Tag 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!]

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We Share the World with People and Other Hard Things

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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:

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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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.

advent-wreath1

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.