Engaging with Our Ancestors

This month I spent so much time deciding how to write a particular column for May that I missed the deadline. There are an infinite number of subjects to write about, but a writer has to zone in at some point and just write the damned thing. But I couldn’t decide how to write it. Which brings me, of course, to the simple subject of humanity.

What you missed last month (unless you didn’t) is the play “Admissions,” put on by Silverthorne Theater in Greenfield. The plot: In 2015 a small liberal prep school in New England is struggling to “diversify” the student body. When the admissions for the year breaks the 20% diversification mark, champaign is uncorked. I won’t review this excellent production, I just want to say how entertaining was to watch on stage a (mostly) white, liberal school with well-meaning administrators struggle to pop their bubble of isolation. By entertaining I mean heart-wrenching, funny, angering, and thoughtful for a person as white as I am. 

Which brings me, of course, to Baptist minister Robyn Henderson-Espinoza*, a transqueer Latinx theologian, who is diagnosed on the autism spectrum…and is from Texas. The description of Henderson-Espinoza is as mind-boggling as the description of any human being should be. What makes it mind-boggling for me is not who Robyn is, but who I think I am and that I think of myself as normal. Well, slightly-off normal. How slightly-off normal depends on who’s asking. Follow?

Think about how the term “gay” has expanded to “LGBTQ2S+.” So the exception to normality is lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transsexual, queer, 2 spirit, and/or plus [plus what?]. Which includes about everybody except heterosexuals. Wouldn’t it be easier to just identify straight people?  Likewise, if our fictional prep school wanted to be representative of humanity, the student body would be overwhelmingly Han Chinese. “Diversity” would be a white school.

Which brings me to the article I couldn’t figure out how to write.

I am part of “Sacred Ground,” an 11-part exploration of racial justice from a faith perspective. I began thinking about how slavery has touched our local history. Robert H Romer compiled a list of the names of slaved people who lived in Deerfield in the eighteenth century, including the names of their enslavers. Historic Deerfield has done research into the history of the people who originally lived on the land, and into the history of slavery there.

My original idea was to use the headline: “Who, Lord, Was My Ancestor?” Then I would just list the names of our neighboring town’s enslaved and enslaving citizens. But is calling African-American slaves my ancestors appropriating black history? Or is it embracing our common history? Acknowledging all our fore-bearers? Irish people of the time were generally indentured workers and servants, an in-between status. My ancestors are not the enslaved… exactly, and not the enslavers… exactly. In the meantime, I wish to print those names for all of us to see. So I will in a following month. I’ll decide on a headline later.

All this is to state the obvious, that “humanity” is not a thing. It is a morphing system of identities, recognitions, bubbles that solidify and are forced to burst open. Humanity is more like ocean waters than like a bunch of individuals bumping into one another. And we will never, ever be able to totally comprehend these oceans, least of all in a column in May. 

Keep swimming. The oceans are deep and dangerous and wondrous.

  • Body Becoming: A Path to Our Liberation, by Robyn Henderson-Espinoza

Note: As I am writing this the day after deadline, my personal editor has not been able to clarify any confusion in this column…which is especially unfortunate for this one.

Church Grim Seeks Ashfield UCC Job

Application for Employment, Ashfield UCC


Church Grim

Application for position as Church Grim at Ashfield UCC: Resume

I have 237 years, 8 months, 4 days experience as Church Grim in churches all over Europe and the United States. [A full resume will arrive in two weeks in twelve boxes via FedEx.]  You will note that I have served as interim Grim for many other types of religious buildings. 


301 c.e. – 941 c.e.  Assistant Church Grim, Etchmiadzin Cathedral, Vagharshapat, Armenia

I jump to my very first job as a way to shorten your reading time. This is where I began training and learned many of the skills I can offer to UCC Ashfield:


-Keep unwelcome visitors away (I understand this skill will not be needed very often at UCC.)

-Circle the building every night to protect from any Brownies who wish to irritate you, i.e. picking pockets, leaving dirty dishes, souring the creamers, deleting files, stealing water bottles, etc. 

-I would pay particular attention to the Brownie charged with turning on the furnace during silent prayer and the singing of Pace Deum

-I also deal with Monsters. I have certification in Non-violent Monster Overcoming. 

-I usually don a big, black dog as camouflage, but I understand you may prefer a cat, as your previous Grim worked for you as a cat.

