I am a fan of Ricky Gervais. I have loved the BBC version of The Office longer than I have been a practicing Christian. I followed Ricky on Facebook a number of years ago and his posts generally amuse me. Yet, occasionally, he posts some fairly vitriolic anti-Christian posts. He is an avowed atheist who seems to consider religion with about the same level of charity as Hitchens and Dawkins. Sometimes this frustrates me to no end. Ricky also often posts about human rights and animal rights and part of me wants to shout to him that some of the most vocal and effective proponents of both are people of faith.
Yet, I can’t always shake my feeling that sometimes, somehow, he has it right. I don’t mean that he has it right that somehow religion is an awful and fruitless thing. Or maybe I do mean that, I suppose.
Not that long ago, I considered myself an atheist too. I had a bumper sticker in Mississippi that read, “The problem with Baptists is that they don’t hold them under the water long enough.” I had another that read, “If you want to live in a religious country, move to Iran.” This was long after I had persuaded myself that I was a firm believer because my politics were so right.
Yet, somewhere, it all went off-track.
I had grown tired of bombastic, abusive forms of Christianity. I was disgusted by the scandals of the Roman Catholic Church as abuse after abuse was uncovered – abuse by priests I had once defended because I thought, or wanted to think, they could do no wrong. I was queasy because I had been active in the Christian right as leaders were being caught in financial, moral, and political malfeasance of all sorts.
I had decided that I was an atheist because so many of the followers of Christ seemed to have it so wrong.
Yet, there was still something speaking to me. Not in doctrine but in decency. Not through evangelism but evangelically. Not with words but with patience. You see, even though I had grown frustrated and disillusioned, my wife had not. Not only had she not become disillusioned with Christianity – more importantly she had not become so with me. She waited out my break with God because she saw it for what it was, the coming home of someone who had run away.
I could remember fits of anger as a younger man. Once, when I was asked to find a shirt of a particular size when working at Brooks Brothers, I had gone to the shirt room to find it. When I didn’t find it immediately, I began to throw the boxes off the shelves in a fury. At what, I had no idea. These kind of bouts, while not regular, were a pattern.
You see, when I was much younger, I had lost my mother and my sister – and I had never forgiven God. God was still on trial in my heart. And I felt that somehow I was still on trial in God’s. So I decided I was an atheist. Yet, I was not angry at nothing – I was furious with God. I was hurt, bitter, resentful, and felt as powerless on any given day as an eight year old who can’t figure out what has happened to his mother.
So when I heard others singing the praises of God it only amplified the anger I felt. When I heard people thank God, I could only say “For what?”
There was war, poverty, and famine. There were abusive priests and thieving televangelists. There was murderous homophobia. There was silence in the face of torture. There was wrath, envy, and hatred. There were bombings and beheadings. “God is Love” was lost behind a seeming sea of “God hates fags!” signs all over the news.
What in the world could make a believer be so idiotic as to believe?
I came back to the Church not because I was persuaded somehow by argument, word, or reason but by love. I could tell that this was something that was important to a person who meant the world to me so I came along – grudgingly and often looking for an excuse not to. Yet, when I came, I found something that seemed to be missing. God was till speaking even when my anger tried to drown out the choir and second-guess the preacher.
I began to look for reasons to go not just for reasons to be angry. I realized that I was not an atheist. I didn’t not believe – I truly and deeply believed. And I was furious with God.
Yet, simple things made me listen again.
A thoughtful, educated, and decent priest. A warm greeter. A catechist with doubts. A man who lost more than me and yet still came back. One by one, I met people who taught me more of faith than the media could of fear. I met people who were bright, faithful, kind and yet who could admit they didn’t have all of the answers.
Laughter and tears. Bread and Wine. Hymn and Candlelight. Simple things ultimately wore my anger down to something manageable – something I could finally metabolize because I was being fed with something else.
I would not be a Christian if not for two things. The love of someone patient and the beauty of adoration offered lovingly.
If I were asked now for what might bring people back to Church, I would offer those two things – be patient with those you love – the whole community around you if you can. Do what you do with beauty, care, and reverence. These two things – patient loving-kindness and attentive beauty are scarce in our society and their cultivation says something holy about us as believers and as a community of faith.
God speaks to us in these simple things. Ultimately, God is patient with us. God tells us something of himself in beauty. God is giving us a chance to hold open the door for those who long to come in but can’t dare to dream that the invitation is for them too.