I had the honor of sharing lunch yesterday at a lovely little micro-brewery in our neighborhood (http://appleblossombrewing.com) with three charter members of our congregation. They helped establish an LCA congregation in Fayetteville in 1967, and remain faithful and integral members of our congregation to this day.
As we sat and talked, I realized two things. First, it was a table replete with spiritual maturity. These three had learned from and grown through their life experiences. They had perspective. On the way out the door after lunch, the last thing I heard:
"Clint, keep your eyes on the horizon, and remember, it is in front of you, and behind you."
Mid-way through the lunch, I heard:
"We stayed away from church for a while because of all the judges. Then we realized we were hurting ourselves more than the judges by staying away, so we came back."
After lunch, I kept pondering... what is it about some people that they grow and mature through their life experiences, while others don't?
It's simply true that not everyone ages well. Some people end bitter, immature, judgmental, and hopeless. Others end joyous, mature, gracious, and hopeful.
Clearly we don't just mature automatically through our life experiences. We mature because of the ways we process what we have experienced. We need the right tools, the right perspective, the right mentality, to mature and end well.
Even with the best tools, there are still no guarantees. If Scripture witnesses to anything at all about maturity in human beings, it is that there are no guarantees. Even the greatest and most faithful sometimes end poorly.
A few years back, I had the pleasure of spending a week with Terry Walling at Fuller Theological Seminary in a class on Organic Leadership Development. Walling introduced me to a concept in Scripture I hadn't considered, the issue of Finishing Well.
Walling, a student of J. Robert Clinton's work on leadership in the Bible, notes that only about 1 in 3 leaders in Scripture finishes well. There are so many barriers, so many temptations, and Scripture is full of reports of how leaders fail to finish well.
Some Christians (unfortunately, especially Lutherans) think there isn't any growing up to do at all. Justification, new life in Christ, comes as a whole cloth, as a gift. It's all about simply receiving this in faith.
As a result, lots of Lutheran congregations (and I assume other congregations of other traditions also) don't necessarily know how to answer the question, "What does spiritual maturity look like? And what do we need to do to attain it?"
In fact, just try this out. Ask a group of pastors or faith leaders to define spiritual growth and how to achieve it. It's an intriguing experiment, because there will typically be a very long pause, and then some rather diverse answers.
You will of course get some typical responses: We grow through worship, through Bible study, through prayer, through meditation. And in fact, these are rather good resources for spiritual growth. People really do grow by worshipping together, by reading Scripture, by praying, by meditating.
But then again, none of these are guarantees. I know older adults who have sat through the liturgy their entire lives, heard Scripture read each week, and still don't have a strong sense of Scripture in their hearts and minds. It's as if they heard the Bible all those years but never really HEARD it.
So too quite a lot depends on how we pray, and the what of prayer. Quite a lot of our maturity depends on the KIND of community we spend time with.
This year, we have four adults preparing for baptism at our Easter Vigil. I tend to think one of the best measures of the quality of Christian community is centered around this--how many adults are drawn to baptism into the community?
But then we do have to ask ourselves (because those who are being baptized do ask), what kind of community are we welcoming adults into through the waters of baptism? How will they be formed? What kinds of formation are we ourselves committed to?
I think in addition to the classic practices of the faith tradition listed above, to really grow up into Christ we also need to think about the meaning of human growth. On this measure, growth looks like forgiveness, an ability to understand the world through the eyes of others, generosity of spirit, self-sacrificial love, skills to address the mental demands of modern life.
I'm intrigued by Robert Kegan's notion of a fourth order way of thinking about the world. Sometimes I suspect that we assume in the Christian church that faith development ends in childhood. We focus so much energy on Sunday school and confirmation and youth programs (all of which are important), but as adults we invest our energy in the formation of our children without considering how our own growth and development is a continuing model for children.
We know from basic research that children, for example, are more likely to stay involved in faith communities as adults not because they went to Sunday school, but because they saw adults in their lives model continuing growth. They watched their parents read the Bible, for example.
Kegan believes there are some more developmental stages adults are called to go through in the modern world, and this means as we go through them, we will once again read Scripture, or engage our faith, differently than we did as children. We are called to move beyond adolescent understandings of the faith.
Too many adults are surprised by some basic insights into their faith that shouldn't have been surprising. Consider the great podcast from Homebrewed Christianity, 10 Not-So-Shocking Things You Learn in Religion 101.
I think some adults are surprised by these insights because they assume the worldview they adopted as adolescents is the one they can happily maintain for the remainder of their adulthood. Instead of applying what they learn, the wider conceptual frameworks they apply in other contexts such as work or family, they would prefer to keep a static faith through life.
But rigid things break easily, and this is precisely what happens to many adults. Their frozen faith shatters when it encounters questions or modern challenges.
It takes continuing creative work to develop a robust faith that helps people finish well. The older adults I know who maintain a lively faith into their 80s and 90s typically are avid readers, keep painting or doing art, journal, volunteer their time, take long walks, and ask questions.
Perhaps the single most important thing we can do if we want to grow up is to keep this mind--that we are constantly growing up. We've never gotten there. A commitment to continuing growth will do more than anything else to ensure that such growth happens.