Practical Everyday Advice for Non-Spiritual People

Many say, “Well, I’m spiritual, just not religious.” What about the questions of those who identify as ‘non-spiritual’? At this service Rev. Sue Browning will consider the perspectives of the ‘non-spiritual’ among us. What helps them in day-to-day living? What can the spiritual and non-spiritual learn from one another?


Reading, “If” by Rudyard Kipling


The reading “If” by Kipling offers life guidance. There is a pointing to an ideal man who, when faced with adversity, has principles to rely upon. Think ideal ‘person’ if you will and the virtues of that life.

Humans yearn for guidance, whether from a wise grandmother or trusted friend, or even from religion. What do we do when bad things happen? How does one react? What are our options in times of conflict? Where do we turn when tired and need to renew energy? How do we address loneliness? How does one find hope in these moments?

These are what I’ll call big questions. Not the ‘should we have chicken or fish tonight?’ questions.

Where do we go for advice when the challenges feel deep?

Some turn to religion. I’m most familiar with Christianity, so I’ll start there.

Jesus of Nazareth was a leader who emerged in challenge to oppressive Roman rule. He was a Jew and embraced his tradition, though challenged the high priests and what he saw as incongruence with the values of the faith. There were many wandering prophets at the time. He had started small and his followers spread Jesus’ core message of loving neighbor, and care for the poor and struggling, around the Mediterranean perimeter.

In its many forms Christianity has over 2 billion followers.

What does a long-established tradition such as Christianity offer its members as practical, everyday advice?

Christianity offers story – a shared story. The Bible, in particular the gospels, are at the crux of the story. The story is a focus of an ideal man. Jesus Christ. The story offers a way for members to hear their challenges and in curiosity connect with those who have come before. Among my favorite Bible stories is the Prodigal Son and the perspectives of all family members when a wayward, irresponsible child (sibling) returns. The parable of the good Samaritan holds reminders of difference. The story takes us through Good Friday resurrection. Some ask ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ and find guidance embedded in story on principles of compassion, and generosity, and fallibility.

Kipling’s poem can serve a similar function, as do adages and quotes we turn to. Favorite poets, novels, or leaders can serve this function of story. When I did my required work as a chaplain we were charged to listen pastorally to a member’s stroy, and then to lift up a story that may offer us, or the patient, wisdom in a larger context.

Christianity offers rituals of connection. Humans yearn for rhythm. Often our first question is about something logical. The second and third deeper questions may help us search for guidance…guidance which lets us trust our heart – which lets our hearts lead. Rites of joining – entry into the community as children are born. Rituals of joining in marriage. Rituals of apology and starting over. Rituals of gratitude – of blessing food. The earliest of humans, and even to some extent primates, express sadness and lament together – funeral rites and acknowledgment of death.

Family reunions may serve a need for connection, or expressions of shared grief at a community vigil in times of violence or loss. Rituals of patriotism and community celebration are often and answer to our asking for advice. Do we make time for ritual?

Christianity encourages deep discernment. Traditional religion values discernment that is slow, and intentional. One of my UU minister colleagues found her best place for retreat was with a group of nuns in Minnesota. Christians through sacred spaces, and candles, and rote make time to listen deeply. And there is a wide variety of ritual in Christianity. Buddhist practices reach for enlightenment. Yoga helps with an embodied centering. Alone,  or in corporate worship, or small groups, spiritual practices ask us to take time.

For some, similar connection comes in nature where busyness is stripped away. What is the setting where one can both feel insignificant in relation to a greater whole, and feel significant and worthy of self-love and care. Decision making needs to touch on deepest values.

Finally, Christianity offers paths to action. Christianity asks members to live out values in community. In seminary we studied the Catholic calls to action on climate change, on care for the poor, or peace. Other denominations take guidance more directly from the Bible and discernment, and begin homeless shelters, and programs for children and immigrants, and gear up to address racism.

Many communities, religious and other, offer us this motivation toward action and working together. School PTAs doing a backpack drive, or memberships in the NAACP where liberation and justice are moved forward. Rarely can one do the work of change without naming shared values, and working together.

Story, ritual, contemplation and action offer guidance for life.

…Connection to a larger narrative not as prescriptive advice, but as a source of creative ideas;

…ritual to stay in rhythm with others – to make visible shared humanity, and to intersperse the routine with the special times;

…making time for deeper reflection – to hear oneself – to name fears and questions; and

…motivation and structure to make the world a better place.

Yet, I was challenged to offer a sermon which provides everyday advice for non-spiritual people this morning.

Here’s the thing. I can figure out what a person who is not Christian might need to hear, or what a not religious person might need to hear, or what a person who doesn’t connect with time of quiet deep reflection, or even with curiosity on poetry or story might need to hear. I can imagine the advice for those not religious in these ways.

