Monday, September 17, 2012

A Conversation With My Pastor, Part 1

Update: Part 2Part 3 and Part 4 have been added.

Back in December 2011, I was thinking about the church atmosphere that I grew up in. I realized that the open, honest and loving group of believers I grew up with was something I always took for granted. I could have just as easily been brought up in a backwards fundamentalist community, where skepticism and free thinking are actively discouraged, so I am grateful of my roots.

A central figure in my developing spiritual life was my pastor, Lance. He was charismatic, genuine, honest, and accepting. He's the kind of person that makes you feel like you could tell him anything, and he wouldn't judge you. He's a teacher, but also a listener. He never reacted to questions or challenges, he simply answered them. He is, in a word, a Christian.

I was moved to write him a quick email as I was thinking about this to thank him for being an example of a true Christian and to inform him that I was no longer a believer. I'm not entirely sure why I felt that I needed to "come out" to him, as he was not someone who was likely to be made happier by knowing that, and he was no longer a central figure in my life. Perhaps I was curious what he would think about it, or maybe I felt like I couldn't not mention it when writing to him. Regardless of my reasons, he wrote back, and it started an email conversation that continues to this day.

I thought some of my readers might be interested in the content of our correspondence, as it highlights how two people with mutual respect can have a civil discussion about a very delicate topic. I have posted my original email and his first reply, and I will do that episodically as our conversation continues.

My email:
Hey Lance, it's Eric Burton. I was thinking about you recently and the effect you have had on my life, and I wanted to say thank you. While I am no longer a believer, I still cherish much of my time as one (nearly 20 years!). With so many christian people who do not act at all like christians should, you stand out as a wonderful example of what a christian person should be like. You were never judgmental, always helpful, and seemed sincere when we talked about things that were important to me. My Mom, Dad and brother have all commented on this, and I think they all feel the same gratefulness.

I always looked up to you (I think I was 14 or so when the bible study moved to our house!), and while I no longer believe the same as you, I of course still look on you with esteem. I would be remiss to not mention Russ, Mark and both Jays in the same way, they were always supportive and friends in the faith. I feel very fortunate that the church atmosphere I happened to grow up in was not the scary, close-minded, hateful kind that seem to plague the christian church. And that is because of you, the aforementioned clergy, and the people who gravitated towards our group.

I am not sure how a mixed group of my former christian family would react to knowing that I no longer believe in god, but I feel comfortable in telling you, because of the kind of person you are. I do not completely regret my time as a believer, as I really did believe it, and it has shaped who I am today. In fact, I think it has given me a unique perspective as an atheist.

I hope things are well for [your wife] and your family, and I hope for the future as well. Please give the others I mentioned the same thanks I gave to you, on my behalf. Thanks again, and while I can't in good conscience wish you well in spreading the gospel, I do wish you well in life!


Lance's reply:
Hey Eric -

How great to “hear” from you!!!

I miss ya. We have so much history together and the fact that I just saw your brother and your dad this last year was a blast! I haven’t seen you in ages!!!

I have to admit that your email bummed me out, but I really appreciate you touching base with me at all.

Perhaps the greatest question in my mind is this...

What has your journey been like that allowed you to come to this conclusion (assured there is no God)? Clearly that decision wasn’t made lightly and some evidence has come along your way that changed your opinion. Would you mind sharing that with me? I don’t want to pry, but you had to know that my emailing me, you were going to provoke some questions. :-)

And I would really like to thank you for your kind words about me and the ministry you were able to observe. I really believe this stuff with all my heart and my passion is legitimate. To know that it translated to my friends and family, is wonderful to hear.

You and your family are like family to me no matter how much time has passed, nor what you believe.

Your brother,


I will post another back and forth next week or so. Feel free to leave comments, questions or suggestions below.
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Erik said...

I agree with you 100%. I am an advocate for this kind of exchange rather than butting heads over differences. I didn't start life as a Christian, I came to it through people patiently listening to my objections, doing their best to answer my questions and giving me the best evidence they had available. I didn't feel judged or lessened by what they had to say. I consider it my duty today to model the same attitude they showed me. I find myself frequently speaking to people with a belief that is different from my own. When they are willing to discuss those differences, I am happy to do so in a way that I always hope comes across as respectful, not arrogant or critical. Modern 'tolerance' seems to have missed something critical, the idea of 'civility'. We can disagree on fundamental issues and yet still carry on a civil conversation. Some of my best friends are atheists, agnostics or have different religious views. It doesn't divide us, it simply allows an opportunity to show genuine kindness to those who disagree. I'm glad to see you have that relationship with your former pastor, he sounds like a good guy. After the exchanges on STR's site recently, I can say that you were kind and considerate as well. I hope you felt the same way. I'll be stopping by again to see how your conversation progresses.

Eric Burton said...

Thanks Erik. Same to you :)

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