The Atheist

I was just arriving home. I had walked up our street dragging my suitcase behind me as I had just taken MAX from the airport into Beaverton and walked the three miles from there.  That’s when our neighbor saw me.  He shouted out joyfully and waved:

“Hey?  Are you running away?”

“Nah.” I laughed. “I just got home.  I walked from the MAX stop.”

Don, this neighbor, is unique in my world.  A self-avowed atheist, politically super-liberal, 70, bleached, cropped hair, opinionated, unusual morals, and basically, anti-Christian.  Over the years that we have been across from each other, he has grown to like me, a lot.  He even invited me golfing — something no one with wisdom does.  He’d not want to experience golfing with me, for I don’t golf well, at all. Perhaps I could go and caddy sometime? But I viewed his invitation as high praise.

When we first moved in 9 years ago, he told my neighbor who is next door to us that he didn’t want to meet me because I was clergy.  He calls her “that nice church-going lady.”

But not meeting me didn’t last long.  I went over to meet him. I would holler out greetings across the street.  I would joke with him about his hair, his shirts, and his household.

He invited us to his July 4th party and neighborhood Vollyball tournament in his back yard.  I went for a few years until I had injured myself elsewhere and couldn’t play.  When I need to borrow something, I often go to him.

He discovered I’m a regular guy.  He’s full of advice, which he freely offers.  And I am full of Jesus.

When he and his partner when to Africa, a few years back, he wanted to show me their souvenirs and tell me about the trip.  When he realized he had outgrown some of his more than 300 Original Hawaiian shirts, he gave me 16 of them.  This guy has a generous heart.  He told me once when he finds things that he doesn’t need, he never sells them, but just gives them away.  “I figure someone else needs them more than I do.”

I’ve sought to simply love him, and show him Jesus, and as I can, I sprinkle Jesus into our conversations.

He is always looking for how my wife, also clergy, and I could compete with one another. One time he wanted us to begin a “Bible Wars” reality TV show. When he said that, I’m thinking “There is enough about people claiming to be followers of Jesus fighting in real life already. We don’t need a reality TV show.”

“Seriously, Don,” I told him, “We are really not into fighting!”

And so this day, when I was pulling my suitcase up the street, he said, “So, who’s the better minister?”

I answered, “She is, of course.”

“You’re just trying to win points,” he poked.

“Well, if so, she wasn’t here to hear me.” I laughed in response.

Then he shared something he’d seen recently that was racist.  It reminded me of a movie I had seen.

“In that context,” I asked him, “Have you seen Black K Klansman?”

“I haven’t yet, have you?” He asked.

“Yes,” I said, “I saw it last week. It left me sobbing in the back of the theater, grieved for how we dehumanize one another still in this nation.”

That movie is one of the best made recently that captures the dire straits we are in as a nation.  I was literally sobbing by the end, especially as it flashed forward to modern scenes, actual news footage, that showed nothing much has changed in attitude or behavior or belief.  I restrained myself from reaching out to the stranger next to me just to have a hand to hold!🙈

We still live in a culture of privilege, and the problem with privilege is that we cannot even see it. It’s like a fish noticing water.  It is ubiquitous to us who are white, and to me, who is also male.  This movie cut through that.

Don was caught by a memory.

“Ever been to Coos Bay?” he asked, surprisingly, in response.

“Sure. But it’s been a while.”

“I grew up there,” he continued. “There used to be this lumber mill right as you entered the town.  I worked there after I graduated from High School in 1966.”

“One day, in 1968, I walked in and everyone was laughing and standing around, cheering, and clapping and so I asked what was going on.

One of them said, ‘Someone finally got that black nigger Martin Luther King.’ It was the day he’d been shot and killed.”

The lights went on inside of me as a knife cut into my gut with the story.

Suddenly I understood this dear man — why he is so caustic toward those who claim Jesus, first, and toward conservatives of any stripe second.  I don’t really fall into that second category.

And why he believes that “all of them” (whoever that is) are made up of one type– those of his story, “the handclapping, racist, privileged, rednecks” as he might describe them with more colorful language.

Suddenly I saw the hurts Don had endured.  The kinds of things he had witnessed which had made him into the man he is today and it changed my prayers for him.  Still, certainly, that he would encounter Jesus.  But more than that, that I could learn more from him about how those who might claim the One I claim to follow come across. How does he see “us”?

Something else struck me with the story — my surprise that he ever talked to me at all. If that was what he thought I stood for, then, it was remarkable what Jesus had done in our relationship.

In response to that story, I said:

“The saddest thing is that such attitudes are yet so prevalent.” I added, “That’s not Jesus, you know.”

He continued, not quite hearing me, “That was what it was like there.  It was soon after that I met Margaret, and we got out of there.”

