Twice in the last week, at the same stoplight, I have found myself behind the same car with a bumper sticker that says, “God does not believe in atheists.” I’m sure whoever stuck it there did it to be funny and somehow thought provoking. Who knows? Maybe, this is what passes for evangelism these days in evangelical circles. I find it offensive, a slander against God; and I have evidence that it is not true.
About twenty years ago, it was a Wednesday. We used to serve on Wednesday nights in Phila. I led a Bible study in Graterford Prison in the afternoon, Bethann would make the soup and we would go down in Joannie B’s van. Different people would make sandwiches. There were four of us guys who would go down. It was like clockwork. We arrived at JFK Plaza at 7pm. This Wednesday, everything fell apart. Bethann had to go somewhere with the girls or fill in at work, so could not make soup. The usual sandwich makers all called me, one by one, with car trouble, or schedule or money trouble; no sandwiches. Les calls. He forgot that he and Joan and the girls had a thing that night, so no Les, no van. The other two guys call. They can’t come. It felt a little like the opening of the book of Job.
So, like Job, I had a conversation with God. Also like Job, I probably got a little more specific than one is supposed to get in prayer. While I was making a loaf of sandwiches and grabbing a gallon of iced tea and stuffing them into the trunk of my Honda Helix Scooter (Bethann had the car), I was praying that God would send someone who had never been out to serve before with something really special for the guys. Don’t ask me why I prayed that. I don’t know why my brain works the way it does. “Behold I am fearfully and wonderfully made!”
So I head down to the city on my red scooter. I arrive at the Love Park to a line of about 75 men waitng for dinner. I have a gallon of iced tea and a loaf of bologna and cheese sandwiches in my trunk. As I am pulling up, an Electra 225 or LeSabre pulls up and parks. A lawyer gets out. I know he’s a lawyer by the way he walks. (I come from long lines of lawyers, horse-thieves, and circuit-riding preachers on both sides; and since the last two professions have fallen into disuse.) His suit and his car were pretty good tells as well. He opened the trunk of his car and started to take out cases of cold cans of soda, then hot casseroles and shrimp rolls. I asked him if he did this regularly. He said he had never done this before. He was there because he had a client who was supposed to do community service and he just wanted to make sure he did it.
I said, “Praise God! You are an answer to prayer!”
He said, “I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in God.”
I said, “It’s obvious to me that He believes in you.”
We served side by side until everyone was fed and the food was gone. It was a real treat. Once again I told the man, “I thank God for you. You are an answer to prayer.”
Once again he protested, “I told you, I told you, I don’t believe in God!”
I said, “That’s OK. He still believes in you. Thank you.”
I know that the last thing I said to that man is probably offensive to many who may read this. I just thank God I am not God who will separate the sheep from the goats. When I read what Jesus said about the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, the one thing that comes through to me every time is that everyone is surprised. Some of the best Christians I have known, I have later found out called themselves atheists. Some of the most miserable, bigoted, hateful people I have known are firmly convinced they are on the inside track for Glory. Some days, that’s me.
“For peace of the whole world, for the stability of the holy churches of God, and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord.”
We are called as a royal priesthood, not to judge the world, but to intercede for it. Let us not fall into the evangelical trap of sorting everyone into categories of lost and saved; into prospects and allies. People are people. Everone is hurting. None of us has all of the answers. Let’s be honest. Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. I am Orthodox because we let the mystery be.