There is a man I know who, depending upon his mood, is an atheist or an agnostic. He is most definately not a Christian for all sorts of reasons that mean he does not find himself comfortable in many churches.
Yet, God seems to keep using him or putting him in interesting situations around the world which mean he ends up mixing with a wider range of Christians than most people of faith I know.
Yesterday I got a Facebook message indicating it had happened again and today I got a follow up explaining he is yet again in that place many Christians don’t even go. Apparently he had gone to a village party, nearby to where he is working at the moment in Lapland. The women of the village indicated he was invited to their carol service, that was shortly about to start. He went, enjoying the fact that whilst he couldn’t understand a word of the sermon because the carols were familiar, (even if he didn’t know them in that language), they could help him learn more accurate pronounciation. The people were very kind too, the pastor even announced the hymn numbers billingually so he had a chance of knowing what was going on. Then “the thing” happened, by “the thing” I mean that taking it one step further in being used which God often does with this guy. He has been invited back to speak to them/ do some storytelling after their first Sunday service of the new year.
In the US once he ended up getting invited to go build houses or something in New Mexico with a bunch of people going on mission, which he happily did.
In this country he has found himself doing various stuff with Christians, most noteably a series of bible studies from the perspective of a storyteller in one of the prisons he was working in.
In his everyday life he ends up mixing regularly with Christians as he is involved in a range of “professional” and “volunteer” work with different groups. Over his life he has been involved in working with disabled people, asylum seekers, people living in rural situations, people living on inner city estates, people in prisons, activists, old people, young people and actually practically every sort of person you can think of, of every faith you can think of.
I laugh because as I see his life and here the stories of what’s he’s been doing I can see the gospel being lived out in many ways. I have heard his explanations of why he has a problem with “the church” and have heard him explain his quite fluid views on spirituality. Within them he expresses many of the frustrations and understandings of history which are common within black and liberation theology, (his knowledge of the bible and understanding of the good and bad ways it has been used throughout history are greater than practically anybody else I know who has not been trained in this area). And this is the thing, whilst he has his reservations about the church and is not a person of faith he continues to engage with churches and those within them with respect, because of the way he respects everybody as human.
He has been known to make clear what he thinks. I remember witnessing one event when to support his daughter, who was a teenager at the time, he went to “an outreach event” at the church she attended which had some missionaries over from the States. Part way through there was some presentation about “mission in Africa, to the natives”, and after listening for a while he stood up; loudly denounced the racism and colonialism within what was being said and left. Afterwards he could have banned his daughter from going near the church again, but he didn’t. He sat her down and explained why he had been upset by what was being said and why it should have been something of shame rather than of celebration. The next day, when he ran into the minister of that church in the post-office had a chat with him and basically gave him a black theology lecture. This guy is not black, he is white, but he has learnt the wider history of the church and of the working class in this country and the US, understanding the importance of this.
At the moment I’m reading “The Reflective Disciple“, an excellent book by Roger Walton. Within the book Walton has a section where he says, “Despite all the excitement around the refreshed picture of God, I feel uncomfortable with some of the literature on Mission-shaped Church, Fresh Expressions and Faith and Work and detect real dangers.” (p65)
He goes on to explain that “The moments of disquiet arise when the missiological major key of the symphony suggests that there is very little of worth in the world.” (p65). This is then unpacked by a discussion on the way Christians have a “one-way” view of interaction with the world, seeking only to do good not recognising or benefitting from the good of “non-Christians”. He concludes this section by saying “The Church is called by God into mission to recieve from God at work in the world as well as sharing its testimony and this needs to be reflected in the popular language of Mission-shaped church and Fresh Expressions and in the ‘success’ stories that are told.” (p70)
I am glad that with this man atleast there are elements of the church, like the one he has encountered in Lapland, and like the prison chaplain who asked him to lead the studies that time, who are taking a more “two-way” approach of sorts. More than that I am greatful that this man has the graciousness to continue to recognise the kindness of these people and treat all with respect, even if they espouse very different views to his own and even if they represent an institution he sees the faults of. In being willing struggle and to go beyond his own prejudices he has enriched my faith greatly over the years by his “witness” to the gospel through his life, even if it is a gospel he does not proclaim from a Christian perspective.