A Recipe for Spiritual But Not Religious

A Recipe for Spiritual But Not Religious August 18, 2014

This evening I am introducing a new series – my contribution to the “Meet the Nones” meme out there .  

I have been mulling over (uh, stewing furtively about) an in-depth response to a particular author/pastor from within my own tradition for quite a while.  

Back in 2011 Lillian Daniel posted  “Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me” on Huffington Post and I was shocked, dismayed and saddened by how utterly un-pastoral and alienating this post was. Rather than demonstrating a sense of compassion or extending a loving a hand of hospitality, she demonstrates the strident hubris, cloistered condescension and dismissive asshatery that confirms exactly what many Spiritual But Not Religious folks have come to expect from the church.

Her post stuck in my craw for quite some time but when her same tone of condescending, out of touch superiority showed up in a NYT article I was compelled to finally read her book When “Spiritual but Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church  which turns out to be equally bitter and utterly unhelpful. I continued my search for some glimmer of compassion and found an interview interview from back in 2013 on Religion News Service  that was also unapologetically strident and completely unwelcoming  – this quote from that interview seems to sum up her persistent attitude “Any idiot can find God alone in the sunset.”

(BTW – I looked around and found that I’m not the only one genuinely concerned about her message.)

So first, I needed to I think long and hard about why her work is ticking me off and out of no where (or everywhere) it came to me. Ms. Daniel, in her writing, disdainfully disregards those who have been deeply wounded by the church.  What’s more, rather than extending an extravagant welcome to the wounded, it’s as if she adamantly admonishes “Don’t you know your life is meaningless without the church you narcissistic dumbass!” Nice marketing!

Now I want to believe that Lillian Daniel is a lovely woman, a caring pastor and an all around great gal – really. I am though very worried about the message her work sends to those who might very well need a community of faith the most. I do know, and boldly claim, that in the UCC, she is the exception to the rule of graciousness that we seek daily to live into better.  

Soooo – I thought it would be a good idea to seek out and lift up a few stories (other than mine) that illustrate why some, likely many, no longer find church tolerable, relevant or even faithful.  I’m starting with a story that was shared with me just this last week by a friend whom we shall call TJ to protect his friends and family.

She was standing at the kitchen window watching her ruddy 3-year-old playing in the back yard when she saw him lean back a bit, gazing up as if he had just seen the the vast blue Georgia sky for the very first time. She stood stark still, watching as he slowly lowered his tiny frame into the patchy St. Augustine that sprawled underneath gangly dogwoods and a shiny new swing set.  With the dish towel hanging limp in her hands she watched her son consider the cottony clouds squeezing out of the azure arch above him. And they all stood still for just a moment – mamma, son and the firmament that fomented his first theological inquiry.  Later as the world resumed its spin on its cattywampus axis, TJ wandered into the kitchen as asked “Mommy, who made God?”

TJ would be raised lovingly and faithfully in the Presbyterian church – PC (USA) y’all – and as he grew he believed that the church was the place to ask those pesky questions questions like  “who made God?” and “what happens at the edge of infinity?” but as time passed he learned that the people of church seemed only interested in rote memorization and the dull, numb regurgitation of what they had been fed. But still he showed up because he had an innate curiosity and longing for the divine.

Fast forward to the summer of when 1980 TJ was all of 15 and full of the kinetic energy of an American teenage boy.  After two sessions at “the most amazing place on earth”, also known as Highmeadow Camp, his mom was looking for a new experience (and something to do with the lad) for the remainder of the summer.

To the great excitement of Grammy, mom chose a church summer camp that was the favorite of one of the largest Presbyterian churches in the southeast. 

So one flat, hot, nasty summer day, TJ and a yellow bus teeming with teenagers headed out of Atlanta to Hard Labor Creek state park for a week. After what seemed an eternity of gangly legs sticking to pleather seats winding along nauseating south Georgia roads the pimply Christians pulled up to the mosquito infested shore of Camp Daniel Morgan.

[side note – also the site where Friday the 13th VI was filmed] – http://youtu.be/i0hpg5lokG0?t=1m24s

Boys and girls were ushered across the field and into the mess hall for orientation. After the obligatory reading of the rules and a “Jesus is my BFF” prayer, the camp counselors started chanting, low and slow at first, then getting louder and faster “run around the hall, Run Around The Hall, RUN AROUND THE HALL”, fists pounding on tables. Cockroaches and teenagers blinked with wide-eyed fear and one by one the kids were pushed into the aisle to run around the mess hall. After a couple of frenetic loops the front door was flung open and one by one, kids were pointed out the door to be greeted by a bucket of cold water thrown into their faces. After about a dozen kids one girl hit the threshold and slipped on the mossy, wet steps to land perpendicularly on a broken leg. Whisked away, TJ now reflects blessedly, she missed the week of tedium and hazing in store for the remaining, fledgling faithful. 

