Searching for Community… Again

Last year I found a wonderful church community in a local Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation. My empty spots that needed spiritual community and the sharing of spiritual experiences found what they needed. I wasn’t able to attend frequently, but I enjoyed it when I could and was glad to interact with church members through social media. Our family joined the church and we were even married there. I was hopeful that we’d found our spiritual home. I really, really like the people we met at the church. They are very genuine and full of love and have shown me a whole new side of what religion and church can be. This summer the interim minister I loved moved on; the new minister, whom I really like, will begin her ministry in September. Lots of changes and exciting times are in store for the church, I’m sure, but I’m not sure we’ll be a big part of it. 

My idea of what “church” looks like or is meant to accomplish has changed greatly from my days as a Baptist. I like sermons about love, peace, religions of the world, and even how the church can be an active force in the community. The church we found seems to put more emphasis on being an active force in the community than anything else. That is what the majority of the congregation has chosen, so it only makes sense that the church would steer that direction. This emphasis on social activism is a bit much for me, though. Today I learned that the Religious Education (RE) curriculum for the fall would be about racial justice and social activism. One of the things that drew me to UU in the first place was the RE program for children – I love the concept! Religious education, from a progressive, open-minded perspective, that introduces children to many ways of thinking is a wonderful idea and something I’m totally on board with. I’m perplexed by this church’s choice of RE emphasis for the fall, though, because I do not see how a curriculum about racial justice and social activism fits the concept of RE. Naturally, this is just my own perception of what Religious Education stands for – the majority of the church feels differently and that’s fine.  Continue reading

Finding My Voice

I pulled out of the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement (and Christianity as a whole) in the fall of 2011 – that’s roughly thirty one months ago. My beliefs have changed so much during that time frame. Who I am has changed, and I’m very thankful for that fact. I’m happier. I’m healthier. I’m more confident. My spirituality is more fulfilling. I’ve found my voice and am no longer afraid to use it. Life is better.

Christian fundamentalism greatly stunted my personal growth. I’ve only recently realized how greatly it stunted my ability to use my voice. For starters, fundamentalism did its best to prevent me from developing my individuality. Self-aware individuals don’t conform to rigid rules and certainly don’t do well with one-size-fits-all doctrine. Individuals realize the world doesn’t fit into a box. Individuals use their voice to ask questions. Questions are dangerous if they remain unchecked. A child may except pat answers, but when that child grows up, his questions will not so easily be set aside. Fundamentalism prides itself in having the answer to everything, even if that answer is “God’s ways are not man’s ways” or “God knows best.” Receiving an answer like that was very unsatisfying, but it usually was enough to shut me up because I didn’t want to appear to be questioning God or the authority of the person whom I’d asked. Asking too many questions got you in trouble or, at the least, caused people to find you annoying and troublesome. I asked too many questions anyway, though, and didn’t get enough answers.

I can recall puzzling through matters of theology as a college student. Homework assignments designed to help me better understand my faith only made it more puzzling. One particular event stands out in my mind. I had been studying the arguments for and against predestination and free will and thought I’d had a breakthrough moment of understanding. I wanted to share my discovery with other people so I did my best to put it into words (which was long and complicated to do) and then put in Facebook. Immediately I got backlash from fundamentalist friends who disagreed; ultimately I chose to take down what I’d written. I saw then and there that a hole-proof, Biblical argument that reconciled predestination and free will didn’t exist. That was one of many things that I realized was not as hole-proof as fundamentalism declared/needed it to be. My faith was crumbling,
not being strengthened, and I began to realize why hyper-conservative fundamentalists declared higher education to be a “tool of Satan” used to pull young people away from their faith. I was not involved with Satan, though, and had only studied at conservative Christian educational institutions. My fundamentalist faith was not holding up to the thoughts inside my own head, and there was nothing I could do about it.

Eventually I had to start telling the people around me that I was no longer a believer. My voice was a squeaky whisper as I fearfully undertook the task of breaking people’s hearts. I put on a brave face, tried to protect myself by putting up a wall of defense, but nothing helped. I could no longer believe, could not live a lie to please people, but couldn’t bear to cause the people I loved so much pain and confusion. The year during/after my exit was messy and painful for all involved. I felt desperate for independence and a chance to discover the rest of the world, and in my desperation I made some bad decisions (my first marriage being one of them). Mistakes added to the pain and confusion, but through it all I began to find my footing and realized how strong I was – not how strong a deity or religion could make me. I found a place where I could blossom, a partner who supported me, and a faith community that was safe and nourishing (Unitarian Universalism). Finding love and support has given me the confidence I need to start using my voice.

