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

A few weeks ago I was given the honor of speaking at the state convention for housing counselors and social services professionals. The conference center was filled with men and women who work tirelessly to bring hope to the hopeless, all in their own specific way. They are social services workers, unsung heroes in every city of every state in these United States.

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 practices the life she preaches. She has asked local churches to join her in this work of restorative love. But many won’t. Why? Because this woman, this lover of orphans and people oppressed by poverty is a self-proclaimed atheist.

Pastor’s Agenda or Jesus Agenda?

Instead of pastors listening to her story and humbly bearing witness to how love is being worked out in her life for those Jesus called the “least of these,” 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, and are missing a glimpse of the Jesus they bear witness to each Sunday. Perhaps they do not expect to find his love reflected in the life of an atheist and miss what his love looks like with skin on. Having eyes they do not see; having ears they do not hear. Sadly having able hands and feet, they do not join God in his work of restorative love and hope at work in the life of this atheist.

She heard me speak. She was forced to be there because she was the time-keeper. I wondered why 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.

Starting With an Apology

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 rather than a person to be welcomed. I apologized that we as pastors are often blinded by our own agendas. We do not mean to hurt, harm or marginalize. We are imperfect people driven by a genuine sense of urgency that causes us to treat others less like fellow humans and more like eternal souls. As a result we miss the One called “the Friend of Sinners” who still welcomes sinners as friends. I shared with her that many of us simply fail to be loving, gracious and welcoming like Jesus, and that he is 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. Our sense of urgency that causes us to miss the One called “the Friend of Sinners” Click To Tweet

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 think 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’s Spirit is at work all around us, despite his people, and longs to be found in unexpected places.

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

I found out later from the board member who invited me to speak that she overheard this wonderful woman tell a fellow board member 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.