I have heard the line many times: "Rev, I want you to know right upfront
that I'm spiritual - but not religious."
This distinction is a 21st century American mantra: spiritual - but not
religious. It could be on a T-shirt or a bumper sticker. Truth be told, in
the wake of the recent United Methodist Judicial Council ruling mandating
the reinstatement of a United Methodist pastor who had refused church
membership to an openly gay man, I would be one of the folks wearing the
I have been a parish pastor in the United Methodist Church for 31 years.
This calling continues to be a marvelous, enriching and energizing spiritual
experience. Among other things, it has made me deeply spiritual and leads me
to pray daily for the demise of religion.
While sharing in the lives of people, I have had numerous encounters with
the Holy, Infinite One. I have witnessed resurrections, liberations, high
moments of justice and mercy, and life-changing acts of forgiveness. I have
seen healings that restored broken hearts, fractured minds and shattered
spirits. I have seen people who were sinking in turbulent waters suddenly
walk on those waves as a result of renewed faith. I've seen waters part,
revealing reliable paths to places of promise. I have seen bramble bushes of
confusion and pain set ablaze with a Holy presence revealing messages of
clarity and hope. I have heard angels sing of holy births even as death
appears to close the eyes of cherished friends.
Because of wonderfully hopeful things such as these, I believe what all
world faith traditions reveal. Namely, that God is Spirit and thus never
captured in a picture, idea, book or creed. Rather, the Holy One is always
mysterious, awe-inspiring, hope-raising and fear-relieving. Encounters with
the Spirit are at once and always an amazing grace.
Religion, however, is what Satan devises as a way of confusing faithful
people. Holy wars, suicide bombings and other religiously motivated killings
prove the point.
Those of us who exercise our spirituality by attempting to follow in the
footsteps of Jesus are very much aware that when Jesus was around religious
people it made him nauseated. I believe that is why Jesus always enjoyed
eating with sinners. It was the only way he could keep his lunch.
In these religious times, church organi- zations are forsaking their initial
spiritual impetus and going over to the dark side. Employing labored,
amplified heavy breathing, they have become religious institutions. Like
most institutions, religious ones are very much interested in preserving
their various ways of doing things. That is, in large part, why there are
judicial councils. Their job is not to keep the faith. Their job is to keep
the rules and make folks think that "the rules" and "the faith" are the same
thing. Most often, they are not.
While the decision of the United Methodist Judicial Council purports to
protect a pastor's right to ascertain a person's readiness to affirm the
vows of membership in the church, it does nothing of the sort. The decision
does what religion so often does: It sanctifies acts of hidden prejudice and
Wonder of wonders, there are many, many clergy and laypersons who serve in
and give life to many, many churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and
prayer rooms. They are those who each day open the doors of such places in
marvelous ways. They welcome folks in. They step out into the streets to
help others. They transform communities and daily work to make things
better. They relieve suffering and amplify - as well as enable - rejoicing.
Such faithful people reveal that the Spirit is alive and active in our
midst. They also know that judicial council terms come to an end and
prejudices will one day pass away.
In the meantime (and sometimes the times are very mean), institutional
religion continues to be a mind-numbing reality. In all cultures, it
preserves the status quo in ice. That is why religious folks often seem to
be the "frozen chosen" rather than ones warmed by the fire of the Spirit
with tolerance, acceptance and love, and set ablaze with a passion for
Putting people out is a coldly religious thing to do. In the end, the rooms
from which people have been excluded become empty. The temperature is turned
way down to save expenses. Not much is going on in those rooms, but at least
they are neat and orderly. Current judicial councils, like all of them over
time, very much like it that way. Among other things, the thermostats in
their rooms never have to be reset and the chairs need never be moved for
their small, bi-annual meetings.
Rev. Chalker is pastor of First United Methodist Church of Cleveland, Ohio.
© 2005 Cleveland Plain Dealer