I recall one conversation with my mother sometime after I had left fundamentalism: she asked me not to become an activist. Turns out the term activist made her think of 70’s era feminists like Jane Fonda. I know very little about Jane Fonda, but I’m aware that some of the activism of days gone by left a bad taste in many people’s mouths. Feminism and environmentalism both got a bad rap in IFB circles, and since those are two of the most well known areas of activism, I guess many fundamentalists assume activism is crazy, despite their very active attempts at proselytization and protecting themselves from what they considered to be infringements on their religious rights. IFB told me to speak out about salvation so the world would not all die and go to hell, but it cared very little about the worldly state of humanity and the Earth. Humanitarian efforts were seen as secondary (at best) to missionary work that resulted in conversions. I was always troubled by this, and wanted to involve myself in something that sought to help others at whatever level they needed help – not just their souls.

I guess I’ve always been an activist at heart. I don’t like sitting idly by when I see something that is needed, but years of doing just that must be overcome. I’m finding my voice and have lots I want to say. I don’t have the courage to speak very loudly, and the thought of public speaking still terrifies me, but I’m finding ways to use my voice. This blog is really what got me started; I needed to tell my story, and in the absence of an existing audience I made the web my audience. There are other things I’m passionate about, and I’ve been able to use the web to help me speak out about those things as well. Now that I’m a member at my local UU church, I think I will quickly find new ways to speak about what is important to me. I don’t have a special story, but I do have my story. I don’t have great ideas or even unique ideas, but if I don’t speak my thoughts I remain part of the silent majority. I want to bring about change, not remain silent while the world dies around me.

New Life

At the end of December my partner and I confirmed that we were expecting a baby; we were both overjoyed! Now, 11 weeks into the pregnancy, I’m finally emerging from the awful symptoms of the first trimester. I don’t feel like I’m in survival mode all the time now, which is wonderful. I’ve been able to enjoy reading and thinking during the past week or so, so hopefully my creativity is returning and I’ll be able to write more. The reading and the thinking has certainly taken a new direction due to the fact that I’m pregnant.

I’m assuming that my parents as well as my partner’s parents are hoping that this new addition will magically transform our hearts and we’ll come running back to the fold. The thought of getting involved at a local progressive Christian church has briefly crossed my mind, actually. Not because I want to be involved in Christianity, but because of the community and support such a church would bring. We’re far away from all family and friends of the past, and our lack of community is scary to me as I imagine life with a new baby. There’s a great UU church we’ve attended a few times… but we haven’t been able to attend very frequentlye. We keep missing services due to sickness, morning sickness, weather, my partner’s work schedule, etc. I sincerely hope that things will improve as we draw closer to Spring. Speaking of Spring, it’s fun to think about how the baby will be growing inside me right along with the growth of Spring, and then be delivered towards the end of the growing season in August.

So yeah… a new baby definitely has me thinking about my community, my home, my family, our spirituality, what the future looks like… so many things. I know this pregnancy will be life changing. One way it is already changing me is by reshaping my spirituality and refueling my desire to learn more and grow. I think I know where I’m headed – to a point – but my IFB background is holding me back. It’s so hard to let go, let loose, and simply feel and do things… because of fear. The IFB instilled within me many fears, one of the chiefest being to fear what other people think. My interactions with other Baptist kids (school, camp, and college) taught me to fear how I look and whether or not what I’m doing will seem stupid or silly. Now I still battle with fearing what others think, how they’ll see me. I also battle with a fear of not being in control, which is heavily tied in with my fears about how other see me. Early on I did my best to hide all tears, possibly even all emotion, in public because it opened me up to ridicule and pain. I never liked being asked to do things out of my comfort zone because I feared failure, feared how I would look. I missed out on a lot of opportunities thanks to all this; it’s only been since I left Christianity that I began finding the freedom to loosen up and have fun. I look forward to being further changed by the experiences of this pregnancy, giving birth, and holding my baby.

