Pastors Debate Whereabouts Of The Spirit

Allan Appel PhotoThe former pastor argued that spirituality without religion (SBNR) is not enough. The current pastor said religion without spirituality (RBNS) isn’t enough either.

But they agreed on the food.

The great SBNR v. RBNS debate notwithstanding, consensus that hospitality is a form of ministry emerged in a polite debate between the Rev. Dr. Shelly Stackhouse (pictured at the top), the current pastor of the Church of the Redeemer at Cold Spring and Whitney, and her predecessor, Pastor Lillian Daniel.

The debate drew 40 people Wednesday to a tasty meal of lasagnas, black bean dips, and salads preceding the talks and to dessert and coffee afterwards.

The event, actually more of a polite spiritual discussion amid a season of noisier political campaign debates, was one of several culminating in the Nov. 3 special service marking the 175th anniversary of the progressive Congregational-United Church of Christ. The local church historically has been at the center of community efforts to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and champion abolition.

The occasion for the debate was the recent publication of former pastor Lillian Daniel’s new book, When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough.

“Feeding the hungry, community organizing, other people can do that better,” said Daniel, who served as pastor between 1996 and 2004.

She viewed it as a mistake that in open-minded churches “we drop God and mystical things” and instead offer a great youth group for teenage girls, she quipped.

In a nutshell her position was that “worship and faith are the only thing the church can offer that others can’t.”

Stackhouse came at it from a different direction but essentially agreed. She read a paper written by one of her students at Yale Divinity School describing a spiritual quest that was not at home in her local church.

“People think they can’t go through a ‘dark night of the soul’ in the church” but have to do so outside in other venues, she said.

In a wide-ranging discussion, the pastors contended with one questioner who wondered if the turn-off is an antiquated 3,500-year-old text, namely the Bible.

“I read Adam and Eve in the same way I do Huckleberry Finn. There’s a lot there that’s dated and off color, but also powerful. A book can be true without being factual. It’s about people coming to grips with God and each other,” if correctly taught Stackhouse responded.

Daniel, who now pastors a church in Illinois larger than the 225-member Church of the Redeemer, said doubt too should be embraced. “I can believe in the Virgin Birth one day. Then [on another day] it’s allegory, and then [on yet another] it’s a plot against women. I don’t want to be left to my own devices,” she added; she needs a church setting.

Yet another questioner asked what the church can do better to help people not teach about God but to experience God.

“We don’t have God locked up in the church. The church is not a service provider,” said Daniel.

One big value the church provides is an hour a week “when we worship someone other than ourselves. Any idiot can find God in the sunset,” she said.

Stackhouse disagreed at least on that point. “Many don’t see it in sunset or flowers,” and that’s what a church is for if it understands its value and its task, she said. She cited Orthodox churches decorated with icons. Protestants often make fun of that type of thing as idol worship, but the icons are viewed as windows to the divine.

Stackhouse said the question is: “What are the ways in our tradition that we find windows?”

“Listening to people in a non-judgmental way is the holy spirit” in action, said Tom Caruso. A former newspaper reporter, he joined the church in 1996. With the help of conversations with Daniel, he launched himself into the seminary and a career in the ministry.

There was no definitive answer as the discussion broke up and people went back to grab a cookie, coffee, and a peanut butter cup.

This much was clear: “The way we feed people is a spiritual practice,” said Stackhouse.


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posted by: Babz Rawls Ivy on October 24, 2013  12:16pm

As a spiritual Director, I am always wrestling with these questions as I travel along with someone’s spiritual journey.

Reverend Shelly & Lillian are two very dynamic ministers who brought to the discussion a wonderful mix of humor, intellect and spiritual reflection.

We are supposed to wrestle with scripture… asking the deeper questions.  I came away from last night’s discussion more convinced of that.  God wants us to grapple with where scripture leads us. In my practice, I support folks in noticing where God’s movement is in their life.  Where is God for you? What is scripture/sacred text and passages saying to you?

Church of the Redeemer is a very cool church… we love tackling big thinking topics!