Wednesday, February 26, 2014
Not really athiests or agnostics. . .
Though they call themselves atheists or agnostics, I call them simply folks who are angry at God. It may have been a childhood trouble or tragedy or a family issue or a personal crisis. Whatever the source of the anger, they are not unbelievers but are angry with God, angry with the Church, and angry at the Pastors and people of the Church. In their anger, they say they have surrendered their belief but the truth is their faith is often very intense -- as intense as their anger and resentment against God or one of His agents.
One of the lessons of Clint Eastwood's movie Gran Torino is that people cannot be written off as unbelievers simply because they are rude, crude, or angry. There are many folks like this. Some of them are still on the membership rolls of the parish I serve. Their distance from the Church is one of the ways they manifest their anger to God and punish Him for the sins they believe He has committed against them (or the sins others have committed in His name).
Somebody said once that it takes an hour to bring into the life of the Church a new person and forty hours to reclaim someone who has gotten angry and dropped out. A fair enough proportion, in my estimation. It IS easier to gather new into the flock than to reclaim the wanderer who wants both to be away from the flock and noticed at the same time. I will admit that I have few ideas on how to reclaim the angry. A few have returned over the years but the vast majority die angry. Some will find another church home but many of those tend to take their anger with them and they do not make for easy or good members. In the end the question remains what to do with them.
I have learned simply to let them be angry. Sometimes they want to be heard (more often when their anger is directed to the Pastor or people of the Church) but many of them don't want to tell their story. They have learned to live with the discontent of their anger and some of them don't know how to live without their grudge against God and His Church.
Often I tell people that better folks than them have been angry with God (Moses might be an example) and God survived. So don't worry about God making it -- He will -- but will you. It does not have a great track record of working but I refuse to be God's apologist or to gaze into the crystal ball of their past and decide what God was doing when He let their sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives, moms, and dads die, get sick, lose their jobs, divorce, become addicts, or whatever. In the end, even nice and tidy little explanations do not bring comfort to the old wounds of our bitter discontent. But I do like calling them out from their hiding place of atheism or agnosticism. They do believe and that is why they are so miserable. They cannot reconcile faith with suffering. In this way Job's question and circumstance remain one of the most important issues for the Church and Christians today (even those who insist they no longer believe).
The answer to their suffering is that God has suffered for, with, on behalf of us sinners. The answer to their suffering is that God is at work even through our own suffering. But it is not a neat and tidy little answer that distances us from hurt or pain. In fact, we are told to expect suffering (the way the world treated Christ is not going to change for those who are Christ's). More than that, we are told that this suffering has a purpose and a plan in the life of those who take up their cross and follow Him.
In the end, some of those hiding behind a seeming lack of care or concern for God and the things of God already know this. And that is the further source of their dilemma. The response of the Christian is simply faith. Faith in the midst of suffering, sorrow, and struggle. Faith that may never see an explanation or relief for the pains we endure. Faith that clings to the suffering that redeems from their suffering all who believe in Him.
Maybe you know some folks like this... and are as frustrated as I have been in trying to reclaim them to the flock... If it is any comfort to you, I do not believe that God is finished with them nor do I believe that they are finished with God. My greatest prayer is that they will come to a moment when they can trust again and that this will be enough to restore them to the assembly of those who gather around the Word and Table of the Lord... whether I live to see it or not...