Thursday, July 9, 2009

God in the ungodly

Richard and Ingrid are across-the-street neighbors. Richard’s mission in life is to rescue, help, feed, and protect the helpless. They captured feral cats from a junkyard, then neutered and released them. After work every evening, they took dry cat food to the junkyard and set it out for the wild cats. When the derelict fence was chained shut after the property sold, they recaptured five of the most-likely-to-succeed cats and brought them home to their other two pet cats. The frightened, feral cats are now sleek, groomed, friendly, playful, well-adjusted pets.

Puccini, a tuxedo cat, had feline urinary syndrome, and required several thousand dollars’ worth of microsurgery (50 miles away) and special handling for weeks afterward. But there was no question that Richard and Ingrid would do whatever necessary for their fur-child. Another neighbor works long hours, so Richard and Ingrid go every afternoon to let her poodle out for a walk around the block, followed by face time with them and their cats. Ingrid takes her ladder to a friend to help pick hundreds of peaches in 95F July heat.

My family always treated the autumn Thanksgiving holiday as a special “sabbath” celebration of gratefulness for God’s mercy and providence. But last year, we were not able to be together. So who invited me to share the feast with them? The neighborhood agnostics, Richard and Ingrid. Richard is a non-religious Jew from New York, and Ingrid was born and raised in Austria, so neither think of American Thanksgiving as anything other than “Turkey Day,” a time to share a meal with family, but not a time to think of God.

God is just a “good feeling” to some people. There’s the whole secular humanist, New Age, eastern philosophy touted on talk shows, bandying phrases like “the Universe will tell you what you need to know,” and “pay it forward.”

Or, as some people say on occasion, religion is just fairy stories or myths to teach great themes of human history. But the people who say that are the same people who make large donations of money and goods to charity, and willingly pay 50 percent taxes to finance social-welfare programs so that the elderly, mentally ill, and helpless can be taken care of. They often volunteer service and risk their lives to do compassionate care in refugee camps, orphanages, and AIDS clinics. They devote everything to working for peace.

This is not meant to be a political or social commentary. It’s a devotional article. So here’s the question to ponder: Can these people, who do not claim Jesus as Savior but have tender hearts, become citizens of the kingdom of God? They seem to be godless people to us, but they often exhibit the traits of one gracious God, who described His glory to Moses: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” Exodus 34:6,7 NIV.

God's priorities are clear: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8 NIV.

Although they don’t consciously choose Jesus as Savior, those tender hearts beat with love for animals, children, the needy, the sick, the forgotten. They invite singles into their family circles. They participate in marathons for charity and sacrifice precious resources to help strangers. We should hesitate to call them godless, because we can actually recognize a spark of God-sourced, God-given, unconditional love in them.

Jesus surprised those who asked Him who would inherit eternal life. They were pretty sure that working for the church in God’s Name was sufficient payment for the chariot fare. Instead, He disappointed them by saying that some people they’d thought were surely goats, would actually be declared sheep!

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’” Matthew 25:37-40 NIV.

Do you know agnostics? Atheists? Your own grown children who have left the church? Everyone has a passion. Everyone loves someone or something. Maybe it’s a liking for nature, expressed in hiking or camping or gardening. Perhaps it’s a love of animals or children. Or the compulsion from “the Universe” to help the homeless, the addicted, or abused. Those passions are signs that the Divine spirit is working on their hearts.

Use the entrĂ©e to build relationships. Let your witnessing and invitations to Christianity be your actions, long before your words. Be comrades with them. Be the cat-sitter, the dog-walker, the sharer of garden flowers or fruit. When their kids sell trinkets for a school fundraiser, buy something. Secretly pray for them, rescue their newspaper from the rain, and take them a plate of cookies. In doing so, you will fulfill Jesus’ commandment to love, and further bear witness that Christians aren’t fairytale kooks!

You’ve heard this statement, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” It’s a modern construction of St. Francis of Assisi’s actual words, “Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds.”

You know a Richard or Ingrid, who say they don’t believe in God, but have merciful, generous hearts, the kind God “requires” of us. That’s the heart of flesh that the Lord can write His law and will upon. (Hebrews 8:10-12)

Recently, when I mentioned that I believed my life's course is in God's hands, Richard said he respected my statement because he's observed that I live my faith, unlike people who only "preach." Hmm, it's like he knew St. Francis's writings. And the Lord has a toe-hold on Richard!

We don’t know how God will judge them, or if He’ll lovingly reveal His grace to them in a special way before their time is up. But we’ll have made friends, grown happy relationships, and gently enhanced Jesus’ reputation among the unbelievers. That is evangelism.

You can do it without how-to books or traveling halfway around the world. And you’ll get back all the benefits you give. God is good!

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