I Am Spiritual but Religious...Perhaps Not

A couple years ago, when my youngest was about 3 she began this unusual quest to find the perfect outfit. At that time it seemed to consist of flip flops and either tutus’ or princess costumes. Which works fine in a month like May but this was winter. On a very cold February day I put on my own winter woolies in preparation for heading out to the grocery store (the worst job on any day but even worse on frigid winter mornings with small children in tow). I went to my daughter’s room to find her in her Cinderella costume and flip flops. I tried to explain how cold it would be outside and she pouted and told me it would be warm in the store just like in our house. Really, who could argue with that? I attempted to get socks on her but apparently that is not the way you wear flip flops so it was a winter coat and off we went.

I was tired that day. It was a Monday, I had worked all weekend and even though I have a nice husband who cleans and does laundry, with three kids come Monday you are just starting all over again. So it is probably safe to assume that my daughter and I looked like quite a pair as we entered the grocery store. When I am tired you can tell, every nerve I have sits on high alert just waiting for someone to tramp on them and it makes my whole body tense up. And then you have a three year old dressed like Cinderella with flip flips in February.

There was a couple disapproving glances which I caught and did my best to just smile back. She’s the third kid, I don’t care what strangers think any more. When my first was an infant we would be up so early that I would pack him into the car and head to the grocery store or Target because they were open by eight. One morning, close to Christmas when he was just a few weeks old an elderly woman stopped me in the grocery store and said, “Shame on you having such a tiny baby out in this weather.” Her words stung like a snowball hitting you smack in the face with ice hidden in the middle. I remember groping for words as though she deserved some kind of explanation. So when an older woman in a wheelchair, being pushed by a much younger woman approached us in the produce aisle I thought,” Oh here it comes.” And my shoulders scrunched up to ear lobes.

Before the woman in the wheelchair could speak the woman pushing the wheelchair smiled at me in an apologetic way. My whole being snapped to attention and I tried to smile back, my lips creating a thin line on my face. My daughter, meanwhile completely oblivious, was tapping her magic wand over my head trying to turn me into one of those cute mice.

“You have a beautiful little girl. She must be such a blessing.” The woman said and immediately part of the tension in my shoulders oozed out. Then she reached into her large pocket book and pulled out a pamphlet. I knew what it was and immediately put out my hand like a stop sign, smiled, a genuine smile and said, “I have a church I am very happy with.” She smiled back, put the pamphlet away and asked if she could pray for me. I replied yes, because really on that morning I could have used all the help I could get.

During Lent this year my church had a program where we discussed spirituality. Our minister gave us an article entitled “You Can’t Make This Up”, to read and discuss. It was by Reverend Lillian Daniels, who is a minister of a large church in Chicago. In it she talks about people who claim to be spiritual-but-not-religious. The first time I read it I found her to be sarcastic and snarky, some of her comments caused me to physically cringe. The second time I read it she reminded me of me when I am tired, all tensed up and ready to pounce. In her article she explains why organized religion and most importantly being a part of a church is important. She lays out her points in a biting tone which I don’t think really pleads her case very well. For those who have turned away from church or who perhaps never really had a church to begin with are not going to read her article and go run out to find a church to belong to. She says, “If we made a church for all these spiritual-but-not-religious people, if we got them altogether to talk about their beliefs and their incredibly unique personal religions, they might find out that most of America agrees with them. But they’ll never find that out, because getting them altogether would be way too much like church. And they are far too busy being original to discover that they are not.”

Ouch.

Religion is, I will admit, a touchy subject. Wars have been and continue to be fought over it. People do fanatical things in the name of God and religion. But there are many more of us who are just trudging along, trying to understand, trying to do our best and mostly falling short. In this country, thanks to media showing the craziest of the crazy, Christians are viewed as funeral picketing, screaming lunatics on television, flaunting God as though they have the one and only direct line to Heaven. Anne Lamott, a Christian writer, said it best in her article for Bookish.com. She calls the spiritual-but-religious people, the “Nons”. She says, “When Nons hear the word Christian they think of public Christians…they instantly think of stages full of Christians on TV waving their arms like palm fronds in a hurricane… They do not instantly think Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Abraham Lincoln…They think Jerry Falwell, Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry, people who seem close to hysteria in their convictions.”

In truth that is how I have viewed someone who titles themselves Christian or religious, which is why I have not ever referred to myself as a Christian or religious. I prefer to think of myself as taking a spiritual journey. It feels broader and leaves room for questions like, “Did the walls of Jericho really tumble from the sound of a few horns?” “Is it really all Eve’s fault?” Truthfully there are stories in the Bible that are tough to subscribe to. Like that passage about wives submitting to their husbands. I am not really down with that but the following verse about husbands adoring their wives; I have committed that one to memory. The Old Testament is tough. I prefer the New Testament, sort of a kinder, gentler take on God. So when it comes to how I would describe myself, should anyone care to ask, I would have to say I am spiritual but not necessarily religious. For one thing the very definition of religion goes against my nature. One of four definitions of religion in the Webster dictionary is: “Strictness of fidelity in conforming to any practice, as if it were an enjoined rule of conduct.” That describes absolutely nothing about me. If you want to talk being religious over something we could certainly describe my husband as religious when it comes to taking care of and spending time with his boat. But that may be a story for another time. Or perhaps I have already told that story.

I wasn’t lying to the kind woman who wanted to pray for a tired, worn out mom. I also wasn’t offended by her approach, it came from her heart. I am sure many people she has approached have not been kind but to her credit it didn’t seem like a deterrent. I do have a nice church, filled with kind people. And I go to church, not out of some guilt or obligation but because I feel welcome. I go to church because I feel God’s presence sitting beside me and I feel my mother smiling on me. I go to church because it makes me feel a part of something larger than myself. I go to church because it smells of coffee and fresh flowers…and hope. Hope that tomorrow will be a better day. Hope that there will be one less tragedy in our world. Hope that a friend’s cancer will go into remission. And hope that today someone’s prayers will be answered.

Although I may agree with some of her points, I don’t believe it is fair for Reverend Daniels or anyone else calling themselves a Christian to criticize those who are not finding religion to be their go to when times get rough. We all need something to help us through. Life is hard; none of us get out unscathed. We are all flawed and frail, beautiful and broken and at the end of the day if praying to a Christian God or praying to Buddha or praying to some Ambien helps you rest your head then so be it. It is not up to the Christians of this world to judge and criticize those who are not so sure about God’s existence or who staunchly believe that God and religion is a total crock. It is up to Christians to show compassion and kindness, generosity and humility, because at the heart of it and in the simplest of explanations that is what the Bible and Jesus and God are all about, with or without a church to stand in.

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