Category Archives: Love

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 II: Retaining Our UU Youth

UU center of the world

I have been asked a lot of follow-up questions about my last post entitled “We are Not Better” (found here: https://uuacreligiouseducation.wordpress.com/2014/04/03/we-are-not-better/). Melissa asked me the following question, and I wrote her a novel of a response that probably deserves it’s own post, so here it is.

Melissa writes:
Can you speak to how the subtle or not so subtle messages of “better” and “not better” may be impacting retention of young (second generation, perhaps?) Unitarian Universalists?

This is a really important question that everyone has been talking about in my circles for the 15 years I have been an adult hanging around the UUA. We know that our retention rate stinks, right? 10% of kids who grow up UU remain UU and we are all dying to know why our churches hemorrhage kids so we speculate a lot about why.

I think it’s a really complicated subject, and I have attacked it from many different angles because there just are a lot of different angles. I think a lot of things impact retention of young Unitarian Universalists, not the least of which is the culture that impacts all Mainline Protestant churches in the United States. The Church is quickly losing its status as the voice of human religion and spirituality. This isn’t Unitarian Universalism’s problem alone, nor is it our fault. I think this problem/opportunity in American religion right now (the loss of our cultural status) very largely impacts UUism. It impacts UUism because UU churches used to be the place where you went because it was the only alternative–-because there was nowhere else to go on Sunday. Now there is somewhere else to go! It’s called Sorella’s–the best brunch place in all of Jamaica Plain, MA–for delicious ginger bread pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream following your kid’s soccer game. Church-going used to be seen as normative and “what one had to do to be a good person,” and so all boats rose together, including ours’. But now church-going is counter-cultural, especially where we live in the Northeast. Now we have to give our children, youth and adults reasons to choose church over other things they could be doing, and that’s a hard task for us.

Many have posited that Unitarian Universalists have a hard time, like all liberal mainline churches, compelling people to choose us over pancakes for the same reason why we have trouble retaining our youth. We churches in the mainline ask very little of our members, and the overwhelming message children receive is that you can “be good” without (God, church, religious community), you fill in the blank. So I think churches like ours ironically contribute to our own demise.

And then there’s this issue of hypocrisy.

We keep hearing that the Christian Church is dying because of hypocrisy, right? Millennials are done with church forever because we all know “those” Christian churches that claim to want to follow Christ and tell us to “love our neighbor”, and then they turn around and have very loud and public fights about who is and who isn’t our “neighbor.” Like the poor United Methodist Church that is being torn apart right now on the gay marriage issue, for instance. We all know that the younger generations just think that’s all a load of baloney sauce, and so they are leaving church in droves. They can see the hypocrisy dripping from it all like syrup on their gingerbread pancakes they are choosing to eat instead of going to church.

Then when you add in the liberal church’s very human tendency toward our own brand of hypocrisy, we have our very own recipe for disaffected youth. Our hypocrisy comes in when we start to self-congratulate ourselves for being the “better” choice: the less oppressive, less offensive, more justice-oriented choice. There are many people who say and think that the reason why we don’t retain our young people is because we haven’t given them the message that we are the “better” choice. That we haven’t cheer-leaded for our own faith enough. That we’ve equated all the world’s religions to the point that it doesn’t matter what religion they choose when they grow. I used to be one of those people, truthfully, and I think this is true in the sense that we don’t do the best job at giving our kids a religious narrative and symbols to use. You know this, because I say it all the time.

But in addition to handing down a sacred text, a theology, and some symbols to engage, I think we would do better retaining youth and adults if we were a little more humble. If we didn’t scoff at the religion of our ancestors so much, or the religion of other people so much. (See my post “Children Will Listen” for more of my thoughts on this subject.) Because overwhelmingly what I find is that people (especially our own kids) can sniff out hypocrisy in churches really, really fast. Just the other day I was over at a colleague’s house with our spouses, and we were voicing frustration about other people who were driving us crazy. My 7 year old daughter whispered in my ear the following: “Mommy, Jesus said to love your enemies. You’re a minister now.” I rolled my eyes and said, “Oh good GOD, who told you that?” She’s right of course. Kids are so, so good at telling us the truth. So is Jesus.

AND if we say we are a liberal religion that honors all paths to Truth, and then a visitor comes in and asks for a prayer, and we scoff and say “we don’t do that supernatural mumbo jumbo here,” (and don’t think that doesn’t happen in UU churches because I’ve heard that story too many times) we are falsely advertising. People have to figure out the orthodoxy of our church after they get here by saying or needing the “wrong” thing, rather than just reading our creeds, beliefs, etc. on our website. We need to recognize, with humility, that we are not better than any other church, nor are we less orthodox. And we need to find freedom and forgiveness for ourselves in that. THIS IS THE AWESOME THING ABOUT BEING HUMAN! We aren’t God! We get to mess up all the time and then ask for forgiveness, and then get it, overflowing, back in our laps. But we also need to say it out loud so our kids know that we see our own tendency to fail to live up to our ideals. We are human just like everyone else, and we create in-groups and out-groups and cultural norms, and “right belief” and “wrong belief” just like any other group of humans. The trouble happens when we self-righteously advertise something we can’t actually deliver.

I think retaining our youth starts with being honest about who we are. And our beautiful, fallible human enterprise of a religion blossoms with that honesty, as well. Now go and be good humans. ‘Cause that’s what Jesus would do (according to my self-righteous daughter, anyway).

Why I Still go to Church

I go to church
by Robin Bartlett

I love this blog post by Sarah Bessey so much, and I commend it to you:

http://sarahbessey.com/think-community-worth-intention-still-go-church/

There are so many things to think and talk and do about and love in this post, aren’t there?

