Having experienced four houses of worship in three days, I am left thinking how cool it is that my neighbor, Andrew Shaw, chose atheism as the discussion topic for his adult Sunday school class. And his rhetorical strategy was decidedly not to string up the aetheist like a pinata and encourage the faithful to take a whack.
I wouldn't say he was challenging his fellow parishioners to challenge their own faith (though I can imagine how his questions could have led that way, for someone going there already), but he was teaching compassion and understanding for people who don't share the church's core values.
He certainly was willing to suggest that aetheism flourishes when the church (in this case, the Presbyterian Church) loses sight of its core values.
To make that judgment, of course, you need to establish what your core values are. I was especially impressed by the candid, perhaps naked, way he asked his students to confront those questions: "What do you believe in? What are you willing to die for? Get hurt over? What's your core?"
From my experience, it's easy to go to church and never ask yourself these tough questions. It would have been difficult to attend Andrew Shaw's Sunday school class this weekend and not do so.
Andrew asked another probing question: "Are we as Christians our own worst enemy in promoting the gospel of a loving Lord?"
Whoa! We don't usually see the "values voters" get asked that question.
One woman in his group was willing to be just as direct and candid as the teacher. She said, "George and I can attest to the lack of a grace gospel in raising our children," and proceeded to describe the trials of her teenage son, who seems to be heading toward aetheism after struggling with the problems of atheism and the hypocrisy of the annointed.
What a relief it must have been for this woman to be able to confront her real problems right there in church, where (I recall) the real problems are as likely to be ignored as confronted.
"They don't see God's grace through us," Andrew said.
I don't see God's grace through Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin, but this morning, I certainly did see it through my neighbor and the students in his adult Sunday school class.