A thing that happened


What I feel like is a man slowly drifting away from his faith. It’s not an intellectual process. My commitment to Christianity is far deeper than mind games now. My faith is of the body. And my body is telling me some things. I have no desire to pray. I have no interest in doctrinal or theological conversations, which used to be a passion of mine. Such discussions are of no more interest to me now than an extended conversation about latex paint.

When I was a professional Christian, my job depended on me being spiritually engaged with the faith. And since I abhorred the idea of hypocrisy, I always found ways to stay in the game. But now, with no one paying me to be spiritual, well, it’s a whole different thing. If I don’t want to pray I just don’t. Sometimes for a long time.

And I can’t lean on service to others – the classic liberal saving throw – because I’ve developed an almost paranoid fear of anyone needing me. I fear any such obligations. I fear the anxiety and guilt that obligation brings to me. In my mind, I never ever ever loved people enough or cared about them enough to be a good pastor. It’s my problem. I’m sure I was fine at the job. People say I was. But that’s the point, isn’t it? I have a bit of a problem with this. So now I mostly just stay in my house, where I work. Or ride my bike. There are four women to whom I am greatly obliged, and that’s all I want.

Also the cold, uncompromising voice of Reason, my ancient foe, has been whispering in my ears again.

The universe has no interest in you. Celestial systems, of which you are a part, pay homage only to greater forces of gravity, circling them obediently while the cosmos expands with energy from a source we cannot comprehend. Your value in this unthinkably vast reality is exactly in keeping with your size in it, just as you’ve always suspected. A galactic moment or two from now, humanity will disappear, along with your solar system and perhaps your entire galaxy. When that happens it will be as if you never existed at all.

But by all means, Gordon, make sure you don’t miss Sunday school tomorrow.

So I think you can understand why I stared blankly at someone the other day when he asked how I could become an Episcopalian, since Episcopalians practice infant baptism. I blinked a few times, trying to understand the meaning of his words. They were vaguely familiar words. I myself might have talked about the cosmically important question of whether or not one should put water on a baby’s forehead when I cared about such things.

The other day I was writing at McDonald’s – I prefer it over the Starbucks down the street – and I saw a bird in the parking lot pecking at a scrap of bread. I leaned forward until my forehead was touching the window and stared. The bird plucked a bit of bread from a dirty place in the concrete and flew away, soaring over Loop 1604 where the cars were slogging along in rush hour like blood squeezing in spurts through a capillary.

“That,” I said out loud, “is a thing that happened.”

So that is the state of me. Not giving a shit about baptism conversations, not praying very much, becoming Episcopalian, muttering about birds at McDonald’s, and trying to hang onto my beloved theism.

So now you understand why I cannot afford to miss a single Sunday at Saint Francis Episcopal Church. Not one. Because the humble offering of a parishioner in attendance on a Sunday morning might be the only thing I have to offer God this week. And my only chance for some sort of epiphany. I will be there at 10:10 for the Spiritual Formation hour, to hear Walter or Brian or Cristopher read from our Book and make observations. I limit myself to one small comment a week in this hour, since I used to talk so much in church.

And then forty steps away and one hour later I will be in the worship service. I prefer the late service without the modern music. Who gave these nice Episcopalians guitars, I want to know? I will sit and stand and kneel, assuming I can figure out in what order those things should be done. And then I will move softly to the end of my aisle, bow, and head for the railing. A small wafer will be given to me. Yes even me. Even this doubting wayward boy is welcome to the source of our deepest mystery.

It’s funny. No matter how deep my doubts, one thing has always seemed clear to me in its paradoxical absurdity. It is entirely possible – I believe – that all the wisdom of our feeble species, in the moments before heat death takes us, might fit nicely into a single wafer of bread.

I rise from the railing, the taste of Jesus in my mouth.

And I say, “That is a thing that happened.”

Gordon Atkinson


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  • DaveBritt

    Thank you for sharing your journey, Gordon. While I wouldn’t presume to know your experience, I can relate.

  • Scott

    I’ve followed your writing for many years now, and it never ceases to amaze me. You consistently dip into the well and put words to what many folks, in some form or other, experience. The struggle of my “professional” Christianity has always created personal turmoil. Then, often in the blink of an eye, something gently reaches inside and swaddles my heart like a warm blanket, and I feel the holiness of hope.

