(A disclaimer to this post – I grew up going to church. I went with my father. And some of my earliest memories are sitting on his lap, wrapped in his arms, playing with his thumbs, smelling his aftershave and the detergent my mom used on the wash, while listening to the music. Church for me was first, and foremost a place of safety, of warmth, of love. And I have never really lost that feeling completely. I know that this is not true for many, many people.)
As of late there is a phrase I hear a lot, “spiritual but not religious.” That is how people often describe themselves to me. It makes sense that I hear that phrase a lot, first of all I am a minister in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. A place filled with folks who are spiritual but not religious. But also people tend to get a bit defensive about themselves around me. They often seem to act as if they somehow need to explain themselves to me, as if I am going to immediately judge them for who they are or what they do. It has taken me a long time to realize that I am not that kind of person, and I am not that kind of minister. By and large, I meet people where they are. I don’t hold up a lot of standards defined by categories like “If you are a Christian then you must behave this way, or if you are a UU then you must behave this way.” I think that I recognize that we come in all shapes, sizes and variations. That we are all trying our best and most days most of do do our best and most days a few of us don’t and most days one or two of us will really screw up. But then I know tomorrow is another chance to do a bit better.
I used to like the phrase spiritual but not religious a lot. It seemed to me that it described a person who was a free thinker and feeler, perhaps less constrained by the negativity of institutional religion (of which there is a lot!) I used to connect it with folks who were more interested in connecting with the positive loving force (who I call God) of the universe. Perhaps I have just heard the phrase too much and I am getting a bit jaded. Now I am beginning to be concerned that the phrase is beginning to become code for “I don’t want to be judged by you about why I don’t participate in church.”
I guess I would have to say that in some strange way I am not so interested in why people don’t come to church, specifically why they don’t come to the church I work at. I am way more interested in why the people who are here, do come to our congregation. I am way more interested in what makes us who we are in a positive way, what are our strengths. I am way more interested in building on those.
If someone chooses not to come to this place, it may be our loss, it may be their loss, but I completely respect that choice. Let us each find our own place of spiritual nurturance. Let us each find the well from which we each can draw.
That being said I have a hard time understanding “Spiritual but not Religious.” I accept it and I respect it. I am not asking anyone to change I just don’t get it, I can’t see me explaining myself that way.
I do get that there are times to be by oneself. I write this column after taking some extra efforts to be outside on the balcony of my church building so that I can absorb the spring sun, watch and hear the creek, listen to the birds and watch the bees chase each other. Each summer I spend a lot of time at a lake nearby just watching. I watch the sunrise, I watch the sunset. I watch the blue heron, the beavers, the kingfishers, the neighbors. I watch the sun filter through tree leaves, and watch dark and light play together. It is my sacred space and I go there often.
I have a neighbor at the lake I hang out at who says his dock is his church. If I ever had the nerve to engage him on that one here is what I would say:
This dock is not your church. It is your sacred space. It is where you are most at home with yourself, and where you can touch that which is larger than yourself. It is your sacred space and it should be – every square inch of it. It is where you go to let go of the effect of the work a day world that eats away at you. It is where you go to restore yourself. It is your sacred space. And you deserve it.
But church is where you go to be with other people. It is where we bring ourselves with all our quirks and shortcomings where we will be accepted, affirmed and appreciated. It is where you come when you know where you are going and when you don’t know where you are going. Church is where you go to share yourselves with others and they with you. Sometimes you go there so that folks can hold you up when you are to tired to go on your own and sometimes you go there so that you can hold someone else up. Church is where people bring you food when there is a tragedy in your life, or when there is a celebration. Church is where people are imperfect and cranky and sometimes mean and they are loved anyway, and hopefully reminded that maybe tomorrow they could take a deep breath and try again, a bit better. Church is where you go to meet with and be with folks who are authentically themselves warts and all.
We come to church, with who we are, imperfect, a little or a lot broken and we are loved. There is no entry exam to church, no application process. It is not a club, or a training center. It is a place to be yourself.
And I would even go so far as to say that if your church (if you participate in one) is not that, or if that has not been your experience of church then maybe you might try somewhere else. Don’t bang your head against the wall just try to find a doorway to a different kind of place.
Maybe I have been lucky enough to find religious communities that are particularly inclusive and accepting. Maybe I have been lucky enough to make that choice over and over again. If someone is particularly close minded or judgmental I don’t spend a lot of time hanging out with them. My life is too short for that. I hope I am not disrespectful or mean. But in the journey that is my life iI would much rather hang with folks who can laugh at their own foibles, love foibles in others, and who work hard to try to improve the world around them. My nineties but still my life is too time limited to spend it gossiping and judging others.