A Prayer for Clergy Appreciation Month

Thank you.

Gifts in Open Hands

(an improvisation on Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer”)

God, grant clergy the serenity
to accept churches and the people in them
the way they really are,
the courage to challenge them every week
and pray for them every day,
and wisdom that’s based
in nimble and resilient love …

Live-streaming one worship at a time,
zooming one meeting, one visit,
one wedding or funeral at a time,
absorbing anxieties of this coronavirus season,
around illness, isolation,
education, financial well-being,
and the daily risks of essential workers
and medical personnel
while still holding a course for peace,

taking on as Jesus did
the fearsome realities of political life,
believing in reconciliation
in spite of divisiveness,
speaking the Names
and never surrendering truth.

Let those clergy be reasonably happy,
in this pandemic autumn,
(for you are the source of miracles)
and able to point others
to both daily joy and eternal grace…

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Virtual Hugs: Can we survive?

The Human Touch

’Tis the human touch

in this world that counts,

The touch of your hand and mine,

Which means far more

to the fainting heart

Than shelter and bread and wine.

For shelter is gone

when the night is o’er,

And bread lasts only a day.

But the touch of the hand

And the sound of the voice

Sing on in the soul always.

– Spencer Michael Free

The inability to hug each other must be the most de-humanizing caution of this pandemic. So says absolutely every person I’ve met with in the past months: “I hate it that we can’t hug!” Forget masks. Nothing is more dissatisfying than a virtual hug. 

I skimmed Bible sites for thoughts on touch, but most quotes emphasize what not to touch. (Much like my high school teachers told us.) When a woman touched Jesus’ cloak, he felt power go out of him.

My birth family was loving, yet fairly anti-touch. One showed respect for another person by keeping a distance. Only in retrospect did I realize I had absorbed the unspoken rules concerning what distance was appropriate for approaching which category of person: aunt, cousin, friend, best friend, next door neighbor, neighbor two-doors down, unknown relative at a funeral, unknown relative at a wedding, shoe clerk, relative who married someone questionable. We practiced a refined culture of social distancing long before it became “a covid thing.”

Then I went to a college with Jewish students. Everybody was touching everybody. People I didn’t know, wasn’t related to in any way, hugged me. I was frozen in shock for at least one semester. I did manage to hug someone back before graduation.

Now I understand why there are more “Don’t Touch” warnings in the Bible, and not so many “Okay to Touch.” There are Biblical warnings about not touching because the people who wrote it were touching everything all the time! No encouragement needed.

So my life-long ease into the wonders of touching continues. Now I’d say that the power generated from a good solid hug, or back rub, or handing hands, is necessary for physical, mental, spiritual health. I’m guessing that is why we are covered, head to foot, with the sense of touch. Greeting each other from a distance is bad, but not hugging? How can we possibly keep our humanity?

Touch with our eyes. Look deep.

Touch with our voices. Speak gently.

Touch with our sense of smell. Breathe in deeply.

Touch with our ears. Listen carefully to each other. To birds, To music, To silence.

Touch with prayer.

–Alice Barrett

About “Irish Slavery”

This is not a political column. A political column would say:


But I am not a liberal. Holding a sign is necessary, but not nearly enough.

This is a radical religion column.

At issue: There is a section of my ancestral group who makes a big deal about Irish people having been slaves in the U.S. This is not literally true. You can find details in history books, or you can talk with your grandparents, or Snopes.

What gets my goat are white liberals who are outraged that any white person should claim having been oppressed, or who are, in their opinion, exaggerating. As though degrees of hatred and suffering are a bickering point. Thereby ignoring the roots of oppression.

You probably know this: In 1847 a movement called “Irish Lives Matter” would have been revolutionary, and more than a little helpful. The British decided that Irish, being poor and Catholic, were not quite human, and so were free to send in military, steal land, create wealth during the famine, and then they, literally, drove carriages to their estates passing corpses and people dying on the roadsides. Irish lives did not matter. Not because they were Irish, but because the structure required our being crushed, as they were crushing black Africans.

One group of people recognized that Irish lives mattered. The Choctaw people of Oklahoma sent relief money to Ireland during the famine, just sixteen years after white people force-marched them on the Trail of Tears. (This year Irish people sent respirators to Native Americans ignored by our white supremacist government.)

Conservatives use the phrase “All lives matter,” as an excuse to ignore blatant systematic racism. Don’t let them usurp the truth of that statement.

