Archive for Spiritual maturity

Between Clarity and Muddle

Posted in Background, Homilies with tags , , , , on July 24, 2016 by timtrue


Luke 11:1-13

Many of you know the story of my spiritual journey:

  • How I grew up in a home where church was not a part of family life;
  • How I placed a lot of stock in my family;
  • How this stock was entirely upended when my parents divorced;
  • How through this divorce I began to question what things really mattered;
  • How I began to find answers first through Bible study and later through church;
  • How I sensed a call to ordained ministry during college;
  • And how more than twenty years passed before this call materialized.

Many of you know this.  But do you know the story of my spiritual pendulum swings?

When I was a little boy and life was good—when I was growing up in semi-rural southern California on an avocado orchard, with chickens and a donkey and a dog and three cats and a swimming pool with a rope swing and large lawns and hillsides nearby for hiking and bicycling and racing homemade go-karts and neighbor kids my own age and grapevines and citrus trees and afternoon Pacific breezes and delightfully cool summer evenings—when I was a boy experiencing all these things, let me tell you, life largely fell into two clearly defined categories: good and bad.

I have a vivid, lucid memory, in fact, of lying on my lawn on a lazy summer afternoon, mesmerized by the several hues of green the sunlight was making as it danced upon the avocado leaves playing in the breeze.  “This is what life is all about,” I told myself.  “This is where I will grow old.  I’ll grow up, get married, have a family, and my kids will grow up and have their families, and this is right where I’ll be, a grandpa, still living in this house, still lazing away my summer afternoons right here on this lawn.”

Here was absolute truth without even the faintest breath of falsehood.  Here was everything beautiful without any discernible scent of ugliness.  Here was all good and nothing bad.

My spiritual pendulum, in other words, had not yet swung; it was entirely over here, on this side, as far up the arc of clarity as it possibly could be.

But then, abruptly, with the divorce, it dropped.  And it swung.

Now all those avocado trees and lazy summer afternoon swims and philosophical musings in the breeze suddenly didn’t seem so important.  Now, instead, Mom and Dad, who’d so recently seemed so certain and sure of themselves, were unstable, emotional, and confused.

The truth, beauty, and goodness of my life—now there was something rancid in the smell.  Now discerning the good from the bad was—well, now I couldn’t tell where one stopped and the other began.  Now life was all mixed up.

And it all had happened overnight!

Just like that, my spiritual pendulum had swung from its highest point of clarity to its opposite extreme.  All that had seemed so constant and stable was now uncertain and confused, just like my parents.

But there’s something about pendulums: they swing back.

The backswing came, very noticeably, a few years later, when I was in high school, when I’d gone away on a youth retreat and—in the words of the youth leaders—given my life to Christ.

“Have you ever felt uncertain and confused?” the speaker asked.  “Jesus knows how you feel.  And, in fact, Jesus has all the answers.  Do you want to stop feeling uncertain and confused?  Then just give your life to Him: give your life to Christ.”

Well, yeah!  I wanted the answers.  I wanted clarity and stability in my uncertain and confused life.  I wanted my spiritual pendulum to swing back to the high point of clarity again.

So I did what the speaker said.  I stayed behind, after the emotional meeting was over.  I met with a so-called spiritual counselor.  And I prayed a formulaic prayer to receive Christ, repeating the prompts given to me by this spiritual counselor.  And thus I “gave my life to Christ.”

Now all would be clear again, I told myself.  Now all would be black and white.  Now I would be able with certainty to discern truth from falsehood, beauty from ugliness, and good from evil.

So I changed my ways.  I stopped swearing.  I started doing my homework.  I said no whenever my friends invited me to parties.  And I tried to sort everything—and I mean everything—into two neatly defined, binary categories of right and wrong.

And you know what happened?  I lost a lot of friends.

Oh, sure, that’s not the only thing that happened!  A lot of good came out of this newly repentant life, sure.  Clarity in a season of uncertainty and confusion is always a good thing.  So, for instance, I developed serious spiritual disciplines during these years.  I also learned to value very highly a life characterized by integrity—a life I strive to live to this day.

But I also became intolerant of anyone who thought differently than I did.  What worked for me was good enough—I’d developed my system, my formula for life.  And whenever I met another person who tried to practice a similar system, well, we’d become fast friends.  But whenever I met a person who did not, which was more often the case, well, I’d tell myself, my time and energies would be better spent elsewhere.

