Category Archives: God

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!]

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.

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.

“I don’t have time for this”, and other jumbled thoughts on time and resurrection

ain't nobody

by Robin Bartlett Barraza

Yesterday, my almost-three-year old dropped a pen on the floor while she was “writing” a grocery list. She groaned loudly, and said, “Ughhh. I don’t have time for this!”

After we peeled ourselves off the floor from laughter, and vowed to stop letting her watch too many Netflix shows (which is where I realize most of her witty beyond-her-years declarative statements like “Don’t even THINK about it!” come from), I thought, yeah. I’m so with you, Eloisa. Who has time for this?

I don’t have time for this.

I imagine you all feel like this most of the time. Your day is packed with work and afterschool-activity-shuttling and committee meetings and trips to the gym, and your car needs new brakes, and you have to do your taxes and you have a big presentation at work and then your health insurance calls with some sort of disputed claim and you think…

Ugh, I don’t have time for this.

Well, I will admit to you that this is how I felt when I found out that I was about to be imminently blessed with a third child. A child born sometime in the beginning of September, when church begins in full swing, and in the middle of an interim period with you all that is only two short years. A child born sometime in September when I was originally supposed to have my credentialing interview to become a minister within the Unitarian Universalist Association. A child born sometime in September when I was supposed to begin my search for a new congregation as a newly minted Unitarian Universalist minister. A child born sometime in September when my older children were slated to begin preschool and second grade, respectively. A child born sometime in September when my family is still healing from the wounds of divorce, and still getting used to new and blossoming relationships. A child born sometime in September when I was still enjoying my post-pregnancy body, light from the lack of inhabitants. A child born sometime in September when I was going to be newly graduated, and *only* have 1 job and 2 kids, rather than a job, graduate school classes, and two kids.

“I don’t have time for this,” I thought.

And then the next thought: this is my blessed, holy reminder that I am not in control, and sometimes the things I would never make time for are the workings of grace in my life. My third pregnancy and my upcoming marriage to the wonderful father of this beautiful unborn boy is proof of the resurrection for me…that there is new life after the little deaths we experience over and over and over again. That love conquers even death.

I’m not in control of time marching on, and what lies in store for me. And this reminder, too, is a blessing, just as a new baby is our precious, miraculously ordinary embodied reminder that life goes on, and not in the neat way we planned it.

Thank you, God, for my lack of control. I know life wouldn’t be as painful if I orchestrated it myself, but life also wouldn’t be as rich.

And thank you for the wide array of choices I do have, God, because I know that they are also a tremendous privilege, and nothing short of your grace at work.

Thank you for the choice to say “yes” and say “no”. The things I say “no” to reflect more and more the things that I am saying “yes” to. And saying “yes” and saying “no” is a vitally important spiritual practice. “No” to soccer practices for my seven-year-old, and “yes” to more family dinners. “No” to joining an extra committee, and “yes” to making more time for singing in a choir. “Yes” to having a third baby, and “no” to the expectations I place on myself to be the best at everything–motherhood, ministry, financial planning, laundry folding. “Yes” to gratitude and gatherings with friends, “no” to hand-wringing and cynicism.

So a little e.e. cummings for you, my friends:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

e.e. cummings
1894-1962

If I could touch God, it would feel like my mom

By Robin Bartlett Barraza

My kids come with me to a church service in the late afternoons on Sundays at Hope Central Church in Jamaica Plain. This isn’t because I have decided to raise them Christian instead of UU; it is because my days at UUAC are long and my two year old, in particular, can’t handle being at church all day without turning into the anti-Christ, and that seems decidedly beside the whole point of going to church. And I need to worship. I need it big time. Working in a church doesn’t allow for that. I thank God every day for the churches that open at times other than Sunday mornings; churches that pastor to the pastors and the pastors’ kids.

So both of my kids are learning to be more Christ-like (I hope!) at a scrappy, spirit-filled, loving United Church of Christ/Disciples of Christ church that I adore with all my heart. My two year old only has to be there for an hour or so, and they let her run up and down the aisles and give her all you can eat “Jesus bread” at the communion table. This is what building the kin-dom is about, my people.

Anyway, this week, while the grown ups reflected on Lent and the nature of God, my kids were in the RE class also learning about the nature of God. They read Sandra Eisenburg Sasso’s book, “What is God’s Name?” Then they were asked what God was like through their senses.

My two year old said:
“If I could touch God, God will feel like my mom,” (which made me cry, and forced me to forgive her for every obnoxious and defiant “no!” She has thrown at me this week. I imagine God would feel like a mother if I touched God, too. Forgiving my every tantrum and my every defiant “no,” with a warm embrace before I fall asleep.)

My six year old said:
“I would feel happy that I found God. It feels soft.”

The two of them said:
“If God had a sound, she would sound like a butterfly and flowers with a low voice.”

“If God were a color, God would be white, of course.” (As a good white liberal, this quote made me turn five shades of red and purple until the teacher explained that my children said they found God mostly in snow. I still plan to pull out Peggy McIntosh’s “unpacking the invisible knapsack” as bed time reading for tomorrow. Don’t worry.)

“If God were music, God would be a big drum….and a harp with a low sound.”

“God looks like a tall building (Eloisa) and God looks like snow (Cecilia).”

My six year old’s question about God:

“How did God turn into a human?”

Her answer:

“With love and happiness.”

Amen.