-I can assist Judy Haupt refilling tissue boxes and hymnals after services, though my skills in this regard are shaky.

-I can assist Chris Haddad in cleaning up your messes, though he works during my sleeping times, so don’t fire him.

-Dust the organ pipes

-Sort letters for outdoor pulpit (though my alphabet skills could use improvement)

 -Theater skills: I have overseen Passion Plays, Christmas Pageants, and starred in Morality Plays and Mystery Plays (in costume of course), but real live theater is a passion for me and I  would assist in any way possible after Virus restrictions are lifted.


1945 (beginning of construction) – 1986 (construction completed.)

Church Grim, Hallgrimskirkja, Reykavik, Iceland

My last term of employment was overseeing the construction of their cathedral. Though many Icelanders think it is ugly, I like it.

1986 – PRESENT Sabbatical

Salary requests: access to left-over coffee hour snacks, permission to ring bell at random times up to three times a year, accommodation in the bell tower, permission to listen to Rev. Jones’ sermons (best since Meister Eckhart in my opinion).

I look forward to serving as your Church Grim.

Please respond by letter to Under Popcorn Machine

What’s Faith Got to Do with It?

By the time you are reading this, things in the U.S. political world will be different than it is today, October 23.

  1. Donald Trump won the election, or
  2. Biden won, or
  3. votes are still being counted, and/or
  4. Democrats won the Senate, or
  5. they didn’t, and probably
  6. lawsuits concerning vote counts are flying across the nation.

And whichever combinations of the 6 possibilities is true in November, we are probably thinking: What now?

When churches ask ourselves how to engage in the coming political century, I hope we can be the source of the energy of Ahimsa: Nonviolent Witness.

Whatever the outcomes were this November, there is work to be done. I hope we can commit again to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Six Principles of Nonviolence. 

The crisis that we are enmeshed in now, no matter what happens in November, is the crisis that Jesus faced: justice vs the establishment. Defeating one emperor was not the point, then, during the Civil Rights Movement, or now.

“Indeed, the more we study the Civil Rights Movement, the more the Gospels come alive.” *

  King and Mairead Maguire and John Lewis and probably a few of your neighbors have decided that Gandhi was right, nonviolence (ahimsa) is the way to go.

In The Beloved Community,** Charles Marsh traces the place of faith in the struggle for social justice, and what can happen when nonviolent witness loses its grounding in faith. King learned from Gandhi, who also based this strategy on faith. King’s leadership was based on churches. Marsh believes that when this foundation was lost, the movement moved away from the creation of a “Beloved Community”. How are faith and social justice intertwined?

What exactly is “faith”? Our church has such a wide variety of outlooks, it may seem chaotic. It is not (except sometimes). We read, sing, listen, pray, look for the Sacred Center from which justice and love spring.

I want to write about faith,

faith that I find my way home

as reliably as the way the moon rises

each month,

season after season, without help.

I want to say that I am not lost,

my mind sometimes is lost for a moment,

but I am not, just as the moon rises

each month, season after season.

Curious how the moon, full, new, or sliver,

never hesitates or stops to consider options.

And it is curious how, at times, my mind hesitates,

stops to consider options,

as if there is more than one way home.

Gravity is a faith the moon rides upon,

held close to her home by a steady grip

that guides her through all her phases,

as a mother holds her daughter through

wakefulness and sleep.

Faith is a gravity my body rests upon.

While my mind considers options,

My body stops, waits for that steady grip

to guide me home, where ever that may be.

Alice Barrett, with thanks to David Whyte.

*”The Radical Nonviolent Witness of Jesus”, Ched Myers, friendsjournal.org (2009)

 **The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to Today, 

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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Auditions for the Voice of God

In an attempt to help my ESOL students master the pronunciation of the past tense, I explain the difference between “voiced” and “unvoiced” sounds. I put my hand on my throat to show them how to feel for the vibrations. I will carry the looks on their faces forever. I think I can sum up the look  as: “You English speakers are weird.” Which is, of course, true.


Which brings me to the Bible. When I was a child I thought God spoke a special God-language, similar to English, but using words like “Thou,” and “Thee” and “Hail” and Shalt,” and that most intriguing of Biblical words: “begot.” Jesus certainly spoke that way. When I was in college, The Good News for Modern Man was published, revealing that Jesus spoke in language as cool as yours and mine. I admit to a vague disappointment.


