Category Archives: Forgiveness

Know Yourself Beloved

beloved

by Robin Bartlett

My three year old is a precocious, rather devious three year old who fools a lot of people, most notably her preschool teacher. Her preschool teacher thinks she’s God’s gift to the preschool. I picked her up at preschool the other day, and her teacher said to me, “your child is the happiest child I have ever worked with in my 23 years of teaching, and she is a pleasure to teach day in and day out. She is a leader among her peers in kindness and joy.” There were tears in her eyes as she said this. I thanked her incredulously and left.

As I put her in the car, my three year old hit her seven year old sister when she wouldn’t give her a toy, and immediately started whining with a whine that could break glass, “I’M HUNGRY! I WANT FOOD NOW! I WANT MY DOLL! I DON’T WANT TO WEAR MY COAT! I DON’T LIKE PEOPLE! I DON’T LIKE YOU!”

I said, “Eloisa, your preschool teacher says you are so happy and so kind at preschool all day.”

Eloisa responded: “What the heck?!”

I said: “But when you come home, you whine and cry and are mean to me, Andy and your sister all night.”

Eloisa responded: “You said it, sister!” (Where does she get this??)

I said: “Do you think you could try being the Eloisa you are at preschool when you are at home sometimes?”

Eloisa responded: “I do what I want.”

I drove home cringing while my two girls fought and whined and the baby cried, wondering if I was going to ever have a pleasant evening commute again. When I got home, I did what any rational 30-something parent does when she has a hilarious/infuriating conversation with her child. I posted the conversation to Facebook. And my Facebook friends gave me some wisdom that we parents all need to hear. They said, in various ways, that Eloisa is whiney and crying at home because she’s had a long day, and expended a lot of energy being “good” and she feels safe with us. At home, Eloisa doesn’t have to try to be the best preschooler to go to preschool in 23 years. She can just be tired, cranky, imperfect, funny little Eloisa.

It’s hard trying to be good all day. Are you tired of it, too? It’s also sometimes hard finding a safe place to be tired and imperfect, especially inside of our walled off, self-critical hearts. And there is something about parenthood that makes perfection impossible at the same time our self-criticism meter is going off the charts. We don’t love ourselves the way we love our children, and we need to.

So, I hope you have a place like Eloisa, inside your house or inside your heart, where you don’t have to be the best at anything; where you don’t have to try; where you just are. The place where you know yourself beloved. We are beloved just by virtue of our birth, and we forget that truth, or we never learned to know ourselves that way. And we are so tired. We use a lot of energy and spend a lot of money trying to be good and look good and live good. It’s not giving us joy or peace. It’s not our status as successful professionals, as financially solvent, as excellent parents with polite children, as perfect righteous liberals; it’s not our status as the BEST RECYCLERS EVER or the person that always sends Christmas cards and finds the best black Friday deals that gives us joy or peace, it’s our status as beloved. We succeed, we are loved. We fail, we are loved.

This is the season of Advent, when we quietly, prayerfully wait for the coming of Jesus, a man who came to tell us what God’s love was like. A prophet who taught us that the kingdom of God is inside of us; that we are pre-forgiven, already loved, already whole. Let’s not try to do Christmas perfect this year. Let’s just try to do it real. Let’s wait for it together with some stillness, being gentle with ourselves. Let’s practice loving ourselves the way we love our children this advent; fully and with forgiveness, despite our whiney, sassy, snarky (occasionally violent, sometimes mean) tendencies. Let’s know ourselves beloved.

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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.

Amen.

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.”

SINNERS, REPENT!!!

Repent sinners

by Robin Bartlett Barraza

SINNERS, REPENT!!

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.