Sunday Morning Musings

Sunday was supposed to be a day of rest for Christians, but for most of my 20 some years as a Christian, Sunday was far from restful. The day started out with my family scrambling to all get showered, dressed, and out the door in time for Sunday School (at 9:45). Three out of four of us were not morning people. My mom tried to have a special breakfast for us on Sunday mornings plus she needed to prepare the lunch we would eat after church, so she had added burdens that required more time and less sleep. Getting out the door was incredibly stressful and hardly helped at least me to be in the right frame of mind for spiritual things. The Sunday events at my home church consisted of 9:45am Sunday School, an 11am service, 4pm teen meeting (for the few years we had that), 5pm choir practice, and a 6 pm evening service. The 11 service often ran until 12:20pm or later, but we didn’t get home until close to 1pm because we socialized with friends. By the time lunch was made and eaten, there really wasn’t much time left in the afternoon. We made the best of it, though, by taking walks, playing games, or watching something together. As we kids got older we discovered the joys of Sunday afternoon naps. Some families didn’t allow any activities on Sunday (based on Old Testament principles); I was very thankful my family wasn’t that hardcore. When I reached college I did begin to question spending time on non-spiritual things on the Lord’s day, but quickly abandoned my questions.

My Sundays in college were rarely restful. I chose to attend churches that were at least an hour away all four of my semesters. The first two of those semesters were spent at a church where I did what I could to help the pastor by teaching a Sunday School class, knocking on doors (even in the snow), and working on whatever odd projects came up. The next two semesters I attended a different church, largely so I could be with some new friends that I had made. We spent our afternoons crashed at the pastor’s house, at a nearby mall, or otherwise having adventures together. It was during this time that I began to question how conducive to a day of rest the model of church I was used to actually was. My friends brought this up and I found myself in agreement; if one of us was sick or just feeling wiped out we chose to come back early or, rarely, skip church altogether. The college would have never approved of what we did, but to an over-tired (and very ill, as I was experiencing a mystery illness that would turn out to be fibromyalgia) college student, it hardly seemed important. My body, mind, and spirit needed rest; God had commanded that we observe a day of rest, so I rested.

After I left college I returned home to be with my family. My illness kept me miserable 24/7, so I missed a lot of church, particularly Sunday mornings (mornings are the worst). My parents couldn’t understand and gave me a very hard time about how much church I missed. It became a source of stress and pain in my life and put a kink in our relationship. I spent the time sleeping (I suffered from killer insomnia at the time), doing personal devotions, or listening to the church service being broadcasted online. I discovered that I felt more spiritually refreshed when I had the time by myself than if I attended the Sunday morning services. One Sunday morning in particular stands out to me. By that point in time I preferred to use the ESV translation (my background was militant KJV only). I sat outside in the sunshine with my Bible, a journal, and a cat to keep me company. I read the beautiful words from my ESV Bible and then wrote in my journal. I encountered the Divine that day in ways I’ve rarely felt in a church setting. It was so perfect and healing to my soul. I tried to tell my father about it, but he did not share in my excitement because he felt I should be in church on Sundays. A few months after this experience I left my Baptist beliefs and Christianity as I knew it.

I still attended church as I was able, at least for awhile. I grew up in that church and its school, so it was a huge part of my life. I remember the Sunday my father told me I needed to leave the choir because it was hypocritical to be up there when I didn’t believe what I was singing about. I knew he was right, but I hated to leave because singing in the choir brought me such great joy. Church services became fuel for what I wrote on this blog; what I heard brought me to anger and disgust. The awkwardness of being an unbeliever amongst fervent believers also made it hard to enjoy church. Very few people knew my lack of belief at that point, and I was deathly afraid of how they would react to me if they did know, so did my best to smile and nod and maintain my secret.

When I moved away from home and was no longer pressured to attend church, I found great relief in spending my Sundays as I saw fit. There was no rush or bustle, no need to dress up, no shouting preacher… it was nice. I did try to keep the principle of a day of rest because I thought it necessary for maintaining good health. I toyed with the idea of a low-tech or no-tech day. I spent time outside when I could; Nature has always felt like a spiritual place to me. I also spent time exploring new ways of viewing spirituality through a variety of books. I never wanted to attend church again – I was tired of oppression and embracing my freedom wholeheartedly. I discovered and claimed the title spiritual but not religious; I was definitely still spiritual but wanted nothing to do with organized religion and churches. Things went south with my then-husband, I moved back home for a time, and I was again thrust into the world of busy, Baptist Sundays.

