Sunday, May 10: I’m Not Religious, But I Am Spiritual

Today’s Music

Here Together (for Gathering): on the Music for Services page

“Sunflower,” by Yu Shi Wang

“Isn’t She Lovely?” by Stevie Wonder

Performed by Chris Powell


Good morning! Happy Mother’s Day! Welcome to Hope Unitarian Church, where our mission is “seeking hope, love and justice, together in community.”
Whoever you are, whomever you love, wherever you are on your spiritual journey and whatever your life circumstance, you are welcome here. To all who are here this morning, Welcome Home!

Chalice Lighting

The flaming chalice, symbol of our living faith, burns brightly. Let’s say our unison words for chalice lighting.
We light this beacon of hope,
Sign of our quest for truth and meaning,
In celebration of the life we share together.


Please join me for today’s invocation:
Confined in houses of the holy, we yearn to be one.
Cut off from friends and family, we yearn to help.
Distressed by unemployment, we yearn for work.
Spirit of Life, help us move and breathe in your shadow,
ready to share the perfect love that casts out fear.


Please join me in reciting our living covenant:
Love is the spirit of this church
And service its law.
This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love,
And to help one another.

Prayer and Meditation

Mother’s Day Prayer 2020
Today, after a week of gun violence in our streets and wars around the world; at a time when political talking heads invade our living rooms with the same tired answers that have caused gridlock, mistrust, and polarization in the past;
In this moment when so many are fraught with fear of the future, help us remember that the Spirit of Life abides with us in our darkest hours, steady and compassionate. We set aside this day to honor mothers who are deserving of our praise. Most mothers aren’t perfect, and some may have been destructive, so we know this is not a happy day for one and all.
We pray for those who cannot honor their mothers, that they might find peace even this day.
We also pray for mothers in poverty, around the world and down the street, that they be able to make a way out of no way. Give us ways to remember and help them.
For those who have had good mothers, even great mothers, we offer our never-ending gratitude, and are mindful today of the sacrifices our mothers made in our coming and growing, and for offering us love and compassion, even when we didn’t deserve it.
Bless our mothers, O Spirit of Life, or bless the memory of our mothers now gone and yet omnipresent.
Be with us all as we help build a world that honors women as equals in the fight for peace and justice, a world that has reverence for life, all life;
A world where men and women bend swords into plowshares as they strives to study war no more. Spirit of Life, may we all experience your unconditional love for us, today and always.



I’m Not Religious, But I Am Spiritual
Rev. Greg Stewart

Here we are, sitting face to face in my study. There is an anticipative excitement in the air, as we are planning a wedding. There are smiles all around. Together, the three of us work our way down a checklist of ceremony options and set-up requirements.

The Event—the wedding day—rises to a new level of reality as each component of this rite of passage comes up for consideration. It is good to be with those who are in love. Lovers evoke a level of energy that is seldom rivaled, and even mundane planning moves us closer to miraculous plateaus.

Then comes The Question that sometimes pushes us all off the plateau and onto the desert floor below. It is a simple question, it seems to me, and a necessary one, if I am to ensure that the ceremony reflects who these lovers are to each other rather than who I am as the officiant.

So I ask, matter of factly, “What is your religious affiliation, if any?”

First comes the awkward silence. I try my best to maintain eye contact as the couple exchanges glances, gaze at their navels, then again at each other. Finally, one of them opines in a measured, thoughtful cadence: “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.”
The other partner nods in compliance, often mumbles something against organized religion, and then both feel they have answered in a way that will satisfy the minister without compromising their own integrity.

I am as interested in alternative spiritual practices as the next minister so I probe a little further. “Oh, that’s good,” I reply. “Say a little more about it.”

Usually the “little more” I hear (if I hear any more at all) has something to do with nature, or solitude, or one of the arts, or connectedness or vegetarianism, or not watching television. I even had one groom-to-be tell me he worshiped a baby penguin!

At least he worshiped something! While some of the other answers are authentic for the couples who employ them, in many cases it is clear that they are trying to placate the pastor or affirm the vocation of ministry as viable.

When I get to the follow-up question, it is usually met with either total dismay or weary relief. I ask, “God or No God in the ceremony?”

Most couples expect that if they choose to have their ceremony officiated by a minister then they will have to put up with God being there, too. And while that very well may be the case—I’ve not been an eyewitness to divine visitation thus far—neither agnosticism nor atheism disqualifies lovers from a public celebration of their love for each other in my book.

I hear this reply so often (“I’m not religious but I am spiritual”)—not only from engaged couples, but also from religious liberals of every marital status—that it is worthy of our consideration today; or maybe I want to tease it out simply because it bothers me—a lot.

I am not so concerned about those who wish to con the minister. As I stated earlier, all who, of their own freewill, wish to be married deserve to be married, without further qualification.

But I am very concerned for those who con themselves into thinking they can be spiritual without being religious, or who think they have evolved beyond religion to spirituality, or who are conversely drawn to spirituality as “religion light,” as in Miller Light or Marlboro Lights. Great taste, less filling.

We live in the era of the democratization of religion. As liberals who have witnessed the world’s religions washing up on our shores and crossing the fruited plain, we do our best to embrace them all as equals or, alternately, we flip them off as fables.

We pride ourselves in being able to pick and choose at the buffet of new religious menus and fully expect our spiritual waistlines to expand or contract with every new belief we ingest or refuse. That is one of the misunderstandings I see in the “New American Spirituality,” as Elizabeth Lesser describes it in her book of the same name.

This is precisely the label also she also gives her own spirituality, which she describes as “diverse, individualistic, open-minded, and free.” Yet some four-hundred pages later, we find that there is nothing “new” about Lesser’s “New American Spirituality.” There is nothing new under the sun, to quote the Preacher in book of Ecclesiastes.

