How Can I Know I Am Growing?

It’s just like what happens in Flatland. You are a square, a circle, a triangle, and what you know is how to scurry about doing your flat business in your flat world. You know left-right and you know forward-back. What you DON’T know—what you can’t even imagine—is up-down. Until a sphere comes, crashes your life. Wake-up call from the third dimension. From that moment forward, nothing can ever be as it was….

And so it was for me when I was in high school and early college. Faith—which is and shall always be a positive activity of trusting that the world is meaningful and worthwhile—had, at that time in my life, a particular style to it. Faith for me then was a matter of relationships, of fitting in. That’s what my church community taught: power in unity. Preachers laid down the law and I accepted it; authority was outside me. If you asked me why I believed as I did, I would have experienced this as a threat, not a friendly attempt to engage.

Left-right, forward-back. Flat business in a flat world. But then, one evening in the library of my church, I had a Bible shoot-out with a Disciples of Christ believer who was all of ten years older than me. He had a beard and I did not. He had a car and a girlfriend and I did not. But what I had was the truth as my Church of Christ preacher preached it, and I laid it on thick. One verse after another proving to him why, if you weren’t Church of Christ, you weren’t going to heaven. But he was laying it on thick too. He was giving as good as he got. At one point, while I was gabbing away, a part of me stepped back to survey the big picture unfolding and I was just disgusted. This is true religion? This is “love one another”?

A sphere was crashing my Flatland naiveté…

Although I don’t want to give the impression that the transformation of my faith style into a different one—my progress towards greater spiritual maturity—was instantaneous. Other stuff nudged at me too, over the course of years. How my Church of Christ preacher said that my beloved Baba was going to hell because she had been baptized through sprinkling rather than full immersion. Really? God is that much of a ritualistic stickler—the God of Jesus, who happened to flout ritual and purity laws all the time?

That was another huge nudge, and so was reading the Koran and the Tao Te Ching and the atheistic work of Albert Camus, The Plague. So were the entire religion and psychology and occult sections of my neighborhood used book store. I was that irritating customer who sits right in front of the shelf you’re trying to look at and hogs the space with his nose stuck in a book. I read about quantum mechanics and complexity theory. I read about Esalen and transpersonal therapies. I read about shamanism and Tarot and witchcraft. I read everything by Alan Watts and felt so good swimming in Zen.

All of these, nudging me to a place where faith was not so much an experience of unity with other like-minded folks as it was an experience of integrity. I had been a spiritual conformist; now I was a critic. I would come home to my parents during the weekend and announce that God was dead. At least the God I used to believe in. That God was dead and so was the Bible and so was Jesus. There was just so much to reject, and it felt GOOD. It felt like I was finally coming into my own.

This was around the time I switched my college major to philosophy and entered the stream of that tradition. I took a graduate degree in it and then taught college myself. But the experience that most reinforced my integrity-based faith stance was the Unitarian Universalist congregation that I started going to soon after my daughter was born. My wife at the time and I wanted Sophia to grow up in a community that practiced positive values like the Seven Principles. We wanted her to grow up in a community that drew wisdom from all lands and all times. Above all, we wanted her to grow up in a community that used its communal power to nurture not conformism but individuality. Don’t just give me left-right or forward-back for my spiritual life. Give me up-down too. Open up a third dimension.

Open things up!

And I thought that things were incredibly opened up! Until I went to Unitarian Universalist seminary and realized, for one thing, that I was incredibly rigid in my attitude towards Christianity. I mean, give me shamanism and Tarot and quantum mysticism but NOT the Bible! I was still a Biblical literalist but in reverse: all the claims which, when taken literally, are absurd, I took as evidence of the Bible’s worthlessness. I was apparently unable, at the time, to understand that you can take something seriously without having to take it literally. I was apparently unable to see as the mystic sees: beneath appearances to the essence, where all the different images and stories from all the different world religious traditions (including Christianity) come together as one core teaching about LOVE.

It was in Unitarian Universalist seminary when I discovered that there was more transformation in store for my faith style. Spiritual maturity didn’t end with integrity. There was more than left-right, back-forward, and even up-down.

I realized this in spades during a worship service at the mother of all contemporary Christian megachurches: Willow Creek Community Church, right outside of Chicago. I was there doing homework. I had been hired right out of seminary by the Unitarian Universalist Association to do a new thing: to create a new kind of Unitarian Universalist congregation for a new day. They wanted me to take an especially close look at what was going on with megachurches. How do they get so big? What are they doing that we could do too, without compromising our values?

It was there when I realized the extent to which the Unitarian Universalists I had known up to that point in time read ahead in the hymnal while they sang, just to be sure nothing was sung that violated personal integrity. I started seeing how this reflects a scrupulosity that gives too much value to surface appearances and misses the Spirit that is just waiting to be unleashed. That day, 12 years ago, I felt a Spirit wash over me in that worship space which I had never before felt in a Unitarian Universalist setting. I felt something real that day, and guess what? I didn’t feel one whit less a Unitarian Universalist for liking it, even though I was not in control of it or could not command it rationally.

