The Fabric of Our Life Together

The Fabric of Our Life Together October 17, 2019

Editor’s Note: Today’s writer honoringThe Clergy Project’s 1000 milestone is one of the better known Clergy Project members.  This is not just because she’s written a book, With or Without Godthat was a bestseller in Canada, but because she recently survived a heresy trial and continues as an atheist pastor in the United Church of Canada.  She is a natural preacher, as you will see below. /Linda LaScola, Editor

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By Gretta Vosper

Remember when there was no one to talk to about the most important thing in your ministry? When there was no one with whom you could share what you really believed? Oh, sure, there was the community pastors’ association, the “Ministerial” as we called it up here in Canada. But you wouldn’t breathe an iota of what you really believed there for fear all hell would break loose. Remember that?

For many who are now members of The Clergy Project, all hell did break loose.

If someone found out their pastor no longer believed, a cruel domino effect began, lived by the pastor in a horrifying moment-by-moment slow motion. First, they lost their congregation, then their friends. Their parents and partners deserted them. Access to children was limited, especially in the deep darkness of the Bible Belt. Losing their vocation was like peeling off their own skin, three layers below the burn. Some were in their first church, others at the end of long and vibrant ministries. It didn’t matter; the impact was devastating.

For those who are never found out, the long-term effects are devastating, too, but in an invisible way. Doubting belief is healthy. Doubting doubt is a vicious cycle. Having no one to share that with means the pressure simply mounts, more dangerous and urgent week after week. It is, literally, crazy making.

Years ago, the late Rev. James Adams, founder of The Center for Progressive Christianity, told me that he had been asked to establish a Progressive Christianity Resource Center in a clinic primarily associated with psychological wellness. He asked them why they wanted a resource center only ever previously established in progressive churches. The answer: many of their clients were clergy suffering from burnout. But their burnout was not the result of working too many hours. It was the dissonance between what they believed and what they had to appear to believe on Sundays that had driven them to breakdown.

The Clergy Project, for many of its members, has been the kind of community they once knew and loved but that turned against them – literally or figuratively – when they reasoned, read, or ruminated their way beyond belief. It provides a private place where clergy who no longer believe can begin to release the pressure they are under, to reach out for support from others who understand or are going through exactly the same thing. For clergy, closeted or otherwise, The Clergy Project has been affirming and life-giving and I’m proud to have been a Director in its early years.

I have been on medical leave for burnout, too. It was for that simple exhaustion that driven people bang into every now and then when they forget to watch where they’re going. It wasn’t brought on by any dissonance between what I believe and what I have to appear to believe; those are the same thing. I’m an atheist; my congregation knows that. Indeed, my denomination knows I’m an atheist, too, but after years of a gruelling and expensive heresy process, they decided they’d let me stay. I’m not exactly embraced, but I’m tolerated. And that is an amazing and important victory.

What my denomination might not know, because they never asked, is that I and my congregation do what we do not because I am an atheist, but because we know the real benefit of congregational life is not belief: it’s the beauty and wonder of being together. Churches brought us together in droves in the boom of the 1950s and 60s. They invited us to fall in love with being together and we did. The off-label benefits of religion, as I like to refer to them, are increased subjective wellbeing and higher rates of philanthropy and voluntarism. We vote more often (though some of you may wish we didn’t). The major off-label benefit of non-fundamentalist religion is a radical tolerance, the acceptance of people who are not “just like us.” The world needs more of that, not less. And so, I continue in ministry, bringing to my congregation opportunities for them to engage life meaningfully and deeply, to be reverent in the presence of nothing other than one another’s hearts.

Some time ago, Jennifer Michael Hecht called for a poetic atheism. She is so right. We need the words to express what uplifts and challenges us, what moves between us in —

“those uncertain and risky moments of vulnerability”

as Brené Brown puts it. West Hill, the congregation I serve, is in constant relationship with poetry through the readings it hears each week, the songs it lifts in a delicate or rousing beauty, to the conversation in which it engages.

And I offer my own contributions to that poetic environment. Each Sunday, I offer a piece I call the “Focused Moment”. Last evening, my congregation and I gathered to discuss some challenging realities with which we need to struggle. Because our discussion was going to be the kind of reality that sometimes hurts, I thought I should write a Focused Moment to open our gathering. I share it with you here because the image it sets up is one we are about at every moment of our lives and something The Clergy Project offers its members:

The courage to seam together the what-has-been with the what-will-be no matter how the latter unfolds.

