spiritual but not religious

Open Doors

By Rev. Mindi

During the entire first half of 1998, from January until June, I attended one worship service. It was the folk mass at my host family’s Catholic Church in England. Before I had left the states for my semester abroad, several people had told me about various churches—Baptist, Methodist, Anglican—that I could attend while I was abroad. But I chose not to. I chose, quite purposefully, not to attend worship the rest of that spring. 

I was at a crossroads in my faith. I had been part of a few conservative Christian campus ministry groups, and found that while I enjoyed the spirit of the music and the community, I could not abide by the legalistic approach to the Bible nor the narrow theology. I was also involved in our campus’ Gay-Straight Alliance group (this was the late 90’s), was reading feminist literary theory and I always claim that my Introduction to Sociology course the fall of my junior year saved me from fundamentalism forever. While I attended a fairly liberal congregation in college, I found my faith conflicted—I loved the spirit of worship among my conservative friends, the relational nature of God in Jesus that was expressed—but not the narrow ideology. During that time in my life, Christian community was stifling. I equated Christian community with conformity, and liberal or conservative, I did not want to conform. So I chose not to attend a worship service.

However, I was in a church, a chapel, a cathedral or other sanctuary at least every week, if not more often. I lit candles in York Minster and Notre Dame, sat and listened to the choir in Westminster and Winchester, and lifted my eyes up to the stained glass everywhere. I sat in the pews and lit candles under the names of saints I had never heard of.

I grew up Baptist, and am a Baptist minister serving in both American Baptist and Disciples congregations. But in those days, having the opportunity in those old Anglican and Catholic churches to pray, to sit and be silent in the presence of God—or even in the emptiness in some of those dark days of my faith journey—helped me in my faith journey.  It is something I lament in the free church tradition, that often we do not have our sanctuaries open.  The few times I have participated in opening the doors of my own churches I have served have been after major tragedies, such as 9/11 and Sandy Hook. Most of the time, our doors are locked.

In the debates about SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) what often gets argued is the need for community—and the assumptions that those who are not in church do not have community. But I am starting to wonder if those of us in the church have been arguing from the wrong angle. Besides the fact that many people who claim to be spiritual gather in other settings for community, what about those who are seeking, or who are spiritual, or even *gasp* religious, but find community stifling? What about those who have been wounded in community?

Are there ways we can be open, be a place of prayer to the public, where people can come and pray, or sit in silence, or listen to music, or light candles? Our Catholic and Episcopalian brothers and sisters, among others, have kept up this ancient tradition, but many of us in the free church tradition have forgotten. We have placed such great emphasis on community that we have forgotten other’s needs. There are times in people’s lives in which community can do more harm than good. But it is the work of the community in providing the space set aside specifically for God, that can reach those in need of solitude.

I still value community and worship together. When I returned from England, it took me a while to get back into church, but I remember clearly the first worship service I attended when I came back was Communion Sunday, and I was never so glad to participate in the breaking of bread and the meal of remembrance with the church I had been raised in, with the people who had always been there for me. But I wouldn’t have appreciated it nearly as much had I not had the time away. I also feel that had it not been for the open churches, the candles in the chapels and the opportunities to pray or sit in silence, I would not have felt as assured of God’s presence even in my own dark valleys.

 

 

Unbox Church

By Rev. Mindi

As she poured me a drink, she asked me, “Are you really a pastor?” I smiled and nodded to the bartender. Only two of us regulars made it for our Pub Theology at a new location tonight, but along with the bartender and a few others who happened to frequent here, we had a great discussion about what it means to live out one’s faith. We didn’t talk specifics about church, and it wasn’t until I brought up Matthew 25 as a discussion point that we even got into the Bible or Jesus, but we had church tonight.

I lift this up as an example of church unboxed. I think that in church talk, we are quick to make assumptions about the “unchurched.” We make assumptions about those who have no church or religious affiliation. We assume we haven’t done a good job of selling the church message, or haven’t done a good job of raising our kids, or that we aren’t preaching the Gospel.  Our assumptions also lead us to call people who have no affiliation “unchurched,” which is an unfortunate term based on the assumption that “churched” is the preferred category over “unchurched” (and I wrote about this last spring in “Becoming Unchurched”).

