Friday, 31 August 2012

Religion and Spirituality....some thoughts...

I am reminded of the story of a cowboy who went to a church wearing jeans, ragged boots and a worn out old hat. As the cowboy took his seat, people moved away from him. No one welcomed him. As the cowboy was leaving the church, the minister approached him and asked the cowboy to do him a favour. "Before you come back in here again, have a talk with God and ask him what he thinks would be appropriate attire for worship." The old cowboy assured the preacher he would.
The next Sunday, he showed back up for the services wearing the same ragged jeans, boots, and hat. Once again he was completely shunned and ignored.

The preacher approached the man and said, "I thought I asked you to speak to God before you came back to our church."
"I did," replied the old cowboy.
"If you spoke to God, what did he tell you the proper attire should be for worshipping in here?" asked the preacher.
"Well, sir, God told me that He didn't have a clue what I should wear, seeing as He'd never been in this church."
I wonder if you have had the experience of being made to jump through hoops by the church. Maybe it was a catechism or some sort of membership system. Maybe your experiences and understanding of God was different to the orthodox teaching or perhaps you  felt excluded as you were not as enthusiastic and as sure as everyone else. Maybe you thought to yourself, “I'm a spiritual and moral person who believes in God. I try to live as well as I can, and do the right thing by others. And yet in church I am made to feel like a second class citizen because I don’t know the ritual or feel uncomfortable with the language and ideas.”

Those who profess to be “religious” consider those who are “spiritual” as “merely” that,  perhaps vague, somewhat wishy-washy, merely playing at, religion by those who are more enthusiastic in their faith; spirituality is too personal to be pinned down by creeds or words. I do not think there is anything vague, wishy-washy or “merely” about being spiritual and feeling  a connectedness to God, that Great Other which is beyond  tradition, or a  religious expression of those ideas.

Healthy Religion
The whole purpose of religion is to bring together. That’s what the word means. Religion that is healthy should be the opposite of exclusive and judgemental. Religion was made to serve humankind, not humankind to serve religion.  Jesus said that the Sabbath as made for man, to serve man,  not man to serve the Sabbath (Mark 2; 23-27*)
Religion is concerned with bringing together; head and heart, past and present, beliefs and values, people and neighbours, tribe and nation, spirituality and religion. All of life is part of a unity that is miraculously connected and beautifully meaningful. Maybe you don’t have to choose between spirituality and religion after all. Religion is there to support people, help nurture and support their lives and their spiritual journey. There should not be the old, tired cliche of “I'm Spiritual but not Religious”. Religion without the spirit and faith is dead, an empty shell merely going through the rotes. Jesus describes faith and the Kingdom of God as being like a Mustard seed, something small, almost invisible but able to flourish into a tree; and again like a man who planted a garden and nurtured his crop, tending to it, killing the weeds, and also like a man who sowed seeds some falling on stony ground, some in the weeds and some in the  good soil. The analogy is the same: faith is delicate, and small, like a seed planted in the soil and unless that growing bud is tended, nurtured and looked after then it won't grow. Religion is like the gardener who tends to the bud; faith communities should be, are there, to support and nurture, allow people to grow in their faith and as people within a family of love, faith and fellowship.

Eat, Pray, Love. Its All Spiritual!
The ordinary, the workday and the spiritual are all linked and connected.  God is present and blesses everyday ordinary acts, not just through “holy acts” of Church. Every day and every act is wholly holy, our focus on God should not be reserved for a special time and place, and rather like the Transcendentalists, we should be able to worship God wherever we feel that divine presence.
Millions of people have been deeply moved by the Elizabeth Gilbert book, “Eat, Pray Love.” It’s the story of one woman’s search for meaning. She wanted her life to make sense as a whole, and all the parts to be honoured. She wanted to create an expansive life so that even seeming opposites could be synchronised into a world view that excludes nothing. She wanted to see if she could eat, pray and love all at the same time.
Narcissism aside, what if it was possible to include it all? To honour it all? To love it all? One general difference between religion and spirituality is that religion has boundaries around its concerns; certain parts of life, certain types of music, certain language. Spirituality, on the other hand, is personal, reflective and free form. What if it was possible to have a religion or a spirituality that is all of life because God is in your bloodstream, because all of life is infused with wonder and meaning the way sunlight glistens on water?

God as Wow!
The Transcendentalist movement within Unitarianism understood this. Based on personal experience that God was greater than religion beyond churches and creeds; God was present in all things. 

The Transcendentalist vision suggests that we can apprehend spiritual truths through any source, and that the mind can apprehend absolute spiritual truths directly, without the dictates of past authorities and institutions.

