As a life-long atheist, it occurred to me recently that maybe I was missing out on something. Everyone else had something to do Sunday mornings. All I had was sleeping late, coffee, and giving up on the New York Times crossword puzzle after concluding that “skizbit” and “fromple” cannot possibly be the answers Will Shortz was looking for. Maybe I needed more, I don’t know—divinity—in my life. So, two minutes and a couple of mouse clicks later, I became an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church (www.ulc.org) of Modesto, California. Their website warns, “Silly submissions such as animals, plants, and cars are not recorded into the Church’s database.” So I immediately ordain my cat, ficus, and Buick Skylark.
My first order of business is to ensure that joining the clergy did not incite in me a desire to sodomize young boys. I scan myself for pedophilic urges. All clear.
My second task is to decide whether to order the ULC’s “Ministry in a Box” for $139. This puppy is crammed with all sorts of religious doodads: holy land incense, a Doctor of Divinity degree, a sainthood canonization document, a minister’s ID card, a ULC badge, a laminated clergy parking placard, and church bylaws and regulations. Although it is tempting to be canonized Saint Stephen, I remember Billy Joel’s wise counsel about laughing sinners and crying saints and decide to screw the paperwork. My ministry will be light on documentation.
Before you ask what good deeds I have done to merit this spiritual elevation, consider some of the things I have not done: unlike Pope Gregory IX, I never started a Spanish Inquisition; unlike Pope Urban VIII, I never imprisoned Galileo for saying the earth revolves around the Sun. I never burned anyone at the stake or started a Crusade. Seems to me these Popes set the bar for holiness pretty low.
Eager to put my theological credentials to use, I read my ordination message. It says, “Every rite is granted to you by the ULC to officiate and perform except circumcision.” I love that they feel it necessary to advise people that clicking a mouse does not qualify them to perform genital surgery on newborns. I can only assume this warning stems from a past incident. Foreskin, off-limits. I can live with that. But surely somebody around here must need a marriage officiated, a sermon, a baptism, or, if I’m lucky, an exorcism.
But before I start a-preachin’ I need the proper vestments. So I shoo Chaplain Tigger off my lap, water the Reverend Ficus, hop in the Minister Skylark and head off shopping.
I need an outfit that says, “this is a person you can trust with your innermost secrets and look to for sage guidance,” while at the same time saying, “this person believes there is an invisible, omnipotent, supernatural being in the sky, who, with the proper supplications, can be persuaded to affect the outcome of high school football games, while simultaneously maintaining a strictly hands-off policy with regard to epidemics, terrorism, and genocide.”
Basically, my look must strike a balance between caring and crazy.
At a vintage clothing store I hit pay dirt. I snag a hooded purple crushed velour robe, dress it up with some gold roping around the waist and a nifty multi-colored embroidered vest. One crucifix later and I’m done. I’m dressed, blessed, and ready to impress.
Time to tend to my flock. But first, I must actually gather a flock. I place an ad on Craigslist.org offering marriage officiating for $99. Two days later I get an email from David. He and his fiancée, Denise, “aren’t too religious, but want someone spiritual.” Ain’t that always the way? He asks for details about my services.
I tell him “my philosophy is that wedding services are too damn serious. My vows will draw inspiration from the ones Homer Simpson wrote, which began, ‘Do you Marge, take Homer, in richness and in poorness? Poorness is underlined. In impotence and potence? In quiet solitude, or blasting across the alkali flats in a jet-powered, monkey-navigated hovercraft.’ That’s my kind of ceremony!”
As a bonus, I throw in my “everlasting love guarantee: If I wed you and your marriage doesn’t last five years, I’ll refund your money!” What other minister can make that claim?
Amazingly, David emails me back and says, “that sounds like fun.” Luckily he doesn’t ask to see my credentials. He even pays up front.
Their ceremony is only three months away, those procrastinators. The night before the wedding I start writing their eternal vows, drawing inspiration from many sources: The Bible, TheOnion.com, a book of love poetry, the Farmer’s Almanac, fortune cookie slips I have amassed over the years, Tony Robbins’ Awaken the Giant Within, and some Hallmark greeting cards. Mine is an eclectic religion. I scrupulously avoid any quotations from The Prophet by Kahlil Gilbran. Is that guy overdone at weddings or what?
When I finally write the line, “By the power vested in me, I now pronounce you husband and wife,” I get goose bumps. It has been my lifelong dream to stand before a group and say those words. I want people to look at me in awe and think, “Wow, there goes a man with power vested in him.”
At the ceremony I decide I need some catchphrases, to toss at people as they pass by. I settle on “Shazam,” “God digs ya,” “Bless your guts out,” and the whispered “You’re God’s favorite.”
The ceremony goes surprisingly well. The guests laugh at the right places. I deliver the line, “If anyone objects to the union of these two people, let him speak now or forever hold his peace” and pause a good long time for dramatic effect while I scan the room, hoping a wild-eyed fellow will burst in screaming, “I object to this unholy union! The bride is still engaged to my brother, who is in a coma.” No such luck.
