Sunday, November 22, 2009

Considering Spiritual Maturity

The Rewards of Spiritual Maturity
Rev. Kit Ketcham, Nov. 22, 2009

Sing with me if you remember this old spiritual:
"Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows my sorrow,
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, glory hallelujah.
Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down, oh yes, Lord,
Sometimes I’m almost to the ground, oh yes Lord.
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows my sorrow,
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, glory “hallelujah.

For the past several years we have been living in fearful times, haven’t we? For many of us it may have started with the events of Sept. 11, 2001. For others, the election of leaders who seemed at odds with human values and human rights. For some, it may have been a diagnosis of serious illness or job loss or forced retirement or low income. Perhaps our children have struggled with issues we could not fix. Or parents, siblings, other loved ones have been troubled or ill or needy.

Perhaps that’s actually the general human condition, just made worse by current circumstances. For who can remember a time when all was rosy, all was smiles and joy, all was positive and lighthearted? And yet, who can remember a time when all was bleak and dark, all was death and decay, all was negative and foreboding?

Life tends to be a combination of events and moods, highs and lows, at least for most of us. But there’s no getting around it----life is rarely free of struggle and difficulty. Even here today, some of us are worried about whether we will make it financially, or whether our children are going to be okay, or whether a job will come through, or whether our savings will last as long as our lives. The economic downturn across the globe has made it hard for everyone and even harder for many of us.

And yet, it’s Thanksgiving, the beginning of a plethora of holidays that celebrate the light side of life, not the dark side.

Sometimes it helps to name the worries, either aloud or to ourselves. So let’s just throw out some of the things we know that we and other folks are struggling with at this time:

Okay, so those are the worries, as many as we could think of in a short time. What are the joys? The things that are not dependent on our income or our health or our work or our elected leaders? Let’s call them out as well:

So life has its sorrows and its joys and we can name them. But despite our ability to look at life objectively, we may still be more troubled by the deficits than pleased by the rewards. We’re human, after all, and gloriously imperfect!

If you’re like me, you may pick and choose what news you take in, what TV programs you’re willing to invest time in, what books you read for deeper knowledge. There is a streak in me that worries that if I know too much about Afghanistan or torture or the latest conspiracy theory, I’ll lose my sanity. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s more that I can care so much that I lose my perspective.

And it’s then that I wake up in the night obsessing about one thing or another: will my pension be cut? Will the church have to be repossessed? Will I do something to ruin my relationships? Will my sister or brother or son or friend get desperately ill? Will someone I love start to dislike me because of something I’ve said or done?

We all have these moments in life, I think. It’s part of the human condition. And yet some of us seem to be more resilient than others of us. It’s either that they have strong positive optimist genes or they have learned ways of coping with sorrow and joy that transcend instinctive responses. I think it’s called maturity. We all can grow and mature, but it can be hard.

Also, there is more than one kind of maturity, isn’t there? We know all about physical maturation-----the development from fetus to infant to toddler to older child to adolescent to young adult to adult. This process has its own timeline and is helped along by proper nutrition and health care.

There’s also emotional maturity, the ability to cope with a loss or crisis that does not result in damage to oneself or to others. Emotional maturity is helped to develop by loving and trustworthy relationships with others, particularly in childhood.

Mental maturity is related to cognitive processes, the ability to think clearly, to evaluate a situation and to make choices based on a critical thought process. Mental maturity is developed through mental stimulation and learning, observation of cause and effect.

But there’s another kind of maturity that intrigues me and has occupied my thoughts ever since Lois mentioned it in her November president’s column. She wrote about “spiritual maturity” and her hope that we as a congregation might strive for spiritual maturity in our own individual lives and in the life of this congregation.

We talked about it a bit one day at our monthly meeting and I got more intrigued myself and decided to investigate it more deeply. Since then, Sara and I have talked about what it might mean to be spiritually mature and how the idea might relate to our theme today of Abundance in Fearful Times.

Because perhaps that’s what we need to experience abundance in fearful times---a spiritual maturity (in addition to all the physical, emotional and mental maturity we can muster), a spiritual maturity that helps us be resilient, that helps us use all our maturity to enhance our own lives and make the lives of others better as well. Spiritual maturity implies the ability to reach out to others in compassion and with a desire to be of service.