But, I do wonder if anyone is ‘non-spiritual’?  I think of ‘spiritual’ is a broader sense. We express emotions differently. We are fed differently. Yet, we each have a soul – a sense of something that is us beyond our physical body and systems. The essence of who we each are, our identity. We each want to be acknowledged, and to be seen for who we are. Even for those with thick skins (or who claim thick skins), there are experiences of wounding and pain. As we move through this world uncertain of what is next – we know we’ll age, and that we are vulnerable, and we will each die.

These realities seem universal. From the infant wanting to call for care – yearning for trust, at our core we are all spiritual.

And in some combination advice comes in the flavors described above –

See ourselves in a bigger story;  Make time for rituals of acknowledgment – find rhythms that work; Listen deeply, somehow;  Act on values.

And for many here, if there are parts of Christianity which don’t fit – a sense of God, even a metaphorical sense of God, doesn’t help some to connect with soul, or a specific story, or specific rituals – communion, or the rosary aren’t the way you connect.

What is my advice for you?  Where might you turn?

Earlier this month we did the review of the six UU sources of wisdom and inspiration. Experience, Prophetic men and women, World Religions, Judeo-Christian Traditions, Humanist Thought and Earth-Centered religions.

Maybe you selected Humanism as one of the three that spoke most to you. Kendyl Gibbons (Human Voices in Unitarian Universalism, p 14) describes Humanism as “an authentic spiritual path that invites us to …consider thoughtfully what might constitute a good life, a life worth living even in the certainty of death, and then to try such an approach leaving room for the fruits of both reason and experience to correct our course.”  She notes, “Humanism looks beyond the idea that a self-conscious personal god doesn’t exist. Rather, Humanism is founded on the much more radical claim that the existence or nonexistence of such a god, or goddess, or gods doesn’t matter much. As the name implies, Humanism is concerned with the world of human existence as it is known through human experience.” (p.11)

Where might a Humanist reach for everyday advice? Not every Humanist is the same. Just like not every Christian is the same. Some find power in attending worship – some don’t. Some are doers – off at St. Vincent de Paul, or at Habitat for Humanity.  Some have regular practices of silence or journaling. Some don’t. 

No formula, but consider what helps you connect with your souls. In this work, Christians are called to put God in the center; for some, a God who is one and the same with Love. Matthew 22:36-40 asks, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Center on God isn’t what works for all UUs, but what might? What centers you as you yearn for belonging, or in times of discernment, or face the challenges of community, and the uncertainties of the world?

And we come full circle. Not every Humanist is the same, my advice would be to weave the basics practices together around confidence in the shared human journey, and ask,

Where does story fit for you? What stories anchor you, and help you move forward? Where are you curious? Family story, community story. Is it theater, or books, or conversation?  If a Humanist lens works for you, and a sense of god is not where you reach, the need to reach horizontally – to others – is greater. Do you have basic stories of inspirational leaders, and family that you can tell over and over? Is there a narrative for the communities that matter most to you? From UU history, to shared ‘tellings’ of turnings in history – guidance in the form of story matters. Adages, quotes, sayings. Share these with others. Compare stories. Pass them on to children.

Where do you have ritual in your life? What do you make time for that is ritual in some shared way? Do you attend memorials? Retirements? Sunday services with Joys and Sorrows? Where do you allow a repeating of pattern? In these moments we are awake and paying attention. Rituals are sustaining – notice where they are.

Where (and how) do you make time for deep discernment? For listening to your heart? For readying for change? Do you empty to make space of new sources of energy? Is there a creative pursuit in your life that nurtures this time? Woodworking? Early morning rowing? I offer this as a special guidance to many here – it’s in contrast to the doing, the achieving, the endless internal call to ‘be productive.’ A call to reach deep as we make choices.

Finally, Humanists tend toward living out values through action. ‘To do’ lists of good causes, and energy poured into spreading love is likely happening. Here my advice for Humanists is to take the time to process the experiences through all of the above practices. If you are a reader – a study-ier – take time – how does your new sense of the human experience fit with your ‘doing’ – your social action? How do the rhythms of shared ritual impact your volunteering? Do you begin action in reflection? Do you bring your sense of growth into worship? Do you help your communities celebrate milestones? What if you lit a chalice in public community?  Do you take time to reflect on actions – to consider the ‘why’ of actions? The needs for systems to change? Do you breathe and center in your work?

For Unitarian Universalists we look wide when it comes to everyday advice. We might at times think it’s simpler for others with a more specific tradition. We’re not wrong – many sources comes with challenges. Yet, having God at the center, or a belief system on afterlife, is not an end game. It’s a framework. For all, the work of practicing a faith is just that: It is a practice.

I have some UU Pocket guides and a library of resources, yet no magic advice. We need to curate stories and practices that fit individually and help us connect us others and then to turn in that direction for support and advice. Wisdom we locate, wisdom we share, wisdom we follow. Again, and again.

May It Be So

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