During the “English-Only” in schools debate, Ma Ferguson, governor of Texas, was reputed to have said, “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.” Which brings up the disturbing audio image of Jesus speaking with a Texas accent. Everyone knows he spoke with a New York accent; I heard it myself every Sunday.


Mark Roberts of Beliefnet.com says: …I do think the language of Jesus matters. Knowing which language or languages Jesus spoke helps us understand his teaching with greater accuracy. Moreover, it reminds us of one salient fact that almost everyone affirms: Jesus did not speak English. [Note: almost everyone.]


Fine, but what did it sound like?


Jews and Hindus regard the sound of words as sacred, or more sacred, than the meaning. The sound of the word is the life of the word. After chanting a Hindi chant, the worshiper apologizes to God for any mispronunciation.


Our chance to hear Jesus or Isaiah is long gone. We must make due with the written word. A poor substitute for hearing, but we work with what we’ve got.


For audio Bibles, James Earl Jones is by far the most popular God-voice. His voice is deep, rich and resonant, with a Mid-West accent. Cary Grant just wouldn’t cut it. Claire Bloom does the voice-over for the Old Testament for BBC. Her English pronunciation is impeccable, but strangely detached.


For other female voices, I vote for either Emma Thompson or Maya Angelou. Should the Bible be read with a crisp, open voice, with subtle intonations and all the t’s distinct, a la Thompson? Or the lower, smoother, melodious voice of Angelou? How differently we would hear the words.


Which would you take more seriously:

Jones intoning the King James version: “Thou Shalt Not Kill” or

Thompson reading a modern translation: “Don’t murder anyone” ?

What about, “He maketh me lie down in green pastures…” I’d prefer Thompson with her controlled emotion savoring the poetry…Wait a minute. Am I doing auditions for the voice of God?


Did Jesus pronounce his t’s (or the Aramaic equivalent)? Was his voice high or low, smooth or crisp? What were the intonations? Was his voice fire-and-brimstone or gentle, sarcastic or straight-forward? Was he smothering a laugh when he said some things? Did his voice crack with grief? All of the above? How do we know? We don’t.


Years ago, my cousin was struggling with mental illness. On his closet door he had a sketch of Jesus with his head thrown back, laughing. Now that’s a laugh I’d like to have heard. I’ll have to settle for listening for it in the laughter I hear around me.


For me, the most memorable sentence in the New Testament is, “Jesus wept.” No words spoken, no “Thou” or “Thee” or “Thine,” no Texas or New York accent. Jesus wept.


Maybe it’s the coming Christmas season, but if you ask me, God speaks in words of the King James Bible with an 18th century British accent and Handel’s music as score. The voiced sounds of “Messiah” fill us with joy and sorrow and calls for justice. After the last note, we are left in the unvoiced silence of God’s true voice.

What I Learned about God after Being Hit by a Car

This week I attempted to write down what I’d learned about Life and God and Stuff from my brushes with death this past year. I wrote meaningful, deep thoughts. Reviewing them I realized I could make a killing as a writer for Hallmark cards.
As I was writing, I watched a a gull trying to fly into the wind, flapping forward, gliding back. That’s what it feels like trying to describe what I learned about God. So I guess the answer to the question is, “Not too much.”

However, during my attempt to write about God, I realized why writers writing about God often end up writing about their gardens and plants and nature. And mountains, seashores, sunsets, aging, forest trails, their dogs, and sunrises. Deep thoughts are chimeric, God is not.

Now religion, religion I love writing about. I relate to those clusters of people who see Mary’s image or Jesus’ face in unexpected places. Conventions of born-again christians and churches of atheists are fascinating. As are the people we make into messiahs: Ayn Rand, Jim Jones, Steve Jobs, pre-election Barak Obama…people whose ideas excite us and we follow them happily into the future. Religion is our Play-dough of Meaning.

But God? Sitting here on Back Cove in Maine, I find I cannot distinguish the sound of wind in the trees from the sound of the tide coming in. The squat arborvitae next to the porch is doing a bizarre dance, but is not quite keeping time with the wind’s pulsations. Does arborvitae have its own internal rhythms? Yesterday, Jeannine did a charcoal sketch of me, but must have changed her mind; she sketched an old lady. I wonder why. This morning I read about 65 things I didn’t know before about growing potatoes. I often wonder why Ace can race through our forest leaping over fallen trees, winding through underbrush, but cannot figure out how to unwind his leash from a lamppost. Is it true puzzlement or passive-aggressive protest against leashes? And right now, across the water, little dots of people are quahoging. Which, I am told, is different from clamming.

