Keeping the Faith

by Rev. Terry Davis

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation on October 15, 2017

To be profoundly rejected by the people and communities who have been the emotional and spiritual foundation of their lives is a common experience of LGBT persons who risk being authentic about who they are and whom they love.

When Marc and I met for a lunch and he shared his draft of his reflection with me, I was moved to tears. I knew about some of Marc’s personal struggles and triumphs from previous conversations, but I had never heard him tell this part of his story. I was reminded then – and again this morning – of how important keeping the faith is to keeping myself feeling whole and connected to the flow of life.

Like Marc, I have found that my times of despair have occurred when I have lost my faith in whatever it is that anchors me in this world and serves as my guiding principle. And, perhaps like Marc, my own journey as a former Catholic, a lesbian woman, and a recovering addict has led me to conclude that keeping the faith means letting go of ideas, behaviors and relationships that keep me imprisoned and unable to claim my strengths and my spirit.

Keeping the faith has meant having the courage to setting out on a life path that was unimagined and a spiritual path that is unconventional with the hopes of finding my true self and my true god.

When I use the word “god,” it is my shorthand way of referring to those beliefs, relationships and experiences which serve as my go-to for wisdom, comfort, hope and strength. Over the years, the god of my understanding has changed from my childhood belief in a transcendent supreme being to something today that’s harder to describe but easier to recognize.

The love of my spouse Gail, the support of my friends, the acceptance and collective wisdom I find in my 12-step meetings and our Unitarian Universalist non-creedal faith, the sense of renewal I experience when I am direct contact with the natural world – these are a few of my gods . . . my go-tos. These are what anchor me and make it possible for me to feel whole and connected to the flow of life.

The words that Marc clung to during his most difficult moments – “it will get better” – is a prayer that I imagine we all say at times in our lives regardless of who or what our god is. Trusting that things will eventually get better is the part of keeping the faith that can be difficult. Which is why I believe telling stories and keeping memories alive of past trials and triumphs is so important.

****

Back in May of this year, our Northwest middle school students participated in a Coming of Age class, where they were asked to write their personal credos. They had to describe what they believe in, what gives them hope and what sustains them. The stories they shared with us reminded me that finding one’s faith and keeping it is a life-long journey.

James Fowler, an American theologian, scholar, and Methodist minister, wrote a book about this life-long faith journey and our phases of development along the way. It was required reading when I was studying for the ministry. Entitled Stages of Faith, Fowler’s book proposed that faith is a six-part developmental process.

I invite you to see if you recognize yourself and your own faith journey on his continuum.

Stage Zero, occurs from the time of birth to age 2 and is characterized by an early learning of the safety of one’s environment. Experiences of warmth, safety and security translate into a sense of trust and safety about the universe and the divine, says Fowler, while negative experiences will cause one to develop distrust with the universe and the divine.

Stage 1 occurs from age three to seven. It is characterized by the psyche’s unprotected exposure to the Unconscious, and marked by a relative fluidity of thought patterns. At this stage, says Fowler, religion is learned mainly through experiences, stories, images, and the people that one comes in contact with.

Stage 2 occurs mostly in school children. According to Fowler, Stage 2 persons have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and their deities are almost always anthropomorphic. During this time metaphors and symbolic language are often misunderstood and are taken literally.

Stage 3 shows up in adolescence and continues into adulthood. At this stage people start to have the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective. This means that they can also imagine what others think about them and their faith.

People at this stage claim their faith as their own instead of just being what their family does. However, the faith that is claimed is usually still the faith of their family.

Fowler says that issues of religious authority are important to people at this stage. For younger adolescents, that authority still resides mostly with their parents and important adults. For older adolescents and adults in this stage, authority resides with friends and religious community. For all people in this stage, religious authority resides mostly outside of them personally.

Stage 4 usually occurs in persons in their mid-twenties to late thirties. Fowler says that it is a stage of angst and struggle and people in this phase start to question the authority structures of their faith.

This is often the time that someone will leave their religious community if the answers to the questions they are asking are not to their liking.

The individual takes personal responsibility for his or her beliefs and feelings. Greater maturity is gained by rejecting some parts of their faith while affirming other parts. In the end, the person starts to take greater ownership of their own faith journey.

Stage 5, according to Fowler, is one people do not usually arrive to until their early thirties.

Stage 5 is when the struggles and questioning of Stage 4 give way to a more comfortable place. Some answers have been found and the person at this stage is comfortable knowing that all the answers might not be easily found.

In this stage, the strong need for individual self-reflection gives way to a sense of the importance of community in faith development.

People at Stage 5 are also much more open to other people’s faith perspectives. This is not because they are moving away from their faith, but because they have a realization that other people’s faiths might inform and deepen their own.

Stage 6, the final stage of faith development, is called the “Universalizing” faith, or what others might call “enlightenment.”

Fowler describes people at this stage as having a special grace that makes them seem more lucid, simpler, and yet somehow more fully human than the rest of us.

People at this stage can become important religious teachers because they have the ability to relate to anyone at any stage and from any faith. They are able to relate without condescension but, at the same time, are able to challenge the assumptions that those of other stages might have.

People at Stage 6 cherish life but also do not hold on to life too tightly. They put their faith in action, challenging the status quo and working to create justice in the world.

Gandhi and Mother Teresa are cited by some as examples of people who have reached this stage. Stage 6 is thought to be aspirational and rarely achievable in one’s lifetime.  

****

I share James Fowler’s six stages of faith development with you this morning primarily to underscore the point that keeping the faith does not necessarily mean that our faith remains the same.

Rather, keeping the faith means that we are committed to staying on the journey . . . that, in our darkest moments, we have not given up on finding our gods or go-tos . . . and that we’re open to discovering that our ideas about them and what is most important may have changed.   

And so, before we leave this morning, I’d like to ask you a few questions about your faith. In the next few minutes, I’d like for each of us to take a stab at our own personal credos as our middle schoolers did this past spring.

I invite you now – if you wish – to turn to your neighbor. Decide who will speak first and who will listen without interruption. And, then I’d like you to take turns answering the following question: What beliefs, ideas or experiences anchor you?

I will let you know when it is time to switch speakers. Let’s go! (Switch speakers)

What were some of your answers?

Next question: Has your faith changed? If so, how? Turn to your neighbor and let’s repeat the process. (Switch speakers)

What were some of your answers?

When I was a hospital chaplain, one of my favorite colleagues was an Italian Catholic priest, Father Frank Guista. Upon learning that I was of Italian descent, a former Catholic, a lesbian, and a Unitarian Universalist, Fr. Guista became quite curious about my faith journey. We met for lunch on several occasions at a nearby pizzeria, where he would quiz me about my reasons for leaving the church and what Unitarian Universalists believed.  

When I offered him my understanding of god that I gave you earlier, I remember him smiling and saying, “Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter what you believe about god as long as you have one and your god gives you comfort.”

My hope for you and for me is that whatever we each believe anchors and guides us in rough going. And, while our life experiences will shake us up from time to time and may leave us in doubt about who we are and where our lives are headed, may we know that a strong faith can also be a flexible, fluid and changeable faith . . . and that we may, from time to time, uncover a new and more meaningful strain of it.

May we keep the faith in our own way, by doing do, know that we are finding a truth about our life experience that makes experiencing hope, peace and joy possible no matter what.

May it be so. Amen.