Beginning in Our Homes and Congregations
September 30, 2010
I have gone to a lot of church services in my time. Wearing Mary Jane shoes and white stockings when I was eight, in a blue coat with a velveteen collar my mother had made, sitting next to my little sister in her coat, identical to mine, trying not to wiggle in the pew, making check marks as the sections of the order of service finished: hymn number one, pastoral prayer, scripture reading, sermon. I loved checking off the sermon. My cousin Ed the Brave would carry a transistor radio in his pocket and run the earphones up through his shirt so you could barely see the wire carrying music or a ball game to his ear. Big plain windows, eggshell walls, red carpet. I think the most exciting thing that ever happened in church was when the man in front of me held so still that during the entire service a small spider was able to spin a web in the angle of his neck, stretching the silk from his ear to the shoulder of his gray suit, making a perfect design that was only disturbed when he rose to sing the last hymn.
We colored in our bulletins and we looked through the hymnals and made ourselves giggle by adding “between the sheets” to their titles. A Baptist friend says she and her friends added “in the bathtub.” “Turn Back, O Man” between the sheets. “We Three Kings of Orient Are” in the bathtub.
Years ago I came into this community of a freer faith. I’m home. I listen to people talk sometimes about liberal religion, that it’s a thin gruel, watered down to please everyone. Our seven Principles, they complain, are either too much like a creed or so general as to be meaningless.
My experience of the Principles is that they are deeply demanding. The first one asks me to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, which means that I can no longer subscribe to the cheerful Calvinist doctrine of the total depravity of human nature. It sounds grim, but really, if you are in fact starting with a totally depraved nature, the opportunities for self-congratulation abound: “Hey, I didn’t knock over a 7-Eleven this afternoon, even though money’s pretty tight. I’m doing well!”
Now I have to struggle with the worth and dignity of people who do unspeakably awful things, whereas the doctrine of total depravity made that one a no-brainer. I’m supposed to value the democratic process, hearing the voice of everyone equally, allowing everyone to have a say. The UU Principles are demanding enough to make me whine. For those who feel they are thin gruel, I have a suggestion. Let’s stick something onto the end of every principle that will stop people from smiling and nodding comfortably as they are read. Instead of adding “in the bathtub,” or “between the sheets,” how about attaching: “beginning in our homes and congregations”?
Then we’d be faced with affirming things like “the goal of …peace, liberty and justice for all, beginning in our homes and congregations.” Everyone who has raised children knows that peace is often at odds with liberty, and that justice demands a disturbance of the peace. To put those three together in one principle is outrageous and lovely. It’s easier to think about working towards them in a global context than in the context of Cheerios and pajamas, car keys and cleaning up one’s bedroom.
“Justice, equity and compassion in human relations, beginning in our homes and congregations” is a sobering ideal. I don’t know about you, but I have sat in meetings about right relations and seen people get testy with one another. Some of the nastiest behavior I’ve seen was long ago at a community workshop for peace activists.
Lao Tse, quoted in the back of our hymn book, says peace in the world begins with peace in the home, which begins with peace in the heart. If I start with my own heart, the demands of our principles get even heavier. Peace and compassion in my heart? Justice too? Freedom as well? Affirming the worth of every person all the time, not only with my words and my behavior but in my secret heart? If we added “in the heart” to the Principles, they might as well just say “Be Jesus” and be done with it. I’m sorry I even brought it up.
For me, the heart of the faith is to be connected to something greater than yourself, to wallow in the Spirit of Life, Love and Truth, to have fair trade coffee and important conversations, standing for love, standing against quibbling, complaining, flouncing off and being easily offended, moving toward being in right relationship with ourselves, one another, and the planet. For me, this faith isn’t a thin gruel. It’s not even a rich and hearty gruel. It’s walnuts and bananas, pancakes, mangoes, arugula, ginger and avocado. The feast is prepared with effort, enjoyment, persistence and commitment. Care to join me?
September 30, 2010
I have a photograph in my online art collection titled “Broken Buddha.” It shows the lap of a painted statue. One graceful hand has broken off and is resting on the sole of an upturned foot. I’m trying to figure out why I’m so drawn to this image. The enlightened one as imperfect, cracked and chipped. Maybe that is how my enlightenment feels. It is not all that shiny any more. A piece or two might have gotten knocked off.