For me, this post says a lot about why we should worship with our kids. I got chills when Sarah wrote: “I want the tinies to know what my voice sounds like when I sing Amazing Grace.” This is why I want my kids in worship, sitting next to me, the whole time. I’ll be honest. I love when the small humans get sung out to “Go Now in Peace” and leave to go to some class somewhere. That’s my peace time. I don’t want them to leave because I want them to be properly religiously educated, but because I get to be still. That’s my time to listen to the big, long sermon that they squirm through without me having to shovel pipe cleaners in my nose to entertain them.

But when I’m really being my best parent self, my best church self, my best good self, the truth is, I want them to stay. I want my tinies to sit with me, snuggled up in the peace of God. I want them to hear what my voice sounds like when I sing Amazing Grace. I want them to hear what my voice sounds like when I choke out the covenant, or the responsive reading. I want them to see that I sometimes shake when I take communion for the privilege it is to come to that open, welcoming welcome table; the gratitude I feel to be fed. I want them to see the other members of our beloved community shaking, too. I want my kids to see the adults around them cry, and I want them to see these people pray. I want them to be bored because someone else in the room needs a good, long message of hope. I want my kids to know what our tradition is and what it means in the form of worship. I want them to be able to return to that worship years from now when they feel like they are failing or falling, or when they feel like love maybe doesn’t conquer death after all. Because they are going to feel that a lot. I want them to have church because I fear the day that they know real suffering. And I’m glad that church is here for when they realize that suffering is just as present for all of us as joy is.

And the other part that stands out to me in Sarah’s blog post is this: “because my greatest wounds come from the Church, so does my greatest healing.” YES. YES. Friends, can I get an amen?

I keep choosing this small family for love and hope and joy. May you do that, too.

Charge to the Minister by the Children

il_570xN.359914421_iz43

by Rev. Robin Bartlett

The children wrote this charge for the Reverend Nathan Detering on the occasion of the ten year anniversary of his installation at the UU Area Church at First Parish in Sherborn, MA. I think all of my colleagues should read it, because it is a charge to all of us. I think all congregations should read it, because it is likewise a charge to congregations.

Children and youth of the congregation, please stand up. Please stand proud. These are the children and youth of this church. Nathan and congregation: these are all of our children. We share the task of caring for them with one another, don’t we? Ten years ago, they were entrusted into Nathan’s, and the congregation’s shared spiritual care. This is a big responsibility, to tend to the spiritual lives of children and youth. Helping these children grow spiritually demands that all of us grow spiritually, am I right, Nathan and congregation? Children and youth, I want you to raise your hand if Nathan is the only minister you have ever had. I want you to keep your hands raised if this is the only church you have ever had. You may sit down.

I asked the children to charge you, Nathan. Kids and adults, if you don’t know what a “charge” is, it’s a fancy church word that means you get to tell Nathan what to do. This is the only charge that you will hear today, in fact. I think that’s appropriate, since it probably matters most what our children see and know. And as we look ahead to the next ten years, we stand poised on the brink of expanding our children and youth ministry here at First Parish, making room in your shared ministry with the congregation–for a new minister dedicated to these kids. We are able to explore this new frontier because of the ministry you have built here with the congregation in the past ten years, Nathan. So this is what the children of all ages of this congregation have to say to you, and about you.

About “Mr. Nathan”, the kids had this to say:

Mr. Nathan is…
caring,
nice,
a friend,
good,
“I love you.”
“Nathan is like Merry Christmas.”
“When I picture God, I picture Nathan.” (I’m definitely adding a class on “idolatry” to the RE rotation in the coming weeks).
He’s the minister of our church and a good one at that.
He loves to rejoice.
He loves to come to our church; it’s like his second home. He loves church.

The children are grateful for your ministry; for who you are, and who you are to them. So here is your charge from the children:

The kids think that in the next ten years, you should do more stuff with them; and interact with them more. Come downstairs and play with us, they say. We have lots of cool art activities, and we have fun. We think you should reference things we understand in the sermons more, because we love when you do that, and we listen to your sermons. We would also charge you to use more technology stuff. We think you should take care of yourself: get more sleep, and make schedules. In particular, we charge you to stop rooting for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Most of the children who wrote this charge with me know you as the only minister they have ever had. You have been here for ten years, and for almost all of them, that’s a lifetime. They know what a good minister looks like because they’ve been watching you. Here’s what the children think are the qualities of a good minister—what a minister is–based on what they’ve learned from you, and they want you to continue to embody these qualities for them:

A good minister is generous and kind.
A good minister is funny.
A good minister knows what they’re talking about and believes it.
A good minister doesn’t have a monotonous voice (that’s from your son).
A good minister has a good heart.

This is what the kids know a good minister does, and they want you to continue to do these things well, along with the congregation:

A good minister teaches the people.
A good minister makes sure everyone is safe.
A good minister is a good neighbor just like in the story of the Good Samaritan.
A good minister says goodbye to people before they die.
A good minister helps people with their problems.
A good minister helps people.
A good minister helps people create peace.
A good minister breathes, just like all people.
A good minister uses big words.
A good minister preaches to the people.
A good minister guides people like the northern star.
A good minister teaches life lessons and laughs and always forgives.

So, Nathan: may you continue to guide us like the northern star, helping us and forgiving us while you guide. May you continue to minister, rejoicing, like “Merry Christmas.” May you continue to teach us, and preach to us about things we understand and don’t yet understand, and may you continue to keep us safe. May you continue to know what you are talking about, and more importantly, may you always believe it. May you continue to be a good neighbor. May you continue to take care of yourself, breathe, and laugh. Nathan and congregation, you have been charged by the children.

Amen.

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:

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.