Sure, lots of churches are doing Pub Theology and having Bible studies in coffee shops. But rather than trying to use these as avenues to get people into the church building, what if we were to already recognize the community that exists and meet them where they are at? What if pastors started to see themselves more as freelance ministers sent out from the church to be pastors to those who need spiritual support? What if our churches understood that an important part of our ministry was not to work to get people in on Sunday morning but to minister to people in their own communities?

As I left tonight, a woman asked me to pray for her. I was happy to do so. I also tipped the bartender very well because I wanted her to know I appreciated and valued the service she gave as well as her interest in what I do.

What can you do to unbox church? This isn’t to say to stop having worship on Sunday mornings and go into the coffee shops and bars, but what can you do to minister to those outside of your box? What can you do to meet people where they are at and be the presence of Jesus among others? Can we unbox our assumptions that people do not have community or are in need of specific church community?

No more Either/Or; Now Both-And

By Rev. Mindi 

“The world has changed.”

I hear this all the time in the church: “The world has changed.” And of course it’s true, and of course it’s the same. Nothing new under the sun. World without end. And we don’t like change.

I think one of the most difficult changes for people, however, has been this shift from Either/Or to Both-And. This is within the church and within society in general. And perhaps the shift has come in waves across generations, through Women’s Rights, Civil Rights and in GLBTQ equality; and this wave of Both-And is just finally smacking the shore and changing the Either/Or landscape forever.

Church doesn’t look like it used to. Church was in a big building with a big committee and the most important thing were two-parent-heterosexual young married couples with children coming through the door.

Churches now have a building and don’t have a building. Churches now have heterosexual and homosexual couples and single people and no children and children and couples not married and older people bringing their grandchildren and animal blessings for pets in October and they meet in traditional buildings and coffee shops and movie theaters and homes and schools.

Even in the SBNR (Spiritual-But-Not-Religious) debate the wave has drawn over the conversation: Church now is full of religious and spiritual people, and so are coffee shops on Sunday mornings and bars on Tuesday nights. The either/or dichotomy is not working.

It’s not working among families where dads stay home and moms go to work or *gasp* both parents share parenting and work roles. Or parents partner with other adults to co-parent and form relationships beyond traditional models. Or among people who are genderqueer and do not claim a traditional male or female identity. Either/Or thinking does not work in families or churches anymore.

And while we have a long, long way to go, many of our churches are starting to look different among the younger generations as multiethnic families grow up. We all have heard the statistics: White-Euro-Americans will no longer be the majority racial/ethnic identity among those under 20 by the year 2020. Everything is changing. Our identities are going to be changing, and this will be huge for traditional White-Euro-American churches. Some of our traditions and cultural practices will change and I don’t think we’ve recognized that yet. But it’s coming.

Either/Or isn’t working anymore.

And in fact, I’m not sure it’s never worked, if we believe in the fully-human-*and*-fully-divine Jesus. Jesus was not Either/Or. Jesus was Both-And.

Jesus ate with the leaders as well as with the poor. Jesus welcomed the children and welcomed the adults. Even when Jesus said, “You cannot be my disciple if you do not hate father and mother,” we know James and John loved their mother and Peter his mother-in-law and we know they were flawed people who still were Jesus’ disciples. Even when Jesus used either/or language with the disciples, we know that Jesus still came to that group who had utterly abandoned him to the cross and said, “Peace be with you.”  Even Jesus cannot be bound to the Either/Or. It’s Both-And.

Both-And gives us room for tradition and innovation.  Both-And gives us room to teach our history and embrace the newness of change. Both-And says all people are welcome, whatever kind of family or no family.  Both-And says traditional pastoral ministry and new community ministry are needed by the church.  Both-And says yes to traditional church at 10am on Sunday and yes to new ways of being spiritual community. Both-And says that our understandings of gender and sexual orientation and race and culture are all being challenged and are more fluid than we had thought. Both-And says we have more than one option when it comes to challenging the human rights abuses in Syria and in other parts of the world. Both-And says there are many options for peace.

We’re moving to a Both-And world. That’s not to say it isn’t scary. The things we once knew we don’t anymore. The world is changing. I don’t have all the answers. And I won’t say it’s always a good thing, but it is what it is.

Everything is changing. Let’s be sure we’re alert, aware, and ready for the wave coming. World without end.

Unfortunate Assumptions

By Rev. Mindi

“You have to be in community in order to experience God.”

“You have to be in a covenantal relationship in order for true community to be upheld.”

“To be spiritual but not religious is just a cop-out.”

