Recently I overheard someone lamenting the fact that the Lord's prayer is no longer said in public schools in the United States.

I don't think compulsory prayer — and compulsion can take the form of social coercion, even if there is no official requirement — should ever have had a place in public schools to begin with. However, I do think it would be great if, as a society, we could be more open to spiritual experience and less dependent on the rule-following of a certain type of religious practice.

For example, what if there were a time during the school day when students were invited to hear a prayer from one of the world's faith traditions, and then talk about what it meant? Or were given the chance to experience the poetry of a religious mystic such as Julian of Norwich, Rumi, Gerard Manley Hopkins or Tagore. Perhaps works by poets not linked with a particular faith, such as Mary Oliver, would also be included, to demonstrate that spirituality transcends religious affiliation.

And perhaps there would also be a study hall option for those who, either on their own initiative or that of their parents, chose not to participate. We are lucky in Maine to have mostly relatively small schools, so this type of experiment is easier to try than in a school with thousands of students.

People have always thought about what makes for a good and worthy life. They have also always sensed that something exists beyond — or behind — what can be seen. That there is a Source, a Consciousness, from which all that exists, comes, and of which all living things are a part.

Awareness of this essential unity of the cosmos would be a powerful force to bring humanity together, which is not necessarily what the promoters of the rules and divisions inherent in most organized religion want. But using religion to build up the walls between people is, in fact, a misuse; true religion tears those walls down. Conflict and division serve the ego, and also the profit motive. Cooperation and unity are harder to harness for such purposes.

Schools can also teach principles such as "treat others as you would like to be treated" and "don't judge others, so you won't be judged yourself" without making specific reference to religion. These are just good guidelines for getting along with others.

Of course, it's also important to note that treating others as we would like to be treated does not guarantee that others will respond in kind. We may treat others well and still be treated badly ourselves — and the Bible doesn't let us off the hook. We are to treat others well (as we want to be treated), regardless of how they respond, because we are one, drops in the same ocean. It is also the only course that preserves our own humanity.

Even looking to the rules of religion — I speak here about Christianity because it is the only tradition I am really familiar with — we see that the rules are about what we are supposed to do, not about how others should act. It doesn't say, "Do unto others as they do unto you," or "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and if they don't respond in kind, punish them."

The burden of right behavior falls entirely on us, as people of faith. It is not for the world to conform to our standards and beliefs. It is for us to show, by the example of our lives, the faith that is in us and the strength we receive from Spirit through our efforts to live that faith. We are meant to treat even "bad" and "undeserving" people fairly and kindly.

And it is not for us, as people trying to live out our faith, to wish ill upon those who don't share our faith, or don't live as we think is right. Our prayer must be "may the best thing happen, O Holy One, may Your will be done."

Jesus talks about this a lot in the gospels. He's forever admonishing the Pharisees — the religious scholars and tradition-keepers of their time, who would have been expected to be on God's good side if anyone was — and others who presumed themselves to be righteous, to be less scrupulous about the rules and more compassionate towards other people. He deliberately offends the pieties of the pious to slap them awake; to say, in effect, "See here, this Samaritan who went out of his way to care for an injured fellow human being was a better person than the holy men who walked by the suffering man and did nothing."

If Jesus were to tell a parable for our time and culture, the good Samaritan might be a transgender person or a Muslim; the woman taken in adultery might instead be trying to obtain an abortion; rather than driving pigeon-sellers and money-changers out of the temple, he might take his whip of cords to sexually abusive clergy and those who cover for them.

We should make sure, in seeking the free exercise of our religion, that in doing so we are not seeking to diminish anyone else, or to limit their rights. I am free to believe that gay marriage is wrong, even though the Supreme Court has upheld the right to it. But if I hold a government job as a county clerk, I am obliged to administer the law fairly and equally, which means I may not deny a marriage license to a gay couple solely because they are gay. I am also obliged to issue marriage licenses to people who may have previously battered their partners or who have cheated on them, both of which many people would say goes against religious teaching.

Finally, if I cannot, in good conscience, issue marriage licenses to people I personally believe should not be allowed to marry, then I have the option — indeed, the moral obligation — to seek other employment. Some people might call that the cost of discipleship.

Following our faith is simple — love God, love your neighbor — but it is not easy. "Love" can mean many things, but it never means "hurt," "vilify" or "discriminate against." I suppose one guide might be, if you wouldn't do it to Jesus, don't do it to anyone else.

May the best thing happen; may the will of Spirit be done.