I don’t know why it makes me remember a woman – we’ll call her “Julie Gates,” who was a pillar of my husband’s Presbyterian church, and the way she looked down at me. She couldn’t help it – she’s a tall person. Tall, slender, righteous, well put together in pumps and pearls. Julie was a community saint and icon who had founded “Senior Communications,” connecting the elderly all over town. Whenever her name was mentioned, someone would breathe out reverently: “Oh, she is wonderful,” and everyone around would nod with downcast eyes and soft faces. She and her husband were to leave that church within a year because it “wasn’t Christian enough.”
“How are you enjoying being a mother?” she asked me. We had two small boys, one maybe five years old and one still a toddler. My husband, the minister, was gone a lot and I was juggling a therapy practice, mothering and being a writer. “I love it,” I said, “I mean, I’m tired of changing diapers, but the rest is great.” It’s the kind of thing parents say to one another to make the connection of telling the truth about one’s life. Most people would touch your arm with a warm smile full of understanding and your hearts would beat together for a moment leaving both of you strengthened. She did not touch my arm. She fixed me with an intense gaze and said “I loved changing diapers. I loved every minute of raising my children. Every. Minute. My heart sank. I don’t know what her heart was doing. I couldn’t feel her heart anywhere. There is nothing crueler than suggesting to a young mother that she is not a good one. She quietly suspects that’s true every single day of her life. I say “my heart sank,” but that is only half the truth. It sank into a fighting stance with both hands raised.
This particularly crappy combination of sweetness and meanness had been coming at me from church people since I was eight years old. There was a line to toe; there was a circle of approved thoughts and behaviors within which to stay if you were to be a member of the group in good standing. If it looked as though you were about to stray, the enforcers descended with that exact tone. “Oh, you don’t think that,” they would say with a tinkling laugh. A spiritual person was supposed to be “victorious,” triumphant in conquering of life’s difficulties, praising God in the midst of any circumstance, grateful for whatever came, peaceful in the heart, always. If you didn’t feel it, by god you should just act as if you did, or it would spook all the other horses in the pasture. The Broken Buddha says not to be scared of being imperfect.
I’ve met some non-Evangelicals with that same cruel but somehow comfortable world view. As a practicing therapist I met lot of people who trusted in therapy. They would speak as if you could “get help” for any situation and handle it with your head held high, your intellect clear and your feelings in good order. If you get healthy enough you’re supposed to be able to go through even a nasty divorce with peace in your heart. If something disturbing disturbs you, you should get help. The broken Buddha tells me that sometimes agony is appropriate.
The part of me I’m least proud of imagines that this Buddha’s hand detached when he reached out to someone who said something on the order of “Everything happens the way it should” and slapped them silly. In a dream workshop I was leading, an older woman was sharing her grief at having lost her son in his twenties to melanoma. They hadn’t seen it because it was under his hair. A woman across the table tilted her head and spoke in that breathy voice that some people feel makes them sound more spiritual. Here eyes were wide too, and she didn’t blink. “Have you ever thought about why he might have wanted to draw that suffering into his life? Why you might have wanted to draw it into yours?” The broken Buddha tells me that life is not neat. It is gorgeous and horrific and beyond understanding. We may create certain situations, draw certain things, but other suffering strikes like a tiger from the tall grass, snatching you from one life into another without cause or warning.
I meditate on the broken hand of the Buddha and it comforts me. It tells me that the spiritual moves in and through cracks and gaps, it is wild and it doesn’t make sense. It sits with you even through something that can’t be fixed by intelligence or kindness or love. Curious about the statue, I learned that his broken hand is in the “Karana Mudra,” the shape used for warding off demons.
