Mind the Gap

This is -more or less- the homily I delivered in the June 3 Bridging Service.  I wanted to post it for folks who couldn’t be there:

It is a time of year for endings and beginnings. We say goodbye to one phase of life while ushering in a new one. Next week, we will be saying goodbye to our interim minister, John Nichols, who has shepherded us through the transition time of searching for a new minister. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we had guidance for all the unknown experiences or difficult transitions of our lives? A spiritual Sherpa?

We often think of life as a journey, an exciting adventure. Our odyssey as people of faith has many twists and turns. This same imagery also often used to describe our process of faith development.

James Fowler is a renowned professor of theology and human development, whose description of the stages of human faith development are influential in churches and writing religious education curricula. He drew on the work of Piaget and Kohlberg, to establish a model that marks the faith development of children from baby through adult.
Someday, I would like to preach more about these stages, but for today, I will sum them up in a few lines.

According to Fowler, children first follow the beliefs of their parents. As they reach later elementary years,  a growing sense of morality, justice and the importance of mythic symbology and story drives spiritual learning. Which corresponds to our use of stories and social action projects in our RE classes.

A progression generally occurs as children become adolescents – where youth become more focused on their peers, synthesizing their beliefs to a communal ideal. An important stage, where youth groups can be a positive and influential force. It’s also a vulnerable time, when youth can be lured toward cults or repressive influences of group thinking.

Some people stay mired in this stage throughout life. Others find their way to challenging once accepted dogma or a conventional faith, questioning everything and exploring an individual understanding of life’s big questions. The traveler takes personal responsibility for her beliefs. There is an openness to a new complexity of faith, but this also increases an awareness of conflicts in one’s beliefs. It is a very common stage for adults to be in when they first find our Unitarian Universalist church.

Some folks will keep cruising on the path, seeking commonalities in human experiences. They grasp the paradox and transcendence which are in ours and every faith tradition. Conflicts of belief are replaced by a complex understanding of an interdependent “truth” that cannot be explained by any particular creed. They get less concerned with the details and specifics of religious language and find deeper solace in mysteries and unexplainable spiritual ideas.

Fowler’s supposed ultimate destination of faith development is one where few arrive. A person at this highest level has attained a universal understanding of religion, where  self and the universe are one, indistinguishable. Some would describe the Buddha or Jesus as people who exemplify the Universalizing stage.

Now that we have heard a little about those stages, I need to say something very important: the stages are simply labels. What do we know about labels?- that they are not useful for people. Labels are good for cans of soup- but not for people!

Our faith journey is not a European tour, with an itinerary of famous landmarks, we don’t pick up a magnet for each completed faith stage! Instead our journey is a meandering thing. Our path doubles back and spirals around in all sorts of interesting byways. A person’s  faith development can not be judged by their age. Each of us is traveling at our own pace, coming to our own knowing of the world which happens beyond any sort of linear timeline or simple progression. Haven’t you known small children who seem to come into this world with great wisdom beyond their years? Or adults who can get “stuck”, refusing to consider new ideas?

Some of our youth, who have been pursuing their faith development for years, may be more spiritually advanced than a one of our more recent adult members. I’m not saying that faith is a race with frontrunners, We have no gold medal for enlightenment here. I am saying that what we are doing here every week is amazing and important. No matter what our age, religious education is giving time and energy to growing our spirits. Each time we figure out another piece of what it means to be human, we are making our life journey easier.

That is one of the great things about a Unitarian Universalist religious Education. At its best, a child can gather information and experiences to grow and develop, finding areas of nuance, being encouraged to question and trust their beliefs. I often hear adults say, “I wish I had Unitarian Universalism to help guide me when I was younger!” Sadly, not all of our youth stay in our congregation or in Unitarian Universalism. There are many complex reasons for this sparsely populated land between our coming of age youth and the adults finding their way to Channing.

I am reminded of stepping off the subway- and hearing that cautionary phrase, “Mind the gap!” Which is a shorthand way to let you know that extra care is needed because there is a space between the train car and the platform. It is usually a very small space to span, one that hardly anyone would fall into or get caught in. But it tells you to to pay attention, don’t trip and fall.

There is also a very real gap in here this morning. One that we need to be careful of. It is a generation gap. Imagine folks, the 8th graders here among us, have never known a world without iPods, the internet or space shuttles. The bridging young adults have always had a phone with a electronic ringtone, they have never known a world without personal computers, South Africa has always been an integrated society, Richard Nixon, Jackie Onassis and Kurt Cobain have always been dead.

These cultural differences hint at other ways that the Millenials operate and think differently than the Veteran Generation, Baby Boomers and Generation X . Recognizing this gap is crucial to our survival as Unitarian Universalists. Or rather what we do with the gap is important. We can just let that gap widen, increasing until the chasm is too wide, and we become isolated. OR we can build bridges, spanning our differences, learning about each other and finding ways to connect.

The  bridging ceremonies we perform today are more than just rites of passage that connect one phase of life to another. They are also a vital link between the past, the present, and future. A link that unifies our multi-generational faith as a beloved community of spirit, justice, and love. However, we will not have arrived once we cross this bridge, our journey continues!

Remember my plea for a spiritual sherpa? I am quite confident that we have seen and unseen help along the way. It has taken many generations before us, smoothing the road, so we can enjoy “a free and responsible search for truth.” All their efforts bringing us to this moment in time , the celebration of this day.  A path ahead will be explored by the children and youth with us here today. Not in some distant year, because the youth are not just our future, they are the NOW.  Each action we take of connection and love narrows the gap that stands between us. We build a bridge practicing community, faith, learning, prayer, music, and presence.

May these people and practices be our guides, through the rough terrain of life. We raise amazing young people here! And we raise amazing adults, too! May we build bridges between our divisions. May we enjoy the wisdom and personality of our companions of all ages! May we share the fire of commitment that burns in our hearts beyond these walls! And then may our promise find fulfillment, and our future begin.

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