When I left home the next time, I remained content with church-less Sundays for several months. I didn’t spend much time looking for the Divine at that point, but eventually found myself on the path of searching once again. I found spiritual connections in discussions with other people, time spent outside, books and the internet, and within myself. I found the Divine in everything if I took the time to look for it. I also found spiritual healing. With healing I found I was ready to give church another try and began looking for an acceptable church. I became familiar with Unitarian Universalism (UU) many months ago, but never had the courage to attend; I was also afraid of the concept of church and what it might entail. A few weeks ago I found a local UU congregation that fit what I was looking for and found the courage to attend. It was wonderful! I’ll have to dedicate another post to tell you about it. Anyway. I was missing the community that comes with church, the experience of group singing, and hearing words of inspiration. I have found these things again, but they are better than they were in my Baptist church back home because there is no judgement present. There is no pressure, no negativity, no guilt-tripping about lost souls going to Hell. There is support, love, and acceptance. I didn’t attend the service this morning because I needed the rest, and that’s totally fine – nobody will get on my case. My spirituality is my own, and the UU church respects that. I am pleased to be reclaiming my Sundays, church and all.

Spiritual but not Religious

“Spiritual but not religious” is a term I stumbled across a few months ago (when I was searching for an appropriate term to describe my religious views). It’s a rather vague term, and it probably leaves most people scratching their heads and wondering “Well… what on earth does that mean?” When I first saw the term, and then read it’s definition, I knew it was the correct description of my beliefs. Before I write any more, please read this definition found in Wikipedia’s online encyclopedia:


Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) is a popular phrase and acronym[1] used to self-identify a life stance of spirituality that rejects traditional organized religion as the sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth.[2] The term is used world-wide, but seems most prominent in the United States where one study reports that as many as 33% of people identify as spiritual but not religious.[3] Other surveys report lower percentages ranging from 24%[4]-10%[5]
Those that identify as SBNR vary in their individual spiritual philosophies and practices and theological references. While most SBNR people reference some higher power or transcendentnature of reality, it is common for SBNR people to differ in their ideas of the existence of God as defined by the Abrahamic religions.
SBNR is commonly used[6][7] to describe the demographic also known as unchurched, none of the above, spiritual atheists, more spiritual than religious, spiritually eclectic, unaffiliated,freethinkers, or spiritual seekers. Younger people are more likely to identify as SBNR than older people. In April 2010, the front page of USA Today claimed that 72% percent ofGeneration Y agree they are “more spiritual than religious”.[6]
The term has been called cliché by popular religious writers such as Robert Wright,[8] but is gaining in popularity. It has even spawned a Facebook page[9] where members discuss the attributes of the SBNR lifestyle.

The SBNR lifestyle is most studied in the population of the United States. Books such as Robert C. Fuller’s Spiritual but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America (ISBN 0-19-514680-8) and Sven E. Erlandson’s Spiritual But Not Religious: A Call To Religious Revolution In America (ISBN 0-595-01108) highlight the emerging usage of the term.Those that identify as SBNR vary in their individual spiritual philosophies and practices and theological references. While most SBNR people reference some higher power or transcendentnature of reality, it is common for SBNR people to differ in their ideas of the existence of God as defined by the Abrahamic religions.SBNR is commonly used[6][7] to describe the demographic also known as unchurched, none of the above, spiritual atheists, more spiritual than religious, spiritually eclectic, unaffiliated,freethinkers, or spiritual seekers. Younger people are more likely to identify as SBNR than older people. In April 2010, the front page of USA Today claimed that 72% percent ofGeneration Y agree they are “more spiritual than religious”.[6]The term has been called cliché by popular religious writers such as Robert Wright,[8] but is gaining in popularity. It has even spawned a Facebook page[9] where members discuss the attributes of the SBNR lifestyle.The SBNR lifestyle is most studied in the population of the United States. Books such as Robert C. Fuller’s Spiritual but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America (ISBN 0-19-514680-8) and Sven E. Erlandson’s Spiritual But Not Religious: A Call To Religious Revolution In America (ISBN 0-595-01108) highlight the emerging usage of the term.Comparison of religiosity and spiritualityHistorically, the words religious and spiritual have been used synonymously to describe all the various aspects of the concept of religion.[10][11] Gradually, the word spiritual came to be associated with the private realm of thought and experience while the word religious came to be connected with the public realm of membership in a religious institution with official denominational doctrines.[12] Zinnbauer and Pargament (2005) write that in the early 1900s psychology scholars such as William James, Edwin Starbuck, G. Stanely Hall, and George Coe investigated religiosity and spirituality through a lens of social science.[13]In the field of psychology, spirituality has emerged as a distinct social construct and focus of research since the 1980s. With the emergence of spirituality as a distinct concept fromreligion in both academic circles and common language, a tension has arisen between the two constructs.[13] One possible differentiation among the three constructs religion, religiosity, and spirituality, is to view religion as primarily a social phenomenon while understanding spirituality on an individual level.[14] Religiosity is generally viewed as being rooted in religion, whereas this is not necessarily the case for spirituality. A study of the differences between those self-identified as spiritual and those self-identified as religious found that the former have a loving, forgiving, and nonjudgmental view of the numinous, while those identifying themselves as religious see their god as more judgmental.[15]The practice of spirituality without religiosity has been criticized by representatives of organized religion. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, has called the SBNR lifestyle “plain old laziness”,[16] stating that “[s]pirituality without religion can become a self-centered complacency divorced from the wisdom of a community”.[17] Jennifer Walters, dean of religious life at Smith College, points to the community aspect of religion and teachings of forgiveness.[16]Lillian Daniel [18] writes: ‘Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.‘”

