Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Stowe seems to have two main goals in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The first is to demonstrate that slavery as an institution is wrong. Buying and selling human beings is abhorrent, and arguments about how well slaves are treated are missing the point.

The other goal seems to be to humanize slaves of African origin, especially for those in the North who might oppose slavery but still retain a feeling of prejudice against people of African origin. In large part, Stowe does this by showing how slaves can act just like white people if they are taught and treated like white people.

She offers this as proof that Black people are just as human as white people are, but this is troublesome because it offers a very narrow scope of behavior. Stowe goes to lengths to show that those slaves who lie or cheat or act brutally are doing so only as products of a system that treats them as subhuman. She offers a similar explanation for the behavior of white people towards slaves: they are products of an abhorrent institution as much as the slaves themselves are. (Of course, the difference is that white people don’t need to prove their humanity through their actions; their humanity is a given no matter how inhumanely they act.) This is a reasonable hypothesis, but the way that Stowe presents it seems to suggest that the goal is for all people in the United States to act the same, or rather, for all people to act white, which is very limiting to people who are not white.  Read More

Chaos, Wonder and the Spiritual Adventure of Parenting, edited by Sarah Conover and Tracy Springberry

Even before I became pregnant with my first child, I began amassing baby care and parenting books. Unsure of myself as a parent, I sought solace in the opinions of others. Over the last decade, I’ve grown into my role as mother enough that I’ve given away most of the books I’d collected in those early uncertain years. Most days, I trust in my ability to doggy paddle through the waters of motherhood and make the best choices—or at least the best I can manage—for my children and my family. I do some spot-checking, looking back to trusted authors to borrow their faith in a parent’s abilities on those days when I feel the water at my chin and rising quickly, but mostly I feel competent enough to weather the fear on my own or with a phone call to a friend.

Now that I’ve left the parenting instruction manuals at thrift stores in three states, I’ve found myself yearning for a different sort of book. I find myself looking for a book that reflects the spiritual nature of my life as the mother of small humans, that recognizes the challenges and the joys as part of something that feels much larger than the decision about how much screen time my kids should have or the anxious moments scanning tiny print to make sure there are no hydrogenated oils in the store-bought cookies. Because I’m a UU and because I’ve had great luck finding the kinds of books that speak to me in the UUA bookstore, I aimed my browser in that direction and found Chaos, Wonder and the Spiritual Adventure of Parenting, which turned out to be just what I’ve been seeking.

Sarah Conover and Tracy Springberry join their essays with those of twenty-four other writers from a variety of faith traditions to tell stories of how parenthood has broken open their hearts, as Rosemary Bray McNatt puts it in her essay. Reading this anthology, I felt like I was in the presence of kindred spirits, surrounded by people who, though they come from very different backgrounds, face the same daily struggle I do of remaining sane in the face of the huge emotions our children bring to the surface.

Through their successes and failures, loves and losses, these fellow parents uncover more strength and love within them than they imagined was there. I especially love the stories about how the challenges of parenting has made these individuals more effective and patient in helping others outside their families. This is one of the fears I have—that the skills I’m developing at home with my children aren’t really transferrable to the adult-filled Outside World and once my children leave the nest I’ll be completely useless—and reading about those who’ve seen this whole thing through to the post-kids-at-home stage helps me feel less terrified for the future.

“How do we change our conditioned responses from the wounds inflicted by our families of origin so that we don’t harm our own children? Either parenting becomes our spiritual practice, or we bequeath the damage to another generation.” -Sarah Conover, from her essay, “Orthopraxy”

Read for the 2015 TBR challenge.

The Gift Of Faith: Tending the Spiritual Lives of Children by Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar

Gift Of Faith: Tending the Spiritual Lives of Children
The Gift Of Faith: Tending the Spiritual Lives of Children by Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Shortly after my spouse and I married nearly fifteen years ago, we joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation. When we moved across the United States, we found and joined a congregation in our new state. When we moved again, we tried the two UU congregations near us, and neither was a good fit. After our first couple of visits, my pragmatic spouse was no longer interested in attending. I, however, couldn’t quite accept that it wasn’t working for us. For nearly two years, I took our daughter every Sunday, taught religious education, volunteered at coffee hour. After an embarrassing winter morning when it became dramatically apparent that this church wasn’t going to work for us, I started trying other religious congregations in the area. I visited Episcopal, Congregationalist, and Catholic churches, Baha’ai gatherings and Buddhist temples. None was quite what we were seeking (although one Buddhist temple came very close).

My spouse couldn’t understand why I was so fixated on finding us something to do on Sunday mornings, and I couldn’t really understand it myself. But since reading The Gift of Faith, I think I have a better idea what drove me to try and find a spiritual home for my family.

