Truth and Meaning: Names of God

My door bell rang unexpectedly. I found three young women standing there. As they introduced themselves, I saw their name badges and recognized them as Mormons on their mission. I explained that I was a Unitarian Universalist minister, assuming that they would wish me a nice day and move on to the next house. But they showed interest and we began to talk.

After a few minutes, I invited them in. We had a delightful conversation for an hour or so. We respected and listened to each other. We discussed the Bible and the history of the Abrahamic faiths. We talked about the commonalities shared by most of the world’s religions. Then, one of them expressed her opinion about people uniting in religious belief. She spoke of the “one true god” (by which she of course meant the god of her religion) as the way for all people to come together in salvation. When she finished, I told her that I could agree with most of what she had just said, except for that phrase.

I explained that as long as people cling to the notion that their god is the one (and only) true god, or that their faith is the one true faith, then humanity is doomed to perpetual war and violence. Soon afterwards, they were on their way. I think I had done much to personalize my religious tradition for them, just as they worked to dispel some of the unfair stereotypes assigned to their faith.

Whatever your beliefs – even if you don’t believe in god at all – there are forces currently beyond our understanding. And while we continue to make great strides grasping the birth of the universe and the nature of the cosmos, I do not believe that we will ever completely know everything about everything. That is not a justification for the existence of god – it is merely acceptance that there are things that exist beyond human comprehension. Homo sapiens is not perfect and never will be. So, one can reasonably presume that our species will never have a perfect understanding of all existence.

If you grant that argument, then what do you call the mystery, the unknowable, the incomprehensible? Some people do not feel the need to call it “god,” or to name it in any way. But many people do find comfort in naming the wonder of the universe. In particular, people take solace thinking that behind the unknown lies a force of inherent goodness or order.

For Hindus, there are millions of manifestations of the Oversoul, and adherents are free to worship through whichever god most helps them make that connection. For Muslims, their one god goes by 99 different names, from the Compassionate and Merciful to the Giver of Life and Bringer of Death. Trinitarian Christians believe that god can only be understood as three persons that are distinct, yet one essence.

Over the centuries, far too many people have died because they did not share the same opinion regarding the nature of god or the manner in which we should hold god in regard. Hasn’t humankind reached a point where we can live together with people who do not share our particular belief about the wonder and mystery of the universe? Can we make peace with the notion that we have many names of god and that our differing practices do not justify prejudice and hate, violence and murder? Can we latch onto the common denominators of all religions to respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person?

Guide to Holiday Conversations


You find yourself at a family gathering. On your right sits Uncle Harold, who voted twice for Nixon, Reagan and Bush (senior and junior). On your left sits your Cousin Gloria, the Prius-driving, recycling, public school teacher. You uncomfortably count the seconds before someone raises a contentious topic. In anticipation of that moment, here is your holiday guide to surviving inevitable conflicts, and to build bridges of love and understanding.

Immigration
Uncle Harold starts. “We need to ship those illegals back where they came from. Emperor Obama should wait for Congress to protect American jobs and keep our borders safe from terrorists, drug dealers and freeloaders.”
Cousin Gloria retorts. “Our ancestors were undocumented aliens who came here and slaughtered the indigenous peoples. No one made them go through years of red tape and expenses. No one broke up our families and deported people without due process.”
You: “We are a nation of immigrants, and people around the world have long viewed America as a land of freedom and opportunity. We can find a way to provide a more efficient path to citizenship while still providing reasonable security at our nation’s borders.

Abortion
Cousin Gloria: “This is my body and the government has no business invading my privacy and interfering with my health care. My body, my choice.”
Uncle Harold: “You are murdering tens of thousands of babies every year and I don’t want my tax dollars supporting godless groups like Planned Parenthood.”
You: “Everyone wants to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. But being pro-life also means educating our children about sex, and providing them with contraception. We should care about every child by supporting loving families that need help. Every child should receive an equal shot at the American Dream.”

Gay and transgender equality
Harold: “God condemns these abominations. I love the person, but homosexuality and the choices people make to tamper with God’s creation are sins.”
Gloria: “You hate LGBT people. You have no right legislating our bedrooms. Your bigotry just encourages bullying and violence against gays.”
You: “As Americans, we believe in freedom and equality. The research seems to show that sexual orientation is determined at birth. So while I respect people’s religious beliefs, I also support equal rights for all people on the basis of differences that we cannot control.”

