How Have We Failed?

Teresa MacBain has a secret, one she’s terrified to reveal.

“I’m currently an active pastor and I’m also an atheist,” she says. “I live a double life. I feel pretty good on Monday, but by Thursday — when Sunday’s right around the corner — I start having stomachaches, headaches, just knowing that I got to stand up and say things that I no longer believe in and portray myself in a way that’s totally false.”

“On my way to church again. Another Sunday. Man, this is getting worse,” she tells her phone in one recording. “How did I get myself in this mess? Sometimes, I think to myself, if I could just go back a few years and not ask the questions and just be one of those sheep and blindly follow and not know the truth, it would be so much easier. I’d just keep my job. But I can’t do that. I know it’s a lie. I know it’s false.”

-by Barbara Bradley Hagerty
“From Minister to Atheist: A Story of Losing Faith”

Our teacher the Baal Shem Tov said: Every single thing one sees or hears is an instruction for his conduct in the service of G-d. This is the idea of avoda, service, to comprehend and discern in all things a way in which to serve G-d.

Hayom Yom: Iyar 9, 24th day of the omer
Compiled and arranged by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, in 5703 (1943)
from the talks and letters of the sixth Chabad Rebbe
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory

Yesterday I wrote When We’re Left Behind to describe my initial reactions to reading the news story I quoted above. After some thoughts and reflection, it hasn’t gotten much better. I still don’t like being called a “sheep,” “blind,” and thought of as not knowing the “truth.” MacBain’s story is supposed to be the first in a series of news articles on losing faith. I wonder if NPR would consider writing a series on the other side of the coin about people who have struggled, endured, and persevered over their crisis of faith.

Call me cynical, but I seriously doubt it.

The Baal Shem Tov considers everything we see and hear and probably every experience we have as a lesson in how we are to behave in the service of God. I guess that’s what I was trying to convey yesterday when I said we should love and not condemn people like Teresa MacBain. I admire her husband, who has managed to retain his faith in the face of his wife’s atheism. The NPR article spent almost no time exploring how all of this affects him. And I kind of know how he feels.

No, my wife isn’t an atheist, but she isn’t a Christian either. She’s Jewish, and I very much support her in her pursuit of her faith and her identity. But as time has passed, I have come to realize that we represent two different worlds. I used to think there was significant overlap between those two realms, but now I’m not so sure.

No, I’m sure. There’s not much overlap at all.

That brings up an interesting question, both for the MacBains and for me. How do you live with someone who is utterly different from you at the very foundation of your being?

OK, men and women are different, I get that. Every person who’s been married for more than a week or so realizes that living together as a married couple is a challenge. Every couple who has been together for five, ten, twenty, thirty years or more (our 30th wedding anniversary was just last month) knows just how much of a struggle it is at times to make the sorts of adjustments required between two people as they develop and (hopefully) grow.

One of the things I’ve noticed about most of the people of faith I associate with is that, if they’re married, their spouses have the same fundamental understanding of God and religion as they do. That is, if the husband’s a Christian, chances are, so is the wife, and vice versa. Teresa and Ray MacBain have just entered the dubious club of intermarried couples.


So what does Ray MacBain do now? Does he go to church and leave his wife at home every Sunday? Does he go to the same church were his wife was a minister? If so, how does he deal with the inevitable gossip and tongue-wagging over his Teresa’s decision to leave the faith and her “coming out” as an atheist?

I haven’t listened to the audio interview (like most people, I can read a great deal faster than people can talk). I have briefly scanned some of the comments under the NPR story and saw the typical war of words between self-righteous atheists and self-righteous Christians. Does bashing each other really help? If an atheist wants the freedom of choice, why can’t I have that same right as a person of faith?

Here’s one of the more illuminating comments I read:

It bothers me to no end to see the intolerance and arrogance of my atheist friends who look down upon the faithful as if they’re second class muggles… just as it bothers me to watch the intolerance of the “faithful” Christian towards other beliefs or non-beliefs.

What I see are the human flaws of conceit and arrogance – people who think they know what’s “right” or what’s “best” for others, and have no room in their worldview for people with different viewpoints.

I sympathize with Teresa’s plight – I struggle with my faith. It saddens me that people seem more concerned with sticking it to their fellow human being than trying to find the best path to walk for themselves.

Alas, “intolerance and arrogance” are very human traits and not limited just to the religious or the irreligious.

