Thinking About Atheism

Photo Thanks to Leeroy

Photo Thanks to Leeroy

I got a phone call the other day from someone I care about. She was concerned because another person we care about said that she was “thinking about becoming an atheist.”

Now, I want to say that I’m unqualified to talk personally about atheism. But I am qualified to talk about faith. I am suited to talk about how, perhaps, a person of faith loses that faith.

When I talked with those lovely people I mentioned, it became clear that what was at stake was not the loss of faith per se but the loss of a particular kind of faith. There is faith in the sense of what community I’m a part of; faith in the sense of doctrines that I profess; faith in the sense of the meeting between me and the Divine. Faith can be understood in different ways. Securing one’s understanding by the word is vital before we even know what faith we’re talking about.

Further, sometimes faith is worth losing. Sometimes faith is worth leaving. It depends on what one’s faith is. If it the unexamined doctrine that makes me feel unloved by God, isn’t it worth leaving? If it is the way in which a text is read by one community and always used over and against another community, isn’t it worth distancing oneself from? If it is the relative ease I feel by a community when we, together, join against some other community in opposition to that people’s God-made-ness, isn’t it worth losing?

I found myself affirming this woman and how she was thinking about “atheism.” In fact, she wasn’t thinking about atheism in a philosophical sense. She was thinking about leaving the tightened faith that was handed on to her; she was, in a sense, leaving the representations of the Christianity she found death-giving. She was, to my way of thinking, considering a better faith. Not no faith. Not no God. A different God.

Of course, I think differently about these things than those who preach and teach this woman. I’m the person in the room on the edge. I’m the person considering how the underside is represented, blessed, or undone by whose being quoted in the preacher’s sermons. I’m still the kid who got kicked out of Sunday school because I knew all the teacher was saying, was bored, and was asking different unanswered questions. I’m the person who is uncomfortably comfortable on a weird psychic boundary because making a theological home has always been a work-in-progress.

Thinking about atheism may just be thinking about a deeper understanding of the me and God relationship. It may be utter contemplation. It may be worth affirming and encouraging as a person is truly on the road toward a holiness that can only be beautiful. It may be worth celebrating.

“…we make vows…”

Photo Thanks to Ase Bjontegard Oftedal

Photo Thanks to Ase Bjontegard Oftedal

David pointed to this on Facebook. The story, friendship, loss, and tone of Laura’s words are very much worth keeping in front of us.

We make vows to our partners, but we make vows to our friends, too. We think, forever. We think, best friend. Life turns out differently, because people disappoint each other or because we aren’t honest with ourselves or because we just don’t know how to go forward, even with the best intentions. We go in with our eyes wide open and don’t realize they might open wider in five years. So I mourned the end of my friendship…

Read the full post from Laura here.

I Didn’t Realize He Was Leaving

On Wednesday evening, December 26, I was sitting next to Dawn and in front of Bryce in the B concourse of Midway airport.  We had successfully pressed through the security checkpoint, rearranged our clothes and shoes, and walked to our gate to wait for an hour before boarding a plane.  Bryce was eyeing some passenger’s ice cream, whispering to me about wanting some.  I told him to wait, to let me get settled.  I told him I had just sat down.  I told him to stop looking at the woman’s ice cream like that because he was scaring me and probably scaring her.

We were heading to Charlotte, North Carolina ultimately to complete our annual time with Grammie Joseph.  It would be a week where we would see the Gant museum, walk through the botanical gardens in Belmont, eat at Captain Steve’s, talk a lot, catch up, do nothing.  My aunt, Lynnie, called me while we were waiting to board.  I have a rule when certain people call my phone: I always answer.  I do not observe this rule for most people.  I’m a pastor so I cannot.  I meet with people and they say things to me, and when they say these things, it makes a lot of sense for me to stop the rest of the world as those people present their worlds to me.  So I’m “present” with them as they talk.  I ignore the phone.  I don’t hear rings in those moments.  But I make exceptions.  When my aunt calls, because my father has been in the nursing home in her city, I take her call, even if I need to ask if I can call right back.

As she always does, she asked me how I was.  There was static in the line.  Perhaps it wasn’t static.  Do cell towers allow for static?  It was choppy.  Whatever the interference, I couldn’t quite hear her clearly.  Some voice was droning about a passenger whose flight was leaving or some gate change.  There was Bryce switching to his mother and asking her for ice cream.  He’s been doing that more and more: shifting to her when I don’t answer the way he thinks I should.

Aunt Lynnie asked if I had gotten her message.  I pulled my phone from my ear and looked at it as if to ask it if it had rung without my hearing it.  Perhaps it sang while we were in the cab with the preacher cab driver who I talked theology with on the way to the airport.  “No,” I told her, “I didn’t.”  Then I thought—as she let out a long “Well,”—perhaps she called the house.  I heard her “Welling” and I had a flash of some indication of what was to come.  It was something spiritual, like and unlike the Welling in the black church, when people sometimes rock while they hear the preacher.  They say “Well” as they listen, and something about the “Well” makes what they hear stick.  My aunt’s well was different; she was stalling just for a moment, and auntie, in my experience, didn’t stall.  She breathed and she said it, quickly and clearly, without interference from cell towers or airport clutter.  My dad had passed an hour or so before that moment.

