Grateful Dead – Spiritual But Not Religious

chip_preaching_GDSBNR_150802Grateful Dead: Spiritual But Not Religious
Service celebrated at the First Unitarian Church of South Bend,
on 02 August 2015

see set list only here

{welcome & announcements by Fern}


{singing: Touch of Grey (Hunter/Garcia), played by The Ember Jar Duo}
Please be seated.


Thank you, Kevin and Abby! And thank you, Fern. I reiterate Fern’s welcome.
It is good to see you all here, this morning. This service will be a little different than our usual service; I don’t usually wear a robe, and there will be a lot more music. Please feel free to dance, if the spirit moves you. As long as you aren’t blocking another person’s line-of-sight, dance away.
If you do not want to dance, that is okay, too.

If you don’t feel like dancing because you are grieving, then—-whatever your loss—-we wish you peace, and we welcome you in. Whatever natural human emotion you are feeling, we are glad that you are here.

Please do silence your phones and devices–and do tweet or text anything you find worthy of sending to our human cousins in the glorious and suffering world outside these walls. You might use hashtag 1UUSB if you do.
Thank you.

As Jerry used to sing,
“I ain’t often right but I’ve never been wrong
It seldom turns out the way it does in the song
Once in a while you get shown the light
in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”

For the next seventy minutes, and for the rest of our lives, may we be open to being shown the light.
So may we be.


We light our chalice this morning as a beacon of hope;
a sign of our continuing quest for truth, goodness and beauty.
May our reason and our passion be likewise kindled,
that our very lives become beacons to all people.
{light chalice}


{story} “The Grateful Dead”


I know some of us, here this morning, are already fans of the Grateful Dead and their music. Others may *not* like the band, believing that they are drug-abusing hippie freaks. I will talk more about that in a few minutes, and I encourage us all to really listen to the words, as Abby and Kevin sing them.
I do find a fair amount of wisdom in their lyrics.
Once again: the Ember Jar.
{music: The Wheel (Hunter/Garcia)}


“The wheel is turning
and you can’t slow down
You can’t let go
and you can’t hold on
You can’t go back
and you can’t stand still
If the thunder don’t get you
then the lightning will”

Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia wrote about the paradoxical nature of life’s challenges, and the fact that none of us will get out alive. And yet, in a world which sometimes seems stacked against us, they still implore:
“Won’t you try just a little bit harder?
Couldn’t you try just a little bit more?”

Ultimately, I find The Wheel to be a song of hope, an affirmation that we *can* “cover just a little more ground”

One way that we try a little bit harder is to share the deepest, most painful,
and most joyful moments from our lives, in this shared sacred space. I will place the first stone, symbolically grounding our tragedies and triumphs in our Unitarian Universalist tradition…
{place rock in sand}

If you have a significant event to share, I invite you to come forward and place a rock into the bowl of common experience. Please tell us your name, and, if you are willing, the reason for your stone…
{move back to chancel}
{joys & sorrows}


I invite us into a short meditation. As you wish, please get comfortable in your seat (scooch around as necessary)…
if you prefer, you could soften, or close, your eyes…
and let your awareness drift down into your body…
notice where there are aches, or pains, or tenseness,
and breathe into those places,
consciously relaxing them…

and let us take five deep breaths together…

becoming aware of that motionless moment
between exhale and inhale…
let us open to that still point
at the center of all time and space,
where we are *not* all the same,
but we are all connected,
and we all experience
the same pulsing
of the evolving Spirit of Life…
and from this central point,
we call to mind
our fellow travelers,
who have or do or will share our journey…

let us open our thoughts
to the great cloud of witnesses
present in memory and imagination:
we welcome in our awareness
all those who have ever sung to us;
and those to whom we have sung;
we think of those who founded this congregation,
including Mr. and Mrs. Addington,
and Wayne F. Armstrong;

we open our hearts
to all those who have used this building for healing,
back when it was a medical facility
and in the year that we have been here;

we witness the musicians and authors
made present by their music this morning,
including John Perry Barlow,
Robert Hunter,
and Rabbis Joseph and Natan Segal;


