From the Pulpit
Spirituality: Not Simply a Personal Matter
By John-Charles Duffy
An address given on June 12, 2004 at the Wasatch Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City during Utah's Pride interfaith service.
After many days, there were a goodly number gathered together
to the place of Mormon to hear the words of Alma. And he said to them:
"If you are desirous to come into the fold of God and to be called
his people, and are willing to bear one another's burdens that they
may be light, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn, and
comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses
of God at all times, and in all things, and in all places that you
may be in, even until death--if this be the desire of your hearts,
what have you against entering into a covenant with God, that he may
pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?"
Those of you who used to read my religion column in the Pillar know that
I have what might be called a love-hate relationship with the sacred
texts of my faith tradition--which I imagine is true for many of us
here. There's a lot in these texts that I believe reflects human ignorance,
and fear, and will to power rather than the will of God. But I'm also
convinced that God speaks to me through these texts; and the passage
I just read is one of the places where the Spirit's voice comes through
for me most strongly.
--from Mosiah 18:8-10 (RLDS version)
We have here a story about a group of seekers--people who are looking
for a more profound encounter with the sacred. Because this text represents
a theistic tradition, that encounter is understood more specifically
as a committed relationship with a personal God. "Covenant" is the word
that the text uses for this committed relationship.
What strikes me about the text is that as Alma explains to his listeners what
this covenant entails, he does so in terms of their relationships to others.
That is, he equates the desire to commit to God with a willingness to commit to
other people. Are you willing to bear one another's burdens? Are you willing to
mourn with those who mourn? Are you willing to comfort those who stand in need
of comfort? And then that last clause, which I suggest should be understood as
a summing up of everything that has gone before: Are you willing to stand as
witnesses of God at all times, and in all things, and in all places even until
death? In other words, are you willing to make your whole life an expression of
God's love, God's compassion, God's zeal for justice, God's grief at human
As most of you no doubt are aware, the story of my faith tradition--the
story of Mormonism--begins with a farmboy going into the woods, alone,
to pray. In other words, the story of my faith tradition begins with
an individual seeking a personal encounter with God--and he finds it,
which is one of the points of the story: that all who seek will find.
But my tradition's story doesn't end there; it doesn't end with the
individual's connection to God. Rather, the story ends with the creation
of a church, a community, a people.
After reflecting on this passage from the Book of Mormon, I can see why the
story has to end that way. Because according to the vision laid out in this
passage, spirituality is not simply a personal matter. It's not only a question
of personal beliefs or personal spiritual practices. Certainly it involves
those things; but spirituality also encompasses relationships and community.
I hear in this text a caution, one that I think is especially relevant
to our time and place, when spirituality has become a thing that is
marketed, and packaged, and sold for individual consumption. The caution
is this: A spirituality that focuses only on the individual's experience
of the sacred is not complete. Whatever tradition you may be moving
in, if your spirituality is not lived out in your relationships with
other people, then your experience of the sacred will not be as profound
as it could be.
As GLBT people, we form a community where there are a lot of wounded,
needy people. As citizens, we belong to larger communities--a city,
a state, a nation, a world--where there are many, many people in need:
people who are sick, people who are hungry, people who are abused or
exploited or oppressed. We have no shortage of opportunities to reach
out to others: to share their burdens, to mourn with those who mourn,
to comfort those who stand in need of comfort.
I confess that reaching out in this way is not something that comes
easy to me. It's much easier to retreat into my own spiritual regimen
of prayer, and study, and meditation. But I know from experience the
truth of the principle that the sacred is experienced most fully in
reaching out to others. I know that especially from my experiences as
a Mormon missionary, a period in my life for which I'm very grateful
for precisely that reason. And I know from experience that reaching
out to others doesn't have to be very dramatic. It can be a simple as,
for example, going to the home of a woman whose husband has to work
in another part of the country, leaving here alone with their children
for weeks at a stretch. And you get to the house just as she's in the
middle of screaming at the kids, because she's at the end of her rope.
You knock on the door; she's embarrassed. You get inside; you get the
kids off in a corner playing with magnets; you sit Mom down; you ask
her how are things in a tone of voice that you hope is telling
her that you really want to know. And she takes a chance, and she opens
up, and she tells you how things are. And they're going badly, and there
isn't really anything you can do about it, except to listen, and to
hope that by listening you're helping her to feel that she doesn't carry
this burden alone. So you listen to her, you pray with her; and when
you leave, you know that God has been present. I know this from experience.
I am grateful for people in my life who have been willing to make that kind of
commitment to me. And I want to do better at making that kind of commitment to