Lent2 – I’m Spiritual, not religious

As we journey through Lent this year, we are considering the question Why Christian?  We may be able to identify why we’re here every week, and next week, we’ll deeply consider how we got here, but for others, outside of habit alone, we haven’t considered what it means to invest our time, our energy, our money, our hopes and our dreams, into this structure for our beliefs.

Last week we spoke about how religion gets blamed for a bulk of society’s ills.

We’d hope that religion would bring the best out of people and yet still the news is filled with disturbing stories of how people have misinterpreted ancient words of love and justice.  It seems that no matter how we try, both inside and out of the church, we are still human.  We make mistakes.  We are prone to jealousy, temptation, hatred, and destruction.  We are human.  We are imperfect beings created through the perfect love of God.  And though we are deeply aware of our imperfections, we yearn for more for ourselves and others.  In that yearning, we reach those that might have been where we have, some of us finding religion and the people contained within, to cling to.

Religion has been called the trellis to our growing spiritual expression of faith, the vine of our understanding, the jello mold to the flexible, changeable jiggly movements of what we believe.  These structures are meant to facilitate the shape of what might be.  Religion could (and should) be that which we rest upon, grow upon, feel supported by and given shape, knowing that even in a jello mold there’s no guarantee[1] that the thing will set.  Many however have experienced religion used a method of control: as a cookie cutter – ensuring uniformity is what truly matters, and discarding the rest.  This, and the long history of awful things done in the name of religion, have caused many to leave churches in droves.  Yet they haven’t left the faith.[2] [3] [4]

While there is a growth of atheism particularly in Western cultures, some of those who don’t come to church still believe carry a deeply held awareness of the divine – conscious of the movement of the spirit and a gratitude for life.  It’s become a consistent chorus of this generation to declare that they’re spiritual but not religious which I guess that means that they get to sleep in on time change Sunday.  I’ve come to understand that at the buffet of faith, they take a little of this, a little of that, sampling, tasting, happy to meet the taste of whatever strikes them that day.  I may seem a little snarky, and it’s not that I feel threatened (or worried about job security).  It’s just that this spiritual but not religious seems to look down on my own faith which samples and tastes and listens to the Spirit (just as they do) while still knowing the bounds of deeply held beliefs.

I’m not the only one who has become snarky.

Lillian Daniel, preacher and lecturer out of the U.S. wrote a book filled with biting wit that only a preacher could, entitled, When “Spiritual But Not Religious” is Not Enough.”  In it, she laments the oft experienced discussions that ministers have with people explaining why they’re not in church on Sunday mornings.  She cites that some of the most repeated reasons are that these individuals find God in sunsets and nature and lots of places other than the church.  Others saying that they practice gratitude as a daily spiritual exercise, equating that with church life.

As if we (church people) didn’t see God in the beauty of sunsets or offered thankfulness for a blessing we’ve experienced.  Yet they leave organized religion because of reasons of cookie cutter control, extremism, religiously fuelled intolerance and ignorance of scientific beliefs, and Daniel admits:

“The church has done some embarrassing thing in its day…[but news flash—human beings do a lot of embarrassing, inhumane, cruel and ignorant things, and I don’t want to be associated with them either. And here we come to the crux of the problem that the spiritual-but-not-religious people have with church. If we could just kick out all the human beings, we might be able to meet their high standards. If we could just kick out all the sinners, we might have a shot at following Jesus. . .

But in the church, as everywhere, we are stuck with one another…[therefore] we don’t get the space to come up with our own God.  [W]hen you are stuck with one another, the last thing you would do is invent a God based on humanity. In church, in community, humanity is way too close [far too familiar]  to look good.

