Together with Martin Copenhaver, Daniel wrote the book, "This Odd and Wondrous Calling: the Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers," which I found one of the most compelling books written about the "impossible vocation" of ordained ministry. It is as brutally honest as it is positively joyful about the challenges of daily pastoral leadership. I think it should be required reading for all aspirants, postulants and candidates for ordination as well as members of the laity.
I suppose I have a warm spot in my heart for Lillian Daniel. Well, a couple of them, actually. While she presently serves as senior minister of the First Congregational Church, UCC, Glen Ellyn, Illinois, she was raised Anglican and Episcopalian.
In her book, Daniel tells the story of growing up in Asia in the 1960s and 70s while her father covered the war as a journalist in southeast Asia. She and her family attended a dozen or so Anglican churches in those years, and she talks about the comfort she knew in the consistency of worship in all those different countries, "as familiar as the lukewarm tea and sandwiches with the crusts cut off" that were served after church.
She returned to this country for high school, and went off to college determined to prepare herself for a massively lucrative career in international finance. Until she took a course in the history of religions.
She graduated as a religious studies major, formed in a social justice milieu, and found herself with a vague sense that the next step was going to divinity school. She applied and was accepted at Yale.
The not-so-friendly priest in her church told her that summer that she'd missed a step about consulting with the Church about this decision. So she called up Yale and put off her enrollment.
The parish discernment committee was pretty blunt with her. You have no discernible gifts for the ministry, they told her. You give no evidence of interest in sacramental ministry, they said. And, they told her, you're immature and you have authority issues.
She was with it enough to ask if they had any other ideas, and the head of the committee was surprisingly direct: go get some experience of the world, work for a nonprofit, get an MBA so you can serve the church as a lay leader committed to social justice.
She listened, and went to work for a nonprofit serving homeless and at-risk teenagers. Her co-workers, when they finally heard her story, told her maybe she was in the wrong church, and that they did see a vocation to ordained ministry.
Well, Lillian did go off to Yale and was ordained as a UCC pastor. She tells a remarkably gracious story about her journey:
"Gradually I came to know this: the Episcopalians were not wrong. Their ordination process actually worked. I wasn't called to ordination in that tradition, and they saw that when I could not. I was immature. I do have issues with authority and obedience. I choke in hierarchies and thrive in independence. I love to preach long sermons and I hate homilies. I would have made a lousy Episcopal priest. But I was richly blessed by the Episcopal Church."See what I mean?
Daniel closes her essay about her discernment process with a reminder about lost sheep and absent shepherds.
She says that the Episcopal priest from her high school parish "calls me periodically to check in on me, to see what I am up to. I count it as precious whenever he seeks me out. It is as if I am the one sheep he does not let get away".
So, how does one square the person who wrote this essay with the one who wrote "Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me".
Some have described her tone as "condescending," "arrogant," "smug," and "snarky". I suppose one could read it that way, but as a clergy colleague who has had more than my fill of arrogant, smug, condescending, snarky people check out my clerical collar and tell me that they are "spiritual but not religious", I have to admit that I was really glad for Daniel's little rant.
I heard her 'venting' just a bit, which I totally understand. I mean, she wasn't talking about folks like Buddhists who are deeply spiritual but not 'religious' in the same way that, say, Christians or Jews are - or, can be.
And, she's not saying that all religious people have cornered the market on spirituality. Indeed, we all know folks - some of whom are ordained - who wear their religion like a badge of honor but have no discernible sense of spirituality except the "oughts" and "shoulds" prescribed by their religion.
Here's the thing: In my experience, people who have a deep sense of spirituality don't feel the need to tell other people that they are "spiritual but not religious". They just are.
In my experience - and, I'm just talking about my experience here - people who like to say that they are "spiritual but not religious" are often folks who are very angry at organized religion. Typically, they are angry because they have experienced some deep pain or disappointment or sense of betrayal by a priest or pastor or bishop - or, perhaps, an entire congregation or denomination.
In my experience, people who seek me out while I'm wearing a collar - or otherwise discover in conversation that I'm a priest - and tell me that they are "spiritual but not religious" want me to know that because, on some level, they want me to experience the same rejection, hurt or betrayal that they have known.
See? I don't need to go to church. And, I certainly don't need a priest or a pastor. I can experience God in a sunset. Or, at the ocean. Or, rock-climbing. Or hiking. All by myself.
Besides, well, church is so...so.... boring.
It's at this point that I have to work very, very hard not to lose my cool and start a rant of my own.
First of all, while I've suffered through more than a few poorly planned liturgies and perfectly horrible sermons in my time - as a member of the laity as well as since I've been ordained - I have to tell you in all honesty that I bust my butt to provide liturgies that are meaningful, with beautiful music and sermons that are relevant and challenging. I don't always succeed, but that's my goal. And, I'm here to tell you that there are LOTS of us out there - lay and ordained - who strive to meet the same high standard of excellence.