In fact, it was then I realized how the faith stance of integrity, which is aggressively critical, works against an experience of the Spirit. It’s just as Parker Palmer says. The Spirit is like a wild animal. It is “tough, resilient, resourceful, … and self- sufficient.” Yet the Spirit is also shy: “Just like a wild animal, it seeks safety in the dense underbrush, especially if other people are around. If we want to see a wild animal, we know that the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out. But if we will walk quietly into the woods, sit patiently at the base of a tree, breathe with the earth… the wild creature … might put in an appearance. We may see it only briefly and only out of the corner of an eye—but the sight is a gift we will always treasure as an end in itself.”

That visit to the Christian megachurch—it made me one hungry Unitarian Universalist, hungry for the Spirit.

From there I went on to found Pathways in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and from the start, the mission was to invite people into the Mystery. Our emphasis was to draw on (in radically open fashion) all Six Sources of Unitarian Universalist faith (including Christianity) not just because diversity is cool but because a diversity of perspectives is simply what it takes to get as much of a sense of the Mystery as possible. Every tradition (including that of science) is limited in certain ways, yes; but this doesn’t mean worthless. From every tradition, understood in context and within its proper sphere, good things can be learned.

I had become less a critic and more a mystic. And the kind of community power I wanted to harness through my new UU congregation for a new day affirmed integrity, you bet, but even more so it affirmed wisdom. It affirmed both head and heart. Don’t just read books, but practice meditation, practice prayer, practice generosity. Embody your faith. If your faith does not make you laugh or cry beyond just understanding something, if it does not connect you in a real and visceral way to the Life that is larger than any of us can know, it is falling short.

Do you know what the word “maturity” comes from? It comes from the Latin word maturus meaning “ripe, timely, early,” and this is related to mane meaning “early, of the morning.” All of this is to show how maturity comes as a result of waking up, but it’s not a one-time waking up. That’s one of the real findings in my personal spiritual growth story. The road runs ever on. Faith as unity became faith as integrity and then faith as integrity became faith as wisdom. Faith–which is and shall always be a positive activity of trusting that the world is meaningful and worthwhile—occurs in stages, and each moment of transformation is like a sphere crashing Flatland. Every time, the wake-up call feels just like that.

From another perspective, however, the whole progression is predictable. It’s not unique to me but descriptive of just what happens as any human spirit ripens. This is affirmed by the scholarly work of Dr. James Fowler, who was Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University before he retired in 2005. Looking back at my life through the lens of his theory, what seemed chaotic in up-close mode is actually quite orderly.

If you should look back at your life through this same lens, what would you see?

Let’s briefly recap his theory. The way people make meaning in their lives runs through discernable stages. Children 2-7 years of age demonstrate a faith style that is innocent, magical, unrestrained by logical thought. Feelings are more powerful than reasoning could ever be, and children in this faith stage fantasize unendingly. But children grow, and as they do, they move into a second kind of faith style that is no longer fuzzy. It’s sharp-edged, dependent as it is upon authority figures who define the rules and then the rules are upheld literally. “My teacher says….” “If I am good, God will give me what I want…”

Beyond this, you have stage 3 faith, which is the stage I was in during high school and early college. It’s the stage in which meaning-making is tied up with a sense of belonging to a community. You believe what the community believes. Power in unity. James Fowler once said that many adults never transition out of this faith stage and that, in fact, traditional churches work best if most of the folks in the pews stay in this stage! Megachurches are primarily made out of stage 3 folks…

Now, before I say anything about stages 4, 5, and 6, you want to know that, on the one hand, Fowler’s theory is descriptive. It’s not leveling judgment against any of the stages. It’s exactly as the Hindu teacher Vivekananda once taught. “Would it be right,” he asks, “for an old man to say that childhood is a sin or youth is a sin?” The answer is of course NO, and then Vivekananda says, “To the Hindu, man is not traveling from error to truth, but from truth to truth, from lower to higher truth.” And that’s what’s on the other hand of Fowler’s theory. The higher the faith stage, the more effective and more inclusive it is in incarnating Love. Love our one source; Love our one destiny; no one left out. That’s the mission; and the higher the faith stage, the more of the mission we can accomplish.

So on to stage 4 faith, faith as integrity, faith as taking a personal stand against what one doesn’t believe. James Fowler says that most people never get there, which is hard to imagine when you think of all the inconsistencies that trouble traditional/conservative religion, or when you just think of mid-life crisis and how it turns everything upside down. Nevertheless, that’s what Fowler has found, and maybe you too—maybe you feel like an ugly duckling with all your questions and doubts and you feel surrounded by people who just can’t join you there.

But here is where you find your people. That’s right: lots of Unitarian Universalists are in stage 4. Here, you are no ugly duckling. You are a swan.

