Sunday, April 14, 2013

Spiritual but not Religious?

You’ve probably heard that the number of people who identify themselves by the phrase "spiritual but not religious" or “SBNR” is growing. In 1998, only 9 percent of American adults said they were spiritual but not religious. A 2009 Newsweek poll revealed that 30 percent of Americans refer to themselves as “spiritual, not religious.” According to a survey referred to in a USA Today article in October of 2012, 72% of millennials (18- to 29-year-olds) say they're "really more spiritual than religious.”

But I’ll be honest with you.  I don’t know what the heck that means.  And my exploration of this topic confirms that it doesn’t have much of a COMMON meaning.  I read several articles, blogs, and a couple of books that approached it from different directions – probably because folks have differing definitions of both spiritual and religious.  

I thought it would be interesting to see the kinds of images used with these two words.  As you probably know, when you put something in your google box and look it up – you can go to the top and click “images” and see images used in the land of googledom with these words --- and sometimes that gives you a “picture” or “pictures” that are helpful.  Here are the top images for “spiritual” on google.   

Ah, lots of nature and blurry lines.

And when I type in the word “religious,” these are some of the top images.”  
You know when you go to the eye doctor, you look through that fancy lens and they change from frame to frame and ask you to pick the one that looks better.   
Let’s do that. This one Or this one.  Again – the 1st one or the 2nd one.

Which one – 1 or 2?  Well folks, there are some people like me who wear bifocals.
In any case, I decided I would get some help figuring out what folks that I CONNECT with mean if they say they are “spiritual but not religious.” 

So I put up a little survey on survey monkey – and shared it with our members and friends and my Facebook friends – asking folks who identified in this manner to complete it.  There were 29 folks who responded.  About 60% of the folks did not regularly attend church or any other faith group.  But about the same number of folks DID have “some” label that they used (like UU) to identify themselves theologically. 
When I asked what they meant by “spiritual but not religious” I got lots of different kinds of answers, but they generally fell into two categories.  About half of them were talking about BELIEF – and why their views did not fit the traditional theistic framework or did not match the religions they knew about.  Here are a couple of representative quotes.

“I do not necessarily believe in a literal God, and I certainly don't fit into any of the organized religions. However, I feel like there is amazing beauty and wonder all around us. I believe in the importance of a moral life and the importance of love. I feel most spiritual when I connect to other people (through meaningful conversation) or to nature.”

“Spiritual is something I am -- the deep place inside of me and the interconnectedness that I feel with every living thing. Spirituality is the god within. It's always there, and I can always call on it. To me, the term religious feels very confining -- like I have to follow rules with which I don't necessarily agree. Traditional religion feels stuffy and inauthentic. I have NO interest in practicing religion.”

Explanations from the other half of the “spiritual but not religious” folks indicate that they were not interested in an “ORGANIZED religion” or coming to church – regardless of their beliefs.  Here are two representative quotes – and these are rather difficult for me to hear:

“As the Indigo Girls lyrics tell it in Closer to Fine: "The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine" Religion to me is a set of disciplines that are supposed to allow one to feel close to their source, it is their way to seek closeness with their source. But I find that the less I seek, or the less I try, the easier it is to just BE close to my source. I don't feel the need for a set of disciplines, the best I've done for myself is to let go of those practices and instead just BE.”

“Spiritual but not religious means you have turned your back on organized religion due to the hypocritical nature of most of those organizations. I have found very few church-goers, primarily Christians, to act in any way Jesus-like, and have found Jesus-like behavior even less frequent among supposed church leaders.”


In the short time I have, I’m going to attempt to provide some response to both of these groups.

To the first group – put off by the dogma of many traditional religions; well join the club.  And actually, it’s an old club.  But it’s not necessarily a club that has rejected the religious term and religious association.  In fact, one of the reasons the Unitarian Universalists opted NOT to have a creed was that our forebearers agreed that you could be religious without a certain belief – especially in the traditional sky god.  A couple of you referred me to an article in the New York Review entitled “Religion without God.” 

The editors indicate that before his death on February 14 of this year, the author, Ronald Dworkin, sent to The New York Review a text of his new book, Religion without God, to be published by Harvard University Press later this year. They published an excerpt from the first chapter.

In this chapter, Dworkin shares some ideas from lots of folks through history who seem to be religious without a belief in God. For example, he quotes Albert Einstein, who said that though an atheist he was a deeply religious man: Here’s what he said:
“To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.”

