By now the “coming out” of former United Methodist pastor Teresa Macbain as an atheist is old news. Indeed, I’m not quite sure how it became news in the first place. Perhaps it’s because her appearance at a March 26th American Atheist Conference took place only a week before Holy Week. Perhaps it’s because she resigned as pastor of the Lake Jackson United Methodist Church here in Tallahassee the day after Palm Sunday. Most likely it’s because the YouTube video of her talk to the atheist group went viral.
I missed the story altogether. I stay pretty busy this time of year, and I long ago quit watching the local TV news. I just can’t stand the vacuous chatter that suffices for news coverage. Apparently the local newspaper, the Tallahassee Democrat, didn’t think the story newsworthy. So I missed it.
My first knowledge of Ms. Macbain’s change of heart came on my way into worship on “Low Sunday.” A church member was very upset because several members of her family are members of the Lake Jackson congregation. She said they felt betrayed – not so much that their pastor would go through a dark night of the soul, but that she would make her announcement not to her flock, but to a meeting of the American Atheist Conference.
You can see their point. It would be hard to see your pastor in the pulpit one Sunday and on YouTube the next Sunday telling her audience how wrong she had been to believe all that stuff about God.
One would have to be pretty hardhearted (not to mention unpastoral) not to empathize with a person who finds herself deeply conflicted about her faith. I can certainly empathize with my sister Teresa. It must be a special kind of hell to feel as though you are living a lie. By some reports, Mother Theresa had a similar struggle. Surely no one would want a preacher to proclaim what she did not in fact believe.
On the other hand, my pastor’s heart goes out to a congregation of people who must have loved Teresa, sought her counsel, and invited her into the most intimate moments of their lives. As someone who has spent 26 years attending to the same congregation, I know what it’s like to doubt. I also know what it’s like to confirm the children you baptized, perform the marriages of children you confirmed, keep watch by their bedsides as your dear friends draw their last breath, and stand by their gravesides singing “Alleluia.”
Sometimes you can’t sing at all. You have to let the community sing for you. But that’s what faith is all about. It’s not about you. It’s about Someone far bigger, more wonderful, and a good deal more understanding that you.
From what I can tell from her public comments, Teresa Macbain doesn’t believe in a God who condemns atheists to hell. The thing is, neither do I. It’s sad to think that my sister renounced faith in a God who never existed in the first place.