Tag Archives: Parenting

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

Loving the Hell out of the Suburbs

2013-09-14 21.03.32

by Robin Bartlett

Y’all,

I’m back following my maternity leave. I have a robust two month old named Isaac to add to my supply of beautiful children, making our little apartment bust at the seams with STUFF. And I’ve been thinking a lot about parenting, because that’s one of the things one does when one is on maternity leave, no?

My new husband is also new to newborns, so watching him parent our baby boy has been one of the great gifts of my life. [Truthfully, watching him lovingly stepparent our daughters has been another of the great gifts of my life.] He loves our son Isaac with the fire that one loves a firstborn child. You know, the fire with which you love your first teacher of how to love? The fire that keeps you up at night with fear that you aren’t good enough? The fire that ensures you have nightmares when you do finally fall asleep–the kind that involve you staving off enemies in some perverse kind of tribalism as you fight to feed your family? He’s got that fire. It’s scary and beautiful.

Speaking of scary and beautiful, I’ve also been thinking a lot about hell on earth. Maybe it’s my husband’s hellish nightmares, or maybe it’s because I keep bringing babies into this broken and beautiful world. I have been thinking a lot about why we parents elect to do this impossible, frightening gig.

We know its our job to destroy hells so that we can help make a world worthy of our kids’ promise. But that job is hard, friends. It’s hard. Since our baby Isaac has been born there have been a few mass shootings in malls and Syrian genocide with chemical weapons and a 24 year old math teacher killed by a 14 year old student in a school in nearby Beverly. I want to just cover his little eyes and ears and hope he never learns about any of this. But the fact is that we still chose to bring this baby here, exposing this beautiful, perfect, innocent pre-verbal baby boy we love so much to the evils of this planet home we live in. I think it’s because you and I are eternally against-all-odds hopeful, and believe that the world should go on in spite of itself. Either that or we’re crazy.

Of course, we Americans have the great luck of being born into one of the safer and most wealthy countries in the world. And some of us privileged folk decide to move to the suburbs to shield ourselves and our children even further, thinking that if we get far enough away from the city, we might be able to keep our children safe. A little sanctuary of beautiful lawns and Home Depots and people who don’t talk about the bad stuff.

I have a confession to make. I live in the city, and I have always had suburban envy. Particularly in the summer when you all have barbeques. I covet the backyards that look so safe and quiet. And the pools!  You see, for the past eight years, I have always had a reverse commute–living in the city of Boston and serving UU churches in the beautiful suburbs of Eastern Massachusetts. The three vibrant, active, churches I have served, responding to their mission to love the hell out of this world, spend a lot of time trying to find mission fields outside their own neighborhoods. The churches I have served have done all kinds of beautiful work in New Orleans and Uganda and Haiti. The churches I have served have spent lots of time figuring out how we can feed and house the nearby community of Boston and its inner-city neighborhoods, as if that’s the only place where violence and hunger manifests around here.

I used to live in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, and now I live in Roslindale. When I lived in Jamaica Plain, I lived next to a low income housing cooperative, and it was loud in the summer. There was loud music, loud yelling, loud fighting. Everything was loud. One day, a woman was out in the parking lot fighting with a boyfriend on a hot summer night. He got in his car and he hit her with it. She screamed obscenities. Everyone came out of their apartments. I called 911 and an ambulance came to take her to the hospital. She screamed words that would make the most hardened prisoner blush as they strapped her to the gurney and her boyfriend proceeded to lie to the police officers about what he had done.

I remember telling my boss, the Rev. Parisa Parsa, about this whole episode the next day. She pastors a suburban UU church in Milton where I used to be the Director of Religious Education, about 5 miles and a world away from my neighborhood. “I can’t bring my children up in this neighborhood,” I said to her. “What if they had been awake and heard that? I need to move to the suburbs.”

