Thursday, December 2, 2021

An Atheist In Advent!

Dear Friends,

When I was young, one of my favorite things at Christmas time was when my mom and dad took us kids to Olvera Street for Las Posadas. Olvera Street is considered to be “the birthplace of Los Angeles” and is where you’ll find the oldest house in the City. The Olvera Street adobe and brick buildings were restored in 1930 and today you’ll find a block-long, tree-shaded, brick-lined market place that ends at the historic plaza. “Las Posadas” is a Catholic-Mexican tradition that commemorates the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the search for a place where Jesus would be born. You could feel the excitement all along the narrow, colorful street as we waited for Las Posadas (The Inns) to begin. 

You first heard the singing and then saw a teenage Mary riding a small donkey lead by a teenage Joseph. There was a bunch of kids, about my age, dressed as either shepherds or angels and all were singing and carrying candles. As the crowd passed us, we joined the procession as it made its way down the street. “Mary and Joseph” stopped at every shop entrance asking for shelter and were turned away until they reached their final destination. The “innkeeper” invited them in and everyone was served a Mexican hot drink and cookies. Things were far less inclusive in the early sixties, but it never seemed odd to me that we were one of the very few non-Catholic, non-Mexican families who took part in this Christmas tradition on Olvera Street!

Las Posadas is the perfect metaphor for the Advent season. Jesus knocks on the doors of hearts and He’s either rejected and turned away or He’s invited in. Jesus invites us to come and live within Him and He will live within us. John 15:4 You can ignore Jesus the rest of the year, but He’s in your face from Thanksgiving day until Christmas. That’s why this is a very tough time of year for atheists. Immanuel means “God with us” and while Jesus is with us year-round, you definitely can’t escape from Him at Christmas time! 

Even atheists cannot hide from the “God with us” for He is with them too. Two days ago, on the speakers over the pumps at the gas station, I heard “Joy to the world, the Lord has come, let earth receive her King..” The songs, Nativity scenes and images of Jesus Christ are everywhere we go and that means that the atheist must be constantly and continuously rejecting the Son of God.

A few years ago, we were at our favorite beach restaurant on a very cool, overcast December day so we were happy to find that the outdoor patio heaters were working. The only other one braving the outdoor patio was Peggy and her small dog. She’s a regular at the restaurant and we had talked with her before. This time, we asked what she was doing for Christmas. She said that she and her grown children were taking a trip to South America. After sixty-four years of a happy marriage, her husband had died a year and a half ago and she began to talk to us about the loneliness and emptiness of her life without him. We heard her sadness and saw her eyes fill with tears.

God prompted me to turn this conversation toward Him and I asked about her faith. Peggy said, “I know I’m going to disappoint you both because I always see you pray before you eat, but I’m an atheist.” She said that she had been uncertain about God throughout her life and at the age of seventy-two decided that she just didn’t believe. She told us that one of the hardest things about being an atheist, and not believing in God or in an afterlife in Heaven, was that she had no hope of ever seeing her husband again. I asked her if she ever prayed. She shook her head “no” and I told her that we would start praying for her. I told her that we were both strong Christian believers who believe in the efficacy of prayer and I told her that I was also a pastor. She said she hoped that we would still like her even though she didn’t believe in God and we assured her that we still did. We all finished our lunch at the same time and the three of us stood to leave and said goodbye. Peggy started to walk down the steps toward the street but then stopped and turned back. “Don’t forget to pray for me,” she said. “I’m leaving Wednesday and pray for my plane trip. I’m not afraid of terrorists but bad airplane mechanics. Please pray that I have a safe flight.” We assured her we would. 

The Advent journey is the journey of Las Posadas. But in the spiritual realm it’s Jesus Christ knocking on the closed doors of hearts all across the world and inviting us to come and abide in Him. It started with us asking Peggy how she was going to spend her Christmas that year, and she apologetically but firmly explained that she did not believe in God or prayer. But then as she was leaving, she not only asked for our prayers to the God she “didn’t believe in,” but she asked specifically for God’s protection of her and a safe flight. At some point during our conversation, the Holy Spirit intervened and Peggy opened that door to her heart just a little crack. Perhaps just wide enough to wonder if she had made the right conclusion about God. To maybe even find a longing for hope again in a Savior who offers eternal life. The Advent season before Christmas, immerses believer and non-believer alike in God’s presence and in the reality of Jesus – God with us. No one can make Him go away...

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