Health care
Gloria: “Insurance companies are heartless and greedy. Because of them, thousands of people die from lack of adequate insurance. And now you want to take away the safety net of the Affordable Care Act.”
Harold: “Obamacare is fiscally irresponsible and forces people to pay more for their insurance, and to change doctors with which they have developed long relationships. We should let the free market do its job.”
You: “I know families who cannot afford medical insurance. If we can’t fix Obamacare, then we need to come up with a program that serves everyone, because all Americans deserve access to quality health care.”

Religious freedom
Harold: “America is a Christian nation and no one should be forced to do anything that violates their beliefs.”
Gloria: “Employers have no business discriminating against people who don’t share their religious beliefs. These so-called ‘religious freedom’ bills are nothing but legalized bigotry.”
You: “No one has the right to infringe on another’s religious beliefs. But government determines who needs protection from unlawful discrimination. Religious freedom should be a protective shield, not be a sword used to hurt others.”

Gun control
Gloria: “How many more children need to die to support your right to buy machine guns and to carry rifles into my grocery store?”
Harold: “The founders wrote the Second Amendment to protect us from tyranny and it is my duty to protect our nation, as well as to protect my family from harm, whatever the cost.”
You: “Everyone has a right to defend themselves from harm. Everyone also has the right to walk the streets free from the fear that some deranged gunman won’t open fire on them. We need to sit down and find common sense solutions to protect all Americans’ rights and to reduce the gun violence in our country.”

Gloria: “Fascist!”
Harold: “Communist!”
You: “Both of you stop it! Name calling will get you nowhere. Jesus taught us to love our neighbors, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick and free the prisoners. Can’t we set aside our partisan differences and agree on these noble goals — not just as Christian goals, but goals that all Americans can agree upon?”

I hope this helps you survive the holidays, as well as what is sure to be another new year of social, economic and political turmoil that will not end until the great mass of centrist thinkers takes back the moral middle of America.

Letting Go of Religion

We spend our whole lives letting go. We let go of things, places, people and ideas. Sometimes letting go is easy — we make a gift to give to a friend, we leave one job for a better one, we pack our belongings and move into a new home.

Other times, letting go can be challenging — we end a relationship with a loved one, we lose an heirloom, a favorite store closes its doors. Sometimes, letting go can be traumatic. A thief steals a car or valuable property. A fire destroys your home. A cherished love one dies. But, perhaps most traumatic of all is letting go of ideas.

From birth, we are blank slates, constantly written upon by parents, siblings, teachers and perfect strangers. Every scribble enters our mind and gets categorized into our identities, our sense of self, and our moral compass. And when we enter our teen years, we naturally begin to question whether or not that developed identity indeed reflects who we really are. We begin to question the easy dichotomies of Western thinking: good/evil; rich/poor; liberal/conservative; male/female; believer/non-believer.

The regressive mind will resist these questions, falling back on stock answers and dogmatic teachings learned throughout childhood. They will refuse to let go of comfort, privilege and even irrational beliefs that give them satisfaction.

Others will explore, willing to consider letting go of ideas, but the quest is a perilous one and not without its dangers. The act of questioning alone may cause us to let go of seeming truths and of self-obvious paradigms. These explorers may fall into a valley of doubt; they may climb a mountain rejecting everything and become hardened skeptics; or they may simply become lost and hopeless facing a foggy world they cannot change and are doomed to endure. But, those who make the quest along the valleys, over the mountains and through the fog emerge as seekers.

And the seeker is prepared to develop a progressive mind. And it is the progressive mind that is best suited to keep ideas that make sense and to let go of those that do not. The progressive mind thinks beyond its own happiness and comfort and concerns itself with the common good. The progressive mind lets go of asking “Why?” in favor of asking “Why not?”

As a minister, my expertise is religion. Young progressive minds often let go of religion once they find that their Sunday School stories don’t match the world’s reality. Young progressive minds often let go of religion when it makes irrational demands, rejects people who think differently and disempowers women, LGBTQ folk and other oppressed people.

