VIEW VIDEO When I was a kid, I loved going to the movies at the Royal Theater in Danville, especially matinees, sitting in the dark on a Saturday afternoon, then staggering outside disoriented by the sunlight, like a second morning to the day. Mr. Ahart owned the theater, and sometimes on Saturdays showed classic movies. I remember when I was 7 or so, going to see The Swiss Family Robinson, and being irritated by the Robinsons, who were so annoyingly perfect that when the pirates attacked their island, I found myself rooting for the pirates. For several days after the movie, I imagined I was a pirate and dug holes in our yard looking for treasure until my dad made me stop. My brother, Glenn, never one to miss an opportunity to deceive me, even drew up a fake map, rubbed dirt on it to make it look old, then put it where I would find it, leading me to believe there was a hoard of gold coins buried underneath our rose bushes, though when I dug them up, I found nothing but worms.
I have never lost my fascination with treasure hunts, with discovering some secret treasure that has eluded others. It might be one of the reasons I became a pastor. Initially, I became a pastor for the leg room. The benches in our Quaker meeting were so crowded it was like flying coach, and there would be Pastor Taylor sitting up front in his very own chair, with all that leg room, like flying first class, and I thought, “I need to upgrade,” so I became a pastor.
But I eventually realized I became a pastor because I’ve always been fascinated with the hidden aspects of life, namely God, whose presence, like treasure, has often eluded me.
I spoke at a funeral last week of a woman I’d grown up with in Danville. Her family invited those present to share stories about her and one of the men spoke, telling us if we wanted to ever see our friend again, it would behoove us to accept Jesus as our Savior so we’d go to heaven when we died. It was as if God were holding the woman hostage. If you ever want to see her again…He quoted several verses of Scripture and told us the first thing we had to do was believe in God. I thought, “Wow, that is one heck of a first step.” Believe in God, just like that.
We’ve been talking about what it means to be spiritual, contrasting the qualities of spirituality with the qualities of religion. Today, I want to suggest another difference. Religion begins by asking us to believe in God. That’s the first step, and it’s a big one. Religion expects us to believe in someone or something no one has ever seen. And religion says, begin there. It’s like asking a toddler to run a marathon. Many of us are simply incapable of such feats.
Let’s contrast this with spirituality, which doesn’t, as Lewis Carroll wrote, require us to believe six impossible things before breakfast.
Instead, spirituality invites us to a quest, a journey, whose goal is a discovery. The attainment of this treasure is often arduous, there is mystery involved, and time. But one doesn’t start with the treasure, one starts with the desire to seek it. There might be a map, but that map is sometimes baffling and vague, subject to one’s perspective and interpretation. But unlike religion, we don’t begin with the treasure. We begin with the longing to discover that most beautiful and elusive of treasures—Ultimate Reality, what the theologian Paul Tillich called The Ground of All-Being, the Spirit that permeates all of creation, the foundation of everything and everyone. That is the treasure. It is a paradoxical treasure, because it is elusive, and yet permeates us. Just beyond us, and yet in us.
Here is the most exasperating thing of all. If you were to draw a map revealing the exact location of this divine treasure and how you found it, that map would work for no one else, for we all start in different places, with varying points of reference. These maps are like fingerprints, there are no two alike. Beware of those religionists who demand one method, one way, one path. Evangelicals speak of a four-point plan of salvation, Catholics describe a Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, Buddhists have their Five Principles, Judaism their covenant with God, and Islam has its Five Pillars. So we have all these maps, all these paths, and each of them can be useful, so long as we realize there is no one path and one path only. There is only seeking and exploring and hopefully, if one persists, discovery.
Some people find the treasure of God in a blinding moment, in an instant of Aha! Others discover this treasure incrementally, gradually, piece by piece. Not in one blinding moment, but in a slow unfolding.
That is how it has been for me. I caught a quick glimpse of the NuFlexne Presence just this week. With Covid taking a break, parents and grandparents can once again eat lunch with the children at our granddaughter’s school, so this past Monday I went to Madeline’s school at lunchtime. I arrived a few minutes early, while the kindergarteners were eating, so waited in the cafeteria for Madeline’s class to arrive. It came time for the kindergarteners to leave the cafeteria to make room for the first graders. One of the little kindergarten boys fell backwards out of his seat, dumped his food all over himself and the floor, and began to cry. Another little boy went to him, put his arms around him, told him it was all right, then helped him clean up the mess he’d made, walked with him to the window to return his tray, then took him by the hand and led him from the cafeteria. I thought to myself, “So that’s what God looks like.” All these years, I’ve wondered what God looks like, and now I know. He’s about three feet tall with light brown hair, wearing a Colts t-shirt and blue jeans. At least that’s what God was wearing on Monday. God might be wearing something different today. God might be 90 years old, wearing a dress, and living in Africa. Who knows? But this past Monday at noon, God was in Danville and wearing a Colts t-shirt. I saw him with my own eyes.
Religion says, “First, believe in God.”
Spirituality says, “Let’s start with desire.”
Even though I’m a pastor, belief has never been easy for me. What would you expect from a man who became a pastor for the leg room? But I’ve always been curious, and I’ve tried always to be open, which is how I’ve learned that seeking the Treasure can be every bit as meaningful as finding it.