Posts Tagged ‘atheism’

Blogfail, Empty Places and Owning Up: YFNA Attempts to Crawl Out of Her Own Rear End.

I gotta be honest. I feel like a bit of a failure. Blogfail. Um, kind of epic blogfail.

I lost the fire, lost my way, lost hold of the questions I was trying to answer. It happens. There have been at least a dozen post ideas that have flitted non-committally through my head like your winsome, New-Agey friend with all the scarves and divination stones who just wants to borrow your flax oil but can’t stick around to help you move your couch. But I’ve just felt like I haven’t been doing my homework, so I don’t deserve to have a voice.

Wow. That’s one for my therapist, eh?

Anyway. I just chickened out with my “following the music” idea, because frankly I did not think I would be welcome in the kind church that has the music I’m talking about. I fully confess to holding cowardly, preconceived and even bigoted notions about a number of things here: 1) That African American churches are the only ones in this town with good gospel music; 2) That African American congregations would not like an atheist white girl wandering into their midst to feed off their music; 3) That African American churches would be more conservative; 4) That conservative churches would fill me with rage and be therefore utterly intolerable for me to sit through. In all truth it would seem from my research that at least Cowardly, Preconceived and Even Bigoted Notion #1 is most likely true; if there are racially diverse churches with old school gospel in this town I have yet to find them. But then again so much in this town is homogeneous, in a way that continues to gives me the squeebs. Despite its good intentions, Portland has a long, long way to go in the diversity department.

As for Cowardly, Preconceived and Even Bigoted Notions #2 and 3, I have no data there. They are truly born of my own unjustifiable, under-examined biases and microaggressive privilege. I own them, I do not seek to defend them and I humbly commit to working on them.

Cowardly, Preconceived and Even Bigoted Notion #4 is a little harder to process. It was much, much, SO much easier to practice unconditional love and radical acceptance for intolerance disguised as religion when I got to have a party about it every Sunday. It was SO much easier to stay in patience and compassion when I could go and drown in the joy that was balm to all the hurt and rage. I think I could wrangle with #4 if I knew I could tap into the strength afforded by one hundred bodies on either side committed to the same effort. I am not as strong without that.

It needs some thought. Instead of avoidance, I mean. Avoidance has been very effective up till now, but that big achey cavern in my gut where my strange, wobbly, translational spirituality used to lie is still there, just kind of patiently thudding away until I’m ready to attend to it. I think it’s time.

Old Time Religion; Life & Death, Too Close Together.

I’ve been to church a few times since the last post.

A friend of mine invited me to come to Unity Church of Portland, and I went twice; once with her and once without. It is a lovely non-denominational church that emphasizes spirit over any concept of “god”. They talk about “wisdom teachers” such as Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed and the “wisdom texts” they gave to the world. People were very nice to me both times, both as a stranger and as someone introduced by a congregant. There was nothing in the sermon that made me feel particularly out of place in my beliefs. I came home and told my husband that it was very nice, and wandered off with a distracted, unsettled look on my face.

Yesterday I went to the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Portland. Also very nice. Even less about deity – although interestingly they used the word “religion” substantially more than either sermon at Unity, despite the fact that there was less “religious” vocabulary used. They lit a chalice, gonged a Buddhist prayer bell, sang the Quaker hymn “’Tis A Gift To Be Simple”. Several parts of the service had to do with social justice and action, which was refreshing. A very, very white quartet got up and sang a Kenyan feast song. They were all classically trained and had some chops, and were clearly very, very white. The audience – entirely white and primarily over 50 – gently bobbed their heads. I noticed several people falling asleep. When I got home I listened to a recent Glide service in which Pastor Karen Oliveto had everyone dancing to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”.


I know that comparing is a wasteful activity, a fool’s game. I was very conscious of that as I sat and listened. I told myself to stop comparing, dammit, and just experience what IS instead of what ISN’T. I tried really, really hard… But hang on a sec. Let me take a moment to let you in on where I’m at, because it’s relevant.

Last week I had a miscarriage.