But, letting go doesn’t have to be an “all or nothing” proposition, either. I can let go of a label without completely erasing all that comes with that label. The choice is not between being Baptist, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or not. The question is whether there is truth and meaning to be found in any religion — perhaps in all religions — as you continually reshape your identity.

Sometimes, we rationalize letting go as an irretrievable loss. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Even if you feel betrayed by your religious upbringing, I believe that there is value in religion for the young progressive mind. For me, of course, Unitarian Universalism is one such religion. We support same-sex marriage, reproductive justice, environmentalism and most other progressive causes. I am a religious atheist and mystical humanist, serving a congregation with a wide range of opinions and beliefs.

So, as you let go of ideas, as you question the teachings of your youth, always leave the door open to keep the pieces of the past that make sense. The progressive mind never closes any door completely.

The Path to Truth

We face a world of confusing uncertainty and contradictions. Some prosper while millions suffer. Mean-spirited sound bites drown out civil discourse. We yearn for heroes and heroines only to see them eviscerated by our cult of celebrity and our celebration of cynicism. The jesters have taken over the castle while the feudal lords plunder the people and pillage the land.

We look to our churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples for guidance, for deliverance. But we find the poison creeping into those foundations as well. Our questions are answered with irrelevant platitudes and empty satisfactions of our simple desire to be cared about, our need to be cared for. Our young people naturally look elsewhere for relief from out-of-control tuition debt, for an end to the limitless hurdles to achieving their goals, for the self-respect to resist unattainable standards of beauty and virulence and societal definitions of success. Too often, our young people see their future as a desolate plain with no harvest in sight.

We live in a nation of incredible abundance, with a wealth of resources, but we feel empty. We live in communities with boundless activities, but we feel listless. We live unfulfilled lives and seek to fill that void with the bread and circuses of the internet, with drinking and drugs, with absurd reality on the television, and real absurdity in our daily lives.

The time has come for a frank and honest conversation about religion. We must discuss our souls as individuals and our soul as a nation. The time to seek the answers to the questions that matter has arrived. Why am I here? What is the purpose of living? Can I find meaning in this insane asylum of a world? What can I do to ease my overwhelming pain?

Some offer simple answers to these questions. You are here because God created you. Your purpose consists of worshiping him. This life offers only a path to a better world after you die. You must endure the pain as a test of your faith that God possesses all of the answers. As children, these answers can work. In the pleasant world of coloring pages and tales of good conquering evil, we need no further explanations. But, as we grow older, we learn that these answers no longer suffice. We begin to question. We fill our doubtful gaps with more complicated rituals; we desperately strengthen our commitment to blind faith and traditions; and we greedily consume more complicated interpretations to the stories of our childhood.

But, despite our valiant efforts, we still feel lost and alone, hopeless and in pain. Our faith never seems strong enough and the answers begin to ring hollow. The zealous shout louder and we assure ourselves that they must be right. How else could they be so convinced of the truth? But, how can we believe their truths when our life tells me differently?

Our own structure as a nation places the burden of resolving these conundrums on us. Our Constitution guarantees us the freedom to believe and to practice (within limits) our religions. As a nation, we declare no one religious belief to be “truth.” America does not proclaim that absolute morality resides within any one specific theology. We may consider others misguided or incorrect, and we can freely promote our particular versions of truth. But, those who profess to know “the” truth exhibit shocked indignation when refuted with facts and reason. Purveyors of divine insight claim persecution when their efforts to demonize people they consider sinful are deemed hateful and hypocritical.

Millions of people do not believe in the Christian god and live exemplary moral lives, just as many Christians do. Some people who do not hold Christian beliefs do awful things, just as do some professed Christians do. We do not live ethical lives because a supernatural agency makes it so. We live ethical lives because as human beings we make choices – choices to love and show compassion, or choices to be intolerant and selfish. A faith in some form of god that helps us live ethically is admirable. But faith in god is not required to be a good citizen, a spiritual person, or a soul aligned with the powers of the universe.