          ~ Robert Fuller, as quoted here.

That’s quite a lengthy write up, for such a small phrase, eh? Anyway…You’re probably wondering how people can consider themselves to be “spiritual” if they don’t affiliate themselves with any religion. As Wikipedia said, spirituality and religion have been hand-in-hand for a very long time, but that once-“fact” is starting to change. I believe there is a clear distinction between the ability to be “spiritual” and being, in any way, “religious.” Humans are spiritual beings. Spirituality, in its most basic sense, can be defined as: “Spirituality exists wherever we struggle with the issues of how our lives fit into the greater scheme of things. This is true 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.

          
In other words, I don’t have to be a Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu to ask why I’m here on this earth, or why this earth even exists in the first place. I just have to be spiritually aware of something bigger than myself… be that a god, goddess, gods, spirit of love, whatever. And no, being aware of something bigger than self does not mean I or anyone else must be subservient to or love whatever creative force exists or once existed. It also doesn’t mean we must join an existing religion or create our own. No, spirituality is an intrinsic part of humanity, a part that allows us to think deeply and inquisitively as we view the world around us.  Spirituality also allows us to love and be loved, to create and appreciate beauty, and to feel things deeply. The term “spirit” is used to describe many things – from the soul that lies within each person, to the level of vivacity a person exudes (i.e. attitude). I think our soul is tied to our spirituality; and, in many ways, our attitude is also connect to our spirituality.

So, why do I consider myself to be “spiritual but not religious?” Well, I do sense something bigger than myself, I do wonder how the world got here, and why I’m on the earth at this very moment. I do believe something or someone created this universe – who or what, I don’t know, and I don’t think it really matters… to be honest. I think love is the greatest force in existence, and is something every person should give/partake in during his/her lifetime. In the end, it’s love – who/what you loved/who loved you, what you did/didn’t do for love, etc. – that really matters. It is my nature to ask questions and look for a deeper meaning, to be sensitive to what is happening in the world and how I fit into it all. Yes, I consider myself to be spiritual. No, I am not religious. My days of church, following holy books, and being bound to exclusive ideology are over. 

In the earlier Wikipedia definition, a lady was quoted as saying: “Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.” She makes some interesting statements, and while I think she makes some good points, I disagree with her. She makes an excellent point when she says, “There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you.” Communities certainly can promote accountability and intellectual integrity, but community is not a trait exclusive to religion. I find this statement to be very interesting: “Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.” Apparently, this woman finds great satisfaction in being a part of tradition, part of a community… which I think aptly sums up why the majority of people join churches and seek to be religious. I see religions as nothing more than man-made traditions (including Christianity and the Bible); and churches are social clubs, complete with members-only benefits and the whole shebang. I understand the need to identify with other people of like-mind. Everyone seeks out their own, including me. I do not, however, need a holy book to tell me who I’m supposed to be, how I’m supposed to act, and I don’t need a god to worship and emulate. I am happy with my identity. I am me. I have a lot to learn in life, and while I may not always enjoy criticism, I honestly wish to grow and become the best person I can be. I don’t try to attain perfection, and I shouldn’t expect it from other people, because we’re all human. I strive to be kind to all, love people, forgive wrongs… but I am not religiously obligated to turn my other cheek when people strike me. I am free to be me, to make my own way, to do my best without guilt; instead of such knowledge being a weight or worry, it is a great joy. I shall never be tied to religion again. 
I am spiritual but not religious.