Long ago,

before recorded time,

our ancestors learned to craft garments,

protection from the elements –

the heat of the day;

the chill of the night.

First simply folded hides,

they learned to strip and pound bark,

to pull threads free from plants, cocoons,

and weave these into fabric,

gather and bind it together,

wrap it around their bodies, arms, legs.

They did this not just for comfort

but for ceremony,

to bind their communities together,

awe, their sustenance,

ritual, their hope.

 

We gather in this space,

alive with memory,

and take up the fabric woven by our work,

the interwoven strands of promise

that make the history that is ours,

the fabric of our life together.

We lay it here, before us.

May this evening’s offering

be the seam

that holds our history to what will be,

that as we go forward,

the fabric of our sustenance

is threaded to our hope.

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Bio: Gretta Vosper is author of the Canadian bestseller, With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe, which was recently released in the US. She is also author of Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief and numerous other publications. She leads West Hill United Church in Scarborough, Ontario (featured in the documentary Godless), despite two attempts to try her for heresy. Gretta served on the Board of Directors of The Clergy Project. You can visit her website at www.grettavosper.ca

>>>>>>Photo Credits: “Folio 108r – Hell” by Limbourg brothers – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Folio_108r_-_Hell.jpg#/media/File:Folio_108r_-_Hell.jpg ; By zooterkin – QEDCon Day One-103, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39906562


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  • Jim Jones

    Franklin Graham avoided the dissonance by never going to bible school or the like.

    He seems remarkably untroubled by ethics as well.

  • John Lombard

    I struggled with that ‘dissonance’ for years. And for years, I simply told myself, “This doesn’t make any sense, but that must be because I lack the necessary knowledge or wisdom to understand it. I need to pray for greater understanding.”

    It wasn’t until I realized that “This doesn’t make any sense because it is nonsense” that I was able to actually break free.

  • flexilis

    Your Focused Moment is beautiful. We are clothed in our mutual love, support and respect.

    Without them we are naked, unprotected in the hostile universe.

  • mason

    I didn’t have to deal with the pulpit dissonance of preaching one thing to a congregation while believing otherwise, because my deconversion happened after I moved to a far away new city and never again preached the nonsense from the pulpit. That was an extremely fortuitous playing out of my life events. I can only imagine how terrible it could be trying to deal with that kind of mental-emotional dissonance for any length of time.

    Gretta’s article drives home what a valuable emotional life raft The Clergy Project has now been for over 1,000 participants. Having only one place where like minded people support and encourage you is often the case for TCP’s when the cultural “domino effect” begins like a rising flash flood.

    “I am an atheist, but because we know the real benefit of congregational life is not belief: it’s the beauty and wonder of being together.” That is so true, and that’s what many apostates miss most of their past theistic life and it takes time and work to create a new secular life with a sense of togetherness, somehow, somewhere.

    I found that being a part of TCP has made it possible for me to really delve emotionally deeply into the the trauma and scars from my abusive fundamentalist Baptist indoctrination, and helping others via support and listening has been a win win for experience. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/5d5b25aba01f1e6dcb3d230ab3dca99ed8867b23cce5856b11353900d8a93b6b.jpg

