Saturday, May 3, 2014

To be honest, I'm jealous.

A former friend of mine seems to be undergoing a conversion to Christianity. To make a long story short, for almost a year and a half, she was coming to weekly Unitarian Universalist meetings that we held at our home. Then, within the scope of a month or so, she decided she did not want to be friends anymore, joined the community Bible study, and started writing about a conversion of sorts on her blog.

There were many reasons she decided not to be friends any longer, and though it has been frustrating for me, I understand that she was needing to take better care of herself and being friends with me made that difficult for her (for multiple reasons).

Yet, I cannot help but be aware of the mixed feelings that have surfaced about her conversion. In one sense, it has been simply baffling to me that someone could change so quickly. Her new habits, her everyday language, her scripture-quoting, and her participation in Bible studies and VBS has been a complete transformation from the person she presented herself to be during the 1.5 years of UU meetings. 

And, though I do not consider myself to be a Christian, I have always felt as though people need to find what works for them - whether it be Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Agnosticism.... We are all on different paths to the same destination. Why, then, was I feeling annoyed... frustrated... and, to be honest, a little sad, about her newfound Christian faith?

The answer, I found, is that I am jealous.

Being a Christian would make things so much... easier, sometimes. 

To have a built-in community despite moving around, to have an endless amount of resources for spiritual growth of my own and my children (children's Bibles, devotionals, tv shows, curriculum, etc.), to have children's programs (hello, VBS), and, not to mention, to have convenient answers for many of life's difficulties. 

I'm jealous because almost with the flip of a switch, my friend has been able to jump right into a thriving community the likes of which I desperately wish I could have as well. That is what bothers me: I want what she has been able to get. 

Being honest, and authentic, is tough. It's tough to jump in with an opposing viewpoint when so many around you might think the same way. It's tough to make yourself vulnerable when you admit that you don't have all the answers, or that no, you don't fit into the same box that this friend, and that friend, and that lady down the street fit into. 

Being honest is tough.
Being authentic is hard.
But being something I'm not is simply impossible.

So, even with all my mixed feelings about it, I hope my friend is on a path that brings her more peace, more friends, and more happiness. I'm finding those things too, on this path of my own.

Isn't that what life is all about?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Religion around the world: Let's learn about Sikhism

Do you know much about Sikhism? I sure don't.

I know Sikh's wear turbans... and I know they are often confused with Muslims... but that's about it. Terrible, right?

So let's learn more about Sikhism, together.

The Basics:

How many people follow Sikhism? Sikhism is the 5th-largest organized religion world-wide, and has approximately 30 million followers. Most of these followers resides within Punjab, India, and the United States has an estimated 336,000 Sikhs.

How old it is? When was it founded? Sikhism was founded in the 16th century in the Punjab area of what is now India and Pakistan. It was founded by Guru Nanak (1469-1539). "Guru" is the sanskrit word for "teacher," or "master." Nanak was a young boy when he became interested in spiritual matters. He was supposedly fascinated by God and religion, and thoroughly studied Islam and Hinduism. People began to recognize divine qualities in him as a teenager, and around the age of 30, he disappeared for three days. When he reappeared, he declared, "There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim," and he began to spread his teachings. He went on several journeys spanning thousands of miles, and Sikhism was born. Guru Nanak appointed the next successive guru before he died, and following guru Nanak were a total of 10 successive gurus who all added to and reinforced the message taught by the previous guru.

Does Sikhism have a holy text? The primary source of scripture for Sikhs is the "Guru Granth Sahib" (also called "The First Volume). This text is filled with many teachings of the gurus.

Who or what does Sikhism worship? Sikhism is monotheistic, and the concept of God is timeless, shapeless, and sightless. Sikhs believe that before creation, all that existed was God and God's divine order. God willed for the universe to be created, and so it was. 

What does Sikhism require? Sikhism demands that people use ordinary life to become closer to God. Sikhs are to serve God by serving other people, and devote their lives to service to rid themselves of ego and pride.

Where do Sikhs worship? Sikh places of worship are referred to as "Gurdwaras." This may refer to a temple, or to a place in someone's home, in which the sacred text of Sikhism is housed and treated with respect. There are 3 main functions of public Gurdwaras: 1) singing of hymns, 2) teaching and reading of the scriptures, and 3) to offer free community kitchens to visitors from all religions. How cool is that?

