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“I’m spiritual but not religious”. I often hear that comment from people who believe in God, but do not see the need to be involved in the institutional church (formal organizations with buildings, hierarchies, rituals, etc.). Often those who say they are “spiritual but not religious” are criticized by people who are faithfully involved in the institutional church. In general, the criticism is that you can’t or won’t experience God in your life if you are not part of the institutional church or some other religious organization. I do not agree with this criticism. On the other hand, people who are “spiritual but not religious” often respond by saying that they can and do experience God in other ways, especially communing with nature. Based on my experience, I believe that. I’ve been there.
My purpose in writing this post is not to criticize either of these approaches to experiencing God (institutional church or communing with nature). Personally, even as I have experienced God in my life as a pastor in the institutional church, at the same time I have often experienced God in nature. Recently I began reviewing my journal entries from past years. I find that as I progress in this endeavor, I am reminded me of the ways I have experienced God in the past. Especially when, while I was serving as a pastor, it was my hope that I would be able to bring about what I saw as a much needed change in my little part of the institutional church. But at the time nothing much was changing. Sometimes it seemed to me that all was hopeless. The church would never change. However, my old journal entries remind me that sooner or later, God assured that I would experience good news in the midst of bad news. Hope where there seemed to be no hope. And what what God promised was fulfilled. Maybe not just as I wanted or expected. But as God wanted and expected.
My inspiration to write this post, Experiencing God in Nature, came from an entry I made on April 29, 2000, during one of those times when things were not going all that well, but I also experienced God assuring me that my hopes would be fulfilled, and there would be good news in the midst of bad news. While I would soon again experience God in the institutional church, as I was writing the journal entry which follows, I was experiencing God in nature. At that moment I was “spiritual but not religious.” Following is my journal entry:
“It’s a vacation Saturday. I don’t have to do anything or be anywhere. For my devotional time I’ve been rereading Living in the Presence, a seminary book I last read in 1991-92. I’ve just read the part about “contemplative silence”. which I’m now practicing on the back porch. It’s about 65 degrees, fairly warm. The birds are chirping. The squirrels are scampering around the back yard. A slight warm breeze is wafting through the woods beyond the yard. As I am about to end my time of silence, I notice a feather floating by. It attracts my attention. It floats to the right, then up a little, back to the left, and gradually falls to the ground. As I see, hear, and feel all this – the warm breeze, the birds and squirrels, the woods – I realize I am experiencing the presence of God in nature, just as surely as I have experienced God in in my participation as both a church member and later as a pastor in the institutional church. But most of all, it was this little feather, as it traveled on its slow, silent, meandering journey from somewhere above to the ground, through which I not only experienced God, but was reminded of who God is and what God does.
God is the creator who makes all life possible, including the floating feather, which was acting in accordance with all kinds of scientific principles which I probably learned about in high school, but still don’t understand. What I didn’t hear about in high school, which I do understand today, is that before God created anything, God first created eternal laws and principles as to the operation of the universe. God applies these scientific principles or laws of nature to all created things. That means everything that has ever existed, that exists now, and will exist in the future – including the weather, birds and squirrels, the woods and yes, even a feather. And of course, human beings.”
As I continue to review my journal entries, and as I remember various episodes of my life, I am reminded that I have experienced God in various ways within the institutional church, and in various aspects of the secular world, including nature. So I will not criticize anyone who says “I’m spiritual and not religious”. I will only suggest that all of us, be very careful that we don’t forget that neither the institutional church or nature are themselves God, but means of experiencing God. If we remember that, and are open to a variety of ways of experiencing God, then I believe we will be able to hear and discern God’s will for us, say yes to God, and proceed to let God transform us in such a way that we are becoming the people God created us to be. If that is what we hope for, then we can count on it that in God’s time and God’s way, God will fulfill our God-given hopes and there will be good news in the midst of bad news. What matters is that you experience God’s presence in your life. How that happens is between you and God. My experience has been and continues to be that what works best for me is not to be “spiritual but not religious”, not to be “religious but not spiritual” but to be “spiritual and religious”. That means experiencing God through nature and through participation in the life of the institutional church according do what I understand to be God’s will for me at any given time.
Grace and peace, Ray Gough
Thanks for your attention. We look forward to hearing your comments about our web-site. We also invite you to send us stories of your experiences and observations of present hopes and hope fulfilled, so we can spread them around the world via this web-site. This is one way we can all join together to help keep hope alive.
May God be with you,
Patty Perez and Ray Gough