It’s as close as the guy singing out of tune right next to you in your pew, as close as the woman who doesn’t have access to a shower and didn’t bathe before worship, as close as the baby screaming… It’s as close as the preacher who didn’t prepare enough and as close as the listener who is so thirsty for a word…”[5]

In church, we acquaint ourselves with this closeness of humanity, and no better time than Lent.  We remind ourselves that we are the ones who crucify.  We are the ones who push lepers to the side of the road.  We are the ones who build great buildings not to God, but as testaments ourselves, ensuring our glory shines for all to see.  Yet God tears down this pompousness, this arrogance of self that sees us create self-oriented belief systems and religions weighed down by humanity.  God tears these down in order to rebuild that which is permanent.  A faith life exemplified by love.  A belief system that questions how much you did for your neighbour (Matthew 25:34-40) as a measure of what you truly believe.  For both spiritual and religious, believing isn’t enough.  The stories of Jesus’ healings are not just nice bedtime stories we tell ourselves.  Jesus sends out the disciples to do as he has done (Matthew 10) with authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.  We have been given faith in order to heal, cure, and love in the name of Jesus.  And no wonder the dismay of the spiritual crowd when the religious don’t live up to these high expectations.  Jesus too had these same high expectations of us.

For we are called to live in community, when it is so tempting to just hide behind screens, to self-soothe with faith practices that require no challenge of having to deal with someone different than ourselves, to come up against an understanding that is not our own.  I always find it amazing to shake hands at the back of the church after a sermon and have someone relay something that they heard in the sermon or the scripture, that I’m sure God put in their ears and wasn’t in my initial sharing of the text.  The power of community is to be accountable to someone who is not us, and it is missing by those solely looking for a highly personal spiritual journey.  I know we fall into this trap of us and them, I’m spiritual but not religious, and even this sermon is guilty of that, but we need one another.

The religious need to know that even within our traditions that give shape to the jello mold of faith, the bonds between the gelatin strong yet flexible enough to dance with the movement of the Spirit.  We have the freedom to branch out from our vine of faith, leaning upon our trellis while still learning from what Islam might teach us about Jesus, or Judaism about God.  Or what Buddhists could teach us about the impermanence of all things and the importance of shunning materialism.  Or what Baha’i can teach us about universalism.  Or what atheists (and social justice Christians) can teach us about living for this time and not the time to come.

And the spiritual need to know that they’re not alone.  Because “people who worship their own opinions will at some point have to come face-to-face with an idol that like all idols will disappoint.”[6]  They will fail themselves.  And they are not alone because there are people who fill our pews and homes who question the purpose of religion when the weights of humanity overburden it.  People who quietly say they go to church on Sundays , or those who want to toss it all out, slap some catchy name on the outside of the building and declare we’re all about Jesus in a vain attempt to be a small c christian as if that will avoid the issues of the past.

We can, as John Lennon would love us to,

Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion, too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace…

And yet, we cannot imagine a world beyond the failings of humanity, spiritual and religious.  It’s not just countries or religions that take the responsibility for the problems of the world.

In church, the long held tradition of confession reminds me of my own failings this past week, to bring about the kin-dom of God.  In the ways I’ve ignored neighbours, and looked down when a panhandler approached my car.  In the ways I’ve failed to support fair trade, and whine when prices go up on fruit imported from a region that exploits its workers.  Confession was taught to me as an integral part of being a person of faith, pairing it with the assurance that God is with me and us, God strengthens, redeems, and brings about life, even in the face of death.  The reassurance of our faith is found in the teaching of the resurrection, “[that] there are in fact some things we simply cannot do for ourselves. ” [7] God’s love reassures us, calls, ties us to community in which we live, and move, and have our being, as together we experience this God who moves beyond walls and boundaries.

[1] In confirmation (and membership classes) one of the first things we talk about is that this is for this moment in time, there’s no guarantee that you’re now a Christian for all time – it’s a lifelong journey affirming and living out our faith.
[2] http://news.nationalpost.com/holy-post/organized-religion-on-the-decline-growing-number-of-canadians-spiritual-but-not-religious
[3] http://angusreid.org/faith-in-canada/
[4] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/01/21/americans-spirituality/
[5] Daniel, Lillian, When “Spiritual But Not Religious” is Not Enough, p12-13
[6] Daniel, Lillian, When “Spiritual But Not Religious” is Not Enough, p
[7] Ibid, 14


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