and then we call into this space
Apollo, Euterpe, the Gandharvas,
Han-Xiangzi, Ihy, Kulitta, Lingadua,
and all of the deities we’ve ever given the responsibility for music;

we call to him who made the music of the spheres;

and we name the human virtues
of compassion, skepticism, courage and harmony;


from this place of deep connection,
we find ourselves
simultaneously humbled and emboldened
and thus do we speak:

we are grateful to be alive, this morning,
and as well as we are;
we are glad to be here, among these good people;

we lift up those joys & sorrows just mentioned,
and those which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts;

we desire comfort for all those affected
by the killing of Cecil the Lion;

we desire comfort and support
for all those affected
by the murder of Samuel DuBose;

we desire significant, real change
in the way our law enforcement officers
are educated, trained, supported and held accountable;

we desire a quick and just end
to the wars in Yemen, Ukraine, Syria,
Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other regions;

we lift up the human desire
for connection with something larger than ourselves;

we are grateful for an appropriate wariness
of the power of institutions to do good or ill;

we are grateful for support offered to us,
we pledge to support others
as we journey through this life together;

We desire enough food, and shelter,
and peace of mind
for all beings this day;
we pledge ourselves in pursuit of this goal.
Praise for living.
So may we be.


{music: Ripple (Hunter/Garcia) }


The five original members of the Grateful Dead were all born between 1940 and 1947, in the greater San Francisco Bay area. Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and Bobby Weir were eventually joined by New York City native, Mickey Hart. Some combination of these men, and/or a few others, would eventually play over 2300 concerts throughout fifty years.

The Grateful Dead came to be known for their improvisational musicianship, virtually never playing the same show twice; and for their willingness to allow their fans to record their shows and share them without paying royalties.

Some people know that the band has done a lot of charity work, including jumpstarting the “Save the Rainforest” movement and giving away over nine million dollars through their Rex Foundation, named for their Road Manager, Rex Jackson, who passed away in 1976.

The band is also known for the large amount of drugs that they, and many of their fans, used. Some of you may recall that I preached about drug legalization back in April (you can listen to that sermon, and many others, on our website,

In that sermon, I said that the so-called War on Drugs was a horrendous failure, which has done much more harm than good. I preached that there are legitimate medical uses for marijuana, and for some other currently-illegal drugs; and I expressed my belief that our states should follow the federal government’s lead in legalizing medical use of marijuana.

Also in that sermon, I admitted that I have used marijuana for recreational purposes—-and that I know that we will ultimately find more happiness if we do *not* medicate away our feelings, but rather feel our emotions and integrate them without using alcohol or drugs or sex or shopping or any other distractions.

That sermon did not mention LSD, or any other psychedelic drugs. When the Grateful Dead served as the house band for Ken Kesey’s “Acid Tests,” LSD was still legal. Even the CIA was testing it, on just about anybody to whom they could administer it.

Possession of LSD was made illegal in 1968; and Nixon made it a “Schedule I” drug—-meaning it had no known medical value—-in 1970. However, even then, there *was* a fair amount of research showing that psychedelic compounds could be remarkably effective at treating addictions.

Recently, researchers are finally taking up those studies again. They are finding promising results for treating alcoholism, depression and anxiety—-especially anxiety around end-of-life issues.

Psychiatrist and neuroscientist Roland Griffiths, PhD, is an addiction researcher at Johns Hopkins. He was recently quoted in the New Yorker magazine (“The Trip Treatment,” by Michael Pollan, The New Yorker, 2/9/15; pp.36-47), speaking about his research with psilocybin: “I don’t want to use the word ‘mind-blowing,’ but, as a scientific phenomenon, if you can create conditions in which 70% of people will say they have had one of the five most meaningful experiences of their lives? To a scientist, that’s just incredible.”

Neuroscientist Robin Carhart-Harris has little patience for romanticizing or “magical thinking” but he does see evidence that a psychedelic experience *may* be effective in treating addiction or Obsessive Compulsive Disorders. He likens such treatment to “shaking the snow globe” of the mind.

