Posts Tagged ‘spiritual’

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”.

Sigh.

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 glide.org ; 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.

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.

Explications, Amends, Remembrances

Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist feels she needs to clarify a couple of things.

I’ve been reeling for the last week after receiving some pretty intense criticism on this here blog. I was really hurt. I mean, I know I’m doing something fairly weird. I know I’m getting my chocolate all up in your peanut butter, whatever epistemological flavor your personal peanut butter happens to be. I fully expected to take flak on this. I just didn’t expect it to come from the inside.

Some folks from my own beloved community misunderstood my intentions and seemed to feel that I was threatening or deriding their beliefs. Nothing could be farther from the truth. My life’s project for the last year has been to build a bridge between belief systems in an attempt to address the terrible wounds this country has sustained in the false and unnecessary war between belief and non-belief.

So for my own peace of mind, just so that I know that I’ve presented all the information to the best of my ability, here are some user-friendly bullet points about what I’ve been trying to do.

  • I have no desire to “convert people to atheism”. If anything, I am trying to convert people – atheists and believers alike – to Glide-ism. The principles taught at Glide (unconditional love and acceptance, radical inclusion, liberation through community) are ones I think are seriously lacking in the public discourse on all sides.
  • To this end, I hope to put together a working alliance of folks of different belief systems within Glide to bring the message of radical inclusion in the service of social justice to the world outside the church. It is not an “atheist vs. non-atheist” group. It is an “atheist WITH non-atheist” group.
  • Many atheists do in fact have very strong biases against and scorn for people of faith. Not being of this stripe, I do not want to be judged by their actions.
  • Many people of faith do in fact have very strong biases against and scorn for social justice. Not being of this stripe, most folks at Glide do not want to be judged by their actions.
  • So let’s not.

When I sing the songs we sing at Glide I do some translations in my head so that they make sense to me. When we sing about God, I hear “love”. I hear unconditional support, a paean to someone who will pick you up and embrace you after your worst, most shameful collapses, someone who gently urges you to be as kind, as strong, as weak, as humble, as steadfast as you can be. I have found such remarkable love in my human community and strive to provide the same quality of love to others, no matter how mind-bogglingly hard that can be. Singing about it every Sunday strengthens my resolve to do better in the days that follow, just as it does for folks who translate the words differently. The miracle of Glide is that I have been welcomed to make these translations in whatever way fits me best, and that I will never have to worry about being judged for my beliefs or the way I choose to live my life.

That is kind of the point of Glide.

Because I have received this acceptance and love I have devoted my life to paying it forward, to respecting and honoring the beliefs of others and trying to find common ground instead of trying to argue them down or convince them otherwise. Everything I have written thus far in this blog has been an attempt to describe and elucidate that mission. It is a work in progress. I’ve come a long way, I’ve come a long way…I’ve still got a long way to go.

I would humbly, respectfully, lovingly, earnestly remind those who took offense at my proposal of the doctrine of unconditional love and acceptance that is at the heart of what we do at Glide. Your love – your Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan, Animist, undefined, agnostic, atheist, “otherwise categorized” love – has shown me how to stand in the ambiguities. The uncomfortable both/ands, the places where I am tempted to gird my loins with my ego-bound certainties and go at it bloody-knuckle style but am learning how to tolerate in all their wondrous awkwardness – this is what the Glide community has taught me. We must all sometimes remind each other how to do it, I guess.

Much love goes out to the friends and family of our beloved brother in song, Brigardo Groves. A shining light of joy and gospel groove left us this week, and we are all mourning and celebrating him. His love has given us yet another opportunity to share our common feelings in diverse languages. We miss you already, Brigardo.

Inter-Belief Coalition at Glide

Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist has been collaborating with one of the pastors of Glide Memorial Methodist Church to create an inter-belief working group within the congregation. This is the initial proposal; I’m posting it so that folks can give some suggestions about where to take it. Thanks in advance for your help.

“It is my observation that many issues of social justice are placed in a polarizing religious context by the popular media, and as such we often forfeit the opportunity to collaborate with other activists who are working toward the same goals merely because their belief system differs from our own. Glide’s commitment to radical inclusion presents a unique opportunity to bridge this gap to increase our understanding of one another, our strength as activists and our beloved community of compassionate advocates for change.

