How do children save Unitarian Universalism? By asking us to step away from calcified ways of understanding what it means to be a person of faith. By helping us step out of the boxes we have created around a faith that was never meant to be in one box. Our children yearn to express their Unitarian Universalist faith in ways that we have come to misjudge and misunderstand, and discard. If we can be open enough to let them be our teachers, not only is our faith saved, but we are as well.
A Sermon delivered at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel (Ellisville MO) on Sunday, June 2, 2013.
One of my favorite things about Child Dedication Sunday is that someone always tries to eat the rose! Another may have just learned to count and finds this the perfect opportunity to show off! And yet another loves to work the crowd, like when little A* saw the congregation and began waving like the Queen of England! And we love it because it takes us back to our time of innocence, when everything was magical, everything was possible, and everything felt safe. Or should have.
One of my favorite children’s stories is by Canadian author Heather Patricia Ward, “I Promise I’ll Find You.” Every page has the same message. A child is lost and its mother promises to search until she finds it. “If I had a little row boat, I’d row across the sea. I’d row and row and row and I’d bring you back to me…. If I had a little airplane I’d fly across the sky. I’d look and look and look for you, as every day went by.” Her little dog is there, peering out from the boat or examining a map, and the child, wearing a little red shirt, is tucked somewhere in the picture, arms outstretched. “If I had a little choo choo train, I’d chug on down the track. I’d chug until I found you, and then I’d bring you back.”
Psychologist/minister James Fowler studied faith development, and found that faith at the earliest ages is about trust and safety. That’s why Ward’s book is so loved. It speaks to a young child’s yearning for security, to know that they are treasured. When I gave this book to my nephew, he scoured every picture until he found the little child in red, and then peppered his parents with questions about the mother and the dog.
James Fowler says that our faith evolves throughout our lives. He identifies six stages of faith, and he doesn’t see these as resting places, but as a way of understanding that is constantly transforming.
The first stage is the “Everything is Magical” stage. A rose is the most perfect thing and the arms holding you are the center of your world. God is pure love, strength and protection. This is when the seeds of trust, courage, hope, and love are planted.
The second stage happens during elementary school. We adopt more complex beliefs and see morality as absolute and literal. Fairness becomes important. We accept the right of authorities to set the rules for us. Parents, teachers, adults, they make the rules. If we believe in God he’s that kind of God, making the rules that we follow.
At the third stage, which happens during adolescence, things start coming apart a bit. We start questioning the box we are in, but we still need structure and a group to identify with. We still need clear rules, but we need to create some of them ourselves rather than have them defined for us. If they are defined for us, we want to know the reasons why. If we believe in God, we will understand God in more nuanced metaphorical ways, beyond simply a judge of right or wrong.
At the fourth stage, which is young adulthood, things really come apart. You see that you are in one box and there are other boxes! This is where you rebel against the moral compass you inherited. You become disillusioned, may become angry and critical at God and your elders. You move away from the absolutes you were given, but, as this is a heated stage, you often replace them with your own absolutes. You might become a highly rational critic or a fundamentalist believer.
At the fifth stage, if you get there, you see the truth of all the other boxes around you. You see that there is no one way and that there are things that can’t be explained. You don’t find paradoxes threatening. You give up arrogance and the need to know it all, and connect to humility and reverence. You accept yourself and see yourself as connected far beyond your own sub-group.
The sixth stage is where you find Ghandi, Jesus, Mohammad, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King. Not many get here. They live lives of deep commitment, have a selfless passion for all things, and feel deeply the love and suffering of their world. They hold life firmly but lightly, because they are willing to die for their commitments, which they often do.
These are Fowler’s six stages of faith, and I suspect that as I spoke you may be wondering where you fit. More than likely, there are elements of all six stages in every one of us, although most of us will land primarily in one or two stages. These stages aren’t neat and clean. You don’t finish one and move on to another. You may cycle into one and your life changes and you go back into another because it’s where you need to be. None of these stages are superior to another, which is how many have often misinterpreted Fowler. This is not a tool to measure spiritual maturity, because there are universal truths in each stage.
Each stage has its strengths and challenges. There is comfort and reassurance in stages 1 through 3, but they can become rigid. There is energy in stages 3 and 4, but that energy can become chaotic. Stage 5 is an expansive stage, but sometimes there is so much relativity that it becomes meaningless. Stage 6 is impressive, intimidating, but I don’t think I’d want to be married to someone in stage 6! I’d like my life partner to cling to life, you know! A lot of stage 6 people get killed off!
Where are you on this chart? And where do you think Unitarian Universalism is on this chart? Congregations can be at stages too! Many of my progressive Christian colleagues struggle because their churches are in stages 2 or 3 and they are at stage 4 and 5.
