Life As An Atheist – my story of salvation (part one)
Twenty-nine years ago yesterday morning I was an atheist.
Twenty-nine years ago yesterday afternoon I was a theist.
Twenty-nine years ago today I became a Christian.
My Life as an Atheist
I grew up in the church. Sunday school as a kid, the church choir as a teen (the youngest male in the choir by decades), reading Scripture in the morning services.
By the time I hit my early twenties, my view on faith started shifting. After spending 2 1/2 years at a pair of community colleges I moved away to UC Santa Barbara. I thought I took my beliefs with me, but I was wrong.
UCSB was my home for the next 2 1/2 years. It was there that I engaged in a slow slide. Whether it was a slide from nominal Christianity or the real thing, I ended up firmly planted in an atheistic philosophy of life.
It was toward the end of my time at UCSB that I finally gave voice to my beliefs, or lack. I was an RA in one of the dorms and was talking with my boss, the Dean of Residence Life, over dinner. Somehow the conversation came around to matters of faith and I said I was an atheist. She asked, “But you’d believe if convinced of God’s existence?” I said there was no point contemplating the possibility since he didn’t exist. Yes, I could be a bit hard-headed back then, even with my employer.
You might be thinking that this is the danger of sending a child off to school, far from home and family and church. But if you think this was a major change for me after moving just a few hours from home, wait until you read what happened when I flew even further afield.
A Sussex Sojourn
My sixth year of college took me to England. I hadn’t planned on it, but there it was. Sometime in what I thought would be my last year as an undergraduate I found out about education abroad. The University of California has a robust program for sending students all over the world, typically in their junior year. I was well past that, of course, but figured I’d apply and see if I could get overseas somehow.
I made it through the application and interview process and then sat on the waiting list. Oh well, I thought, five years of college must be my limit. Then I got a letter from the University of Sussex inviting me to join them for a year. I called the UCSB education abroad office and asked where I was on their wait list and was told I was number three, but when I told the woman I just got a letter from Sussex saying they wanted me she piped up, “Well then, I guess you’re off the waiting list!”
Something happened at Sussex that had not happened at school in California. I started making friends with Christians. A couple of them, Alex and Karen, became very close to me. Neither of them gave me the turn-or-burn speech, but they each made no bones about their faith and how it permeated their lives. They made it clear that God was important to them and that everyone needed him in their lives. I, being an atheist, indulged them. Later I found out that they, being Christians, prayed for me.
The British university system has a very civilized view of breaks between terms. They last a long time. At winter break, I had four weeks off and spent the first two traveling around with another American guy, then Christmas itself with an English friend and her family who were kind enough to take me in for the holiday. This first half of the break was decidedly Christian-free.
After Christmas I went into London, figuring I would find an inexpensive hotel and just hang out there for a couple more weeks. I arrived late in the day as dusk gathered and made my way to an area near the British Museum that had a block of bed and breakfasts. I’d walk up the steps, look over the room prices posted at the door, then move on. At one point I stepped up to a very rundown looking youth hostel where the prices were well within my price. Better to keep looking, though. Perhaps there was something nicer that I could afford a little further on.
So I crossed the street and mounted another set of steps. It looked much nicer, but the prices reflected that as well. I turned to the street and saw an old woman in a dark overcoat across the way. She was motioning to me and calling out in a thick eastern European accent, “Hey boy. Boy, you come over here.”
I walked over wondering where she’d come from. This was the middle of the block and I was sure I hadn’t seen her before, but didn’t know how I could have missed her either. I thought she needed some help, so I asked what I could do for her.
“Those places too expensive,” she said. “I know a nice place for boy like you.” Then she motioned me to follow her. And led me right back to the cheap youth hostel. Rather than offend her I went inside, and toyed with the idea of turning around and walking back out as soon as she was gone. She watched from the sidewalk, though, I think to make sure I knew how to open a door, walk through it and stay there.
As I made my way down the dingy hallway to the beaten up front counter I heard one of the staff ask the other, “Those two American girls that arrived last night, what room did you put them in?” Then he saw me and asked how he could help.