Now that is a god-awful word if I ever heard one. Like I dropped it perhaps, tripped on uneven pavement and it just – whoops! – flew out of where I was carrying it. Or the phrase “miscarriage of justice” comes to mind. A terrible flub, a travesty perpetrated by an inept and corrupt authority. I don’t know which is worse. Although at the very early stage at which I miscarried the other term for it is a “chemical pregnancy”, which is most decidedly worse than “miscarriage”. As though it were just a fluke of chemistry rather than a heartbreaking end to the confirmed fruition of years of hope and dreaming. However you put it, it freaking sucks.

Yesterday morning when I stepped into the sanctuary, I could really have used a little breakdown space.

Here’s the thing that really struck me as I sat listening to the smooth, un-jarring and un-challenging material of the service: There needs to be a little violence. I know that’s a strange word to use, but it was the one that kept coming to me. I remembered the almost combative physical force of the 100+ voices of the Glide Ensemble; the challenging, questioning, all-fired-up preaching that invited shouts of recognition and urging from the congregation; the confrontation of all my own biases and inhumane discomforts that was the result of standing in a room full of such vastly different individuals who all agree to lift each other up every Sunday, free of charge. All of that stuff – that life-changing, shell-shattering stuff that takes hold of your grief and shakes it like a bone rattle in your chest, makes room for the watershed and strips you bare so that the total stranger standing next to you knows you, sees you, recognizes himself in you and gives you the extra hands you need to keep clinging to the side of the cliff – all of that good, good stuff is, let’s face it, a little violent.

It’s old time religion, y’all. When I think about “old time religion” I think of the wrath of God, the smiting of the wicked, the rending of garments, the gnashing of teeth. There are times in our lives when our grief so outstrips our capacity to compass it that the only thing that truly reflects our insides is violence. And if we’re lucky we can find that essential violence in a threshing drumbeat or a spine-breaking harmony by a hundred voices. There are ever so many ways of finding death and destruction unfettered, ungrounded, unloved, unmended. What we need is a way of earthing the lightening bolts and feeling the thunder without dying in flames.

So I wanted a little old time religion this Sunday. Unfortunately, what I got was unmoored floaty new-wave complacency.

Next week we’re going to follow the music. Maybe the music is the key. The question is this: will I be able to hear the music and feel welcomed knowing that my atheism is looked upon there as a failure, a deficit, a dearth? How alien will I feel, how much will I have to hide? I don’t know the answer. I only know I haven’t found it yet.

Greetings from Your Newly Northern Friendly Neighborhood Atheist

Bless me, WordPress, for I have sinned. It’s been a year since my last blog post.

We live in Portland now. Our little house is big enough for us and our cats and it sits on a tree-crowded corner of a verdant, safe, funky-in-the-best-way neighborhood. Kids run up and down our street playing riotously joyful games and selling lemonade. We are in the process of trying to make one of our own to add to the clamor. We have built vegetable beds in the back yard (a back yard!!! We’d heard of back yards in San Francisco, but no one we knew had ever seen one) and are watching seedlings grow into salads. I have a fabulous and rewarding job for which I am paid, if not handsomely, then at least adequately enough for the things we want. Every weekend we hang out with my sister and her husband and kids, who are happy and healthy and destined for greatness. As I write this, my husband is making us pancakes with blackberries from the produce cart down the street. Life, she is sweet.

And I miss Glide.

As the weeks and months turn into a year, I become more and more acutely aware of it. I pick apart the longing to try to understand the building blocks of what I’m missing. The people, of course. Beloved friends who I hardly get to speak to anymore, whose faces I once got to see shining with joyful noise every Sunday. Pastors Karen Oliveto and Don Guest, inspiring mentors and cheerleaders who continually reminded me that being there was not in the least bit strange, because once we got past the semantics we were all talking about the same thing, really. And the music. Being one voice in a massive sea of voices, lifting up those big soaring open harmonies that lifted everyone else. The bootie-shaking, rock solid celebration of gospel. And the opportunity to serve. Knowing I was part of a machine that fed, clothed, healed and housed thousands of human beings. Climbing down into the steam and laughter of the cafeteria at the grim crack of dawn and shedding all pretension, maddening self-absorption, anxiety-addled need to make it all about me, picking up a tray of food and delivering it to a hungry woman and her children. Chapping my fingers in bleachy water wiping down the table after a man finishes the only meal he will eat that day. And acceptance. The feeling that whatever broke in me and flooded into tears, whatever shame of the past, whatever cringing hidden need I might battle in the wounded heart of night, I would still be embraced and encouraged and loved. Loved. And celebrated.

