Reflections by Jerry Webber

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Growing into an Adult Faith

When we were children, we did life the way children do life, in ways that were appropriate to childhood. But as we grew older, the way we did life had to mature as well. Childish ways are appropriate to childhood, but not to adulthood. (1 Cor. 13:11)

There are lots of ways to image the work of God in our lives and in the world. I find a number of images helpful as I consider who God is and what God is about in the world.

I often return to the image of growing up as a helpful way of thinking about the spiritual life. That is, spirituality is about the invitation God extends to each of us to grow up and to have a grown-up relationship with God.

It's not as easy as it sounds. You would think that by virtue of chronological age, we would each grow up appropriately. In relationship with God, though, many of us continue to live long years with the faith-framework of our childhood. We've never questioned the faith of our fathers/mothers or early pastors/teachers. They said it, I believe it, and that settles it!!

[I preached a sermon about 14 years ago in which I said that we each need to have a faith that was our own. I was responding to an old hymn that people loved, which said something about how the faith of the previous generations is "good enough for me." Some folks got very upset. I was told by one person in particular that if a certain belief system was "good enough for my grandpa, it's good enough for me!"]

On the other hand, some of us have discovered by life-experience that the faith-framework of our childhood was inadequate for the real life we were living, so we jettisoned faith altogether . . . we left the Church or decided God was a bunch of hooey or in some other way thumbed our nose at God. Rather than wrestle with other faith-structures or God-images, we walked away and gave up.

In fact, wrestling to come into a faith-framework that is my own, informed by Scripture and my own unique experience of God in the world, is one of the most difficult tasks imaginable. The process is a massive undertaking, really too large for any of us to manage or supervise on our own.

[For that reason, God works inwardly, quietly, and in ways that are beyond our understanding. Read Mark 4:26 - 29 about how God does this work in underground, almost subversive ways . . . bringing us, over time if we're open to it, to be the people we were created by God to be.]

I'm around people sometimes who are highly invested in defending God. Really, they're not defending God . . . they are defending their ideas about God, but they have so merged their own ideas with the nature of God that they cannot tell the difference. They are defending some idea of God that they've held to be sacred. But it's not really God. Their ideas have become God for them, and most of the time, you'd best not encroach on the sacred space of their ideas.

Mostly we don't look at these things easily or enter this territory willingly. We feel much too threatened when someone suggests we hold loosely our ideas about God. Thus, often it takes some kind of life-crisis to reconsider who God is and how we relate to the God who is, not the God of my childhood or the God of my wishful imagination.

And a couple of movements in the process of growing up in our faith can really scare us.

One movement is the process of dismantling or uprooting the old faith-framework, perhaps the one we've clung to from childhood. This is not to judge what our grandparents believed or what we learned from our parents or what we heard Pastor Jack preach when we were teens . . . but too many of us live in faith-houses built by grandparents, parents, pastors, teachers, friends, etc. The only faith we have is the faith they gave us.

It's as if we live in their house. And that house isn't bad, but it's their house, not our own!

So becoming a spiritual adult means that at some point, we take apart the house brick by brick, we look at it and we ask, "Is this my brick? Or is it mom's brick . . . dad's brick . . . Pastor Jack's brick that I've been living with?"

That means dismantling and uprooting ideas about God and life and spirituality and prayer and connection with God that are not your own, but belong to someone else. That they belong to someone else does not make them bad . . . it simply means they are not yours.

A couple of things tend to happen when folks engage in this work of dismantling (or when God does it secretly in our interior, as John of the Cross, Merton, and many of our spiritual writers suggest). First, we feel like we are rejecting father and mother and grandma and Pastor Jack, and who among us wants that load? But really, we're not rejecting them. We're simply saying that in terms of faith, my connection with God has to be my own. I cannot depend on their relationship with God to convey to me relationship with God. Those beloved persons from our past can inspire us and encourage us, but they cannot do the heavy-lifting of faith in God for us.

Second, as we take out the bricks of the spiritual home we have lived in, and as we consider letting them go, it can feel like we're also losing God. Of course we're not losing God. We're only losing our previous ideas about God. But this sense of dismantling the house can be very unsettling, because it feels like we may not ever have anything to replace what we are letting go. We're letting go of dependencies and attachments and ideas about God that were too small for God, anyway, but it can all feel very threatening.

The second movement is the process of rebuilding the house, rebuilding a house that is our dwelling place with God. As the childhood house of faith comes down, God mysteriously and interiorly builds our new house, our house of adult faith.

I can't give you much guidance here, because this work truly is initiated and carried out by God. I can't give you an agenda for it, or map out a strategy for it, or suggest a life-plan for carrying it out. I know that makes some folks angry . . . those of us who want to have some say-so about what this house looks like . . . the ones among us who want to be the project managers of life. Sorry . . . God does this work.

In the process of rebuilding a house that is our dwelling place with God, the most helpful postures are openness and receptivity. Be open to whatever God might suggest to you, to whatever your "adult house" might look like . . . as soon as you say, "I don't want this or don't want it to look like that," you are back in control of the process. Receive whatever God does. Cultivate a willingness to let God be expansive, not limited or bounded by your previous ideas about God. Consider things you had not allowed yourself to think before. Notice the inward tug of the Spirit within you.

I know this is difficult work, and it can be scary. It really is work! But it's the work of a lifetime, the movement toward becoming fully your truest self . . . toward growing into the purpose for which God created you and placed you in the world.

It's the work of becoming fully human, fully alive.

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