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What does it mean to be spiritual? (9 & 10)

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Oops, my bad.  Seems like Phil wasn't finished when Easter interrupted his series on Spirituality.  So for completeness, I have now added Sermons 9 & 10, which I think now are the last.

What does it mean to be spiritual? (9)

I was talking with a man not long ago who learned during our conversation that I was a Quaker minister. He said, “I used to be a pastor.”

I asked him how long he had served as a pastor and he said, “Well, it was a long time ago, and I only lasted three months.”

I knew there had to be a good story there. Three months? How do you only last three months? It turns out he forgot Mother’s Day. He said, “Actually, I think they would have forgiven that, but the next week I preached on women and the church and quoted from Genesis about men ruling over women and 1st Corinthians about women being silent in church and that turned out to be my last Sunday.”

I didn’t know him well, so didn’t feel free to call him a birdbrain, but I thought it.

I asked him if he still believed those things, and he said no, that he’d gotten married and his wife had straightened him out, and I say good for her.

So Happy Mother’s Day, women, and greetings from a church that doesn’t believe you should be ruled by anyone but yourself and if you want to speak, feel free. If you’re not a mother, we still celebrate you. Today, we honor all those women who create, nurture, and love. Some women give birth to children, others to ideas, and still others to transformative social change. We honor you and applaud the many and various ways you have nurtured life.

We begin with an apology. Religion, perhaps more than any other institution, has conspired to keep women down. The American suffragist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, once said, “The Bible and the Church have been the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of women’s emancipation.” We can talk until we are blue in the face how the Church reveres women, how the Church elevates women, but when Christianity’s largest denomination, Roman Catholicism, does not permit women to serve as priests, when a religious majority in the Supreme Court conspires to deny women their medical and reproductive freedom, when 48,000 Southern Baptist churches do not permit women to lead, when 17 million Mormons worldwide will not permit women to serve in the priesthood, the Church’s words ring hollow.

We’ve been talking about what it means to be spiritual, contrasting religion and spirituality. I want to continue our exploration by observing that religions, not all religions, but certainly a plurality of religions in history, have endeavored to keep women down and powerless, and have done so by claiming the subjugation of women is God’s will. We contrast this with spirituality, whose purpose is always to connect and affirm, believes women were not intended to be managed, but emancipated. Spirituality speaks not of conquest and control, but of connection and liberation.

When our Christian ancestors encountered strong and independent women, they called them witches and put them to death, a warning to women everywhere to know their place and stay there. Philip Smith, writing in the academic journal Historical Social Research, estimated that from 1400-1700 AD up to one million women were accused of witchcraft and half of them were put to death, with full approval of the Church. Then we became “civilized,” so rather than killing powerful and free-thinking women, we forbid them from owning property, made them stay with abusive husbands, denied them a voice in political matters, and still forbid them from terminating an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy. When we peer behind this grim curtain, we see the hand of oppressive religion pulling the strings.

When women expressed great spiritual truths, they were corralled, told what they could and couldn’t say, what they could and couldn’t feel, what they could and couldn’t do. But spirituality never corrals, it never controls. It seeks only to enlighten and illuminate. When I hear a woman say, “I am spiritual, but not religious,” I am hearing a women realize she has been ill-served and abused by religion, though has not lost her passion for truth, meaning, and beauty. It means religion has tried to silence her, but she has nevertheless persisted. For too many years our image of the perfect woman was related to her willingness and ability to serve men. She was not valued for her intelligence, for her insight, for her creativity, for her strength, but valued only for her compliance and submission. Wives, obey your husbands, religion told her. Cover your head. Keep silent. Bear children. Don’t argue. Know your place.

But know this, compliance and submission are the dreaded enemies of true spirituality, which serves always to emancipate and empower, especially those who’ve been held down and held back.

Today is Mother’s Day, so I think naturally of my mother and her life. My mother had 78 organs, of which the womb was only one. When that was removed, her value was in no way diminished.

I remember my mother telling me of the day she told religion to stop concerning itself with her womb. She’d had five children in six years and one Sunday morning sat through a homily given by a man telling her birth control was a sin. Afterwards, she asked him, “Are you going to help me raise all the children you want me to have?”

He said, “That is not my business.”

She said, “Exactly.”

I loved my mother. There isn’t a day that passes that I don’t think of her, that I don’t miss her, that I don’t cherish her memory. I am grateful she gave me life. But I am even more grateful for her strength, her intelligence, and her refusal to be reduced to a womb.

In the last decades of her life, my mother was not a religious woman. She was however, deeply spiritual, and walked freely and joyfully among the fragrant and gorgeous mysteries of life. I pray all of us may do the same.


What does it mean to be spiritual? (10)

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.

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17 hours ago, PaulS said:

Absolutely, but I wonder if the inspiration for poetry is a product of spirituality? :)

But perhaps the existence of poets and writers, even composers and artists are simply "inspired" by existence. Seeing the world in terms of chemistry or perhaps physics or biology is no less creative than than the arts so to speak.

I am still no closer to understanding what Gulley means by spirituality. For me it has to be some kind of feeling. Gulley's juxtaposition of religion with spirituality tells me what it is not. Is simply living a "good" life spirituality?

Or is it me, trying to live life whilst not thinking in terms of good and evil spirituality?

I can't help but read Gulley's writing as trying to hold on to Christian souls in an unyielding ebbing tide. 

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7 hours ago, romansh said:

I am still no closer to understanding what Gulley means by spirituality. For me it has to be some kind of feeling. Gulley's juxtaposition of religion with spirituality tells me what it is not. Is simply living a "good" life spirituality?

I have to agree - I think his sermons might've been better titled "What Spirituality Is Not".  He seemed to be able to easily point to the problems that Religion causes, but didn't nail it at all concerning what spirituality actually is (even in his mind as to what it is).

7 hours ago, romansh said:

I can't help but read Gulley's writing as trying to hold on to Christian souls in an unyielding ebbing tide. 

Indeed, it reads a bit like that to myself also.  Phil grew out of his old fundamentalist beliefs, but can't quite let go of the familiarity of God and community that I would say was probably a positive of his religious experience to some degree, but is now not much more than living a 'good' life like anybody else. I am still none the wiser how 'spirituality' serves that. 

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