How, then, can I answer the burning questions without a belief in God? Some believe in Love. My Universalist predecessors preached that God is Love, and that works for many people. And while I often find fault with the texts attributed to the Apostle Paul, I agree with his assertion to the Corinthians that Love is patient and kind; Love is not arrogant or resentful; Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.

Faith sometimes offers a wonderful power in our lives and can serve as a force for great good. But faith can also twist our perceptions and close our minds to the search for truth and meaning. So, when it comes to issues such as same-sex marriage and equality for LGBT individuals, I ache when I hear people profess their Christian faith to damn others, to sit in judgment on others, and to call down the wrath of the God they worship on others. And it pains me just as greatly when religious people stand mute while these voices of intolerance dominate the public conversation. There is no factual basis to believe that homosexuality is a “choice.” None. Therefore, if one claims the belief that we are made in the image of God, then our sexual orientation and gender identity is part of the grace bestowed by a loving deity who merely wants us to share that Love. We should practice ours faith to honor that gift and to respect its source. But Love is greater than faith. And the sharing of Love trumps any ritualistic practice or dogmatic adherence to sacred texts.

Relying on ancient passages written in another time and place, in a context wildly different than those we live in today ignores our most spectacular gifts as humans. If we are indeed children of a god, then that god bestowed upon us minds, emotions, and the capacity for discernment that raises us above the instincts of mere beasts. An active and engaged spiritual life uses our powers of reason, evaluates our life experiences, and amasses our collective powers of wisdom to determine what is moral. The spiritual life demands only that we understand and love each other. We are no longer children that need to view God as a schoolmaster beating unruly pupils, or an overseer whipping mindless drones. God is Love. It really is just that simple. And that choice lies in our hands.

And what does loving mean today? It means that we keep our beautiful and treasured traditions of spiritual practice but discard those outdated and meaningless rules that serve only to separate us. It means that we celebrate the marriage of loving people committing their lives to each other, whether they are a man and a woman, two men, or two women. It means that we say “Not One More” meaningless and stupid waste of precious life defending our obscene worship of guns. It means telling all women that they are beautiful just as they are, and telling all men that expressing kindness and gentleness does not show weakness. It means sharing the bounty in our lives with those less fortunate by paying living wages and fighting the root causes of poverty. It means providing every person with equal access to physical and mental health resources and freeing them from the crippling burdens of disease and affliction.

We live in a region of great wealth, knowledge, and potential. We can become a model of modern living by pioneering prosperity for every person. We merely need to heed the call to seek our own truths, to enable the search for truth by others, and then to come together in Beloved Community. It is possible and we have the power to do it.

Truth and Meaning: Religious Atheism

Occasionally, I am called an atheist by someone believing that by doing so they are insulting me. Nothing could be further from the truth. Largely, their misconception derives from the false assumption that atheism and religion are mutually exclusive. They are not.

Religion does not require god. Let me repeat and reframe that. Being a religious person does not require a belief in a supernatural being.

Hundreds of different definitions of religion exist, each reflecting either a scholarly or a dogmatic bias depending on the presuppositions of the person making the definition. “Religion” clearly contains intellectual, ritual, social and ethical elements, bound together by an explicit or implicit belief in the reality of an unseen world, whether this belief be expressed in supernaturalistic or idealistic terms. A number of the more common definitions are those that presume the existence of the Sacred (Peter Berger, Emile Durkheim), the Supernatural/Divine (James Frazer, Immanuel Kant, Rodney Stark), or Order/Purpose (William James).

Some definitions of the term focus more on the presence of different states of being and humankind’s grappling to come to terms with those differences, without making judgments regarding the nature of other states. George Hegel called religion “the knowledge possessed by the finite mind of its nature as absolute mind,” while Friedrich Schleiermacher called it “a feeling for the infinite,” and Alfred North Whitehead described it as “what the individual does with his own solitariness.”

Some etymologists connect “religion” to the Latin ligare, which is the same root of the word ligament, meaning “to bind.” Re-ligare, therefore, would mean to bind again, perhaps in a ritualistic manner, or in meaningful practices.

Therefore, as an atheist, I believe that “religion” is a collection of practices by which groups of people come together repeatedly to find meaning in the relationship of themselves and of humankind to all existence, known and unknown. And, that meaning need not derive from or be directed by a supernatural source.