See how much I still have to learn about God?

After Life

After Life

Alice Barrett
!     A car accident left me close to death last spring. During that time I gave some thought to the question: Death. Then what? Some flowers triggered an answer. While recuperating, I’d stare out the window at yellow flowers growing in front of the rehab building. They were thriving there because just the right soil conditions, sunlight, rainfall, temperatures, surrounding vegetation made them possible. What are the chances of that happening in the afterlife? Or the sound of rain on leaves, or smell of turned dirt? Pretty slim. That’s why it’s called after life.
! What about life here on Earth after I really do go?
! This week I learned that, because of logging and clearing, the most ancient of Earth’s trees all over the world are disappearing. !
! The sense of loss I experienced surprised me. I’ve never met a polar bear and I’ve glimpsed a few whales; all face extinction. But big old trees disappearing? I fell out of one when I was about 10. My cousins and I built a tree house in the woods behind our house. I loved “The Davy Crockett Show” and had a “coonskin” hat made with fake fur and plastic.
! When looking for a house to buy, Jeannine and I passed under a canopy of yellow autumn leaves coming up the hill. Our house is surrounded by trees, so many that we’ve cut some down so we can grow vegetables. During the last ice storm, the tree branches glistened like a forest of jewels.
! Now the Earth is going bald. Humans are supposed to go bald, not the Earth. Earth was designed to be self-replenishing. Ancient trees are sacred. But in Scandinavia at least, those are the trees targeted by logging companies.
! Jasper Fforde referred to 1847 as Earth’s “Best if used by…” date. He is right. Humans could have used a little thinning out about then, or at least some spacing.
! In Rikuzentaka, Japan, a centuries- old pine forest of about 70,00 trees was swept away by a tsunami. Except for one pine. The “Miracle Pine” became a symbol of hope for the survivors. However, the salt sea water saturating the soil began to slowly kill it. The city decided to cut the tree down in sections, treat the wood, fill it with a

carbon core, reconstruct it and replace its branches with plastic ones. It will then be put back in the place the tree stood. As a memorial to the tree. Hmmm….
! ! What will happen after I’m gone? A bald Earth peppered with memorials to trees? I admit that a world without polar bears horrifies me much less than a world without trees. !

! Before the government could cut down the Miracle Pine, people in the area gathered the tree’s cones to plant seeds in good soil. Many seedlings from one old tree. Life giving new life. Ahhh..That’s better.!
! Against all odds, I survived my injuries. I was helped by the miracles of modern medicine, a bevy of health professionals, family, friends and strangers. Maybe I don’t have to worry about the trees. Maybe I should trust. After all, I survived. With help, trees will too. There isn’t an afterlife. After me, life will continue to begin.

Here’s Looking at You

Early last fall I was sitting on my front porch enjoying being home from a long stint in the hospital. The sun was out and hummingbirds hummed in the vines on either side of the the stairs. One of the hummingbirds flicked in front of my face and stopped mid-air, wings buzzing. He hovered there for a while. I looked at him, one of his eyes stared at me. He seemed to hover a long time. He looked at me; I looked at him. He was welcoming me back to life. I was happy. Then he flicked over to a red flower.  

After I’d soaked up the fresh air I went inside to find out the name of the bird. He was either a Ruby-throated hummingbird or a nano AeroVironment spy drone.  DARPA (don’t ask me) spent $4 million dollars and eleven years developing a drone that looks and flies like a hummingbird with a camera behind its eye. 

Now I wondered if my insurance company was checking that I wasn’t training for a marathon instead of just getting back on my feet.  I  wouldn’t feel as bad if drones were used to save lives during war, but how many Ruby-throated hummingbirds are in Afghanistan or the Gaza Strip?  One commentator noted that if they flew one in New York City, people would stop and point, “Oh my god! Look! A hummingbird!”  Not very stealth.

There’s something about taking one of the most fragile, luminescent and magical animals and using it to spy on us. Another crack between the worlds of war and nature. 

I was so moved by that moment on the porch that I needle-worked a hummingbird pillow and ordered a small bag from the Nature Conservancy with a hummingbird on it. That moment was a sacred moment. Death had been close that year. It was pushed away so I could take in sacred moments with birds and trees and neighbors a while longer. 

Damn (or thankfully) I still can’t think of a hummingbird without thinking of that drone.