Jeff Goes To Lunch With An Atheist

I “met” Donald several years ago while pastoring in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Donald had come across one of my sermons on the Internet and had chosen to respond on his blog. That began a series of good-natured, although pointed interactions, all via his blog, my blog, and the comment sections on each.

You see Donald is an atheist.

As such, it would seem that he and I have very little in common. But through our back-and-forth we found, maybe not a classic friendship, but at least a respect for one another. At one point, I suggested that I needed to drive to Bentonville and that we should and grab lunch. He agreed. And that was the end of it. Time passed and Bentonville is a hour and half drive from The Fort.

***

Jump ahead to this fall. I have since moved to Northwest Arkansas (three years now) and rejoined the pastoral staff of Cross Church. My role has me preaching from time-to-time on any one of our five campuses. A few weeks ago, one of those sermons caught the eye of a fringe online media outlet and a mini-firestorm erupted; all around comments I made regarding women (and men) as being made in the Image of God and all that means for how we live our lives and treat our bodies. Anyway, the brouhaha over it all caught Donald’s attention on Twitter. He reached out via a Tweet. I responded. And we both decided that it was time to make good on our plans for lunch.

***

So a few weeks ago, I “met” Donald in real life for the first time.

A Christian.

An Atheist.

And lunch.

What could we / would we possibly talk about? Would it come to blows? Food-fight anyone?

The whole encounter began in the parking lot…with a handshake and a “nice to finally meet you.” We proceeded into the restaurant. Our chosen site for the great encounter…Whole Hog Café.

We ordered, sat down in a booth…and then talked. It was, in fact, amazing all we talked about and all we found in common. We talked about family – my wife and four kids, and his wife and two girls. We talked about work – what I do and what he does. It was crazy to discover that Donald and his wife grew up in the same hometown as me. His wife even went to the same schools as me. So we talked hometown stuff. There were smiles, good-natured jabs, and some really, really good barbeque.

***

The topic of conversation eventually and obviously turned to matters of belief and faith.

Donald doesn’t really like the term “atheist.” He believes it has a negative connotation and his experience growing up in Arkansas is that when people find out he’s an atheist they assume that he worships Satan and all kinds of other crazy things. In Donald’s words, “I’m not anti-god. I just don’t believe.”

Donald is a deep thinker. And he’s a searcher. He has searched out various faith systems during his life. Even at times practicing some. But so far he has found them wanting and on an intellectual level he has just found it irrational to believe in the supernatural.

And this is where Donald and I found more common ground.

I fancy myself an intellectual guy as well. I studied philosophy for four years in college and earned my Bachelor’s in the field. Donald and I both agreed that the starting points of one’s worldview effect how they see everything. We journeyed down this path together, me trying to understand him and he trying to understand me.

Well, all good things must come to an end and after a quick hour or so, we both had to get back to work. We shook hands and parted ways.

***

I’ve spent some time in the weeks since thinking back on that lunch with Donald the atheist. I’ve unpacked these thoughts with my wife and son. I’d like to unpack just a few of them here for you:

  • I like Donald. In fact, I now call him a friend. Not a Facebook kind of friend, but a real friend. We had a really good time over lunch. He’s a great guy. Loves his job. Loves his family. And loves ribs. What’s not to like about that?
  • I’ve discovered that when you genuinely like another person, it’s a lot harder to be mean and cruel when it comes to their ideas. The depersonalization of our culture has led to all sorts of demonization of people that don’t see things the way we see them. I’ve been the victim of this and so has Donald.
  • Eating food with someone not like you is a great way to find out that they are more like you than you ever thought. Enough said.
  • I thought about Donald’s words, “I just don’t believe.” Those are powerful words. Do I want Donald to believe? You bet! Did I try to “convert” him over a one-hour lunch? Not exactly. But we did talk about WHY I do believe. At least as much as you can get into that in an hour. And for the record, he shared a bit on WHY he doesn’t believe. The whole thing is probably a start…for both of us.

***

I also thought about how we as Christians go about our interactions with lost people. I’m not so sure they are healthy all the time and truly represent Christ. Browbeating and Bible-thumping just aren’t received well. Neither is our silence and Monkish behavior toward those “on the outside.” I am struck in my thoughts by the words of Rosaria Butterfield that I recently heard. In her testimony of her conversion to Christianity, this former lesbian said, “I was saved from my unbelief, then God began to work on a bunch of other stuff.”

And how was she saved from her unbelief? It all began when a Christian couple invited her into their lives…and to their dinner table.

Sort of sounds a lot like Jesus, doesn’t it?

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