Tuesday, October 28, 2014

God Thanks Us...

The picture below and the caption written by the dad (who is my nephew) captures beautifully what I believe God thinks of us, His dear ones, when we accompany Him in His mission on earth. He does the heavy lifting while we walk next to Him. It may seem that we don't do much to help, but God so loves to have us with Him as He works that it counts in His big heart and He credits us with helping Him and even thanks us for it! What a loving generous Father!

"I couldn't have carried this suitcase without my little helper...so thankful for him"

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian - Faith Stage 7 (Universalizing Faith)

We are now at the 7th and final stage in our faith development, which James Fowler (Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian) calls Universalizing Faith. This will be my final post in a series on this book. The previous posts can be found here: #1 , #2 , #3 , #4 .

Universalizing faith is the stage of full maturity in a person's development. I began this series with the prayer of St. Augustine that I have prayed for many years: "Lord, the house of my soul is small; do Thou enter in and enlarge it."  I see this final stage of faith as a fulfillment of that prayer, because it is the stage when the heart is entering into the largeness of the heart of God, able to encompass all people in its love.

In the previous stage (Conjunctive faith) the person lives in the tension of opposing factors. "The polarities in its loves and loyalties can seem to cancel each other." They see the need of living in full solidarity with all people and yet their integrity keeps them in commitments to institutions and persons that are in their present life. This can lead to a feeling of "cosmic loneliness and homelessness." For some this discomfort is what moves them on to the ultimate issues of life that have to do with themselves and with everyday existence with their neighbor and it leads them to this final stage.

The movement to Universalizing faith involves a "radical decentration from self." In other words, the person's perspective on life expands to the point that his 'circle of those who count' begins to include all of humanity, not only his own family and friends or those who share similar political or religious views.

In earlier stages of faith "we become attached to causes, persons, institutions, possessions...precisely because they seem to promise to ground us in worth. Likewise, we tend to attach ourselves to certain appearances and promises of power. These sources of power, which promise to preserve our interests and values, help us deal with our fears and our insecurities as finite persons in a dangerous world of power..." Gradually with each stage of development we allow ourselves to include others who are not like us. In Universalizing faith, this process of 'decentration from self' (i.e., a healthy detachment from all sources of security that have kept us closed off from 'the other') reaches completion, because in this stage "a person decenters in the valuing process to such an extent that he/she participates in the valuing of the Creator and values other beings from a standpoint more nearly identified with the love of Creator for creatures than from the standpoint of a vulnerable, defensive, anxious creature."

Fowler concludes this topic by quoting I John 4:18 ("Perfect love casts out fear"), and says that the ability in a person to relinquish all the "perishable sources of power" is the "fruit of that person's total and pervasive response in love and trust to the radical love of God." And so in the end, it is the encounter and continuing receiving of the radical love of God that casts out the fear of fully including others unlike ourselves in our love. Jesus, of course, is the greatest example of all-inclusive love and acceptance both in the way He lived and in His nonviolent death on behalf of violent humans. He lived in the love of His Father and was therefore free from fear and could radically love all humans.

The movement to Universalizing faith is to become nonviolent, just as God in Christ is nonviolent and embraces all people.

The author adds later in the chapter that to move towards this final stage of development requires more than natural human growth; it requires help from God. Few people attain this stage of development. He suggests that rather than make this stage a goal in life, we focus (at whatever stage we find ourselves in) on opening ourselves as radically as possible to synergy with the Spirit of God in love for 'the other'.

"Lord, the house of my soul is small; do Thou enter in and enlarge it."  Amen...

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian - Faith Stages 5 and 6

This is the 4th in a series of posts about the 7 faith stages that James Fowler presents in his book, Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian. The 3 previous posts are introduction: the house of my soul is small, stages 1 & 2, and stages 3 & 4.

Note that in the preceding post, Fowler warns that many people get stuck in the 4th stage; as we move now to the latter stages of development, it is easy to understand why many get stuck in the Synthetic-Conventional stage, because the following stage is uncomfortable and moves the person into a time of significant disorientation and confusion related to his or her faith. Most people don't want to go there and so it is not unusual that people remain in stage 4.

