Nuclear Weapons Facilities, Harvard University, and Grandma’s Love

As you can see in, this morning is the second part in a three part series, in which I am going to share and draw a whole bunch of ideas and thoughts and diagrams and prayers that I have found helpful in trying to follow Jesus.  And it might not all wrap up nice and neat and tidy at the end. So you really can pick and choose what you want.  But I’m still hopeful it’ll be helpful.

And as usual, you are 100% free to agree or disagree with me.  Here at Grace, we allow for disagreement.  Unity is not uniformity.


And, in an effort to allow for communication to be a 2-way street, not only will I be available in the side room after worship to continue to conversation, but, in your bulletin you’ll see Q & R.  You are free to text me any questions or thoughts that spring up, and we’ll take a few minutes to engage with them.

Okay. Off we go.

Let’s start with a definition of faith:  James Fowler was a prof at Harvard for years, and defined faith the “Universal Quality of Human Meaning Making”.   So faith is not just about “believing” certain ideas, but rather an active process that we are all, constantly engaged in.  Faith is a verb, about how we see the world, what we trust, what we put our efforts and energy behind, how we live our lives.  So faith is not just for us religious folk, but rather all of humanity is trying to make meaning in the world and live with integrity. We are all “faith-ing.”

I’ve been working as a pastor for 12 years now, and when I first started, I was amazed at how so many people call themselves Christians, and yet how they choose to express their faith seems so opposite from other Christians.  And this still continues to amaze me.

For example, if we go back to the Iraq War Part 2.  George Bush Junior was President, a Christian, and went to war because he thought Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and he didn’t want Sadam Hussein to use them.   And we are similar conversations these days with the threat of a nuclear war between the US and North Korea, in which one of the leaders identifying as Christian and being support by millions of Christians.

But, there are other expression of faith that run contrary to this.  Three years ago, 3 Americans, including an 84 year old nun, were arrested in the States for breaking into a nuclear weapons complex and defacing the complex.  They spray painted the words “The Fruit of Justice is Peace” on walls, and when they were arrested, they were having communion, and offered to give a Bible to the police and offered to share their communion bread.  Before she was sentenced to 3 years in jail, the nun said “Please have no leniency with me, to remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest gift you could give me.”

The different expressions of Christian faith are so diverse, I don’t even know how we’re on the same team sometimes.

Luckily, early in my years as a pastor, I discovered a book by Brian Mclaren, where he talks about Good Faith and Bad Faith.  It’s a rough dichotomy, but it certainly helped me immensely.  It helps me try to navigate what’s going on in people’s lives beyond the labels of “Christian” or “not a Christian.”

Bad Faith is based solely on unquestioned authority.  Bad faith is based on pressure or coercion.  Bad faith is often the result of psychological need for belonging. Bad faith appeals to self-interest and base motives.  Bad faith is arrogant and unteachable.  Bad faith is dishonest.  Bad faith is apathetic.  Bad faith is a step backward.  Bad faith doesn’t work for the common good.

Good faith is humble, teachable, and inquisitive.  Good faith is grateful.  Good faith is honest.  Good faith is communal.  Good faith is active.  Good faith is relational.   Good faith works for the common good.

So, to be extreme, we can say, Mother Teresa is an example of good faith, and, the KKK burning crosses is an example of bad faith.  Churches sponsoring refugees?  Good faith.  Churches not sponsoring refugees because they might be Muslim?  Bad faith.  This is simple, but I have found it helpful.image1

In the last several years, as you might know, I’ve been deeply influenced by Richard Rohr.  One of the things that I have learned from him is even more helpful language about spiritual maturity.

He moves beyond the straight dichotomy of good faith and bad faith, and uses the words healthy religion and unhealthy religion.

And how do we determine what’s healthy and unhealthy?

Well, in the book of Galatians, we have a wonderful list called The Fruits of the Spirits.  Love, patience, peace, joy, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Again, it’s a broad stroke, but healthy religion produces this good fruit, and unhealthy religion produces bad fruit.

I also ask myself the question:  Does this expression of faith work towards of common good of humanity?  Or not?

Or, I ask about the Golden Rule… Would I want someone to express their faith to me like this?   Or not?

Learning that I have the ability to name something that I observe in the world as healthy or unhealthy, or learning that I’m allowed to name something INSIDE of me as healthy or unhealthy, is really freeing.

We all make choices about how to live our lives.  Good faith, bad faith, healthy religion, unhealthy religion, does it work for the common good, does it pass the golden rule… Simple, but helpful.