So, if you do not believe in god, but feel something missing in your “feeling of the infinite,” there is a religious community that welcomes your search for truth and meaning.

The Coming Theocracy

I have worried about the state of this nation for a long time now.  Today, we took another step toward eroding the separation of church and state as the Michigan House of Representatives passed the first of several anti-abortion bills clearly aimed at forcing a narrow religious interpretation of personhood on all citizens.

House Bill 5711 is primarily concerned with how abortion providers are regulated and with the disposition of organic material following fetal death, whether by abortion, or natural causes.  Both initiative make abortion tremendously more expensive, which will in effect chase OB/GYN’s out of the state and place an undue burden on women across the state seeking abortions.

During the debate on the House floor, Representative Lisa Brown (D-West Bloomfield) made several eloquent points.  One in particular dealt with her Jewish faith.  She pointed out that Jewish law mandates that therapeutic abortions needed to protect the life of the mother are not only recommended, but mandated.  Therefore, the bills under consideration would criminalize women obeying the dictates of their faith.
Of course, this only one specific example. What about the thousands of women out there who do not belong to an organized religion, or whose personal spirituality does not consider the fertilized egg as a person, with all of the rights of a fully formed human being? According to these bills, too bad.  Michigan legislators have declared that they possess the absolute truth on when human personhood begins.  These legislators not only feel that they know better than doctors or women themselves what is medically best for women, but they feel that they know better than clergy of all faiths what the law of the land should be regarding the unborn.
I try not to throw the word “Fascist” around lightly.  But this is how totalitarianism begins.  When the State can establish laws beyond its bounds unchecked, without even following its own rules of discourse and public input, then you are already on the road to tyranny.
Ironically, there is no scriptural support for this view of human personhood.  If anything, the Bible gives little regard to the fetus.  Jesus did teach us, however, to be merciful in a number of ways.  Feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; shelter the homeless; clothe the naked; visit and ransom the captive, (prisoners); instruct the uninformed; bear wrongs patiently; forgive offenses willingly; and comfort the afflicted, among others.  If you consider yourself a Christian, how about if we work on these?  Where are the bills to reduce poverty, create jobs, reform our criminal justice system, support public schools (especially comprehensive sex education), and provide family planning and support services for women who are victims of male violence?  House Bills 5711, 5712, and 5713 are anything but merciful, and they pave the way for the coming theocracy unless we stand up in united opposition to this intrusion into our freedoms and democracy.

Atheist Ministers

Recently, the story of Teresa MacBain – the United Methodist minister who “came out” as an atheist at the American Atheists Conference in March 2012 – went viral.  Welcome to the fold, Teresa.  As a fellow member of this very small association, let me offer some advice as you face your new life.

In the coming weeks and months, your relationship with the people around you will change drastically.  You will be ignored, shunned, and hated, sometimes by people you considered colleagues, friends, even loved ones.  You will hold out a hand only to have people turn away.  You will be pitied, almost like an unfortunate object incapable of both rational thought and compassion.  But, you will find not only allies, but legions of people out there desperately searching for the spiritual guidance that you can offer.

Once the excitement surrounding your announcement subsides, you may find yourself feeling very alone.  And, in a sense, you are doubly alone.  You will lose not only many people in your life, but you have also lost the enormous comfort that a belief in a supernatural father provides.  You will grieve these losses.  But, you have obviously felt this calling for a long time.  Our journey is rarely a flash of light on the road to Damascus.  The path of the atheist minister is not for the faint of heart.  You will have little support and your beliefs will be questioned every day.

Every time you meet a new person, you will be calculating what words to use when the topic eventually arises.  You will hear every stereotype.  And you will learn that we are the least trusted minority in this country.

But, you have tools that most people think are not available to us.  The articles about you all talk about how you “lost your faith” or how you “lost your belief.”  These are inaccurate portrayals.  The only thing you have lost is the delusion that the mythology of god provides answers to anything beyond our primitive fears of death, long winters, lightning, and monsters in the night.  You have only lost a narrative, not your faith.  You have only lost one story, not your beliefs.