Now onto stage 5...

Stage 5 - Individuative-Reflective Faith: young adulthood is a time when this stage typically begins to appear. The Synthetic-Conventional faith (stage 4) is tacit in nature; in other words, the person's faith has not been critically examined or reflected upon but rather has been inherited from trusted people without having thought it through for oneself and without having carefully listened to other points of view outside of one's social network and belief system.

Usually the rise of this stage of faith comes because of experiences of life that force a person to "objectify, examine, and make critical choices about the defining elements of their identity and faith."

At the core of this transition are 2 fundamental movements going on: 1) "From a definition of self derived from one's relations and roles and the network of expectations that go with them, the self must now begin to be and act from a new quality of self-authorization."  2) "There must be an objectification and critical choosing of one's beliefs, values, and commitments, which come to be taken as a systemic unity."

If this stage happens at an older age, it can cause a lot of disturbance to the person's social network. Consequently, not many successfully transition fully into the next stage. Some make a partial shift and remain somewhere between stages 5 and 6.

Stage 6 - Conjunctive Faith: comes mid-life or beyond. In this stage one begins to discover what Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) called "the coincidence of opposites", or they begin to discover the "Being wherein all opposites and contradictions meet and are reconciled...In this transition the firm boundaries of the previous stage begin to become porous and permeable. The confident conscious ego must develop a humbling awareness of the power and influence of aspects of the unconscious on our reactions and behavior..."

Hallmarks of the transition to conjunctive faith are the following:1) awareness of the need to face and hold together unmistakable polar tensions in life, such as being both old and young and both masculine and feminine, having both a conscious self and a shadow self. 2) realization that truth is more complex than most of the either-or categories of the individuative stage; conjunctive faith can value paradox and apparent contradictions of perspectives on truth. 3) transition to a 'second naivete', a post-critical receptivity and a genuine openness to the truths of traditions and communities other than one's own traditions. 

"...Conjunctive faith exhibits a combination of committed belief in and through the particularities of a tradition, while insisting upon the humility that knows that the grasp on ultimate truth that any of our traditions can offer needs continual correction and challenge. This is to help overcome blind spots as well as the tendency to idolatry (the overidentification of our symbolizations of transcending truth with the reality of truth), to which all of our traditions are prone...Persons of Conjunctive faith are not likely to be 'true believers' in the sense of an undialectical, single-minded, uncritical devotion to a cause or ideology...They know that the line between the righteous and the sinners goes through the heart of each of us and our communities, rather than between 'us and them'."

The next post will be about the 7th and final stage of faith: Universalizing Faith. 


Monday, September 22, 2014

Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian - Faith Stages 3 and 4

Continuing on with the series of posts about the seven stages of faith (as presented by James W. Fowler in his book, Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian), I will now cover stages 3 and 4. The previous two posts having to do with this are here and here.

Stage 3 - Mythic-Literal Faith: this occurs about when the child starts to school. "Now able to reverse processes of thought and to coordinate more than one feature of a situation at a time, the world becomes more linear, orderly, and predictable." In this stage the child begins to recognize that others have perspectives that differ from his. Children at this stage develop a strong sense of fairness in their thinking about right and wrong, good and evil.

Faith now involves valuing the stories, beliefs and practices of the tradition within the child's community. "Knowing the stories of 'our people' becomes an important index of identification and of evaluation of self and others and their groups. The ability to create classes based on distinguishing characteristics of objects or groups makes these kinds of identifications (and exclusions) important matters in this stage."

In this stage a child defines himself and other persons in terms of their actions and affiliations with family and other groups. He hasn't yet constructed a sense of himself or others in terms of personality or inner feelings and reflection. His primary sense of who he is has to do with whom he is connected.

The author points out that from this stage through the rest of the stages, the same characteristics can be seen in adults (in terms of where they are in their faith) as well as in the particular biological age group that is being described. So those who come into their faith as adults can be found in any of these later stages.