They considered the possibility that every time you see a sunset, every time you smell fresh baked bread, every time you feel the touch of a loved one or  loving acceptance when you didn’t think you were worthy, and your only response is “wow”, then you have just named God. This is the God who is beyond religious pontification, beyond creeds and beyond names. Just WOW!

Sampson Reed (A Swedenborgian) wrote  "There is a unison of spirit and nature. The genius of the mind will descend, and unite with the genius of the rivers, the lakes, and the woods."

This experience of “wow” is completely personal and subjective. No one else can give it you, and no one else will have the exact same experience. This is partly where religion goes wrong. “Wow” can’t be institutionalized. You can’t put “wow” in a neat box of ancient beliefs. You can’t prescribe “wow” for another person or for whole groups of people.

This is the unique strength of Unitarianism – we bring our own “wow” before each other and before  God.

 In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Of this Pure Nature, every man is at sometime sensible to it. Language cannot paint it with his colours. It is too subtle. It is undefinable, unmeasurable, but we know it pervades and contains us. We know that all Godly Spiritual being is in man. A wise proverb says 'God comes with no bell' [God comes without any warning]; there is no screen or ceiling between our heads and the Infinate...there is no bar or wall in the soul where man ceases...and God...beings."
Jesus Was Spiritual More Than Religious
It seems fair to say that Jesus was more spiritual than religious in his first century context. He preferred ordinary people over priests, compassion over rituals, and justice over judgement. To the extent that religion was a tool for greater human compassion then it was worth pursuing, To the extent that it got in the way of peace, then it was destructive.
 Jesus was  peace loving, openly critical of the leaders of his own religion; he was nominally Jewish, knew nothing of the later Christian movement named after him, and against the intolerance of the temple and of his own faith. Jesus welcome faith and love in all who came to him, even those who were not of his faith, culture and may have even been from a foreign country or his supposed enemy, such as the Roman Centurion.
Jesus would be horrified by the way religions have been turned into bullyboy battles about whose God is bigger and whose pulpit is more grand.  A religious battle over who is and is not welcome in our churches, with ever more hysterical debates over human sexuality and the role of women.
In Mark chapter 2 (see below), there is a typical clash between spirituality and religion. Religious leaders of the day demanded that Jesus not pluck grain on the Sabbath. However Jesus had other priorities. Breaking bread with all sorts of people was an emphasis for Jesus. In particular, breaking bread with the urban poor of the first century was a symbol of radical acceptance. Bringing people together, directing resources to those in greatest need, celebrating the abundance of life- these were the spiritual concerns of Jesus, and took precedence over any  ritual or tradition.
If we could keep the dogmatic religion that most of us have endured separate from Jesus desire to intimately experience the Source of Life and love, then Christianity could still offer something to those who see themselves as spiritual but not religious. Maybe Christianity can still offer you something meaningful, beyond the outward religiosity, dogma and creed. Maybe the timelessness, the very soul, the essence of the faith, the man Jesus can reach out and touch you.

Religion is Concerned with All of Life
George Fox, the founder of the Quaker Movement, said that there was God within us all; John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, believed that we all contain a divine spark.  Because of this, both men said that all people should be treated with love and respect.

These are ideas that are not just found in Christianity and can be seen in the Hindu story of Brahma and Maya. The God Brahma, who got sick of being alone. So he created the goddess, Maya. Just for fun, Brahma and Maya created a whole world of illusion; sun, stars, planets, oceans, animals. Then they said, “Lets create an animal that is so intelligent and aware that it can appreciate this wondrous creation.” So they created humans.
Then the game began. Maya cut Brahma up into millions of little pieces and placed a piece of Brahma in every human being. Maya said to the human beings, “ I am going to make you forget who you are, then you can try and find yourself. You will spend a lifetime searching for your true essence.”
Every now and again, a little spark of God wakes up in each of us. It comes at odd moments, sometimes with thoughts, but often in more spontaneous moments or reflections. As more and more people have more and more moments of waking up to their true essence of God, the world becomes a more peaceful place.
Religion is one place that this awakening happens, but it’s not the only place. For many people, it doesn’t happen in religion because religion has over identified with its ideas about God and confused the idea with the reality.
Imagine a religion where all people were encouraged to think and explore ideas for themselves, where all people were encouraged to wake up to the spark of divinity within, and see the spark of “wow” in others. Imagine a religion where treating people right was more important than being right. Imagine a religion where compassion was more important than creeds and rituals.
You are a spiritual being, seeking an expansive world view that excludes nothing and honours all people and all things. When I see the wonder of your spiritual essence, my only response is “wow”!

* One Sabbath Jesus was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath. Mark 2; 23-27


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  2. God is simple and true. He doesn't judge people by what we are but how we lived by the word of God. Spiritual thoughts