The Harmandir Sahib, or "Golden Temple" in Punjab, India - a holy site for Sikhs.

Now, for a few more details....

What do Sikhs believe about God?
  • God can be directly accessed by everyone and everyone is equal before God, no matter race, religion, caste, or gender.
  • God cannot be understood by the human mind, but God can be experienced through love, worship and meditation.
  • God is inside every person, no matter how wicked they appear.
What are the duties of a Sikh? There are three duties to be carried out by Sikhs in order to become closer to God (the ultimate goal of life). These are:
  • Pray: Keep God in mind at all times.
  • Work: Earn an honest living.
  • Give: Give to charity and care for others.
What are the Five Vices? The Five Vices are believed to make people self-centered, and they create distance between ourselves and God. These are:
  • Lust
  • Covetousness and greed
  • Attachment to worldly things
  • Anger
  • Pride
What happens when we die? Like many religions in Asia, Sikhs believe in a cycle of life, death and rebirth (or "reincarnation"). Karma is a factor in our quality of life, and is affected by how well or how badly we treat others. The only way out of the cycle of rebirth is complete union with God.

Why do Sikhs wear turbans or head coverings? The Sikhs have a practice of keeping their hair uncut - for both men and women. Hair is a symbol of holiness and strength, and is part of God's creation. Keeping hair uncut means that one is willing to accept God's gift as God intended. This is also a way for Sikhs to deny pride in their appearance. Sikh men usually wear turbans to keep their hair clean, to cover their head in respect to God, and as an outward symbol of their faith. They also keep long beards because of the belief that hair should not be cut. Women may also wear turbans to cover their hair, but usually accompany this with a chunni (or long scarf worn over their head), or they may just wear a chunni alone.

If you'd like to learn more about Sikhism, most of this information was gained from the BBC's excellent site on Religions. Hope you learned something new. I certainly did!

Monday, February 17, 2014

The "My Promise, My Faith" Girl Scout pin (for UU kids)

My eldest daughter is a Daisy in Girl Scouts. She loves getting new pins and petals for her uniform, and one interesting pin she worked on recently was the "My Promise, My Faith" pin. I knew she would probably want this pin, but I was wary of what it might require. We identify best with Unitarian Universalism, and since there is no UU church on our military base (or in our area at all), we have not talked with our children about "what we are" or "aren't." We try our best to live our ideals and convictions, and have never felt as though we needed to point out what might make us different from others of different religious backgrounds.

So, when I looked up information about what would be required for this pin, here's what I found:
  1. Choose one line from the Girl Scout law. Find a story, song, or poem from your faith with the same ideas. Talk with your family or friends about what the line of the Law, and the story, song, or poem have in common. 
  2. Find a woman in your own or another faith community. Ask her how she tries to use the line of the Law in her life.
  3. Gather three inspirational quotes by women that fit with that line of the Law. Put them where you can see them every day!
  4. Make something to remind you of what you've learned. It might be a drawing, painting or poster. You could also make up a story, or a skit.
  5. Keep the connection strong. Find out if your faith community offers a recognition program for Girl Scouts. Talk with your friends, family, or faith community about what you've learned about your faith and Girl Scouting. Ask them to help you live the Law and your faith. 
And here's what we ended up with:

When we began to look for ideas for our poster, I was at a loss. Unitarian Universalism pulls from all religious traditions, believing there is truth to be found within each one. And there is no creed within Unitarian Universalism that members must believe in order to be considered a UU. When we looked at some of the other troop members' work and ideas (posted within our troop's FB page), every single one of them was doing a Christian project and was using a Bible story for the basis of their project. We could have used a Bible story too, but I wanted to do something different.

I also realized very early on in our project that this would demand quite a bit of help from me. I am a passionate advocate for educating children about other religions, and we have several books around our house that teach our girls about religions, the Bible, and concepts of God. I was quite surprised, then, at how difficult it was for me to describe the idea of "faith" to my 5-year-old. We have always talked about our beliefs as simply that - our beliefs and ideas - and I felt as though discussing with her how we would do a project to tell everyone about our "faith" added a new dimension to "our beliefs." It was the first time I had discussed with her the different labels that people have, and that we would be labeled too. It felt like I was adding complexity to something that previously been just another part of our lives. Does that make any sense?

