The Message That Called Me Out of Atheism and Plopped Me Into a Lutheran Pulpit
I was an atheist until I was twenty four. I was raised by an atheist. As a young man, I studied the writings of atheists. In college I scolded Christians for their naive stupidity. “God’s just a human idea that helps you hide from reality,” I said. "An invisible friend that lives in the sky and is really bad at money management. I certainly don’t need to go to church to be a good person." And regular Sunday church attendance? That seemed to be all the excuse many Christians I knew needed to misbehave Saturday night. Then, when I’d hit my bottom – through drug and alcohol abuse and self-destructive relationships – God revealed Himself to me as God-for-me. It was a violent meeting, because I fought hard against His coming. I didn’t want or need a god. I had drugs and alcohol. I had myself. This wasn't how it was supposed to end for me. I thought, “This must be what it’s like to suffer a psychotic break.”
I said to friends, "I can’t hang around you anymore." I thought a lot about suicide. I even tried to kill myself, several times. I didn’t know what had happened and nobody seemed able to help figure it out. Then, at the suggestion of a friend’s father, who was a Lutheran pastor, I flew away to Mexico. When I arrived, God was there. About a year later, when I rode a train to Portland, God was there too. Six months later I took a bus ride to Louisiana. God was there. For ten years I flew, rode, drove, and ran away but everywhere I stopped, there He was waiting, like a sheep dog ready to herd me back to the flock. At some point, I don't remember when, I gave up my trying to run away. I gave up fighting what was happening to me. I joined a church.
A roommate asked if I’d attend church with him. He wanted to start going back to church, but he couldn’t get himself out of bed Sunday morning to do it. So he asked for help getting to church. He even let me pick the church. That Sunday we had a choice; cross four lanes of traffic to get to the Methodist church or walk down the block to the Lutheran church on the corner. Traffic was heavy and I wasn’t going to wait for the light to change, so I chose the corner building.
Walking in we were directed away from the narthex by ushers. The sanctuary was undergoing renovation so we wandered into the fellowship hall with (what I considered to be) disturbingly well groomed members of the congregation. The hall was a cold, dim space set up with folding metal chairs. The pastor who emerged from his study to lead the service looked as if he’d died fifteen years earlier and no one had told him. To this day that’s still the longest, most painful sermon I’ve ever had to sit through on folding metal chairs.
Afterwards I swore at my roommate the whole walk back to our apartment. I’d never go back into a Lutheran church again. All my stereotypes and caricatures of American Christianity had been validated. Three weeks later he convinced me to go back. “You don’t have to come to worship, just come to bible study with me. I want to check it out. I went last week when you were in Vancouver and a different pastor was there, and I’m positive this one isn’t a zombie.”
Sometime during the bible study I argued with the pastor. I don’t remember how it happened, but I remember challenging something he said about “we are saved by grace alone without our works.” After the class ended he got up from his chair and walked straight at me. I braced for the inevitable fight. Let’s see this burned out old pastor, this fake Christian, this Lutheran, try to prove me wrong. Instead he shook my hand. “Good morning, I’m Pastor Kreuger,” he said. Then he invited me to lunch. Who did this guy think he was dealing with! I made up excuse after excuse to get out of it but he insisted. “Fine,” I said. It was a free lunch after all, and I’d been eating instant ramen three times a day for several weeks.
At lunch the next week we talked for three hours. Back and forth it went. Serve and volley. I’d ask a question, he’d respond with a question. I’d challenge him, he’d counter with bible verses or quotes from theologians I’d never heard of. At the end of the conversation he convinced me to read some writings by Martin Luther. He pointed me to Luther's Small Catechism and The Freedom of a Christian.
It was Luther’s explanation of the Third Article of the Creed that blew all the circuits in my brain. “I believe I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him, BUT...” I'd never read anything like that before, as if Luther were writing that just for me, a converted atheist.
“If this is what a Lutheran is,” I said, “I want to be one!” I’ve been in recovery ever since. I’ve learned not a lot of Lutherans actually think the Small Catechism is all that mind-blowing.
