Once a homeless meth addict … now the chaplain at an inner-city mission.
An overweight couch potato … now runs 5K’s.
A high school drop-out … now has a college degree and working toward a Masters.
People with the guts, motivation and inner character to make a complete 180 in their life are inspirational. I want to hear their stories for in them I find motivation for my own life struggles.
But a charismatic preacher turned atheist who now leads other atheists?
That’s not inspiring. Perhaps baffling or intriguing, but definitely not a story which would influence or encourage me to become someone better. In fact, after reading the NY Times online article about just such a pastor (who oddly enough used to be an acquaintance of one of my former college friends), I was left with far more questions than anything else.
What could possibly cause a pastor to leave his church and so completely abandon his faith in God that he becomes an atheist? Why would this atheist now want to start conducting meetings similar to church services for atheists? And why on earth would an atheist want to attend anything remotely like a church service anyway?
The article did spark some lively lunchtime conversation though. Jon and I bantered around ideas about what sorts of things might happen in an atheist “church.” Somehow Jon, Joel and Nathan began to make up songs which might be sung, such as “I’m a god, you’re a god, wouldn’t you like to be a god too” to the old Dr. Pepper commercial tune.
Later, once the joking stopped, our questions and thoughts turned more serious. Abandoning faith is not a pleasant thought for any Christian. It’s like divorce, only from God and not from another human. And trust me on this because I’ve been there … no matter how bad the relationship or what Biblical reason you might have, divorce from a human you once professed to love is hard on the heart and soul. I can’t imagine how much worse it would be to divorce one’s self from God Almighty, especially if your life was once devoted to sharing His love with others.
As we continued to talk more in depth about the idea of losing one’s faith, Jon brought up Job, the man from Uz who was blessed immensely by God and then lost everything he had in the span of a single day. All of his children, all of his wealth … gone in an instant. Yet his faith didn’t waiver. In fact, it is recorded in Job 1:20 that he “fell to the ground in worship.” Not long after this, Job lost his health as well. When his wife suggested he should “curse God and die,” Job responded, “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?” (Job 2:9-10)
As we talked, I shared how the story of how the old hymn It Is Well With My Soul came to be written. Horatio and Anna Spafford were happy. Life had treated them well: five children, Horatio’s thriving law practices, lots of investments in real estate around the Chicago area, wealthy even by American standards. But in 1870, the Spafford’s charmed life fell apart. Their only son died of scarlett fever at the age of four. In 1871, Horatio lost much of his real estate investments in the Great Chicago Fire. But he didn’t lose faith in his Savior. In fact, the Spaffords made plans to join the great evangelist Dwight L. Moody on a revival tour in Europe. When it came time to set sail for Europe, Horatio sent his wife and four girls ahead, planning to follow on a different ship a few days later after attending to some business that could not be neglected. Unfortunately, the ship carrying his family across the Atlantic was struck by a British steamer and sank in just 12 short minutes. All four of his daughters drowned. His wife was one of the few passengers to survive the ordeal. A few weeks later, Horatio made his way across the Atlantic to join his grief-stricken wife. As his ship crossed over the location of the tragic sinking, Horatio retired to his cabin and penned the words:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way; When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say: It is well, it is well with my soul.
We sat in silence for a few moments, pondering the faith of men like Job and Horatio Spafford, who had it all, lost it all, and never truly lost faith in God. And then, Jon asked:
“Do you think there is anything you could lose that would make you lose all faith in God?”
Nathan (who is 11 yrs old) immediately replied, “Well, maybe something like losing my mind … if that happened, I’d probably lose my faith because I just wouldn’t remember anymore.”
I didn’t quite know how to respond to his comment, but I knew I didn’t like it. The very idea of being able to lose my faith for any reason is unsettling, but especially for a reason that I can’t control such as losing my mind … well, it is almost more than I can stand to think about. My thoughts went to my grandmother, whose life of faith has a strong influence upon my life. She suffered from Alzheimer’s for 10 years, ever so slowly slipping away, her mind gone long before her body.
Just last week, I visited with my grandfather, the two of us spending some time remembering my grandmother and her particular love of singing hymns of praise, not just at church but as she went about her daily activities as well. I told Papaw how that even now, seven years after her death, whenever I think of the words to a hymn or play the notes to an old church song on my piano, I hear the sound of my grandmother’s rich alto voice singing the words in my head. “I supposed it will always be that way,” I commented.
Papaw nodded, looking out the window for a moment or two. Then, he spoke, sharing with me how in the last couple of years of her life, when my grandmother no longer recognized him and rarely spoke audibly at all, she never forgot the words to the hymns she had love to sing in worship. He said, with a wistful smile, “Every Sunday afternoon I would take your grandmother down to the church service in the nursing home, and I never once knew her not to sing along to the hymns … and she always knew the words. That was something she never forgot.”
She never forgot.
I pondered those words, remembering my grandmother, her strong faith before the Alzheimer’s took away her mind, her voice singing hymns even when she couldn’t remember my grandfather. She never forgot because she never lost her faith in God. She never lost her faith because it was real in her heart.
So why did the pastor turn his back on his church, abandon his faith in God, and become an atheist … the very antithesis of the man he used to be? What caused him to lose his faith?
Well, I can’t say what life events might have occurred to spark such a change of heart, but I do know what the Bible has to say situations like this:
Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they heart it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. Luke 8:13
No, Nathan … nothing — not even losing your mind — will cause you to lose your faith in God, if your faith is real and rooted in Christ.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, no any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39