And still get to be an atheist.

Last night my husband and I were sifting through all these things, trying to distill and define the formula of Glide in the fantasy that we could somehow find or recreate it here in Stumptown. We found ourselves comparing religion and rock & roll, examining the similarities and differences between them. What we came to was this: Religion provides frequent ecstatic experiences that are shared by a large group of people and creates a context for transcendence. So does rock & roll. We humans search for this, seem to need it quite desperately. But where religion gets tricky is that it requires conformity, insists upon an in-group and an out-group, defines who is acceptable and who is most emphatically not. Rock & roll solves that problem by accepting absolutely anyone, anything, any behavior – the more transgressive the better. It turns the ecstatic and transcendent into a frenetic, explosive expression of self-hood, me-ness, an identity supernova in which all our dirty bits are reified, deified, idolized. Where rock & roll falls short is that it is a completely self-feeding vocation; we get to experience and celebrate our selves but there’s no element of plugging all that energy back into a connected humanity. We need that, too. Without it we become lonely and self-destructive. We long for something bigger than ourselves. Service puts us back into the network of life.

Glide does all of these things – ecstatic transcendence, complete acceptance and plugging in to service – and does them beautifully. It is a magical equation that I am desperate to find again.

I’ve been wanting to go back to writing but I haven’t been an atheist in church for nearly a year and so haven’t had anything to say. And although I am peaceful and content in my life right now, the lack of community is a constant low-level ache that I am hardly aware of until I pass a church and remember what it felt like to be a part of that weekly embrace. And at that moment I feel deeply alone, because I am so sure that there will be no place for me there. I do not believe.

I find myself going back to the angry atheist podcasts, the documentaries about creationism and anti-gay religious groups. I know from experience now that this is a way of staunching the loneliness, a way of wrapping myself in safe certainties about in-groups and out-groups. I am more like the angry atheists than I am like the creationists and anti-gay people. Therefore in order to feel less alone I have to re-position myself so that I can judge Them for what they do to Us. And oh, I just get so disappointed with myself. I know where this goes. It goes away from music, community, service and acceptance. But I don’t know where to find those things here.

Around 1am last night as my husband and I chewed on all these weighty issues I started to form an idea. An experiment. An exercise in blogging. I will visit communities and write about them. Churches, atheist and humanist groups, volunteer organizations. If I stage it as an experiment in my head perhaps I will be able to observe more clearly and judge less harshly. And if I’m really honest with myself, an experiment gives me the excuse to look for what I’m missing.

The Beginning of Goodbye: Hold On, Don’t Let Go.

I have 2 Sundays left before we move up north.

I am in total denial about this, it’s clear. I’ve been trying to say what needs saying, observe what needs observing, be present for what I need presence in. But at the end of the day, when I think about this week and next week and the week after, I unfailingly place myself on the risers at Glide for all Sundays to come.

It was a great honor to lift the offering at Celebration last Sunday. For those of us unschooled in church-ese, that is the brief testimony given by a member of the congregation to inspire folks to join and support the community. As far as I understand it this happens at many churches, but of course, as with all things, it is very different at Glide.

At Glide, people bear witness not just to the influence of deity or the divine in their lives. They bear witness to the dirty, bloody, sweaty, tear-stained work done by the folks providing services at Glide; to the unshakably supportive community of the congregation; to the changes brought by the wisdom and radical love of the pastoral team. Some folks are Christian, some are Jewish, some are Buddhist, some are sort of vaguely spiritual in a way they wouldn’t even be able to describe if you pressed them to it. Many of them tell profound stories of recovery that would not have been possible without the strength they drew from the people standing around them. It would be kind of cliche if it weren’t so incredibly powerful to hear.