What might be the characteristics of a spiritually mature person? I brainstormed that a bit myself and also with Sara and some other UU friends and came up with a long list of desirable traits. A very long list. A list of the requirements for being able to walk on water!

One reference from the Christian scriptures seemed concise enough to summarize many of them, and that was Galatians 5, verses 22 and 23, where Paul the apostle is writing to the church in Galatia, centuries ago:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control.” That says a lot right there, but it doesn’t say it all.

It’s interesting to me that Paul never mentions gratitude, which I think is foundational to a spiritual life. He also doesn’t mention wisdom, perhaps thinking that only he had the wisdom new Christians required! And he doesn’t mention a desire to learn, also a pre-requisite, in my book, to a fulfilling spiritual life.

Of course, his horizons were limited by political boundaries, by Roman and Hebrew culture, and by his own interpretation of what Jesus’ followers should do. Mostly he thought they should do what he said---he being Paul, not necessarily Jesus! Paul thought pretty highly of himself, because he was a Roman citizen, and ego was a big part of his struggle to be a good person. He knew this about himself and prayed mightily for self-control, but he was human, just we are.

There are a few other qualities, however, that are the mark of a spiritually mature person, things Paul probably never dreamed of, that we have learned over the past centuries of human life and self-understanding, seeing the pitfalls of a limited religious life, a life which has only one path, only one set of guidelines, only one way to achieve salvation---which was for Paul the only goal, getting to heaven.

I had made a list of the qualities that Sara and I and other UU pals had mentioned that weren’t associated with Paul’s list in his letter to the Galatian church, so I tried lining them up with our seven principles to see if there were any patterns.

And here are some characteristics of spiritually mature persons that go beyond Paul’s list and reflect our 7 Principles.

Openness and an understanding and acceptance of others’ values and ideas is a hallmark of a spiritually mature Unitarian Universalist. Openness makes each of our principles more accessible because each of them requires us to stretch our thinking beyond the old ways we might have grown up with. When we are open-minded, open-hearted, openly-welcoming, we invite into our lives the wisdom others offer.

Courage to change our minds and our behavior is another mark of spiritual maturity in our tradition. Over the years of evolution of UUism we have moved from liberal Christianity to scientific humanism to a blend of spirituality and rationality, the primary flavor of our religious theology today.

Along this journey, we all have had to let new ideas in; Christians learned the value of science and rationality in scouting out a religious path and humanists learned the value of spiritual awareness. As a consequence, though we follow a typical Christian-type order of service in our worship and use many traditional words such as worship, God, faith, that sort of thing, we have found new understandings for some of those words because the old ones don’t say what we mean. Yet we know that these words are valuable because of their history and weight and we have learned to translate them when we hear them, rather than getting offended.

Another characteristic connected to spiritual maturity and related to courage, I think, is the willingness to be self-critical, to look at our beliefs, our behaviors, our thoughts, our abilities, and strive for integrity between our actions and our values. When we are wrong, we must be willing to admit it and make amends if we have hurt someone else. If we can escape the trap of defensiveness and excuse-making OR the trap of needing excessive praise to stroke our egos, we are on the way to greater spiritual maturity.

A desire for continuous learning is another facet of spiritual maturity. We can’t just quit growing; we have to keep learning, in order to deepen our human experience and open ourselves wider to life. We learn from all our life’s experiences, whether they are joyous or sorrowful, boring or exciting. Staying open to new learnings is essential to our maturity.

And finally, perhaps, spiritually mature folks need a healthy sense of humor, even when the humor is directed at ourselves. Can we laugh at ourselves? Is it painful to see our foibles out there in plain sight? Of course it is! But this quality may, of all the qualities, be one of the most valuable. It is a mark of our authenticity, our realness, to see the humor in our lives, use it as a springboard for self-examination, and make changes if we need to.

This is not an intensive treatment, obviously. You could add other ideas, I’m sure. But now let’s think about the spiritual maturity of our congregation.

Unitarian Universalist author Michael Durall has written a good deal about the role of Unitarian Universalist congregations in the larger community and his challenge to us here today is to take the journey toward spiritual maturity not only as individuals but as a congregation.

Durall suggests that if we individuals become more spiritually mature, our congregation will mature as well. It takes courage to become spiritually mature as individuals; it requires us to look at our attitudes and behavior and change those that are not directed toward making ourselves better people and the world a better place.