As you see, it all depends on how one defines religion – and folks like Einstein (and many of us) have a much broader interpretation than religious fundamentalists. 
Although the philosopher and psychologist William James would say that his religion really IS what’s fundamental:  that there are “things in the universe,” as he put it, “that throw the last stone.” Theists have a god for that role, but an atheist can think that the importance of living well throws the last stone, that there is nothing more basic on which that responsibility rests or needs to rest.

The Supreme Court of the United States certainly recognizes that “religion” doesn’t mean a belief in a deity or particular religious practices – and Dworkin cites multiple cases. 

Dworkin contends that the term “religious” doesn’t connote a specific belief, but an attitude – or perhaps a perspective.   Here’s how HE would describe that attitude:
“The religious attitude accepts the full, independent reality of value. It accepts the objective truth of TWO central judgments about value. The first holds that human life has objective meaning or importance….  The second holds that what we call “nature”—the universe as a whole and in all its parts—is not just a matter of fact but is itself sublime: something of intrinsic value and wonder.

“We are part OF nature because we have a physical being and duration: nature is the locus and nutrient of our physical lives. We are apart FROM nature because we are conscious of ourselves as making a life and must make decisions that, taken together, determine what life we have made.”

Well, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? 
I see our Unitarian Universalist principles all over that!  
For me, religion is all about connection.  That’s what being religious is – connecting with what we hold as sacred, or ultimate, or life-giving.  Re- ligion means Re connecting.  The root word that “ligion” comes from is the same root word that ligament comes from.  It’s connection.  So in the reading we had earlier, Sarah Moores Campbell tells her gardener neighbor, “Yes, you are religious.”

And yes, I certainly agree with Campbell and Dworkin that you CAN be religious without God.   A majority of Unitarian Universalists would probably fit into that category, though many have redefined God and still use that term. And the reason is because we allowed our religion to EVOLVE and become more inclusive! 
Now what about that 2nd group from my survey, the folks that have rejected organized religion and religious institutions?  I don’t know if there are any of you sitting HERE who feel that way who may have come to this service just to see what I had to say.  I’m probably preaching to the choir on this point.  But my sermons are also made available online and passed on to many folks – so I’m going to try to respond to those folks who feel that way.

First of all, I hear you.  I have been rejected by many in my efforts to fit into some churches; till it almost feels like – why bother.  But I was blessed to find Unitarian Universalism, a place where I did not have to check my brain, my heart, or my identities at the door.  Unitarian Universalism has truly been my salvation – to use a heavily loaded religious term.  But it’s true for me.  I have found a religious faith tradition where I CAN connect. And YES, I did use the word FAITH.  Because faith is about trust.  When one is faithful, that one is trustworthy.  And although we all have to cautious, you can’t go through life without some trust – some faith in something you can connect with.

And that indeed is why we need to come to worship services, for connection to that nourishing community, through music, listening and learning together, participating in connecting rituals, planning ways to serve together, and of course, sharing some good coffee.  Folks sometimes share what their spiritual practices are; perhaps yoga or meditation or gardening.  I always include worship services.  If our connection here is not spiritual, I don’t know what is.  It’s all connection that provides us with the nourishment we need to move forward in this world.  I asked this group on our listserv to share why you came to church and got several responses – but I’m going to share just one which seems to incorporate what many others said.  You may be able to guess who this is. 

“I love UU.  I am a UU.  I like being part of a church where I am reminded of our intention to love one another- to honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  I like that children are understood to have inherent worth and dignity -- that we are a village, caring for one another.  I am proud to be part of the church where we stand on the side of love, at every opportunity.   I value that I am known and loved here -- that I am expected and appreciated every Sunday.”

We come for many different reasons   But come we do as we sing, “Come, come whoever you are – wanderers, worshippers, lovers of leaving; ours is no Caravan of despair, Come, yet again Come.”

Ours IS no caravan of despair.  Yet we welcome the despair that many bring with them.  This is a place for healing.  And for me, at least, it’s a holy place. Just as holy as that place we heard about in our children's story built by Thomas Potter so that the message of Universal Love could be shared.   Of course, it’s not a holy place because of this building, and indeed, this congregation will be leaving this building.  But because of these people within it. 

There are CERTAINLY holy places in nature – we churchgoers too see the divine in a beautiful sunset. But we need more than that – and it’s not just about what WE need – but about what we can do for others working together.  We need this religious community, THIS holy place. 