“You could put me in that room with the two American girls!” I said, thinking myself quite clever. He apparently did not think me all that clever and just asked how many nights I was staying and handed me a key.
I went upstairs and opened the room with the same number as the key. Sitting on two of the beds were the American girls.
God Sanctified A Railway Car – my story of salvation (part two)
London Calling (cont.)
Louise and Cathy told me that the place was run in an open bunk style and I could drop my things on one of the other three beds. Apparently, new people got whatever room had an empty bed in it while the bath was down the hall. Suited me fine, so I stayed.
Cathy and Louise were college roommates in America but were studying abroad that year and had just come into London from Germany (Louise ) and Spain (Cathy). They didn’t know London at all, so I offered to show them around a bit. We ended up traveling together for two weeks.
These two young women, as you might have guessed, were Christians. They talked a ton about their faith and how everyone needed Jesus. I talked a ton about my atheism and how God didn’t exist. I did wear a small cross around my neck, though, and Cathy asked about it the first night. A gift from an old friend, I explained, nothing more significant than that. (Cathy later admitted that there were times during our travels that she wanted to reach up and rip the cross from my neck. She refrained because, like I said, she’s a Christian.)
At another point, Louise asked me whether I thought I’d get into heaven if it turned out there really was such a place. I told her sure, and she asked why.
“Because I’m a nice guy.”
She looked me dead in the eye. “A lot of nice guys are going to hell, Tim.”
I wanted to explain that I was a really nice guy, but knew that wouldn’t make a difference to her thinking. Besides, I also knew I wasn’t all that nice a guy.
So we traveled around, and at one point Louise bought me a copy of The Screwtape Letters, thinking I’d enjoy Screwtape’s correspondence with his nephew Wormwood. She was right. She and Cathy also were soon leaving to return to school on the continent.
I saw them off on their ferry to Calais and the next morning took a train back to Sussex.
The Sanctification of a Railway Car
The train ride from London to Brighton takes about an hour, unless you’re on the run that makes a stop at every local station along the way. That’s the one I was on. These trains used the older style cars, the type where you can’t move from one to the other through connecting doors. You have to wait to get to a station, get out of one car and walk the platform to get on the next one down.
I was alone in my car and picked up the book Louise bought me to read along the way. The train stopped at a couple stations, and I was just settling in to read some more when I found I could not concentrate very well. I kept reading the same paragraph over and over. I had a feeling like you get sometimes in a library or other quiet place that someone must have walked in when you weren’t looking. I figured someone must have gotten on at the last station without me noticing. So I stood up and looked around. No one in the railway car but me.
I sat back down and opened the book again. Now I found myself reading not the same paragraph but the same sentence over and over again. The feeling that someone was there with me was overwhelming, not allowing me to concentrate at all, so I started to get up to look again. Then I told myself, We haven’t stopped at a station since the last time you looked, Tim. There’s no one here. I sat back down and completely unbidden came a question I would never have imagined coming from my lips. Out loud. In an otherwise empty railway car.
“OK God, what do you want?”
What are you doing Tim, I thought. You don’t believe in God. Then I answered myself Yeah, but someone’s here with me. Then a feeling of sufficiency (if that’s the right word) came over me, that I could go back to my reading now. So I did, and read through to my final stop.
Once I got back to my room at school I thought hard about what happened, and I finally decided that I should ask God about this. I told him I wanted to know who he was, but also assured him that even though I’d been hanging around with Christians it was completely all right if he was not the God that Christ revealed.
Through the course of that evening and the next day, I became convinced that was exactly who he is. So I had more thinking to do. I had to consider what this meant, and what I should do about it. Here’s what I came up with from my old Sunday school knowledge about Jesus: God loves me and wants the best for me, God made me so he knows what’s best for me, God is all-powerful so he has the ability to actually do what’s best for me too.
I thought What a deal! and said out loud, “OK God, I’m in.”
That was it, my prayer of salvation: What-a-deal-OK-God-I’m-in.