“The enlightened one is still whole,” one of the comments under the photo reads. Someone was made nervous by the Buddha’s broken hand. The one who wrote that comment wants it to be true but he doesn’t know. Maybe you can be enlightened and broken too. Sometimes I feel like I understand so much, that I can be a lot of help to people. Other times my mind is blank and there is nothing in my mind or heart to say but “I’m so sorry.” I want to reach out but my hand is lying in my lap, still in a shape of warding off demons of fear and illness, financial terrors and loss, but I can’t do anything with it. The broken Buddha says he knows how I feel. Our hearts beat together for a time and we are both strengthened.
from Star Island
December 17, 2009
CRAVING JALAPENO THOUGHTS
By Tricia Hart
Our week of cultivating the seeds of a spiritual (or spirited) life began Sunday morning with the Rev. Meg Barnhouse urging us to passion. Many were glad to hear the familiar words of Meg’s song “Mango Thoughts in a Meatloaf Town” to start the theme talk. Thanks to Meg and Kiya Heartwood’s rendition of it, though, I now understand it less as a funny lament about being at odds with one’s culture, and more of a call to action.
Meg told the Hindu story of Guha, who resisted the efforts of the priests to bring him to God. Guha’s resistance was unrelenting, persistent, angry, even violent: every day, without fail, Guha kicked the statue of Shiva that the priests had brought him. Guha’s faithful hatred never flagged (even when the weather was inclement). And in the end, Shiva claimed Guha as his most faithful servant.
Meg said that our passions connect us to what we love, and also to what we hate. It’s good to pay attention to all of these… to figure out what is calling us and to respond, even when our response is not as beautiful as we might like. “Be hot, be cold,” scripture teaches, “just not lukewarm.” It is better to be passionate, persistent, and faithful—to remember that though every person has worth and dignity, their opinions may not. “Sometimes ideas are just stupid,” Meg said. It can be our work to respond, “Move over move over move over now; You’re standing in the Spirit’s way.”
“Be alive, awake, mad, faithful… and if you’re wrong, change!” An exhilarating message for this and every week. We are so lucky to have Meg and Kiya here—and one another, too—to provoke and cheer us on.
Meg invited us into an “Amen!” corner; or, as with her former congregation in South Carolina, to hang out in another corner where the response is “Or not…” Don’t miss it—we need all of our voices, and our passions.
New UU World article
October 30, 2009
column: The Devil and Martha Stewart
October 16, 2008
THE DEVIL AND MARTHA STEWART SHJ 10/08
Long ago, I asked for Martha Stewart’s gardening book for Christmas, and I devoured it. The photographs of peonies and okra were luminous. Even th e pictures of her garden in the winter, under snow, showed patterns of stone walls, brick walkways, hand built trellises, a gazebo, and an herb garden in a knot pattern. Month by month she instructed me what to do, from starting seedlings to painting concrete urns. She taught me to prune trees and to make a poached pear dessert with the pears that came from my..... well, I didn’t actually do that. All I had in my garden were tomatoes, beans, and zinnias. I was a long way from pear trees. I wondered how she did it all. I felt clumsy and inadequate until I learned she sleeps four hours a night and has a staff of helpers standing by to follow her every instruction.
I’m not here to trash Martha, bless her heart. I just want to look at how she affects some of us. There is something in many of us that wants to be perfect. It comes from the fear we all carry of not being good enough-- that there is something secretly wrong with us that is not wrong with anyone else, a deficit we must cover and adjust for in all our interactions. It can drive us to try to control everything around us, to make everything and everyone do just right.
Perfectionism makes us weak – rigid, exhausted, afraid of trying something we don’t already know how to do, more critical of ourselves and others than we should be. In all its aspects, perfectionism leads to more fear and less love. Spiritual people are trying to go the other way: more love, less fear.
Martha makes some people feel clumsy and incompetent because we are comparing our insides to her outsides. We know how unruly, unkind, and inadequate we are because we see ourselves inside and out. Mostly we only see their outsides. We don’t know what goes on with someone who looks like they are doing everything just right. We don’t know their private, internal struggles. We compare our insides to their outsides, and we come up short.
Martha Stewart is not the problem here, it’s the devil. Let me explain. “Satan” in the Hebrew, means “the accuser.” When I say it’s the devil who is the problem I’m talking about that voice inside most of us that whispers “You are not quite adequate. You’re a weak specimen, a broken reed, a slight disappointment to your mother and father. You have a shameful laziness, and you might be a touch stupid.”