Stage 4 - Synthetic-Conventional Faith: typically begins to emerge in early adolescence. Adolescence brings a revolution in cognitive development!  

"In formal operational thinking the mind takes wings. No longer is it limited to the mental manipulation of concrete objects or representations and of observable processes. Now thinking begins to construct all sorts of ideal possibilities and hypothetical considerations...Formal operational thinking makes possible the generation and use of abstract concepts and ideals. It makes it possible to think in terms of systems. And it enables us to construct the perspectives of others on ourselves - to see ourselves as others see us."

The adolescent is waking up to consciousness, suddenly aware and interested in the interior (emotions, personality, ideas, thoughts, experiences) of himself and of others. The "synthetic" being referred to here means it's a stage in which the young person begins to be able to pull together (synthesize) parts of his own interior life into some sense of selfhood (identity), and also to pull together the stories and values and beliefs into a cohesive unity to help him get a sense of the meaning of life in general and of his/her own life in particular.

"Although each person's worldview synthesis in this stage is in some degree unique, we describe it as 'conventional' for two important reasons: 1) it is a synthesis of belief and value elements that are derived from one's significant others...2) it is a synthesis of belief and value that has, in this stage, a largely 'tacit' (as opposed to 'explicit') character."

As it pertains to one's stage in faith development, this is a stage in which the synthesis of one's beliefs and values and stories are supportive and sustaining and are held and felt deeply and strongly. In this stage the Christian is "embedded" in his faith outlook and derives his sense of identity from membership in his circle of relationships.

Fowler makes a very important observation/warning about Christians who are in this stage of faith development: "It is important to recognize that many persons equilibrate in the Synthetic-Conventional stage. The world view and sense of self synthesized in this stage and the authorities who confirm one's values and beliefs are internalized, and the person moves on through the life cycle with a set of tacitly held, strongly felt, but largely unexamined beliefs and values."

Next we will look at stages 5 & 6: individuative-reflective faith and conjunctive faith.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian - Seven Stages of Faith (Stages 1 & 2)

In my previous post, The House of My Soul is Small..., I introduced a book by James W. Fowler entitled Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian and shared a brief line about each of Fowler's seven stages of faith in this book.

Today I'll share in more detail what he says about the first two stages: Primal Faith and Intuitive-Projective Faith. Fowler uses terms of our growth and maturity as humans (from infant to elderly) to describe our growth in God.

1) Primal Faith: this is the infant stage. "During the first year, the mutual task of the baby and those providing care involve bonding and attachment, as well as the generation of a trusting give-and-take." In this stage, the baby hasn't develop his/her full sense of selfhood but already struggles for some balance of trust in the worth of the self and in the rely-ability of the environment made up of those under whose care the self has begun to form.
"The first symbols of faith are likely to take primitive form in the baby's hard-won memories of maternal and paternal presence. As dependable realities who go away but can be trusted to return, our primary care givers constitute our first experiences of superordinate power and wisdom, as well as our dependence." Because of the profound impact that these "primal others" have on us early in life, their mixtures of harshness and tenderness and rigidity and grace all are present in the images of God that begin to take form when we are around 4 or 5 years old. We transfer what we experience from primary care givers onto our image of God.

In this first stage of development, the struggle is for "basic trust versus basic mistrust." A child that is raised in a relatively healthy loving environment enjoys basic trust in this stage.

2) Intuitive-Projective Faith: starting around age two a revolution begins for the child as language emerges to now mediate his/her relationship with others and the world. "Language makes possible a qualitatively new reflectiveness on the environment and a qualitatively new reflexiveness with regard to the self...The child, now able to walk freely and question everything, daily encounters novelties and newness...Perception, feelings, and imaginative fantasy make up children's principal ways of knowing - and transforming - their experiences." 

In this stage of growth, the child forms "deep and long-lasting images" that keep their world of meaning together. It's a time in which he/she is waking up to the larger community and world around them...

Faith is more intuitive in this stage of development. We know by perception and imagination more than by logic.

