Unlike the growing number of Americans who are leaving organized religion with the mantra “spiritual but not religious,” I can’t walk away from the institution that both inspires and aggravates me.
Having served as a full time parish pastor for more than two decades, and at this particular location for more than 14 of those years, a case could be made that I am simply professionally stuck. Maybe so. But as I consider my membership in this local community of faith, the roots are much more personal.
Inexplicably, even in seasons where I’ve wanted my profession to be anything but church-related, I’ve never questioned my membership with this community of believers. Unlike my more pious and/or professionally oriented colleagues, I do not typically visit other churches and glean new practices when I am on vacation. I do not feel a need to enter a sanctuary to pray and am not comfortable in crowds of people I do not know. (In this regard, I have much in common with the ‘spiritual but not religious’ crowd!) But over the years I have witnessed a rather strange but undeniable pattern; if I am in town, I cannot help but show up to be with this people that have become family. EUCC, the Other Evangelical, has become for me family.
Of course it wasn’t always this way. I remember the first time we sat in church and my then-2yr old screamed as his father carried him out (read: embarrassment!) I remember congregational meetings where I suspected that the Antarctic would be more welcoming than the sanctuary. Perhaps most importantly, I remember fearing that if the community knew what was in my heart, I would no longer be welcome. The gift of time, the beauty of weathering the seasons in community, is the discovery of self in the context of safe space.
The sacred is not confined to religious institutions, spirituality can flourish without the church; but this church has played a fundamental and beautiful role in my journey. I wouldn’t be who I am today had not the church provided fertile ground for my spirit to grow.
Tragically this experience has been neither universal nor even the norm. Too many times tender souls have entered religious institutions only to hear that they are unwelcome. Even in our own embracing community, we fail to meet every need of every sojourner and despite our best intentions some people leave hurt. Tragic and worthy of our most sincere repentance, such failures are not a reason to quit trying. Quite the opposite. Now more than ever, the culture in which we find ourselves in is hungry for the kind of loving community that we have discovered with one another at the Other Evangelical. Utopia may be by definition non-existent, and ours is not perfection. But ours is a community with a passionate commitment to finding a place for everyone at our shared table and this is a precious message in a sharply divided culture.
The sea in which we find ourselves is teaming with competing ideas about the role of faith in our lives. At this fall’s “Restoring Honor” rally, Glen Beck gave a rousing call to financially support our faith communities. Unlike his liberal Protestant counterparts, this Mormon pundit unflinchingly exhorted the crowd to put 10% of their wealth into the offering plate of their local faith community. Though perhaps shrill, his rallying cry was a reminder of a simple truth: we fund that which we value. The reverberations of his cry are a reminder of another more ominous truth; that people whose values differ from my own are ponying up to the bar. Lest our voice of compassion be drowned by voices of exclusion, there is an urgency to put our money behind our rhetoric. Even now, especially now, our witness is critical.
This week I received a pledge packet from my church. It’s an invitation to think about what the church means to me but even more importantly it is an invitation to extend to others the compassion that I’ve experienced. Now, more than ever, we need to support the communities of compassion when we find them. We need to support the places where we can be spiritual AND religious.