  • James Ayres LaMar

    I am not a qualified member of the clergy, nor a qualified scientist. But ever since my first year in college in 1971, I have been dealing with redefining the universe by my understanding of science as my understanding of the Holy Bible and God have utterly failed as truth. I was hoping to be burned at the stake, but egad!, it is no longer done… “Our Father, who art in DNA, biochemical be thy name…” Once science and the mapped human genome are embraced right down to the fully-explored mind/brain micro-studies, The Modern Testament Project can proceed to its fullest maturity. (See the FB page.) As for a future clergy, Clergy Without Borders is backdropped by Earthrise, from the moon. There are no borders on the earth from orbit. Only the spiritual/religious history of the human race. “We are living in outer space, and have never lived anywhere else.” –Freeman Dyson As for the objective and subjective definitions of God, All life on earth is based on DNA, arising from the primordial earth’s elements that became carbon-linked (organic) compounds. Compounds closely related to DNA chemically mutated into DNA self-replicating forms of single-celled life, covering the planet billions of years ago. As for the subjective notions of gods, anthropologists date when the cerebellum and cerebrum dreamed of spirits and gods long before the hunter-gatherers were ready to dream of one God. Carl Jung’s Theory of the Collective Unconscious recounts the same symbolic archetypes of hypnotic power recurring in common to tribes that never met. By virtue of functioning brain physiology, we developed language, music, and gods; civilizations, morals, laws, and posterity. Without writing or the invention of books, there would be no history, just like young people are finding out today while being lost in their electronic devices. When the Grid goes down, they become helpless. It is a very real disorder. The dangers of global warming, screen-induced schizophrenia, and depletion of natural resources promise massive die-offs and social chaos in coming times. My proposed resource, The Modern Testament Project, might fall short of your needs, but we, de-facto, have already begun personal conduct by its dictates of reason and even unreason. That we are failing to record today’s learning and codes will leave clueless young people with the 1611 C.E. KJV Bible. Damn us all if this happens.

  • ElizabetB.

    I like your concepts “Clergy without Borders” and “The Modern Testament Project.” Hope they develop!

  • James Ayres LaMar

    Thanks!

  • mason

    “Our Father, who art in DNA, biochemical be thy name” yep, … once that’s realized, it can’t be unrealized. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ae6fc7c2919e03372475935f6331a3f083890ea168460c41fc70f0c0f3fe935f.jpg

  • James Ayres LaMar

    A true teacher… Thanks! Share the wealth of wisdom.

  • carolyntclark

    love your post, James. I had never heard of Modern Testament Project but went and took a look. ….some profound thinking there….
    bookmarked, I’ll be visiting again.

  • Lonborghini Funghini

    So true, John. When we stop trying to make sense of the nonsense, we are freed to move on to a rational world view.

  • Lonborghini Funghini

    Thank you Gretta. Yours is an extraordinary journey and a source of inspiration to so many of us who only intended to do something positive for our fellow travelers.

  • ctcss

    OK, I guess I am confused. Maybe a woodenly literalist take on the Bible mistakes it for some sort of an ancient science textbook, but I was certainly never taught to view it as such. The Modern Testament Project (as I briefly reviewed the FB page) seems to feel the need to “update and improve” things based on modern science. That would be a good idea if bad or inadequate science were the core meaning contained within the Bible. But if the narratives contained within the Bible are more about confronting the reader with concepts that relate to God and to mentally wrestle with them, then it is fine just as it is, at least IMO. To use a non-Biblical example, one doesn’t “improve” poetry by converting it into prose. It may be written in the same language as prose, but the point of poetry is to convey something rather different to the reader than prose offers, otherwise prose would have been chosen in the first place.

    The Bible is a collection of writings done over many years that record the various ways people understood the concept of God. Personally, I find all of it to be of use and to be informative because it relates to how humans struggle both with themselves and to their concept of, and relationship to, God. I am just as human as the people in the Bible, and find myself struggling with the same issues. Not all, obviously, because each person’s experience in life is different. But it is just as relevant to me thousands of years later because there is a lot to unpack in one’s life, as well as the infinitely deep subject area of God, and none of that has changed. Humans are just as weak, limited, and fragile now as they were then, and seeking a way forward when one finds one’s self boxed in by troubling and seemingly insoluble situations is still very much a common occurrence in human life.

    Thus, IMO, it is a bit of a fool’s errand to try to “improve” things because the whole notion of what the Bible is all about is being misconstrued in the first place. When I find myself in a humanly troubling predicament that there is no easy solution for, my first thought is not to seek out a science textbook, largely because a science textbook isn’t meant to comfort, reassure, and inspire. Don’t get me wrong, I like science, but when in trouble and find that I have no ready recourse, I would much rather reach out to God.

    And yes, there are probably many here who would disagree with me on this (no big deal, to each their own), but personally I get rather dismayed when I see what I regard as wholesale misunderstanding being used to guide efforts to “fix” things. It rather reminds me of of Congressional efforts to address problems that they don’t fully understand or appreciate the complexity of. The end result is usually not helpful.

    Just my thoughts.

  • carolyntclark

    Gretta, TCP is fortunate to have you, a woman of conviction and courage, among us.
    Here in the USA Mitch McConnell, speaking of Elizabeth Warren, coined an appropriate rallying cry …”She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”. Thank you.