As annoying as it is to be called a “sheep,” I guess it shouldn’t really surprise me. There’s nothing about being an atheist or an agnostic that should cause me to expect them to be good, bad, or indifferent. There’s not inherit moral code to not believing in God, so when someone says they’re an atheist, there’s no way I can know what exactly they’re going to say or do.

However,  I do have some sort of idea of what to expect from someone who says they are a disciple of Jesus. We are expected to take the higher moral road just because of who we are. That’s why it’s especially disappointing to see Christians making snarky comments to atheists (and I’m not immune) in an NPR online news story. If your life is supposed to be an example of how you have been changed by God, how is acting like a regular, “run-of-the-mill” human being accomplishing that?

Is that “God thing” working for you yet?

That’s what I see coming out of this news story, out of the comments, and out of the buzz about Christians vs. Atheists on the web. It’s not my faith in God I’m worried about, it’s my faith in people. On somewhat rare occasion, I meet a Christian who really deserves to be called by the name of the Master. I meet a person who is truly helpful, compassionate, charitable, kind, and loving to everyone they meet, not just the people they know and like. What really scares me is that the sort of person I’m describing is rare in religious circles. It’s even more scary that they might be more common among the atheists.

I know Christians reading what I just wrote are saying, “It doesn’t matter if an atheist is nicer than a Christian. The atheists are still going to hell.” Oh. It doesn’t matter?

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” –Matthew 25:31-46 (ESV)

Sure looks like it matters to me. More importantly, it sure looks like it matters to God.

I’m going to stop short of blaming “the church” for failing Teresa MacBain. We each negotiate our own relationship with God, so Teresa is just as responsible for her’s as I am for mine. However, if she had any lingering doubts about her decision, the various “bad attitude comments” from Christians in response to her “outing” herself probably sealed the deal.

Christians, Jews, Muslims, and most other religious people tend to be pretty judgmental, relative to the world around us. On the one hand, we do have a specific set or standards we feel we’re upholding, as opposed to an “anything goes” sort of world view. On the other hand, we tend to substitute judgment for compassion and “legalism” (yes, even Christians) for grace. Jesus was hammered verbally for hanging out with the low-lives of his day: prostitutes and tax-collectors (collaborators with the occupying Roman army). We’re kind of like the folks who judged Jesus. We judge and accuse and complain when a Christian hangs out with and is accepting of “low lives” such as gays, for example (a really big sin in the eyes of most Christians…much bigger than wife beating, bank robbery, and surfing porn on the web). We demand that Christians only hang out with other Christians and the split second someone tells us they have doubts about their faith, they are dead to us.

Man, do I make Christians sound bad. Almost like the way some atheists talk about us.

But if all of us were really practicing grace, and I think we can do this without compromising our principles and blending in to the moral structure of the secular world around us, I doubt if too many people would have a lot to complain about when Christianity was mentioned.

The church hasn’t failed Teresa MacBain, but a Christian fails every time he or she doesn’t show compassion for someone in pain, including someone who has struggled and even lost their faith. It is said the church is the only army that shoots its own wounded. I believe that. Teresa MacBain may never come back to faith in God and discipleship in Jesus, but if she wants to, and if she came to you about it, would you extend your hand in welcome or show her back out the door, not wanting to be tainted by a “low life?”

What are you supposed to learn from this experience about your conduct in the service of God today?


9 thoughts on “How Have We Failed?”

  1. ‘a Christian fails every time he or she doesn’t show compassion for someone in pain, including someone who has struggled and even lost their faith.’

    Your review is spot on, thank you for a wonderful post! Excellent choice of pictures, they speak as clearly as your words!

    It pains me every time I converse with someone who calls themselves ‘Christian’ but is more concerned about being right than they are about being righteous.

  2. Greetings and thank you for commenting, “plasso,” I have to admit, if my review is spot on, it means something tragic has happened among the body of believers. Sad.

  3. James, I just finished a book called “Why Do Christians shoot their wounded? Helping, not hurting, those with emotional difficulties” prior to reading the initial story before you had commented on your blog. I think that perhaps the book, as well as my experience with Christians who go through stages of serious doubt or a complete turn like this woman – colors my reaction to this.
    There are studies that recently came out that showed the ratio of believing vs non believing Christian Ministers – and I haven’t doubted that research considering my background as a military brat. (One such story here:

    I feel it is quite unfortunate that instead of being hospitals and schools for the needy, we are “saint factories” instead. Instead of being like AA and us being “recovering sinners” who get better, we’re “the epitomy of perfection” who have an us vs them mentality and we have people who hide their sins or emotional difficulties and religious struggles (for the most part) and are afraid to let people in, because of how persecuted they will be.

