Date: July 26, 2015
Title: “Spirituality and Suspicion”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 4:1-2, 7-11
Be careful what you wish for. It’s an old adage, and it may make us chuckle a little, as we so often see it used sarcastically or ironically – “be careful what you wish for”. And yet it also resonates with us for we understand what it means to be careful when it comes to our wishes, our hopes, our dreams, and even our prayers.
Several years ago this was played out for me rather concretely. I took a day hike at Silver Falls Park with a friend of mine, a seminary classmate who now lives in the Bay Area of northern California. We hadn’t seen each other in quite some time, so Tom and I spent most of that day catching up on the latest news in our lives, and sharing with each other about the state of our own souls as we talked about where God was taking us and how we were experiencing the Spirit in every moment. I told Tom that I felt a little left behind in the whole spiritual growth arena, fearing that I wasn’t doing anything particularly new or exciting. I told him I worried that my own relationship with God had become a little too predictable, a little too traditional, even a little too institutional.
Be careful what you wish for! It was only a matter of weeks after that conversation that I began to experience prayer in a radical new way, and that whole worlds of spirit opened up for me. It was very new, very different, and it caused me to worry – was I leaving my own faith tradition too far behind? Was I moving into not only unfamiliar, but potentially unsafe spiritual terrain?
So filled with angst was I, the anxiety spilled over into my sleep. And one night, I had a dream. I can’t remember all the details of this dream, but I will never forget its tagline. The heart of the matter was succinct and direct and it was aimed squarely at my worry. I woke with a start with these words emblazoned in my mind: Religion is to spirituality, what McDonald’s is to food.
Think about it for a minute. Religion is to spirituality, what McDonald’s is to food. It will feed you, for sure; you won’t starve on a fast-food diet. But you also won’t necessarily get all the nutrients you need. There is something a bit shallow about fast food. And it is this same shallowness, the cursory fast answers and easy solutions of religiosity which I think cause many of our Northwest neighbors to call themselves “spiritual but not religious”.
You’ve all heard – ad nauseum, no doubt – about the Pew Research Center’s studies of religion and American life, which coined the term “the None Zone” to refer to the Pacific Northwest. That’s none, spelled n-o-n-e, meaning that in 2015’s survey of Oregonians claiming some kind of faith stance, 61% of respondents identified themselves as Christians, 8% said they are believers of other faiths (Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or “other”), and 31% said they are unaffiliated religiously, marking that famous “none” category when asked to choose their religion! Since the Pew group started these surveys, we have not slipped below #1 – we still reside in that part of the United States with the highest percentage of persons with no particular religious affiliation.
It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that our neighbors, co-workers, family members and friends have no interest in religion or have no faith formation at all. There is, in fact, an increasing interest in the life of faith, which is one reason why many choose to call themselves “spiritual but not religious”. Perhaps they are looking for a deeper, slower, more nutrient-rich experience than they imagine takes place in a place like this week, week out. And so, we come to this week’s “You Asked For It” sermon, and the question of the week: How do I claim my faith in the face of skeptics and critics? What do we do with spirituality and suspicion?
St. Paul gives us some assistance when he writes to the church in Corinth. Right away, notice today’s reading came from Paul’s second letter to that community. The first one apparently had not hit the mark. Paul knew all about skeptics and critics and was experiencing first hand that doubled-edged sword of spirituality and suspicion. It was no small thing for Paul, having to write not one but two letters defending his message and his ministry, laying out his theology and his mission.
It would have been easy for Paul to just give up on those Corinthians with their spirituality and their suspicion. He could have decided to simply leave them to their own devices, and to let them go their own unaffiliated ways. But he did not.
Instead, Paul gives us this great description of life in any “None Zone” we could imagine, when he says (in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the passage):
If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness.
We carry this precious message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives.
That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us.
As it is, there’s not much chance of that…we’re not much to look at.
We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized;
we’re not sure what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side;
we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken.
So we’re not giving up! How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks
like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life,
not a day goes by without unfolding grace.
My friends, this is what it means to be “spiritual and religious”. It is to recognize daily that God is making new life and that God’s grace is constantly unfolding in our midst. To be spiritual and religious is to listen to the whispers of the Spirit in our own souls, and then to know enough to join with a community of souls seeking the kind of sustenance which goes beyond fast answers and easy solutions. Religion at its best encompasses and includes the kind of spirituality which our unaffiliated friends long for and we ourselves have glimpsed through God’s grace.
I did not grow up accepting church as a regular part of life. In my family of origin, there were long periods of time when church just wasn’t a part of the routine. I remember my mother saying once “If I have to teach Sunday School, you have to go to Sunday School.” And I remember hoping she wouldn’t be teaching very long! As a teenager, I rejected even this mandate, so it wasn’t until I reached college that I decided I needed a community to help me find the depths of spirituality for which I longed.
Now my sister Debby was particularly skilled as a suspicious skeptic. I remember being so upset, feeling like a failure as a Christian, when I couldn’t adequately answer her challenges to my tentative steps into the church. I went to see my pastor – a very wise man – and poured out my heart to him. He suggested I ask Debby to describe that God she did not believe in, and then ask her to flesh out the church she imagined had no value. I followed his advice, and of course it turned out that I didn’t believe in her God either! Nor did I have any patience for the kind of church she described!
Too often we run away from the skeptics and the suspicious, thinking we have nothing to offer and no answer to make. Too often we run away or we keep silent or we try to change the subject because we forget that we have the treasure of God’s love in the clay pots of our ordinary everyday lives. We fall into the trap of deciding we have nothing to offer because we know there are no fast answers or easy solutions for any of us. Faced with spirituality and suspicion, we run away. And yet, we can make a different choice.
Like Paul, we can choose a different course. We can do what Susan Glassmeyer suggests in her poem, “Introductions”. Glassmeyer suggests we do not have to interact in the same old tired ways and we do not need to run away or keep silent or try to change the subject. She says we could, instead, “tell just one small thing that costs us nothing but our attention.” We could tell about those simple things which nourish us deep into the very marrow of our bones and into every corner of our souls – things like family and beauty, things like art and nature, things like graciousness and goodness and care.
Living in the None Zone is not all that bad. Those 31% unaffiliated friends are not so very difference from the rest of us here. They are only waiting for that one small thing costing nothing but our attention, that one simple thing nourishing our souls, and showing us the incomparable power of God’s love in everyday life. They are only waiting for one small thing. They are only waiting for us. Thanks be to God! Amen.