As TJ now recalls it, each day was set in stone with hours of bible study, devotionals and the choice of two outdoor activities – volleyball or softball – neither of which he was particularly good at. So after a day or so of the mandatory fun, TJ snuck off into the wilderness to read a book he’d smuggled into camp. One afternoon, late in the week while he was happily perched reading, he heard the crunch of tires creeping closer and looked up to see a jeep load of baseball-wielding counselors. “Why are you out here reading?” “Why a’int you playing ball with the other kids?” – shaking the bats to make their message clear.  Terrified, back he went.

Campers became aware of “The Recipe” slowly over the week. After each meal the campers would scape leftovers into a trash can at one end of the mess hall. No one thought anything of it until rumors started seeping in through the rickety walls of the cabin. “Don’t be bad or you’ll get The Recipe”.

Now the volleyball court was out back of the mess hall and one itchy afternoon TJ noticed a stinking, 50-gallon drum surrounded by a thick swarm of flies stewing on the loading dock.   

By Thursday everyone knew. The Recipe was the drum full of fetid scrapings festering on that loading dock. Word was, The Recipe was to be dealt to whoever was bad. Everyone imagined what would happen but no one knew what infractions would merit The Recipe. 

In the wee hours of Friday night, TJ heard the snickers and giggles of fellow campers creeping underneath his cabin window.  The next thing he knew boys burst in clutching water balloons and an a water balloon fight of epic proportions ensued.  By the time the counselors got there everyone was soaked and crumpled with laughter on the sagging wood floors. With hard eyes and firm grips the aqua-perps were removed from the scene of the crime.

The next morning as kids lined up to either load onto the wheezing yellow school bus or hop into parents’ cars, the 50-gallon drum was rolled out. The water-ballon wielding boys were plucked from lines and forced to the ground, arms and legs pinned by counselors.  TJ was also pulled from his car-rider line, a tin cup of The Recipe thrust in his hand.  “Throw it on him.” barked the counselor.

Every “aggrieved party” was handed a cup of The Recipe as “offenders” were held down to receive their punishment. 

“I went stone cold. I didn’t want to do this but I was scared it would happen to me. I went cold, left my body and prepared to throw the putrid cup of slop on him. Just as he yelled one more “NO!” I half-heartedly tossed the slop and it slushed into his mouth.

The clean-up was a blur but the damage was done.

TJ’s mom and Grammy later pulled into the dusty parking lot and he slid into the backseat to numbly endure the chipper inquiry of two excited women. After a half-dozen buzzing questions he finally he broke down and told them the truth.  “Not only was this the most boring week I’ve ever had but they were assholes.” He tried to tell them about all that had happened but Grammy would not hear it. “That’s not true!”

And Grammy never did hear it. She died at 98, just as the church was gasping in her own death pangs, not knowing that TJ’s Christian summer camp summed up most everything he had experienced in the church up to that point – “boring, pedantic, assholes.” 

Fifteen years later when a spiritual crisis ruptured his family – a dear friend lost a baby an hour after a full-tern birth – his angry questions about the omnipotence and benevolence of God were explored in his tight-knit and tiny community of  “spiritual but not religious” because he had long since lost any faith in the church to address the real trials of life.  There in his SBNR “congregation”,  meeting in the upper room of an urban apartment dwelling, he found thoughtful, faithful fellowship and a place to discern the great question. You know, THAT question – if God is all powerful and all good, how the hell does shit like that happen? And TJ and his community were able to comfort one another and find that uneasy peace that is humanity considering the mystery of The Eternal. 

Now I think y’all know by now that I believe that community is critical. I believe that a community of faith with which one can explore our longing for God, acknowledge our interdependence and answer the call to be the hands of feet of God in the world can not only feed us, but truly be the force that bends the arc of the universe toward justice.  But as long as church folks, leaders none-the-less, stubbornly refuse to acknowledge and look critically at how deeply the church has wounded others, as long as willfully stubborn pastors are disdainfully dismissive rather than lovingly pastoral, the church will continue to fail at being disciples of the One the religious elite (in collusion with the state) slaughtered for not being, as I understand it – spiritual but not religious.  

Lord Jesus, help us transcend our arrogance so that we may truly extend an Extravagant welcome to those the church has wounded. 

For more about walking with those wounded by the church please check out Reba Riley and her work with Post Traumatic Church Syndrome.

If you would like to share a story of church abuse that you endured, please send me an email at koinoniaSL@gmail.com.

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