Courage is required of congregations as well and Durall states that we must have courage to act on our principles. We are not here just to make ourselves and each other happy. We are here to use our common commitment to our ideals to reach out into the world and to make others’ lives better. We are here to empower each other, to challenge each other to live more purposeful lives, and provide each other the courage to make the world a better place in which to live.

These ideas resonate with me. I believe that spiritually mature people act upon a congregation in ways that inspire and encourage everyone. When people within these walls get excited about something like healing for vets or civil rights for sexual minorities or torture abolishment, we all get drawn in by their enthusiasm, and as we know more about their concerns, we learn how we ourselves might become involved.

So how do we go about developing a more spiritual life as individuals so that we might inspire and encourage our congregation’s maturity? Here’s what I think.

First of all, we who want to become spiritually mature must make a definite commitment to doing so, setting a goal of constant growth toward greater spiritual maturity. It will be a lifelong goal, not something we achieve overnight.

Second, a spiritual path is always enhanced by a spiritual practice, such as reading and study or prayer, or journaling.

Third, we can arrange a life of greater simplicity, letting go of extravagance and excess in favor of paring life down to its essentials.

Fourth, we can strive to be as generous as possible to the congregation and to the causes we support, letting giving become more important in our lives.

Fifth, creating a Sabbath or deliberate rest day in our schedules can enhance a life of spiritual development.

Sixth, gathering regularly with other seekers, whether that’s in a small conversation group or at Sunday services or in study and reflection, can help us stay focused on maturity.

Seventh, reducing the input of the chaotic world into our homes by limiting TV use and internet access will provide quiet time and solitude in which to reflect and consider our own growth.

Eighth, reaching out in the community through church or other agency to provide services to the community is another step. And finally, welcoming the newcomer, sharing the journey, learning from others.

As I consider these steps I’m offering you today, I have to be self-critical about my own progress toward spiritual maturity. And I fall short in many ways. But perfection is not the goal; progress toward the goal matters more.

I would invite you to consider your own spiritual maturity. Do you yearn for a more fulfilling spiritual life? Do you wish that this congregation offered more opportunity for study and reflection, for discussion of spiritual matters? You are likely not alone! I believe that many of us yearn for deeper spiritual lives.

As we go into the holiday season, let us reflect on these ideas. Let’s discuss them when we get together, whether that’s over a meal or a cup of coffee or at our upcoming Conversation next Saturday night.

Let’s consider how we might offer more opportunity for spiritual growth in ourselves and in our congregation.

And let’s consider the exciting possibility of our own individual spiritual growth, becoming people whose lives have great depth and meaning because of our desire to grow.

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that when we are together we are growing in wisdom and commitment and dedication to our ideals. May we live our ideals in the larger community and may we strive for deeper spiritual meaning in our lives, that our congregation might grow spiritually as well. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

SING TOGETHER: Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in human care, The fellowship of kindred minds is precious for us to share.


kimc said...

Have you read this essay called "Spiritual Maturity"? You might enjoy it.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Kim. I'll take a look.

Robin Edgar said...

Thanks for yet another "less than perfect" sermon Rev. Ketchum, but I must say that it really is a very good one if not an excellent one.

Keep up the good work! :-)

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Robin.

Becky said...

Great post. I have been getting more in touch with my spiritual side lately and consequently have been trying to read great books on the subject... my most favorite book thus far is "Decoding The Spiritual Messages of Everyday Life: How Life Teaches Us What We Need To Know" by Dr. Paul DeBell. What I have learned the most through my studies is that spirituality is medicine for the soul. Thanks again for your great post. You have given me a lot to think about.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks for your kind words, Becky, and best wishes on your path toward greater spiritual satisfaction.

Soggydog said...

Kit, you write, "So how do we go about developing a more spiritual life as individuals so that we might inspire and encourage our congregation’s maturity?"
I like your question and want to pose some distinguishing variations that help me personalize this: 1) What behavioral skill-sets do I need to acquire, and/or refine, to more congruently reflect my spiritual values in relationship with self, others and the wider community?; 2) What response abilities do I need to strengthen for more readily discerning if, how and when to intervene in the suffering presenting to me?; 3) What practices will nurture my efforts?; and 4) What would learning communities helping me evolve toward these ends look like?