a sermon by Rev. J. Mark Worth
- From 1 Corinthians 13:11
When I was a child I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
- From Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) diplomat, humanitarian, and First Lady: A mature person is one who does not think only in absolutes, who is able to be objective even when deeply stirred emotionally, who has learned that there is both good and bad in all people and all things, and who walks humbly and deals charitably.
I recently attended my 50th high school reunion. Fifty years. Wow! As time flies by, it’s hard to get used to the fact that we are all growing older – no, that’s not quite right – it is hard, frankly, to get used to the fact that I’m as old as I am! We all know that we grow older, and yet I somehow imagined I’d be the exception to that rule. It has been said that inside every old person there is a young person asking, “What happened?”
As we age we tend to mature, but maturity doesn’t come automatically. One of the first signs of maturity is the willingness to take on responsibility. I remember when I was a high school freshman and was in the school band. I arrived for my lesson with the band director, Mr. Stender, but I hadn’t practiced. I gave Mr. Stender an excuse – “It’s so hard being a freshman,” I said. “Everything is so new, so hard.” Mr. Stender then gave me an important piece of information. He said, “Yes, there’s nothing harder than being a freshman. Until you become a sophomore. Then that’s the hardest thing. And then a junior, and then a senior. There’s always going to be something new to learn. It’s a big world, Mark. Do your job.” His words frightened me a little, but I knew he was right. I was going to have to grow up.
Some people gain maturity sooner than others. All our lives we are in a process of growing up. We can learn something from yesterday. Still, we often make the same mistakes over and over again before we actually learn to change our behavior.
There is parable often told in 12 Step groups: A man walks down the street and falls into a hole. He is upset that the hole is there, and blames the city for the mess he is in. The next day he walks down the same street again, and falls in the same hole. He says to himself, “Oh, that’s right. There’s a hole here.” The third day he walks down the street, sees the hole, and decides to walk around it. But he still falls in. Then, finally, one day, he walks down a different street.
It can take a long time to learn. I know. I’ve been there. I fell into the same hole many times, making excuses for my behavior, blaming circumstances, rationalizing, telling myself, “It’s okay as long as no one gets hurt,” and yet all the while people were getting hurt.
We can learn from our mistakes. In the book, Wrestling With Adulthood: Unitarian Universalist Men Talk About Growing Up, Ken Beldon, a UU minister, talks about his divorce. He writes, “I was ordained on Sunday, learned that I was chosen to be the minister of my first congregation on Thursday, and got engaged on Friday. I hit the rite of passage trifecta: a title, job, and love.” But he wound up divorced. He writes, “Although I couldn’t hold onto my identity as a husband, the title Reverend has stuck with me.” Of his divorce, however, he says he felt sorrow, bewilderment, and an acute sense of failure. He felt that he had failed to pass one of the essential tests of adulthood.
Many of us, at one time or another, have faced this sense of failure. If we’ve lived long enough, chances are good that we’ve failed at a relationship, or left a job under less than ideal terms, or in some other way we’ve been disappointed with our own behavior.
I thought like a child ~
This is a healthy congregation, and you can be pleased with the health of this congregation, but I’ve seen churches struggle. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote to the Christian community in Corinth that was still in the process of forming its own spiritual identity. He recognized that their new faith had changed their lives, but the implications of their religious journey remained unclear.
The congregation was in conflict. He asked them to have patience and to treat one another with the spirit of love. “Love is patient and kind,” he wrote. “It is not jealous, nor boastful, it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way.” And after extolling love’s virtues, Paul wrote: “Our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” (1 Corinthians 13:9-11).
Now, I don’t share Paul’s confidence that “the perfect” will arrive some day. But I do share his hope that we can grow and mature, that we can put an end to our childish ways no matter what our present age is, and that self-knowledge and self-identity can be reconciled.
At any time in our lives we may be faced with the need to let go, to say good-by to something that we thought was permanent in our lives: our youth, a job title, a career, a relationship, our hair, a self-image. We make mistakes, and we deal with the consequences.
A central teaching of Buddhism is that everything is impermanent. The only thing that we can count on is that things will change, and so we are well-advised to prepare for that fact. Buddhism teaches its Four Noble Truths and its Eightfold Path, including its methods of meditation, to help us prepare for the inevitability of change.
As we move forward, as we change and grow, we become aware of our own imperfections, not so that we can feel guilty about them, but so that we can change our behaviors and overcome our faults. We learn that we can’t always have things our own way. We become more compassionate and concerned about the feelings and needs of others. We make more room for the ideas and needs of others.
Spiritual/religious maturity ~
We can become less set in our ways religiously or spiritually, too. We are more willing to allow for difference of opinion. We become less literalistic.