In fact, I believe atheist ministers possess more faith and belief than any of our colleagues.  We have more faith and belief because these things are not handed to us for the small price of the suspension of our critical thinking and our innate curiosity and exploring spirit.  When we decide to walk the path of Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tse, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, Jr., we do it having analyzed their teachings intellectually, reflected on their deeds emotionally, and experienced their lives spiritually.

For they were the true prophets, whatever cosmology lay behind their belief systems or whatever shape they viewed the awe and mystery of all existence. They taught that Love is the only force in the universe that should drive the construction of our laws and the design of our societies. They taught that the only fulfilling way to live was with justice, acceptance, and equality.  They taught that morality is not proclaimed from above, but must be found within each of us.

The atheist minister has faith that humanity will someday accept this message.  The atheist minister believes in the beloved community, a world with peace, social justice, economic fairness, and freedom.  The atheist minister knows that someday, we will build a world in which every child is fed, everyone has a home, all illness is treated, and each person is free to pursue their path in life and proclaim their own identity.

As John Lennon sang, “you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.  I hope some day you’ll join us and the world will live as one.”  Welcome, Teresa, to the covenant of dreamers.

A Saunter Through the Dictionary

A significant problem with using the label “atheist” is this.  No matter how you couch the term, or clarify its meaning for yourself, others see it in a massively negative light.  Part of this negative image is earned – many very public atheists have been and are still today obnoxious and so belligerently opposed to religion that they would put off any variety of theist.  Our bad image also comes from the core assumption by others that atheism is, in and of itself, not a philosophy – it is simply the rejection of a belief – without any apparent replacement upon which to based one’s moral system or ethical code.

So, as a lover of word origins, I though I would explore some alternative terms that I might use to label my personal theology for others.  Here are some candidates:

  • Ambitheism – A belief that one can construct a life philosophy flexible enough to function whether or not god exists; an ambitheist might deal with conflicting emotions about the existence of god, and so develops a belief system capable of adapting to either truth.
  • Amitheism – A belief that god is literally the love we show our neighbors with whom we live in community; an amitheist places the Golden Rule above all else and lives a fully nonviolent life.
  • Endotheism – A belief that god is not separate, but within each of us; an endotheist would value all of creation as god is within every subatomic particle – perhaps god is every subatomic particle.
  • Isotheism – A belief that god is not “above” or “greater” that us, but part of us and our environment; and isotheist would likely resemble a pantheist, but with no sense of the divine or sacred, since everything is divine and sacred.
  • Omnitheism – A belief that god is not separate, but simply represents the totality of all power, energy, knowledge, and truth; an omnitheist would concentrate on enhancing one’s awareness of and connection with the “godness” of everyone and everything.
  • Syntheisim – A belief that would extend omnitheism to include the time continuum; a syntheist would seek to become more aware of and connect with the “godness” and everyone and everything in every time and place as a single synchronistic existence.
  • Veratheism – A belief that god is truth, for only out of truth can love and goodness emerge; a veratheist would seek complete honesty in all relations, removing all masks, and resolving all conflict and falsehood.

One plus to any, or all, of these concepts is that they emphasize the positive attributes that I believe most atheists possess.  They focus on core values of love, truth, peace, and wisdom, and not simply on the rejection of a perceived flaw in human thinking.

Memorial Day in Smithton

When the Commander of the local American Legion post asked me to provide the Invocation and Benediction at their Memorial Day service, I didn’t really know what to expect. I don’t know why I thought that this would be a few aging vets and their families gathered around the town’s memorial to fallen soldiers. The hand-written signs that popped up a few days ago in front of my apartment declaring “No Parking, Monday 12-1 for Parade,” should have warned me that my assumptions were unfounded.

I walked over to the Legion (literally in the building behind my place) around 11:30 and started talking with folks. Dozens of Legion members in uniform, active duty soldiers, and women in the Auxiliary were buzzing around laying out food, setting up chairs, and preparing for the ceremony. Soldiers practiced retiring the flag and prepared to fire the salute. They couldn’t find their microphone, so I ran (well, walked as far as my poor ailing heart allows) to the church and grabbed our karaoke machine.

