An Atheist, Pastors, and the Presence of God’s Spirit Between Us

This is the gist of a post I offered on Facebook last week. I found out some details from my encounter with this wonderful woman so I felt was worth deepening the conversation. This the 1st in a 2-part series. 

Last week I had the honor and pleasure of speaking at the state convention for the Virginia Association of Housing Counselors. Filling the conference center are men and women who tirelessly work to bring hope to the hopeless, all in their own specific way. They are social services workers, unsung heroes in every city in the commonwealth of Virginia.

I met a wonderful woman. She selflessly works to help families in poverty rise out together. She works to help single mothers raise their children well. She works to help wayward fathers stay the course and be a daddy for their children. She works to help abused and abandoned children find healthy homes. She not only “preaches” this way of being human in society, she practices it. She has adopted several children herself. She fosters others. She models the life she preaches. Consequently, she has asked local churches to join her in this work of redemptive love. But many won’t. Why? Because this woman, this lover of orphans and people oppressed by poverty is a self-proclaimed atheist.

Instead of pastors listening to her story; instead of pastors humbly bearing witness to how love is being worked out for those Jesus called the “least of these” in her life, they set their sights on converting her away from atheism. Somehow these very well-meaning and sincere pastors, of which I am one, are so driven by their agenda, of which I too have been, are missing a glimpse of the Jesus they bear witness to each week. Perhaps they do not expect to find his love reflected in the life of an atheist they miss what his love looks like with skin on. Having eyes they do not see; having ears they do not hear. And sadly having able hands and feet, they do not join God in his work of redemptive love and hope at work in and through the life of this atheist.

She heard me speak. She was forced to be there because she was the time-keeper. I wondered shy at first she was a bit defensive toward me. After my presentation she told me all about her struggle, hurt and disappointment. She used to be a christian. Now she is not and no longer wonders why. She was gracious and kind toward me after the presentation. She was grateful that there are pastors willing to lead people of faith to engage the city as a people of hospitality working to make hope and love tangible to all; to practice what we preach. Then she asked me how she, an atheist, could simply be welcomed by a pastor long enough that he or she would be willing to hear the stories she longs to tell so they could join her in this work.

Not knowing what to say, I apologized to her. On behalf of all pastors she has ever encountered I apologized that she was treated like a project to be fixed or a problem to be solved. I apologized that we as pastors are often blinded by our own agendas. We do not mean to hurt or harm or marginalize. We are imperfect people driven by a deep belief in a Lord who has charged us with a sense of urgency with a gospel, good news, that requires more than lips that proclaim and requires lives the welcome and demonstrate love. As a result we often miss the One called “the Friend of Sinners” who still befriends us as sinners, and we inadvertently hurt and harm and marginalize others. I reminded her that many of simply fail to be loving and gracious and welcoming like our Jesus, and that Jesus is so much more loving, gracious and welcoming than what we often demonstrate to others. For all of this I had to apologize.

She said thank you.

Then I reminded her that there are pastors and faith communities more than willing and desperately wanting to welcome those for whom she labors. I reminded her that there are pastors and faith communities willing to simply love and welcome her, just as she is. She thanked me. I reminded her that I am not the one deserving of thanks. She is.

So I thanked her.

She knows she needs help to bring hope and life to the broken in her community. She knows that the people she should be able to call are those who proclaim to be the people of God. She wants to, despite the way she has been treated. Her love for the poor and orphans is more important than her own personal feelings. I invited her to read Matthew 25:31 and on, which she did. She liked it. I reminded her that no matter what she or I thinks about the divinity of Jesus, the truth between us is his love for the least of these. I told her that she models this kind of love. She agreed. I invited her to gently remind pastors that this is the truth between them. She said she would. She will press on. She is no longer a hero to her city, she is a sort-of prophet to God’s people. May we listen.

My heart ached for her. My heart aches for God’s people who fail to truly ache for those for whom this wonderful woman aches. Yet my heart rejoices for her and how she taught me. My heart rejoices that God is at work among us, despite his people, and longs to be found in unexpected places.

Say what you will, but this dear wonderful woman, this atheist, looked a lot like Jesus to me.

I pray that God’s people will continue to awaken to the presence of Christ working between us and others. I pray that we as pastors will humbly re-posture our hearts to be a people of hospitality, willing to listen, welcome and walk alongside those bearing witness to love and hope to the unloved and hopeless.

Friends, God is at work in your cities. Join him there. Trust that you will find him at work in unexpected places through the lives of unexpected people. And when you welcome and embrace all others as you have been welcomed and embraced in Christ, you may one day have the opportunity to bear witness to the presence of the Spirit of Christ between you.

I found out later from good friend that she overheard this wonderful woman saying that though she is an atheist she would “go to a church that showed compassion like that.”
God’s Spirit was working between us that day. May he continue to bless that wonderful woman. She and I committed to stay in touch. May he continue to work between us and raise up his people to join in.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Hope, Gracious Hospitality, Friendship & Love.