With apologies for those of my ancestral group who see solely through the lens of their own experience, think a minute. Are some trying to downplay the oppression of blacks by displaying their own? Illogical, but probably.  Was there a time when the British should have been confronted with an “Irish Lives Matter” uprising? Yes.

When I see the face of an elder black woman who has battled through hardship and hatred, who has come up loving and strong, I see my grandmother’s face. In that moment, I do not care which woman suffered more. My body aches. What I do know is that  Black people are rising up again against injustice and everyone of us must join together to radically change a structure that depends on the crushing of Black people.

The lesson, as BLM has been trying to make clear, is that Black lives matter right now. The system that requires their oppression needs more than defunding. When that happens, no one need fear that they will be next, re: the wisdom of pastor Martin Niemoller.

These are the things I learned from my family, Jesus, Buddha, from Thich Nhat Hanh, the Choctaw nation, innumerable others who embody the universality of living things. The universality  of suffering, unnecessary suffering. Of the sacredness of social justice.

If you are are tempted to comment that Blacks suffered more, or Jews suffered more, or Native Peoples suffered more, or that group is exaggerating, or this group isn’t suffering as much as it did before, you’ve missed the point.

The impossibility of encompassing it all, comparing it all, doesn’t matter. When humans come together and say, “Never again,” we can rest. And tell each other our stories.

But I’m not holding my breath.

“Kindred Spirits” County Cork, Ireland
thanking Choctaw Nation for famine relief in 1847

[A version of this column appears in The Ashfield News , MA, July 2020.]

Plagued by the Bible

   Fires in California, flooding in Michigan, tornados in the Midwest, oceans rising, the virus pandemic, the rise of white nationalism: the plagues of Egypt keep coming to mind. A new illness is affecting children, as it was affecting the first-born of Egyptians. It is so tempting to take the Bible stories literally. I have no problem deciding who the Pharaoh is in our time, whose heart was hardened by God. I can decide which sins we are being punished for. Plugging Bible stories into my own personal world-view is very satisfying, and a popular pastime for many. I’m not sure that is how it is supposed to work.

    In this time of Time, I’ve been doing some Bible study. So far I’m not actually reading the Bible, I’m reading books ABOUT the Bible to warm myself up. You can’t be too cautious. Raised Catholic, I was challenged to learn about God without the aid of our most basic book about God. It was the province of the clergy to hand out edited Bible stories piecemeal. My time at UCC Ashfield has convinced me it might be a good idea to go to the primary source. 

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evens was a great place to start. The Peacock’s Tail Feathers: Reading the Bible the Celtic Way by Kenneth McIntosh warmed me up. 

    Earlier I had come to understand the Bible as a memoir of a people and their relationship with their God. This made reading it much more interesting. Evans and McIntosh, (one Protestant, the other Catholic) broadens my view even more: as an ancient book of stories which are still alive.” Alive” is the important word, like the flattering and not-so-flattering stories I’ve heard about my parents, grandparents and their parents. Good or bad, they are a part of me. 

    Culturally, the Bible’s stories are alluded to in books, plays, Hallmark cards, everyday conversation. (Batting away black flies yesterday, I told a neighbor it was the seventh plague. She knew what I was talking about.) Our language embraced the Bible even if I had not.

    So how can I read the Bible during this time when our society is tilting – like an earthquake that just keeps going?

    Looking for insight, I wandered the Google wilderness for a bit.  There it was, the article I’d hoped for:  The 10 Plagues, Bible Fun for Kids. I said a silent prayer of thanks to those nuns who did not try to teach us children the Bible.

    How is Exodus playing out right now? Now, the people who have travelled from a foreign land to work at slave wages are languishing in tent hovels below our southern border. The Bible is being written on the Mexican border right now. How many plagues will it take before God softens our hearts to these people? Oh dear, I’m sounding quite Biblical right now. 

    Exodus is a deliverance story, of yet another chance to get it right.

    Exodus does not tell us how the Egyptians dealt with the effects of their plagues. That would have been helpful. Rather, the story is told by the Israelites who follow Moses into a new land, to get it right. They must have been planning how to grow crops, build homes, start over.  Facing the unknown in 2020, I can see how difficult that is. The Israelites got distracted by golden calves, as have we. But we agreed to follow commandments regarding masks, self-quarantine, loving our neighbors via Zoom, and perhaps even garnering a better understanding of our God. 