“We welcome everyone who welcomes everyone.”

All four of these sayings I have heard uttered by more than one progressive, liberal, open and affirming, postmodern pastor or church leader.  All four of these sayings, sadly, make assumptions that actually keep people from wanting to go to church, which I am sure is not their intent.

“You have to be in community in order to experience God.”

When we look at the Bible, we do find many examples of community: the early house churches, the Disciples, the communities of the Hebrews after the exile, Israel and Judah, the twelve Tribes, the band of wanderers in the desert—even going back to Jacob’s family, or Abraham and Sarah and their entourage—there was a community.  However, the statement implies usually that those outside of the church seeking spirituality are not in a community. All too often, we assume someone is not part of an existing community. And I’m not talking a church or Bible study. I meet people all the time who are in community, even spiritual community, without necessarily setting foot into a church or existing church community: book groups, 12-step programs, coffee shop gatherings, the local diner where the locals gather, the Farmer’s markets, the picket lines—there are plenty of places where community happens that has spiritual components. I’ve been part of many communities outside of church where prayer, questioning, meditating, social action, concern and care take place. We need to strip away the assumptions that those outside of the church are not in community already.

“You have to be in a covenantal relationship in order for true community to be upheld.”

What that sounds like to someone who doesn’t use covenantal language on a daily basis (and trust me, fewer in the church actually do than we think they do, but I digress…) is that there is some sort of contract, some sort of membership clause that makes everything official, and if you don’t sign on the dotted line, it’s not official. I’ve had pastors argue this with me all the time. We need to unpack what it means to be in a covenantal relationship. When God makes a covenant with the people of Israel in the wilderness, God does not require them all to sign a contract. Rather, they make an affirmation of faith in the community, together. I’ve seen some churches do this better—a yearly affirmation of the covenant, rather than a one-time membership course and public declaration of membership.  But the assumption is again that people on the outside of the church aren’t in a covenantal relationship, or that those who visit church but haven’t joined aren’t ready for that kind of commitment. They may be ready for that commitment, but don’t want to join through an outdated “you’re in the club” membership system that too many of our churches use.

And there’s also the assumption that some kind of commitment needs to be made verbally or in writing. More and more often, I am meeting couples who are choosing not to get married, or choosing to wait to get married. Like it or not, this is happening more often.  There is a culture shift about what that kind of covenantal relationship means. For some, it is a way of not making such a deep commitment without serious thought and time to be sure this is what they want. For others, they don’t have the same need for themselves to make a legal, binding, contractual commitment—they see their relationship commitments differently. We need to understand this cultural shift, because it also applies to whether or not people want to join a church or any other organized way of being in spiritual community.  While I still uphold the tradition of covenantal relationship in the church, I also understand that others do not have the same need for making a commitment in the same way to an organization—they prefer to be in the group when their heart is in it, and to move on when it is no longer living up to what it claimed to be or fulfilling their needs. 

This attitude is not new—how many members are on your roles who never come to church?  Just because we may claim that covenantal relationship is key for true spiritual community doesn’t mean we’ve been particularly good at it ourselves.  We may need to reexamine what we mean by all of this commitment business anyway.

“To be spiritual but not religious is just a cop-out.”

Our saying this publically is not going to get those who feel spiritual but not religious to engage in any kind of conversation with those who claim to be religious. While you might roll your eyes at the “spiritual but not religious” claim, you’re not doing anything to invite those who feel that way into a conversation.  What we might do is ask them what it means to be spiritual for them, and if there are spiritual practices they engage in. Make a few friends who are spiritual but not religious. In my time as a pastor, I have found them to be my very best friends—people who understand my faith but don’t want to be part of organized religion. They are the ones I can confide in, turn to with my own questions and wonderings. And sometimes they see that we on the religious side can be spiritual, too.  And you might just find that SBNR folks do gather together in their own communities, or come together at prayer vigils, book groups, and other such gatherings.

“We welcome everyone who welcomes everyone.”

In other words, we welcome those who think and look like us. Yup. I’ve heard this from so many liberal/progressive leaders over the years who don’t seem to hear what they are saying. There is no discussion, there is no room for dialogue. And I’m not talking about only welcoming people who disagree with me, but also welcoming people who have been abused and wounded by the church. They may not be the most welcoming people. They may not ever feel comfortable setting foot inside a church. In the SBNR discussion, one thing that gets overlooked is just how many people have been hurt by the church in general. So many of my friends who claim SBNR grew up in a church where they were taught to be ashamed of who they were, where they were made to feel guilty for choices they made as a teenager, who experienced the loss of trust of a leader, who were the victim of gossip and lies in the church.  I know one experience where a child’s parents were divorced in the church, and the gossip and backstabbing that happened in the life of the congregation discussing her parent’s divorce has made her adamant to never set foot in such a place again.