I believe that most effective religious language is metaphorical, and we make a mistake when we take it literally. Real spiritual maturity, I believe, allows us to hear the parables, myths, and metaphors, of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, and find beauty and truth and meaning in them – even when we know the stories aren’t always factual.
Now, don’t worry: there’s no test on this. But here are three people, Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, studied the developmental stages of children; Lawrence Kohlberg studied moral development and based his work on Piaget; and James Fowler, a psychologist, said that there is a similar process in religious faith development.
Here is a simplified version of Fowler’s stages of faith development: In stage 1, from about ages three to seven, imagination is uninhibited by logic. This stage is the first step of self-awareness, and it is where we absorb the taboos of our culture.
In stage 2, we have what Fowler calls a Mythic-Literal faith, in which the child begins to integrate symbol and ritual. Symbols and myths, however, are understood in a one-dimensional, literal way. At this stage God is seen as an anthropomorphic super-person. Although mostly found in schoolchildren, we can maintain this position for life.
In stage 3 a young person’s “Synthetic-Conventional” faith emerges. Many people find their permanent home in this stage, with a faith that is inseparable from that person’s world-view. This stage is characterized by conformity, where we find our identity by aligning with a certain perspective, without thinking critically about it. We have an ideology at this stage, but might not be aware that we have one.
In stage 4, we struggle with difficult questions about identity and belief. This is a stage where we become skeptical about ideas that were previously unquestioned. Many of us go through this in our thirties or forties. We may be taking personal responsibility for our own feelings for the first time. It’s not a comfortable place to be. But, after entering this stage, we begin to see that the world is far more complicated than it previously seemed.
In stage 5, we can see a new, deeper value in the symbols of our own religious faith, and in the symbols of other faiths. The world is now seen as sacred, brimming with holiness. This stage makes room for paradox, mystery and the unconscious, and sees the power behind religious metaphors – even though, at the same time, we acknowledge that it is all relative. An inclusive faith, brimming with paradox, is possible.
Stage 6, Fowler calls, “Universalizing faith.” While in the previous stage we glimpsed a unitary view of reality, in stage 6 there is a devotion to universalizing compassion, and a vivid feel for the transcendent. This is the stage the Buddhists might call Enlightenment. We see things as they truly are, transcending the limitations and conceptions of our tradition and culture.
Of course, we could disagree with Fowler. A person might be in stage two or three and say, “This feels right, and I’m fine right here.” But my point is that we can grow and we can develop, that the religious angst and struggle that many of us have felt is a normal process of faith development, and that our emotional growth, moral growth, and faith development, can be on-going processes that continue throughout our lifetimes.
My Back Pages ~
All our lives we are in a process of change and growth. You know that Bob Dylan recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He’s an extraordinary poet. In 1964 he wrote a song called “My Back Pages.” In 1967 that song was the last Top 40 hit for the folk-rock band The Byrds. It’s said that Dylan meant this song to be a protest against his earlier protest songs! He had been so sure of himself as a younger man, and wrote a lot of political songs. He had seen the world in black and white, good and evil, them and us. As he began to mature more, he began to be less sure, less cocky, about the pictures his earlier songs had painted. So he wrote, “Good and bad I defined these terms / quite clear, no doubt, somehow. Ah, but I was so much older then, / I’m younger than that now.” It was a watershed moment in his career. After writing “My Back Pages” in 1964, Dylan never wrote another protest song.
In this seemingly endless political year, we might wish that some candidates would grow up. Eleanor Roosevelt said that a mature person is someone who doesn’t think in absolutes, but is able to be objective even when stirred by emotion; someone “who has learned that there is both good and bad in all people … and who walks humbly and deals charitably.” There hasn’t been enough of that kind of maturity in this political year.
But you know, we can’t change the candidates. We can only change ourselves. Will it really help to argue with your relative who has always been wrong about politics anyway? No, they’re not going to have a sudden epiphany because of something I said or you said. All we can do is be a little less dogmatic about our own opinions, and a little more forgiving of others. The only people we can change is ourselves.
That’s what Bob Dylan did. He’s grown and changed. He grew up Jewish in Hibbing Minnesota. As Bobby Zimmerman he had his Bar Mitzvah in 1954. In 1970 Dylan had high praise for radical Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the far-right Jewish Defense League. Then, in the late 1970s he had a conversion to evangelical Christianity, and for a while he sang only evangelical Christian songs.
Then, in the mid-1980s, he began to distance himself from the born-again movement. In 1997 he told Newsweek: “Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing… I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else. Songs like ‘Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain’ or ‘I Saw the Light’ – that’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.”
Ideas he was sure about at one stage in life, he grew beyond in another. And so it may be with us. We gain a new appreciation for the world’s complexities. We become less self-centered, maybe less argumentative, more respectful of the beliefs of others. With any luck, we grow more compassionate and thoughtful and kind. And who knows, maybe win a Nobel Prize.
“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.” “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” Amen.