VIEW VIDEO Have you ever noticed that as you age your mind returns to distant moments in your life, events that seemed unimportant at the time, but when viewed in retrospect take on significance? Perhaps it was the first time you met your spouse. When my mother was 11 and my father was 10, they played sandlot football against one another. My father was running down the field, sprinting toward a touchdown, anticipating the glory that awaited him, when my mother tackled him, causing him to fumble the ball and be covered in shame. Tackled by a girl at the age of 10 in 1943. He lie on his back, staring up in the Indiana sky, wanting to die. I would love to have been there, to have reached down and helped him to his feet and whisper in his ear, “That girl who just tackled you, Gloria Quinett, you’ll marry her in 1955 and have five children and you’ll never get the best of her, so get used to it.” But how was he to know that then? How do any of us know, when something happens to us, what it might later mean?
When I was 14, I woke up one Sunday morning and told my mother, “I’m not going to church. I don’t like it. I don’t get anything out of it. I’m not going.” Then I braced myself, expecting an argument, but didn’t get one. My mom just looked at me and said, “I can’t make you be spiritual. From now on, it’s up to you.”
I didn’t understand the full implications of that at the time. My only feeling was one of elation that I had escaped the dreary embrace of religion. But I still remember those words, “I can’t make you be spiritual.”
What does it mean to be spiritual? I sent an email to our meeting last week asking you to define the word “spirituality,” and was inundated with your responses, which I appreciate. Remember when you were a kid and your schoolteacher would mention that something was going in your permanent record? Those of you who responded will be pleased to know I’ve made a note of your diligence in your permanent record. Your comments will be informing this sermon series, which I’m calling “What Does It Mean to Be Spiritual?”
It is common these days to hear people say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Some people are dismissive of that. They say being religious is the same as being spiritual, but I believe a finer distinction should be made. When someone is religious, it means they participate in the rituals of a belief system, that they’ve made a formal, often public, affirmation of faith, and have some type of membership or affiliation with a religious organization. It usually means they’ve placed themselves under the authority of a leader, doctrine, or book, and depending on the religion, any deviation from that authority can be met with shunning, penitence, or some other penalty.
While religions usually require many and various rules, spirituality requires only curiosity, open-mindedness, and grace. Spirituality imposes no penalties on those who doubt or question. It demands no pledge of faithfulness, no public assent, no bowing to authority. Other people, whether our parents or government or culture, can demand our allegiance to a religion, but no one can require us to be spiritual. That is our decision and ours alone.
Because religion can be compelled and spirituality can’t, it is possible to be religious one’s whole life without ever being spiritual. All that is required for someone to be religious is their adherence to the customs and standards of a religion. Religion requires no change of heart, no joy, no commitment to love. It requires only our obedience, which it often confuses for faith.
Can religion and spirituality exist together? Of course, and happily so, just as long as religion remembers that belief and love can never be compelled. At its best, religion nurtures spirituality, and serves as a greenhouse to fledgling faith. At its worst, it enslaves the spirit, restricting its movement and expression.
Here’s is a story analogous to that. Several years ago, I met a woman who had been in an arranged marriage. Her parents had been approached by the parents of her husband-to-be when they were quite young and arrangements had been made that when their children came of age, they would marry.
The arrangement couldn’t be questioned. The weight of family and cultural traditions required compliance, so the couple married. Sometimes these things work out, sometimes the couple grow to love and cherish one another. But other times the experience is tragic and because arranged marriages are more common in patriarchal cultures, the women suffer disproportionately. In the instance of the woman I knew, as soon as she and her husband moved to the United States to pursue his education, she fled the marriage, which had become abusive, and filed for divorce.
Religion can be like that. At its worst it says we must love God, we must obey God, we must obey the priest or the iman or the rabbi. Religion at is worst is an arranged marriage gone bad, it is one adult telling another what to do and who to love. Spirituality is our right to find our own way, to seek our own truth, free from compulsion and control. Unhealthy religion attempts to manage that which can never be managed—the movement of Spirit and the mystery of love.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, it was a pivotal moment when my mother loosened the chains of religion so I could begin my spiritual journey. For several years, I had other priorities and passions, and contented myself with small matters and smaller thoughts. But when my best friend died at the age of 20, I found the words of religion unhelpful, even as I discovered a Spirit who spoke to the deepest corners of my heart.
This Spirit demanded nothing of me before it would help. It required no holy perfection, no surrender of freedom, no oath of allegiance. It wanted only to give life and not take it. It gave me peace, and understanding, so that I could say, along with the Quaker James Naylor, “There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things…” In that Spirit I discovered a companion for my journey, a light when the world grew dark, a guide when my way was lost.
In the weeks ahead, we’ll be thinking about what it means to be spiritual. Let’s begin our journey by reminding ourselves that whenever religion compels, spirituality invites. It speaks of a God who is not our Lord or Master, but our Light and our Friend.