The thing that is interesting alongside this conversation, his distaste for anything that smacks of Christian faith, is this fact: This guy loves people, loves children, and wants them to have joy.  He really goes all out with decoration at Halloween and even more so for Christmas.  This guy who would not nod his head to Jesus, goes all out for the celebration that surrounds His birth.  And Margaret — her favorite movie is It’s A Wonderful Life.  A movie all about the value of a life lived to love and touch other people.  She loaned me it to watch another Christmas for we don’t have a copy.

So, even though they have not yet encountered Jesus, He’s got them in sight and loves them immensely and even now uses them to love others.

It also reminded me that we never know what someone has experienced.

We don’t know what is behind the language used, the views clung to, the clothing worn, or the homeless attire.

We don’t know what has happened in the experiences of life that have set the direction of someone’s life on the road they are walking.

It is easy to be judgmental of people.  It is simple to paint “us” versus “them” scenarios falsely.  As Brené Brown writes in Braving the Wilderness it is easy to paint those scenarios of “blocks” of people we do not know, but then make one exception for the person we do know.  But she rightly asks, what if we rather said that those “others” are defined not by the people we do not know?  What if we defined “them”  by the people we actually have a relationship with? What if we defined the “them” as the ones close at hand, the ones we love, the ones who would drop anything to help us, walk with us, be present to us?  What a shift that would make for us with those around us.

At this point, I think I fall into the “exception” category for my dear brother across the street.  But perhaps, over the next years, I’m praying that Don might see that Jesus really is behind the person I am.  That somehow, in some way, the prayers I’ve been praying for him day by day for nearly a decade and for others around us, would be answered and light would dawn in new ways.

This Christmas — may light dawn through your life as the Light came into the world for us all.

About Camino Way 2016 Shimer

On August 22, 1981 I married this wonderful woman, Karen, who has consistently blessed and changed my life and days. We are still in love, all the more with the years. We have four daughters, two sons by marriage, and three delightful, wonderful grandchildren. So, that makes me a husband, father, and grandfather all in those sentences. But mostly just a guy who loves my family. Today Karen and I planted beautiful plants in numerous pots. She had come home with the plants and that experience reminded me how much I enjoy simple things and simple pleasures -- like digging in dirt to plant a flower, like sunlight through glass on a spring day, like clean windows -- just washed ours today -- like a melody that won't escape from my heart. I've been a local church pastor for 30 years as of this June, a number that staggers me for I feel about that age on the inside, but clearly that's not the case. Back in 1988 I graduated from Asbury Theological Seminary with an Mdiv-- a time of schooling that has been a foundation for years of ministry. But it is mostly in the building upon that foundation, that has most changed my life. I love people, love seeing Jesus work in people's lives. One of my favorite joys is to pray with someone through some horrible place of memory and see Jesus walk right into their memory world, and turn on the lights in a way that sets their soul free and brings healing. There's nothing like this privilege and I have been there to watch it happen more times than I can count. Between 4 and 7 the associate pastor of my family's congregation sexually abused me, first grooming me, then repeatedly violating my young self. This marked my life. It changed my bearings. It ripped at my faith. It wounded my image of what it meant to be a little boy, and later a man. It has been a point from which I have been in the process of healing for many years now. I'm a survivor, but more than that, I am one who lives beyond what was done. For in the middle of all that stuff, Jesus was calling me, speaking to me, bidding me to follow him to bring change to people's lives within the realm of the very office that was used to harm me. Only Jesus can make light from darkness, hope from despair, and healing from brokenness. I love Jesus. He really is alive, no matter what others may believe. And his life, his presence, his words into my world, his healing power have continued to be the foundation point of what it means to experience life to the fullest. I love writing. I don't really know why on that score for really writing has never been a central tool in my world, nor has it come easily. But I love seeing how words released heal. And I love the way words can connect me to other people's worlds. So, that's why I started blogging. It began because I was planning to blog on a weekly basis when I went to walk the Camino de Santiago last fall. And in order to be able to blog while walking, I knew I had to begin to practice blogging before I was in another country. A friend told me that. Friends are good to help us find ways to live more authentically into our daily lives! So, I started. But what I have discovered is there is something powerful about sharing the story of life with others. So, I have continued. And I love the connections being built through those words. In 2011 I experienced my first seminar in Simply the Story, a bible story telling method that involves those listening in discussion and I decided then -- "this is what I plan to do when I retire." But really-- "why wait until then?" -- so I use this method while I continue pastoring. It sets people free and allows the Word to take root in ways that preaching never has. So again and again I am practicing asking questions and that is good practice for me, because I am frequently better at "telling" than "asking." This has been such a freeing gift. I love training others in this skill. So, a storyteller would certainly be true of me too. Years ago I discovered my mission in life is "the joyful transformation of people's lives through the person of Jesus Christ." And that continues to be where I find my home base, in joy. Where there is joy, I find, there is Jesus, and there is the possibility of transformation. Of course Jesus is in places where there is no joy as well, and once He is there, the place kind of changes because of Him. I love that.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.