There is a song that feels like it’s about this holy place in “Singing the Journey” and I’ve asked our fellowship singers to sing “When Our Heart is in a Holy Place” for the offertory.  Because the words are so meaningful, I’ve included them on my PowerPoint so you can follow along.  And if you feel like joining in, please do. 

But before they sing, here is my altar call of sorts.  If Unitarian Universalism sounds like something you want to explore more, I invite you to stay after the service on April 28 for our UU 101 session that I’ll lead.  You’ll find out about that “free church tradition” that James Luther Adams encourages.  And if this congregation feels like HOME to you, we’ll invite you to our UU 102.  Just let me or our VP for membership Teresa Winn know.

We’d love to have you join us, here – Standing on the side of Love - in this spiritual AND religious community.

Amen and blessed be!

Monday, April 1, 2013

I Know This Rose Will Open

Easter Service - 2013

Recorded Sermon at this LINK

Our Reading this morning is from Hebrew Scriptures ---- Isaiah 35; verses 1 - 7
The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.
It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing: the glory of Lebanon shall be given unto it, the excellency of Carmel and Sharon, they shall see the glory of the LORD, and the excellency of our God.
Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees.
Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompence; he will come and save you.
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped.
Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert.
And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water: in the habitation of dragons, where each lay, shall be grass with reeds and rushes.
And again – from verse one:  The desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.

Sermon:  I know this Rose Will Open

Last week in our small Religious Education Room, I met with three women and one young man about a special fundraising project.  The women are members of a small African American traditional Christian church and the young man is a gospel singer and promotes gospel groups – as well as a funeral home director.  They are hoping to raise funds to assist the grandmother (Ms. Jessie) who continues to care for her severely physically disabled grandson KK.   KK is now in his mid 20’s and has needed her help to even breathe and eat since being injured in an accident when he was just 18 months old.  Initially, we were thinking that we could host a fundraiser here in our building; but determined it was too small for the gospel concert they were planning.  We can still help them; but hopefully they can get the Episcopal Church to host the concert.

I told them about our plans to renovate a building that we had acquired and have a bigger space so that we could perhaps host some concerts like this in the future.  And I shared with them our plans for a yard sale.  I said, “I THINK WE CAN raise some money to help us with the renovation.” 

And one of the women – said, “No – don’t say – I think we can….    Claim it.” 

And I understood --- and said, “We WILL raise money at our yard sale and we WILL renovate that building.”   

As most of you know, I was not born with the gift of unwavering faith in the unseen, the unknowable, or the supernatural.  I’m one of those folks who questions, who doubts, who asks for evidence.  Yet – I also know that there IS evidence in the power of what this woman was saying I should do.  Now I know from other things she said, that she is basing her idea of “Claiming it” on biblical principles and faith that God in heaven will hear you and answer your prayers.  I’m more inclined to think in more naturalistic terms.  Yet, it’s true that if we face a task with a positive outlook, we are more likely to achieve it than if we face it pessimistically. 

There have been loads of books written on this –of course.  Norman Vincent Peal wrote a whole series of “Positive Thinking” bestsellers.  And the most recent bestseller that promotes this idea is “The Secret,” – a book written by Rhonda Byrne and promoted by the Grand Goddess of television, Oprah Winfrey. 

The tenet of “The Secret” is that the universe is governed by a natural law called the law of attraction which is said to work by attracting into a person's life the experiences, situations, events, and people that "match the frequency" of the person's thoughts and feelings. Therefore, positive thinking and feeling positive are claimed to create life-changing results such as increased wealth, health, and happiness.  Sounds good!

The book has rightfully been criticized for some pretty outlandish claims within it.  For example Byrne claims that natural disasters strike people on the same wave length with them – implying that victims of tornados and tsunamis brought the disaster down on themselves.   Plus the book is criticized by former believers for giving them false hopes and causing them to blame themselves if things did not go well --- you know – ”maybe I wasn’t thinking positively enough.”

Now this is not to say that those criticizing these books and optimistic philosophies promote negative thinking instead.   They just think that our positive thinking needs a good dose of realism.  And I agree.

I personally lift up Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer ---- asking for the Serenity to Accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can, and….the wisdom to know the difference.  Amen.

But this is not the Sunday for pessimistic thinking anyway!  Today is Easter Sunday!  Hallelujah!  A time for celebrating rebirth, resurrection, renewal, new life, the blooming of flowers and the return of the green grass and of course pollen --- oh well, it can all be swell!  Thank goodness we’ve had some nice cleansing rains! And how we have loved watching those rains lift the waters of our creeks, and rivers, and ponds after so much drought. 