Perhaps those powerful drug experiences are why fans were so passionate about the Grateful Dead. Or it could have been the creativity, risk-taking and forgiveness exemplified in the band’s improvisational music; or it might have been the compelling stories and the life lessons that many found in their lyrics.

I have preached on the wisdom and religious humanism of the Grateful Dead at least a dozen times—-including an entire summer sermon series in Grand Rapids, a decade ago.

And this is how journalist Geoff Hanson, wrote about his experience at the recent “farewell” concerts in Chicago (Hanson uses several phrases taken from Grateful Dead songs in his column): “As the band encored with ‘Touch of Grey’ on the final night, a picture of Jerry [Garcia] flashed on the [screen] and I lost it. I cried because I missed Jerry; I cried because of how much this music has meant to me; I cried because of how free I was when I traveled the country…looking for the secret and searching for the sound; I cried for the more than a little touch of grey in my own hair; I cried because I sang “Sugaree” as a lullaby to all three of my children who are no longer so little and I cried because one day I will listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul. And when the music did in fact finally stop, I dried my eyes, held my wife’s hand and walked out of Soldier Field, ever grateful.”


We’re going to take a short break. Please consider greeting the people around you—-especially those to whom you haven’t spoken yet, this morning…

We’ll be back in just a little bit.
{intermission – about a minute or two}


{music: Throwing Stones (Barlow/Weir)}


The Ember Jar just sang “it’s all too clear we’re on our own.” This is a sentiment shared by many people who identify as “spiritual but not religious.”

How many of you identify as “spiritual but not religious”?
How many are spiritual *and* religious?
How many find the word “spiritual” too imprecise and un-scientific to use in any self-description?

I had the good fortune of meeting Professor Linda Mercadante, who has interviewed hundreds of people, from a wide variety of social locations, all of whom identify as SBNR – spiritual but not religious.

In her book, “Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious,” she writes about the long decline of religious affiliation, and about the rise of the SBNR culture. She also debunks many myths about SBNR folks: they are *not* unserious about commitment; they are not all hippies, or new-agers, or bored rich white housewives.

SBNR folks are no more narcissistic than the rest of us; no more nihilistic or anarchistic; most have *not* been unduly harmed by religion; and they are not uncritical of “exotic” non-Western beliefs or practices.

What they are is hungry for a genuine experience of the sacred, or mystery or wonder, or however you name it. They are skeptical of the Church hierarchy, and government, and just about all forms of institutions and organizations.

They seek meaningful, authentic relationships; they care about community and civic life; they value inclusivity; and they often work very hard at finding their own true self.

Does that resonate with anybody here?

I think it would have resonated with most of the musicians and lyricists of the Grateful Dead, too.

We just heard Kevin and Abby sing scornfully about “the politicians throwing stones” while our world sinks further and further into peril. And in “Ripple,” earlier, we heard both “there is a fountain that was not made by the hands of men” and “you who choose to lead must follow.” They do experience the Mystery of life, and they care deeply about it—-they are just unwilling to put a label on that experience. And they are unwilling to trust people who do label it and try to convince others about it.

In a few minutes, we will hear the song “Uncle John’s Band,” which includes the lyrics “you know all the rules by now, and the fire from the ice.” We can trust our own experience. We have to trust our own experience.

It also has the line, “come on along or go alone.” The Grateful Dead, as well as we UUs, and most SBNR folks, will sometimes extend an invitation, but in general, we will not force anybody to join us.

As with many other things in life, our greatest strength can also be our greatest weakness. While we recognize that we are responsible for our own spirituality, for our own relationship with the Mystery, our legitimate mistrust of groups and organizations sometimes makes it more difficult to make much progress.

Professor Mercadante writes that often, spiritual but not religious people are “morally lonely.” They lack a community of people to support them in their journey. It is hard to come up with shared standards by which to measure the events they experience or hear about, without such a community. This recalls other lyrics from “Ripple”: “But if…you fall…you fall alone.”


Fortunately, the Grateful Dead took another step. Early in their history, they sang, “What in the world ever became of sweet Jane? She lost her sparkle, you know she isn’t the same. Living on reds, vitamin C and cocaine…all a friend can say is ‘ain’t it a shame’” It was Jane’s life; if she wanted to abuse it, if she made poor choices, it was her right. It was a darned shame, but it was her right.

