Read just a couple of the Rev. Meg Barnhouse’s essays or listen to a couple of her songs, and you’ll nod your head in appreciation.
Take a look at “Broken Buddha.” You’ve been there, haven’t you? Life is at once gracious and cruel.
In “The Love Truck,” she admits with a sheepish smile that she isn’t quite as perfect as her ideals would have her be — and asks for your acceptance of it.
Feeling dispirited because so many around you follow the proverbial lemmings into the sea? Barnhouse knows that feeling — and sings hilariously about it in “Mango Thoughts in a Meatloaf Town.”
As simple as her messages may seem on the surface, there’s a complexity to them. Read “Broken Buddha” a few times, and see if it doesn’t strike you differently each time. That’s the beauty of her storytelling style — she entices you to think along with her instead of beating you over the head with her point of view.
“If something sticks in my craw and I’m continually chewing it over, then I know there is something there,” says Barnhouse, who is the interim minister at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton. “I’ll walk around it, look at it from different angles, throw myself at it — and then I’ll come up with something to say.”
And that’s how she develops her musings, whether she’s writing an essay, a song, or a story to tell on National Public Radio’s Radio Free Bubba. Barnhouse honed her craft after learning from a writer friend years ago that life isn’t neat and tidy, and that you shouldn’t try to fool the reader into thinking it is.
“She told me [my essays] were OK in the beginning, but they got boring in the end,” says Barnhouse. “I asked her why, and she said ‘You’re not being honest. You feel as if you should end every story tied up in a little bow.’”
Radio Free Bubba
Barnhouse had always enjoyed writing and singing — she toured the Southeast in a Christian rock band in college — but it wasn’t until two decades later that music entered her ministry. She tells the story of her friendship with Pat Jobe, who wrote commentaries for a local NPR station in Spartanburg, S.C.
“He invited me to do a couple of commentaries. The rules were, ‘Make it 3½ minutes long, make it deep, and make it funny.’ I did a couple, and the station asked me to keep going. So Pat and I rotated through this commentary slot called Radio Free Bubba.”
Out of that came the duo’s first book, a collection of radio essays called The Best of Radio Free Bubba. Soon they were promoting the book on a tour through Barnes & Noble stores in the Southeast.
“The first [stop] on the book tour was a terrible experience. We sat at the book table, and people would take a look at you and get as far away as possible so they wouldn’t have to buy the book,” she recalls.
“For the next stop, we decided to bring our guitars so we could entertain ourselves while everyone avoided us. The music brought people in, and we had about 30 people standing around. We did readings from the book after they had been lured in by the music. The Barnes & Noble people liked it, so we took our guitars wherever we went after that. After that, we started the Radio Free Bubba Traveling Road Show, singing together at county fairs. That’s what got [the music] going.”
Today, Barnhouse is the author of five books — all of them humorous essays from her NPR gig — and has recorded two albums, July Blue and Mango Thoughts in a Meatloaf Town.
Mango Thoughts includes several numbers that use humor to reflect on personal change and growth. The album is studded with thought-provoking ideas about the yearnings of the human spirit.
Take the title track, which Barnhouse says mirrors her feelings in her previous life as a Presbyterian minister in South Carolina.
Sitting around a lunch table back then with five other liberal clergypeople, a Baptist minister asked Barnhouse how she was. “And I said, ‘Randy, I was thinking Mango thoughts in a meatloaf town.’ I heard that come out of my mouth and I thought, ‘That’s a song.’
“I think there are a lot of Unitarian Universalists who feel like a lone ranger … and they don’t know how many people are out there who are like-minded,” she says. “So when they finally find that UU congregation, the experience of having been alone and now being among other like-minded people is both wonderful and unsettling,” she says. “That’s what I wanted to express — mostly the wonderful — in that song.”
For Barnhouse — who attended Princeton Theological Seminary — her ticket out of her metaphorical “meatloaf town” was punched by a friend who encouraged her to try a women’s spirituality group at a UU church in Spartanburg.
“I was always a liberal in my Christianity. I never believed that anyone was going to hell, and I never thought there was only one way to God,” she says. “I began to be more drawn to earth-based traditions in the early ’90s. We had a women’s spirituality circle, but we were all Presbyterians and Episcopalians and realized that our own churches wouldn’t really appreciate how Pagan we were becoming.”
After sampling the spirituality circle at the UU church a few times, Barnhouse was asked to give a guest sermon there. She prepared for it by leafing through hymnal. “I thought, ‘The readings in the back of this hymnal are so wonderful’ — and yet, I knew I never could be a UU because I was married to a Presbyterian minister.”
But in time, as her marriage began to end, she explored the possibility of changing her ordination to UU. Eventually, she did, landing as minister at the same UU church in Spartanburg.
A year and a half since moving to New Jersey, Barnhouse and her partner are enjoying life in the Northeast. “We find New Jersey delightful. We’re even starting to learn how to honk the horn,” she says with a hint of a sweet Southern twang.
Playing musical gigs, writing self-deprecating essays, taking to the airwaves with introspection and humor — they may not be the first things that come to mind when you think of a minister. But if you think about it a little harder, expressing one’s feelings through writings and songs to connect with others is what ministering is all about.
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