So what do we do?

For one, I think we have to stop speaking such assumptions. I think as church leaders, we need to become more involved in the community around us, specifically finding who and where the SBNR folks are around us. Secondly, we have to stop the public judging. Third, we need to simply stop making assumptions about why people don’t go to church, because those assumptions are what drive every single program designed to reach the “unchurched,” every single change that a congregation makes that is not something they would normally do but in hopes that it might bring in younger people who don’t go to church.  Those changes and programs do nothing but burn us out even more in the long run.  Fourth, we have to have vision.  And that vision has to include the very real possibility that church as we know it, church the way we grew up with it, isn’t going to exist in the next generation.

This is not easy. But I think the stripping away of our assumptions is the first step towards moving forward in this new world as the people of God, followers of Jesus, Christians. If church truly is a people, as the old song says, and not the building, the steeple, the resting place, the programs, the worship service, the coffee hour, the youth group, etc., then we must go and be with the people, and we must listen and learn from them. In order to do that, we must let go of our assumptions: about what people are looking for, about why they don’t come to church, and also, the main assumption that we know better than they do. Because if we did know better, we wouldn’t be in this place, would we?

Coming Out as a Christian Liberal

By Rev. Mindi

I attended and graduated from a small, liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest, a college affiliated with my denomination.  In my first year, I became involved in all of the different Christian organizations on campus, ranging theologically from middle of the road to conservative. The few theologically liberal Christians on campus that I knew (that admitted to being Christian) didn’t attend most of the Christian organizations’ events or kept quiet about being theologically liberal most of the time, as I did for my first year.

But by my sophomore year I couldn’t keep quiet any longer. I didn’t like hiding part of myself just so I could feel like I belonged and fit in to Campus Crusade or any of the other groups. I grew up in a congregation that was Welcoming and Affirming of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning folks, and there was a group on campus that was the equivalent of a gay/straight alliance. In addition, my pastor had recently written a book about his journey as an evangelical pastor coming from a place of “love the sinner,” to full acceptance and affirmation of gay and lesbian people. I wanted to share this book with the group and hopefully find a place where I was welcome with my liberal Christian theology.

I attended my first meeting and after about a half hour, I finally introduced myself. When I mentioned I had brought copies of my pastor’s book for free, I heard a collective gasp as people’s eyes grew wide. I suddenly realized they thought I was there to condemn them and I quickly had to assure them that was not the case.  Once they knew I was not only an ally but convinced by my beliefs that God’s love meant a full inclusion of all people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, the tension left the room.  Following the meeting, several people stayed and we chatted about our religious backgrounds.

What followed was story after story of rejection. A Missouri Synod Lutheran who had faithfully attended church with her grandparents until she came out at seventeen and when the church rejected her, she rejected the church and Christianity. A Catholic who now identified as spiritual but not religious. An evangelical Christian who was now an atheist because she had not experienced love from Christians in the way she imagined love was supposed to be.  Story after story after story. 

And finally, a story of acceptance.  After almost everyone had left, a woman who identified as a Quaker and attended the local Friend’s meeting spoke to me. She spearheaded change in the food purchases by the campus cafeteria in regards to migrant worker’s rights and was involved in raising awareness of social issues on campus.  She shared that it was her trust in Jesus’ teachings in why she was involved so much in the local community.  But as far as I know, she never shared about her faith in that way outside of this small gathering, with the few who had not left.

It’s time for liberal Christians to come out and stand up. This week, Jason Collins came out (and I had to look up who he was because I’m not an NBA basketball fan). Sixteen years ago yesterday, Ellen DeGeneres came out on live TV. I was in college, junior year, at a “coming out” party put on by the student group and the one fraternity on campus that did not discriminate based on sexual orientation.  Every day, people come out to their families, to their pastors, to their bosses, to their friends.

