Atheism, de-conversion, and The Puppy Who Lost His Way

This Sunday I’ll be preaching for St. Petersburg Presbyterian Church for the third time. I’ll be wrapping up a series on faith and doubt. Thanks to a facebook friend, who actually happens to be a real life friend of mine-though now separated by 900 miles-I came across this article of an Atheistic de-conversion. It is the journey from faith to doubt to disbelief (although if you read the article it does seem that doubt preceded disbelief for only a very short period of time). I love reading articles about conversion, particularly someone coming from a hostile atheist background to saving faith in Christ. But I think these articles of de-conversion are also helpful, even though they can be quite discouraging. We can still usually learn something from them.

Here are some things I took away from the article, aside from simply being saddened by this dark descent into disbelief.

1.) The relationship with one’s father is often key.While this gal couches her disbelief in science and rationality, I think there is much more going on.
According to one pastor who started an outreach ministry, asking a friend or neighbor about his/her father opens the door to understanding barriers to a relationship with God. For instance, people often reject faith because their father rejected faith. It is of course no tit-for-tat, but there does seem to some connectedness. Understanding that relationship can help you minister to that person.
When I read in this article that this gal ran away from home and has no relationship with her father, I cannot assume that had nothing to do with it. Yes her mother is a Christian, but how much of her rejecting God is her rejecting her father? I wonder. 

Bad relationships with fathers seem to be incubators for doubt. But, according to this pastors experience in ministry, they can also be open doors to faith based discussions.

2.) I don’t think anyone makes a decision to follow or un-follow, believe or disbelieve in God or specifically His plan of salvation through His Son from an entirely rational basis. I’ve heard atheists on a discussion panel explain that they got into Atheism because their friends were such. This story of de-conversion is not a treatise on a pure quest for rationalism. Now I think she advertises it as such, but there is too much baggage she is so quick to leave behind. And I don’t blame her for some of this seems pretty sad. But there is an emotional experience she is quick to leave behind, and I don’t think it is simply because “the bible lied to me.”

3.) What question is the person really asking? In general the post-modern mantra is “does it work or help” (pragmatism) more so than “is it true” (modernity/rationalism)? This gal seems to fit into the modernist quest. I just read Andy Stanley’s Deep and Wide, and he argues that most people simply want to know “does this work.” But I find very rarely does someone fit into a purely rational or purely pragmatic category. Where I live now, and when I lived in Bradenton, I found skeptics to fit into more the modernist rational variety. Many people do ask the question, “Would I like what I would become?” So we have to make sure to present the gospel in such a way as to respond to these “defeater” beliefs (what Tim Keller refers to as the barriers we have to deal with before we can actually get to the gospel). For the Jews, Paul discerned it as “power” for the Greeks it was “wisdom.” (I Cor 1). What is it for your friends?

4.) Where was the gospel?  This gal was allegedly raised in a grace-less home. One always needs to consider the source (an estranged daughter), but it is hard to misinterpret 10-15 beatings based upon a child not obediently responding the first time. Regardless, from her perspective, there was plenty of law but not a lot of gospel or good news. And regardless of whether or not the dad felt like he was showing grace, the message perceived (which is still important, for if someone doesn’t feel like we’re showing grace, maybe we’re not!) was I’m proud of your performance. Not a delight in the person but a delight in the performance of your child. That’s not grace. As a parent, that’s something I never want my kid to think. I was only proud of how well he did and not simply that I loved him simply because he was my son.

Would a gal be so quick to “jump ship” if she had at least had an experience of grace, where she could honestly struggle and question? I would like to think so. But in the end, I think what this gal is rejecting is more than just a belief in God; she is rejecting a form of moralistic behavioral performance based Christianity that has at the very least been perceived as Christless.

5.) Don’t be so quick to jump ship. Doubting is not a bad exercise. But doubts are best done within the community of faith. If you try to discern whether or not God exists, and you posed certain question, and you don’t get satisfactory answers, then it might be good to look a little bit harder.

…This changed one day during a conversation with my friend Alex. I had a habit of bouncing theological questions off him, and one particular day, I asked him this: If God was absolutely moral, because morality was absolute, and if the nature of “right” and “wrong” surpassed space, time, and existence, and if it was as much a fundamental property of reality as math, then why were some things a sin in the Old Testament but not a sin in the New Testament?
 