They were just arriving to the nursing home; the snow had prevented them from getting there sooner.  I knew Little Rock didn’t get snow.  I imagined my three Little Rock aunts, wrapped in coats, looking as lovely as always, dressed in care and concern and love and something familiar.  They were there, three of my father’s sisters, a group of faithful friends to him, and he was dead.  I asked her to repeat herself.  Actually, I said, “What?” I had heard her, but something in me got very cliche in that moment.  Or something in me needed to hear again.  Dawn heard me and she knew.  She had been down a path like this one when her father was snatched over six months after his stroke two years ago.  I felt Dawn turn to me.  I saw her take Bryce by the hand.  I was really surprised at that simple sentence from my aunt.  I wanted to turn to Dawn; I wanted to turn away.

I had just seen him.  This was my first thought: I had just seen him.  One week ago at the hospital in Searcy.  He hugged me twice.  I held him, walked with him.  I showed him pictures, something, I realize now, I did often on my trips to see him.  My second thought was: I just talked to him.  It was on Christmas Eve, two days before.  His voice was bright, brighter than usual even.  he talked to Bryce, asked about Dawn.  I thought he was getting better.  I didn’t realize he was leaving.

Dear Dementia

I didn’t believe it was you when I first saw the signs.  The missed memories were small, so slight they were unnoticed.  I forget.  I get agitated.  I make mistakes, lose things, get mixed.  I was like everyone else who loved: I wanted more.

I began what is still the dismal existence of a loved one struggling with you and your fingers wrapping and stealing things from my father.  I started to look at all those yesterdays, fading in my own memory, and I grabbed for them.  I called them back the way a grandparent calls for their only child’s offspring when, because of intuition, they know that was the last visit.  The rides in my dad’s white van and then the brown van.  There was a  black van too, I think.  I sniffed for the smell of worms and dirt when we went fishing, when I was so small I felt nothing but incompetence because I couldn’t do what my father found so easy.  I listened to the sound of his laughter, not just his laughter, but the way it sang like a Delta blues man.  I looked at the crinkle that was his smile.  I wanted that grin to be mine.

You pulled me from my memories.  Reminded me that you hadn’t won yet.  That yours was a most sinister work because no one knew, and no one knows, when your job would be done with my dad’s brain and body.  You shouted in the tone that was once was my dad’s.  It was his voice, and it wasn’t.  And the reality of my life—the lives of my brothers, the lives of our aunts and our extended loved ones—is that you and dad are dancing.  And his feet are clipping and stumbling under what was once his best song.

You gave him pain and depression at what he can no longer command.  You made him mad at everybody and nobody.  You snatched his ability to attend to the mundane affairs of bills and greetings and polite conversations.  You made him unpredictable so that he couldn’t travel, so that he couldn’t go home and live on his own and be alone.

I hate you.  You’ve taken so much and you’re not even finished.  You have hardly done to me, to us, what I know you’ve done to others.  But know that I’m not alone in seeing your memory-soaked hand clenching and withdrawing from the collective worlds which have been ours.  I hear the prayers of my friends in my ears.

Roland and the way his hand pressed into my shoulder just yesterday, the words he prayed, the faith he had for me, even though today’s conversation with dad tried hard to erase my faith and my friend’s.  Libby and her careful way of saying just enough to express a deep understanding, a selective and prophetic care, and how she brings a prayerfulness whenever she approaches.  Lisa’s powerful prayers that the ground I’m on is sure and steady and the way she keeps praying, the mirror she is to people I see and don’t see.  Lauren’s steady gaze when she asks me respectfully and compassionately how I’m really doing and dealing with the junk you’ve thrown at us.  Byron and his admonition to take care of myself, to do what I need, to care for me so that I’m not surprised by my own breaks and broken places.  Lucy and the regular ways she brings me before the Presence, keeps me there, helps me see me and see truth and prepare to live from more than pain but love.  Winston, his faithfulness and his ability, through history, presentness, and vision for what’s to come, and how he keeps at the work of partnering with God to help make me good through the terror of unknown trials related to you.

Your hand is hard.  But I do not envy you.  Because you, partner of all that is sinful, will have a lot of giving to do.  Diseases like you must hold the things you take and you must return them.  So, my faith, sometimes thin as cracking leaves at autumn’s end, feels tiny.  And even if it disappears to an invisible quality, it will not leave.  It will not depart.  You cannot take it from me.  You cannot steal it the way you have my father’s best qualities.  You cannot leave in faith’s place depression and sadness the way my father struggles now, even without the words to give to his interiority.  I’m looking at the collective faith of an increasing cloud of witnesses, and while your reach is long, it cannot capture all my friend’s strengths.  There are some things you cannot do.