Most UUs would like to think that our congregations are at stage 5. Our principles would suggest that that’s the natural stage for us to be, but in truth many of our congregations are at stages 3 and 4 and once in a while we bounce into 5. Sometimes we’re simply about the rebellion, about casting off the shackles of repressive religion, which is very powerful and good, but there often isn’t any substance except the rebellion and when we get through that and want more, there might not be more. Sometimes we don’t have a lot of patience for people who are in different stages. We think they’re less evolved! Like when we complain about Christian fundamentalists during coffee hour? That’s when we are pretending to be in stage 5 but our arrogance and pride puts us in stage 3 or 4. We turn a lot of people off with that arrogance.
Sometimes we practice our faith tradition in a way that makes it unavailable to other people, especially our children. For instance, one of the things we often say is that we believe there are many paths to truth. We say that this is a religion where we live in the grays, we don’t do either/ors, rights and wrongs. We say that in Unitarian Universalism we wrestle with the questions, rather than answer them. We also say that this is a religion of reason not blind faith. And this is all true and there is power and wisdom in this way of doing Unitarian Universalism. It’s why many of us came to this faith and its puts UUism solidly in stage 5. But, most of our children and youth are solidly in stages 1 and 2 and 3. So what is there for them in stage 5 UUism?
Our littlest ones are completely in emotion and intuition. They’re in their bodies. So when our religion becomes a religion of mind, it leaves them behind. Our elementary kids legitimately need an authority to say to them, this is how things are and this is why we believe what we do. It’s how they feel safe. So when we become rigidly anti-authoritarian, we aren’t honoring where our kids are. When we ask a young child to live in the questions, we may not be honoring that they need more than questions. When we ask our children to stand in their own truth, we ignore their yearning to stand in the truth of their parents, who they trust more than anyone in the world. They ask us deep questions about life and death and we may say, “Well what do you think?” when they haven’t learned how to think about it yet, and really need to know what we think. We UU adults so often judge faith traditions that give clear answers because we are in stage 4 of rebelling against answers, and then we won’t give our children the clear answers they need. We are denying our children’s deepest spiritual needs by projecting our spiritual needs onto them.
Now one response to this conundrum would be to say that Unitarian Universalism is really for adults and we’re going to have to trust that our children will grow into full Unitarian Universalism. They’re in the prep stages for the real deal. That would be an easy answer, but I don’t think it’s the right answer.
I believe there is a way to be authentically Unitarian Universalist in each of those stages, because we never stop needing the things that a particular stage gave us. We need to stay connected to the everything-is-possible-and-I-am-safe-and-can-trust-my-world of stage 1. Stage 2 helps us to respect boundaries and to trust others with our well being. Stage 3 helps us to write new rules while respecting the traditions that preceded us. I think that many of the weaknesses we see in modern Unitarian Universalism are because too many of us adults think we are too good for those earlier stages of faith. What keeps us from growing this faith and growing our congregations and maturing ourselves is often a lack of trust, a blind allegiance to rebellion and change for their own sake, an unquestioning commitment to questioning. A fear of standing for something in case it will confine us, and so we stand for nothing. And what we are left with is pride and arrogance.
How do children save Unitarian Universalism? By asking us to step away from calcified ways of understanding what it means to be a person of faith. By helping us step out of the boxes we have created around a faith that was never meant to be in one box. Our children yearn to express their Unitarian Universalist faith in ways that we have come to misjudge and misunderstand, and discard. If we can be open enough to let them be our teachers, not only is our faith saved, but we are as well. Because we never stop being the ones in little red shirts with our arms outstretched, waiting to be found.
From Heather Patricia Ward: “If I had a little motorbike, I’d ride across the land. I’d find you and I’d reach for you, and you would take my hand. And if I had no other way, I’d walk or crawl or run. I’d search to the very ends of the earth, for you my precious one. So remember this my darling, for it is very true, if ever you’re apart from me, I’ll search till I find you.”
It’s not just kids who love this book, it’s adults too. I see it over and over again. Because we never stop needing to be found, never stop needing to be treasured. When we dedicate our children, the promises we make are not only to save them, but to save us, because we need to hear their truths to be whole, for our beloved faith tradition to be whole.
So may the spirit of our children be with you and yours from this day forward until we gather again. Amen and blessed be.
Anne Anderson and Rev. Kenneth W. Collier. “James Fowler’s Stages of Faith” and “The Stages of Faith: A Five Stage Church.” The Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, January 7, 2001.
Heather Patricia Ward. I Promise I’ll Find You. Willowdale Ontario: Firefly Books, 1994.
Barbara Wendland. “Worship at different stages of faith.” Connections: A monthly letter calling the church to faithful new life. Temple TX. No. 147, November 2005.
N.B. – These sermons are made available with a request: that the reader appreciate that, ideally, a sermon is an oral/aural experience that takes place in the context of worship – supported and reinforced by readings, contemplative music, rousing hymns, silence, and prayer – and that it is but one part of an extended conversation that occurs over time between a minister and a covenanted congregation. This sermon may be freely shared and reproduced, provided that credit is given to the author.