“Actually, we’re Atheists”

atheist_eflf1dNote: This is another of my letters to my congregation, now shared with you, the members of my “blogregation.”

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On Tuesday I invited a stranger to church.

Lynn Turner and I were driving out to the Far West End to take communion to one of our members and we stopped for a quick bite of lunch along the way. There was a woman sitting at a nearby table with her young son, a little boy who couldn’t have been more than two. She was helping him eat his lunch, talking to him and smiling at him throughout the meal. I could see them out of the corner of my eye and I kept having this feeling that I should invite them to church. Do you ever have those feelings? I couldn’t tell if it was a nudge from the Holy Spirit or not, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. I could imagine this woman and her son fitting into our life together at First Baptist beautifully.

So, when I finished my meal I got up and walked over to their table, pulled up a chair and sat down. I’m not sure I would have done it if Lynn hadn’t been with me. This is an aside, but there’s something about having someone with me who knows me and will still speak to me even if I make a fool of myself that makes me bold. I’m almost sure that’s why Jesus sent his disciples out two by two, and why Paul always took Barnabas or Silas or Timothy along with him.

But back to the story:

I said, “Excuse me for interrupting, but I saw you here with your little boy and wondered if you go to church anywhere.”

She said, “Oh, we’re not Christian.”

I said, “Oh! Okay. Well, I’m a pastor and we have so many good programs for children at our church I just wanted to invite you, you know, if you didn’t already have a place to go.”

She said, “Actually, we’re atheists.”

And I hadn’t heard that before. I mean, I hadn’t heard a young mother blurt it out in the middle of Panera Bread like that: “We’re atheists.” Talk about boldness!

In some of my recent sermons I’ve mentioned the “Nones”: the growing number of people in America who claim to have no religious faith. That number has climbed from 16% in 2008 to more than 26% currently. Some surveys put it higher than that. It’s only a guess, but I’m guessing that in the same way people have gotten more and more comfortable with skipping church over the last thirty years, and taking their kids to Sunday morning soccer games instead, people will get more and more comfortable with saying out loud, in public places, “We’re atheists!” It may even become fashionable to have no faith. People might start wearing pins on their lapels or putting bumper stickers on their cars to let you know before you even ask, “I’m not interested in your religion.”

But I found myself interested in this woman’s lack of religion.

I said, “I didn’t mean to bother you. I just wanted to invite you to church. But I wish we had time to talk. I’d love to hear your story.” And I could almost see the wheels turning in her brain, thinking, “Yeah, right. You just want to convert me to Christianity.” So I added, “I wouldn’t try to convert you!”

I don’t think I would. I’m naturally curious about people. I love finding out what makes them tick. I would love to know how this woman ended up with no faith at all. But I’m pretty sure that if we had that conversation I would end up telling her my story, and how I couldn’t live without my faith. And if at the end all that she said, “I want what you have,” I wouldn’t withhold it.

I think that’s what you call “sharing” your faith. It’s different from trying to convert people. This verse from 1 Peter sums it up nicely: “Always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks you about the hope you have. Be ready to give the reason for it. But do it gently and with respect” (1 Peter 3:15, NIRV).

I think I was both gentle and respectful to that woman at Panera Bread, but I haven’t stopped thinking about her and her blunt confession: “We’re atheists.” When I think of her I pray for her, and I hope you will, too. Not so much that she would be converted to Christianity and come to our church, but that she would know the love of God and feel it so deeply she could no longer deny:

“God is real.”

I’m praying for you today, and praying that you, too, would know the love of God and feel it deeply.

Jim

How Much Longer?

Three AmigosThe Grand Canyon was every bit as grand as I remembered from the last time I visited, and moreso, because this time I hiked down to the bottom and back, spending four sunny days (and three chilly nights) immersing myself in the Canyon’s majesty at a snail’s pace and at arm’s length.

My brother-in-law, Chuck (at right in the picture above), and I have been hiking together since October, 1980, which makes this our 39th year.  Joe (at left), another friend from college, joined us about 20 years ago on our annual, week-long backpacking adventures.  But here’s something I think we all noticed on this trip:

We’re not getting any younger.

I felt it on that last day, climbing up out of the Canyon, a 3,000-foot change in elevation that was nearly straight up.  On the way to the airport the next day I asked, “How much longer do you think we’re going to be able to do this?”

We’ve talked about it before, especially last year when Chuck had to have back surgery.  We know there will come a time when none of us will be able to shoulder a 50-pound pack and hike ten miles in the mountains.  On this trip we talked about the possibility of doing more base-camping and day-hiking in the future, but none of us seemed shocked by the idea that we might have to make some adjustments, and here’s why:

I’m a pastor, Chuck is an Episcopal priest, and Joe is a hospital chaplain.

Almost every day we spend time with people who are further down this trail than we are. In a recent 24-hour period I visited with a woman who is dying, a man who is recovering from surgery, a child who wanted to know about life after death, and a woman who has had to accept the fact that she cannot walk without a cane.  Mortality is all around us. We deal with it every day. We know we aren’t getting younger and stronger because most of the people we minister to aren’t either.

There’s something comforting about that, and I hope it will stay with me when I realize I’ve taken my last backpacking trip, or when I come to the place that I can’t walk without a cane, or when I’m lying on my own death bed.  I’d love to be able to say, “I’ve seen all this before! This is how it goes!” without feeling any bitterness, any remorse.

And there is a part of me—that adventure-loving part of me—that knows what comes next is the greatest adventure of all, one that will make the Grand Canyon look like a hole in the ground by comparison. I want to live with the kind of appreciation, and acceptance, and unshakable faith that will cause me to look forward to that day even though (as Chuck often reminds me),

“There’s no hurry.”