Monday, September 17, 2012

Death of an atheist

I first met Ted (not his real name) at a 12-step group that met in someone's home.  He sat, defiant, beaten by alcohol for decades but unwilling to embrace steps 2 and 3 of AA: We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity, and We turned our will and our lives over to the care of God... 

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He had tried every trick in the book to get sober without "the God thing."  Nothing worked.  He'd lived a hard-drinking, hard-living life, filled with booze, drugs, women, you name it. His salesman's life had taken him far and wide; he was used to living in hotels and using every mood-altering substance he could. Now he was in his sixties and even more adamant that there was no God.  He had a spite against the church so wide, you could see it written all over him.  SOMEONE (and I suspect many, MANY someones) had hurt him so very badly in the church and he had written the whole Christianity thing completely off - it was ludicrous to him.  He saw the judgmental, self-righteous attitudes of any church people he had ever been in contact with, the small-minded, religious, cliquish, rules-based and narrow lives each of them led, and wanted nothing whatsoever to do with that.  And he'd tarred God with the same brush as those who said they believed in Him.

Now the guy leading this group was saying that in order to get and stay sober, he had to believe in the God he had for so very long resisted as being the source of the behavior of these horrible people - and not only that - to give his will and his life to Him?  No.  Ted argued, he disputed, he got red in the face and it looked like he was going to physically attack this guy.  I think the only thing that kept him in his seat was the fact that the forty-something man he was so angry at ... could whip him (but good) in a fight.  

So he left.  He "went back out" as they say in recovery rooms.  He went on yet another drinking spree that left him nearly destitute, beaten into desperation by the consequences of his choices.  And like a moth to a candle flame, he was again seated in our little group. 

But he wasn't saying much.  

One night, one of our number spoke up and told his story, the story of someone who had a real hatred of God and of His people, a victim of physical and religious abuse, hypocrisy, and abandonment all in the name of God.  He told how he finally came to the end of himself and in desperation cried out for God to either kill him or cure him.  And that was the beginning of a rather uneasy but successful end to his drinking career and the beginning of a relationship with the Creator not based on hypocrisy and religion but based on truth and honesty.

Ted's face was a study in conflicting emotions.  After the meeting ended, he approached this fellow and said, "Would it be okay if I called you sometime?" The man agreed, perplexed.  Everyone there knew Ted's hostile attitude toward all things religious.  And now he was wanting to talk to someone who freely admitted that relationship with God was the only way.  

Over the course of the next few months, after heart-to-heart talks over coffee, going through the shakes, the jitters and the intolerable cravings and being able to talk about them frankly and openly with his chosen mentor (and with others of the same ilk), after long walks and talks with God about anything and everything - this God to whom he referred as "The Old Man" because he couldn't bring himself to say the word, "God" - Ted grew into a personal relationship with his Creator.  It was like watching a baby being born - miraculous, raw, delicate, new.  His life was transformed! Every facet of it burgeoned with Life.  Everything was so fresh, so vibrant, so .... passionate.  Every bit of passion with which he had hated the church and (by association) God, was now funneled into loving Him, developing relationship with Him.  His whole demeanor exuded peace and joy.  God had truly touched his life.  

The atheist had died.  A believer was born.

He even started attending a church, but more out of a desire to please God than any other thing, like social expectation. He got - and stayed - sober.  He became everything that everyone knew that he could be if only he would let God love him: a better person, a better husband, a better father.  And he was so refreshingly honest about his journey.  He'd talk about it to people, to newcomers in our group, who would listen to him because he knew what it was like.  He knew how it felt to be that hopeless, that disillusioned, to not know what this God-thing was all about.  He told them it was okay to have doubts, but if they'd just be honest with God and start talking to Him, they'd see a difference in their lives.  He was a walking miracle - he was living proof that God could do anything with anyone who would give Him a real honest chance.  And folks knew it.

One night, after his usual long walk back to his hotel room, talking with "The Old Man" the whole way, he felt very tired, so he laid down in his bed without taking his street clothes off.  

The cleaning staff found him the next day just like that.  His heart had given out.  He was gone.

We, like many others in our little band, questioned the goodness and the love of a God who would take him from his family and his friends so soon after getting his life squared away, restored, renewed. What kind of cruel joke was this, we wondered.  We missed him; we missed his ready smile, his willing heart, his generous spirit. We still do.  But we had to accept that he was immensely happy where he was, marveling in his new-found everlasting life.  Some of us did accept this, and we were able to move on.  Others ... didn't. 

Now, several months after his death, I'm even more convinced of what I was in the beginning, when he first passed away.  He was taken from us while he was still unspoiled by religion.  If he had gotten any further into the western church, any church, any denomination, he would never have survived. The rules that so many rely on to try to keep people in line would have begun to make themselves known, to hem him in, to dissect his passion (apparently a dangerous thing in religious circles because it can't be controlled) and render it powerless. The pettiness, the hypocrisy that had hurt him in the past was (and is) still rampant.  It was only a matter of time before he realized it and his faith - tenuous and fragile that it was - would have been shaken.  And he would have "gone back out" again to reject his Creator and drink himself into his grave, another sad statistic.  I'm as sure of it as I know my own name. 

So I'm not angry at God anymore for taking Ted when He did.  I miss him, yes.  I really miss him.  But I know that he's happier now than he ever was - and that he left this world in an untainted, intimate love-relationship with "The Old Man" that leaves mine in the dust. 

Yes, it was a little rough around the edges.  Yes, he had a lot to learn. (Or did he?)  Be that as it may, I can tell you that with all that is in me, there are times that I pray for God to make me more like him.  Not like the ones that are so bound up in the shoulds and oughtas that they drive people away in droves - but more like Ted, who just learned to love and be loved, completely, honestly, warts and all.

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