Anyway... here's how we assembled our poster and tackled this project:

  • We choose the line "Honest and Fair" from the Girl Scout Law. Like I said, most other girls from her troop found a Bible story to use in conjunction with their chosen line from the Law. We decided to use a story from a book we have titled "Buddha at Bedtime." It was the story of "The Dirty Old Goblet" and its lesson was that it is always wise to be honest, because being honest will prevent suffering for you and others. And since UU's don't limit spiritual teachings to the Bible and Christianity, we found a great website where we could search for teachings on honesty from all the world's religions.
  • There are very few UU's around here, so instead of finding a woman in our own faith community, we decided to call my daughter's great-grandmother in the states, and ask her about how she tries to be honest and fair. 
  • We looked up quotes online from famous women about being honest, and found some from Eleanor Roosevelt, Michelle Obama and the founder of the Girl Scouts, Juliette Gordon Low. We included the quote from Eleanor Roosevelt on our poster.
  • We made a poster to show everything we had talked about. On the poster above, you'll see:
    • The line from the Law that my daughter chose to highlight.
    • The line's meaning in her own words.
    • One of the quotes from famous women that we looked up.
    • Several teachings on honesty from the religions of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, and Judaism. 
    • The title of the story we found to go along with the line of the Law, and a drawing my daughter did of the little girl from the story.
    • A painting of "Lupe," the flower who teaches Girl Scout Daisies about being honest and fair.

We took our finished poster to the Girl Scout awards ceremony a couple of weeks ago, where all the posters were displayed, and my daughter received her "My Promise, My Faith" pin. She was excited, to say the least.

Look at that face!
The best thing about this project was the discussion I had with my daughter when we found all those different religions' teachings about being honest and fair. We picked out a few to include, and as I was reading them to her, I asked her if she noticed anything about what all those different teachings had in common. Surprisingly, she DID notice that all those different religions were saying the same thing - that people should always strive to be honest and fair. I emphasized that fact, and then she said this: "Don't people realize that if they would just know they are all teaching the same thing, there is no reason for them to fight with each other?" 

If only it were that simple.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Religion around the world: Let's Learn about Buddhsim

The first post in this series was about Shintoism, a not-so-well-known religion native to my host country, Japan. To follow that post, I thought I'd continue our world religion lessons with Buddhism, the other most common religion in Japan.

I developed an interest in Buddhism in college, after taking an "Eastern Religions" class. And I've always had a special place in my heart for His Holiness the Dalai Lama (spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism). But I've been surprised by how much more there is to learn when you're living in a Buddhist country. One of the best things that has happened to me while living in Japan has been the friendship I've cultivated with a Buddhist monk. He has been teaching me meditation, and has helped me host "Introduction to Buddhism" classes for the many foreign military personnel living here. Those classes have been eye-opening for me, and while it would take 400 blog posts to tell you about all the things I've learned, I'm going to try to give you a basic introduction to Buddhism for those of you who may have never been exposed to Buddhism before.

Keep in mind that like Christianity, there are many different sects (or denominations) of Buddhism. So while overall beliefs and practices may be the same, there can also be a lot of differences between Buddhists. In Japan, for instance, Shintoism and Buddhism became tightly intertwined. Shinto and Buddhist beliefs make up a kind of Japanese Buddhism that is slightly different from the basic Buddhism I learned about in college.

But enough talking... Let's learn about Buddhism!

The Basics:

How old is it? The origins of Buddhism began about 2,500 years ago when Siddhartha Gotama, known as the "Buddha" became enlightened around 35 years of age.

The story of Siddhartha is that he was a prince born into a royal family in present day Nepal. Though his father tried to shelter him, when he was 29 years old he realized that there was suffering in the world (sadness, sickness, death) and that wealth/luxury did not guarantee happiness. He left his home and family to explore different religions and philosophies to find the key to happiness. After studying and meditating for six years, he became enlightened. He spent the rest of his life teaching the path to enlightenment until he died at 80 years old.

Does Buddhism have a holy text? The Buddha did not write any scriptures, so everything that makes up Buddhist texts today are the teachings that Buddha's followers heard and wrote down themselves. Before a teaching could be included in the scriptures, it had to be verified by others who heard the same teaching (in other words, one random guy couldn't just make something up and say it was from the Buddha). No one Buddhist text is accepted as sacred and authoritative for every school, or sect, of Buddhism. Each school may place emphasis on the texts or scriptures they feel are most important.

