Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Atheist Goes to Church

I went to Church today. Which is not a big thing, except that I am pretty comfortably atheist, so going to Church is always an interesting adventure for me. It was actually pretty wonderful. My church isn't a Christian church per se, it's Unitarian Universalist, which is sort of like if the United Nations had a church... Or as someone else put it, a church that believes that all religions have value, that we should all be nice to each other, and that we should recycle.

The sermon today was entitled 'To Transform Lives in a Profound Way' and our minister began by asking the congregation if our church has a soul.

The sermon itself had a lot to do with the soul of a community and how we create, nurture and help that soul to thrive. Oddly enough, it also reminded me a lot of some of the things Rick Warren talks about his book "The Purpose Driven Life" (#58 on the 2010 Books Read List) about how one of the purposes of life is giving back to your church instead of simply trying to get what you need from it, and how the act of giving back to a place (or a group, or a person, or a university class ;P) enriches the experience. Despite all this, Jesus or no Jesus, the act of true fellowship seems to be a universal challenge in churches around the world. True fellowship is unselfish and (to use my favourite Mahatma Gandhi quotation wildly out of context) requires us to be the change we wish to see in our church.

I've been asked why I go to church if I don't believe in God. I go because I believe in the world, and in the people in it, and in helping others, and in face-to-face communities where you know peoples' stories and care about their problems, and your being present and able to offer a smile or a hug or a hand to hold is more important than if you're getting points on a cosmic score card for doing it. I don't need to know I'm pleasing any greater power to know that offering sympathy or encouragement to someone in need of it is worthwhile. I know it's worthwhile when someone smiles back at me or thanks me. That's all the validation I need. (Sometimes, I don't even need that.)

I've been missing that kind of community (and that kind of validation) a lot lately, and it took meeting a number of very lovely Christian friends and living with a very lovely Christian room-mate for almost two years for me to admit that maybe what was missing from my life was Church. Church; not religion, not faith, Church. The actual community. I have my own kind of beliefs that aren't quite religious (unless worshiping at the alter of reason and decency is now a recognized religion), and I have faith (although it's more in people and the world as a whole than in a God of any kind), but I didn't have Church. And I missed Church. I missed the community and the diversity of people and having the opportunity to discuss interesting issues with people of different backgrounds and generations.

I went last week. To the same church. The bus ride there took forever, and it was raining, and the service was a bit too long, and a bit pointless to me, and, to be perfectly honest, I was a bit disappointed by the whole experience. But on my way home, I thought about what Warren had written about not being so picky and perfectionistic about our churches and how sometimes they aren't what we think we want or need, but how we have to give back to them to get what we truly need -what's most valuable- out of them. I was on the fence about going back to church again this weekend. And then last night, I remembered something my mother told me in ninth grade when I was whining about the high school (Lisgar) I was forced to attend. I wanted to go to a different school, where all my friends from eighth grade had gone. She turned to me and said, "Maybe you don't need Lisgar, but maybe Lisgar needs you."

Turns out, she was wrong on that one. I needed Lisgar, and I stayed and graduated from Lisgar five years later, (in Ontario at the time we had grade 13) but I think that maybe she was right too; maybe Lisgar needed me, too. And the same goes for church. My new church may not be the perfect church, I realized as I went to bed last night, but I got up this morning and I got dressed and caught the bus to church and I gave it a second chance. I am really glad I did.

There probably isn't a perfect church, not even my old church in Ottawa, which I love and miss and may have idealized a bit in my heart... but there are good churches with soul. And I think I've found one. And so, I'm in. I'm going back next week, despite the hour-plus on the bus, and the rain, and the temptation to get a few more hours of sleep on one of the few days I truly have OFF. And I'm pretty happy about it. I'm happy to buy in, whatever the cost, because I have the feeling that the payout to everyone who buys in to the community is the sum of what everyone else is putting in the pot: unlike a hockey pool where you give your 40$ and only one person in the pool wins it all at the end of the season, we all win here, and we don't have to wait nearly as long to see the return on our investment.

I hope I can contribute to the soul of my chosen church, to make it mine, and to give back to it, not because God would want me to, but because it's what you need to do to build a healthy community and to be a part of that community it has to have a part of you. You have to give it some of your self. We are so used to wanting everything to provide us with what we need, to give us something. I think a lot of times people forget how amazing it feels to give, to contribute, to donate your time and your energy, to volunteer, to give a little piece of your soul to something greater.


Blair said...

Alrighty Mer... pulled out my trusty Bible and looked in the subject index under "fellowship"

One of the references is 1 John 1:7
I somehow thought I found it but I was actually looking at 1 John 4:7 (someone can't count tonight).

Anyhow, I think I like 1 John 4:7-12 better anyhow, because it talks about God's love and ours, which I think is the basis for fellowship in a church. Why else would we invest our time, resources, tithes, etc in a church community if we didn't have this all encompassing idea of love?

Some snippets from this passage:
vs 10-12: "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

Sooo... I realize this isn't the direction your post was going, but I think that as a believer from the moment I accepted God's love, started (and still am) sharing it with others, only then am I able to love others in a community (school, church, internet friends ;), etc) fully. Because lets face it, people are selfish prigs. If you want to get all cynical you can question why people are even serving/helping others. Are they doing it to get attention from others?, gain someone else's approval?, doing it because it makes them feel good? Well, we won't ever know their hearts, but I do think this happens with people in this world. I'd like to highlight that very last part of the passage I shared. "God lives in us and his love is made complete in us." So, the only way to know if someone is serving wholeheartedly without any ulterior motives, is if you feel the same love radiating from them that you have inside you. God's love. Nothing more nothing less. Just love.

mer said...

I just re-read this comment for the fourth time and realized something about the passage you repeated that I absolutely love.

"God lives in us and his love is made complete in us." If you read this literally, it is saying that God's love is not complete without us. God needs people to exist so that his love can be whole. I may not believe in exactly the same things you do, Blair, but I believe in this idea: that love (even a god's love) is incomplete unless it's reciprocated.