How many liberal Christians still hide their beliefs, because they don’t want to rock the boat? How many liberal Christian pastors stay quiet when a member says a derogatory slur, making the excuse that “they are a long-term member, I can’t offend them,” or some other excuse? How many liberal Christian leaders say nothing because “the issue hasn’t come up in my congregation”? 

How many more stories will we continue to hear of people who have been rejected by their church, so they have rejected their church, their religion, or God, altogether?

It’s been seventeen years since I sat in that campus room and came out as a liberal, welcoming and affirming Christian. After that moment, I didn’t hold back from my friends my views. Eventually I dropped out of most of the campus Christian organizations, except for one, the Student Chaplain’s group. My junior year also marked the year I was not alone. While I had known a few other liberal Christians on campus involved in the different organizations, they had kept quiet in public about their views. But my junior year, two others from the Student Chaplain’s joined the gay/straight campus alliance group. And one eventually came out about her sexuality as well.  And that all happened because one night I was hanging out with members of the alliance group and these two Student Chaplains came up to me and I introduced them and invited them to join the alliance group.  

It’s been seventeen years, and yet I know so many pastors still afraid to come out as welcoming and affirming or open and affirming today. It’s long overdue, friends. Come on out. Stand up for equality and justice for all LGBT folks. Even if you don’t think your church is ready to join O&A or W&A yet, they aren’t going to get there at all unless they know their pastor will help lead the way. And you never know what youth is hanging on by a thread, needing to know not only that God loves them, but that God’s representatives in their community—their church and especially their pastor—love them too. Otherwise, I fear that more college campus alliance groups will be filled with the same stories mine was—stories of rejection and loss, instead of stories of Christ’s love, faith, and hope.

Reclaiming Religion

By Rev. Mindi

In the aftermath of the events of the past week, now that a suspect in the Boston bombings is in custody, now that the media has buzzed once again with the purpose behind the bombings being Religion—how are we to respond?

First, we need to take this question out of the “Islamic Extremists” reasoning.  While both suspects may have identified themselves with Islam, it’s clear that for the deceased suspect, he didn’t understand the Qu’ran at all (claiming that “the Bible is a cheap copy of the Qu’ran” he obviously doesn’t understand how to read history, either), and the younger suspect had only been to the local mosque once in the last three years, smoked marijuana and drank, all activities that would not be condoned by a typical “religious” Muslim.  In short, though these two brothers may have claimed to identify with Islam, they didn’t really understand the very religious tradition they claimed as what had driven them to bomb innocent civilians in their anger against the United States. 

While fundamentalism can be dangerous in any religious tradition and certainly we have seen the results of fundamentalist Islam, I see a tide shifting in the media portrayal and coverage. It is no longer about Islamic fundamentalism, but religious fundamentalism, and not even fundamentalism but religion in general.  When “religion” is labeled as a reason for why people would kill innocent civilians with homemade bombs, we all are getting thrown under the bus.

This adds fuel to the fire of why people reject religion altogether. They hear the shouts of the Westboro Baptist Church (which neither is Baptist nor a church, in my opinion, though they may be located in Westboro) and see Christians as hate-filled people. Even if, as most people know, the Westboro church is rejected by most Christians, there are enough other churches that reject lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folks that people don’t want to be associated with a church, let alone Christianity. 

My concern about this recent hype in the media and the use of the word “religion” is that the discourse is going beyond the extremists, beyond the fundamentalists, beyond the right-wing branches of religious traditions. The journalists are reporting that the older brother was becoming more devout, “praying five times a day.” As one of the basic principles of Islam, that’s like saying “they began taking communion every Sunday” about a Disciple. The basic practices of a faith tradition become extreme to the rest of the world.

Religion is getting a bad reputation, and those of us in church leadership ought to be concerned about it. Because the real problem is not religion, it’s the use of violence that uses religion as a cover. It’s the use of religion as a blanket excuse to kill in the name of God, when we kill in the name of humanity, in the name of violence.

There are plenty of verses about peace in the Qu’ran, in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures, in many other religious texts around the world. Most religions, since ancient times, have had passages and practices about peaceful living with one’s other religious neighbors, alongside the passages that justified war and violence.

What happens when we allow the media to characterize any one religion in a negative light? Eventually, it catches up to all of us. 