Do you know that accusing voice? That is the voice that fuels the fires of perfectionism. Especially here at the holidays, when we want our home to be in perfect order, decorated with taste and style, we want the food we make to be gorgeous and nutritious, and all family interactions to be respectful and loving. That accusing voice will find plenty to drone on about.
&nb sp; What I want to say is that I think “the devil” is that spirit of fear that drives us into meanness and anxiety, which saps our good will and clouds our compassion. The spirit of love is where our allegiance lies as good people, soulful people, people who want to make the world better place. Love is always in dialogue with fear in our spirits and bodies and minds. Let love win.
Column "Love Can't Fix Everything"
August 29, 2008
What Love Can’t Fix
I was sitting with a group of UUs talking about the shooting in Knoxville when one person said of the shooter, “He just never had any love.” Never one to err on the side of gracious silence, I snapped “He most certainly did have love. I know one of the women who loved him, and she loved him fiercely.”
I am a card-carrying liberal, and I think what David did (we called him Jabbo) was evil. I met Jim David Adkisson several times, once at a wedding in his back yard and then at SUUSI, the UU Summer Camp in VA. His then-wife Liza used to attend the Tennessee Valley UU Church. I don’t think Adkisson is evil, but the horror he perpetrated on the Tennessee Valley and Westside UU congregations was. I can’t explain his opening fire during a worship service by saying he wasn’t loved. Five women loved him enough to marry him. I used to look forward to UU summer camp so I could sing with Liza, his then wife. She loved him fiercely, as I said. They used to talk about how they were soul-twins. He had a family who loved him too, and he loved them. His mom, his dad, his sister who was a nurse… they loved him. He had good loyal friends too. Unfortunately, some of those friends loved drinking and doing cocaine with him. The day I went to my friend Catharine’s wedding in Jabbo and Liza’s back yard was a lovely day. The wedding was fun, with lots of music and laughing, great tattoos on most of the guests, and lots of drinking. I lit the fireworks during the wedding, stone cold sober, of course.
Fast forward ten years of hard drinking and drug use, losing Liza because of his threats to end her life and his, the paranoia that is the hallmark of cocaine abuse, loss of job after job, the self-righteous scapegoating of “liberals and gays” encouraged by right wing blowhards, the twist in his heart every time he drove past his ex-wife’s church, and you have the storm that struck Unitarian Universalists on July 27th.
I wish I had a solution to the ills of society. All I have here is a small addition to the conversation among liberals about people who do evil things. Jabbo had lots of choices and lots of chances. Maybe it was brain deterioration from the substance abuse, maybe it was the right-wing hate-mongering, maybe it was poor impulse control resulting from a chemical imbalance his was born with. Whatever advantages and disadvantages he started with, he participated with his sovereign free will in making himself what he is today. I think that is more respectful of him and his inherent worth than to imply that he couldn’t help what he did, that he was on some kind of predestined track to disaster.
Sometimes there is brokenness that just can’t be fixed. I’m sorry to say that, but as a minister who worked in the mental health field for twenty years before working full time at a church, I know that love can’t fix everything. Anyone who has been partnered with someone who becomes increasingly isolated in their own reality, who is ill and refuses treatment, or who is in the grip of addiction – anyone who has tried to love someone enough so they get well knows that. Love cannot always be sweet and outreaching. Sometimes love must be challenging. Sometimes it is more loving to leave someone than to stay. It sends them a powerful message that what they are doing is not okay.
Our churches, likewise, can’t help or fix everyone. Living in a covenant community is hard work, and it necessitates our staying on our medication, by which I mean staying in as right a mind as is possible for us. Sometimes a person is not in a place in their life when they have the mental, emotional and spiritual resources to be part of a covenant community. Covenant communities can be hard on their members, too, because they don’t always work the way they say they want to work. You have to have a certain sturdiness to bear that. I hear folks say that, if Jabbo had come to a UU church, he would have been helped. My friends, he came to UU summer camp, as his argumentative, gun-loving, right-wing, liberal-blaming self, and he was argued with, of course, he was derided for being part of the Boy Scout organization and for his right wing views. He felt disrespected and shunned. We love to think of ourselves as open minded, but it’s hard for us to be open minded toward certain people and their views. Maybe it’s just me that has a hard time, but I think I’m not alone in this. I argued with him too. I do affirm the worth and dignity of every person, but I never promised to affirm the worth and dignity of every idea. Some ideas are oppressive and not well thought-out. They lead to violence and injustice and really bad behavior. I try to argue with respect and kindness, but it’s hard when the person you’re talking to acts like a jerk. If I were the Dalai Lama or a UU saint, I would be able to, and I hope that will come in the future, but I am sure not there yet.