Many scriptures are referred to as "sutras" (the Sanskrit word for "thread"). Some of the most popular and well-known Buddhist texts are the "Pali Canon," the "Heart Sutras," the "Dhammapada," and the "Lotus Sutras."

Who or what does Buddhism worship? When you visit a Buddhist temple, and witness people bowing, praying, and bringing offerings in front of a statue of Buddha, you can't help but assume that they are worshipping Buddha as a god. And this was confusing to me because I always learned that Buddhism itself had no god. So let's clear this up.

The Buddha never claimed to be a god. And Buddhism traditionally does not teach a belief in a diety. But so many non-Buddhists are confused by the golden statues of Buddha and the followers praying in front of such statues. One of the monks attending the "Introduction to Buddhism" class I mentioned earlier explained this wonderfully. He said that the statues of Buddha are much like the statue of Jesus on the cross, or the large cross you'd find at the front of many churches. It is a visual reminder of the Buddha, or the teaching. Followers who walk up to the foot of a Buddha statue and pray or bring an offering, are paying respect to the image or teaching of the Buddha - much the same way a Christian might walk to the front of the church to kneel and pray. It is a place of focus, reverence, and contemplation.

What does Buddhism require? Interestingly, Buddhism does not require conversion for someone to follow the Buddhist path. It's entirely possible to be a Christian and a Buddhist because Buddhism is not only seen as a religion by many, but also a way of life and philosophy. Buddhist principles can be integrated into any spiritual practice. The basic concepts of Buddhism are summed up by the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path.

Where do Buddhist followers worship? Let's change the word "worship" to "practice," since we've already discussed the absence of a diety in Buddhism. There is no holy day in Buddhism, so Buddhist rituals, ceremonies, and practices can happen any day of the week. Buddhists can have a small altar (consisting of a picture or statue of Buddha, incense, a sacred text, and other Buddhist items) in their home, or they can visit the temple to practice with others.

Now, for a few more details....

What are the Four Noble Truths? The first sermon that the Buddha preached after gaining enlightenment was that of the "Four Noble Truths."

1. Life is suffering. Not only do we feel physical pain, sickness, and eventually, death, but we also suffer psychologically, with fear, sadness, loneliness, anger, jealousy, etc.

2. Suffering is caused by both craving and aversion. We will not find happiness if we desire something other than what we have, or if we try to avoid something we do not want.

3. Suffering can be overcome; true happiness is possible. If we give up useless craving/desire, and live in the present (instead of the past or future), we can become happy and free.

4. The Noble Eightfold Path is the path that leads to the end of suffering.

What is the Noble Eightfold Path? The state of being "awakened" is always available to us. It is not "made" by anything - even the Buddha's teachings. To be awakened is to know our true nature, and most of us go through life being unaware of our true nature. The Noble Eightfold Path is a way to "unlearn" all the conditioned responses to life that prevent us from seeing our true nature.

1) Right View: Understanding reality is the awareness of what is going on both outside and inside of us.

2) Right Thought or Attitude: Just as important as our actions, are our thoughts and intentions.

3) Right Speech: We must always aspire to use clear, truthful, uplifting and non-violent communication.

4) Right Action: We act rightfully (without selfish attachment to our work) and mindfully. And we follow the 5 precepts:
  1. Not killing.
  2. Not stealing.
  3. Not misusing sex.
  4. Not lying.
  5. Not abusing intoxicants.
5) Right Livelihood: Earn a living in way that does not compromise the 5 precepts. The Buddha advised us to find a way to make a living that does not cause harm to others.

6) Right Effort: Use your energies to develop wholesome qualities, and to release unwholesome qualities.

7) Right Mindfulness: To be mindful is to be aware of the present moment with both mind and body. When we are mindful, we are not lost in daydreams, worries, or anticipation.

8) Right Concentration: Often associated with meditation, this part of the path asks followers to spend time focused on one object/mindset. It is said that through meditation, we can be freed from the delusion that we have a separate self (this is the idea of "interconnectedness" that the Dalai Lama so often speaks of).

What happens when we die? There are different ideas about what happens after death, depending on what particular school of Buddhism you adhere to. However, most Buddhists would agree that death is not the end of our mind, or spirit, but simply our body. Some schools of Buddhism believe in reincarnation, and others believe in rebirth in different realms, or heavens.