  • Gail D

    Thank you, Gordon.

  • I always think of reciting a creed – not I believe, but in fact Someone in this room believes

  • Ashevillian

    i totally get this, Gordon. After a long season of spiritual fallow, I had quite a strong experience at the Ash Wednesday service, which has given me a new theological perspective. If you ever feel inclined to hear about it, I’d be glad to share it with you. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

  • txredd

    I love this so much.

  • Much love to you and Jeanene.

  • nematome

    I, too, am a long-time reader of yours. This posting reminded me of an observation I made on my bus commute between work and home a couple of weeks ago: “I’m pretty sure that the guy who just got off the bus is the campus’s ‘Brickyard Preacher.’ He looked old and tired and as if maybe a little bit of doubt has started to creep in.”

  • I have found your writing on being a new Episcopalian very helpful. I was born and raised an atheist. In 33 years of living, I had never been into a church except to vote. I had a bit of a spiritual awakening and after months of research and soul search, I decided to go to church. I chose an Episcopalian church because they most closely matched my political and moral beliefs. The service was a bit confusing, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. At the end of it all, I was hooked. The friend I went to my first service with was less impressed. He grew up in a Church of Christ. The next week, we went to his home church. I have to say I was not impressed. The organs were replaced with guitars. The choir was replaced with a soccer mom singing a contemporary worship song. The awe inspiring and humbling traditions and recitations were replaced with a power point slide about tithing and a “pat on the back session” with a few people who were really doing their part to expand the ministry financially. The reverence and dignity were replaced by teenagers texting and running the aisles. Not that I can generalize Christianity on two visits to church, but I do know that I identify more strongly with an Episcopalian worship style. If we are to gather in a large hall and praise the all powerful creator of the universe, then we may be wise to leave our cell phones in the car and show a little respect by focusing more on reverence and gratitude and less on funding the purchase of that property by the golf course. I look forward to reading about your experiences as I make this journey of my own.

  • Your Brother


    • Pam

      My sentiments exactly.

  • lynn

    We are all professional Christians Gordon, if we are Christians at all. God just expected you to help the rest of us understand how to do our job. As long as you do that all will be well I believe. Thank you for not giving up on your job or ours.

  • Teresa

    Even this doubting wayward boy is welcome to the source of our deepest mystery –
    “The word skepticism has an interesting etymology. It means to look at a matter closely, to scrutinize, to study with
    great care and in minute detail. Based on this definition, what the church needs is not less but more skepticism . . . One thing skepticism is not is an excuse for evasion, an alibi for idleness. It is not a self-imposed boundary to keep you from embarking on any deep and meaningful search . . . A skeptic is passionate about discovering truth and wants to believe, but safeguards against the hypnotic power of that wanting. So he tests . . . Thomas was a true skeptic. He doubted not to excuse his unbelief, but to establish robust belief. He doubted . . . in order to find a firm path out and into the holy wild. For the place God calls us into isn’t doubt free – how can any place where we walk by faith and not by sight be that? No, the holy wild is where we have driving and haunting doubts, God-hungry doubts that pull us to our knees, force us to the Word, make us wrestle all night and not let go until he blesses us. The holy wild throngs with true skeptics.”
    ” . . . soaring is much easier than walking. The soaring requires less endurance . . . Does soaring on eagle wings ever rank in its miraculousness with walking and not fainting?” (Isaiah 40)
    Quotes from Your God is too Safe by Mark Buchanan

  • Mark (MN Lutheran)

    Gordon, thank you again.

  • I don’t know you, I can’t diagnose you, and I don’t want to lessen your experience by the comparison. So I hope this doesn’t come off as dismissive. All of that said, what you describe sounds very familiar, not as drifting away from faith* but as dealing with depression. (Something I have a lot more experience with than any kind of religion.)

    I hope you do ok, and I hope you feel better. Whatever God or gods may be I hope he, she, it, or they help you.

    As a side note, my only experience with the wafer is when my Catholic grandmother brought me to church as a child. I remember Jesus as being in need of more flavor. Not that I knew it was Jesus then, I was a child. I just knew to stand in line and eat the thing when given to me.

    *I actually drifted into faith, if a sort of squishy non-specific one. I believe that there is a God. I believe that that God is benevolent. And that’s about as far as I’ve gotten so far.

