Growing Up Into Faith
June 19, 2011
John’s Gospel, chapter 1. In the beginning there was my Grandad. And my Grandad was in God, and my Grandad was God. No, hang on a minute, that’s not how it goes. Except when I was three years old, that’s how it did go. When I was three years old, God and my Grandad were pretty interchangeable. Sitting on my Grandad’s lap, as he read me stories and poems, I knew I was totally loved and safe. With Grandad, everyday things became strange and wonderful. As we watered the flowers together in the garden after tea he would point out the apple tree where the jabberwocky lived, and the heffalump pit behind the compost heap. With Grandad, a bus trip into Coventy town centre was a magical journey of discovery. And in church Grandad was always there, at the altar, telling people poems and stories just like he and I did on our own together at home. Because of Grandad, at three years old I knew with certainty that God was there, and God loved me.
How much do we need to know about God? Well, I guess if we only know one thing about God, to know that he is there and that he loves us is a good place to begin. It’s how I began, at three years old, and it’s how I hope to end as well. When I’m old and losing my faculties I hope that’s the single fact I’m able to hold onto: God is there, and God loves me.
God is there and God loves me. That’s the child’s creed, and Jesus said we needed to become like children to enter the Kingdom. But between childhood and old age we have our whole lifetime to journey into God, to explore and discover more of the wonder and mystery of God. With God, there’s always something new to discover. Today is Trinity Sunday, and Trinity Sunday is a day for the big picture: it’s a day to contemplate the glory of God with our hearts, yes, but with our minds too, in praise of the God who is three-in-one, the God who is creates us, redeems us and makes us whole.
What I want to talk about today is growing to maturity in faith: the process by which we move into a deeper awareness of God’s gracious love. As we grow older the way we believe changes too.
As we grow up our world gets more complicated. Even Mums and Dads who love us can cry and swear and argue and lose their jobs. As teenagers we become filled with righteous anger at the injustice of the world: how come we spend billions on nuclear weaponry while children in the developing world are dying from simple preventable diseases? Is anyone bothered? Is God? And before we know it we’ve grown up ourselves and one day we look at our lives through the mirror of mid-life and realise that the amazing marriage, the dynamic career, the multi-talented children don’t seem to have quite materialised to plan. Wasn’t there something about a loving God? In the disillusion of mid-life it’s tempting to think that the atheists were right all along. Perhaps the God stuff is childish nonsense, an elaborate strategy for avoiding reality.
It’s delight and privilege of ministry to meet people and chat with them. Here in Crosspool I find myself talk to people who are living complicated lives. Often they are drawn towards God and yet put off by their earlier experiences of churches which offer an insubstantial version of faith, often, sadly, mixed in with set of judgemental attitudes. God is here and God loves you may be good for a three year old but a thirty three year old needs something deeper. As adults we need mature faith that can handle the questions and dilemmas that adult life throw up. We need the fullness of the God whom we dare to name as Father, Son and Spirit.
So what’s involved in coming to greater maturity of faith? Writers about spiritual development tend to agree that there are three modes or stages. We need to move on from one mode to the next, we can’t leap frog and miss one out.
So mode one is all about order. We need to know God as creator, the one who orders the universe and orders our human existence. This is the God our Isaiah passage speaks of, the one who has measured out the waters in the hollow of his hand, who has held the dust of the earth in a basket and weighed the mountains on the scales. The wonderful poetry of the passage reminds us of the grandeur of the creator God, but these pictures of measuring and weighing also tell us that the ongoing creative work of God is also about bringing order. Meeting God is about the bringing of order into disordered lives, and we see that of course in Jesus’s healing of the demon-possessed man. Where God is there is purpose and meaning: things fit together and make sense.
So if this first mode of faith is about order, we need a clear framework for belief. We need to know the basics, someone to tell us the gospel story, someone to show us how to pray. We need Christ’s forgiveness and love as the foundation for our lives. Our faith may be rather black and white but knowing God in Christ is the ordering principle for our lives. It helps make sense of life.
The second mode of faith is about questioning. As we develop greater confidence, we question previous certainties. If God answers prayer, why did Auntie Ursula die of cancer? How can the Bible be true if it says such different things? If Christians are supposed to love their neighbour, how come the Church is unfriendly to gay people? Does God really send people to hell if they don’t believe in him, and isn’t that unfair on the people who never got to hear about Jesus in the first place?
This questioning mode is an important aspect of faith development. We need to recognise it as both positive and necessary. Yet church often fails to recognise this. In many churches asking questions is frowned upon and people learn to suppress their questions, which, in turn, becomes a source of anxiety. People worry that they are “doubting” and see this as evidence of sinfulness.
Yet the bible itself shows the importance of developing critical awareness, and asking the hard question. The prophetic tradition, beginning with Elijah and continuing through with Isaiah, Amos and Hosea and so on through to John the Baptist and Jesus is all about challenging preconceptions and unsettling previous certainties. The prophets message for us is that It’s OK to ask questions, because God certainly asks questions of us. One writer on prayer suggests that we pray with the questions posed by Jesus in the Gospels and hearing them as questions put to ourselves.
So the need to question needs a listening ear and a sensitive response. If people suppress their questions, faith lacks the space to flourish. I was talking to a man at the car boot sale across the road last week. He spoke wistfully of his growing up in the church, and yet as he grew older he came to feel that faith was not compatible with a modern scientific view of the world. Yes, it is, of course, but for this man, there had been no place to have the conversation, no permission to ask the question.
I hear that story as a challenge to me in my ministry and to all of us here. It makes me think it is vital that we have permission to work through our questions with God and with each other. In our preaching, in our praying, in our house-groups, through our reading and conversations together, we need honesty. Not every question will resolve neatly but that is not the point: it’s the process, it’s the struggle that takes us onwards on our journey of faith together.
I think that when we’re in this questioning mode it’s essential that we really engage with the human Jesus, Jesus as God’s word made flesh for us, God among us sharing and identifying with all the muddle and mess that comes with being a human being in the world. It’s important that we realise that Jesus is not “merely” the Son of God, but completely “God the Son” God, made human. That’s what the understanding of God as Trinity tells us.
So we’ve had the stages of order and of questioning: the third stage is about integration. As we come to deeper maturity in our journey with God, there is a greater wholeness of life and faith. We are more ready to accept the paradoxes and contradictions of life. In prayer we may find we slip easily into God’s presence, and that we don’t need so many words as we used to. The wonder and mystery of God is simply a reality for us, and we recapture that sense of union which is a memory for us from earliest childhood. This intimacy with him is God’s desire for each one of us, just like that total safety and love I experienced as a toddler with my Grandad. God creates us for union with him.
Well, journeys of faith are generally not a straight line, and in reality we may not move simply from one stage to the next. I like to think of them as three modes rather than progressive stages, and tend to think we may move between them at different times of our life. In faith, as in life, there are lots of wiggly lines, and unexpected turnings. That’s OK. Because wherever we are in our journey we have the assurance of Jesus: “Surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Creator God, bring order to our disordered world.
Jesus, be with us in all our questionings.
Holy Spirit, bring us to perfect union with you
Praise to you, the Trinity of Love.