Weep With Those Who Weep

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.

Dissing the Saints

A colleague sent me an article by Tom Ehrich, dated January 5, which offers an interesting take on the changes churches will have to make to avoid fading into obscurity.  Erhrich, who I gather is an Episcopalian pastor, writes about the decline of so-called “Mainline” churches on his website MultiChannelChurch.  He offers lots of helpful suggestions, but he strikes me as a bit too enamored of the marketplace.

Ehrich begins by lamenting the demise of Eastman Kodak, using this company as metaphor for all institutions, especially the church, that fail to adjust to fast-changing realities.   He then offers these two lists:

For clergy

  1. Clergy will need to become strong, assertive entrepreneurs, even in polities that believe in constraining clergy power.
  2. Institutions built on Sunday worship will need to channel resources away from Sunday worship.
  3. Constituents will need to embrace “harvest giving.”
  4. Leaders will take a fresh look at facilities – a long and strategic view, not a “survivor” view.

 For churches:

  1.  Constituents who have seen church as a place to get their needs met will need to become servants, self-sacrificial and radically inclusive
  2. Laity will need to let beloved institutions change radically, and allow leadership to pass to risk-takers, upstarts, new and younger constituents
  3.  Judicatory heads trained to manage institutional processes will need to become advocates for a movement.
  4. Seminaries will need to stop preparing ordinands for a church that no longer exists.
  5. People will need to let their faith be more than convenient religion, a comforting engagement with affirming fellowships, and instead wade boldly into disorderly gatherings marked by diversity and neediness.

The article is helpful in many ways, but apart from the word “servants,” I note a decided lack of theological content.

I agree with much of what Erhrich says, but disagree strongly that clergy should become “entrepreneurs” while members should become “servants.”  His implies that people of faith in mainline churches possess only “convenient religion.  This strikes me as downright insulting and a form of bearing false witness against his neighbors.

The people I “serve” (and I use that word on purpose) at First Presbyterian Church are not focused entirely on “comforting engagement with affirming fellowships.”  The are true servants of the living God who are engaged in God’s mission.

While I appreciate constructive criticism, I don’t appreciate condescension.  The Apostle’s advice to the church in Rome seems appropriate  “ . . . do not claim to be wiser than you are (Rom. 12:14).

Surely the church can change without “dissing” the saints who are currently in the pews.