Tuesday, 14 December 2010

A church for atheists?

I am the minister of a church for atheists!!

Of course, it is also a church for theists. It is also a church for all kinds of other "ists."

I was speaking with a member of my congregation yesterday who said her friend wouldn't want to come to church because he's an atheist. I waited for more... yeah? and? Oh, I get it! He thinks that church is not for atheists. He's right of course - usually...

Just about no one who calls him/herself an atheist would expect to be welcome in a "church", much less to find something there to nurture, inspire, and sustain them.

They would be wrong - at least in the case of some Unitarian/Unitarian Universalist congregations, such as mine in north London. [I've heard it said that a Unitarian is an atheist who likes to sing hymns - as long as the words are suitably modified!]

What! Atheists in church and not to be forcibly converted or burned at the stake? I know it's unexpected, but yes, atheists sitting beside monotheists, polytheists, pagans, humanists, agnostics...  all of us trying our best to find meaning in life, to be more deliberate and present in the moment, and to figure out how we can work together to make our world more just and peaceful.

It's important to say that defining "atheism" is almost impossible. It means not believing in God, of course, but that forces us to define God - a nearly impossible task. Within my congregation, definitions of God range all the way from the all-powerful enthroned, bearded 'big daddy in the sky' [this mostly from the people who would say "I don't believe in God"] to a force of love that we draw upon when we are at our best or even to the truest and best self we find within us.

In general "I am an atheist" really means "I am not going to believe the unbelievable supernatural stories that traditional religions present as truth. I have my own mind and I'm going to use it!"  If that's our definition, then I am an atheist too. Do I believe that a personal God literally created the world, that the whole earth shook when the Buddha achieved awakening, or that the Goddess is a personal reality in our lives? Do I believe that praying to God can make something good happen or prevent something bad? Not at all.

I do believe though that when we come together in community with an openness to hear each other's stories and beliefs, and when we deliberately commit to working to grow and be our best selves, that something very worthwhile, sustaining, and inspiring happens. And - for historical reasons - I call the place where this happens "church".

My idea of "church" is a place where we step aside from the hectic lives we lead - lives that are awash in the materialistic, individualistic messages of the world of business. And in this place, we pause to consider who and what we truly are and want to be - what creates meaning and satisfaction in life - what is important to us. We turn to one another and we share the answers we have found and then we ask more questions together and we search some more. It is a place where we care what happens to each other, where we aim higher, where we strive to include everyone. It is a place where we envision the world we want and then we go out and try to create that loving, just world of our dreams.

Atheists - come to this church. You are welcome.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Light a candle for miracles

Don't give up hope! The order of things could turn upside down tomorrow. What would you do then?

I am a Unitarian from a Jewish background. That makes me what is often called either a "Junitarian" or a "Jew-U." I like that because it gives a hint of Unitarianism's openness. On the other hand, it's a bit of a misleading term since my spirituality is informed by so many traditions now. Still, I find that the Jewish traditions continue to offer significant inspiration.

Today is the third day of Hanukkah.  Although Hanukkah has become a very well-known Jewish holiday, it's not traditionally a major celebration. It only expanded in importance when Judaism came into contact with Christianity and Jewish kids felt an understandable envy around the deluge of Christmas presents. Junitarians typically get gifts for both Hanukkah and Christmas - a really good deal.

Hanukkah commemorates the defeat of the powerful armies of Syrian king Antiochus IV by a Jewish guerilla band led by the Maccabees in the second century BCE. The story focuses on that victory but also on the re-purification of the Jerusalem temple after it had been defiled by the occupiers. The so-called 'miracle' of Hanukkah is that a one-day supply of lamp oil  lasted a full eight days - long enough for more consecrated oil to be made ready.

A story like this is all well and good, but it's only powerful and useful if it speaks to our condition today. I want to suggest two important messages.

First, the world that looks so fixed and set against you can change tomorrow in unexpected and often wonderful ways. Five days ago, my mother had heart surgery. She was unconscious. She couldn't even breathe on her own. Today, she's walking the hospital halls faster and faster and looking remarkably well. What might it be in your life? The daughter who is addicted to drugs finally goes into rehab. The tumor shrinks. The love you have been looking for appears as if out of nowhere. You find that affordable flat, that rewarding job, or the purpose that keeps you inspired.

You may want to call them miracles. I call them the generosity and abundance of life. Don't give up hope. Things change in remarkable ways.

And second, our blessings rarely arrive without our participation and our attention. The occupying armies did not simply trot back to Syria out of boredom or because a divine presence blew them that way. The Maccabean Revolt was a very human endeavour - an application of courage, hope, and cleverness in a situation that seemed doomed to failure. Lamp oil did not appear from nowhere. The lamp did not light itself. Just a little bit that had been saved and held precious and that small portion of oil was set ablaze - the very human contribution done with unwarranted hope. Participation is essential.

And much of what comes as a miracle depends on what we are willing to see as a miracle. In the context of the grand parade of biblical miracles, lamp oil lasting a few days longer than expected is really a rather minor miracle. If the Jews had sat watching an unlit lamp, praying for it to light itself without any oil or spark, they would have had nothing but disappointment. Miracles are how we define them and what we watch for an appreciate when it arrives.

For this Hanukkah, find the senseless optimism that we call hope. Expect wonders. Expect relief. Expect joy and expect blessings. And then get in there and help make it happen!