In the next post we'll look at the next two stages: mythic-literal faith and synthetic-conventional faith.

Friday, September 05, 2014

The House of My Soul is Small...

Many years ago I began regularly praying a prayer of St. Augustine's: "The house of my soul is small; do Thou enter in and enlarge it..." I believe God hears these simple and sincerely repeated prayers and He has been answering this prayer for me bit by bit (and continues to do so). I've discovered that having my heart enlarged is costly but more than worth it. I want to have a heart that is increasingly like His - large and able to encompass all people of all types and ethnicities and persuasions.

I recently read a wonderful book on human development by James W. Fowler, Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian in which he brings together theology and developmental psychology and practical ethics to show how communities of faith can support and nurture individuals as they shape themselves and are shaped.

Fowler presents seven stages of faith in human development, the last one being one in which the follower of Jesus begins to see and value other beings from the standpoint of the loving Creator rather than from the standpoint of a vulnerable, fearful, defensive creature.
I found this book very helpful for understanding my own growth and also that of others who I have the joy of mentoring. The seventh stage of faith is, I believe, the answer to this prayer of St. Augustine's: "The house of my soul is small; do Thou enter in and enlarge it."

In this post I will simply list the seven stages of faith and in the following weeks I'll go through each one more carefully, explaining each one as Fowler presents them. The seven stages he proposes are the following:
1) Primal Faith - the infant stage: a simple faith of basic trust
2) Intuitive-Projective Faith - the toddler stage: when perception, feelings and imagination make up the child's principal ways of knowing
3) Mythic-Literal Faith - stage when a child starts to school: a faith that relies on "the stories, rules, and implicit values of the family's community of meanings"
4) Syntheic-Conventional Faith - early adolescence stage: cognitive development comes here and causes the child to become self-conscious as he/she is more aware of the fact that others think differently than they do
5) Individuative-Reflective Faith - young adult/adult stage: process of "objectifying, examining, and making  critical choices about the defining elements of their identity and faith"
6) Conjunctive Faith - mid-life stage: growing sense that "truth is more multiform and complex than most of the clear, either-or categories" of earlier stages
7) Universalizing Faith - mature adulthood stage: a faith that is the "fruit of a person's total and pervasive response in love and trust to the radical love of God"

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sorrow and Suffering: The 'Best and Strongest Guides' to the Kingdom of Love

One of my all-time favorite allegories is Hannah Hurnard's classic, Hinds Feet on High Places. The story is filled with truth and encouragement for those following Jesus into self-giving love.

In the story, the Shepherd is committed to taking the young girl, Much Afraid, to the high places of the Kingdom of Love where love rules. Much Afraid has crippled feet, so to get her to the Kingdom of Love at the top of the mountain, He is helping her develop hinds feet; in other words, she must develop the ability to overcome the difficulties along the way to the top of the mountain just as the mountain deer is able to scale difficult mountain terrain.

The two strong but mysterious helpers that the Shepherd gives Much Afraid are twin sisters named Sorrow and Suffering. He assures her that these are the 'best and strongest guides' to take her through terrain that she cannot navigate in her condition.

I've read this story many times over the years on my own as well as with others. It never gets old and I keep learning from it at different intervals of my life. In the recent season of affliction that I'm experiencing, I have read parts of this again with special interest in these two guides/helpers.

I'm identifying with Much Afraid's reaction to these two helpers - shock, fear, anger, doubt, confusion. As the story progresses and she slowly sees the benefit of their help, she gradually begins to appreciate them and to understand their language (which is different from hers). Later on she finds out what their other names are, but I'll let you read the story to find out...meanwhile, she is very reluctant for them to take her hand to help her in the tough places.

Chamois Deer
In pondering this lately, it has dawned on me that although the nearness of sorrow and suffering makes me feel weak and helpless, unable to do much, it is actually strengthening me and enabling me to climb the heights to the Kingdom of Love; it is teaching me to love more, and love is the greatest force there is.