As an atheist member of the Glide community I have been moved and inspired by the radical activism of people of faith(s) there, and equally dismayed by the occasional negativity with which my involvement has been received by my fellow non-believers. The widespread representation of right-wing conservative religiosity in opposition to human rights, progressive politics and economic justice has produced a climate in which many feel that in order to oppose oppression one must oppose religious and spiritual belief. This division contributes to the obstacles facing those working tirelessly for justice and liberation and must be bridged.

To this end I propose a coalition between believers and non-believers, theists and non-theists, people of any religious or spiritual faith together with people who identify as non-religious or spiritual. We will seek ways of making visible the alliance between faith and non-faith, in order to encourage others to reach across the faith divide. This may take the form of printed literature, art, acts of protest or support, web presence, media representation, and anything else the group creates. It will be a forum for questions and conversations, collaboration and cooperation. We will develop methods of communication and conflict management that can be used to overcome situations in which differences of belief might lead to rupture of partnership. We will visibly and accountably stand together for change rather than allow our differences to divide us.”

Please feel free to leave suggestions and feedback. This is a work in progress.

Sarah, Honey. Let’s Hug it Out.

Palin. Palin, Palin, Palin.

I wish that I didn’t have to talk about Miss Alaska here on my blog, but it seems I do. And all because she has made a big old kablooey fuss about how the laws of this country should be based on the Bible. Oh Sarah. Why you gotta make it so hard?

Or so easy?

The reasons this makes me so angry are manifold. Let us for the moment leave aside the terrifying implications of theocracy and the cringe-worthy hypocrisy of proposing one theocracy (a Christian one) as perfectly acceptable while at the same time excoriating another theocracy (an Islamic one) as threateningly fundamentalist. Let us leave aside the very clear injunction for the separation of church and state in the founding documents of this nation, regardless of the denominations, affiliations or spiritual philosophies of their authors, and the fact that many of those authors questioned the existence of a Christian god entirely. Let us even leave aside the spectacular wrong-headedness of claiming that any religious affiliation should be enforced upon the people of this country, considering the fact that the entire bloody point was to escape theocracy. Let us not even go there, for logic does not disturb the placid waters of Lake Palin. We would merely wear out our boat.

No. The reason this enrages me so is that it makes Christians look even worse to atheists than they already do.

Sarah, honey. You have no idea what a challenge it’s been to convince most of the liberal atheists in my life to even have a conversation with people of faith. To imagine that they are members of the same sentient species at all, let alone abandon the safe encampments of philosophical divide to join forces with them for the betterment of the human condition. I will offer up a painful transparency here, a truth difficult to admit: Many atheists do, in fact, think that people of your faith are dangerously ignorant. It’s a fact. And here I am, striving to challenge the stereotypes of both belief and non-belief, to form a coalition of people who are willing to jettison their biases and make substantive alliances that might begin to heal the wounds of religiosity in this country. And there you are, grinning like a mad moosehunter in a power suit and f*cking it up for all of us.

While I was up north I had lunch with an old friend who was hard-pressed to understand why I, a through-and-through atheist, would get up early Sunday mornings to go to church. His experience of Christians was one of bigotry, intolerance, oppressive rigidity and a total refusal to parlay on the neutral ground of humanism. In a word, Sarah, you. The response that I hadn’t fully formulated in my head at that time but which your most recent squawking has cemented for me is this: Spending time among theists, deists and spiritualists who constantly push themselves to practice unconditional love and acceptance – the gay man who asked me to act with compassion toward the virulent hatemongers of the Phelps klan when they planned to protest a local high school that was putting on a play about murder victim Matthew Shepard; the African American pastor who helped me turn my anger about the racism directed at our President into a deeper empathy for the psychological brokenness of racism itself; the people of the congregation who have showered me with love, real and unconditional love, in full knowledge of and deep respect for my atheism – challenges me to push myself just as hard in the effort to expand my ability to work with people, rather than contract it. Being there begins to soften this terribly hurt place from which I have defended my own beliefs and failed to hear the potential for connection with those of others. It allows me to deal with fundies like you with humanity and compassion, because I am exposed to people whose faith is grounded in humanity and compassion. It reminds me that that which has angered me past the point of reason about religiosity in this country is also that which I myself am in constant peril of doing in the fight against their oppression: not listening.