My friend, Fujio san, who is a Buddhist monk, told me once that many Buddhists are not concerned with knowing exactly what will happen after death because the most important concern is living a mindful life in the present moment. If we are concerned about what will happen in the future, we are not being mindful of the present.

If you'd like to learn more about Buddhism, be sure to check out Buddha Net. Also, if you'd like some books to read, there are many good books by Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh that are easy for Westerners/Non-Buddhists to understand and follow. Most of the information here was gained from Buddha Net. 

Do you have any other questions about Buddhism? Did you learn something new? 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

What is the nature of God? Is God just?

Photo source: Wikipedia

A friend of mine posted this quote on Facebook the other day:
“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones."
Naturally, there was a bit of discussion on this post about the nature of God. For example, here was one [part] of a response:
"Wouldn't a truly 'just' God require either perfection or some debt to be paid to establish a right standing before Him? Unless, of course, the author of the quote actually meant 'lenient' instead of 'just.' I'll have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that a just God would allow Himself to accept 'but I tried hard' without laughing at us with pity... The same as an earthly judge would if I offered as my defense to a speeding ticket that I hadn't hurt anyone and that I have otherwise been a good citizen. Those facts --while admirable-- don't erase the penalty for my error/crime."
I know a LOT of people that understand God this way. And for most of my life, this was my own understanding of God. But not anymore.

I remember one particularly nagging question that always bothered me when we'd talk about "the unsaved" at church: "What if some woman in a remote village in Africa never hears the Gospel? Would a loving and 'just' God send her to hell?"

And the answer I always, ALWAYS, came up with, was, "No." 

I have struggled a lot over the years, particularly with understanding what God is, and the nature of God. First of all, I don't believe we will ever be able to come close to describing what God is.
"So when we talk about God we're using language, language that employs a vast array of words and phrases and forms to describe a reality that is fundamentally beyond words and phrases and forms." (Rob Bell, "What We Talk About When We Talk About God")
I have a feeling I will always be tweaking my explanation, or view, of God and I don't really think it matters to anyone but me. God is so impossible to describe that I doubt he/she/it cares much about how right we are. You can believe God is an energy, a spirit, or an old man perched on his throne in the clouds. I think all that matters is that you have some way of imagining God that works for you. That feels right to you.

The more important matter, I believe, than describing God, is knowing God. 

And here's where things get tricky, and I'm sure to make some people uncomfortable.

Despite the different ways we have of describing God, and telling people exactly what we think God is, God's essence is unchanged. God can go by any name, and still be God. Call him/her Allah, the Divine, Yahweh, Sat Nam, or Joe, and you won't be changing the essence of God, but just what you call him. So, I believe that God can be called all these different things, among all these different people, and all these different faiths, and we're still talking to, and getting to know, the same God.

Which brings me to this startling revelation: that there is more than one path to God. 

Which then brings us back towards the original question at the beginning of this post: What is the nature of God? Is God 'just'?

When I think about my children, there is absolutely nothing on Earth that they could do to make me stop loving them. They could murder someone, or 100 someones, and I would still love them. Would I be angry? Sure. Heartbroken? Definitely. Disappointed? Immensely. But the love would still be there, even if buried deep down beneath it all.

Isn't the love of God supposed to be even greater than that? If I couldn't banish my children to Hell for all eternity - even for murdering someone - then how could God do the same to millions of people?
"Have billions of people been created only to spend eternity in conscious punishment and torment, suffering infinitely for the finite sins they committed in the few years they spent on earth? [...] Is God our friend, our provider, our protector, our father - or is God the kind of judge who may in the end declare that we deserve to spend forever separated from our Father?" (Rob Bell, "Love Wins")
"Could God say to someone truly humbled, broken, and desperate for reconciliation, 'Sorry, too late'? Many have refused to accept the scenario in which somebody is pounding on the door, apologizing, repenting, and asking God to be let in, only to hear God say through the keyhole: 'Door's locked. Sorry. If you had been here earlier, I could have done something. But now, it's too late." (Rob Bell, "Love Wins")
Hell, as some terrible place full of punishment, pain, and torture, is not compatible with what I believe to be the nature of God. I believe God wants everyone to be awakened, to live more conscious, loving lives, and that God wants to pull humanity forward, closer towards all that God is and intends for us to be. And, for me, believing that there is only one way for God to do this - through ONE religion/doctrine/dogma - puts limits on a limitless God.