And that brings me to the desert that Isaiah speaks of in the passage we read earlier.  The chapter is a celebration of spiritual springtime --- where “the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.”

What I didn’t read to you was the preceding chapter --- where he did what bold prophets of old often did and named it like he saw it – nation fighting against nation; people stealing, pillaging, leaving people homeless and suffering.  These prophets like Isaiah stood up to the powerful and let them know that their days were numbered; that the righteous would reign in a peaceful land.  And you know, that’s what I join many of you in doing --- sharing a prophetic liberal religious voice for peace and justice here in Statesboro.  And sharing HARD news when we think folks have moved away from loving principles.  Of course, sometimes I do feel like it’s a voice crying in the wilderness.   That’s why I love this congregation.  You feel my tank up with spiritual energy that keeps me going.

Well, the prophet Isaiah was sharing all of this hard news with the Israelites --- but he didn’t end the story with the sorrow.  He told about the rains that would come, and the sweet peacefulness and lovely  blossoming turning that desert of despair into a joyful paradise.

Sometimes we wonder if it can really happen in our lives  and in this world when we read the news.  UU minister Barbara Hamilton Holloway notes the difficulty in envisioning the rose blooming.  She says,  “What about when we are grumpy and shut down and let down, worrying and wintry.  There are wintry places, dry dessert places in the soul.”  Mary Grigola’s song that we sang claims that “I know my soul will unfurl its wings.”  But sometimes, we feel that our wings are clipped.  When we are sad and depressed, it’s hard to feel hopeful.  Yet we also know --- that we often cannot appreciate the rainfall, till there is a drought.  And though it’s a cliché, it’s profoundly true that it’s often darkest before the dawn.  The dawn will come though.  It will come – at least for us personally.  But what about for this world.  Hamilton-Holloway asks these questions (and I’m paraphrasing):

What are the chances of the whole world blooming? 

Will there be a thriving planet some day; where no one is shut out?   

Where no one has to produce papers to prove their equality?

Will a time come when it won’t matter who you love?

Will someday people’s opportunities really be equal?

Will a time come when we don’t covet our neighbor’s land, our neighbor’s oil?

And I add my own questions to these.

Will a time come when we really put down our weapons --- individually and as nations?

Will a time come when we close prisons and open schools?

Will the planet and life itself really become sustainable?

Can we find contentment in simplicity and in love with our fellow earth inhabitants?

So much seems out of balance.

Isaiah prophesied a revolution where ALL will be changed.  I don’t know that I can “Claim it” like he did.  I don’t see the evidence that it will ALL change.  I believe that our efforts for peace and justice will always be somewhat of a struggle.  And you know – that’s okay with me.  The struggle that I have in one activity keeps me stronger for the next one. 
And there will be next ones!

But I do think our culture is changing because of our struggles – because of our optimism, because of our courage to change the things that we can.  Yes, there are places where the desert can rejoice – and blossoms like a rose.  And we should celebrate that today.  Today is a Sunday for saying “Hallelujah” – and we can proclaim it for many things.  For example ----

For this beautiful day, we can say “Hallelujah.”

For the sounds we hear of joyful children, we can say “Hallelujah.”

For our congregation’s commitment to Feeding Statesboro and our growing partnership with Magnolia Baptist church in this effort, we can say “Hallelujah.”

For our successful yard sale,  -- raising a total of $1,166  we can say “Hallelujah.”

For friends in our community like Dr. Michael Braz, who may not be part of this congregation, but who support our efforts with their talent and time, we can say “Hallelujah.”

For the glorious news we’ve heard this week that our Supreme Court may really “do justice” in their growing recognition that same sex couples deserve equal rights, we can say “Hallelujah.”

For Good news on Good Friday – that the Gundamentalists failed in their efforts to get our State Legislature to pass laws permitting guns on our campuses, and in churches and bars, we can say “Hallelujah.”

AND --for this spiritual home of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro, where we are all welcome to come as the real people we are --- not checking our brains or our hearts at the door, learning, growing, and serving together; we can all shout “Hallelujah.”

Yes – I KNOW this rose will open, I KNOW my fears will burn away, I KNOW my soul WILL unfurl its wings; I KNOW this rose will open.    And to the opening of this rose, and our hearts, minds, and souls, to that Divine Love present today in this room, we can all SING: 

(Sing)   “Hallelujah,  Hallelujah  ---- Hal – le ---lu--- jah!”