So I am practising on you, Sarah. I am so very, very angry at you and those you represent, and I am fighting like hell to master it and stay in a position of unconditional love. The problem is that you are so big, so powerful, so entrenched, so impenetrable, that sometimes the fight to stay on the side of love seems utterly futile. What, after all, does it matter to you? Will you ever meet me? Will you ever know I exist? Will you ever be even microscopically aware of my struggle to afford you your humanity in my head? No. No you will not.

But here is the crux of it, Sarah. We in the secular community like to throw around this little idea – if you only do the right thing when you are afraid of being punished for doing wrong, then how right can you really be? If your charity only extends to those who can acknowledge it, what is its value? We like to claim a little superiority on this count, adhering as we do to a moral code based on compassion and enlightened self-interest rather than a punitive paternity poised above our heads to deliver retribution should we fail. So if I treasure and tend this anger in my breast for you and yours, if I allow it to root and grow simply because you will never hear of it, aren’t I just as dangerous as I’m painting you?

So I’ll keep trying to love you, because that is what has been taught to me by folks who read the same book you do. Although I have to say that it sure don’t sound like the same book when you talk about it. But that’s between you and your god, right? And in the meantime, can you please please please stop making Christians look like such flagrant idiots?

Thanks a mill,

-Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist In Church

Suspended Like a Ragdoll in the Pitiless Sky: An Atheist’s Thoughts on Prayer

Wow. This has been a long hiatus; an unintended one to be sure.

Last week my father-in-law was rushed to the hospital with severe pain in his chest and difficulty breathing. Since then we have learned that he has lung cancer. I wish I had some better, more creative or lyrical way to say that, but I don’t. There is nothing lyrical about cancer.

I have been wracking my brain for something thought-provoking or insightful to write about this, something in keeping with my project of thinking and talking about the wonderful incongruities of being an atheist in church. I have no wisdom on this one. My family is scared and grief-stricken, looking ahead to a grim road of chemo and sickness and insurance rigamarole. Dad is in tremendous pain and his wife is terrified beyond imagining. My husband is striving to be a good son to his father and I am striving to be a good partner to him. We are a rickety arrangement of buttresses and lean-tos, one propping up another on shaky, treasonous ground.

But I will say that I have been profoundly moved by the love and support of our friends and community. Folks who pray have haltingly asked me if it would be alright for them to pray for us, for my husband and his father particularly. I find it to be one of the sweetest, most respectful questions I’ve ever been asked, although it’s entirely possible that a year ago I might have been merely pissed off by it. (I’m not proud of that, by the way.) It’s given me a bit of insight into what is commonly known as “the power of prayer”, something I have historically dismissed as some kind of shared delusion. And maybe I still think that, although I’m beginning to see that the delusion is a beautiful one, and the sharing of it is one of the most important things we do as human beings.

Allow me to explain.

I found out about Dad’s diagnosis over the phone as I boarded a plane to Portland. Truly some of the most unabashedly crappy timing in living memory. They had biopsied on Monday and we expected the results on Wednesday, the day I was scheduled to leave, and though I lobbied to jettison the trip and stay home to support my husband, he would have none of it and marched me to the airport personally. On the phone I was of no use to him whatsoever, irrationally shocked even though we all sort of knew this would be the result, my heart breaking for him too much to be able to think of anything even remotely comforting. As I took my seat and tried to settle myself with my book and my laptop and my crosswords and my sudoku (I travel like a toddler with ADHD – I need a lot of stimulus) I felt more helpless than I think I have ever felt in my life. It was so stupid, so stupid, that I was sitting here on this stupid plane going down this stupid runway and lifting into the stupid sky when the people I love were in so much pain. I kept having an urge to flag down a flight attendant and ask them to do something about it. “Um, yeah, so my father-in-law has cancer and I am stuck on this idiot sardine tin and this should totally not be happening. Could you, you know, fix that for me please?” In my helpless smallness, suspended like a ragdoll in the pitiless sky, my brain could not help but cast about for some authority that could just clear up this little misunderstanding for me. Dad could not possibly have cancer. I could not possibly be thousands of airborne miles away from my husband’s side. Somebody must be able to make this not be happening.