    • Understandable interpretation or reaction to this. But I feel fine. I feel good. Leaving the pastorate was such a right thing that I’m still feeling rather giddy about it. At least now that I’ve figured out how to make a living. I thought this piece had a nice, hopeful kind of ending to it. But it probably “feels” about right. At times I struggle to know how much of my Christianity is my own and how much was due to my previous role.

      • It is good to know that you are well.

        The ancients gave this thing a word,
        the called it, I think, “Tertium Quid.”

  • Cathy W

    Gordon, I’m a long-time, long-lost reader – I started reading your blog on Salon, and lost track of you around the time you left Covenant, and if you have no memory of me it’s because I left something like three comments ever. I was happy to see Fred Clark link to you – and then I became worried when I read the whole post.

    Like Chris, I don’t presume to diagnose you – but I was also struck by the thought that what you were describing was not struggling with your faith but a recurrence of depression. You, not I, live in your head, and you’ve experienced depression before so you know what it feels like – so I’d like to ask you to examine your feelings in that light, and please seek help if you think it’s warranted.

    • Thanks for you concern. I do know myself much better now, after a few years of being medicated for depression. I’ve been exercising vigorously for a few years now. Am in pretty good shape. And feeling good. The search is on for what Christianity means to me in my post ministry years. I don’t feel unhappy at all. I struggle with doubts. Uncertain of what is real. But am committed to the practice of our faith as I wait to see how everything will shake out.

      • Cathy W

        I’m very glad to hear that – and also very glad that I know where to find your writing now. 🙂

  • RavenOnTheHill

    The way you are describing it, I think you are ready for a revelation.

  • The secret I’m learning is that God uses our devotion and prayer and all the rest to every so gradually, slowly and gently take our eyes from the heavens and return them to our own hearts and then when we are able out to the world around us. And it can seem like losing faith, but really I think it’s a returning to the life we were made to live. This world was made for us and us for it. When we decided that there was something wrong with us we could no longer understand the world around us as our proper home. I think that as we go through this journey God will withdraw himself from our sight so we can see the things around us more clearly. That we are like bacteria on the surface of a pollen spore floating across an ocean – less than nothing. Small and beyond notice. And yet, having started with our eyes on God, we have been taught, even if we forget when stunned by the reality of our smallness, that in God’s kingdom, the first are last and the last are first. The least are as Christ. So we are safe to look around and see what is and to learn to just be.

  • In the long run, if you accept reality and learn to live in it, you’ll be happier than if you try to cling to what you want to be real.

  • Lauren

    So exquisitely written. Thank you again. Yours is essentially my experience and evolution — up to your return to a faith community. And I don’t think it’s to be confused with depression (I am familiar with its voice). I wish I could find the reconciliation you have. Instead, virtually all remnants/facsimiles of my spiritual life are gone … at least for now. Maybe I’ll find a way to find something that works again. You make me think and feel less alone in my experience.

  • PaulNotTheApostle

    Gordon, each of the things you did for your congregation when you were a pastor was “a thing that happened”, and I suspect they were mostly worthwhile. Meanwhile, your second-guessing about how much you loved them is “a thing that is happening now”, and I greatly doubt its worth.

    As for your significance in the universe, does your size and longevity really matter? You are apparently necessary, just as you are – no less so than the Andromeda Galaxy. Gosh, it sounds to me like you attribute significance to some thoughts on the matter that is out of all proportion. Why bother with that?

    • Why bother with that? Well, because I’m a goofy guy who never quite sorts things out. I did allow that those negative thoughts are not the truth, but they do come to me now and then. I’m guessing everyone has certain negative messages they roll around in their heads now and again.

      • PaulNotTheApostle

        An apocryphal beatitude: “Blessed are those who know they’re goofy, for the rest are deluded”.

  • Fr Ioannis

    Gordon, this entry reminded me of the forgotten self that irritates an adult at prayer, without promise of relief. A poet named Philip C. Kolin, whom you know or know of no doubt from ‘CC’, illustrates the state of forgetting self as a skeptic’s nothing that could well lead one to embrace something, even if ‘nothing comes from nothing’ in an inchoate way that resembles a dog chasing its tail. Any line of thinking seldom leaves its box if not coupled to faith.