Similarly, when Jerry Garcia was using heroin, his friends would not ask him to stop. It was only when his performance in the band began to suffer that they felt they could speak up, and tell him to knock it off.

Then, in 1988, the band held a press conference to warn the world about the destruction of the rainforest. I’m paraphrasing now, but they essentially said, “look, we’re as surprised to be up here as you are. We do not trust people who tell other people what to do. But this is a big enough crisis that somebody has to do something. We learned about it, so we had to tell the rest of the world, too.”

I think the same thing is happening now, with many spiritual but not religious people. With global climate change getting worse by the hour; with black men and women being shot down every other day with almost no repercussions; with women’s health under attack; and so many other things going on; we humans are facing big enough crises that we do have to band together—-in new, nontraditional, more-accountable ways—-to save our world.

I think Occupy was a step in this direction. I think the Black Lives Matter movement is a step in this direction. Small groups, coming together using radical forms of democratic decision-making and new forms of technology may be our next evolutionary step.

I like to believe that our Unitarian Universalist Association will be part of that evolution. I would love it if we figured out ways for small groups to meet and act and support and challenge each other as we address the world’s issues.

And I also get that it is an institution, and existing organizations may not be flexible enough to lead us into the new world that we need.



Depak Chopra wrote that “Religion is belief in someone else’s experience. Spirituality is having your own experience.” Long ago, I heard this quotation, which has been attributed to Vine Deloria and several others: “Religion is for those who are afraid of going to hell; Spirituality is for those who have been there.”

My colleague, the Rev. Ms. Lisa Bovee-Kemper, wrote that “spirituality is what we do to fulfill the innate human impulse to make meaning of our experiences … Religion is a structure within which some/many of us engage this journey. It is most often a communal structure, but not always.”


I am skeptical that religion is going to be the communal structure to help us rescue ourselves and our planet. We have to come up with *something* to do it. The SBNR life is not only morally lonely, it can be morally anemic. We need to create new, accountable structures that have the power to effect real change.

I could say a LOT more about the Grateful Dead; we could all say a great deal more about being Spiritual But Not Religious. I hope we will continue this conversation, and share our ideas far and wide, so we can be part of the solution.

I was tempted to end with, “if I knew the way, I would take you home,” but that’s the point: we all know the way. We don’t want a leader to take over. We do need to work together, on this long strange journey we are sharing.
So may we be.


Our congregation walks its talk in a variety of ways. We do good work in the world, as individuals and as a group. We collect items of food, each Sunday morning, to donate to the Northeast Neighborhood Food Pantry.

We sustain our church with our time, our emotional energy, our pledges, and with an additional dollar or two each week, as a symbol of our ongoing commitment.

If this is your first time here, you are our guest, and you may pass the baskets with a clear conscience.

The collection will now be received
{collection; offertory “Uncle John’s Band” played by The Ember Jar Duo }

For your generosity—-to each other, this community, and the world—thank you.


“Ain’t no time to hate; barely time to wait” So let us not wait, but let us sing. Please rise, in body and/or in spirit, for our closing hymn, #402, From You I Receive We’ll sing it four times; watch as we change the volume some
Please be seated.


Our closing words are—of course—Grateful Dead lyrics:
“Faring thee well now.
Let your life proceed by its own design.
Nothing to tell now.
Let the words be yours, I’m done with mine.”

So may we be.


As we extinguish our chalice, let us first use it to kindle the chalice of our own hearts, and take that warmth out to share with the world
So may we be.


Phil Lesh survived a health scare in 1998 when he had a liver transplant from somebody named Cody. Now, at the end of every concert, Phil encourages people to be organ donors. If you agree with it, please repeat after me: “If something ever happens to me, I want to be an organ donor.”

Please rise, as you are able, and join in our closing circle, and the reading of our covenant, as written on the wall.

One last round of applause for The Ember Jar Duo

Love is the Spirit of this Church
And Service is its Law.
To dwell together in peace
to seek the truth in love
and to help one another;
this is our covenant.



{music as chosen by Natasha}

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