Nieuwejaar says it well:

“With extended families scattered across the continent and beyond; with telecommuting replacing the social context of the office; with shopping malls replacing the local marketplace; and with neighborhoods characterized more by fences and alarms than by open doors and shared backyards, our experience of community is becoming rarer and rarer. To nurture spirituality of children only within the family is to perpetuate the isolation of the family unit and to bypass one of the finest opportunities for community available to us.”

I knew that I could nurture my children’s spiritual lives at home, I knew I could establish rituals that would help support our religious beliefs even away from a spiritual community, but we would be missing the embrace of a loving community of seekers.

As much as I felt the need for this community and felt keenly its absence, I didn’t really understand how much it meant to me until we moved across the country again and found a congregation that feels like home to us. There really is something powerful about going to a place where everyone is committed to honoring the inherent worth and dignity of every person. My children are friends with the other children in the congregation and with loving adults they see multiple times a week, not just on Sundays. They are developing the kinds of close relationships they would (I hope) have with their extended family were we closer to that family.

And of course, the benefit isn’t just for our kids, although that was the focus of this book. My spouse and I know that we can rely on our spiritual community to support us through hard times and celebrate with us through happy ones. The Gift of Faith is a lovely echo of all of those things we value in our spiritual community.

One more of my favorite quotes:

“In religious community we may honor one another simply on the basis of the inherent worth and dignity, the inherent divinity of each person. Then from religious community we must take this attitude back into the larger world in whatever small ways we can, chipping away at the barriers and indignities of public life, the deceptions and impatiences of the marketplace. And as the indignities and injustices of those places begin to touch and tarnish us again, we need to return to communities of the spirit to be reminded of trust and love, to be made whole and to remember the possibility of a world made whole.”

A healthy spiritual community is an oasis of love that recharges us so we can engage in our daily lives with compassion. And if we can do that, we’re doing our small, local part to change the world.

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Fluent in Faith by Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar

At my church, we’re in the process of developing a congregational covenant. It’s taken me a long time to figure out what exactly a congregational covenant is, but after reading Fluent in Faith: A Unitarian Universalist Embrace of Religious Language by Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar, the meaning of “covenant” in this context became clear.

The book (and, I think, the concept) is geared specifically towards Unitarian Universalists, but I think a lot of the themes apply to other liberal religious traditions, too.

Today at church I gave a short (five-minute) talk about covenant based in large part on the new understanding I got from Nieuwejaar’s book. (Today’s service was also our annual Flower Communion, which is one of my favorite services. One day I’ll have to write about that tradition.)

In writing this short sharing, it occurred to me that the mutual promises that are covenants don’t just exist in religious traditions. We make mutual promises all the time in our daily life. In a marriage or a parent-child relationship, in our workplaces, even driving down the highway, we make promises to one another to establish trust. We promise to respect one another, to treat one another fairly, to act in at least a somewhat considerate manner. These are voluntary promises; they’re not enforced (except for traffic laws), and we don’t have to follow them. Often, despite our best intentions, we don’t follow these promises. But the relationships we’re in depend not on keeping the promises but on the sincere intention to keep those promises. Read More

You Scratch My Back…

Image by San Diego Shooter via Flickr

Now that the local Unitarian Universalist congregations are done with their summer schedules and are back to regular Sunday services, we’re back to visiting churches.

Today, the minister offered a reading in which Rev David Bumbaugh suggests that the fall of mankind wasn’t caused by an apple or a conversation with a snake, but rather by a backscratcher. The idea is that until the backscratcher, when we had that itch we couldn’t quite reach between our shoulderblades, we had to have someone else scratch it. By allowing us to reach the itch on our own, the backscratcher gave us the idea that we could be self-sufficient, and we were banished from the Garden where all creatures are interdependent into a world where we’re all trying to go it alone.

I’ve had some trouble developing the kind of community I want since we moved here. Granted, it’s only been three months, but I’m feeling particularly sensitive to the setbacks and plunge into hopelessness rather too readily, I think (at least I hope it’s too readily). I’ve found myself listening longingly to that surly voice in my head that says, “I don’t need them! I don’t need anybody!” The voice sounds a lot like Steve Martin in The Jerk.

Being at church today reminded me just how much I do need that interaction and that interdependence. It’s a painful reminder because it means I have to keep on trying and keep on risking rejection (or at least missed connections, which feel to me like rejections).

As painful as it is, though, it’s just what I needed to hear today.

Back to the socializing grind. Well, maybe after I energize with a few hours of reading.