By Roger Lovette
Moving through the kitchen I barely picked up the TV words. They were interviewing another minister who said he just could not believe in God.
He has started a church for atheists. He even wears a clergy collar. I’ve heard most of these excuses, and the funny thing is that almost any minister could agree with a whole lot he and the others say.
Carlyle Marney used to say the church has dirty under drawers. And he was right. Paul, I think would agree with this sentiment. Looking back on his up-and-down pilgrimage he observed: “We have the treasure in earthen vessels.”
Having worked with a multitude of pastors who have been dismissed from their churches — and having encountered the dark side of church myself — I know the pain and heartbreak that church sometimes brings.
There is a very sad church strand of anti-gay, anti-environment, anti-evolution, anti-abortion, anti-intellectual, anti-just-about-everything that people struggle with day after day. Add to this those who have jumped on the Republican bandwagon (and you can also say the same thing about the liberals and the Democratic Party) thinking that their party is the God party and the other side, well, they couldn’t possibly be real believers.
All the Christians I know struggle, as do atheists, with the unfairness of the world. Too much poverty. Too many Sandy Hooks. Too many tsunamis and hurricanes. ALS. And the terrible question: Why do bad things happen to some of the best of us. Who knows? The Bible itself is silent about why people suffer.
But for all those that sneer at the outmoded teachings and stories of the Bible, I know a whole cadre of preachers who would say: “Yes, yes. We don’t believe axe heads float, or that we should dash the heads of little children against the walls. We do not believe that homosexuals and adulterers (especially women) should be stoned. We do not believe the flat earth came into being 6,000 years ago at 9 o’clock in the morning. But we do believe Jesus was the great-hearted one who reached out and took everybody in — even atheists, especially atheists.”
We shouldn’t adopt a poor-you, looking-down our-nose at those who cannot believe for many reasons. Let them be. This is a free country, and people have the right to believe and not believe what they wish.
I have known a number of atheists, many like good Christians. They are kind, open-hearted and try to make the world better. And I have known a few who think it is their calling in life to stamp out this craziness called Christianity. These are the folk that make me nervous.
But then I think of that strand of kindness and love that I bump into almost every week from Christian folk; folk who are flawed but basically decent.
Weeks ago, when my good friends lost their daughter in her 40s, the church came to their rescue. They brought casseroles. They stood in a long receiving line just to hug the devastated parents and say they were sorry. And after everything has gone back to normal for most of those folk, here and there somebody will reach out and help those parents through their terrible darkness.
Two days later someone lost a mother. Most of us didn’t know her, but the church came to the rescue. Not the formal church, but the informal, what-really-counts-church. They were at the service. They had prayed and they were there to support and do what they could.
And when the Scriptures were read: “Even though I walk through the shadows of death,” “Let not your hearts be troubled,” “Nothing can separate us from the love of God,” those gathered believed those words with all their hearts. Wishful thinking? Weak folk who need crutches? I think not. Just “ever present help in time of need.”
Sitting in my Sunday school class last weekend somebody read a text message. The son of one of our families was having his first child. “They couldn’t detect a heart-beat.” We stopped and prayed. And when we heard hours later that the baby did not make it, love rushed out in all kinds of ways to that hurting family.
This happens in almost every community I know. Surely atheists also feel and respond, but I still feel we need some structure for our love and caring. Somebody said you’ve got to have a bucket without a hole in it to carry the water. Without that bucket — dirty sometimes, rusty sometimes and often not-too-pretty — too much of the water will be spilled.
After more than 40 years of serving churches and seeing just about everything, I still believe in this bucket to carry the water that people desperately need. I’m not going to bash any atheists, but I do know that this lifeline called church helps a great many people enormously.
Ann Lamotte, one of my favorite writers, started attending a church and it changed her life. Someone asked her why she went, and she said: “Because a little old black lady brings me dimes week after week.” Somebody cared.
Lyndon Johnson was asked after all his years in Washington why he was going back to a little town in Texas. “They ask about you when you’re sick, and they cry when you die,” he replied.
Not a bad definition of church — even a treasure (with a little t) — in a very earthen vessel.