I understand wanting to find an explanation for his choice to shoot liberals while a group of their children were singing “Tomorrow” from the show “Annie.” If we can explain it, maybe we feel we have some control in the situation, some understanding of ways to prevent it happening to us. Life is dangerous. It is hard and sweet and adventuresome, full and mysterious and way, way beyond our control. We do what we can. I lived in Israel for a time, where we all stayed alert to odd behavior, abandoned packages, money lying on the sidewalk that might be wired to explode when you picked it up, people sweating in the cool air, wearing long coats in the summer time. We are all part of the world, even in our churches, and we need some people to be alert so the rest of us can relax our guard when we gather.
I would like to understand all of the reasons why a person would do something evil, but that’s not a pressing need. I’m not sure we’ll ever understand. I think the capability for destruction is within all of us, given certain pressures. What I do need is to hear stories of courage and kindness. I need the heroes, like Greg McKendry, like the men who wrestled Jabbo to the ground and kept him there. John Bohstedt, one of those men, was playing Daddy Warbucks. He tied Jabbo up with the Daddy Warbucks costume’s suspenders. I need to hear about the UUA Trauma Team, which has received nothing but the highest marks for their swift, sensitive and extraordinarily competent work with the traumatized and grieving people. I need to hear about the churches of Knoxville, liberal and conservative evangelical churches, whose members pitched in with love and compassion, bringing food and caring for people as they gathered. I need to hear the story of the hotel clerk who gave my friend Jim McKinley, the minister at the Hendersonville, North Carolina UU, a discount at his Knoxville hotel when the parking lot attendant saw his Unitarian Universalist license plate holder. I need to hear about the Mayor of Knoxville, who ordered city workers to clean up the crime scene quickly so the congregation could reclaim the sanctuary. Most of all I love to hear the story of how the cast of “Annie Jr,” after debriefing with the trauma team, came to Chris Buice, minister of the Tennessee Valley UU Church, fifteen minutes before the service on the Monday after the shooting. They asked if they could sing “Tomorrow” again. Jim McKinley and Clark Olsen, who were there, described the children singing with tears on their cheeks, people with lit candles in their hands, unable to clap at the end, lifting the flames high and stamping their feet, whooping and shouting for those kids, for that song, for the knowledge that tomorrow will come.
Column: "Letter to a New Parent
August 29, 2008
A friend of mine is going to have a baby, a little boy. My two boys are tall and funny and heartbreakingly themselves -- and nearly gone. I feel like I know something, which a fairly new feeling for me on the parenting front. Even thought he did not ask me for any advice, here’s what I wrote to him:
“I do not know why people try to scare you when you have a baby, as soon as they hear your news they go unswervingly to the horror stories. They’ve probably been scaring the baby’s mother for months now with stories of pregnancies gone wrong. If they can’t think of bad-seed kid stories they say “Wait until you have a teenager...” I want to tell you something a little different. Have fun is what I say. Enjoy this baby and enjoy your newly expanded heart.
The first thing that happened when my first son was born was that I fell in love so hard and fast it took my breath away. It was enough for me to sit and stare at him, smelling his head, watching his breathing, drinking in the fact of his presence on the planet. I carried him around like a delightful football everywhere I went. Any which way I carried him was fine with him, because he was as in love as I was. Plus I had milk, which made him very happy. We hung out and smooched and sang and did “baby-cize,” where I would touch his toes to his nose and count, which made him laugh.
It wasn’t all bliss, of course. There was that time he was up in the night for the fourth time, crying. Babies have no manners and they do not care about your getting enough sleep. I remember waking my husband, telling him I had a sudden fantasy of opening the window and tossing the baby out, just to get some rest. “I’m up,” he said. “You sleep.”