This was one of those moments when I am really bummed about the whole not-believing-in-a-higher-power thing.

I cried on and off the whole flight, and I will not even bother to speculate what the guy next to me thought was my problem. Possibly in-flight overstimulation from too many activities, who knows. When I got to my sister’s house and checked my email I found nearly 20 emails from Glide folks, most of them including this shy request to pray for me and my family. I know you don’t pray, many of them said, but if it’s ok with you I’d like to pray for you guys anyway. We’re sending love. We’re hoping for the best. We’re standing right behind you if you need to fall apart.

What I felt was an overwhelming tide of support and strength, just knowing that all these people – many of whom have never met my husband, let alone his dad – were thinking of us. Even people whom I’ve never met – Jenny Rain, whose blog (http://jennyrain.com/) I stumbled upon and who has been kind enough to start a conversation with this upstart atheist, gently asked my permission to pray for us out of her kindness and compassion. I do not know the content of their prayers or what it feels like for them to address their thoughts of us to a being in whom we do not believe. Frankly it did not matter to me. The fact that they were thinking of us at all gave me the wherewithall to pull myself together and be steady and supportive to my husband when we spoke on the phone. He, in turn, received from my words the wherewithall to pull himself together to be steady and supportive to his dad and stepmother. Our rickety buttressed lean-to suddenly had a whole lot more timber to it, and that in itself was a small miracle.

So prayer, as they say, works. I don’t agree that it works in the same sense that the folks who say “prayer works” think it does – Dad still has cancer, this terrible road still stretches before him and us, his family – but in the sense that it sends out ripples of intent and commitment, builds small fortresses of comfort and solidarity, adds a little oomph to the strained resources of folks facing hardship….. Yeah. It works.

My very deep and profound gratitude to all those who have lent their intent, comfort, solidarity and oomph to my family and me. And Dad, when you’re well enough to get to the computer and read this, you should know that there are a lot of people out there who are thinking of you with love and hope. No matter what happens, we’ll all be right by your side.

How to Make Over an Atheist, Part 1

The first time I went to Glide Memorial Methodist Church it was Mother’s Day. A challenging day for many of us. My personal life was going through heretofore unimagined upheaval, so all challenges were amplified beyond reason. One of my closest friends had been going for a while and had been urging me to come for the music if nothing else, and I’d been resisting. Cause I’m an atheist. Kind of a no-brainer. Sheesh.

But one night I became aware of the gritty granite of rock bottom, so I called her up and said I’d go. Why the hell not. Sundays can be nasty when you hit rock bottom. Some good music sounded like a better idea than any I’d had.

(Let me just throw down the gauntlet to my fellow atheists real quick, here. We utterly fail when it comes to rejoicing. We have no song book. We do not gather in large numbers once a week to recommit ourselves to the values that bind us together as a community. There is very little hugging. The religious guys have a serious edge over us on this stuff. In the battle for hearts and minds, unless we come up with some catchy tunes and free motivational speakers every Sunday, we will rank perpetually last, right after home dentistry and time share sales parties. Seriously. We gotta get on top of this.)

The sanctuary at Glide is a big open space that feels much like any other church, until you look a little closer. When you lift your eyes to the space above the risers where the choir stands, there is something missing.

There is no cross.

When Reverend Cecil Williams was sent to take over the flock at Lizzie Glide’s gold rush church at the corner of Ellis and Taylor 45 years ago, the congregation was miniscule. In the heart of the Tenderloin, Glide stands sentinel over some of the most destitute blocks in San Francisco. The story goes that even before he got the order to move to San Francisco Cecil heard a call from God to challenge oppression in ways that would lead his life in very radical directions. Did it ever.

