Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? Because when this flight gets choppy, that's who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.
--The Rev. Lillian Daniel
I actually know people who won't step inside a church, and not for all of the usual reasons, like, "it interferes with my football games." They won't go any more because they have been deeply wounded by people who claimed to be representatives of Jesus. They won't go because they were abused. They won't go because they were driven out. They won't go because they didn't experience much, or any, of the grace we talk about, and that some of us can't live without. They won't go because they've been at a church that everyone said was so "friendly," and no one talked to them. Sometimes, it is true about the church, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."
--The Rev. Diane Roth
A few days ago, both Lillian Daniel's reflection about the "spiritual but not religious" crowd, and, subsequently, Diane Roth's post in response to Lillian's post, caught my eye.
I'll be honest--when I read Lillian's post that day--part of a daily devotional series the United Church of Christ does--I have read many other of her contributions to this series and really like her submissions--well, after a little cogitation, I thought she was being a little too harsh and snippy for what is supposed to be a daily reflection on God's word. Oh, I totally get where she's coming from--but I just felt her story was more one for her closest friends in faith at the local pancake house, and not for a devotional, where the reader is trying to reflect on the Bible as a means to change him or herself. My initial response to what she was saying was for me to agree so I could be one of the cool insider kids, too. The post initially just affirmed my own crappy attitude about the "spiritual but not religious."
Then I read Diane's blog post, and again, I was with her all the way on her thoughts about what the church community is, and why some people have no interest in it. But it still left unsaid any thoughts about what to do to invite that "spiritual but not religious" person into a faith community. I would have loved to hear her take on how to attempt that--after all, as a pastor she probably attracts more of those folks to open up in conversation than I do as a lay person.
Neither post gives me a hall pass to blow off an opportunity for a faith conversation with the "spiritual but not religious" person. I've thought for a couple of days or so about what I might say...and here it is...
Dear Mr./Ms. Spiritual but not Religious:
You know, I think it's cool that you find God in the sunsets and the beach. I see, hear, and smell God in nature too. For me, it's sitting under the canopy of the night sky by my chiminea, or it's the sound of my cottonwood trees in the breeze, or it's the awesomeness of watching the Mississippi River carry a full size tree downstream, knowing that thing might go hundreds of miles. But as a church person, and a pretty regular one at that, I have to tell you that for me, it's not in the awesome and happy things where I need to see God. Seeing God in that stuff is a bonus for me. It's in all the broken-ness and catastrophe of the world and in the totally screwed-up nature of some aspects of my life where I need to see God--and that, for me, is where the church comes in.
Now, I wasn't always a church person. I got dumped off at Sunday School and church with nary a family member in sight. It obviously wasn't important to my parents, so it sort of made me doubt that being dumped off at church was all that great of a thing. So when I grew up, I didn't really engage myself much with the church from about age 18 to 22. Then I tried--really tried--to go back to a church, but then I got really, really hurt by the church, and those representing it, and I left for over twenty years. Then I thought I'd give it another try, and it started off really interesting and felt good, and then I got really really hurt again, but in a different way. But somehow I managed to stay this time despite the fact that leaving again would have been a whole lot easier in some ways.
Ya wanna hear how I managed to stay? It's weird, but true. I was able to stay because something had finally registered with me. Going to church wasn't about getting brownie points in the hereafter, or becoming more "good" somehow, or feeling worthy because I'm kind of smart about some things in the Bible and our Prayer Book. It was about getting the bread and wine at communion and really beginning to understand what that means. It means that when I go to the communion rail with everyone else in my church, I am up there in all of my glorious screwed-up-ness, just as everyone else is up there in their screwed-up-ness and all its glory. I'm right in it with everyone else, and they're in it with me. Some Sundays I feel pretty good about myself. Some Sundays, I feel like the world's kicked my butt from hither to yon. Some Sundays, I'm there thinking about what a turd I've been all week...and some Sundays, I'm half-asleep to any awareness I have about anything, good or bad, and just going through the motions.
But all those things I am on any given Sunday? There isn't another person in the sanctuary who hasn't been there just like me at some time or another...and somehow, we're all at the altar together, in the hope that the broken-ness that is illustrated in that broken bread and the bleeding wounds in our souls, like that wine that we say is the Blood of Christ, will change for the good, with God's help. We're there in the hope that it will all be made right in the end, somehow.
I need to be able to see God in the garbage dump, and I need to know that when I can't see God, there's someone else in the room that is doing okay with it all that Sunday, and I need their faith to help carry us all through, when I can't see squat in mine. What's kind of cool about that is even people I've hurt, and people who have hurt me, are all there in this same place hoping that God can do what we can't even do with each other.
Then there's the part about "doing good for others."
My holy moment with that beautiful sunset you mention, really doesn't do anything for anyone but me. But when churches do the things that churches are supposed to do--reach out to the sick, the poor, the hungry, and the marginalized--people's lives change. Oh, sure, I could spend time doing some of that with any secular charity. But the church is this wonderful catch-all. Who but the church can bring something to so many people, in so many different ways? I can accomplish more of that in a group than I can sitting around, thinking great thoughts with myself.
So, Spiritual but not Religious Person, I understand your feelings--I have them myself--and I'm happy for you with where you are with God in those beautiful moments. But I hope some day you get a yearning in the middle of one sometime, and think, "but is this all there is to this?" Perhaps then you might begin to discover something really important for the next phase of your relationship with God, and when you do, I'll be glad to accompany you in worship. I hope someday you ache for a community that helps us see God in each other.
Yeah, I don't think it's as complicated as we make it out to be.