My little spiel had to do with everything I’ve said on this blog. I won’t beleaguer the points (you can order the entire service at ; just scroll down to Sunday Celebration DVD/CD and enter 8/22/10, 9am service – you can see the smiling face of Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist at last). I talked about inclusiveness, social justice, the fact that as an atheist I have had access to the community, ritual, music, support that church affords and have still been able to be myself and believe what I believe. If you’ve been following the blog you know roughly what I’m talking about.

After the service there was a flood of people who came up to speak to me. Some pressed the addresses of their churches up in Portland into my hand and welcomed me with love and excitement. Some embraced me and said that even though they’d never spoken to me they’d come to think of me as family and were sad to see me go. But the majority told me something like this: “I’m an atheist and I’ve been coming here for years but I’ve never felt comfortable saying that.” Folks came out of the closet a little bit, and realized they were far more welcomed than they’d thought they were. It was pretty awesome.

Right now I’m having a hard time composing this in a cohesive, slick way, because I’m listening to one of my favorite Ensemble songs:

Every time we do this song I feel the bottoms of my feet lifted up through my belly, and I end up weeping to the point of almost not being able to sing. It epitomizes Glide to me. If you have time, you should listen to it. If you don’t believe in a God, translate the biblical “He” or “Him” to “love”, or “community”, or “family”, or “that thing that passes between human beings in rare moments of openness and courage, when even strangers feel like brothers”. Think about a time when someone or something has grounded you, saved you from drowning, kept your head up, picked up your pieces. If it’s a divine someone or something, cool. If it’s not, cool. The point is that we all need to hear a kind and beautiful voice tell us to “hold on, don’t let go”. I think what I’ve been trying to say in all these many, many words over these many, many months is simply this: Whatever it is that convinces you to hold on, don’t let go, is worthy of praise and respect.

To all my brothers and sisters who are hanging by a thread, hold on. Don’t let go.

YFNA Geeks Out on the Bible, Part 2

I want to put forward some of the really chewy ideas I heard tonight, and I will do so in subsequent posts. But first I want to think and talk a little about why it’s useful – or important, or relevant, or not totally insane – for an atheist to read the Bible.

First and foremost, it is a collection of narratives on which nearly all of western culture is built. If you want to fully understand anything painted, carved, written or played in Europe or its colonies since about 300AD, you’d better have some basic biblical literacy.

Case in point: My husband and I went to the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco a week ago and saw this painting, “Portrait of a Lady of the Saxon Court as Judith with the Head of Holofernes”, by Hans Cranach, 1537. If you’re prone to contemplation about these sorts of things, you might find yourself with some questions, the first being who is Judith and what is she doing with this guy’s head? And why would a lush little society dame want to pose as her? What does it say about her, about her family, about her interests? What does it say about the artist? What does it say about the zeitgeist in which she posed and he painted? It’s remarkably postmodernist for a 16th century painting, full of self-referents and mirroring cultural memes. Without an elemental understanding of the central narrative, you can’t even begin the conversation.

Secondly, it is imperative that we understand the language in which the most important social justice issues are being discussed in this country. Marriage equality, reproductive rights, racial and economic justice are all being played out on the stage of religiosity. If we want to stand on the side of human rights, we have to be fluent in the language to which those standing on the side of oppression resort to support their claims. I tell you this now: theirs is not the only interpretation of this book. We must not cede to them its resources, for there is more liberation in it than subjugation.

Thirdly, it is comprised of some of the most moving stories ever recorded. Leave aside for the moment the ontological arguments about its authorship, its veracity and its literal or metaphorical interpretation – this is an intense book. It has stories about working, living, loving, losing, longing, grieving, healing, striving, surviving. Human stories. Stories that have been picked over, assembled, reassembled, reworked, but nevertheless they speak to a common thread of lived experience that stretches back millenia. Look down at your own hand, and then imagine the hands that built the pyramids. There is a narrative that stretches back to those hands and beyond, and the echoes of that narrative are enshrined in the Bible.

I have to tell you that I am so grateful for the opportunity to reread – reclaim – the stories in this book without the crushing, foreclosing oppression with which they were imposed on me as a child. I will be very clear that I read them as myth, not fact. I read them as myth in the way that Pastor Guest defines myth: as “a way of explaining to another human being something that is difficult to understand.” I do not wish to engage in a debate about the reality or unreality of these stories, because that leads to unproductive suffering. But talking about what they mean to us as people, what they tell us about ourselves and those who we should strive to find love for – that is a conversation that I will geek out on for days.