In the “Spiritual but not Religious” conversation, the pull to reject religion is greater with these kind of definitions. When religion is labeled as the reason for one’s negative, violent actions, it is hard to reclaim the word religion as anything good. But we must do so. If our argument for religion is that being part of an organized community is better than being solo or being part of a detached community (lest we run the risk of assuming that people who identify as Spiritual but not Religious aren’t part of a community, so be careful here) we need to speak out against those who would characterize Muslims and Islam, against voices within Christianity that are violent, hurtful or abusive, and we must not be silent.

Music and the Journey of the Soul

By Grant Jacobs

As I'm sure is the case with any individual who has felt compelled to write an article or opinion based essay the first statement is the hardest.  I'm often reminded of the scene in “Finding Forrester”, where after sitting down to work Forrester responds to his pupil's question as to how to start writing:

“No thinking—that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is to write, not to think!” 

So too is the case with my attempt to narrow focus for this article down to a single topic, theme, motif, idea, concept, purpose. What on earth can I say that will matter to anyone out there in cyberspace particularly—where the information and opinions available to us are seemingly limitless? 

I'm lucky enough to have a writer friend who often says, "you write what you know" … “Write what you know”… What do I know? … I know music.

“Not just albums” as my writer friend so bluntly puts it.  He says I can talk “music—not records, not artists, not songs—music.  What it means to be a musician.”

So what does it mean to be a musician? (Aside from the constant worry of going broke.) What does it mean to me? What did it mean to Miles Davis or Leonard Bernstein? What does it mean to my former professors from the School of Music at University of Louisville? What does it mean to them? 

These are all questions that deserve answers. 

I'm reminded of the first song I ever heard that I directly related to a girl I loved, specifically the third verse (in Portuguese):

Quero a vida sempre assim,           I want a life like this forever,

Com você perto de mim,                 With you near me,

Até o apagar da velha chama,          Until the final flicker of the old flame,

E eu que era triste,                          And I was sad,

Descrente de sinismo,                     Cynical about cynicism

Ao encontrar você eu conheci,         When I found you, I knew

O que é Felicidade, Meu Amor          What happiness is, my love

Absolutely beautiful.  Antonio Carlos Jobim's Corcovado. I know the version with Stan Getz best.  

Point is, among the most notable memories of my life is this song.

The first concert I ever performed with an orchestra in college we played the Enigma Variations by Sir Edward Elgar, and when we got to the variation movement entitled "Nimrod" (arguably the most well known movement, and for good reason) I cried.  I wasn't alone.

The first time I heard the opening track “Acknowledgement” to John Coltrane's album "A Love Supreme" I was 16, had just checked the album out from the public library, and was frustrated over having gotten into a shouting match with my high school music teacher earlier that day (mostly ignorant The perfect time.  

“Acknowledgement” … Seven minutes and forty-three seconds that will introduce you to God if you let it.  Listen to it loud, alone, with your eyes closed, and keep breathing deep.  

After the first statement of the main motif by the Double Bass, Coltrane launches into solo...attacking the notes with intensity beyond his normal intent.  After blistering through scales and phrases, screaming out through his single reed, the song ends with giving up the fight and simply singing out the phrase “A love Supreme” to the tune of the original bass statement.  

I've heard his sound of this period described as “wanting to fight his way out of the box”—out of the box of tonality, out of the worldly constraints placed on him and his saxophone.

John Coltrane was a prophet: whereas Mohammed used his (inspired) words, Coltrane used his horn.  His sound fought for freedom—freedom from tonality, freedom from constraint, both musically and spiritually. Freedom from organized musical form and freedom from limitations on not only his sound, tone, and notes, but his spirit, his emotion, his purpose, his life, his search for God. “Acknowledgement” is a perfect title for this song because after multiple minutes of struggling, he acknowledges all he can do is sing and pray for “A Love Supreme”.  

This is the reason people say music isn't the same as it used to be when they hear Taylor Swift or Justin Beiber.

For musicians and non-musicians alike, regardless of genre, we can all admit to having been transported to another place emotionally by the music we were lucky enough to listen to at the time.  Not “hear”… “listen to”… there IS a difference.  You “hear” the smooth piano tune in the elevator on your way to the doctor’s office, you “listen” to the song sung at your father’s funeral.  

This emotionality, this recollection of feeling, this sometimes indescribable sensationalism we have all hopefully been involved in in one capacity or another is not entirely unlike the sensations one may feel when reading their religious text, taking the holy communion with a previously unbelieving friend for the first time, praying for the health of the driver whose car just got hit directly in front of you as you swerved out of the way to safety.

These are all spiritual moments.  