So I don't know how God will reach everyone or when it will happen, but I certainly don't put it past him.
"Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn't. Reconciliation brings God glory; endless anguish doesn't. Renewal and return cause God's greatness to shine through the universe; never-ending punishment doesn't." (Rob Bell, "Love Wins")

Thank you for reading if you've gotten this far. This is a very complicated subject and one that I have been considering writing about for the past week. I'd love to hear some of your thoughts. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Living in the tank: Why sometimes it's tempting to hide from the world.

I recently purchased a book from Amazon: "The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have" by Mark Nepo. I got it because one of my favorite parenting podcasts (shoutout to Zen Parenting Radio!) mentioned it and said it was in a format in which you read a little something each day of the year. I thought it would be great to have a little pick-me-up or thought-for-the-day each morning, so I bought the Kindle version.

It's amazing when the universe sends you a great, big "Hello!" or "Yes, I'm right here with you." The daily reading for this morning, January 9th, couldn't have been more well-timed.

Yesterday, I found myself feeling a bit weighted down, or overwhelmed, by the world. Life is hard. Even if you have all of your basic needs met, extra money... an "easy" life, there always seem to be things that are difficult to deal with. There is always something that demands our energy.

And sometimes, I just want to hide from it all. It's too difficult.

Today's reading was about fish who were moved from their tank to a bathtub while their tank was being cleaned. Instead of swimming in this giant, new body of water, the fish stayed huddled together in an area of tub the same size as their tank.
"Life in the tank made me think of how we are raised at home and in school. It made me think of being told that certain jobs are not acceptable and that certain jobs are out of reach, of being schooled to live in a certain way, of being trained to think that only practical things are possible, of being warned over and over that life outside the tank of our values is risky and dangerous. 
It makes me wonder now, in middle age, if being spontaneous and kind and curious are all parts of our natural ability to swim. Each time I hesitate to do the unplanned or unexpected, or hesitate to reach and help another, or hesitate to inquire about something I know nothing about; each time I ignore the impulse to run in the rain or to call you up just to say I love you - I wonder, am I turning on myself, swimming safely in the middle of the tub?" - Mark Nepo
I was swimming in my tank yesterday. I didn't want to leave and go out into the world because it just seemed.... unswimmable.

Creating and nurturing friendships, raising good children, injecting more good into the world, becoming part of my community... it all takes so much energy and to be honest, it's really scary sometimes.

This is exactly the reason I have always felt a connection to something greater than myself.
"From lying to explosive anger to addiction to the inability to forgive to overwhelming helplessness in the face of tragedy to the constant, gnawing anxiety that won't go away to the haunting sense that you're not good enough no matter how hard you work and what you achieve, when we're talking about God, we're talking about the very real sense we have that we do not, on our own, have everything we need and we are not, on our own, everything we could be." (Rob Bell, "What We Talk About When We Talk About God")
I believe we were all made to swim in the ocean, but at times, doing so requires that we draw upon an energy that is greater than our own.

God helps me leave my tank.

So when I'm feeling weighed down by the world, I want to try to remember that I don't have to tackle everything on my own. I was made to swim. And there is an endless source of hope, love, and wisdom to tap into if I'm willing to do so.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

On why religion and spirituality need each other.

iStock/Pete Will
We've all heard the phrase, "spiritual, but not religious." In fact, I have felt comfortable being placed in this category for the past decade. Being spiritual, for me, meant feeling a connection to something greater than myself while not feeling comfortable within a religious community. I knew there was more to life, but I didn't believe I needed religion to find it. This path led me to a more peaceful and confident place than I ever found by going to church. And over the years I've realized that my religion was missing one incredibly important thing for me - the thing that would have been a game-changer for my willingness to stay there: my own spirituality. 

In a recent Pew report, nearly 1 in 5 Americans described themselves as "spiritual, but not religious." Researchers found that for most religiously unaffilated participants in the study, "their views of churches and other religious organizations are decidedly mixed. A majority agree that religious organizations strengthen community bonds and play an important role in helping the poor and needy. But most also say that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics." Did you hear about the German bishop who installed a $20,000 tub in his home? Not hard to see where some of that frustration with religion/money/power comes from.