    We don’t extend grace to those who need a hand up and assistance – we kick them down and shoot them instead, or walk on the other side of the road.

    “We” being quite general and not specific to anyone. I have three fingers pointing back any time I point a finger. I’m as much at fault, particularly with the background I came from and my currently shifting paradigm.

    I do not believe that Pastor MacBain is at all an unusual spectacle – except that she admitted her fault. I am afraid for what will happen to her and her family now that she has admitted her difficulties. I wonder if she will have someone, anyone, mentor her, support her, and give her a hand up – or if others will simply scoff, say she never could have believed to begin with, and kick her down and shoot her – after all, she’s just like those “other” Samaritans (sinners).

  4. I agree, she’s probably not unusual, just better known, thanks to NPR. I also wonder if perhaps she would have talked to someone early on in your process of doubting if it would have made a difference? Maybe not, but you never can tell. The stigma that’s attached to doubting your faith in the church probably prevents a lot of people, especially the clergy, from going to someone and openly discussing their concerns.

    Not too long ago, I wrote a blog post called Questions You Can Never Ask in Church, which highlights the need for self-censorship when speaking within the body of believers. Ironically, the place where we should be able to be most relaxed and to share our feelings is the one place we can never talk “off script.”

  5. It has been my experience that most of the churches I have attended over the years have been artificial environments, with some rare and wonderful moments at certain fellowships being the exception to that unfortunate rule. I mention it just to point out that quite often it is easier to hide one’s real struggles and doubts in those artificial religious environments than it is in a smaller intimate fellowship where people spend time together as people and not just as place holders in a larger group setting.

    And then there is the confusion between confessing our faults to one another and elaborating on our past mistakes. The one is intended to bring healing by allowing others to extand mercy and grace, the other is often used as a way to try impress others with how bad they had been before returning to the fold.

    I don’t personally believe that we can study the scriptures we have without occasionally coming to a place of doubt or confusion about what is happening all around us. In fact, some of those same doubts are expressed in scripture by the prophets themselves. Jeremiah is an excellent example.

    When faith is used as a currency, doubt is considered to be poverty.

  6. “But if all of us were really practicing grace, and I think we can do this without compromising our principles and blending in to the moral structure of the secular world around us, I doubt if too many people would have a lot to complain about when Christianity was mentioned.”

    Spiritual maturity has alot to do with it. We all come into faith at different levels. I’m not afraid to say that I’m more toddler or preschooler. I’m sure many become so busy with life, that they don’t give enough time to their relationship with God and don’t seem to grow beyond the toddler level. Alot of us don’t fully comprehend what faith really is or what it’s supposed to look like. It bothers me to be around the immoral behavior now and feel like it is easy, and without realizing it, to gradually get right back into being the same person I was before, instead of being the changed person I’m supposed to be. (A type of fear and a sin I know) It’s hard to learn and grow beyond what a person allowed their life’s circumstances to condition into themselves for a long time. Exodus is a good example of that since Israelites had been conditioned to slavery for years and it was hard for them to get over that certain mentality that comes from it. You read how time and again Jews allowed themselves to be influenced by the world around them. You can tell a person to be in the world and not of it, but in reality it’s easier said than done.

  7. It has been my experience that most of the churches I have attended over the years have been artificial environments, with some rare and wonderful moments at certain fellowships being the exception to that unfortunate rule. I mention it just to point out that quite often it is easier to hide one’s real struggles and doubts in those artificial religious environments than it is in a smaller intimate fellowship where people spend time together as people and not just as place holders in a larger group setting.

    What that says to me, in the current context, is that the church has failed. The message to love in the Bible is unmistakable and love is not to be limited to our friends and relatives. It must be given freely to even our “enemies” or we aren’t really loving at all.

    Tomorrow’s “morning meditation” leaves Teresa MacBain behind for the most part, but I continue to try and illustrate the requirement for anyone who claims to follow the God of Abraham to love others. If Christians think they (we) can fail to love while retaining God’s love, they (we) are in for a shock.

  8. There is more than a little common agreement amongst the church-goers of the world that Yeshua plainly did away with the “eye for an eye, tooth for tooth” demands contained in the Torah of Moshe. But Yeshua said that if we do not forgive others, our Father in heaven would not forgive us. Sounds like a similar one to one relationship to me. One with greater magnitude and a far more devastating implication.

    As you say James, many are in for a rather unpleasant shock.

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