VIEW VIDEO Last week, we thought about what it means to be spiritual. We observed that while we can be compelled to participate in religious rituals, either by family or social norms, no one can compel us to be spiritual. We can never be spiritual just because someone wants us to be. Spirituality happens when we have made up our minds to be open and receptive to creation, to mystery, to Ultimate Reality, and to one another. Religion at its best can assist in our effort to be spiritual but can also impede that effort by creating obstacles and barriers to our growth. If you are interested in being spiritual and want to participate in a religious community, choose a religious community that supports your spiritual growth and doesn’t suppress it.
Today, I invite us to think about becoming spiritual. How does someone become spiritual? In my experience, becoming spiritual isn’t like graduating. It doesn’t mean we’ve completed a course of study or participated in a series of required classes, then passing an exam that certifies our spiritual status. It doesn’t mean we’ve read the Bible and taken a class on discipleship, at which point a priest or pastor baptizes us, and then, lo and behold, we’re spiritual. Trust me, I went through all of that and came out the other end as indifferent and apathetic as before. Religious knowledge is no guarantor of spiritual aliveness.
How do we become spiritual? Rebecca Furnish sent me a quote attributed to the singer David Bowie–“Religion is for people who fear hell. Spirituality is for people who’ve been there.” While it would be unkind to say to someone in the throes of suffering to cheer up because they will emerge from their struggle with a deepened sense of spirituality, it seems true that hardship heightens our spiritual awareness in a way ease and comfort cannot. It is the abrasive stone, not the smooth one, that sharpens the blade.
I would never say to someone, “As you go through life, make sure to suffer all you can.” But I might say to someone what the psychologist Scott Peck once observed, “that the avoidance of pain is the beginning of all unhealthy behavior.” No one wants to experience any sort of pain, but our resolute avoidance of pain cripples us. It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually. I remember in my own family, when my father’s alcoholism was becoming evident, our unwillingness to admit and confront his destructive conduct, because it would be painful, accomplished two things—his drinking accelerated, as did our contempt and anger. The avoidance of pain cripples us. When we grow weary of our brokenness and seek to mend it, we have taken the first step toward healing and wholeness, which is the essence of spirituality.
As an adolescent, I went to confession every week at my Catholic church. When I left Catholicism, I would occasionally hear someone criticize the act of confession, usually by pointing out that only God could forgive a sin, not a priest, and I would think, “Yeah, the nerve of those Catholics. How arrogant! Who do they think they are?” I now realize that was a gross misunderstanding of confession. I now realize confession was about facing your brokenness head-on, about carrying them out of the darkness of denial and into the light of truth so healing and wholeness could begin.
Now this is important, so I’m going to say it as carefully as I can. Ironically, religion often rewards the obscuring of truth. Religion, with its fixation on moral perfection, often rewards the denial of brokenness. Religion applauds the perfect saint, the blameless disciple. Spirituality seeks the revelation of truth. It encourages self-reflection, especially when that self-reflection is painful and difficult, because spirituality realizes it is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually.
At our meetinghouse, we have set aside two areas for the express purpose of spiritual growth. The first area is the one we visit most often. It is the pulpit, which we hoped is always a platform for wholeness, truth, and healing. Some Sundays it is, some Sunday it isn’t. I’ve given close to 900 messages at Fairfield and not all of them have been helpful and true.
But we’ve set aside another for spiritual growth, and that is our counselor’s office, which at its best, is also a platform for wholeness, truth, and healing. I have sat in that room myself on several occasions and have, almost without fail, left the room better for the experience. In that room, I have faced pain I had tried to avoid, confessed fears I was loathe to admit, and endured a level of self-scrutiny I had for years refused to endure. When I became a pastor, I was told I needed to be an example of holy perfection. There are few things more unhelpful and unhealthy than expecting perfection from a mortal being. But when I became a pastor, this is what I was told, to be a blameless disciple. But as I became more fully human, when wholeness became my goal, I simultaneously became more willing to examine not only my virtues but also my vices. Pain and difficulty, rather than something to be avoided, became my teacher.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Do you know what is most difficult for me to experience? Criticism of my ministry. Especially of my words, because I love words and spend a great deal of time selecting them, polishing them, and expressing them. Now do you want to know what helps me grow spiritually more than anything else? Criticism of my ministry. Not the thoughtless and nit-picky kind of criticism from unhappy people. I usually ignore that kind of criticism. But thoughtful criticism, careful critique, forces me to reflect on my words and actions, and almost always contributes to my spiritual growth.
I stand in the pulpit week after week, encouraging you, affirming you, and sometimes challenging you. Though I am your pastor, I should in no way be exempt from the same discipline. That is how I learn, that is how I grow. I think back to my childhood, about the spiritual and relational chasm that often existed between the priests of my childhood and the congregation. We confessed our sins to them, and they confessed theirs to another priest, but never to us. They knew so much about us, and we knew so little about them. How richer that community might have been if transparency had gone both ways. If we had been permitted to see not only the virtues of our priests, but also their struggles, their temptations, their failings.
Most people prefer religion more than spirituality because religion is so much easier. In religion, we can hide our imperfections, we can pretend all is well, even amid deep brokenness, for one hour a week we can put on an act, pretending to be someone we are not. But spirituality tugs us always toward the light, always toward transparency, even toward difficulty and pain, for it knows it is the abrasive stone, not the smooth one, that sharpens the blade.