Don’t be afraid to ask your kiddos what God looks and feels and sounds and smells and tastes like, even if you can’t conceptualize of these questions yourself. Even if you yourself don’t believe in God. Our youngest children are often our best spiritual teachers. We lose that unabashed love and awe of mystery as we get older (though it often returns to us again in our elder-hoods).

You might be surprised by the answers. Your kids may even answer some of your own questions about God.

I’m pretty sure God smells like the intoxicating aroma of baby shampoo mixed with summer kid head sweat as I nuzzle my babies’ little heads before they go to bed, and feels like the exhausted and overwhelming love that cancels out every sibling throw down and every time-out-inducing sassy comment I bore witness to that day.

God also smells like coffee the next morning, after my two year old has woken me up three times at 1, 3 and 5 am. Amen.

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

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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.

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

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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.”

For the Love of God: On Santa and Who’s In

by Robin Bartlett Barraza

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The miracle of the Christmas story to me is the miracle of the incarnation. We are created from the same source, share the same spiritual lineage, and the whole world is our family. Each night a child is born is holy, and a new person is added to our family. I am thankful that the Jesus story teaches that truth.

In my home, we have had a pretty sad year. We have been learning to live apart in our little nuclear family following a divorce last Christmas. As a result, we have been with the darkness for a long time, and we are ready to welcome the light. Solstice is our favorite holiday, since the longest night allows us to enter fully into the darkness before the nights get shorter and shorter. We appreciate the time to cocoon into our houses together, sprinkling our home with sparkly lights until Spring comes again to remind us of our world re-born. My family is ready for that kind of re-birth, and this season is a beautiful reminder that hope comes slowly and surely. I have had weekly and daily reminders that the whole world is my family because of the kindness and grace offered to me and my kids and ex-husband during this time.

We love the waiting and hoping of advent, so we made an advent altar. You can do this too! On it, we have an advent wreath and a creche, and together we light a candle each Sunday on our wreath for faith, hope, peace, and joy, and share a short advent reading.

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On Christmas Eve, we will tell the beloved story of a child born in a lowly manger, whom poor shepherds visited and angels trumpeted the arrival of. I teach my children that the miracle of the incarnation story of Jesus is the idea that God is born in every child, no matter how poor or humble his/her beginnings. I teach them that they have a little piece of God in them–their capacity to love comes from that holy part.

So speaking of the love and goodness of God born into every child, I have been struggling with the “Santa threat” these days, too. Do y’all know what I’m talking about?

I admit to using Santa as a frequent discipline tool because I have young children (“he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, so you better be good for goodness sake”) and it’s easy. It works. My kids stop bickering or drawing on walls or poking at the fish in its tank or whining about brussel sprouts or whatever they are doing when I pick up my IPhone to call Santa, or start singing that song (the Bruce Springsteen version, of course) menacingly.

Lately, I’ve been worried about what this teaches them about unconditional love and getting “stuff and things” based on being good. I know you’ve thought of this, because you are awesome good parents. I can be a tremendously lazy, tired, stressed-out parent, and go for the easiest tool in my toolbox a lot. Santa’s awesome for that. But I’m worried about what this teaches them about God.

I know not all of you believe in God; at least not an anthropromorphic God with the capacity to love. And I know that some of you are probably weary about making proclamations about God to your children, wanting them to come to their own understandings. Me, too. I was brought up atheist and Unitarian Universalist, and I see the merit in that approach. God is a dangerous, fraught, complicated subject to broach with kids.

But I want to teach my kids something about the nature of God because I know what happens in a vacuum. I know that other people will fill in what I leave out. My kids’ll hear from a friend that God will send some people to hell. They’ll hear from a Girl Scout leader that God will only award some of us for good behavior. They’ll hear from an evangelist that God only favors those who believe that Jesus Christ died for our sins. They’ll hear that only some people are in and the rest are out.

I want my children to know this about God, and this only:

GOD IS LOVE.

I drum this into them. And every time they hear something different on the playground, or from street preachers on the subway, I drum it into them again.

GOD IS LOVE.

And then, for good measure, I tell them: God loves all the children, no matter their behavior. God loves your Muslim friends and your friends who live in the projects and your gay, atheist Godmother and your Catholic abuela and your UU grandmother and your divorced parents and the criminals in the jails and the kids called into the office on a daily basis to sit with the principal. Everyone’s in.

GOD IS LOVE.

I say this when I don’t believe it myself, because I want my kids to expand their circles as wide as they can, to right the wrongs committed in the name of God in this world. Everyone’s in, baby. That’s what I want them to know.

GOD IS LOVE.

Santa, of course, is not God. But he is an unmistakable symbol for God. The parallels are obvious. Santa sees you when you are sleeping and knows when you’re awake. He wants good behavior. He has a white beard and lives in an other-worldly place that sounds a lot like heaven to a child. He has a naughty and nice list. He only rewards you for good behavior, and if you believe in him. Sound familiar? This is not coincidence.

If Santa is a stand-in for God, I want my children to know that Santa loves all the people regardless of their behavior; that Santa loves the poorest of the poor children, and that the fact that they receive less does not mean they are less important; less well-behaved; less loved. I want them to know that the prosperity gospel is false. I want them to know that the reason why they receive good things and abundance is random chance, luck and a result of privilege they were born with. It is not because they celebrate Christmas while others don’t. It is not because of good behavior or God’s favor.

Also, I want them to know that I love them regardless of their behavior, and I hate that I teach them differently with the Santa myth.

This is hard, y’all.

What do you do about Santa? I’d love to hear.