“My music is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge, my being” 

-John Coltrane

In my own search for faith, for knowledge, and being—or for a way off what Dr. Derek Penwell described once as the "treadmill of Samsara"....Musical moments have consistently provided me with a glimpse of what could be waiting for not just myself, but for all of us, as we eventually pass the threshold to what may or may not be on the other side of death, a glimpse of nirvana, heaven.

In growing up in the Episcopal diocese of WV, attending summer camps, youth retreats and other "happenings," my favorite parts of any gathering or service we had were the times we were all singing together.  Smacking the beat on the pews of those sitting in front of us.

In college, I needed to find a way to supplement my income that was also conducive to my crazy schedule of music, education, and core curriculum classes.  I also desired a church home, because though my own faith was going through one test after another, it just felt right.  Going to church had always been part of my life and though I didn't know what I believed anymore specifically, swimming in my own personal pool of agnosticism...I figured I should fake it till I made it, I needed the structure.

Early in my sophomore year I was invited to audition to play bass with my friend, Barrett, at his church. They would pay me a little bit too!  I found a church home in The Catholic Community of Epiphany.  I was making money to play my bass, and I had a church community I could grab onto for support in the coming years.

Over my remaining four years of school my faith would be tested internally. Losing a guy from my orientation class to suicide, losing communication with the girl I loved, hearing of friends being arrested, having multiple relatives pass in short spans of time.

These are things that test faith.  

All the while I was reading Christopher Hitchens and he keeps telling me that there's no God.  That the reason as humans we are so intuitively inclined to need (and in the opinions of some—create) a God is because of some need for a parent figure later in life—derivative I suppose in many ways of the Freudian argument that we all need a mother or father figure, that we all want somewhere inside ourselves for there to be a God because we need it to tell ourselves that there's a reason we do the things we do beyond just helping our fellow human beings.  To tell ourselves that we will be rewarded for our prayers, for our good intentions, like a child receiving candy or a teenager being paid for good grades.

Are we all just creating a God because we’re looking for an “attaboy?”  

So in a single phrase...I was going through some spiritually turbulent times.  Going through hell.   My oldest friend regularly quotes Winston Churchill—“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

That's what I did.

And this is my point—in all those time of questioning and struggle I kept going....but what kept me going? 

Reliance on the routines and joyful moments involved in the development of my musicianship.  Along with the realization that some of my peers, though self-identified as agnostic or atheist, were the most spiritual people I’d ever known due to their unyielding love for music.  

This is why I decided to pursue music education—to lead young people to these oases of spiritual and sensational moments.  So if they should find themselves in a place where one day they question the existence of God, the existence of purpose, (or validation if you’re Freud or Hitchens), they can rely on the routine of practice, the cold sweats of pre-performance jitters, and the exuberance of applause for their innately human need for sensationalism.  In a single thought—the routines and sensationalism provided by musicianship can supplement those of organized belief when needed.  

Musicianship has continued evolving within the context of the church.  Among the earliest changes in thought to how music was to be presented to “the glory of God” was the publishing in 1581 of Vincenzo Galilei’s (Galileo’s father) a “Dialogue on Ancient and Modern Music.”  In this text, Vincenzo argues against the use counterpoint (multiple moving independent melodic lines which support each other and harmonize).  Instead, he proposes the use of a single melody sung by a single voice, using the natural voice inflection of this singer to express the melody and text of the song.  

But why did he do this?  His argument was that the use of multiple voices in large choirs with multiple moving melodies and texts would essentially “distort” the message that was trying to be given up to God.  He argued instead for a single voice and melody because the message being given to God would not be lost in the confusion of instrumental accompaniments, complex harmonies, and multiple voices all singing with slightly different inflections.  

My point in using this example is this: human beings have always struggled with how musicianship and spirituality can most effectively support each other.  It is my belief that the modern-day church would look nothing like it does without the coinciding development of musicianship and the spirituality of historical musicians.  

We see it today, as mega churches often opt for a “praise band” format over traditional hymns or choral music.  These churches are asking themselves the same question Vincenzo Galilei did—how do we most effectively use our musicianship to support faithful spirituality?  

I’ve been lucky to have performed with a symphony orchestra, jazz combos, punk bands, dance bands, on solo recitals, for Catholics and Unitarians alike, and for parents with students I’ve taught.  All of these experiences have generated in me a host of emotions and feelings, from panic and doubt to unfiltered and limitless joy. The common trait these emotions share with my spiritual journey (we all have one) is that to ride the roller coaster of spiritual and musical emotionality is a fundamental part of being human. 

