Category Archives: Jesus

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!]

Advertisements

We Are Not Better

Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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.