Category Archives: Atheism

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.

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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:

Advent Reflection: Why I Teach My Children to Pray

by Robin Bartlett Barraza

An Advent Prayer

O come, o come Emmanuel,

God-with-us; God-among-us; God-within-us.

You come with the twinkling starlight, reminding us that light returns.

You come with the slow sunlight that beams upon our dark earth in increments of hope,

You come in every human baby, naked, wailing; each and every one born to save.

You come in every evergreen bow and flake of snow.

You are in-dwelling and in every person we meet, and in all of the arching branches of trees,

Ground of our being, You are the ground that will soften when spring’s full light shines down upon our world after the coming winter.

Come, light. Come, peace. Come, Emmanuel.

Amen.

This Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent, which means “coming”, is my favorite time of year because it marks a time of anticipation–of uncluttering our homes for the coming winter–of making space in our hearts for the coming light as it returns to the earth–of anticipating the coming kin-dom of heaven on earth, where peace and joy and justice reign.

This is also the month that we explore prayer at UU Area Church in Sherborn. This is a good thing for me because this twinkling time of darkness and over-consumption and dysfunctional family gatherings makes me want to pray–for light, for transcending earthly desires, for the healing of past hurts.

Sometimes I hear from my fellow UUs that I “pray too much” for their taste, and that I “say God too much”.  As someone who grew up as a UU atheist, who never prayed a day in her life until adulthood, it never ceases to amaze me that I am thought of as particularly pious among my fellow UU brothers and sisters.

So I’d like to tell you a little bit about my history with prayer, and by extension, with God.

Prayer is a hard-won and difficult practice for me…one that helps tenderize my somewhat hardened and forgetful heart; a discipline that helps me carve out time in my day to remember human suffering, to focus on something greater than myself, and to give thanks for all that I have.

Prayer is fraught for me, as well. I often stop to question who or what I’m praying to. I worry that I am an imposter; that God will know I often don’t believe in God. I worry about what I mean by “God” when I say that name aloud. After all, I use “God” as a symbol to express ultimacy and mystery, knowing full well that any symbol we use to describe ultimate meaning is faulty and flawed by definition. Of course, then there are the inevitable questions about whether or not God hears or answers my prayers; whether God is oriented towards Love; whether God cares about me or any other praying person.

And I stumble and mumble when I pray. As someone raised atheist, it likely makes sense to you that I was never taught how. My mother still finds it surprising that she managed to bring me up without my learning.

She asked me last year when I was working as a hospital chaplain for the summer if she had ever taught me the Lord’s Prayer. “No,” I told her. “We didn’t say it at church growing up, remember? I actually learned it as an adult. I mean, sure, I had heard it a lot growing up in a culturally Christian country, but I always got it mixed up with other prayers. I’d try to say it and it would come out something like ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Blessed are the fruits of thy womb, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me, for your’s is the kingdom and the power and the glory (I always loved that part) forever and ever. Amen.'”

My mom said. “Huh. Yeah, I guess I never taught you to pray because I didn’t want you to be as disappointed as I was in God when my prayers were never answered.”

You see, my mother’s older sister died at age 6 of meningitus. After her death, my mom had prayed the Lord’s prayer every night, at the end asking for a little brother or sister. Twice, my grandmother got pregnant, and told my mother that her prayers had been answered. Twice, my grandmother lost the baby at 30 weeks. After the second miscarriage, my mom stopped believing in God, and praying the Lord’s Prayer. It felt like another death to her.

My mom eventually found the UU church as a young adult, vowing to raise her children without God and prayer, not wanting her children to suffer the pain of a God who doesn’t listen, or worse, listens and doesn’t care. As a result, my mom spared me from ever being hurt by an all-powerful, all-loving God who also allows babies to die. As a UU atheist kid, I just wasn’t wounded the way my mom was by God, and I am grateful to have escaped that pain.

And yet, I taught myself how to pray as an adult because I needed a way to express my gratitude for un-earned gifts; to decry my brokenness and the brokenness of the world; to ask for mercy; to express my wonder; to have a symbolic working language for ultimacy. I think we all do this in our own way. My mom sings; I speak, reclaiming a symbolic language that was largely foreign to me, and therefore contains mysterious power.

I teach my children to pray, too. We say grace at meals, and we pray at bedtime. I worry that I can’t explain my nuanced, adult version of God to them; that I will damage them the way my mom was damaged. I soldier on anyway, wanting them to have daily expressions of care, empathy, humility and gratitude; and wanting them to have the symbols to reject, and break, and return to when they need them.

This is how we organize our bedtime prayers. We reflect on three things together in bed. 1) What am I sorry for today? 2) Who am I worried about today? and 3) What am I grateful for today? Sometimes we begin our prayers with “Dear God” and sometimes we begin our prayers with nothing at all. We always end with “Amen”, since that is my two-year-old’s favorite word to say emphatically. And yes, we usually conclude with the Lord’s prayer, because I want them to have some rote prayers to say when they don’t know what to pray. They love the “kingdom, power and glory forever and ever” part, too.

Do you pray in your family? Have daily “thankful fors”? Please continue the conversation in the comments; I’d love to hear your reflections on fumbling through parenting faithful kids, or your own journey with prayer.

Many blessings for peace, hope and love this Advent,

Robin