Recently National Public Radio (NPR) had a radio program story about a Florida woman, Teresa MacBain, who’d grown up the Southern Baptist, daughter of a pastor. Nine years ago she herself became a Methodist minister. Then, she started asking questions: Is Jesus the only way to God? Would a loving God torment people for all eternity? Is there any evidence of God at all?
Teresa felt trapped: forced to preach what she no longer believed; alone and isolated by questions that ate at her being. Then, a eureka moment: “I’m an atheist,” she whispered to herself. The pressure of her secret built, until Teresa blew up her life in a spectacular fashion: on March 26, Teresa not only attended the American Atheists’ convention in Bethesda, she stood on the stage, and publicly proclaimed, “I’m an atheist.”
Reactions diverged wildly. Attendees applauded, and welcomed Teresa into their fold. Her bishop and her congregation, enraged at her betrayal, locked her out of the church. Her husband — still a Christian — movingly responded with love, support, and understanding.
And me? I felt a complex mixture of sadness, anger, annoyance, compassion, and appreciation.
Teresa’s questions were so reasonable: questions that anyone brought up Christian should be encouraged to ask. Any seminary should compel its students to wrestle with such questions. Any competent spiritual director could have sat with her questions, her pain, her doubts. But somehow, Teresa never got the message that doubts and questions are not only OK, they are necessary to the development of a mature faith…whether that faith be Christian, Jewish, humanist, or atheist. Yet I felt annoyed with Teresa. Her church and her bishop didn’t deserve to be blindsided. And I felt compassion, too: the terrible stress of the closet, the loneliness, the awfulness of feeling forced into speech and actions that offended her at her core.
Mostly I felt a renewed appreciation for Unitarian Universalism: In our tradition, questions are welcomed. The notion that Jesus was the only way to God was rejected. The incongruity of a God of Love and Hell was resolved in favor of Love. People—even ministers!—don’t have to lead double lives. We know that one’s beliefs can shift in the course of a week, let alone in the course of a life. At our best, someone can move from Christian God-believer to atheist, or vice versa, and find support, acceptance, encouragement.
Coincidentally, while Teresa was in Bethesda at the Atheists’ Convention, I was just a few miles away (Fairfax, Va.) attending the Unitarian Universalist Christian Revival. I’d gone grudgingly. As a board member, I felt obliged to show up. But I knew I wouldn’t like one of the keynote speakers. Tired, I had somehow agreed to lead a workshop after a presenter had cancelled out—a task for which I felt unprepared and unenthused. To top it off, I was having one of my periodic religious identity crises: in touch with my inner agnostic and my inner pagan. The United Church of Christ has a public relations campaign with the tag line, “God is still speaking,” but just then what I was experiencing was silence. Absence. A void. I felt as though I were wandering in the desert, thirsty, hungry, lost, fearful, like the Hebrews after the Exodus. What could the UU Christian Fellowship Revival do for me, in such a state?
As it turned out…everything! I really felt revived, renewed, refreshed. Wonderful worship—with awesome sermons, amazing music, and rituals of connection and healing—restored my spirit.
And after hearing Teresa’s story, I remembered: One of the people at the UUCF Revival had mentioned that his wife was off at the Atheists’ Convention! Truly our faith is one that welcomes us: wherever we are, whoever we are, whatever we are. There’s a song that we often sing, adapted from words of Rumi: Come, come, whoever you are, wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. Ours is no caravan of despair.
May you too feel welcome. May we make all our guests feel welcome. And when we are lost, may we all find renewal, revival, refreshment, healing when we need it.
Rev. Betsy Scheuerman is highly
educated, with a B.A., J.D., and M.Div. (Grinnell College, University
of Chicago Law School, and Drew
Theological School). Still, what she values most is the wisdom of the
heart. She says,"the essence of ministry is relational: connection to
self, calling, congregation, community, planet, Wisdom, and Love. And
at the heart of all relationship is Mystery."
Married for 35+ years to a Roman Catholic, and granddaughter of a Methodist minister, Betsy is passionate about developing interfaith respect and understanding. Her own family includes not only Roman Catholics, Methodists, and Unitarian Universalists, but also a Jewish sister-in-law and a Muslim son-in-law.
Rev. Betsy comes to us after eight years serving congregations in Morristown, NJ, East Brunswick, NJ, Louisville, KY, and Meadville, PA.
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