  • John Lombard

    @ctcss — Yes, we’ll certainly disagree, but I’ll just point out what I consider the most ironic part of your post. It is YOUR implicit belief that YOUR interpretation of the Bible is the ‘correct’ one (or close enough to being correct, anyway), and that everyone who has a different interpretation is wrong. The irony of this is that all those Christians who disagree with you (and with each other) will LIKEWISE assert that THEIR interpretation is the correct one.

    And that, ultimately, is one of the biggest problems with the Bible (and all other religious scriptures). It’s not based on anything objective. It is ENTIRELY based on personal opinion. YOU have a personal OPINION about what the Bible means, and that gives you comfort. Now, for me, that’s fine…believe whatever you want, so long as A) it is not forced on others, or B) it does not cause harm to others.

    BUT — I prefer ‘truth’ that is MORE than just a matter of personal opinion (in fact, I would consider that ‘personal opinion’ can NEVER be called ‘truth’). You may respond that it’s NOT personal opinion, it’s what God says…but again, it is YOUR personal opinion of what you think the Bible tells you God says.

    I’m a seeker of TRUTH. Not of OPINION. It’s why I eventually rejected religion. And why I consider science infinitely superior to religion. Not that science is always right…but that it is possible to PROVE that a particular scientific claim is wrong (whereas it is IMPOSSIBLE to ‘prove’ a religious claim is wrong), and move closer towards truth.

  • ElizabetB.

    Yes, Gretta’s writings are always inspiring.

    Interested to recently discover a new book of words for these transition communities —
    Roger Ray’s “Meditations: Post-theistic Prayers for Progressive Congregations”
    e.g.:

    The Burden of Believing We Are Right
    Tolerance, religious diversity, conflicting beliefs
    ….We recognize the jagged road of belief that has brought us here
    through vertible jungles of superstition and fear.
    We struggle to find patience with those whom we love
    and with those we can barely tolerate
    who are not yet and may never be free of magical religious beliefs.
    We hope to arrive at places of mutual respect and shared values
    giving us the courage to never compromise on justice
    and to give others the freedom to believe as they wish.”

    Makes me think how Chris could write an awesome resource for these communities,,,,

  • ctcss

    I never claimed that my interpretation is the correct one. What I was pointing out was that there are many modern people who seem to think the Bible is no more than the equivalent of a very ancient science textbook that needs fixing because it gets the science wrong. Why do so many seem to go with the idea that the Bible was intended to be taken so literally and superficially? If God was such a simplistic notion, then wouldn’t everyone have already grasped what was needed?

    And perhaps I am misunderstanding your former take on religion, but given just how ignorant and limited humans are, why do people seem to think that God (a conceptually infinitely deep subject area) is something that can be readily grasped, and either accepted or dismissed or discarded with little thought? Wouldn’t it be far more likely that it would take multiple lifetimes of effort to even begin to grasp something about it? After all, how many complex human endeavors are easily mastered in an afternoon? Don’t humans embark on journeys of learning and discovery that may take multiple lifetimes and multiple lives in order for humans to grow in their mastery of them? And can we really think that we will know where things will end up by taking only the first few faltering and tentative footsteps? Doesn’t each journey have to take just as long as it takes? And shouldn’t we expect to be surprised by new discoveries along the way? And shouldn’t we expect to find ourselves changed by the effort we are making?

    The point being, in order to approach any complex subject fairly (including religion), isn’t it far more a question of embarking on a very long journey of exploration and discovery, rather than assuming we already know most of it to begin with?

    Personally, I think I have chosen a religious path that seems to have value. But I have no guarantees about its ultimate correctness, any more than I have guarantees about whether my wife is the perfect wife for me. I won’t know about my wife unless I commit to being with her, put the needed effort into our marriage together, and continue onward until I get to the end of my exploration of my life with her. Likewise, I won’t know if my chosen religious pathway is ultimately the correct one until I put the needed effort into exploring it, and determining its truth. And if I truly run into a brick wall either with my journey with my wife or my religion, I may decide that I need to rethink my choices. But until that conclusion is fairly reached, shouldn’t my journey continue until I find out?

    Did that help explain anything about my approach or did I just make things more confusing?