I need you to see something:

friend2.jpg

Do you see it? How about here:

give Local 757 copy.003

Do you see now? How about here:

car 2.jpg

It looks like hope, doesn’t it? It looks a lot like hospitality, welcoming and embracing the stranger with the welcoming embrace of Christ. If you look hard enough you can see friendship, even love, as God’s people followed Jesus into their suffering and joined them there. Now together they’re following Him to wholeness; to peace.

The houses they live in, the new relationships they’re forming, the hope they’re feeling, the healing they’re experiencing, all are tangible signs of the the reign of God breaking into their lives. And it’s beautiful to witness, isn’t it?

But they aren’t the only ones being changed. Look here:

gregjennings.jpg

And here:

adam.jpg

Please know this isn’t simply about 3e Restoration.

It’s about gracious hospitality. It’s about God’s people extending His welcome to others living in the margins underneath bridges, in tents, or crammed in 13′ x 25′ hotel rooms with six children, and bearing witness to the presence of the risen Christ among us. 

You could say it’s about remembering that if God has proven anything in the person of Jesus it’s that no one should be abandoned, even if it’s of their own making. Because while we were still sinners God refused to abandoned us. 

People living in homelessness or poverty aren’t “problems” to be solved or projects to be “fixed;” they are people to be joined with. May we refuse to abandon them and choose to see them, and extend the same welcoming embrace we receive from God in Christ.

They aren’t lost on Him. Don’t let them be lost on us.

Posted in Christian living, Social Justice, Theology | 2 Comments

Childlike Faith

The longer we live the more we witness suffering, violence, injustice and all other sorts of problems prevalent in a world formed by systems of anxiety, exclusivism, coercion, and fears of scarcity. Others tell us that this is the way the world works and if you want to make it, you better live accordingly and not be idealistic or naive. We start to believe it and slowly begin mistaking cynicism for maturity and apathy for wisdom. 

Then, we hear Jesus call us to childlike faith but we are unable to imagine a world where enemies can be forgiven, loved or prayed for, so we submit to anxiety-driven violence. We are unable to imagine a society where those who look different or believe in a set of values opposed to our own can be welcomed and understood, so we exclude them and find ways to justify ourselves. We are unable to imagine a society where we treat others as we would be treated, so we jockey for position or power over another, or worse, tear down others as we cling to our “rights,” or take what isn’t ours in the name of preserving our “way of life” or maintaining “national interests.” Consequently, Christ-followers begin living as if this way of life has the final word and left incapable of imagining a world where it’s possible to submit to and demonstrate the reign of the crucified and risen Lord. Tragically, many of us do not see, can not see, or refuse to see this to be true.

childlike1Perhaps this is why Jesus calls us to welcome the reign of God into our lives like little children. I believe he is inviting his people to believe foolishly in a world of new possibilities. He invites us to envision a world where we believe resurrection is possible because we believe God is actively at work in, between and among us. He invites us to believe that the power of self-giving love can turn enemies into friends, that the excluded can be included and neighbors cared for because true compassion can move us toward mutual understanding in spite of disagreement. The crucified and risen King Jesus invites us to believe that the last can be first, the meek can inherit the earth, and self-giving love always ultimately wins. But to believe any of it, to embrace any of the Lord’s description of this kingdom that is and is to come, we must shake off our cynicism and choose to believe again.

As a people of the resurrection we must allow God to form within us childlike faith.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Christ, Christianity, Donald Trump and Me

This morning in my devotional reading I was reminded of the truth-telling ministry of John the Baptist. He didn’t hesitate to enter into ethical debates, whether it was calling his hearers to humble generosity or religious leaders to repentance. What strikes me the most is how John didn’t hesitate to call Tetrarch Herod Antipas to repentance. John’s concern wasn’t the Ruler’s legislative policies for Galilee, it was his immoral character. John’s desire to see righteous and godly character in the lives of those who claimed righteousness and godliness had no boundaries. Right is right, wrong is wrong, unjust is unjust, immoral is immoral. John longed for truth and for all to know God’s goodness and righteousness and he wasn’t afraid to call out anyone, even a politician. Of course, it landed him in prison and ultimately cost him his head (read Mark 6, Matthew 14, Luke 3).

Church and State

As a pastor I’ve always felt it was wise to stay out of party-political discourse in public venues. I’ve made it my aim never to post something on Facebook or a blog that would marginalize members of my own faith community or my local neighbors. I would rather keep it local and face to face. I prefer to have hard conversations across tables or over coffee where non-verbals can be seen and voice inflections heard. For those who read my posts you know that there are times where I speak out on justice issues. I’ve long been an activist for restorative justice, poverty alleviation and human rights. My faith has shaped me in this way and has informed my ministry. But I have never posted, reposted or shared any thing that so much as hinted American party politics.

Today John the Baptist convicted me a bit. After all, following Jesus looks like something. So I offer this not as a pastor, but as a Christ-follower (and please forgive my lack of literary eloquence).