    In the 16th century, Ignatius Loyola practiced reading the Bible by putting himself into the stories totally. I put myself into the Exodus story, into the wilderness with my family after our life has been overturned by Moses. Where the hell is this new land anyway? What will it look like? What will people be like? How will we live? Thank you for the manna, Moses, but one unemployment check just won’t do it. I am old, and some want to leave me behind so the others can walk faster toward prosperity. When we arrive, will we all arrive together? Who will be missing? Who am I now? No longer Egyptian, or middle class, I am now with people whose new home will be unfamiliar. What will become of us?

    Rather than answers, or words of wisdom, I’m getting something more. The Exodus story is part of the life of Jews in diaspora, of African-Americans in slavery, of Central Americans seeking a new home. Now, in a very small way, I can enter the story. To put a Buddhist spin on it: I can sit and breathe with the other. What a gift this is.

    In The Peacock’s Tail Feathers McIntosh says, “the Celts did not ponder the Bible as isolated individuals (the rare exceptions being occasional hermits) but in community.” Soon, very soon, we will come together to continue the good work, and accompany each other in exodus. 

Post-Christmas: A Season for Parents

Advent and Christmas: we’ve celebrated Mary’s demand for a just world, Joseph’s support for the pregnant woman he’s not married to, their escape from oppression, the refusal of sanctuary, the birth of Jesus.

Now Jesus is born and living in obscurity with his family. It will be 30 years of his doing we know not what. As the average life-expectancy was 35-45 years, he spent most of his life doing “we-know-not-what.” 

In the “Infancy Gospel of Thomas” (as opposed to “The Gospel of Thomas,” different guy), Jesus on occasion killed children who made him angry, just by commanding it. When the bereaved parents complained to Joseph, Jesus struck them blind. Uber-bullying. 

“And, seeing what Jesus did, Joseph rose and took hold of his ear and pulled it hard.” (Th 2:5) 

From this account we may be sure that Joseph and Mary worked long and hard to produce the adult who proclaimed the Sermon on the Mount.  Perhaps we can celebrate this post-Christmas season as “The Season of Parenting.” No doubt the influence of his parents influenced his teachings. Were his parents the ones who took the vengefulness part of God and transform it in the open heart of their child? Unlike God God, Jesus had a mother; was that the secret? How did parents who went through all they went through, deal with a child who acts out? Never mind a supernatural, death wielding one? One thing is for sure: they were two tough, loving, patient, people.

“The Infancy Gospel of Thomas” was not included in the canon, and was decried as heresy. If we want to remember the true humanity of our fore-bearers, I think it is worthy of any parent’s canon. To give them hope, and to encourage them; for some to know that they are not alone in the brattiness of their offspring. The parents of children who are bullied can know that Joseph hears their pain.  

21st century American parenting would look terribly strange to Joseph and Mary, but one truth remains: nurturing a child ain’t easy. Happy Parenting Season!



What Ever Happened to Hell?

A number of books have been written this century by people who have gone to heaven and returned: Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, My Journey to Heaven: What I Saw and How It Changed My Life, Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back ( The little boy later said he made the whole thing up. Sounds like he has a lot of repenting to do), Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall (This title tempted me, but turns out that, unlike the others in this genre, it’s fiction.)

For some reason books such as: Near Death Experiences in Hell: The True Stories of 10 People Who Went to Hell During their NDE, have not made it to the best seller lists. Hell is no longer as popular as Heaven. Not even in churches anymore, though Hell had been a mainstay for Christian churches for centuries.

I blame this shift in popularity on the lack of education in the humanities. Dante’s Inferno would keep anyone on the straight and narrow (literally). That being true, it is also true that Dante critics agree the images of the Inferno are far more engaging than the images of Paradiso. Likewise, Milton’s Paradise Lost stars an engaging Lucifer, the ultimate bad-boy hero.  Perhaps Robert De Nero or Jack Nickolson or, new-comer to the genre, Kevin Spacey could take a crack at Milton’s Satan. Heaven may be a nice place, but hell is riveting. Hell is a real guy thing; heaven is way too girly, like chic lit.

Read our Jonathan Edwards if you must: “…without a doubt the torments of hell are inconceivably great…” He goes on to praise God for hell because watching the torments of their fellows makes their own joy greater. What is more Christian than that?