I eventually gave up my fight with God, pastors, and Christians... some of my fight... a little bit of my fight... Actually, God broke me wide open. In desperation I was baptized. "Since I’ve been accepted to seminary," I said to my wife, "it’d probably be best to show up for the first day of class baptized."
When I arrived at the seminary I was introduced to classmates who were not that excited by the old Lutherans or their theology. There was also, I remember, a lot of emphasis placed on adapting theology to “our context” (whatever that meant). I do know we were flooded with stories and anecdotes and data that showed to do otherwise and would cause us pastors to lose members and eventually kill a church. It had happened before. There were pictures!
It wasn’t long before I decided I didn’t belong at the seminary. I also wasn’t sure I belonged in the Lutheran church. I tried to drop out, graduate early, or give up, several times. But each time I went to the registrar’s office to fill out the withdrawal forms someone talked me into staying and finishing. I didn’t want to be a pastor, so it was decided I’d go on to earn my PhD in Church History. At least I could teach in the church. Even then, after six years of work, I gave up that fight and was ordained. I was ordained even though I disagreed with the message I continued to hear.
I heard the message still, after ordination, that the church’s core teaching is, “Believe in God, belong to a Lutheran church, and behave yourself. Now go, teach others to do the same.”
It was at the third or fourth monthly pastors meeting after my ordination that I exclaimed, “This is what convinced atheist me that the church’s teaching is a lie. You’ve concocted all these lies to escape from reality. The reality I lived in every day as the child of an alcoholic. What about the abuse I suffered? Who’s to blame for that? What about my addiction and the terrible things I did to myself and other people? What about that? What’s God got to say about all that? I’m not saying I did bad things. I’m saying I AM A BAD THING! Now what?”
Believe in God, belong to a church, and behave yourself isn’t the Gospel. It’s not what St. Paul teaches in Romans, that “the Gospel is the power of God for salvation to all who believe,” that faith alone in Christ alone is the fulfillment of the whole law, that “the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness...” that there is no good in my flesh and nothing good that I can do of myself to contribute to the kingdom of Christ. What about “I believe I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel...”?
What I’ve heard and been taught and been scolded about the past twenty years by well-meaning, pious, life-long Christians is a message that doesn’t draw people into the church. It’s what causes people to grow up in the church and someday walk out. It’s not about context, demographics, peer groups, or “this generation”, or any of the stuff we dream up to explain why people walk out of church. People who, like me, even though they want to believe in a good and loving God, have been convinced there isn’t one. So why waste our time trying to please a God who ignores the abused and pours bucket after bucket of the world's crap onto the addict?
What people who grow up hearing the sermon, “Believe, belong, behave” are hearing is, “This is a test. Pass the test and God will spare you punishment. Instead, He will reward you, if you just...” That is, “There’s an invisible man in the sky who will give presents to good little boys and girls, but will send naughty boys and girls to hell.”
The fancy term for this is “moralistic therapeutic deism.” It’s not Christ, not the Gospel, not His message. It’s not anything but sinners trying to run away from the God that is most God for you on His Cross. We want to define and use God on our own terms. We want to get from Him what we want, and what we want is control. What we want is an escape from suffering and death. We want to enjoy ourselves while we do it. We want a Goldilocks kind of God: not too hot, not too cold, not too hard, not too soft, not too far away, but not too close, but just right. Just the way we want Him to be for us.
But, if we are baptized into Christ’s death, as St. Paul writes, then we will live as Christ lived, suffer as Christ suffered, and die as Christ died. And be raised from the dead as Christ was raised from the dead. Where is God in our suffering? He is bearing it for us. Where is God when we do what is evil? He is receiving it for us. Where is God when I say, “I am not doing bad things, I AM A BAD THING!”? He is on the cross carrying all my guilt and shame for me. And for you too.
That’s the Gospel. That’s Christ for you. That’s the truth that blows all the old sinners' circuits. It creates a new man who lives free before God, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. That’s the power of the Gospel that turns atheists like me into believers. It sets us free to be people of God. Freed to serve and love and live in gratitude for what God has given to us today and every day. All gift from Him for you. That’s the message that called me out of atheism and plopped me into a Lutheran pulpit.