God speaking through Isaiah (Isa 58) says, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from you own kin.”
Lent is a time of fasting. I believe it should be a time of rededicating one’s self to the fast that God has chosen for us, which also means disrupting usual routines. The intent is to make room for the work of God’s chosen fast.
This year I’m fasting from Facebook for Lent. It turns out to be a mixed blessing. It’s a colossal time waster, and the local FB based news outlets are chaotic rumor mills run amok. Giving them up has been a blessing. But I miss handing out birthday greetings to friends; having long conversations with conservatives who take exception to me taking exception to their politics; and am unable to respond to a dozen or so brazen atheists who delight in poking fun at Christianity, and expect me to respond.
It’s the latter I want to talk about today. They have quite a hoard of memes, cartoons, off color jokes, and blatant insults to hurl at the magical thinking of Christians. Some of them were raised in a branch of the church that inflicted pain and suffering on them. A few simply outgrew the juvenile storytelling imposed on them in Sunday School. Facebook has become a place for them to ridicule the fools who still believe in a vile god who enjoys barbecuing sinners for eternity, a Santa Claus god who rewards with prosperity those who pray the right words, or an itinerant preacher whose message and purpose is undecipherable. The improbability of a virgin birth and resurrection simply add incredulity to an already incredulous story. Fundamentalism is the ultimate joke.
Added to their company are assorted ‘nones’ who have never been exposed to religion in any form, other that what they’ve seen on t.v., and a few adamant atheists whose religion is atheism.
One obstacle to responding in a way that might open conversation is their assumption that fundamentalist evangelicalism of the Jerry Falwell variety or Joel Osteen’s prosperity talkathons are what Christianity is. They don’t count the gullible pledging fealty to a pedophiliac Catholic Church, nor wimpy anything goes mainliners.
People such as these populate more than my Facebook feed. They’re the subject of articles, books, and church workshops galore, each applying the latest in psychological, sociological and demographic research to probe for reasons; then use the best organization management tools to craft a forward looking strategy, spiced up with marketing pizazz.
I want to suggest an alternative. It’s nothing new, nothing never before thought of, and nothing digitally enticing. I want to suggest taking up a version of God’s chosen fast as Isaiah described it.
Forget about calling them atheists. Call them anti religion, anti fundamentalist con artists, anti institutionalized abuse, but not anti Christian. They, for the most part, desire spiritual truth and are angry at the church for not providing it. Free of meaningless religiosity and away from damage churches have done to them, they wander the desert searching for what the church promised and didn’t deliver. In a way they’re among the oppressed, yoked to beliefs about Christianity inconsistent with the core of orthodox faith. They’re hungry for nourishment, but don’t recognize it’s theirs to have in the bread of life that’s ours to share. They’re spiritually naked, tempted to put on whatever looks appealing at the moment. They’re not enemies, unclean heathen reprobates destined for hell, or anything of the kind. They’re our own kin, we cannot hide from them.
If our job is to break the yokes of oppression, feed the hungry, provide good homes for the homeless, clothe the naked, and not hide from our own kin in need, how do we do it?
My simplistic answer is to preach the gospel in word and deed, keep Christ at he center, and try to avoid confusing contemporary social values with Christian truth. The last one is tricky. God is always leading us away from where we are toward where we’re going, but we hold onto the comfortable social values of our times, claiming them to be gospel truths. We twist Christ into a pretzel to keep our cherished ways from being changed. On the other hand, where God is leading us is not entirely clear. It takes time, prayerful discernment, and challenging conversation with others before we can be provisionally sure. Following Jesus is to walk trustingly into the unknown.
For my part, when pressed for what I believe with absolute faith, my answer is; I believe that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, in him I trust, everything else is provisional. It leaves a lot of room for doubt and mystery, and I think we get into a lot of trouble when we try to impose too much rationally ordered structure on that which is holy mystery. Naturally, I think Episcopalian liturgy is the best way to do that, but some think otherwise.
Can my erstwhile atheists be tempted to don cloaks of holy mystery and follow Jesus? Maybe, if religion will make way for it