Great literature is chock full of murder, lying, cheating, forbidden lust, battles, war, conflict of all kinds. All the things that land people in hell. In King Lear we watch the main character destroy himself because of his own tragic flaw. The audience longs to shout out to him, “No! Don’t banish her!” We watched it for the first time in 1606 and watch it still. Riveting. 

Though heaven has bypassed hell as the place to be, the tables are turning. Hell is entering more conversations, partly because people are increasingly able to create it for ourselves. A new hero, Greta Thunberg  is a voice crying in the wilderness foretelling fires, suffering, unending destruction. The visions are terrifying and frighteningly real. We love her.

In “Patheos” this July Chuck McKnight wrote that progressive Christians should be preaching hell more. “So maybe, rather than immediately rushing in to clarify what we think Jesus means by hell, we should instead take a look at what gets Jesus so worked up in the first place.

“The standard Evangelical teaching is that hell is a place for those who don’t believe in Jesus ….More often than not, biblical references to hell and judgment are in response to social evils carried out in the here and now.

“For example, Jesus preaches hell for those who harm children, he preaches hell for those who fail to welcome strangers or provide basic necessities for those in need, he preaches hell for those who hoard excessive wealth, and he really goes off on hypocritical religious leaders who use their faith as a mask to hide their own complicity in such things….”

Now those things are very riveting. Hellish even.   


from Leiden Special 

“Sometimes I Wonder Which Side God is On.”

The title of this post is from “The Longest Day,” a 1962 movie about D-Day from the points of view of the American army and the German army. During the movie each commander on each side says, “Sometimes I wonder whose side God is on.” Back in 1962, this was a lightbulb-flash moment for me. Everyone thinks God is on their side, even the “bad guys.” I was thirteen.

The lectionary readings for the UCC on July 28 brought this up, once again, in 2019. The first reading was from Hosea, and is one that many of us would rather skip over because God is vengeful, cruel, and misogynist. The second reading is from Luke and Jesus describes God as a father who would care for you no matter what. Reading them together is spiritual whiplash.

Our nation, and Christianity is experiencing a fissure. The U.S. has had fissures since the beginning. Now the fissure is wider because it is now so simplistic. Evil is defined by which political party you belong to, which church you go to. In skimming Biblical commentaries I found a “RedState.something” site. Its headline: Jesus was NOT a Refugee or an Immigrant.  A Huff Post column was headed: Guess What: Jesus was a Refugee. Do these people all read the same New Testament?

Which of God’s sides am I on?

Thanksgiving dinners are no longer long heated debates about issues; they are very short: Who did you vote for? Trump or Hillary? Who is a true Christian? Jerry Falwell or Desmond Tutu. Everything after that is a shouting match.

The motto of the United Church of Christ is “God is still talking.” In which case, the Bible is still being written. What will we write? What stories will we hand down? Which images of God will we bring forth?

How will our nation, our Christianity, ever reconcile and heal? Which teachings of our faith will aid in the healing? [By that I do not mean everyone agrees on everything.] Or do we want our side to “win?” 

Miroslav Volf in his book “Exclusion and Embrace” says he was asked about cetniks, the Serbian guerrilla force who was responsible for atrocities in his native country. Someone asked if he could embrace one of these fighters.

He answered, “Can I embrace a četnik—the ultimate other, so to speak, the evil other? What would justify the embrace? Where would I draw the strength for it? What would it do to my identity as a human being and as a Croat? It took me a while to answer, though I immediately knew what I wanted to say. “No, I cannot—but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to.” 

Him and me both.

The New New Testament, 3019 C.E.

If, as the United Church of Christ says, “God is still speaking,” it must also be true that the Bible is still being written. What will be in the New New Testament?

The present Bible was started 3,400 years ago (depending on how you count). It was completed around 90 C.E. or 1,900 years ago. So, it was written over a period of 1,500 years. The specifics are debatable, but you get the picture. A long long time.

I’m thinking ahead about 1,000 years. Should humanity have not committed suicide by then, some scholars may wonder what 20th-21st century Christianity looked like.

The Bible Bible is a wondrous book of tales, contradictory rules, questionable history, sex, ponderings about divinity and humanity, poetry, love, crime, conflict, hope, all seen through the lens of a people’s relationship with their God. So will the next one be.

Logically, the New New Testament (NNT) should begin 90 C.E., when the last one ended, but my current number of brain cells can’t cope. I will start using the method I’m most familiar with: off the top of my head.