And I remember what she said to me so clearly. “Robin, it is almost refreshing that in your neighborhood that stuff happens out in the open,” she said. “Here in the suburbs, the same things happen and kids can’t talk about it. They are sworn to secrecy…the cultural norm is silence. The domestic violence, the terrifying fighting, the vicious quiet racism that is masked by polite fights about housing and school systems, the substance abuse…it’s all a secret here. Everybody pretends it’s not happening. People feel crazy and alone like they’re the only ones. Be thankful that it’s out in the open where you live. At least you get to talk about it; to address it with your children. Here, the pain and shame is hidden and insidious like poison.”

Hell is all around us; even, I suspect, in the Metrowest suburbs of Massachusetts. Hell is in our separation from one another, our loneliness and isolation, our fear of losing our houses and jobs in the economic downturn, our credit card debt, our panic, our drug addictions, our shame, our secret alcoholism, our secret domestic violence, our SECRETS IN GENERAL, our cancer diagnoses, our mental illnesses, our need to consume, to buy more, to one-up and keep up with the Joneses. Hell is in our depression and our inauthentic relationships with the people we are trying so hard to impress. Hell is in our lack of trust of our neighbors; the way we cover up the bad things. Hell is here, and we live in it.

So, I think our mission as parents is to start living truthfully and loving extravagantly. Our mission is to start admitting to each other that parenting is hard, and that we need one another to do it. Our mission is to stop trying to look good to everyone else, and instead to try to be good to each other. Our mission is to stop creating busy-ness for ourselves and our kids as if being busy will miraculously save our children from everything we fear. Our mission is to start telling the truth about what’s real in our parenting and marriages, and to ask for help from those around us. Telling the truth helps. That’s how we destroy hell; to live up to our children’s promise.

And that’s why we come to church. Not for programs that will add to our busy-ness, or cram more ideas into our kids’ heads for the sake of well-roundedness. Not to make ourselves look good, but to help us be good. We come to church to be connected to one another and to the Holy, and to figure out how to make this earth as it is in heaven, one little truth-telling experience at a time.

Spirit of Life and Love in Whom We are One,

You who love the hell out of us; who gave us this beautiful earth and each other

So that we might learn to be good stewards of that which has worth, and to love abundantly, holding fast to what is good.

We desire to know what it means to fill this world up with more love.

We desire to be the hands and feet of the kingdom of equals—to incarnate this love and justice everywhere we go; from the city to the suburbs to the exburbs to the rural areas to the forgotten places in this empire.

We want to do this because we love this world, and we know how hard it is to live in it sometimes.

We also come in pain—grieving from our own internal hells, some hidden, some so on the surface that we could never keep them secret:

We pray for an end to sickness; for an end to loneliness; for an end to despair; for an end to the pain that comes from lost relationships, severed ties, broken love.

We pray for an end to our addictions—to food, to alcohol, to shopping, to compulsive exercise and gossip and drugs and lying and credit cards and Facebook.

We pray for an end to our anxiety; anxiety that comes from uncertain financial futures, and parenting children long outside the safety of our wombs; and the fear of being found out; and the fear of being authentically who we are in a world that asks us to mask ourselves in who we are not.

We pray for the ability to come out of the shadows, and for the ability to live risky and vulnerably. We know it is never too late.

We pray all of this for love’s sake.

Amen.

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.

20130225-224417.jpg

Following a School Shooting…

heart-candle-image1

Fellow mamas and papas whose hearts, like mine, are walking around outside your bodies on a daily basis: my arms are wrapped around you, and we are huddled around a candle together, shuddering against the cold and keeping each other warm. We are looking for the helpers on the news so we can remember that hope comes in human form. We are praying kyrie eleison. I don’t know if it is biological imperative or insanity that leads us to bring innocent, perfect, beautiful babies into this brutal world, but it takes a whole lot of hope and courage to keep doing this gig. We just keep letting them leave our wombs and our homes and our sanctuaries despite all that we know about brutality and terror and violence, because we are brave and we want our children to be. Because we know love wins. I salute all of you today and all days, my fellow broken-hearted, hopeful, courageous and beautiful parents. God bless you all, and keep you; you and your children.

For more information about how to help your children in the wake of this shooting, go to this link:

http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/aftermath.aspx

I will post more information from the UUA when it comes out.

In grief and love,

Robin

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

by Robin Bartlett Barraza

184531_512101135491259_238488260_n

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.