Upon arrival the first thing he did was to order the cross taken down. It was a symbol of death, he said, and he wanted his church to be dedicated to the celebration of life. Over the decades he, and eventually his wife Janice Mirikitani, opened their doors to the wounded people who had been rejected by other churches, disenfranchised by the city and the country, beaten down by racism, homophobia, misogyny. Drug addicts, sex workers, runaways, survivors of domestic violence, bedraggled but dignified drag queens, radical leftist dropouts, Black Panthers, bra burners – refugees all, from doors slammed in faces and cold eyes looking the other way. Cecil read the Gospel of Christ quite literally and shaped his congregation to its strict adherence: unconditional love and acceptance. No more, no less. No other interpretation would do.

Somewhere along the way he figured out that when nothing else reliably resulted in butts-in-pews, music would. Some of the best musicians in a city full of virtuosos flocked to be part of what was happening. The Ensemble’s ranks swelled and folks came just to hear the music, stayed for Cecil’s fiery exhortations to radical inclusiveness and service to all humankind and ended up lifelong members regardless of their original faith or non-faith. He got arrested for civil disobedience more times than anyone remembers (except Jan, undoubtedly). He led armies of health workers and caring congregants to the foot of the crackhouses in the Tenderloin and shouted up to the inhabitants through a bullhorn to come down and get a hot meal and some medical attention. No judgement. No judgement, ever. Just acceptance, safety, help and love.

Now Glide membership numbers in its tens of thousands, stretches all over the world and funds nearly 100 programs that provide food, medical and mental health services, emergency shelter, permanent housing, vocational training, college scholarships, drug and alcohol recovery, mentoring, comprehensive case management and more. It is as big as Cecil and Jan could paint it, and it continues to serve and reach out, loving unconditionally, accepting radically. It is as near a miracle as any atheist can point to.

Of course I didn’t know all of this when I climbed the stairs, exhausted and undone by my own despair, and sat in the back with my girlfriend. I only knew that I didn’t know what else to do but be there.

And then the music started. Oh my. The music started. Gospel, huge and ebullient, big fat four part harmonies that roared up into the rafters, shook me down to the bleached bones of my pain and rattled them into life like a child’s toy. I started crying almost immediately. Ushers distributed fans and kleenex, and I saw that I was not alone in my weeping. The strangers all around me were shining in their own pain and joy and humanity, radiant, having granted themselves permission to expose this rawness in themselves for these 90 minutes of a Sunday morning.

I reigned myself in to the best of my ability because I felt myself an outsider, a non-believer, and I did not want to get too hooked on the stuff. I braced myself to hear “the god talk” and just white-knuckle it till the music started again. But then Pastor Donald Guest got up and started the impassioned litany that has now become so dear to my heart. “We don’t care if you’re Christian. We don’t care if you’re Jewish. We don’t care if you’re Muslim. We don’t care if you’re Hindu. We don’t care if you’re an atheist. We don’t care if you’re straight, gay, transgendered, bisexual, black, white, brown, yellow, polkadotted, republican, democrat, documented or undocumented, whatever and whoever you are we celebrate you and invite you to be part of this beloved community.” By this time he was hollering and jumping around the stage like an old-time revival preacher, but that wasn’t what shocked me half senseless. He’d named me. Along with the roll call of religions, the people who had a right to be there because they agreed at least that there was a god, he’d as much as said my name. There was no “we love you even though you’re wrong”, no “why don’t you read this scripture/listen to this speaker/let me tell you about how god can save you from your damnation”. It was just a fact. You’re an atheist. And you’re one of us.

Next Up: Conversion, But Not the God Kind; Owning Up to Being Intolerant; Trying to Explain It – “I’m Still an Atheist, Really.”

Enlightened Self-Interest, or Why This Is Important

Another break in the history to make a couple of points.

Right now the fabric of the country is being stretched beyond tensilary capacity. We all know this. There’s a level of hysteria in the discourse that is more extreme than anything most of us can remember. The racism, homophobia, economic oppression and religious hyperbole we’re hearing scares most liberals right off the pavement. Not just liberals. Conservatives, too, folks who may disagree with the administration’s decisions but don’t feel fomented into Hitler-mustacioed delirium. Folks who can at least spellcheck their protest signs before they get on the news. Folks who are still able to have a conversation. We’re all a little terrified.