YFNA Geeks Out on the Bible, Part 1

Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist is geeking out on the Bible.

I am geeking out on it in the way you’d geek out on Catch 22, or a juicy Jon Krakauer expose, or Harry Potter for that matter; as an astounding collection of histories, cultural tropes and human experiences. Whoever you believe wrote it, it comes from somewhere, and the way we translate, read, quote from and interact with it from generation to generation is simply fascinating to me.

Glide conducts a Bible study group – more accurately called a Sacred Text study group, as I’m told they’ve studied everything from the Bhagavad Gita to the Qur’an – that I’ve been meaning to go to for months now. I’ve even heard rumors that they’ve read some Richard Dawkins, although what he’d say about being included in a list of sacred texts I cannot imagine. Regardless, and true to Glide philosophy, it is radically inclusive, which is why I thought it would be cool to go.

I’ve talked before about the powerful influence of story on the human psyche. Sir Terry Pratchett, the brilliant and uproariously funny British fantasy author, posits an imaginary 118th element he calls “Narrativium”, which he describes thusly: “It is an attribute of every other element, thus turning them into, in an occult sense, molecules. Iron contains not just iron, but also the story of iron, the history of iron, the part of iron that ensures that it will continue to be iron and has an iron-like job to do, and is not for example, cheese.” Pastor Don Guest began this evening’s conversation with a similar sentiment: “Myth is a way of explaining to another human being something that is difficult to understand.”

Next: Why Should an Atheist Read the Bible?

Pride and Prejudice: A brief belated note on Pride Sunday in San Francisco

Let’s play a little catch-up, shall we?

We had Pride Weekend here in San Francisco last month, which marked a year of my singing with the Ensemble. As I walked to the Sunday service that kicked off the parade (Glide does a magnificent float every year; this year was a gigantic stack of gift boxes celebrating the 40th birthday of Pride Parade) I passed one of the many conservative Christian hate groups that descend on the city for Pride weekend. (I’ve always felt it was a strange kind of back-handed compliment, the fact that they come from all over the country to hate on San Francisco during Pride. It sort of says “You are THE gayest of gay cities, therefore we will concentrate our considerable energies upon you.” I don’t know, somehow that’s oddly flattering.) That morning I wore a blazingly bright magenta shirt and a straw hat with an embarrassingly large pink flower in the brim. In the early morning streets of the Tenderloin, before the crowds lined the parade route, I was rather hard to miss.

A gangly youth on (literally) a soapbox shouted out to me that I was destined to burn in the fires of hell for my perversions, to which a year ago I would have responded (and did) with a raised middle finger and some not-so-nice words of my own. This year I stopped, beamed a big smile at him and hollered “Happy Pride!!! We love you!!!”

After regaining control of his rather impressive adam’s apple, he said “We love you too! That’s why we want to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with you.” And with a sense of fullness and gratitude – gratitude for the strength to face this poor misguided fool with the love that has been taught to me by my family at Glide – I replied, “No thanks, I’m good. I’m on my way to church.” To which he said….nothing.

What could he say? That my church wasn’t as good as his? That the gospel I was on my way to hear wasn’t the right gospel, even though it was coming out of the same book?

Well, yes. He could have said all of that and more, because these people aren’t really at home to Mr. Reason, but he didn’t have the chance to. I blew him a big smacking kiss and trotted on up the hill, to sing with folks who know the meaning of the gospel that awkward young man claimed to be selling.

If I’d tried to explain to him that I’m a sacred-text-reading, gospel-singing, comparative-religion-studying atheist, that I’m essentially an Atheist for Jesus, I think he might have had some kind of meltdown. That adam’s apple might have made a desperate upward bid for freedom. It doesn’t bear thinking about. I don’t think it mattered, though. Like water dripping on a stone, the small things we do have a cumulative effect that we might never even see. He may think of me someday, years from now, and a small crack might open up in his concrete worldview. A little light might hit something that’s been kept in the dark, and a green shoot might begin to unfold. Who knows. Maybe in a few years we’ll see him on Pride Sunday, happy and full of love, in 7 inch silver platforms and a Carmen Miranda bra. For that, I might just make an exception and pray.

