Letter to my (one year trial) atheist friend Ryan
Unless you have been living under a rock, cable-less, wifi-less, phone-less and media-less, you probably know by now the decision by Ryan Bell to try on atheism for a year. For the three of you who were not aware, here is the link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ryan-j-bell/a-year-without-god_b_4512842.html (Please read that first, this blog will make more sense.)
I have been debating whether to write on this topic, primarily because of all the significant and existing volume of articles, blogs, reporting, and internet chatter. Yet, even at the risk of being redundantly redundant, here are my thoughts who are primarily directed to Ryan as well as ministers/pastors/leaders that may read this at some time. My reflections are not about why you decided, but rather what you decided.
First of all, Ryan, I am sad about what has happened in you. For those who do not know Ryan, it would take you one minute in conversation with him to see how talented, smart, articulate and passionate he is. Well read. Well intentioned. Big heart. Yet this decision goes specifically contrary to scripture. This decision does not further the cause of Christ and helps no one get close to a God that passionately seeks to enter into an eternal relationship with his creation, us. I am sad that Ryan chose to distance himself from his Creator. I don’t wish evil on him. I wish he would reconsider his decision and reconnect with God.
Secondly, Ryan, I am sorry about what has happened to you. Ryan mentions the fact that he has experienced trauma in the past year. That may very well be a contributing factor in this decision. Behind every departure there is distress. Some of the reaction from our own faith community has been less than gracious, to say the least. Some don’t know how to disagree without resorting to personal attacks, name calling and insults.
At the same time, there are countless people that have experienced similar or more severe trauma and their faith has been strengthened not discarded. Conflict, trauma, pain all lead us to a building with two doors. One says: Faith. The other says: Doubt. We decide in which one to walk through. Inside Doubt, we are handed an onion. Peel all the layers, and at the end we are left with nothing except smelly hands and tear-filled eyes. Walk through the Faith door and we are handed a pair of dumbbells. Painful at the beginning to our muscles, but strengthened in the end. I second Kessia Bennet’s assessment of how to deal with doubts: You approach them from the perspective of faith.
My wish for Ryan is that the pain in his life, private, personal or public might drive him to God, not away from Him. I don’t believe it’s too late.
Thirdly, Ryan, I am sobered through your experience. From your article, one specific admission has stayed on my mind. Since you stopped being employed as a pastor, the bible reading, praying, studying also ceased. I thought to myself: Would I study the bible so intensely, pray so continually, and study so diligently IF I wasn’t in the ministry. In other words, do I do what I do because of what I do? This is a struggle many pastors have, where the spiritual disciplines become the tools of the trade and not the source of growth, relationship building and faith. Your experience has helped me to re-examine my own spiritual journey and make sure I am building my personal relationship with God not just my resume.
Finally, Ryan, I am sure that God still has unchanging, eternal love for you. God’s love is not determined by our wrong or right choices. While I disagree theologically and experientially with your premise and biblical perspective you must never confuse disagreement with disdain. God has stated what he feels about you. Now I want to share mine:
I don’t know you very well. But I love you. And I want you to know that I have been praying for you and will continue to do so. When I saw you on CNN I prayed. When you post something on Facebook I will take that as a chance to pray. I just prayed right before I wrote this letter.
I call on all of us to do the same. That is what God expects, of us.