The either/or-ness of the conversation is debilitating. From what we see in the media, it’s either Christian Values or naked homosexuals dancing in the street. (For the record I personally see no problem with naked homosexuals dancing in the street. We do it all the time here in San Francisco.) It’s either Pro-life or festering abortion clinics strewn with damned fetuses. Health Care Reform is tantamount to slapping a hammer and sickle sticker on your forehead and slipping “Mein Kampf” into your breast pocket on your way to your friendly neighborhood death panel. But how much of that is influenced by the media, by the pundits who shape the conversation itself? I know people who disagree with Health Care Reform who are not slavering spelling-disabled maniacs. The way that the media is portraying them drives them crazy, so much so that when proponents of reform want to talk to them about it their defensive mechanisms engage and they might end up shouting. Take away someone’s humanity and they start acting like an arsehole.

 Most of these issues get painted in a religious context. The people who tend to shout the loudest about America as Christian Nation are the people who tend to vote against marriage equality, racial equality, womens’ right to choose, comprehensive sex ed, economic justice-oriented market regulations, separation of church and state. So as atheists we tend to position ourselves not only against those seeking to oppress human rights but against religion en toto. And in doing so we foreclose on the possibility of collaboration with communities of faith who are working against oppression rather than contributing to it.

I just spent some time searching for data on the comorbidity of atheism and liberalism vs. conservatism and couldn’t find a thing. If anyone has any numbers on this please send them to this atheist. My guess, though, is that atheists are more likely to be socially liberal than conservative, primarily because they are not bound by dogmatic regulations that dictate how they think about homosexuality, race, gender, economics, education, reproductive rights, etc. Discourse on these issues therefore tends to get contextualized as a hot-mess pissing contest of belief/nonbelief instead of evidence-based explorations of what might be best for humanity. Tempers flare. Mud is slung. Everybody leaves in a huff thinking “Those atheists/religious people are just fanatical morons.” And we all go back to our corners seething, dedicated anew to finding validation for our own beliefs to vanquish the other guy’s. How exhausting.

But here’s the thing, the truth that we atheists don’t see when we’re running for the hills because the fundies are foaming at the mouth and we don’t know what to do with them. There’s something different happening. I think it’s been happening for a long time but I haven’t been exposed to it, and now I see it all over the place because my eye is trained to it. Or maybe it is something new that’s arising in faith communities, and if so we as atheists must come out in support of it. What’s happening is this: people are taking their faith back from the malignant institutions that have subordinated it. They are thinking harder about the off-handed commandments of their churches and evaluating them based on what they feel is humane and righteous. They are wresting free the right to interpret what spirituality means to them and thus expanding their ability to tolerate difference.

They are thinking critically instead of swallowing dogma.

I have had conversations in the last year with devoutly religious people who have begun to challenge the idea that homosexuality is a sin, because they see beloved family members living happy, moral, constructive out lives. I’ve read commentary by conservative Christians rejecting creationism in the face of the overwhelming factual evidence of evolution. I’ve seen countless instances of people shaking their heads and saying “No, you know what, that does NOT add up to my idea of God.” And they’re making the choice to stand on the side of humanity rather than church doctrine.

We must stand beside them.

We must make this alliance. There is no future in a secular world that shuns believers who do the same work, strive for the same goals, simply because they believe. There are people out there – I have seen them, I have worked alongside them – whose faith compels them to march, fight, speak out for liberation rather than oppression. There are people out there who read the Gospel as an incitement to love radically, include completely, celebrate universally. We must give up trying to convince them not to believe. It’s none of our goddamn business, anyway. We must set aside the discomfort and frustration we feel about their faith and collaborate with them in healing the injuries this war of philosophies has incurred.

Enlightened self-interest. We do what is right not only because it is right but because it preserves humanity, of which we are a part. This is what many atheists hold up as the foundation of their morality, a morality that we well know is perfectly attainable without the infrastructure of religion. We fight to make that known. Let’s live up to it.