Choosing a Religion is Like Buying a Bicycle

Presenter: 
Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 09/30/2012

About a year and a half ago, I got it into my head that I wanted to own a bicycle.  For the first time in, I think, thirty years.

I can’t remember now how I got this idea.  I know that for years I had been thinking that I should get a bike, because my kids had outgrown the little bikes they would ride up and down the sidewalk in front of our house, and were clamoring for bikes that one might ride along trails and in the neighborhood beyond our house.  But they weren’t quite old enough to do that on their own, so their having bikes was dependent on our having at least one if not two adult bikes in the house as well.  And along with this “we should have bikes” idea came the notion that biking as a family would be kind of nice, and we could all use more exercise, and so on.

But somewhere along the line, a year ago, this notion that I really should have a bike turned into something new.  The should turned into a want:  I wanted to have a bike.  And I wanted to have a bike for one reason only:  I felt like going bike riding.  I wanted to ride.  Somehow, I realized or remembered, that riding a bike is fun.

And since lately I’ve been trying to add things I want to do to the list of things I think I should do, and I’ve been trying fill my life with not only things that are satisfyingly obligatory but also things that are fun, it seemed to me that if I wanted a bike because riding a bike would be fun, then I should get one.

And this is where I ran into trouble.

You see, I had only two criteria for this bike I wanted to buy – aside, of course, from it being something I could ride around, which seems obvious.  The first criterion was that it have a very large, comfortable seat, for reasons that should remain unnamed.  And the other criterion was that it not require too much bending over, because that didn’t seem that comfortable to me.  In my head, I pictured just a plain bike, not dissimilar from the last bike I had when I was ten, with the yellow banana seat and the handlebars right … here.  Or, the sort of bike that Dorothy rode in The Wizard of Oz, with a basket in front for whatever I had ridden to the store to buy. 

Just. A. Plain. Bike. 

Well, let me tell you, buying an adult Just a Plain Bike is extremely difficult to do.

Okay, I was already feeling moderately embarrassed to approach incredibly knowledgeable, incredibly fit salespeople with my desire to get a plain bike meant for middle-aged, out-of-shape people with rear ends of a certain size.  I tried to do research beforehand so at least I’d know what category to start with before I braved talking to anybody.  It seemed from that reading that if I wanted to avoid that bending-over-the-handlebars position, then the sort of bike I might want is a Mountain Bike.  But mountain bikes are ostensibly used to bike down mountains, which seems very unwise to me in general, and certainly not at all what I was planning to do with the bike, specifically. 

So I did try to casually wander by the incredibly overstocked bike section of my local Store For Incredibly Fit Adults, and ended up getting into an absurd conversation with one of them, where she asks me, “Well, do you want to go fast on the bike?”, to which I respond, honestly quizzical, “Don’t bikes already go fast?”  As I’m asking, I think both of us are realizing how very bike-pathetic I am and am planning to be.  So while she is kindly saying, “Well, some people want to go, like, 50 miles an hour…” and I’m saying, “Oh my God, no, I won’t be doing that…”, she is already leading me over to the area of the store for people like me, the area that might as well have the word “Lame!” emblazoned across the top, the area where they sell what they call the Comfort Bikes.  Where, embarrassing or not, I clearly belong, but there I run into my next problem, which is, how much money am I willing to shell out for an experiment in fun?  Not $800, I decide, and go home bikeless once again.

At this point, as I think you can imagine, I am starting to get pretty frustrated.  All I want to do is go on a pretty bike ride down my street.  Do I have to get a PhD in bikeology in order to make that happen?  How can I know where I want my handle bars or what shape seat I want or whether or not I want those clips that hold your shoes onto your pedals or how fast I want to go or what sorts of gear changes I might want to make if I CAN’T GET ON A BIKE TO SEE WHAT I WANT AND WHAT I DON’T???  All I want is to pedal down to the trail by the creek, and feel the wind in my hair, and go fast (for me), and breathe deeply, and feel free.  But instead, I’m entering some sort of new universe where everyone knows more than me, and everyone seems to think I know way more than I do, and all of that is standing between me and my bike ride.  I want to feel free, but so far, all I feel is inadequate.  And my actually getting on a bike seems to be getting farther and farther away.  Arg!

And it occurred to me, then, that this is exactly the situation that people face when they are looking for a religion.

They often start out with a vague sense that they want to be closer to the Sacred, that maybe they “should” be closer or they want to be closer.  But, once they start investigating the more obvious of the options for growing closer to the Sacred, they get hit up with all sorts of impeding considerations and questions that actually push them farther away.

Think about it.  Let’s say you’re a person who has no religious experience, or has decided that whatever you have experienced so far is not right for you.  Let’s say you mention to someone in your life that you’d like to find a new church (or synagogue or mosque or whatever it is.)  Let’s say that person is a great listener and really sits down with you to figure out the next steps. 

What is likely to be the first question out of this helpful person’s mouth?

I think it’s most likely to be, “Well, what do you believe?”  And shortly after that, “How do you like to worship?”  And, possibly, “What sorts of spiritual practices do you find helpful,” as well as “what religious teachings would you like to ascribe to?”  And so on, and so on, with more and more questions that the new seeker couldn’t possibly be expected to know answers to before the search has even begun.