After the service I dole out handfuls of dried frijole beans to the kids and tell them to pelt the happy couple while shouting, “Holy Frijole!” My pious little disciples can’t wait to perform this religious rite and immediately bombard the mother of the bride. I brandish my crucifix in defense against her evil eye.
Later, one woman says my vows were the most interesting she’s ever heard, though she says “interesting” in the same euphemistic way we use to describe someone’s ghastly new haircut.
David and Denise make a cute couple and I wish them well as they depart for Antigua. I hope they stay married forever. Or at least five years.
Next on my agenda is to deliver a sermon. I enter a cinder-block strip mall church and introduce myself to the minister as an Archcardinal Deacon Missionary of the Universal Life Church. I ask him if I could be a special guest preacher one Sunday. He says he has never heard of the Universal Life Church. Where has this guy been? The ULC’s website claims over 20 million ordained ministers worldwide, meaning one out of every 325 people on the planet is a ULC minister. That suggests that there are at least 307 ULC ministers in my hometown of Burbank, California. I doubt his congregation has that many members. I bring him up to speed on how the Internet (you know, the thing that brings you kiddie porn, Reverend) lets anyone be a minister. He scoffs at this notion but invites me to join his church. I bless his guts out and leave. Speaking in tongues.
I go home and rethink my strategy. I need an audience less critical, more captive.
An hour later I arrive at a local nursing home. I pop in the TV room and find seven drooling geezers watching a test pattern. I kill the tube and work the room, making crosses, touching people’s foreheads, softly saying, “The power of Christ compels you. The power of Christ compels you.” Who says I can’t sneak in a little exorcism?
Next I feed them Ritz crackers faux-communion style. “Body of Christ?” I say. “Would you like some delicious body of Christ today? He tastes best with peanut butter.”
Then I begin my sermon. Unfortunately, my knowledge of scripture is right up there with my knowledge of Etruscan history. But I figure I’ve inadvertently heard a whole bunch of preaching on the radio. I’ve seen Elmer Gantry and The Apostle three times. Maybe I learned something by osmosis. Besides, preachers don’t make a whole lot of sense anyway. I think the key is to speak in a soothing, monotone voice with random bursts of emphasis.
What tumbles out of my mouth for the next five minutes sounds something like:
“And Moses said unto Noah, ‘go ye verily unto the seas and take the filthy beasts with ye.’ And God said that it was good. And Eve said that it was good. Hail the mighty Noah! Hear ye, hear ye, I sayeth unto you, thou art smaller than a pygmy shrew’s belly button lint compared to God’s humongous excellence. For God is neither a slob like one of us, nor a stranger on the bus. Hallelujah, Jesus Christ, ye art truly a superstar!”
If I got some of the details wrong, no one seems to notice. Some smile; a few clap. I take a bow, feed them more Christ and leave with a flourish, my robe billowing in my wake like a cape. Shazam!
Having come this far, I think if only I could perform a baptism, my ecclesiastical life would be complete. The ULC’s ordination message says that how I choose to practice my newfound religion is up to me. I convene my Council of Elders (friends Ralph and Mark) for advice. Soon a schism develops. One faction wants to baptize people using holy water balloons flung from the roof of my apartment building. Another faction wants to baptize people by flinging holy water balloons from a different apartment building. While both these rituals have their appeal, I think the Elders are excessively fixated on the kinetic possibilities of holy water. No, I need more face-to-face interaction with my parishioners. I decide to anoint an entire public swimming pool, perform a mass baptism of unsuspecting swimmers, then hand out certificates.
The next day I put my plan in motion. Wearing my robe and a ceremonial crown (graciously provided by Burger King), I stand at the lip of a city pool. I blow a whistle and issue the terse command, “Abracadabra, water be holy.”
When swimmers climb out I congratulate them on being baptized into the Universal Life Church and hand them their commemorative certificates. One convert is so dazed by the purifying effects of my baptismal that he cannot even muster the strength to hold the paper in his hand. It flutters to the cement after a few steps. Besides littering, other popular responses to baptism are “Is this a hidden camera show,” and “Fuck you.”
One non-believer tells me pool water can’t be used for a baptism. I silence her with: “Well, the earth is mostly a closed system, like a terrarium. The same water that existed eons ago is still here. So the water I baptized you with today may have been stegosaurus piss millions of years ago. If the water tasted funny that might be why.”
I must say, since my ordination, Sundays have become a lot busier and heaps of fun. There’s no telling what might happen. And my matrimonial services are in such high demand I had to double my price.
Undoubtedly some people will find my venture sacrilegious. To them I say, “Have you seen the churches that call themselves the ‘Church of Jesus Christ, Scientist?’ Now Jesus may have been many things, but to call him a scientist is to seriously pad his resume. In a world where Christ can be a scientist, why can’t an atheist be a minister?”
And while they ponder that, I run away before they burn me at the stake.
This essay originally appeared in somewhat different form in Urban Male, The American Rationalist, Freethinker, American Atheist, and Raven magazines.