Tag Archives: church

We Are Not Better

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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.

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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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A 328 Year Marriage

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by Robin Bartlett Barraza

Love is the spirit of this church. That is a true statement. Ours is a non-creedal church, meaning what binds us together–what connects us–is not a statement of belief. Rather, what connects us is a way of being together with one another in community. And, love, it strikes me, is a pretty fine way to endeavor to be together. We openly affirm that it is more important to love alike than to think alike. So, rather than trying to agree on a doctrinal statement of belief, we try to cultivate a loving community. As we embark on the pledge season, we have been reflecting on the nature of covenant around here.

We recite this covenant every week:
Love is the spirit of this church, and service its law. This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.

We talk about covenants and covenanting a lot without spending a lot of time exploring what we mean by the word. We have a covenantal theology—a theology in which our commitment to the holy is lived out in relationship to one another. This is sustained through hard work, commitment, and with the need for a lot of humility and forgiveness.

Possibly the covenant that we are all most familiar with is the marriage covenant. We covenant with another person (and often, with God and all that is holy) to walk together in love for a lifetime, keeping promises to one another through the bitter and sweet things this world throws at us and our relationships. A lot of us know that this is intimate, back-breakingly hard work—living with someone who is not you. About half the time, it is actually unsustainable work, and some of us break our covenants irreparably.

Well, our church has sustained itself and its covenants for a long time—longer than most of us can imagine. Our covenants, I’m sure, have been broken and broken again, but never irreparably. Can you imagine? This community of memory and hope is 328 years old. Three hundred and twenty-eight years old. Pause with me to reflect on a 328 year marriage. Can you imagine being married—cultivating a relationship of love and compromise and hope and dreaming—for 328 years? Think about what this might entail; what relationship issues one might encounter; how one might weather all of those storms and sustain all of those good times. Imagine all of the leaders and the deaths and the births and the promises and the failures and the quarrels and all the soaring joys.

And then imagine trying to manage all of those relationship issues—together with people you would never choose—in a flawed institution you did not create. Imagine trying to negotiate and renegotiate your goals and marriage contract and vows throughout CENTURIES—helping one another try your best to speak the truth in love. Imagine trying to be a family for three hundred years—a family that quarrels and breaks up and comes back together, and changes and grows and almost dies, and is reborn again. A family who weathers storms and deaths and who creates new babies, and builds new homes, and tries to keep a roof (and a steeple) over its head. A family that raises its kids as best it can; figuring out new ways to be creative in that endeavor as the family grows or shrinks; or the times change, and new things have been learned. We are a centuries old church family, and we have only survived by acting as parts of one body—convinced of our ministry in the world, nurturing the uniqueness of each individual of the body, while remaining unified not in thought or belief, but in Love.

We have managed to do all of this while at the same time remaining deeply committed to the Democratic process; without centralized authority; without creedal tests. Our marriage is time-tested and strong, and like every good marriage needs constant creativity, re-negotiating, communication and a whole lot of fun to last and thrive.

May we affirm the Love that has sustained us in memory and hope, and may we honor our founding ancestors by committing to each other anew year after year. A toast to 328 more years together. Mazel tov!