(The downside of this framework is that almost all of us will label ourselves and our worldview and our faith as healthy, and we’ll label those of us different than ours as unhealthy.  But we’re going to get to that in a bit.)

But let’s start with spiritual maturity.  Over the past two years, I’ve preached a bit on growth, and how faith grows.  One of the frameworks I use is something called:  Fowler’s Stages of Faith.

I’m going to do a remarkably brief and inadequate summary of it because I want to make it make it as accessible as possible, and then I’ll make it really, really, practical at the end.  Especially for us at Grace.

James Fowler was a professor of religion and human psychology at Emory University, and he developed something called Stages of Faith.

I learned Fowler’s stages of faith from two separate sessional instructors at CMU, one I count as one of spiritual mentors, and the other was a visiting professor from Harvard, Dr. Sharon Daloz Parks.

But before I start, a funny story about Dr. Daloz Parks.  I think I was 21 when I took the course, and I knew that Harvard was a really good school, but at the time I didn’t realize that it was, like, the BEST, and that that they only take in 6% of all applicants, even though every person applying has straight As.

So in a class full of local Mennonite pastors with their undergrad degrees who were planning snack for youth that night, I asked, “Dr. Daloz Parks… how do we compare to your Harvard students?”  Everyone snickered, and now I know why.

She smiled.

“You are wonderful people with great hearts, and it’s a joy to be here teaching you.”

I think she was genuine. But I also think she might have been naming us as slightly less intelligent than her regular students.

Okay.  Back to Fowler’s stages of faith. You ready?

Stage 0 – Undifferentiated Faith –
For some reason, Fowler’s starts at Stage 0  (because sometimes academics are strange?).  Stage 0 is newborn, where we come out of the womb with all our needs being met, and all we know is love.  When you’re holding a newborn who is contently sleeping in your arms, and you see the parent just hold them, smiling, it’s beautiful.  All we know is love.

Stage 1 is called Intuitive Projective Faith and stage 2 is called Mythic Literal Faith – Stages 1 and 2 are for when the kids grow up, ti their about 13.  I won’t spend too much time on these, but this is where kids kind of believe what they’re told, they’re not old enough to understand metaphors, they believe very concrete things and aren’t too worried about God being everywhere and invisible at the same time, and how we can’t really see heaven.  Kids in stages 1 and 2 have a strong sense of fairness, and justice, and right and wrong.

But, then adolescence hits, we start to move into stage 3.

Stage 3 – Synthetic-Conventional Faith and life in Stage 3 is quite black and white, and we like bold, clear assertive people who give bold, clear, assertive answers. People living in stage 3 have a really strong external source of authority, and we generally believe and act like those around us (3s are summarized as “conformists”). Our families, our churches, and our leaders.  We’re connected to our group, we have answers, and it’s good.

Stage 4  – Individuative-Reflective – Stage 4 usually starts in young adulthood.  By the time we’re 21, we know there are multiple viewpoints, that life isn’t black and white, but we can navigate this by learning all the different viewpoints and choosing the best one.  Stage 4’s have a strong sense of internal authority, as in, they know what they believe and why.  So people living in stage 4 are probably so confident in their answers that they’ll draw a bunch of graphs and diagrams while preaching on a Sunday.  But they’re also the ones who will be suicide bombers. Because they know the answers, they believe them, and they will follow through.  (This is where I find super-imposing the good faith/bad faith chart onto the stages is helpful, even though Fowler was quite neutral in his understanding of faith).  4s believe stuff, and they can tell you why.

Stage 5Conjuctive Faith – Fowler suggests that stage 5 starts around the age of 40.  I summarize stage 5 by saying “They hold less things tightly”. They are more unified. They are okay with mystery and paradox.  They don’t get uptight about differences. As we move into stage 5, we live in a constant battle between arrogance and humility.  We can get arrogant because we think “Ha!  Look at those simpletons over there, thinking they have all the answers!”, and humility, where our own questions remind us of how little we know, and how much room there is for us to grow.

“I’ll focus on a few grand essentials.  In essentials, unity;  in nonessentials, diversity;  in all things, charity.”

I sometimes think a good example of stage 5s is a Grandma’s unconditional love for her grandchildren… Like, that kid can totally be choosing to rebel against their parents, but grandma’s love is always there.  Always open.  Stage 5’s still believe things, but they know that it doesn’t matter as much as they thought it did.