So, yeah, I lost a lot of friends.  And I made very few new ones.  My spiritual counselor at that youth retreat never told me that would happen.

So, one thing about pendulums is they swing back.  Which, in time, I’m happy to say, mine did again.  But then, yes, I’m not so happy to say, after a while it swung forth again.  And then it swung back again.  And forth again.  And back.  And forth.  And so on.  And so forth.

But there’s something else: swinging isn’t the only thing pendulums do.  After time—and for some of us this may mean a long time, like the pendulum in the Griffith Park Observatory in L. A.—after time the swinging motion starts to slow down.  The large, violent swings that once went up so high from one side to the other now don’t go up so high anymore.  Now they become softer, gentler, more manageable.  Now we begin to see details and colors we never knew were there before.

For me, these softening swings were the twenty-some years of watching my call to the ordained ministry materialize, as I navigated the waters of life together with Holly and our growing family, through various churches and denominations, gaining vocational experience as a teacher and school administrator, learning, learning, always learning, that life isn’t so clear, certain, and stable as I’d like it to be; that Jesus isn’t so much a god with all the answers as he is a God to guide.

He never promised his disciples clarity on that Day of Pentecost.  Instead, he promised an Advocate, Comforter, and Guide: the Holy Spirit.

So, somewhere in there, after several years of swinging back and forth, of vacillating between clarity and muddle, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit my spiritual pendulum swings began to soften, to become gentler, more colorful, and more manageable.

Somewhere in there I learned that life isn’t just about discipline, rationality, and the head overcoming the heart.  Life is also human.  It’s full of emotion.  It’s unstable.  It’s confusing.  It’s messy.

Somewhere in there I learned that Jesus is not just some lofty ideal, out there somewhere, fully God but not quite fully human—or maybe more than fully human, maybe superhuman—who decided to wear humanity for a while, as if dressing up for a dinner party; and all I have to do is go find him and learn from him.

Rather, somewhere in there I learned that in Christ Jesus God actually became like me!  God met me where I already was.  God became human—and all that that means: all its emotion, instability, confusion, and mess!

Anyway, that’s the story of my spiritual pendulum swings.

What’s your story?  I’m sure you’ve been guided in this way too, vacillating back and forth throughout your Christian life; but that over time experiencing a sort of settling too—a softening that has produced a more colorful and manageable life.

So: in light of today’s Gospel, what is this settling?  Is it not prayer?

“Lord,” that disciple said to Jesus, “teach us to pray.”

Is this not our constant question?  Is this not what we ask again and again, over and over as we swing from one side of our human perspectives to the next?

Back and forth we go on our spiritual pendulums, setting personal standards that are humanly impossible and then failing to live up to them, vacillating between clarity and muddle.

But what softens our swinging?  What aligns us?  What draws us in?

Is it not prayer?  Is not prayer the gravity that orients and grounds us?

Lord Jesus, indeed, teach us to pray.


Unity a Sign of Spiritual Maturity

Posted in Doing Church, Homilies with tags , , , on January 19, 2014 by timtrue

I Corinthians 1:1-9

Mature.  It’s a curious adjective, isn’t it?

In the world of agriculture we use it to describe a plant that has the ability to bear fruit.  For example, grape vines are not considered mature until their third year; for they cannot bear grapes until then.  And even then it’s debatable.  For the grapes produced in the third year are generally few and far between.  It is not really until the fourth year that full bunches, rich and plump, appear on the vine; it is not really until the fourth year that we can call grapevines mature.  (Keep that in mind if the whim ever strikes you to go into wine-making.)

So there’s agriculture.  But we also use the word mature—and variations of it, like immature—to describe people, don’t we?  Oh, I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I’ve heard these words thrown casually around my house!  An argument breaks out at the dinner table, or someone does something unpredicatably silly, for a laugh or whatever; and I know what’s going to follow: those three overused words, that well-known adolescent mantra: “You’re so immature!”  You know what I’m talking about?

But unlike with agriculture, to describe another person as mature or immature leaves a lot of wiggle room.  It’s not so easy to say a person is mature because he or she can bear fruit.  Granted, this may be true in a strictly physical sense; we won’t get into that here.  But what about an emotional sense?  Or a spiritual?  Can we ever really say that we’ve become fully emotionally mature as a human being, always and completely able to maintain control over our feelings?  Sometimes I may display a great deal of maturity with respect to controlling my anger, for instance; but the very next day I slip back into an immature loss of temper!

