And in all fairness to my atheist friend, this could also be titled, “How an Atheist Influenced a Church to Action”, but since I’m the author… well, you know. Now for the story!
Over the last couple of years, through blogging and Facebook, I’ve been enjoying a friendship with an atheist who lives in California. It’s been one of the most unexpected kinds of friendships, one that’s had its fair share of hot debates, as you can imagine. But also we’ve been able to nurture and respect one another, too.
Let’s be honest. Believers and atheists can get along… except when it comes to religion. It stems from the fact that each looks at the belief system of the other with sheer incredulity. It’s like this. The believer asks, “How can you be so blind to not see all the evidence of God? Are you that hard-hearted?” And the atheist asks, “How can you be so blind to all the evidence that crushes your fairy tale myths? Are you that dim-witted?” And on it goes.
I don’t know what my atheist friend might have garnered from me over these last couple of years, but speaking for myself, I have learned so many valuable things from him. If you listen to atheists and agnostics, they often level heavy critiques of religion and religious organizations that quite frankly ought to be just as alarming to religious people. If there’s an inconsistency, hypocrisy, a theological disparity, insincerity, or a failure to live up to what we say, they’re going to spot it a mile off and make some noise about it.
In that way, atheists and agnostics provide a healthy mirror for me. It’s challenging. I don’t always like or agree with what they point out. But I’d be a fool, and an arrogant fool at that, not to listen without being defensive.
So, in my recent conversations with my atheist friend, we got to talking about the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shootings. He was deeply upset that Christians only appeared to be praying and encouraging people to pray instead of getting up to do something about this tragedy. That’s a fair critique. I have seen believers get way too stuck in piety while avoiding the call to step up and serve in Christ’s name. As the biblical prophet Micah reminds us:
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:7-8)
My friend and I went back and forth on this for a bit, as we always do, and that’s when things got interesting. It was the Saturday after the shootings. My friend put a challenge to me. He told me that if I would motivate my congregation to do something for the Sandy Hook school community, more than just pray, he would do some kind of religious practice of my choice: read a religious book, say prayers, or go to church. I told him, you’re on.
I scrambled, but on that Sunday morning, we did indeed pray for the Newtown community. And then, at my friend’s strong encouragement, we distributed consolation and Christmas cards, encouraging my congregation to write a note of sympathy to someone from the Newtown community. All in all, we collected 108 cards and have since then shipped them off to Sandy Hook Elementary School. This was due in large part to the healthy challenge my atheist friend gave my church and me.
He was right. We needed to do more than just pray. We needed to embody the mercy, healing, and presence of God that we prayed for, allowing for God to work through us to become part of the answer to our own prayers. (It goes without saying that the theological import of that last phrase is mine, not his. My atheist friend would probably just say, “Get off your holy butts and do something!” Fair enough.)
Well, a bargain is a bargain, so I asked my friend to choose a church of his choice and visit there on a Sunday. Afterwards, I’m looking forward to a reflection from him on his experience. I have no idea what God will do with this in his life. That’s up to God and up to my friend. I’m trusting in God’s goodness and loving faithfulness to make the difference, but again, that’s between them.
I’d like to think that believers and atheists can actually help each other. I know that atheists can help believers be more “gospel”, more true to who and what we say we are and believe. Can believers help atheists to see the reality of God? I’d like to hope so. Jesus has some practical instruction on that:
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
Notice that it’s good deeds, not good words that bring praise to God. It’s an authentic life well-lived that shines, not religiosity. Perhaps that’s what will bring believers and atheists together into one peaceable kingdom.