Spiritual but not Religious?
I love to travel. I especially love hiking adventures. Before he met me my husband never hiked, or travelled. Now, when we arrive at our destination, my husband scans the area for the point of highest elevation, sighs, and prepares himself, knowing we will be hiking up to that highest point!
So three years ago when I celebrated the 25th anniversary of my ordination, I went on my very first sabbatical. As part of my sabbatical my husband and I spent a month traveling inTurkey and Greece,on a pilgrimage which followed in the footsteps of Saint Paul. Saint Paul is the author or at least main figure behind most of the New Testament. Saint Paul covered a lot of territory! We did a lot of hiking. Surprisingly, in Turkey, a country which today is 90% Muslim, most people have heard about Saint Paul. Our young guide, himself Muslim, had studied Saint Paul in great depth. Everywhere we went in Turkey, people directed us to the various sacred sites where Saint Paul had travelled.
In Greece, ironically, a mostly Christian country, where most people are Greek Orthodox, people seemed to never have heard of Saint Paul! When I was in Athens, much to my dismay, no one had a clue as to where the Areopagus was!
People looked at me as if I was an alien. Having just hiked up to the acropolis, and getting our obligatory photograph in front of the parthenon, my husband was not too thrilled when at last I found one solitary person who actually had heard of the Areopagus, and pointed UP. My husband said, “I’ll sit this one out, and wait for you down here.” So UP I went.
When I reached the top it seemed that I was the only one who was there because of Saint Paul. Everyone else just seemed to like the view of the acropolis from there. I met a young man from Italy who took my picture standing where I imagine Paul had stood when he looked to his right and saw the acropolis with its many temples: one to Athena, one to Zeus, one to Apollo, and so on.
Paul said, “Oh Athenians, I can see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with an inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the cosmos and everything in it, the one who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made with human hands…” Paul goes on to speak of the God we all search for, grope for, who is not far from each of us, who is the One in whom we “live and move and have our being.” ”That’s my favorite line: “The One in whom we live and move and have our being.”
I felt pretty connected to Saint Paul as I stood there. Yes, there we were, Paul and I. Concerned about these people who have a deep longing for God, who grope for God, but do not yet know God, do not yet live in relationship, in communion with the One in whom we live and move and have our being…these people who in today’s post-modern, post-Christian world often call themselves “spiritual but not religious.”
As much as the world changes, so it also remains the same. As much as people change, so also we remain the same. I think Saint Paul was so successful in drawing people to Christianity because of his sincerity, his “authenticity.” Saint Paul believed what he preached.
What is shocking is the sermons we preach that people actually remember, and quote back to us. The sermon I preached that people talked about the most was one I never would have suspected. It was about duct tape. Now I have to admit, I love duct tape. I am the queen of duct tape. I was a single mom of three kids for thirteen years. You have three active little kids and not a whole lot of money, and lots of things are always breaking or going awry, so duct tape comes in really handy. Duct tape literally, held lots of things in my life together: my car, my dryer, the hems of my clothes: good old duct tape does the trick! One day I was in the check out line at Benny’s, which is an old fashioned local RI store, buying three roles of duct tape, and the woman behind me asked naively, “What is that shiny silver stuff?” I looked at her, aghast, “You’ve never heard of duct tape?” “No, what is it?” she asked innocently. So I spent like five minutes regaling her with the amazing attributes of duct tape, after which she asked me to hold her spot in line, and ran to the back of the store, returning with several roles of duct tape! The point of this duct tape sermon was, that we will go on and on telling total strangers about some great movie we saw, or some fabulous restaurant we just discovered, or some new diet that really worked, or …duct tape…but why are we so hesitant to tell people about the One in whom we live and move and have our being? Especially when so many are searching for God, groping for God?
Our new bishop in New England, Bishop James Hazelwood, has challenged all of us pastors to spend time outside of our churches, outside in our communities, in conversation with people who will probably never set foot in church, to learn from them, to engage with them. I spend quite a bit of time speaking about God with people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” and we have some wonderful, mutually respectful conversations because I think they can see when we are enthusiastic about God, and are sincere about how God changed our lives. People can tell if we believe what we preach.
A year ago I went to New York City for a week for the UN’s 57th Commission on the Status of Women. I have two daughters who live in New York, one in Manhattan, and one in Brooklyn. I spent half of my time at each place. The night I arrived in Brooklyn, my daughter had to work, so there I was with her four roommates: four young men, aged 19-25ish. When they found out what I do for a living, we spent hours talking about God. They had lots of questions. I asked them lots of questions too. It was a delightful conversation. After that visit it became a standing joke with my daughter, “Mom, my roommates keep asking when you are going to come visit. They like to hang out with you and talk about God…” She was SERIOUS!
But think about it. Don’t you enjoy having conversations with people who feel passionately about something? It is as though their love for something creates a deepened appreciation in us because we see how important it is to them. And when someone is speaking, from their heart, from their own personal experience, it becomes real in some sense for the listener. I think this is what the author of 1 Peter said when he wrote: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” I Peter 3: 15b He then goes on to write about baptism.
Still today when we share from our own hearts, from our own experience, an “accounting for the hope that is in us,” it cannot help but make people want what we have.
Ten years ago when I met my husband, not only did he not hike and not travel, but he also did not go to church. He grew up in a family that did not go to church. He called himself, “Spiritual but not religious.” After about a year, for various reasons, I broke up with him. Was I ever surprised when I got this really long-winded message on my answering machine from a guy who does not talk much. The part of this message that struck me the most was when he said, “I see a strength in you. I’m not sure where it comes from…but you have something. You have a place inside yourself to go…I don’t know how to explain it, but I have no place to go. I want what you have.” People can see this God in whom we live and move and have our being. Eventually, he asked to be baptized.
Unfortunately he asked to be baptized in the ocean, in December. “If I die of a heart attack, that’s okay. I want to die to my old way of life. I want to have that new life you are always talking about.” Next December will be the tenth anniversary of his baptism. Despite the 37 degree water, and the foot of snow from a blizzard the night before, the Spirit hovered over the waters, and new life was born. Neither of us died of a heart attack. We just died to some stuff that needed to die.
This same Holy Spirit is always up to something new. She’s always stirring the soup of our lives. She’s always inviting us, challenging us to see those who are searching, those who are groping, and to give an accounting for the hope that is in us. I learn a lot about God from my husband. Whereas I have been Christian my whole life, he is new to it all, so helps me to see things in new and fresh ways. When good Christian “Churchy” people start talking negatively about other people, my husband will say, “I’m confused. I just don’t get it. How can you say you love God and then treat someone that way? Do people think they can separate God from everyone else? How can they think that? I just don’t get it.” How clear it is to someone whose eyes have so recently been opened. As Jesus said, “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” We CAN’T separate God from others, even difficult or annoying others. If we are just true to ourselves, true to the Spirit that is within us, within all people, true to the One in whom we live and move and have our being, then we can bear witness to the hope that is within us. Then the world will see something in us, some strength, someplace within us that we have where we can go, some hope, even when others are hopeless, some peace the world cannot give…That you may be One as we are One. You cannot separate God and us. We are all One with the One in whom we live and move and have our being.
Today may you see God in all you encounter,
and my you reflect God to all you encounter.
Pastor Linda Forsberg, Copyright May 20, 2014