    Kolin’s poem:

    “The Skeptic’s Prayer”

    My prayers wander like a caravan over
    Deserts, rock, spurs, jackals, whip scorpions
    Scavengers of my syllables, quarreling
    For the air that keeps my breath alive.

    My voice has grown thirsty
    All I can taste is the wrong type of salt
    Vinegar dried to the dust in the cave
    At the center of my face.

    The sandpaper winds
    Shroud me in a new prayer shawl.
    I wear my name like a forgotten statue
    Whose inscription has been weathered off.

    Rough-hewn sins masquerade as road markers
    Imploring me to stop here, there, stop.
    Why risk going further into risk;
    Wait until the storm stops.
    Denial becomes caution.

    I refused a feast of parables
    Now I starve in a famine of regrets.

    + + +

    [Ref.: ‘The Saint Katherine Review,’ Vol. 2, # 1, page 22]

    • I grant much to the Orthodox church. So much that I cannot approach it currently. I know how unorthodox I am. I read this tonight. I do not understand it. But I will read it again. Prayerfully. Thank you for the faithfulness of your care for me.

  • Leslie

    Jer 33.3 “Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.” Your honest struggle and search for the truth will be answered, great and hidden things will be known by Gordon Atkinson. My thoughts about God and Christianity were messed up big time after spending years since childhood as a pew warmer. However, after a good 16 years of searching and calling, God showed up one day and that changed everything. Its not about you or me, but about Him and Him alone. Keep the faith and finish the race.

  • Yes, the universe is huge and impersonal, but it is not unlikely that the creative intelligence that got it all started would be interested in us individually as well as in groups. Humanity is fascinating because of free will…you falling out of faith might be as revolutionary as me falling into it in my 40s, but I did. Maybe you’ll fall back in.

    • James, I just read this again. It tracks with something that I once thought. It may take an entire galaxy, running on the forces of nature and natural selection, to produce one self aware species. I bet those would indeed be of interest to a higher mind. Maybe. The tempting voice for me is to despair and not count myself as worthy of the attention of the Creator.

  • We met long ago in Texas. There was a Baptist meeting there, but then again, isn’t there always a Baptist meeting in Texas. We were both pastors then. Now, come to find out, we are both not pastors, and we are both Episcopalian. So, there’s that, which is to say, you are not alone. And I am not either.

  • Gordon–I didn’t know you were blogging again until a friend linked your blog post on “Episcopal Rites of Passage.” I am *delighted* to find you again–and also delighted (but not the least bit surprised!) to find you have joined my particular community of faith. I pegged you as an Episcopalian years ago. We love and welcome our doubters–if it were not so, I would never have been allowed in!

    Peace and blessings to you in this Eastertide. May the mystery enfold both of us….

    • Thanks. I dumped the Real Live Preacher thing, a real counter-intuitive move, since I actually had a nice audience of readers. But we really live in a post-blogging world now. Boy that phase came and went quickly, right? Anyway, I’m writing here with no concern about who reads or how many people read or any of that. But I’m glad you found me. And thanks for the welcome.

  • Harry

    Gordon, it’s good to discover that you’re posting again. Maybe you have been for a while, and I just missed it. Whatever – I’m glad I found you again.

  • PDQ

    Gordon, I’m not sure if you want to hear this or not, but as a long time reader of your writings, I have the deepest admiration of you. It’s your candor about the roads you walk. I simply don’t know anyone else like you, and like others who have commented here, you make me feel less alone. Thank you for being you.

    • Thank you for that wonderful affirmation. It means a lot to me. I’m continuing to try and figure out how much of my life I should give to writing. I no longer consider it something that I could ever make a living doing. So the question becomes, how much of my spare time will I give to this? Hearing that what I write means something to you is very gratifying.

  • Brandon

    I was a church worker back in 02, when I first discovered your writings. Your wrestling at that time resonated so deep with me. We even spoke on the phone once, but I can’t remember what we talked about.

    I have since left professional church work, and just stumbled upon this essay. It, again, feels so similar to my experience. I left my former denomination, and have since felt more at home with others. From time to time someone from my past will ask about a point of theology or practice, and I have such a hard time engaging in the conversation. The doctrine seems like another life, and one that makes my head/heart ache to think of.