It’s just like buying a bicycle.

The purpose of getting a bike, I would say, is to go bike riding.  Learning all about bikes is not the purpose.  And, in the same vein, I would say the reason one would choose a religion is so that person can practice that religion, which brings them closer to God, to the holy, however that is defined by that person and that religion.  Religion’s purpose is not to get you to do lots of research about religion in general, as if you were about to take some sort of multiple choice test. 

The abundant holiness that exists all around us all the time is not a test, and it’s not to be picked up and cleaned out and placed into a box with some sort of label on it.  The abundant holiness that exists all around us is to be reveled in.

Reveled in.  Experienced.  Enjoyed.  Ridden, even, kind of like a bicycle, until we can feel the wind in our hair and we too are free and we too are happy, because we can feel our connection to the world around us.

Religion as a whole ruins that simple desire to be connected and to be happy when it divides up the way it does into too many choices and too many of the wrong sorts of questions.  Religion’s overeager practitioners welcome newcomers with too much pressure.  Even here in Unitarian Universalism, where we pride ourselves on being open and accepting, we can seem to the outside world like a store full of People Who Already Get It, instead of seeming like what we are, like any religion is: Just another group of seekers who happen to be standing together at a particular place in that long and complicated path towards Truth, towards Understanding.

For someone who feels that first inkling of religious or spiritual longing, the one that makes you seek out a religious home to start with, the first question doesn’t have to be “what do you believe?”  That question ought to come later, after you get some good experience under your belt.  Rather, the first thing you should do upon feeling that first inkling of religious longing is to follow it to where you feel it the most, and then to stop there and simply feel it.  Does this make sense? 

You have an urge to experience the holy or to know what God is or figure out the Truth about the world or just feel more connected, deeper somehow.  This urge makes you feel like religion might be the place to go.  What I’m saying is, follow that urge, to any religious experience that makes you feel more holy or more connected.  In fact, follow that urge to any place, any experience at all that makes you feel that way – working for justice or walking in the woods or reading Walt Whitman or whatever, whatever on earth it might be that gets you close to holiness for even a little bit of time.  And once you’re there, just experience it.  Experience it for a while, then see what religious urge you have next, and then you should follow that.

Because the goal isn’t to learn about bikes.  The goal is to ride.  And the goal isn’t to learn about religions.  The goal is to experience the Sacred, in whatever form you can find it.

I did eventually get a bike, for my birthday last November, from my husband who is much better at figuring out what to buy for me than I am.  It’s a sky blue bike with a big comfy seat and handlebars that do look a little like a mountain bike’s.  He put a bag on the back for whatever I might want to bring home from the store.  And I ride this bike A LOT, because it turns out that I love riding.  Riding is fun in a way that I haven’t experienced since I was ten.  Riding calls to me, after I’ve spent a day writing sermons or preparing for a meeting or talking to people, and riding says, “Hey, it would be great to feel the wind in your hair and to go fast(ish), wouldn’t it?” and I very often say yes, it would be great, let’s go.

And, after all this riding, I can see why there are more choices for bikes than I ever thought I needed before.  I can see why you’d want a lot of gears, which I used to think was unnecessarily complicated.  I can see why you’d want a bell, and a lock, and a mirror.  I can see why you might want big fat tires that don’t rattle you when you go over bumps (although it’s still unclear to me why you’d bike down a mountain,) and I can see why you might want skinny tires that help you to go pretty darn fast. 

Experience has even taught me that there’s no real need to fear a sore bottom, that everyone’s rear end hurts when they start biking no matter how soft the seat.  It’s something you get over.  So I can see a future for me with a smaller, harder seat, and pedals that hold your feet in place, and seamless bike shorts, and a shirt that holds your water bottle, in a way that I never could see before when I just wanted the Just Plain Bike.  My experiences riding have taught me about riding, and what sort of riding is good for me, and where I might want to ride next, and how far.

You can practice your faith, too, in this same way – and by practice your faith, I mean, follow that inkling of where the Sacred is until you are closer to it, and then see where the Sacred takes you next.  Don’t jump ahead to guess at the future you might want in a religious experience.  Don’t spend so much time researching that you forget to get out there and ride.  Think “wind in your hair” thoughts about religion, not “multiple choice test” thoughts.  That will take you far.  And as you do this, you’ll learn more and more about the littler things that you might want in a religion.  You’ll learn the answers to all those questions, for you.  You’ll find your place.

If you are at a stage where talking about “what you believe” might indeed be really helpful, especially in a venue where you can hear about other’s beliefs as well, then I invite you particularly to attend our First Monday class tomorrow night, here in the yurt at 7:30 pm.  At this class, we’ll be talking individually and as a group about the things we believe for sure, the things we don’t know about yet, and the questions we have for now.  It’s not any sort of test, but an opportunity to explore, and think, and learn.  And maybe also experience the holy ourselves, by being in a group of people who are seeking the same thing that you are.  If it seems like something that you need or could use, then please do come tomorrow.

For all of us, it is my hope that the path forward seems clearer in the days to come, that the ride becomes more joyful, and that not only will the Sacred abound in all the things that we do but that we are able to see it and experience it and revel in it. 

So may it be for all of us.  Amen.