Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Death of an Atheist


As in so many of Luke’s stories, there is no profession of faith or belief of any kind in the  restoration to life of the widow’s son near the village of Nain.  It’s just Jesus moved by compassion to infuse the gift of life.   There was no interrogation about whether the widow was a true believer, or would hereafter submit herself to his authority.  How unlike my conversation with a rural volunteer firefighter who, knowing that I am the city fire department chaplain, opined that one reason he signed up as a volunteer was for the chance to be present at a fatal car wreck in time to convert a dying victim, and thus save a soul for Christ.  Maybe he wants to be Robert Duvall?

Just the same, it raises a valid question, and I thought about it this morning as I sat with a woman whose mother was in the process of dying.  Her grief was deep, nearly out of control.  Her father had died just four weeks earlier, and now this.  It was too much.  Far too much.  She was an atheist, an avowed atheist.  Her parents, she said, were also atheists.  In an odd turn of phrase, she said they were devout atheists. 

What would you have done?  Would you have offered her the opportunity to accept Jesus as her Lord and Savior?  Would you have gone into the trauma room to elicit from her mother a hand squeeze or eye blink of conversion.  Would you have told her it was too bad about her dad and mom, but it wasn’t too late for her to save her own life?

What would Jesus have done?  I’m not sure, but whatever he did it would have borne life, not death.  What I did was to say that, as a priest, I bore with me God’s love for her and her mother regardless of what they did or didn’t believed about God.  We talked about many things, about the love of family and friends, about death and dying, but not about Jesus or God.  As I bade goodbye, I said that I would pray for God’s blessings to come to her.  She said a lot of her friends were doing the same.  Those are powerful prayers.  If we can’t do that, we can’t do anything.  If we insist on doing more, we may end up keeping love out.  I hope that the gift of life in the presence of death was a part of our time together.  I’ll never know for sure.  Sometimes I wish that we clergy didn’t have to live with such ambiguity, but that’s the way it is. 

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