Regulators, Let’s Saddle Up.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist here, back after long absence. I had almost given up on writing this thing – stuff happens, you lose momentum, life swallows you whole and gives you other things to think about – and then one of the pastors at Glide told me she loved the blog. I realized in that moment that part of why I’d stopped writing was that I’d come face to face with the kind of opposition that can take your voice right out of your throat, and without even realizing it I’d hunched over and slouched off, away from the conversation I’d been trying to start.

Of course, many, many other things have been going down. We lost my husband’s father on June 16th, after two months of a violent, rapacious cancer that felled him like a great oak. Thank you to all of our friends, family and communities for the outpouring of love and support, and, yes, prayers. When it was all over we made the decision to move north to Portland, where my family lives and where the job prospects are better for me and the cost of living isn’t so criminally out of control. In the aftermath of death we are turning our sights to new life, to creating a space where we can start a family. Death and birth, birth and death. The same unending song, and we are searching for our small part in it.

So we’ve been in kind of a scarcity economy around here, alternating between roiling industry and deer-in-the-headlights blankness, staring at the wall and wondering what it’s all about. I haven’t been as present at Glide or in the Ensemble as I’d like to be, so these musings on the conversation between belief and non-belief haven’t been right in the foreground quite as much. But I’m ready to be back in the saddle again.

(Speaking of saddles, I spent a utopian 5 days with my own cowboy daddy earlier this month, and we stayed up late and drank too much homemade wine and dug our fingernails under the surface of all kinds of issues, lofty and mundane. It helped to get the creative mojo flowing again, so thanks for that, Big Daddy.)

So, to reiterate and get back to the meat of this project: I am still an atheist, and I still go to church. It’s still a strange thing to do, but not as strange as it sounds to anyone who’s never been to Glide. And I want to have a conversation that is not about debating the basic nature and fabric of reality, that does not devolve into one-upmanship and a deeply lame contest for Guy With The Truest Truth. I want to have a conversation that begins with what we have in common and builds toward what we can do if we work together.

It’s good to be back.

(PS – I will hold in high regard anyone who can identify the late 80’s teen heart-throb movie the title is taken from. And I will also know roughly how old you are.)

You Too Can Look Cute in a Hairnet: Serving Breakfast at Glide

I finally bit the early morning bullet to volunteer serving breakfast at Glide. I am a little delirious writing this – Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist does not really DO 6am – but maybe delirious is the appropriate state to fully appreciate the churning controlled chaos that takes place below the sanctuary three times a day, every day. It is truly amazing what they accomplish down there, with limited resources and lines that grow by the hundreds of thousands every year.

The thing that was the most striking in my sleep-deprived state was all the smiling. I wouldn’t have expected so much smiling. There were small ruckuses and malcontents – I saw one guy in line kick back with his heel and catch the guy behind him right in the nads – and lots of folks who were too impaired to really interact with their surroundings, but for the most part it was kind of a party. The older gentlemen took great delight in twinkle-eyed flirting with the cute new girl (let me just say that I don’t look half bad in a lunch lady hairnet) and there were kids running pellmell through the cement corridors. Some looked like they’d slept on the street and some like they’d hit on hard times and just needed a meal or two here and there to pull them through the month. But nearly everyone was smiling, joking, calling out to friends, lending each other a hand. It was like all the mistrust and hypervigilance that characterizes the world above got permission for a quick coffee break, and all that was left were folks.

Friends were teasing me last night when I cut out early to go to bed at 9:30 so I could have a hope of making it there this morning. “Gotta go do the Lawd’s work!” they said, because everyone still thinks its pretty funny that my (formerly) grouchy militant staunch atheist behind gets dragged to church every Sunday morning. It is pretty funny. But I wish it didn’t have to be seen as the Lord’s work, wasn’t generally the purview of religious institutions to do this kind of dirty work for the folks who really need it. I wish it could be seen as human work, the work of humanity, the work humans do for other humans. I wish that we as a society could take responsibility for each other without a commandment from on high to do so. Churches shouldn’t be the only organizations sending people to roll bandages in Haiti, to rebuild homes in New Orleans, to staff AIDS clinics in Africa. And really, it doesn’t even have to be that hard. It shouldn’t be that hard to sweat a little in the service of  humanity. One morning a month at your local soup kitchen, your local food bank. We all know we should do it. I’m just not sure why we don’t.

