Sunday service tugs at agnostic

I'm coming up on 40 years of slogging through life without any religious affiliation, and for the most part, I have no regrets. Last Sunday, though, I was standing before a couple hundred members of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena and found myself envious.

I had been asked to talk about my three-year friendship with a musician who slept on the streets of skid row when we first met.

Life with Mr. Nathaniel Ayers is opera, with great soaring arias and sudden crashes, I told the parishioners. I feel good about having found ways to help this man whose promising career ended with a breakdown 35 years ago. But at times, I worry that my good intentions have brought him more attention than he might have wished.

In describing the journey, the soul-searching and the rewards of giving, I used the words "spirituality" and "grace." As I did, I saw people nodding as if I belonged in that room with them.

But wait. I'm an agnostic, and quite content.

So why did I feel such a connection? Could my stubborn resistance to faith be slipping?

No way, I told myself after leaving the church. Religious fervor has done an awful lot of harm in the world, dividing people, sparking wars, producing an endless parade of charlatans and hustlers.

And just look at how religion is playing out in the presidential campaign, with the running battle over which candidate is linked to the worst and most hypocritical human being who claims to speak for God.

Is it Sen. John McCain, who sought the support of televangelist John Hagee? Hagee, you'll recall, referred to the Catholic Church as "the whore of Babylon" and said God whipped up Hurricane Katrina to punish New Orleans for sins that included "a homosexual parade."

Or is it Barack Obama, who recently had to distance himself from his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.? Rev. Wright suggested in a sermon that the phrase "God bless America" should really be "God damn America."

He also offered congregants his theory that the government created the HIV virus to kill off blacks, and recently said that the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, who is seen by many as an anti-Semite, is one of recent history's leading voices.

I spoke about all of this with my wife, whose beliefs and non-beliefs are similar to mine. She mentioned that our daughter, just shy of 5, had asked a couple of questions lately about people who practice different faiths and what it all means.

I've always felt that what we believe in and how we live are the only forms of spiritual guidance we need to give our daughter. But maybe that's the lazy man talking -- the one who used to skip Catholic church on Sunday and watch ballgames on TV instead.

Maybe it wouldn't hurt, my wife and I agreed, if we were to show our daughter that our values are important enough to us to clear time and to celebrate and honor them in a ritualistic way.

I don't know that either of us is ready to make a decision about all of this, but I did go back to All Saints a few days after my appearance at the Rector's Forum to mull things over with the Rev. J. Edwin Bacon Jr.

I felt a bit of a tug, I confessed to Bacon, while speaking to his parishioners. Bacon, who missed my presentation but later watched it on video, said he sensed there was "a moment" in the room in which we all connected. I was speaking about giving, he said, which releases the divine in all of us.

"Martin Luther King is my north star," said Bacon, who grew up in Georgia. As a young man, he met King, whose work he calls a "prophetic vision, a blend of spirituality and justice, spirituality and peace."

In this week's Sunday sermon, he said, he would talk about how the Rev. Wright comes out of that same tradition of identifying injustice and demanding change.

"The role of the church is not to be the servant of the state but to be critical of the state, and that's where Jeremiah gets it right," Bacon said. "The role is to stand with those who have been marginalized and say to the state, 'You can do better.' "

But Wright went off course with some of his comments, and his ego didn't serve him well, Bacon said. It's one thing to question connections between U.S. foreign policy and the rise in terrorism, Bacon said, but another thing entirely to suggest that God should damn America.

"What Jesus offers is a voice that says God loves the whole world" and believes in redemption, Bacon added, with equal love for both the oppressor and the oppressed.

For those who have forgotten, Bacon's church was the subject of a two-year investigation by the Internal Revenue Service into whether the church should lose its tax-exempt status for mixing politics and religion. The IRS probe followed Bacon's arrest for protesting the war in Iraq and his preaching against President Bush's foreign policy. The IRS case was dropped last year

Bacon says he protested the war "in the spirit of the prophetic spirituality of Jesus," just as he had earlier protested President Clinton's welfare reform policy. He offers no apologies for his activism, and said All Saints will never be "church light, or church petty."

Bacon said he has been both an atheist and an agnostic at various times in his life, but neither discipline explained what he felt in his soul.

"There is something bigger than me, and it's love. There's a spiritual force that's greater than evil or war. It's in me, and there are things I can do to activate it."

When I asked Bacon why I couldn't activate it from home, the lazy man way, he said I'd already answered the question when I told him about the spirit of community I'd felt last Sunday. He said his friend Bishop Desmond Tutu calls it ubuntu.

"It's an African word meaning you can't be human alone."

I'm going to think about all of this, along with my wife.

"There are Jews, Muslims, Hindus and atheists here almost every Sunday," Bacon said, as if to put my mind at ease.

During his battles with the IRS, an atheist sent him a check and said:

"I don't believe in God. But if I did, I would want to come to your church."


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