So I encourage you to embrace your sensational moments, embrace your spirituality (or lack thereof) and question it, and if (when) you find yourself lost in the woods of uncertainty remember you can always embrace music to help you find the road.    

How?  

 

Becoming Unchurched

By Rev. Mindi

When I was in seminary, I remember attending denominational events for seminarians and new pastors in which we talked about the “unchurched.”  Questions were asked in workshops and seminars about how we were going to reach the unchurched. Friends were being called to positions such as Ministers of Outreach whose primarily function was to seek the unchurched and somehow get them to come to their church.

Though the language may have changed over the past fifteen years, from referring to those who don’t go to church as the “unchurched” to the “nones,” the terms we use are all based on old, and often false, assumptions. We assume that the “unchurched” have never been to church and just don’t know what it is we have to offer.  We assume that they don’t know anything about the Bible, God, Jesus, or church.  We assume that the “nones” have no spiritual or religious background and were not brought up with any traditions and that they are out there, lost, and in need of what we have to offer.  Notice that there are an awful lot of assumptions made in this paragraph about the church, and the last, big assumption, is that we have what others are looking for. 

Okay, wait, there is one more assumption: we assume that in bringing people from the outside in we are doing the best thing for them: to make them “churched.”

We want others to conform to us. We know what’s best, because we’ve been doing it this way since before we can remember.  This is how you are Christian, this is how you do church.  If you are on the outside, you are not churched.

It’s time to become unchurched.  It’s time to remove the divisions, that somehow those on the inside have it right. Becoming unchurched doesn’t mean that those outside have it right, either, but rather we are removing the distinction of inside vs. outside, churched vs. unchurched, spiritual vs. religious.  It is time to take off the lens of church that we see everything through.  It’s time for us to do our part to break away from the old assumptions held deep within the walls of the concept of church.  It’s also time for us to stop assuming that people who aren’t in church or affiliated with a local institution of faith are not spiritual, are not religious, and are lacking something in their life.  Maybe it’s less about what we have to offer and more about what we can learn from listening to each other.

Let us become unchurched.  Let us listen to other’s stories and share our stories.  Let us focus not on bringing others in but on breaking down divisions.  It’s not about closing doors and emptying buildings as much as it is removing the barriers that have been put in place.  For there is no Jew or Greek, nor slave nor free, neither male nor female; neither is there church or unchurched, spiritual or religious, haves or nones; for all are one in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Extravagant Community

By Tim Graves

I cringe when I hear Christians respond to the "spiritual but not religious" by extolling the importance of community. Yes, we all need community for spirituality. We are social creatures. 

But, while there is truth in this response it is based upon an unproven assumption. That is, that the "spiritual but not religious" lead the lives of hermits never talking with friends about their faith journeys. The community-defense also assumes that community must take an organized form. It does not.

[caption id="attachment_1067" align="alignright" width="358"] They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Acts 4:35 NRSV Photo by Tim Graves[/caption]

More troublesome about the community-defense, however, is that it allows followers of Jesus to avoid our own failings. Too often churches are not places of community. Community is about caring for one another in deep ways. It is about assuring that everyone has their basic needs met. The reality is we spend more time worshiping consumerism and capitalism than we do sharing with our neighbor--even those within our churches. 

Too many churches have within their midst those struggling in very real ways while others live in relative laps of luxury. Aside from this being contrary to the teachings of our purported savior, the attitude of the relatively wealthy community members disturbs me. In my experience, when help is provided it comes with strings and pettiness. We reflect the resentment of a culture that elevates rugged individualism to idolatry.

Within this context of blaming the victim, we operate not out of extravagant love but out of begrudging duty. We do not believe that Jesus fed the whole crowd with a few loaves and fish. We fear that if we give too much to someone, even someone within our own community, there will not be enough for us. 

Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Mark 12: 29-31 NRSV (Read in context.)

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.Acts 4: 32-35 NRSV (Read in context.)

Trustworthy God of Abundance,

You give extravagant,

   undeserved grace.

We give out of love,

   limited by our human fears and worries.

Help us to trust in your abundance,

   help us to love you as you love us.

Help us to give lavishly to others,

   within the koinonia,

   and to the whole human family.