Spiritual But Not Religious? (Part 2)

A recent cartoon in our local paper depicted a man in full bishop vestment, miter perched on his head, merrily pushing a lawn mower across his front lawn.  The caption read: “Herschel mows the lawn religiously every Saturday.” The humor, of course, comes from the incongruous juxtaposition of two very different definitions of the word religious: the religiously routine task of mowing the lawn being performed in garb usually reserved for highly ceremonial, religious occasions.  It’s a simple joke but perhaps it’s worth considering the meaning of spiritual practices religiously done. 

Our recent young adult retreat was entitled “Spiritual But Not Religious?” and offered participants a chance to explore both what it means to be spiritual and what it means to be religious.  How do we practice spirituality?  (And if it is something that we “practice,” does commitment to the habit become more important than the practice itself?)  Why do some people resist the idea of being “religious” and why is conformity to the “spiritual” practices found in organized religion often seen as “uncool” in our culture?

In our discussion at the retreat, attempts to define spirituality elicited images of peace, harmony, awareness, mindfulness, and the sense of connecting to something greater than ourselves.  This experience of being calm, centered and well-ordered usually comes through the framework or guide of spiritual practice, a practice not left to chance or whim but developed through habit or discipline.  Spiritual practices mentioned by the group included prayer, meditation, and studying scriptures–practices commonly found, not surprisingly, in organized religious services. 

Of course, just going to church doesn’t make you either spiritual or religious.  You’ve probably heard the old one-liner that sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sitting in your garage will turn you into a car.  Many Spiritual-But-Not-Religious folks would assert that you can certainly feel more spiritual in solitude, communing with nature (or the golf course) on a beautiful morning.  So what’s the point of corporate worship?

First of all–like it or not–human beings are social animals, made for community in general and specifically for life in the God’s communal household.  Most active church members will describe “church” in terms of their experience of congregational support and fellowship.  It is rather amazing to consider that Sunday morning (or Saturday evening) worship is one of the few experiences left in our society in which all generations come together under the same roof for the common purpose of study, song, and prayer.  In church families, as in our biological families, we grow through mutually expressed support and nurturing.  

And, just as in our biological families, we also grow through the occasional friction of rubbing elbows with other members of the congregation who differ from us in their outlooks and opinions.  It is relatively easy to feel spiritually warm and fuzzy about your fellow-man (or woman) in the abstract, but you learn more about Christian behavior by dealing with the curmudgeon grumbling in the next pew or the fussy child wiggling in the seat behind.   We learn about forgiveness and grace by giving it, usually after we have also received more than our share of the same.

The Church provides us with the opportunity to learn and grow with others, developing our spiritual practices within a larger structure guided through history and tradition by the Holy Spirit.  One member of our retreat group referred to the framework of “checks and balances” the Church offers us as we daily decide how to live our lives.  No, the Church won’t have all the answers all the time, but there is a larger picture for me here, a kingdom view of God’s relationship with his people through time and space, and that enlarges my circle of understanding beyond my own ego-centered self.

While at the young adult retreat, we went outside just before dark to walk the Dayspring labyrinth.  The labyrinth design in the pavers was very faint in the rapidly fading light, requiring all our concentration and even just a bit of imagination to discern the path.  Mosquitoes swarmed around us, buzzing ears and biting ankles.  I was having a hard time trying to meditate while swatting at bugs and peripherally keeping my fellows in view, not only so that I wouldn’t run anyone over but also to follow their lead in finding my way.  It was not a particularly “spiritual” experience until we returned to our cabin and one member of our group commented that our labyrinth walk was a good analogy for church itself.

There we were, each person trudging back and forth, each concentrating intently on his or her own steps.  To an outsider, the scene would have been almost nonsensical, just a collection of seemingly unrelated and rather self-absorbed people, moving randomly about in an open space.  Perhaps to an outsider, this is how church appears.  But a closer look reveals the pattern, the outline that shows us the Way to follow.  As believers we are within the circle of the Church which provides the guidelines for a common path in a collective journey.  And even though we are all at different points on that trip at any given time, it is a journey that will ultimately bring us all safely home. 


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