Stage 6 – Universalizing – And then Stage 6 – Well, Fowler only thought that less than 1% of the world got here, because 6s are so rare that they end up dying because of love.  He uses examples like Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King Jr.  They sacrifice their own being because of love.  It’s worth nothing that they don’t kill for their cause.  That’s something 3s and 4s do.  But 6s choose to die for their cause, and they usually die with love on their lips and an invitation to their enemies to join them in the way of love.

Okay.  Here’s how I best summarize stages of faith…  Fowler goes way, way, deeper than simple “issues”, but it’ll work for us today.  I want you to think of a question of faith, or a hot button “issue” that Christians hold strong opinions about that they might disagree on. I’ll give you 5 seconds.

You all picked head coverings, right?  Like we read in our Bibles how women should cover their heads!  Perfect.

Stage 4s will tell you why women should or should not cover their heads.   Stage 5s will say “Well, I either cover mine or don’t, but it’s not really that important.  What’s important is that we love.”  Stage 6s will die for the people who disagree with them.  And Stage 3s will say, “Well, my pastor says this… Or, my pastor says Richard Rohr says this”

But now we’re going to bring this to the practical, and how it affects us here at Grace. And I’m going to do so by saying a bunch of things about this chart that I think are important.

Here are the statements that I’ve been taught:

  • Some scholars suggest that 80% of Christians in North America operate out of stages 3 and 4.
  • Churches are most efficient operating out of stage 3. Here are the answers.  Do what the pastor says, you’ll fit in fine, and we’ll do great things together.
  • We tend to look at further stages with fear, and we tend to look back at previous stages with arrogance, disdain, and loathing.
  • When we look back at previous stages with disdain, what we’re usually most mad at it usually a previous version of ourselves.
  • Knowledge is not the same as maturity. Having answers is not the same as maturity.  Confidence is not the same as maturity.
  • It is really hard to churches to reach people in all 3 of these stages, let alone the children hanging out in stages 1 and 2.
  • This chart can be a weapon. It can be used to dismiss others, label them as simpletons, or think we’re better than others.  If we dismiss others because they’re in a different stage than us, we’re probably acting out an unhealthy stage 4.
  • So you do not have my permission to go and label people. You do have my permission to learn more about this, and filter the world through this lens, but don’t go labelling people (even though I know you will).
  • I know some of you are already thinking about family gatherings at Christmas, and no, you do not have my permission to talk about the Stages of Faith with your cousins at dinner time.
  • This chart can be a tool to help explain why people act differently, or believe different things. Some of us go through this growth process, and even in stage 5, where we hold less, they can still be different.  You can be in stage 5 and wear a head covering, and you can be in stage 5 and not wear a head covering.  So, Dr. Parks suggested that many leaders in America have gone through this process and in the end decided that money and oil were the things to cling to.  And that’s why they were invading Iraq.  So this chart isn’t about what we believe, but explains a bit about why we believe what we do.
  • This chart can also help us understand others, practice empathy, and practice compassion.
  • And, we will talk about how we move across these stages next week.

And the reason why I really, really wanted to share this with you this morning, is that over the past several years, Mel and I have been listening to what you Gracers are saying about faith and church and your attendance here.  I haven’t asked permission to share these, so they will remain anonymous, but we have heard these:

  • I was tired of going to church just to hear a reaffirmation of doctrine.
  • I’ve been thinking these thoughts about faith for about 10 years, and haven’t had a place I can ask the questions.
  • Kyle, most churches would have fired you for what you said last Sunday.
  • When I was younger, I thought answers were important. Now that I’m around the age of 40, I’m not as sure anymore.  And I’m okay with saying that.
  • I’m grateful for a church that allows for disagreement.
  • Family gatherings are really tough for me.
  • The only beginners class I’ve ever repeated in dance class. So why after decades in church do I feel like it’s still a beginners class?
  • We were wondering if there was a church in Steinbach that we could ever call home.
  • Kyle, I knew that no matter what, my grandma would still love me.

I was told by Dr. Daloz Parks that if we were ever to preach about this, we have to tread very, very softly, and it’s really hard to communicate all of its complexities.  We just scratched the surface of it today (plus I superimposed my own beliefs on top of it).

However, I chose to share these models of growth with you because I think we can be reminded that maturing in our faith is a process… That growing in our faith doesn’t mean having more answers, or being more confident… rather, growing in our faith is actually about us learning to let go, about us being okay not having answers, about us holding things less tightly, and us learning to live sacrificial lives for our neighbours.

And I chose to share these models of growth because I think we need to know that wherever are on this spectrum, it’s okay.  It’s normal.  None of us walk alone. There’s room for everyone at God’s table.

We’re all in this together.  “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, diversity;  in all things, charity.”


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