Instead, Lesser has at one time or another found her place in the pew, sat on Zen zafus, whirled in Sufi dervishes, prayed with Shaking Quakers, submitted to self-centered Gurus, followed feminist and womanist paths, recaptured traditional spiritual language, and co-founded an institute to organize all of these disparate streams into one river of spiritual consciousness.

If she is not careful, she’ll end up with an organized religion, the very thing she says she has spent her life trying to avoid. As the list just read betrays, this is not so much the discovery of anything new as it is the blending of the same old recipes for religion.

“But it is the blending itself that is new,” you say in her defense. Syncretism has been going on for centuries and most of what Christendom believes today was appropriated from pagan and earth-center religions both within and beyond the borders of the north and south kingdoms. This trend continues, worldwide, today. There is nothing new under the sun.

Moreover, some religions are better than others, though none are perfect, or we would surely have only one religion. The spiritual egalitarians among us who readily accept the democratization of religion become fascists when confronted with Christian fundamentalism, and they close their eyes to sadistic civil and moral abuses of other world religions.

Many, though not all, religions are valid but this does not make them equal. For every Hollywood epic made, there are usually scores of copycat films produced to cash in on the epic’s reputation. They may all be films but they are not all Oscar material. The same hold true for religions.

This is what bothers me about the spiritualities of the Post-Modern Age. While they tend to draw heavily upon what has preceded them without footnotes or running credits, they strongly emphasize that “each person’s spiritual journey is different, worthy, and unique,” and “you don’t have to join a religion or school of thought or a community of seekers to be a part of the American spiritual tapestry.”

Add to this a self-indulgent sense of American individualism and it conjures up congregations of one, the very antithesis of the communal nature of religion from time immemorial. If spirituality is the “feel good” component in religion, if it is the sense of, or connection to, the ground of all being then I’ll admit this can be accomplished on one’s own.

But religion is so much more than just this sense of connectedness. Religion is so much more than just spirituality. What religion seeks to do, and what spirituality cannot accomplish alone, is to reunite our divided lives. The role of religion in our lives is to give us integrity, which literally means the state or quality of being entire, complete, and unbroken.

Spirituality is the band-aid or cast that indicates a broken heart or fractured life. It has no healing powers of its own and yet promotes the environment necessary for good health to return. Religion is the mending of the break or fracture itself; religion reacts with spirituality to seal the wound and fill in the cracks. And good religion leaves no scars.

Dividedness is a personal pathology. When we hide our beliefs from those who disagree with us, when we remain in relationships we know to be harmful to us, when we make our living at jobs which violate our basic values, when we harbor secrets to achieve personal gain at the expense of others, when we conceal our true identities for fear of being criticized, shunned or attacked, then we end up playing a role in life instead of living life itself.

If we “rehearse” long enough and hard enough we may soon forget who we were before we started acting like someone else. Thus, our personal pathology, our dividedness, begins to affect others as well.

We have conflicted being good—what others expect of us—with being whole—what we need to be true to our self. Religion challenges us, dare I say requires of us, to be divided no more.

This is where the much of the spirituality of the post-modernism is too lightweight for the heavy-duty work of becoming whole again. This is where the individuality of the current age renders us powerless in our own lives. This is where New Age thought devolves into despair as it offers no new revelations for the journey toward wholeness. There is nothing new under the sun.

Nothing hurts more than living a divided life. I know this both from my own experience and from the experiences of others, too. While I am not so naïve as to think that wholeness can always be our way of being in the world, I am not likely to turn to post-modern theology for help.

Any form of spirituality, divorced from its religion of origin, is apparent in its lack of discipline and its shortage of moral fiber and hard-hitting truths. Instead it puts forth an ethos of ego-friendly fluff and fantasy.

Rather than go it alone, rather than trade in one fable for another, I prefer to call upon the bedrock of religion that is Unitarian Universalism. I need trustworthy relationships, tenacious communities of support.

This is the only way I can sustain the journey toward wholeness, toward an undivided life. The journey has its solitary passages, to be sure, but it is simply too arduous to take without the assistance of others. Because I have such a vast capacity for self-delusion, I will inevitably get lost en route without correctives from outside of myself. Perhaps the same is true for you as well.

This is why I mourn the loss of anyone who leaves the Church as much as I celebrate those who find it. My heart cries for those who leave and do not find another house of worship, another “family,” and a place to call home. I pray for those couples who come my way and declare their distain for organized religion and who are not religious, just spiritual.

If religion is the cure for the divided life, if there is a balm in Gilead that heals the sin-sick soul, then I want to choose to be religious. In doing so, I want to make other life-giving choices that endow my existence with meaning. My poetic religionist, Mary Oliver, shares her own choices for living the undivided life:

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married in amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
If I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of arrogance.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

I, for one, am a resident alien, at times whole but never home in a divided world that seems to have more visitors than members. May our religion anchor us and may the spirit which flows from it enliven us to be all we are intended to be. Then if this life is all there is, it will be enough.

To the glory of life!

Offertory/Offertory Response

This community is sustained by the financial gifts you give to it. It’s the only way we can do the work of this church in the world. Please continue to support your church family!

We build on foundations we did not lay.
We warm ourselves at fires we did not light.
We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant.
We drink from wells we did not dig.
We profit from persons we did not know.
We are ever bound in community.

Extinguishing the Chalice

Our chalice is extinguished. Please say these words:

We extinguish this flame
but not the light of truth,
the warmth of community,
or the fire of commitment.
These we will carry in our hearts,
until we are together again.


May the love that casts out fear
And the truth that sets us free
Lead us forward, together
Till the Dayspring breaks
And the shadows flee away. Amen.
Take good care of yourself and be a blessing to others!