In the past few years I have heard people describe themselves, and have sometimes described myself, as spiritual but not religious. The label begs definition. I guess, on a very simple and literal level, it means having a sense of larger connection to something we might call spirit that envigorates, guides and, in truth, is us, but having checked out of, or never been part of, institutional religious expression of a particular faith.
I have admired that position, at least insofar as it represents a bravery about rejecting or not being actively concerned with blind dogma and positions that separate rather than unite humanity – demands that people say this or that and assurances that if you follow the particular company line, heaven is just around the corner.
But there is, at least for me, something significant lost in that position, as well. What is lost is the sense of belonging, of being part of a close-knit community of commitment.
Every fall, just after Labor Day, the community of Estes Park hosts the Long’s Peak Scottish Irish Festival. There are bands and dance competitions, jousting, and real cannon firing bowling balls to try to sink an inflatable plastic dragon in Lake Estes.
And there is a parade. It features, I think, just about the biggest collection of pipe and drum corps in the nation. And it features clan after clan marching in alphabetical order, families in their tartans and kilts, marching proudly and happily together behind their particular plaid. I have to admit there is something that grabs me at the root and brings tears to my eyes as I see them march by – little children, old men and women, their little Scottish terriers all decked out, heading to no war, setting aside their own squabbles and differences for a day of being part of something that reaches way back and commits to going forward, reveling in pure belonging. I can’t help it. Tears just run down my face.
I don’t know how long it has been true, but it is true now that something very special has happened in those ranks. Yes, there are tall lordly Scotsmen – some kind of purebred marked by a particular demeanor and full white moustache – and strong women capable of cutting down forests with only a few strokes of the axe. But there are also, in the clans, marching with all the same pride, people of Asian or African descent, fully Scottish just because they have married into the clan and everybody says so.
There is nothing inherently bad about religions. They are just the tools we make them. And there is value and meaning in belonging – in a commitment to community that says, come hell or high water (or, as we have in Estes this week, the hell of high water), and regardless of our petty differences, we are one. We will stick together and care for one another and we will take pride in and celebrate our values and commitments.
There is nothing inherently bad in this, so long as there is a significant grain of salt in all our sacraments. Strength comes in offering and welcoming, in serving and caring. The stories we tell and the lessons we teach are nothing if they don’t result in true humility and compassion. We may display our colors with pride, so long as the door is open and says come in if you like. And so long as we know our door is just one of many on the street.
At the end of the day, we may take off our clothing, grateful that it has protected us and provided a vehicle and context for our service. But that is all it is, a bit of pretty decoration for a body that is no different, or better or worse than the one inhabited by each of our global and religious – or not – neighbors.
And our religious families are wasted and nothing if they are not chiefly a magnification of service and welcome at the level of community, rather than just the individual.
Spiritual but not religious is, I believe, a wonderful position that sheds, appropriately, the strictures when community has lost its way, more concerned about the clothing than the body, wrapped up in pomp, power and appearances. It is a sign of prophetic rejection of all that is hollow and false.
But it is also lonely. Grant us community, a family that makes us part of something broader and stronger, that accomplishes so much more than we are able on our own. And gift us, Great Spirit, Breath of Life, the vision that whatever our community, we are always part of a larger family still, a family that flourishes on strong humility and confident sharing, founded on a bedrock of compassionate service.
Make us one, be us one, under the Tree of Life.
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