I can't say honestly that I'm yet at the place of gladly grabbing the hands of Sorrow and Suffering, but I may have a bit more appreciation for their role than I did before and I anticipate understanding more fully one day. Meanwhile, like Much Afraid, with trembling I trust the Shepherd as He develops strength in me with the help of 'the best and strongest Guides'...

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Receiving Freely Leaves Us in Debt

Because of a leg injury I experienced recently on top of a previous injury in the same leg that had not yet recovered fully (see), my journey with pain and disability has stretched into a much longer time than I had anticipated. I had reached a place of relative independence from my first injury only to be thrown back into a state of much dependence on others once again.

I thought I had learned to receive freely the first time around but am discovering that the deeply-ingrained value of 'independence' and self-reliance is alive and well in me. My need for the help of others this time around has lasted longer, and one thing I'm discovering along the way is that one of the most difficult parts of all of this is to  realize and accept that I will always be in debt.

The many things that other people are doing for me is beyond my ability to pay back. I have family and friends who continually tend to my daily needs and have even had money given to me to help with expenses. I want to not owe them anything but am having to die to the idea that I can repay the debt of love that I owe and accept the fact that my present needs inconvenience other people.

I was raised to pay back financial debts and I will continue to do that; but I am learning  that there is one debt that I can never repay - the debt of love that I owe to God and to the many around me who generously serve in ways that I will never be able to repay.

Romans 13:8 (The Message) Don’t run up debts, except for the huge debt of love you owe each other.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Antidote for Judgmentalism: Accepting that We Know So Little

 I Cor. 13:12,13 (The Message)  We don't yet see things clearly. We're squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won't be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!
But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.

According to the apostle Paul, we know so little about anything and everything. Truth that we believe we are so sure about is as clear (or less) as the scene in this picture. Because of this, it's wise to suspend our quick judgments on everything and everyone.

This doesn't mean we don't have opinions and convictions but they must be held loosely and without malice towards those who see differently. Paul admonishes us in three areas, saying that this focus will lead us incrementally and ultimately to full clarity: 1) trust continually in the Lord who sees clearly; 2) keep expectation alive in God; 3) love Him and others with all our heart. Paul punctuates his message by saying that self-giving love is the summation of how we gradually gain clearer vision until the perfect day.

In summary, I believe that an antidote for judgmentalism (which is the default response of fallen/fearful humans) is to step back and ponder seriously how little I know about God and myself and others and put my trust in God's clear eyesight, live with hope for all, and do whatever is in my power to love.

Prov. 3:5 (Good News Translation) Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Never rely on what you think you know.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Jesus' Ability to Lead: A Source of Peace

I've become aware over recent years that we Christians generally seem to be pretty uptight people. There seems to be an underlying anxiety about most things in our life: worries about whether or not I'm praying or fasting enough, or whether my prayers are fervent or faith-filled enough, whether I'm doing enough for others, whether I'm in the will of God, or whether I'm giving enough, whether I'll miss "God's best", etc., etc.

I've spent my life in the holiness and missions world and like many in that world, the emphasis on "finding the will of God" for many years left me with a nagging fear that I might miss God's "highest" and end up living as a "second class citizen" of God's kingdom. I believe these kinds of fears have their roots in religious ideas that set up spiritual hierarchies and that put the weight of our salvation and sanctification on us, rather than on God.

When I look at the characteristics of sheep (see here), I'm very impressed with the shepherd's love and care for the sheep and His ability to lead them (see here). My conclusion is that getting the sheep to a certain destination is much more about the shepherd's leadership than it is about what good followers the sheep are.

This is a source of joy and peace/relief to me when I start to go down the path of introspection, getting uptight and afraid that I'm not sufficient enough in this or that and worried that I've missed God's best or that I'm not going to make it in the end, etc, etc.  I can pause and look at the good Shepherd and how well He leads and how He is able to get us where He is taking us.

Jesus said, "Take my yoke upon you...my yoke is easy, my burden is light..." I do my small bit of agreeing to be with Him in the "yoke", and the weight of getting me (along with all His people) to where we are going falls on Him. This should make us the most joy-filled and peace-filled people on earth!