An atheist tweeted a comment about a Pope Francis photo that demonstrates so clearly and so simply, in 140 characters or less, why living for Christ is the goal every Christian should have.
Before I say anything else, I should point out what some of you already know: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Catholic. But I’ve written several posts about Pope Francis since this new pontiff began shaking things up in his church. Enough of them, in fact, that I’ve created a tag for the Pope here at the blog to make it easier to find them. I’m sure, as he continues to challenge long-held policies and traditions in favor of a practical, everyday return to the basic intents of Christianity, I’ll write more.
This week, I found a story about the Pope embracing a man with a rare disfiguring skin disease. The little we see of the man, who is shown with his face against Francis’s chest as Francis prays over him, might evoke memories of Joseph Merrick, known as “The Elephant Man”. Merrick was a 19th century figure so deformed by a similar condition that he was forced into a life as a carnival freak until a physician rescued him from that existence and began studying his case.
But what is even more striking to me is a mention in a CNN article of a single tweet made by a non-believer:
I’m an atheist, but the more I hear about Pope Francis, the more I like him.
Yes, the non-believer remains confident enough in her unbelief that she intentionally lets that be the first thing we know about her, as if that’s the thing she thinks should most clearly define who she is.
Right after that statement of an intentional rejection of faith is a statement also critically important: the Pope has made an impression. But why?
What is he doing that’s special enough that makes even an atheist take notice?
Is it that Pope Francis is himself some sort of superhuman Christian with a level of faith that’s unattainable to the rest of us? Has Pope Francis somehow achieved a level of perfection that no one else possibly can?
I don’t want to alienate any Catholics in my audience, and I certainly recognize that some of them may well see Pope Francis as a step above everyone else in terms of his spiritual life, his Christian walk and his ability to communicate who Jesus Christ is. It’s not my intention to pick a fight over those points.
But I do think that in this case, the truth lies in something that should be painful to all Christians: perhaps the reason that a non-believer would take notice of such a simple act isn’t so much that Pope Francis is so impressive, as much as the fact that most Christians to whom they are exposed are so lackluster and lazy about living what we say we believe.
It’s one thing to claim a strong faith and an unshakable belief in God. It’s quite another, and infinitely harder, to live your life in a way that proves those statements.
Remember the internet hoax about the supposed homeless man who entered a church asking for help, only to find himself ignored by the congregation or turned away altogether? The man, the story claims, was the new pastor that the congregation had not yet met, and he immediately dismissed everyone, instructing them to go home and study the Bible after he found himself treated so rudely by a group of people who are called to, among other things, love thy neighbor as themselves.
How many of us wouldn’t — on some level — have recoiled in horror at the thought of embracing the man in the photo with Pope Francis? Would we have let our fear get in the way of treating him as though he were just as valuable and precious to God as we are?
People who make the kind of gesture seen in the Pope Francis photo make an impression because they stand out. And that’s the problem: they ought not stand out. For all of us who follow Christ, that gesture should seem like just another typical day. Even among believers, though, it seems extraordinary somehow.
The lesson of the tweet should serve as a very important reminder: it’s our behavior, not our words, that can have the biggest impact on the world around us. The person who tweeted her feelings about the Pope is likely still an atheist. One photo surely isn’t likely to change that. Too many of my Christian friends, I think, seem obsessed with figuring out a specific number of people they’ve personally “converted” to Christianity. If we’re living a life that’s true to what we say we believe, though, we’re touching those around us in ways we may never realize. We’re committing ministry with a magnitude we can’t always see. But we’re potentially accomplishing so much more.
In doing so, we make even non-believers take notice. Without the struggle for the perfect “sales pitch” or approach. Without having to preach to them. No matter how many “right” words we say, no matter how many talking points we use to counter a non-believer’s arguments about God, if they can’t see in us a genuine walk that lives up to what we say we believe, our words mean nothing, anyway.
Have you ever been impressed by someone of a different faith because of the determined, sincere way they lived out their beliefs?