But the road runs ever on, and this is one big reason for the creative ferment in our congregations. You may remember my sermon called “Soul Foodie” where I talked about how some of us are spiritual omnivores and we will eat veggies, we will eat steak, we will eat anything? On the other hand, others of us are stricter in our spiritual diet; we are vegetarian, we are vegan. Put a juicy steak on our plate and it makes us gag. And yet, as Unitarian Universalists we dare to believe that, amid all our diversities, we can sit at the same soul food table. We can worship together and we can serve together. “We need not think alike to love alike.”

It’s very much a stage 5 ideal. At stage 4, people are solidly rooted in integrity. “I can’t participate unless I understand it or like it.” But at stage 5, the wisdom stage, you realize that yes you can participate even if you don’t understand it or like it, because you don’t get stuck on surface appearances, you have a mystic sensibility, you know that the Love that unites us is deeper than all that. You can sing the heck out of all those Easter hymns that go on and on about Jesus’ literal physical resurrection from the dead even though that couldn’t have possibly happened because you realize it to be symbolic, and powerfully symbolic at that. Physically dead people stay dead. But dead hearts and dead communities can rise again, and they do. A mythological creature like the Phoenix doesn’t have to literally exist for us to appreciate what it means and even welcome it as the symbol of this very congregation….

Let me tell you a story about this congregation, and with this I’ll close. When I first came here, bringing my stage 5 faith, I encountered a story that was pure faith stage 6. You see, every faith stage has a growing edge. Faith stage 4, the integrity stage, can be rigid and struggles to be emotionally open and receptive to the Mystery. As for faith stage 5, the wisdom stage, here the struggle is showing up and putting your life on the line for justice. Stage 5 folks are painfully aware of the gap between reality and the vision of a world made fair with all her people one. They are painfully aware of the gap, and they can feel overwhelmed, they can feel so vulnerable to what justice demands.

And this is where the three-dimensional sphere descends, once again, upon Flatland. The wake-up call this time is an opportunity to put your wellbeing on the line, in sacrifice to the greater good. Do that, and you are at the Bodhisattva faith stage, and Dr. King is right there with you, and so is Gandhi, and so is Jesus. Every time you give and it’s scary but you give anyhow, the Bodhisattva heart within you strengthens and you are living into stage 6 faith. Every time.

Here is the faith stage 6 story I encountered, back in 2007. It begins with death. This congregation died in 1951 because it refused to accept an African American into membership. The Board voted no. Why? Probably because of fear. Fear can cause nice people to turn their backs on justice. So the vote was no, and immediately, the minister at the time resigned. The national bodies with which the church was affiliated—the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America—blacklisted the congregation and urged that no minister step in to serve while it was segregationist. Then, in 1951, the American Unitarian Association, which owned the building and practically everything else because the congregation was a cheap bunch, sold the building out from under them—to the Bible Research Foundation, headed by Finis J. Dake, a fundamentalist preacher. Add insult to injury.

The United Liberal Church (what this congregation was called back then) died. And it had to happen, because the church turned its back on justice.

But just one year later, in 1952, the American Unitarian Association commissioned the Rev. Glenn Canfield to create a Phoenix miracle and bring back the United Liberal Church. The commitment, unequivocal and right from the start, was to human and civil rights. “Our fellowship includes all people, regardless of race, color, nationality, or station of life. We believe in the essential unity of humanity and that only together can we work out successful ways of living in happiness and peace.” That is what you would read in the congregation’s order of service.

And this makes history. The United Liberal Church, reborn, is Atlanta’s very first integrated congregation. Says Jesus, “No one can see the Kingdom of God, unless they are born again.” We know the truth of that directly.

So it’s the early 1960s, and Coretta Scott King is the leader of the youth group at Ebenezer. Our congregation and theirs have a joint Sunday evening program, alternating back and forth between them, so young people, black and white, can get to know one another and learn with each other. But one day the Klan calls. It threatens violence at the next Sunday evening meeting. Congregation officials consult with Mrs. King regarding the options and she says to go ahead with the meeting. All the parents are called to give them the option of keeping their children home. Not one parent holds back. And then, that evening, while inside the church the youth are building up Beloved Community, outside are the fathers, who ring the building, they are forming a visible wall of protection, they are part of the power to make a way out of no way, which is a Bodhisattva power, a power that evil can never overcome.

How can I know I am growing? How can you know?

Bring awareness to the faith stage you are currently at.

Interpret what irritates you not as a statement about someone else’s stupidity but your own strengths and limitations.

Strive to stretch yourself. The mission of “love our one source, love our one destiny, no one left out” urges you never to be satisfied with where you are and to crash every Flatland you find yourself in.

Life is constantly challenging us to make a way out of no way.

The need to put our bodies on the line and ring the building is not just a 1960s thing. It is a today and tomorrow thing.

Live in gratitude.

Live in wonder.

Live in love and courage.

This is how you can know you are growing.