Alex had no answer — and I realized I didn’t either. Everyone had always explained this problem away using the principle that Jesus’ sacrifice meant we wouldn’t have to follow those ancient laws. 
But that wasn’t an answer. In fact, by the very nature of the problem, there was no possible answer that would align with Christianity.


 

I still remember sitting there in my dorm room bunk bed, staring at the cheap plywood desk, and feeling something horrible shift inside me, a vast chasm opening up beneath my identity, and I could only sit there and watch it fall away into darkness. The Bible is not infallible, logic whispered from the depths, and I had no defense against it. If it’s not infallible, you’ve been basing your life’s beliefs on the oral traditions of a Middle Eastern tribe. The Bible lied to you.

Everything I was, everything I knew, the structure of my reality, my society, and my sense of self suddenly crumbled away, and I was left naked.

That’s not a big question of mine. I have them. Plenty of questions, but they are more of the “why did this happen variety” (which ultimately reveals a latent belief anyway but that is for another post) than of the philosophical variety like this. But as Billy Madison so eloquently argued in reference to the book The Puppy Who Lost His Way, “You can’t give up looking for your dog after half an hour, you have to put up some signs, and get your butt out there and find your bleeping dog!”

 I know this gal had grown up believing the bible, but according to her own words, she disbelieved very quickly and in isolation from real gospel centered community.

If answers aren’t satisfactory, we have to spend time and be willing to spend time with doubters. There are people smarter than us who have asked harder questions and have found intellectually satisfying answers. CS Lewis anyone? Please don’t be like the boy in The Puppy Who Lost His Way and give up after half an hour. Don’t let doubt grow into disbelief in the matter of minutes, hours, or even days. Let’s put up some posters and find, or help others find, that bleeping dog.

 

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The freeing affect of a father’s non-frown

I have two boys right now. One five, and one almost three. Even though my five year old has been around a few years longer, my two year old has broken far more things in his shorter life. Lamps, glasses, dishes, radio attenanae on mini-van, and missing Roku controller-I can’t prove he discarded it somewhere but I’m pretty sure he did.

The other day while working in my first office (Atlanta Bread Co is office number 2), I heard a loud crash. Cade knocked over the lamp, again, but this time it landed on tile instead of carpet. That ended its 5 year period of providing light. 

But I didn’t get all that frustrated to come down and see the cracked lamp. Better it land on the tile than his little frame. And I don’t get too attached to lamps. 

I don’t know how much money Cade has cost me in broken items over the years, but I would guess it doesn’t add up to all that much. Whenever I become frustrated when one of my kids break things, I remember back to all of my father’s stuff I’ve broken over the years.

For some reason, in middle school, I worked on my baseball swing in the garage and dented the Porsche. In high school, I crashed a boat into our dock one afternoon because I had neglected to take the weeds out of the jet in the jet boat on the previous trip. After college, I left the boat lift on, went inside, and came back outside after I realized my mistake. Too late. The beautiful ski boat’s windshield was completely shattered against the roof.

I’ll never forget my father’s face. Instead of anger at what was one of the most expensive, avoidable, and stupid mistakes I’ve made, he said, “Hmmmm…….well……” Or something like that. I screwed up big time and my father’s face, instead of being filled with anger, was instead filled with compassion. He moved toward me, not away. He knew that I knew I had screwed up, and how bad and embarrassed I felt.

I’ve broken way more than my son will ever be able to break. So how angry should I get when he breaks things? Even more so, when I remember my father’s reaction, not angry at me for destroying his otherwise flawless boat, how can I become angry at my son? Believing in grace makes you a better parent. I need to believe more. Much more. 

If my dad had become vehemently angry with me, I would then be scared to mess up in the future. I would follow the best I could out of fear. That wouldn’t be the last thing I would break. I flew a remote controlled helicopter into a ceiling fan a few years ago. While I didn’t want to break it, fear wasn’t my motivator. I thought I would break it, and I even told him I would probably break it, and yet I wasn’t afraid to break it. And I did. But I desired not to break it out of love, not fear. You see, that’s one mark of a son.

Fear of failure may work for a job, but it doesn’t motivate sanctification. Jean Larroux, one of my favorite preachers, posed a question in a sermon, “Describe God’s face toward you now? A smile? OK, well what does His face look like after you sin? A frown?” 

Does God look down upon you with a a Jon Gruden-like scowl when you sin, but then smiles over you when you do something good? 

