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.

About Fred

I am a follower of Jesus, the husband to Alison Glenn, daddy to my little man Ian. I am a son, brother, friend, bi-vocational pastor of Williamsburg Christian Church, ethnographer, activist and justice seeker, founder and president of 3e Restoration Inc, adjunct professor at Regent University, and mission specialist of church renewal with Mission Alive. I received my B.S. in Ministry/Bible at Amridge University and my Masters of Religious Education in Missional Leadership (MREML) from Rochester College. I am currently working toward my Doctorate of Ministry in Contextual Theology at Northern Seminary.
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4 Responses to An Atheist, Pastors, and the Presence of God’s Spirit Between Us

  1. Beautiful. Thanks.

  2. Erik says:

    I look forward to Part 2 bro!

    So many times I’ve seen in our city the rebuke of Christians saying they won’t drive the public transit bus because it has an atheistic or homosexual banner on it, or they rebuke the local JW’s at the door. It stirs the conversation as I raise the question, “Wouldn’t Jesus drive that bus?!”

    Such is the call you and I face brother. Thanks for “driving the bus” with me!! 😉

  3. Steve Koziol says:

    Fred,
    This was/is terrific, and you dealt beautifully with a subject that needs to be addressed. I suspect that the woman is not so much atheistic as she is turning her back to God out of anger, frustration, loss (“Where is God?”), etc. And I believe that the Spirit is actively working in her, despite her protests! I love the gentle way you steered her to a passage in the Word that would speak to her heart.
    I look forward to Part 2.

    Steve K.

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