A Year With (or without) God

I listened to the full NPR story about Ryan Bell, but it really isn’t complete – at least not to me. My reactions to Pastor Bell’s declaration to “Spend A Year Without God” aren’t particularly philosophical, and (in truth) they’re basically personal gut feelings. Here’s a sampling – no special order – bullet point style:

  • Bell explains how he has been a long time leader in his church and states that it’s an expectation of church leaders that they will have fewer questions about God and faith (but he doesn’t give any examples of what that looks like) as opposed to being a member of a church who supposedly comes to there seeking answers and the guidance that an intercessor might provide. Bell goes on to say that he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t “wrestling” with his faith.

For me, every single clergy person whom I have ever truly felt guided by or had any sort of spiritual trust in – was someone who was able to articulate that yes, they believe in God – and yes, they have many questions. I would be wary of anyone who blindly or overzealously or dogmatically claimed to be completely in the know when it comes to God. The God I believe in has space for my questions. The leaders of faith I want to listen to and learn from are those who are humble and continually seeking.

  • Bell talks about going to church, and over time feeling as though it (church) was gradually no longer serving as a connecting point for him. He stopped going to church, and then eventually began to wonder about God in general.

This part simply got me thinking about my path. (Skip the next three paragraphs if you want something more meaty.) I both enjoyed and didn’t like attending church as a child. I adored standing next to my mother and singing our favorite hymns; I didn’t like getting up on Sunday morning and found Sunday school an abysmal waste of time. I appreciated sermons that taught me lessons that I could apply to present life and those that emphasized that timelessness of Christ’s teachings; I didn’t fancy hearing old testament stories that made me fearful and guilty. I was grateful for the community of people who looked out for me; I was angry when fellow church goers didn’t act that true Christians.

I grew up and eventually (physically) moved away from my childhood house of worship. When I later felt pulled to return to the place and all of its familiar trappings – to explore whether I wanted to bring and introduce my own children there, I found that I no longer wanted to express my faith in the same ways that my parents had raised me ie. a specific place, prayer books and hymnals, repetitive ceremonies lead by someone “in charge” (and yes, I know it’s much more than these things).

Let me be clear: I truly appreciate my religious foundation and what I learned in the first 18 years of my life as a baptized and very involved Episcopalian. Yet my relationship with a Higher Power grew most profoundly when I discovered that I had the belief and the ability to connect with God without books, specific venues or other people. I discovered that I needed to realize my own way of praying, and I did. For me, leaving behind the actual sanctuary enabled me to create an internal one that I am free to live in whenever I chose.

  • Finally (and foremost), when I first read the NPR headline I wondered, “How exactly does someone live without God, especially one who has ever had a relationship with God? I mean, I sorta get it; I didn’t hear Ryan Bell say he doesn’t believe in God. He implies that he is taking a break from structure. I also didn’t hear him saying, “I’m atheist.” He’s taking a year off to read and explore. Maybe he’ll finish up with a book about his experience (like many comment-ors claim will occur). Maybe he’ll end up back in the church and reinstated as a teacher. Maybe he’ll depart religion altogether.

But for me, having taken many years off from thinking about God yet continuing to believe because of childhood conditioning, and then spending more years thinking very much about God while questioning passionately, sometimes angrily, and often wanting to (as I once wrote) “sit knee to knee with God to ask some very direct questions,” the idea of being without God doesn’t fit. Now that I have earned and learned Faith, I just don’t think it would be possible for me to kick God out. I don’t believe there’s an off switch that will silence the deeper questions. I think that Ryan Bell may still be interrupted by God in the middle of the night – when he can’t stop the thought (or the prayer?) that comes sneaking in from the outer boundaries between sleep and wakefulness. He can name it what he wants in the morning.

Whatever Pastor Bell calls it, I hope this year feeds his soul in positive ways. I hope it allows him to continue to do good in the world and supports his being a person who asks questions and digs deeper in the name of wholeness and love.

About Martha Phelps Studio ~ creative on purpose

...a meandering journal of a changing life and the unexpected graces it brings. Earlier posts may provide some history, but this series of writings aren't likely to follow a straight line as I explore topics such as raising kids, making choices, self discovery, the impact of change on a family and how to (hopefully) live with balance and purpose. www.marthaphelps.com
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3 Responses to A Year With (or without) God

  1. Cynthia Lawlis says:

    I remember, as a youngster in Father Dubay’s congregation, the anticipation of the searing horror of being “appetized” and the distinct opposition to the “wetting of my bangs”…your dad survived although I doubt it was a subject included in his “Ordination Exam”… Just sayin

    Faith is a good thing when tempered with historical reference, common sense and consideration for others.

    Having read a plethora of material covering numerous sources regarding worship, theory and human conditions, and having witnessed sudden death , pain beyond description, human viciousness, in the simplest translation, not all riddles are to be answered and not all puzzles must be solved.

    Life is what it is.

    Make each day grander than the one before, for yourself and for those you love. Don’t waste a second of it and make the best of each day we have – the long and winding road will end for each of us. Make good memories while you can.

  2. Joe Dubay says:

    Hi Martha,
    I agree the story is not complete. We know little about Ryan Bell in terms of history, family, age, relationships or the hurts and joys of his life.. Nor do we know details as to what he was fired for exactly. What were his disbeliefs and how were they expressed? Better yet, what are his beliefs that brought him into conflict? We do know he was well established in his church being a full professor at two seminaries. I think that he is indeed grieving having been fired from a prestigious position and might damn well be angry with his God. Anyhow my heart goes out to him as no doubt he is in some pain.

    Putting all this aside, I think he touches on the key issue when he talks of the need for a “society and community which can contain my questions”-and I might add answers. Apparently he cannot find this either in his own Church or with the atheists.

    Many clergy, hopefully all, struggle with questions of faith…who am I, what am I doing here. What is life, my life all about? Some give up struggling and simply carry on, no longer attending church when they retire as I understand is the situation with many Episcopal clergy. Struggle is perhaps not the right word here. While it is for some, I think that perhaps yearning is closer to the mark: a yearning to understand and see more clearly. For me, C.S, Lewis says it well: “At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Someday, God willing we will all get in.” From “the Weight of Glory”

    What is innocuous for me is the whole idea, “Spend a Year without God.” Is he confusing God with organized religion. I mean come on! Does he really have a switch inside that will turn off yea many years of his history as Martha so elegantly wrote. I suspect that “God” will continue knocking on his head and his heart. Back in the ‘60’s I talked with many Jewish folk who after Austerlitz decided “there is no God.” They were bitter. But you know, they were still living as if there was, or if not, in hope that God would reveal God-self to them again someday and apologize.

    I just hope this guy is not planning on writing a book because it has already been written many times.

  3. Joe Dubay says:

    Thanks for sharing your own journey so beautifully and openly.

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