At 12:30, I walked over to the main street to watch the parade. Hundreds lined the street to watch the procession. Vets and soldiers, classic cars, fire engines, the Yough Senior High School Band, little leaguers, and flag-adorned trucks passed by. In all, the parade took maybe 10 minutes. But, for a town like Smithton, it was Macy’s on Thanksgiving.

Returning to the Legion, I saw that everyone was gathering for the ceremony. Families and children, old and young gathered all around. Suddenly I began to wonder if my words were going to be adequate for this auspicious gathering, this moment in the history of the town. Suddenly I realized the community role I was about to play in Smithton. Suddenly I thought that the next few minutes was going to define how people in town saw my congregation for the next few months, or even longer.

I delivered my invocation and returned to my seat. Several speakers and presentations followed, the band played, and we sang the national anthem. The main speaker, an impressive young man who lives two doors down from the church, spoke about remembering our soldiers throughout the year and not just on Memorial Day. I cheered inside, as my benediction was Rabbi Roland Gittlesohn’s piece on remembering the lost during spring, summer, autumn, and winter, as well as other times.

The ceremony ended and the feast began. Chicken, deviled eggs, potato salad, the best baked beans I’ve had in ages, and endless cookies. I walked through the crowd chatting. While I have experienced this ever since moving in last February, I knew that I was now cemented in the community’s mind as Pastor Jeff of that church down Second Street across from the old brewery.

I also felt proud of the work I did today. As a pacifist, it is challenging to commemorate the sacrifices of so many to causes I might find questionable – to honor the commitment, the expression of the best of human character, without condoning the violence of war. As an atheist, it is difficult to find ways to invoke the powers of the universe in ways that a largely theistic public can embrace without compromising my own beliefs. I did both today.

An Empty Seat of Sadness and Satisfaction

Yesterday was my commencement ceremony from seminary. But, my seat stood vacant as circumstance kept me from attending my graduation from Meadville Lombard Theological School and receiving my Master’s of Divinity degree. Months ago, I made the decision to skip this milestone event based on predominately financial reasons. As the date drew closer, health issues had also intervened to make participation troublesome. But, I will admit that much of my decision derived from indifference of attending yet another similar celebration after a lifetime of educational efforts. I had convinced myself not to care about my absence.

Then I received a message from one of my dearest friends – a fellow seminarian whose life path has paralleled mine many times over the years in spite of physical distance separating us. She mentioned my empty seat next to hers and all I felt was sadness for missing a special and unique opportunity and sharing a moment with this loving colleague. I was reminded of a time perhaps 10 years ago. It was midweek preceding a youth conference I was attending as a sponsor, chaplain, and van driver. I learned that my favorite uncle had died and that the funeral was being held that weekend – in a distant city. I did not have the money for the trip, but what really prevented me from going anyway was my desire to fulfill my obligation to our youth and to be with them at the con.

You see, my uncle was a lay Baptist minister who served a small congregation for many years. I knew as truly as one can know in my heart that he would rather I spend that time ministering with my youth than flying to spend time with unknown cousins and other distant relatives. As it turned out, the con was an amazing experience and I felt the vibrant presence of my uncle with me during that Saturday night worship service.

Similarly, yesterday I preached at a neighboring fellowship on one of my topics of evangelical calling – atheism. I find that when I preach on the subject that many listeners, who otherwise find little of themselves in our spoken and sung religious messages, finally feel that a clergy person is speaking directly to them and inviting them into the fold of community. It was a joyous opportunity for me, as it always is, to experience that frontier of potential for ecstasy and transformation.

I suppose that that is when you know that you are truly living life. When you have so many opportunities to serve and to celebrate, to experience and explore, that you cannot achieve them all, then you know that you are not just existing. I wish I could have filled that empty seat, that seat of momentary sadness in my life. I would have loved to be with my colleagues celebrating the sacrifice and hard work of completing our seminary training. But, I overflow with the sensation that my choice afforded me yet one more opportunity to do the work of ministry – to inspire and inform, to encourage and empower, to be with other people in all their vulnerability and courage in an atmosphere of worship.

Maybe someday, I’ll find a way to physically occupy that seat of sadness and satisfaction. For now, only my spirit sits as my body continues walking.