Despite the apparent divide between the spiritual and religious, these two words weren't always used exclusively. 
"Before the 20th century the terms religious and spiritual were used more or less interchangeably. But a number of modern intellectual and cultural forces have accentuated differences between the 'private' and 'public' spheres of life. The increasing prestige of the sciences, the insights of modern biblical scholarship, and greater awareness of cultural relativism all made it more difficult for educated American to sustain unqualified loyalty to religious institutions. Many began to associate genuine faith with the 'private' realm of personal experience rather than with the 'public' realm of institutions, creeds, and rituals. The word spiritual gradually came to be associated with a private realm of thought and experience while the word religious came to be connected with the public realm of membership in religious institutions, participation in formal rituals, and adherence to official denominational doctrines." (Fuller, Robert C.)
Spirituality became something that people could do on their own, while religion was something that people did together. This is where I believe spirituality trumps religion. Spirituality is uniquely personal. It's the heart and soul of what we are as human beings. It's what we know - in our core - to be our truth, and it's what we feel when we are witness to miraculous moments. That gnawing feeling that we are a tiny part of something very grand. 
"Spirituality exists wherever we struggle with the issue of how our lives fit into the greater cosmic scheme of things. This is true even when our questions never give way to specific answers or give rise to specific practices such as prayer or meditation. We encounter spiritual issues every time we wonder where the universe comes from, why we are here, or what happens when we die. We also become spiritual when we become moved by values such as beauty, love, or creativity that seem to reveal a meaning or power beyond our visible world. An idea or practice is "spiritual" when it reveals our personal desire to establish a felt-relationship with the deepest meanings or powers governing life." (Fuller, Robert C.)
I'm sure many people who consider themselves religious are up in arms over my saying that spirituality trumps religion. However, I'm not saying that being religious can't be powerful, transformative, and life-changing. I just have this sinking feeling that there are many religious people who do not feel an innate connection with God. They do not feel loved and cherished by the divine. ...But they DO go to church. They do perform religious rituals. They do consider themselves part of a religious community. And they are going through the actions of religion without really feeling connected to that which religion was made to connect us to. 

You can be spiritual, without being religious. And you can be religious, without being spiritual. Which is worse? 

One of my favorite people, the Reverend Ed Bacon, taped this interview with Oprah for Super Soul Sunday back in 2011. Listen to what he says about being spiritual and being religious.

To be spiritual is to be on a search to know God. Whether you've been going to church your whole life or haven't ever stepped in one, religion will not transform your life until your heart is open to spirit - until you realize that you are a spiritual being having a human experience. 

So it's great to be spiritual, right? But wait.... 

"Spirituality without action is fruitless and social action without spirituality is heartless." - Rev. Ed Bacon

Too often, being "spiritual, but not religious" keeps us from being in community with others. If we feel connected to God, or the Divine, don't we want to share that with others? And I don't mean in an evangelical sense (heck no!), but in the sense that the love and good energy we feel can radiate outward to those around us. A connection to God naturally fills us with compassion, love, and goodwill toward others. And while we can spread these things on our own, just think of how much more we can accomplish when we work with others?
"Spirituality is an emotion. Religion is an obligation. Spirituality soothes. Religion mobilizes. Spirituality is satisfied with itself. Religion is dissatisfied with the world. Religions create aid organizations; as Nicholas Kristof pointed out in a column in the New York Times two years ago: the largest U.S.-based international relief and development organization is not Save the Children or Care, it’s World Vision, a Seattle-based Christian group." (Rabbi David Wolpe, TIME magazine)
I would be willing to bet that for every kind of spiritual person out there, there is a community somewhere that would welcome you with open arms. Religious communities NEED you. And, it's quite possible you need them. Being part of a community puts us into an arena with others, challenging what we have held to be true. We will never know all the answers with 100% certainty, and communities can help us to continue our search with new perspectives and possibilities. Though I don't feel like anything is a perfect fit, I have been able to find a home within the Unitarian Universalist community ( - yep, shameless plug) where I feel like my spirituality is nurtured. I want to be part of a community, and I want my children to know that they are part of something larger than themselves. These days, I might describe myself as "spiritual AND religious." For me, they are becoming one in the same. 

I'm not so sure I've made sense of all this spirituality and religion stuff - it's obviously a tricky subject. But I hope I've gotten your wheels turning a bit. What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.