If you – atheist, theist, believer, non-believer, religious, spiritual or undecided – would like to join the party in the world below the sanctuary at Glide, click here and sign up. You don’t have to be a member, but you’ll probably want to be after you hang out for a little while.

I’m going to crawl into the miracle of luck and privilege that is my bed and take a long Sunday afternoon nap. I am so very blessed, though that word has a slightly different meaning to me than it would to someone who believes in God. You don’t have to believe in God to be deeply grateful for things like roofs and beds and food and health care. You just have to spend some time with folks who don’t have them.

In Memoriam

With deep love and heavy yet joyous hearts, we celebrated Brigardo Groves this afternoon. He was a great and loving spirit – and as an atheist I use the word spirit with relative comfort when it comes to Brigardo, describing a bigness of connection, an enthusiasm of experience, a giddy and contagious relish for life. He was a devout believer in God, and knowing that I am an atheist he was a devout believer in me. He was a devout believer in us all.

I did not cry until his beautiful daughters got up to speak about him. They did so with such praise and respect that I kind of fell apart. My own father will pass someday, and even if it is 20 years from now I will not have had enough of his spirit. He is an atheist too, and yet that word still feels appropriate.

I am going to call my father right now. I am going to tell him how much I love him. Tomorrow I will go to see my father in law, who is looking at his own end. I will ask him what it feels like, what seems important to him, what he thinks I should be paying the most attention to. I think Brigardo’s children might have wished to ask him these things. I hope that the shock of his loss will encourage us all to shake off the torpor of daily homeostasis and ask the questions we ought to be asking.

This is the memory of Brigardo that I sent out to the Glide Ensemble community when I heard of his passing, pasted directly from our email stream. The last paragraph refers to an email from a fellow member now working on his divinity degree who wondered what kind of language the atheists in the congregation might use to describe the feelings we all shared at his loss.

“Wow. I just read my Glide email for the first time in a couple of days and I am truly shocked to hear of Brigardo’s passing. He was one of the most welcoming faces of Glide for me.

About 6 months ago I chose to sit in the congregation for the 9am services instead of singing – sometimes I need to receive what we’re putting out there, for my own heart’s best interest – and I ended up sitting next to his famed spot right in the front. I had of course seen him every Sunday and been affected by his contagious joy, but had never actually met him in person. But he knew me alright, and began talking to me immediately, asking about my tattoos and telling me about his daughter’s tattoos, asking for some advice about how best to let her know that he respected her decision about her own body even if it sort of freaked him out.

Then, completely out of the blue, he bit the tattoo on my shoulder and said he wanted to know what it tasted like. I had a moment of panic – I had never, after all, met him personally before this moment – but then he giggled mischievously like a child that’s gotten away with something and my brief panic disappeared to be replaced by the same giggles that were shaking him. He put his arm around my shoulder and gave me a big squidge and said “I love you like you were my own.” I believed him completely. Though it was the first conversation I’d ever had with him, though I am not entirely sure that he even knew my name, I believed him completely. I think that is how his heart worked.

I did not have the privilege to know him very well or very long, but I give honor and love to those of you who did and are so pained by his loss. And I give thanks to all the Glide community for creating a place where he felt so joyously loved as to be able to nibble a near-total stranger with impunity, confident of being understood and giggled with. 😉

R_, I think I would use similar language to yours – gratitude for knowing him, awe at the intricate patterns of life that allowed me to know him, a hope that the web of love that holds us in community was with him in his last moments. Whether one believes that it comes from inside or outside, that love is real and his love was a vast and wondrous part of the whole that will be sorely missed.”

Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist suggests that you go find one of the people who inspire and support you, and tell them about it. Regardless of the language you use, it WILL make a difference.

Love to you all,

-An Atheist In Church