In Christianity there are certain ethics that must be embraced. Imagine if, on public television or in a gathering of people, I made fun of a man’s physical disability. Imagine if I made a public comment about a woman, one we all know, referencing her menstrual cycle because I thought she publicly hurt my feelings. Imagine if I publicly proclaimed, “Yes, I am a christian but I have never asked God for forgiveness.”

What would you think? Would you love me enough to speak into my life or would you let it go? Would you say to me, “Fred, how can you be a Christian, much less a pastor, and never ask God for forgiveness? How can you publicly mock a man’s disability or make comments like that toward a woman (or women) and think that’s okay? Isn’t that reason enough to ask God for forgiveness, followed by asking them for forgiveness?” Wouldn’t you conclude, whether privately or openly, “Fred’s words and actions are not recognizable in Jesus’ teaching and way of life, much less in the ethics of Christianity.” You would be right to say so because Jesus once said, “by their fruits you will recognize them.”

I really wish it were easier to see the Christ in Donald Trump’s Christianity. I really do. But I can’t recognize it by the “fruit.” My heart aches over this, not because I want to vote for him but because he believes he can confess Jesus as Lord and not take Jesus’ Lordship seriously enough to repent. Therein lies the problem. To believe that we can somehow be “good enough” is contrary to the gospel–the good news–Jesus offers!

The most basic belief behind Christianity is that we need the Christ. Yet when someone publicly claims to be a Christian while professing that he has never asked God for forgiveness, well, that is to make an utterly unrecognizable claim of Christianity. It bears witness to a version of the christian faith that isn’t Christianity at all (Lord knows we, the Church, have already done enough of that). In its most practical sense, without repentance we’re left to be self-determinative as to what is right, wrong, just, kind and moral. Without repentance the fruit we bear will inevitably look like making fun of a disabled man, shaming women, making racially charged statements, being hostile toward others, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions–what the apostle Paul called “works of the flesh.”

I am well aware that I’m a jacked-up man. Anyone who knows me can tell you as much. There are times when I find myself reaching back to my old way of life to take hold of anger, hostility and selfish ambition. But it is the Lordship and love of Christ that gets my attention. It is the kindness of God that leads me to repentance, to ask for forgiveness from both God and those I have wronged (no doubt I have had to do this with some of you reading this post). I am called to repentance because I follow Someone who shows me what love looks like, what it means to be truly human and live under the loving reign of holy God. It is God’s kindness to us in Jesus that calls me to a different way of being and doing. I see it when Jesus proves that He would rather die for enemies than kill them; to forgive rather than hate; to heal the disabled rather than mock them; to welcome those hostile toward him rather than dismiss them. Then I hear him tell His followers to learn what it means to do the same. I stumble. I fall. I fail. But by his grace I am called to get back up and follow in the assurance of his redemptive love. And every now and then, hopefully more times than not, you will recognize glimpses of Jesus in my actions. This has to be important to me because Jesus said that it was by our fruit others will recognize that we are christians.

Admittedly I am confounded and confused as to how christians are so easily running to Donald Trump. The narrative being written in the public eye bears witness to an unrecognizable form of Christianity as Mr. Trump blatantly puts forward a christianity that is far from Christ. Moral statements and ethics aside (which really can’t be set aside, but for sake of argument), at the very least can you be a Christian if you’re unwilling to admit you need the Christ of Christianity?

“‘I am not sure I have,’ Trump said when asked if he’d ever asked God for forgiveness. ‘I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so,” he said. “I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.'” (read here for the full article)

This statement alone makes Mr. Trump far different from his competitors, and I genuinely hurt for the man.

I want to be very clear and open. I believe Donald Trump’s behavior, ethics and claims are unconscionable. Personally, I believe he is wholly unworthy of leadership and public influence (I agree with the sentiments of Max Lucado’s post). I want you to feel free to disagree. The greater issue here, however, is how Mr. Trump’s witness has reminded me of how skewed christianity has become in these United States. It’s tragic and frustrating. Yet, Mr. Trump’s life put on display, with all the vitriol and division he has purposefully orchestrated, has also reminded me that no one is beyond redemption–no one is outside the reach of God’s grace. But living in light of God’s grace must look like something, and what Donald Trump has put on display does not.

More than anything I want Donald Trump to know the One he claims to know. This weekend I was convicted by Scripture to pray for him (at the risk of sounding terribly cliche). “The Lord is good to everyone and his compassion rests on all he has made,” the psalmist reminds me. More than votes Donald Trump needs prayer, so that his public life will begin looking more like his confession.

The same can be said for my life too. May it be so.

 

 

Posted in Christian living, Church | 4 Comments

Advent Love: For God so Loved and He Can’t Stop

adpslide4.5adpslide4.6

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Advent Love: Jesus is What God has to Say About Love

adpslide4.1adpslide4.2

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Advent Love: God’s Stubborn Love

adpslide4.3adpslide4.4

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment