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A Growing Faith
We're in a "growing place" this Lenten season. The banner continues to grow before our very eyes, graphically demonstrating that spring is a time of growth, and that our lives and our church can be growing places. So far this season, we have looked at a growing promise, a growing domain, and this morning, a growing faith. Is your faith growing or shrinking, stretching or stagnating? Faith is not something in concrete that never changes. Faith is not a constant that we either have or we don't have. Faith is dynamic rather than constant, changing rather than stagnant. Your faith is either growing or shrinking.
In an attempt to be helpful to you on your faith journey, I would like toshare my faith journey with you this morning. I was taught in seminary that preachers should never bore their congregations with personal stories, but I was taught other irrelevances in seminary as well. I tell you part of my story this morning, hopefully not to bore you, and certainly not in any way as exemplary for your journey. I share my journey only to help you look at your own. Perhaps you have had similar or dissimilar growth experiences; perhaps you can find a challenge and a goal for your own growing faith.
According to James W. Fowler in his excellent book on faith, called Stages of Faith, The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, the first stage of faith is fantasy and imagination, and is characteristic of young children. As a child, I had a vivid imagination. Growing up relatively alone on a farm, I played imaginary games. I made up stories and acted out all the parts. My grandparents played card games with me and read stories to me. I learned to read at an early age, and have long been fascinated with books. This was in the pretelevision era when radio was the medium. My favorite radio program was "Let's Pretend," 10:00 on Saturday mornings.
Reflecting on my childhood, I realize how blessed I was to have parents and grandparents who allowed me to express my imagination. I was never repressed or squelched. I learned that the world is an exciting place, a fun place, full of adventures, waiting to be explored. According to Fowler, children at an early age find an awareness of death and sex, and soon learn about the strong cultural taboos. I remember when I was about six years old, my cousin and I were caught in the hay mow exploring each other's bodies. Her mother spanked her. My parents let me talk about it. I remember telling them all about the differences between boys and girls! I recall my Dad deeply concentrating on the food he was eating, raising his head every now and then to glance at my mother! My parents were open, gentle, tolerant and accepting.
As I reflect on my early home life, I realize how fortunate I was to be reared in a nonjudgmental home. Rarely was anyone, including me, criticized or demeaned. My parents rarely raised their voices, and I was only spanked once, when I went across the road to the neighbors, and my Mother was afraid for my safety. There was very little prejudice in our home. On Valentine's Day my mother made sure that I took valentines for every child in the classroom. No one was left out. When the first black family moved into our school district, just a few miles from us, and the children rode the school bus with me, it never entered my head not to be nice to them. I am grateful to have been reared in an atmosphere of openness and acceptance, where I was allowed my freedom: freedom to imagine, freedom to explore, freedom to learn.
According to Fowler, the second stage of faith development is the literal stage. Here we begin to take on the stories, beliefs, and observances for ourselves, and we interpret them very literally. My parents were not church folk. My mother had not been reared in a church home, and my father was still rebelling against his strict Baptist father. My Baptist grandfather took me to Sunday School in my preschool years, but after he was unable to go to church, I went nowhere until a neighbor invited me to the Methodist Church. I was in the sixth grade at this time. I took to church like a duck takes to water. Again, my parents were very accepting and supportive. They drove me to events, sent food along when it was my turn, came to the programs.
Conscious faith at this stage of my life was a simplistic world view, based on a very literal view of the Bible. I was a fundamentalist in my high school and college years. Especially was I intrigued with end-of-the-world theology. I read everything I could get my hands on about biblical prophecy, and was sure that Jesus would be coming soon, as Hitler was the Antichrist, and Russia was the Bear of the North prophesied by Ezekiel. For recreation, my group of friends would jump in a car and go to Minneapolis to the Billy Graham crusade meetings, or Pentecostal revivals. I liked the peppy, rhythmic music and the enthusiasm.
I was rigid in my theology and biblical interpretation at this time, but I was not rigid in my personality and outlook. My parents' openness and tolerance were reinforced by the Methodist Church. I am so thankful God led me to that church. I can still see the faces of many of those dear folk who called me "Dougie" and loved me, along with all the children and youth. They tolerated our misbehavior. They were loving, open people. I had four special friends in junior and senior high school. We were called the Four Musketeers, and roamed the hallways of the school, and the streets of our town. They were all taken to church regularly by their parents. Gerald was a Baptist. Walter was a Missouri-Synod Lutheran, and Harvey was a Jehovah's Witness. They were great friends, and we shared fundamentalist beliefs, but even then I appreciated the open, loving, accepting, tolerant atmosphere of my Methodist Church. I loved my church, and I loved going to Sunday School, morning worship, and Methodist Youth Fellowship in the evening. I never missed; I wouldn't think of being absent.
When I was a sophomore in college, the District Superintendent asked me to be the minister of two small, rural Methodist Churches, so at the age of 18, I became a minister. I preached my literal theology with vigor. The District Superintendent called me "Billy Sunday." I had a wonderful three years. We had youth groups of over 25 kids in each church. We played, laughed, and prayed. Faith for me was a joyful, confident, accepting experience. I had accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I knew I was born again. I was given self-confidence, leadership skills, and I preached with fervor. The folks in my two churches, and in my home church, all hoped that I wouldn't lose my fire in seminary.
After college, I went to Japan as a missionary, and entered the stage of faith Fowler calls the reflective stage. I began to demythologize my literal theology. Actually, the demythologization had begun earlier, and was gradual. I remember in high school asking my Dad where Cain and Abel found wives to marry, when Adam and Eve were the first people on earth. He told me the creation accounts were stories not to be taken literally. I found that disconcerting, but I pondered it. And in Japan, living in a different culture, far from the Bible belt, I began to expand my world view. It was in Japan at the age of 22 I learned that my country was not perfect. That was a signficant discovery. I learned that not all the news of the world is printed in our newspapers, that we are not always told the complete story, and that not every public statement by our officials can be believed. I developed a world-view that had a sense of realism about my country and my religion. I had the world placed in a neat box with a ribbon around it, and now I was having experiences, meeting people, and learning things that would not fit into the neat box.
Some folks never leave the literal stage of faith. They find it meets their needs and never seem to question. Others, however, find themselves questioning their assumptions, and the subsequent crumbling of their faith is often a devastating experience. People who find their understanding of the world, and their experiences in the world, no longer fitting into their narrow doctrines and literal interpretations, have three alternative courses of action: 1) Some prefer to stay with their faith and ignore the conflicts. They have neatly compartmentalized their faith from their daily life. They can profess a belief in creationism on Sunday, and carry out their work during the week predicated on evolution, and see no conflict. 2) Some reject all religion. I have had conversations lately with two different men whose wives are active in our church, but they cannot bring themselves to join our church because they have rejected the literal faith of their adolescence, and have not found a substitute. They have not been able to enter the reflective stage of faith development, and have thrown out the baby with the bath.
3) Some are able to enter the reflective stage, and separate symbol from literal, formulating a world-view and a theology that are compatible, mutually stimulating and supportive. In my faith journey, I was able to enter this stage with relatively little emotional trauma. As I reflect, I realize that because of the openness of my home and my church, I was able to accept new ideas more easily than those who are reared in a narrow, strict, judgmental atmosphere. By this time, my faith was more than intellectual doctrines, more than expressions of belief about the world and God. By this time in my life, faith was a way of life, a state of being. Faith in Jesus Christ was a personal relationship with God that transcended belief systems. The imaginative, exploring nature of my childhood sustained me, and I found my missionary experience in a different culture, and my subsequent seminary training, exhilarating, stimulating and expanding.
If I could characterize my faith stance at the present time, I would call it "open-ended." My beliefs are not closed, but are constantly changing. They are in process. Developing and designing one's theology is a life-time experience, an exciting process as new discoveries, new ways of looking at things, are assimilated--sometimes rejected, sometimes adapted, sometimes adopted. With a solid background in biblical studies, and trust in the indwelling Holy Spirit, I have confidence in my ability to discern. I can explore. I attend far-out seminars. I participate in workshops of which I know nothing. I am not afraid of new ideas or new thinking, because I have confidence in discernment. I am open to life, confident that God will keep me in the faith. Faith is not just an intellectual exercise, faith is a way of life. The fourth stage of development is when faith becomes a way of life with an open-ended belief system.
Our Epistle lesson this morning from Hebrews 11 began with the familiar quote, "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Often we stop with this verse and develop a definition of faith that is basically intellectual. But the rest of the chapter makes clear that faith is more than an assurance, more than a conviction, more than an intellectual exercise, more than belief in a series of doctrinal statements. The rest of the chapter tells us about people--real, live human beings--who acted by faith. By faith, Abel offered a sacrifice. By faith, Noah built the ark. By faith, Abraham obeyed and left his home. By faith, Moses confronted the Pharaoh.
A growing faith is a living faith, embodied in action. By faith, you can live confidently. By faith, you can be open to possibilities all around you. By faith, you can have an open-ended belief system that is constantly changing, continually expanding as you learn new things about the world and about yourself. By faith, you can know Jesus as friend and the Holy Spirit as comforter.
I've shared some of my story, not that my way is the right way, for each of you walks your own faith journey. I've shared my story with you in the hope that you will be open to a growing faith. Don't be afraid to explore. Don't be afraid to trust Jesus Christ with your life. Don't be afraid to walk confidently into the future. Don't be afraid of new ideas and new experiences. Let your faith grow as God leads you into an exciting future.
© 1988 Douglas I. Norris