No, for human beings, the term mature is relative.  At least, it’s relative until the Kingdom of God is fully realized.

This is the idea that Paul is getting at in his first letter to the Corinthians—or part of the idea anyway.  The congregation in Corinth recently had been called out of its old life of sin into a new life in Christ.  It was made up of new believers.  In a spiritual sense they were immature.  Now some time had passed since Paul had planted this church.  And, as is the natural process with any living organism, Paul expected to see a maturing process.  But this process was not happening as quickly as he had expected it to—or as quickly as it needed to in order to sustain itself.

Do you recall what was going on at the Church in Corinth?  Perhaps most famously there was social division.  The rich and the poor were not getting along.  The rich, in fact, were drinking all the wine and eating all the bread at the Eucharist, leaving nothing for the poor.

But this social division was just the tip of the iceberg!  Without going into too much detail, let me just say that Corinth was the Las Vegas of the ancient world.  What happened in Corinth stayed in Corinth—and there was a lot that happened in Corinth!  And this lot characterized the church there.

Anyway, all this divisiveness led Paul to say (3:1): “And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as a spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.”  He had fed them with spiritual formula, as a caregiver would feed an infant.  But instead of them maturing to a point spiritually where they no longer needed formula, to a point where they could feed themselves, they still weren’t ready for the solid food of Christ.  They were big spiritual babies.  They were immature.

Now I don’t know about you, but all this talk about divisiveness being a sign of spiritual immaturity makes me uncomfortable.  After all, what’s wrong with shaking things up a little?  What if I see something going on in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and School that I disagree with?  I pledge.  Don’t I therefore have a right to sound my voice and make my opinions known?

Good question!  The answer is yes—and no.

I’m not saying that we need to agree on everything.  In fact, quite the contrary!  We need to disagree.  For we live in a constant tension as individuals in relationship with one another.  As individuals, we form our own opinions according to how God has made uniquely each one of us; but in relationship I continuously butt up against other individuals who see things differently than I.  So disagreement should be expected, and is maybe even essential to life.  And so, yes, I—you have a right to make your opinions known.

But the issue is how you go about making your opinions known.  Do you divide and conquer, as it were?  You see something you don’t like.  Fine!  It happens to all of us.  But then what?  Do you pull people aside, hoping to win them to your side in hushed whispers?  Do you think in terms of us vs. them, or of my people and your people?  Do you put yourself in some sort of category that you imagine is somehow superior to another—whether it be social status, the color of your skin, your gender, or your sexual orientation?  Such excluding behavior is according to the old way, the way of sin, the life you knew before Christ, what Paul calls the flesh.  Such excluding behavior too, by the way, is at the root of all sorts of social evils like bigotry, racism, and bullying.

But what happened in Corinth needs to stay in Corinth!  That was your old life, your old way of dealing with disagreement.  You are now a citizen of the Kingdom of God.  So act like it!

When disagreement arises, and it will, deal with it according to the Kingdom’s rules, not Corinth’s.  Don’t pull someone aside and whisper your cause into their itching ears!  Instead, go to the one with whom you disagree in love, loving the Lord your God as you go; and loving that other person, who is your neighbor, as yourself.  And seek reconciliation!

Right?  We should not seek to create factions, but unity.  Unity is a sign of maturity in Christ.

Now, here’s the good news: even with all the divisiveness that went on in Corinth, Paul nevertheless saw the Corinthians’ potential.

That’s what we read today: a vision of spiritual maturity.  The Christians in Corinth, Paul writes, are already sanctified in Christ Jesus.  They are already saints.  Despite the present disagreements!  Despite the present arguments!  Despite the present factions!  In fact, Christ is presently among them, enriching them and strengthening them to overcome their divisions, to become more and more mature as a corporate body.

It is just the same today, here, with us.  Whatever factions there are among us, and however poorly we deal with them, we are already sanctified; we are already saints.  Christ is present among us, enriching us in all things and strengthening us to overcome our divisions; and thereby we can become more and more mature in him.

Let us therefore pray to this end: for ourselves as individuals; for the corporate body of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and School; and for the wider Church.

. . . .  Amen.