January 22, 2017
(from a retired pastor to his family, the Church)
Earlier this week we spent a pleasant evening visiting one of my wife’s childhood friends. The meal and conversation were enjoyable. What is most comforting about seeing friends you may not have seen for decades is learning that they too are trying to adapt to the same changes we are confronted with. One change all four of us were challenged by was that affecting our churches. Our friends do not attend the same denomination we do. Even so, their church is experiencing the same loss of membership many of our denominations are. The available research suggests the decline is not as drastic as it feels to those of us who attend Sunday services each week. I tend to think people respond to pollster’s questions from the perspective of “should” rather than “do.” I do know our pews are usually less than half full on any given Sunday. That wasn’t the story not so long ago. Why? What has changed in the world around us? Is the Christian message no longer relevant to the people of our nation?
A few years ago someone told me they were “spiritual but not religious.” As a person knee deep in spiritual and religious studies I found this response curious. In my experience the spiritual impulse longs to find expression in the tangible realm. This usually takes place in conversation, acts expressing an underlying spiritual value, and a gathering of like-minded people–all of these being the birthplace of religious practices. I took what I had heard to mean the person was able to be spiritual without an outward expression of this spirituality. This is a challenging assertion. But, maybe there is something here the Christian community needs to look at.
I am only now beginning to read on this topic. In looking at that sentence I cannot help but realize the irony of what I have just written. How could I hope to learn anything about the “spiritual but not religious” movement in a book or article? Especially when, at its core, it claims to be unique to each individual, unorganized, and not a movement at all. Maybe this is the place to start. It could be the basic approach folks in the pew take to sharing their faith, or trying to learn something of the other’s is the first barrier. We think of ourselves as people of The Book, the Bible. This notion of a book assumes a spirituality that has found expression in the physical realm. Instead of a book perspective, where do we begin?
Starting at the beginning is always a good place to go. A friend of mine who spent a decade living in the wilderness of Alaska, subsisting on its natural bounty, tells this story. One cold winter’s morning he sat absolutely still on a hillside with his rifle resting across his arms. He was waiting for a deer to enter the glade below him. His being able to eat for the next few weeks depended on how quietly he waited. As he likes to say, “as I sat there with murder on my mind, a little junco landed on the barrel of my rifle.” In that instant the stark contrast between his own presence and that of the junco seized his imagination. That brief moment became a metaphor for him. He clearly saw that each of us had a choice before us of how we want to be present in this world. The visitation of that little bird, like the visitation of any angel, gave birth to huge consequences in his life. And like other visitations recorded in the scripture, that junco has continued to play a large part in his ongoing spiritual development.
I suspect the people we do not see in our churches, those who choose not to affiliate with what they view as “organized” religion, do not want to hear about Bible stories, articles of faith, or doctrine. They may prefer to hear about our life experiences, and how our faith has evolved and made a difference in our very real lives. This approach calls us to set our well-worn Bible verses and cliches aside and be prepared to tell our own stories. Once we have done this, they may invite us to share the rest of the story in words, which our Lord gives us at that moment, uniquely prepared for them.
Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. Amen. (BCP 215)