God always seemed to be absent whenever I attended church. I never felt connected to any source of Spirit while sitting, standing, singing, or kneeling in the pews. Sermons didn't move me. Communion lost its appeal, especially when priests or pastors worried more about the precision of the performance than the true meaning. I wasn't content with going through the motions. I knew when a minister was bored; it filtered down to the congregation. I saw it in their faces...heavy eyelids, tiny snores, stifled yawns. Some pastors were too pious for their own pants with their Pharisaic approach and their holier-than-thou attitude. My restlessness always got the better of me, and I'd leave to find a new church. I tried various denominations. Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ...but God never showed up in those churches either. I didn't care about denominational differences; they taught basically the same things. I began to see churches and their specific denominations as football teams playing in a great spiritual arena. It seemed they tried to out-do one another. Which one had the best services? The best sermons? The best programs? The best facilities? The highest enrollment? It was downright depressing to someone who wanted less pomp and circumstance and more substance. I couldn't take it. It was then I knew my path would be a solitary one. No church was able to help me connect with Spirit. I felt like an outcast. I wanted more, whatever more was. I left church services feeling more unfulfilled than when I entered. Spirit's absence every Sunday only added to my frustration in wanting answers to questions I couldn't articulate but felt in my being. When I entered seminary to study theology, I thought my quest for answers would finally be satisfied. Guess what? God played habitual hooky there, too. It turns out that seminary left me even more unsatisfied, but I finished my graduate studies, graduating at the top of my class, and then left the church for good. Don't get me wrong; attending church and studying theology served their purposes. They provided stepping stones to advance my spiritual growth but not in the ways I had expected. I am grateful for the experiences, but my hunger to connect with Spirit grew.
After seminary, I dropped the title of theologian. It does not capture my spiritual essence. I felt compelled to follow my own spiritual path, one which I didn't have to intellectualize God or Jesus or to use principles of systematic theology and hermeneutics to fit them into a 15-minute sermon. God is more than a 15-minute sermon. It was time to fly solo.
Learning to fly on my own spiritually was scary, but it gave me the "spiritunity" to transcend religion. I didn't know what to expect. I felt called to explore faiths other than Christianity. While Christianity was my "first," I wanted to know what else was out there to help me grow spiritually. But I had that nagging feeling in the back of my mind that if I "strayed" off the Christian path, God would get angry with me and damn me to hell. I felt damned if I did and damned if I didn't. I didn't want to feel as though I was "cheating" on God, yet I couldn't help feeling that God was encouraging me to explore. Odd. So, I did. And I loved it.
In my effort to connect with Spirit, I explored various religions and traditions. While the word "religion" has many meanings, it concerns itself with the sacred and supreme values of life. Spirituality, on the other hand, is a more hands-on approach; it refers direct experience of the sacred. Religion talks about God, but spirituality teaches us to be more godly. The difference for me, and probably for others seeking enlightenment and communion with Spirit, is that religion is for those who don't want to go to hell, while spirituality is for those who have been there. I don't recall when I first heard this phrase, but it fits within my framework. Religion smacks of institution, dogma, and fundamentalism -- not what I want or need. Since God liked to skip church whenever I was present, I took it to mean that God's "church" was elsewhere and that Spirit wanted me to find it. Game on! I sought a form of spirituality that fundamental Christian churches could not provide me. That's when I started attending the church inside of me. And guess what? God showed up. I found that true spirituality transcends all forms of religion. Spirituality is not institutionalized. It doesn't require debates. It is not monetarily based. It doesn't have committees. Communing with Spirit can take place anywhere at anytime, no matter what the "experts" say.
When on the spiritual path, we never really know where we are headed. My path has had many twists and turns, many obstacles and detours, but they were there for my learning. My experiences may have seemed devoid of Spirit at times, when in actuality, they were not. Spirit had been in the details the entire time: I simply didn't see this because I was taught to believe that if I "sinned," God wouldn't be there, and so, I allowed this "belief" to block my own spiritual growth because I saw God as something separate from myself, as some white-bearded man in heaven, who meted punishment and blessings based on my behavior. Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is within. It is not some ethereal place up in the clouds with a bunch of trumpeting angels. Spirit dwells in us, in all things because of it's unconditional love. Spirit will never stop loving us. It can't because all it knows is love. And because of this love, Spirit will guide us on paths meant specifically and only for us.
Attending church was a starting point for me, but I outgrew it. I needed more than a 15-minute sermon every week to know and to connect with Spirit. God is as diverse as the people S/He has created. There are many paths up the sacred mountain, and they all lead to the same summit. The next time Spirit seems to be playing hooky in your life, take it as a message that it has something else planned especially for you.