Babies are fascinating, and they’re an astonishing amount of work. They get even better as they get older. They start talking, for one thing. That’s a big milestone. They ask questions, start practicing “no,” and they tell you they love you. That makes your life rich. Another milestone was when he could climb into his own child seat, ending the lifting, bending and buckling. He did not like that seat when he was smaller, and several times I would have to stop the car and rescue him from hanging head down into the floorboards, screaming with frustration, his ankles being the only part of him that was still in the seat. One long ride I remember having a bag of red balloons next to me in the front seat, blowing one up, holding it so he could see it and grab for it, then letting it go screaming out the window, which made him laugh. We left a trail of deflated red balloons down highway 17 that day. My apologies to the clean-up crew. It was red balloons or screaming insane despair. Mine and his. Is that too strongly put? No. Getting himself dressed was another milestone, then, much later, doing his own laundry followed by driving himself to school. Now he likes rock climbing, and hard-core drumming, he’s dressing himself every day, studying to be a doctor, designing his own tattoos, loving a young woman so hard they’re talking about marriage. I still look at him and see that baby, the toddler, the skater-punk eleven year old.
Your baby will be who he is from the moment he comes into the world. He will turn out a little like you and a little like his mom and a lot like who he already is. You’re right about the child-rearing project being improvisational from the first moment. My mother told me to trust my instincts instead of books, but I did find two which were helpful. “Children the Challenge,” a book from the forties about how to avoid power struggles with your child. You say things like “you may scream like that if you want to, and I’ll sit with you out in the car, or you may speak quietly and stay with everyone here in the restaurant.” Or “It’s time for bed now. Would you like to go right now or in about five minutes?” The other one was: “How to be Your Dog’s Best Friend,” a book about training German Shepherds by the Monks of New Skete. It was about how your job was to make your child/dog/whichever a pleasant companion in the world, which takes patience, consistency and boundaries. I see shocked faces when I say that a book about dogs helped with my boys, but lots of the same things are true for humans and dogs. Instead of only correcting them when they do wrong, you try to “catch” them doing it right, and praise them for that. They like knowing who is in charge, and they’d rather it be you. I learned that from the monks.
I worried some about my sons getting hurt. I worried more about them becoming fearful. I remember letting my younger son climb up on a chair to turn on the light by himself. I watched and held my breath. What if he fell? I figured, though, that making him fearful in the world would be a more severe injury than a bruise or even a broken bone trying out something for himself.
As the boys grew, they wanted to chatter to me about their toys, their friends, their video games. They wanted to re-tell the movies we’d seen. It tried my patience sorely sometimes, but I would say to myself: “This is an investment in their talking to me when they are teenagers. If I don’t want great hulking teens who just grunt as they pass me in the hall, I need to listen now.” At the supper table, when they wanted to be excused to go play, I would ask them first to ask each person at the table two questions and listen to the answers. Mostly they asked “How was your day?” and “Tell me who you talked to today.” My oldest surprised me one night with a phone call from college to thank me for teaching him to ask questions. He said he had no problem talking to girls the way some guys at school did; girls loved that questioning and listening thing.
I used to wish my children were perfectly obedient, but now that they are grown I’m glad they have some strong-mindedness. I did not enjoy their arguing with me, but I tried to think of it as training in negotiation, which they need in the world.
When you become a parent, you have to get used to making mistakes. When you make one, it’s no big deal. Just say you’re sorry. They learn that from you. They also learn please and thank you by hearing you say please and thank you to them. I have seen people being rude to their children, then they turn around and expect the children to have good manners.
Your son will make mistakes too, as he grows, and some of those will make you cry. Being a parent is not for the faint of heart. Try to be in control of yourself rather than of him, and you’ll be okay. Love is hard on the heart. Your heart can’t remain perfect and proud, unscarred and perky. It will be worn and joyous, wise and beat up and full of sorrow and amazement. It will tremble with the awful knowledge of how helpless you are to keep him from pain, of how closely he will watch you to see what to become and what not to become. I would rather have this heart than the one I had before the first baby. All of this is to say you are in for quite a ride. Buckle everybody up, feel the wind in your hair, and crank up the music. Enjoy. Life has just gotten larger.
Story in the Spartanburg Magazine
November 29, 2007