingers at them. My colleagues looked at me earnestly and with serious faces intent on what I might say next, not even cracking a smile. When I told them that my UU congregation had laughed at me when I said “sinners, repent!”, they laughed uproariously.

I didn’t know what was more arrogant–me expecting laughs for talking about sin the way many Christian churches do, UUs laughing at the idea of being sinners, or Christians laughing at UUs. Though I was going for laughs, I was truthfully a little uncomfortable when I got them.

Still, there is a big part of me that is relieved that UUs laugh at the idea of sin. That laughter reflects freedom from bondage for some of us. Sin, as a religious concept, has been used to oppress and deny and send to hell and explain away and to harm, harm, harm, harm. I know that. I get it.

My parents found the UU church as a young married couple because they didn’t want to bring up kids with the theology of original sin. They were brought up Methodist and Episcopalian respectively, and weren’t particularly wounded by their church experience growing up. My dad was a (skeptical atheist) who loved church. My mom, despite her quarrels with theodicy, sung in a beautiful church choir that she still misses. But both of my parents couldn’t bear the thought of telling their children that they were born “bad” or “fallen” or “sinful”. They found the UU church simply because they wanted me to know that I was born good. I was wonderfully made with a kernel of goodness in me so strong that I could change the world with my love. As a parent myself, who has held my beautiful, perfect new newborns in my arms and watched as they looked up at me with glowing new eyes, looking at the world for the first time, screaming because they would like to crawl back in the womb where it is dark and warm and safe, I know why my parents felt this way. My children were born good–knitted of goodness and love in my womb, untouched by the terror and grief and meanness of this world. I get it.

I get why my parents brought me up in a humanist UU church where the word sin was never uttered. I was taught that I had inherent worth and dignity. I was taught that sin was for Catholics and televangelist, and used for social control. I was taught that the Adam and Eve story where Eve is responsible for all of the bad things in the world because she ate an apple was sexist.

I was also taught that since I was so good, I was capable of goodness all the time. Of doing good works. Acts of charity; acts of justice.

And this was all true, except when it wasn’t. I wasn’t always charitable and merciful. I was an eighth grade girl once, for instance. I wasn’t even good and loveable all the time in church.

When I was about 6 years old (my oldest daughter’s age now), I played an angel in the church Christmas pageant. I sat next to my best friend in the front row with the other angels while I waited for my turn to go up to the stage. I was SO EXCITED to be an angel…to wear that beautiful white dress and the wings and the halo, to sing all of the Christmas carols in front of everyone…to stand next to the totally cool teenager who was playing Mary and who sometimes babysat me in the nursery.

But I got the sillies that day. My best church friend and I started whispering jokes to one another. We poked each other, and tickled each other. We missed our cue, and the Director of Religious Education had to hiss at us and give us a stern look so we’d go up onto the chancel. Unfortunately, our hijinks didn’t stop once we were up in front of people exposed to the whole church. We stood there during “Angels We Have Heard on High” whispering to each other and telling jokes and laughing. I didn’t even sing the “glorias” I had practiced so faithfully. We missed our cue to leave the chancel, and slunked back to our seats.

At the end of the performance, one of the church elders, a pillar and friend of my mom’s, looked at me sternly in the receiving line and said, “You were more like a devil than an angel up there.” In a church that purportedly did not believe in the concept of original sin, I was compared to a devil by a powerful church adult.

My face turned bright red with shame; my eyes filled with tears. I feared going back to church and seeing this woman, or seeing anyone else for a whole year. I never looked her in the eyes again. The thing is, I knew I was capable of wrong-doing despite being told that I was born good; despite never learning the concept of original sin. When I was called on it, I was very contrite. Even as an eighth grade demon spawn, I was contrite. I knew I was capable of ganging up on other girls with my girl group, capable of hurting my mother’s feelings, or being tremendously mean to my little brother. These facts about myself hurt me. And despite the fact that my parents wanted me to believe I was born good, they were just as swift as any other parent to point out when I had made a choice that was not so good.

Kids are swiftly told all the time when they have done something wrong, aren’t they? They are sternly talked to, corrected, put in time out. Kids know that they are capable of missing the mark. And this isn’t really a bad thing, is it? We hope that kids, like adults, learn from their mistakes. When we are parenting up to our highest standards of parenting, we teach our kids that everyone makes mistakes and fails.

Most importantly, when we are at our best, we teach that there is always forgiveness offered and chances for redemption. We teach kids that despite their wrong-doing, nothing can separate them from Love.

Should we, as Unitarian Universalists, laugh or scoff at the idea of being thought of as “sinners”? What about those of us who lay in bed at night knowing we have done wrong, wanting so badly to be forgiven, worried that we have to be perfect all the time because we were born simply good? What about those of us wondering if there is something inherently wrong with us because we sometimes miss the “good” mark? I worry about the kids and adults who lay in bed at night stewing about their brokenness, sure that it means they are defective rather than fully human. We need acknowledgment of our human capacity to harm, and we need forgiveness. If not from a loving parent, than perhaps from a loving God.

And forgiveness begins with our ability to name and accept our brokenness as a part of our humanity. We can ask for forgiveness once we have admitted what we have done wrong. More importantly, we can forgive others when we admit to ourselves our own human failings…our own human tendency to cause harm. This gives us the brave and bold empathy we need to reconcile with those who have harmed us. It allows us to begin the brave and bold work of forgiving ourselves. We are more apt to forgive others once we have forgiven ourselves, aren’t we?

Kids need this reconciliation and the chance to begin again, too. They need to be able to offer forgiveness and be forgiven. This process starts with acknowledging their own human capacity for wrong-doing; for mistake-making; for harm-causing. Our kids cannot recognize their own inherent goodness and worth without acknowledging their human failings and being offered unconditional love and forgiveness in the face of them.

Let us help one another to know that we are a radically forgiven and loved people by practicing this ethic with one another. Because neither height nor depth nor any other creation shall be able to separate us from Love. (Romans 8:39)

Happy New Year, my faithful people.