Let’s go with the obvious first: C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Surprised by Joy, sections of at least one of his books will be included. 

Marvelous tales: Lewis’ friend, J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings stories would fit in with David and Goliath and the Ark stories. As would A Wrinkle in Time.

No doubt the scholars will come across the Left Behind series, which would not show up in my Bible version, but will no doubt end up in some version.

And whose stories will be told? Dorothy Day via columns from the “Catholic Worker;” Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the work of Reconciliation in South Africa; Simone Weil, creepy but popular; Dietrich Bonhoeffer; MLK, Jr. 

In the Psalms section: Gerard Manley Hopkins. He is 19th century, but I love him and it’s my bible. W.H. Auden, Carolyn Forche, Denise Levertov, David Whyte.

I’d wait another 200 years to see whether Joel Osteen’s writing stands the test of time, or that of Tammy Faye Bakker, or Rick Warren, or Oral Roberts. 

My Books of the Bible are shamefully English-language centered, but that’s what lives at the top of my head.

I suspect that the NNT will not be limited to Christians. The search for the divine is not limited; the People of God are no longer a small group, but an encompassing people. 

I encourage you to create a list of Books/ Stories/ People/ Poems for the NNT. It is an exercise in Seeing Biblically. The world we live in is full of “biblical life,” that is, the stories of how people struggle with the idea of the Divine. The Bible is not dead, but passed along in thousand-year chunks. Future people will learn from us, so let’s think about it now.

Destruction of the Sacred

When the British first came to North America, it was a continent of thriving civilizations. The nations here had politics, art, music, poetry, family life traditions. So different was this culture from England’s however, that it was invisible to them. The colonists saw a vast, open space, a wilderness for them to shape into their own future.

Perhaps most invisible were the “churches,” places where people gathered to encounter the sacred, worship, sing praise, enact rituals.

None of these places looked anything like Notre Dame Cathedral. Older than Notre Dame, these gifts from the Creator were sought out by American Indians* for communication with the Divine.

Far way in Paris, I, and a few million other people, entered a space that took the breath right out of our bodies. Notre Dame’s building with buttresses and ceilings, arches, artworks, most especially the Rose windows, is a glorious manifestation of how people honor the sacred. The history of the construction of the Cathedral contains beauty, exploitation, politics, sacrifice, dedication, and artistry. One iconic story about the building is the stone mason who spent months carving a small part of the exterior that could not be seen. It was his gift to God. It is impossible to summarize all the elements that the Cathedral embodies. Standing inside, there was no need to know any of that. Words have little use in places like that. Music perhaps, but no words. When words fail, God is there. Now, watching the flaming spire topple is a heartbreaking lesson in our own fragility.

, The annihilation of American Indian people’s cathedrals has been a slow, piece by piece destruction. Under the surface of these places are gold, oil, commercial minerals, uranium, the fuels of our economy. This “wilderness” is the perfect place to dump nuclear waste. After all this time, American Indian civilizations are still invisible.

Church buildings seek to create sacred spaces. Actors and musicians who have performed at the First Congregational Church talk about the special feeling inside our building. The history and souls of the congregants reverberate within its walls.

Other sacred places are simply found. The Celts refer to these as “thin places,” places where heaven and earth open to each other. Once a place is recognized as sacred, even after the people move on, the sacredness of the land remains imbedded in that place. Abandoned churches may be converted (sic) to stores or apartments, but sacred places like Bears Ears in Utah, cannot be. 

Some sacred places are targeted for destruction because they are visible. Black churches, synagogues, mosques represent people who gather there to worship. They are centers of love, and targets of hate. And so they suffer graffiti, broken windows, burning. Native sacred sites are targeted for destruction because they do not exist to us. They are targeted because we want the elements they hold within themselves. To extract what our economy wants, we must level monuments, open mine pits, scrape off layers of earth, build roads and machinery, send exhaust and toxins into the air and water. What is most valued are the elements torn from the arms of the Earth.

The land itself is sacred. The only way to destroy these cathedrals is to destroy the Earth itself.

  • Some American Indians prefer “Indigenous People,” or “Native Americans.” I use “Indian” to honor my late friend, Carole LaFave, Ojibway. She, family and friends preferred it. 
  • Russel Means: “The one thing I’ve always maintained is that I’m an American Indian. I am not politically correct.”