Perhaps he didn’t know it, but that’s not the right thing to say at a church group. You know that, right? You’re supposed to talk about how meaningless and hopeless and terrible it is to be an atheist. But for Paul, who’s now been following Jesus for 25 years, it’s the plain truth that those were great years for him.
And people loved it. They loved it because it was honest. They loved it because it’s his story, and they respect Paul. And they loved it because, for so many of them, it’s their story, too.
After Paul’s 9 minute ‘story of my life,’ we broke into groups to talk about where it connected with us. One neighbor at my table shared how he’s really thinking about becoming a Christian and that Paul gave him a picture of what it looks like to value the journey he’s been on while still moving forward.
A gal at our table followed that with, “I’m not on a spiritual journey.” I pressed her and pointed out that I know she thinks about God and that she walks over to my home regularly to talk about these things. “Yeah, but that doesn’t mean I’m on a spiritual journey. It just means I take occasional day trips!” We all had a good laugh at that. Then a couple more neighbors, one Christian and one agnostic, both shared their stories. Not a bad table conversation for a Thursday evening!
Later that night it struck me that this is how I want to live. I want to make sure there’s safe space around me for people to go at their own pace on their own journeys (even if that just means day trips!).
That same night, one of my other neighbors summed it up best. Addressing the whole group (which was a motley crew of over 30 adults and kids) she started to cry as she shared. “I just want to say thank you to all of you. This is the first time I’ve been in a community of people who let me be me. And I can’t believe how much joy you all have. It’s really inspiring.”
What made her comments so precious to me was that the first time I met her, six months ago, she told me she was an atheist and asked (skeptically) if she would be welcome in our church. My response: “Of course! If you’d like, I’ll get you a seat next to some of the other atheists.” Since then she’s transitioned from her active atheism to more of a searching agnosticism, and she’s even considered following Jesus and being baptized.
I never had much of an atheist period in my own spiritual journey, but I can say that travelling along with these friends and neighbors has made for some of the best years of my life.