I don’t believe we lose that smile when we screw up. And I don’t believe we can put that smile back on His face when we don’t screw up. We’re just not that good, and our faith isn’t all that much better. 

If our Heavenly Father’s face doesn’t turn to a dark scowl when we screw up, doesn’t that motivate you to follow after Him with all of your heart? I didn’t cost Him a boat, but a Son. That’s steep. 

My dad could afford to pay for another boat. My Father already paid for all the “boats” I could break. Doesn’t this make me care about sin more than those who don’t know about grace? Doesn’t this make me want to honor a God like this in all that I do? If not, then we’re probably not really “getting” it.

I’m reminded of the old Hymn: “What Wondrous Love is This?”

When I sinking down, beneath God’s righteous frown, 
Christ laid aside his crown, for my soul, for my soul,
Christ laid aside his crown for my soul

The righteous frown for the Christian is over. We follow Him now in freedom, not in fear.

Post-Father’s Day Post

In light of yesterday being Father’s Day, I thought I’d share one NBA player’s fatherly thoughts. Dwayne Wade was recently awarded full custody of his kids, and reflects upon the glory and opportunity of being a father. He described fatherhood not simply as an opportunity but also as a necessity, reflecting upon his own father’s example to him.
All children need their fathers, but boys especially need fathers to teach them how to be men. I remember wanting that so badly before I went to live with my dad. I wanted someone to teach me how to tie a tie and walk the walk, things only a man can teach a boy.
Dwayne Wade is definitely on to something here. Moms can teach lads to tie ties, but exactly how to “walk the walk,”is something best taught by dads. I found Dwayne Wade’s take on parenting particularly appropriate given the backdrop of athletes, like one N.Y. Jets defensive back, who has so many kids (with different women) that he actually couldn’t remember all their names. That’s pretty sad. At one point, the NBA comprised a number of people like him, when it was regular for NBA dads to have kids with different last names. I hope that we can see more Wade’s and fewer Shawn Kemp’s.
I even felt challenged by Wade’s fatherhood.
My dad and I bumped heads a lot—we were so alike, both of us born competitors. My older son, Zaire, is exactly the same way. We’ll battle on the court when I’m 39 and he’s 19. He’s 9 now, and he’s grown up with basketball. Zion could take it or leave it, which is cool by me.
Connar loves baseball, which is “cool by me.” But what if he didn’t? What if he changes to hockey (hypothetically speaking of course) or something not using a ball or a rod? What if Cade doesn’t? I hope its “cool by me.”
Dwayne seems to have had a decent dad. But what about kids without Dads due to divorce, death, or because they are deadbeats? Is there hope? Are they doomed to repeat the cycle? While many folks do fall into that pattern, the gospel does offer us hope. Seriously, and practically. I’ve seen folks who have had bad dads or no dads at all become good dads. So I know its possible. And here’s why I think its possible.
1.) There are plenty of unbelieving good dads, but one way Christians have a “leg up” on the “competition” is that we take our cues from a Heavenly Father. We can know what a good father looks like because we have a good Father in heaven (Matthew 7:11). God provides for his children, therefore we provide for our children. God invites us into a special relationship with Him allowing us to call him “Abba” (Rom 8:15 ), therefore our kids ought to have a special relationship with us. A special relationship that our neighbors’ kids will not get. While we don’t necessarily share the same sense of “abba” as Jesus did since he is the eternal Son of God, we do have a special familial closeness now.  There is a special backstage pass our children are granted. They have special access. Our sonship is distinct from Jesus, yet it is nevertheless real. So real that we have an idea of what a Father looks like.
John 20:17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”
Some folks don’t like using language of God as a “Father,” because they read back into our Heavenly Father the baggage from our earthly fathers. But it is more than just feminists who’ve had bad experiences with their fathers. Even bible translators as part of “Insider Movements” have begun to translate the word “Father” as “Guardian,” because it is more palatable for Muslims. But I think we miss something of our Heavenly Father when you take away that word/concept, and my denomination seems to agree.

2.)  I think there’s another resource a Christian can draw from when discerning how to be a good father when he himself didn’t have one: the church. We know what good dads look like because we can see them. We can ask them questions. We can learn from their mistakes, as well as their wisdom, which naturally come best through their mistakes. But even those of us who don’t have fathers, can find a number of fathers in the church. Good fathers have the opportunity to be a father figure to kids who may have never had one. There is hope to break the cycle of bad dads in this world: good news in a world without a shortage of them.