So, please don't judge ALL clergy and ALL laity and ALL churches based on the bad experiences you've had.
I also work really hard on this blog which has become a form of spirituality for me that grows out of my religious experience. I try to write about where I see God in politics and science and nature and baseball and church and rock stars and addictions and family and cooking and making a home for myself and my family.
Oh, and the Anglican Covenant which is prima facia evidence of something that is "religious but not spiritual". As Anne Lamott writes, it's enough to "make Jesus drink gin straight out of the cat dish."
I do this primarily for myself - it helps me keep a foothold on my sanity - but I'm also discovering an audience that is hungry for some honest conversation about spirituality and religion.
I've been at this blog thingy since June of 2006 and I'm less than 100,000 visits away from my millionth visitor. I think that speaks less about the writings of one Episcopal priest and more about the hunger of God's people to connect in some meaningful way with their own spirit through some part of the church.
What I really want to know is this: When did church become a form of entertainment?
Boring? Really? That's your best shot?
When did the process of spiritual growth and maturity become the equivalent of an endless succession of Sundays at the beach or picnics in the park or attendance at a theater?
I agree: Church should be an inspiring experience. Sometimes that means you walk away with a sense of peace and calm and serenity. Other times, that means you are challenged - and perhaps even disturbed - by a new way of thinking about God's work in the world and the part you play in God's work.
Even so, sometimes the message isn't for you. Not at this time. Not in this place. Maybe not even at this time in your life. So, you walk away wishing that the preacher had said something - anything - that relates to you and where you are in your life. The thing of it is that someone else may be walking away at that very same time from that very same service feeling inspired or challenged or disturbed or serene and peaceful.
Or, maybe you're just in the wrong church.
Or, perhaps, like Lillian Daniel, you're in the wrong denomination.
Here's where Evangelicals and I agree: Christianity is costly. If you are going to be in relationship with Jesus, you're going to have to change parts of your life.
I don't know what those parts are - that's between you and Jesus. I only know that Jesus is all about incarnation, death, resurrection and reconciliation. That means that parts of you are going to have to die so that other parts can be born - or, yes, born again.
And, if you are part of the Body of Christ, it means it's going to happen in community. That means that you are going to find yourself in relationships with some of the biggest losers on the planet - people who were once lost but now have been found so they can lose themselves again and again only to find themselves loved by God and hopefully, eventually, serving the people of God.
These "biggest losers" can be very annoying. And, very challenging to be in relationship with in some kind of meaningful way. Especially if you don't understand the paradox that you are also a Big Loser who has so much to gain in your losses.
Yes, it may also mean that, from time to time, you will find yourself taking a hike up a lush forest trail leading to a hilltop from which you see a magnificent sunset and feel closer to God than you ever have in church.
That doesn't mean that what you experienced in your church community was necessarily lacking in some way. It simply means that God loves us so much that we are sometimes called off to a quiet place for some time alone to experience God in a different way. And, sometimes, that's right where many of us find we need to be - and not in the midst of the sometimes annoying or painful experience of working out our spirituality in community.
I'm quite certain that God also laments, and Jesus weeps and the Holy Spirit wails at what goes on - or does not - in some organized religions. But, that doesn't mean that the entire enterprise is spiritually bankrupt.
And, for those of you for whom religion is spiritually bankrupt, then by all means, please do find God in the ways that bring you closer to a meaningful, deeper spirituality.
Here's the deal: I won't try to convince you of belonging to an organized religion if you'll stop telling me that you are "spiritual but not religious".
Even so, I'll still sit and listen to you, as I always have. I'll continue to ask gently probing questions about your experience in church and what caused you to stop attending and ask you to tell me a story about when church was really good for you and then I'll ask you to tell me a story about when the church or someone in the church disappointed or hurt or betrayed you.
And, your story will come tumbling out - it almost always does - and we'll end our time together with you telling me that if you lived closer to me you'd attend a church where I was the pastor but we both know that you wouldn't because there is this wonderful safety in pouring out your story to a person you'll probably never see again, which may say more about the actual state of your spirituality than you would ever care to admit.
The point is this: we all need people like that in our lives from time to time. It needn't be someone in a collar. It just needs to be another human being who will listen to your story and, perhaps, share a bit of their faith story with you.
Just please know that, every once in a while, some of us in the business of lost sheep and shepherds have to vent. Let off a bit of steam. Just every now and again.
I'm thinking, however, that, rather than do that in a blog or essay, it may be better to take a long walk along the ocean and let the roar of the waves swallow the frustration and anger that sometimes builds up.
That's not being either religious or spiritual, necessarily.
It's just being human.