Monday, September 22, 2008

What is religion?

I come to the observance or practice of religion as a chaplain/minister and as a student(mureed). I have found that as a chaplain/minister, religion can often take the form of a collection of formal practices and teachings. These practices and teachings are additionally referred to as doctrine and disciplines. In the role of minister/ chaplain I may create opportunities for others to learn or embody these teachings and practices in the context of worship, study and work.
As a student(mureed) a definition of religion might reflect the teachings and practices presented through those opportunities mentioned above- worship, study, and work. As I consider the impact of work, study and worship on ones Divine Ideal I have found religion alone (a collection of teachings and practices) only allows a limited experience of the Holy.
As a student and chaplain the practice of a religion has the opportunity to cultivate a deeper communion with the Divine. This deeper communion I have experienced- has been identified as Spirituality.
In observing ones religion- spirituality can be experienced as a natural fruit of ones worship, study, and work. In my experience religion and spirituality are two sides of the same coin. It is also my experience that while these two have the capacity to work together too often they do not. As I am beginning to see- Religion gives grounding to spirituality and Spirituality gives life/vitality to religion.
My Spiritual Journey
As I take time to reflect on my Spiritual journey it has become clear to me that my journey did not begin in earnest until my mid to late thirties. Before then I had spent three years in the army- just out of high school. I followed that portion of my life with college, marriage and a hand full of years in camping and youth ministry. During these years and over the course of my life, my "journey" was not really a journey at all. If it was a journey it was a well-worn path with little risks and only very ocassionally- glimpses of something more- glimpses of the Holy. This portion of my journey reflected more the religion of my family of origin and the United Methodist doctrine and discipline than anything I felt ownership of. The glimpses I mentioned earlier include: a visit to a Buddhist Temple while I was in the military over seas in South Korea, discussions with a Jewish friend late into the evening, Hearing the Muslim call to prayer recited by Muslim students at the beginning of Ramadan, Visiting an Indian burial mound as a child, Being introduced to the symbology and ritual that is observed in a Jewish Seder meal. At the age of 29, having gained vocational experience and proficiency in youth and family ministry, I enrolled in Divinity school to "gain" greater academic and denominational knowledge and training to pursue a ministerial vocation. At the same time I was assigned to three rural churches (serving as their minister) that would support my growing family as I studied.The demands, tensions, and exertions of school and ministry and a growing family served to first awaken in me a desire to journey deeper in my spiritual and religious life. As a Student pastor serving rural congregations I was diconnected from peer groups and geographically isolated. Even though I was a student and new pastor I did not have the opportunity to benefit from the experience of a mentor or group. These resouces were not available to ministers in that situation. This reality is a factor which fed my spiritual journey. Over the next eleven years I found it increasingly difficult to lead the congregations to which I was assigned. As minister to these congregations I was ordained to four specific tasks that I was expected to follow in my duties- they included Word (meaning scripture texts and denominational and christian teaching), Sacrament (Initiatory rituals of baptism and communion), Order ( meaning as clergy I would visit the sick, teach, administrate, and maintain fellowship with peers), and Service( meaning as leader of a congregation I would recruit, train, and equip members to do the work of the congregation). As I sought to keep this vow or covenant of ordination I met with resistance among a handful of the leadership of some congregations. In the midst of this my Journey intensified. Three years into my last congregational appointment I was growing steadily more depressed and discouraged as opposition to my leadership grew. Toward the end of that year I finally broke with the God Ideal of my parents and church and set about the task of discovering a God ideal that spoke to my deepest joys, suffering, and hope. As my Spiritual Journey took on this new dimension I continued to serve this congregation and lead them in worship and ministry.During this time I read a range of theology, authors ,and dug deeper into experiences of the Holy outside of my tradition. Throughout my life my keenest experiences of the Divine have been in contemplative practices and meditation experiences. My investigation led me to read more writings from Christian mystics and writings in Islam. I discovered G. I. Gurdjieff and PD Ospensky and the Fourth Way School. I explored writings in Native American philosphy. My Spiritual Journey was unfolding rapidly and it only increased my desire to learn more. In the late fall of 2005 I had begun to reach out to a handful of groups that led classes in some of the teachings mentioned above. As it turned out non of the groups were close enough for me to become an active participant. I began to feel again the geographical and situational isolation that was a hallmark of my early ministry. My Spiritual journey led me to contact the Sufi Order International and I located a class meeting within 2 hours of my home. The last two years in my congregational appointment saw me making regular trips to class meetings while continuing to serve as senior minister to two congregations. In the summer of 2006 I was initiated as a mureed in the Sufi Order International. Following my initiation I made a covenant with Salim Chishti to be my guide. In the fall of 2007 I was initiated into the Healing Order and ordained as a Healing Conductor. In the Summer of 2007 I left congregational ministry and have been serving as a Chaplain Resident at the VA in Murfreesboro TN. My challenge along this portion of my spiritual journey is to maintain my practices and their healing benefits (in my being) in order to provide healing for others as their chaplain.