How do we grow in Christian maturity? Bishop Bard notes that growth is difficult in the social media age. He encourages intellectual curiosity, complex thinking, and a generous spirit.
BISHOP DAVID BARD
It was August 1998. I was appointed as a district superintendent in the Minnesota Conference and attended the training for new superintendents at Lake Junaluska Assembly Grounds in North Carolina. During my personal devotion time, this verse leaped off the page: “For this, I toil and struggle with all the energy that God in Christ powerfully inspires within me.” (Colossians 1: 29) I was grateful for the language as I had a sense that the work of a district superintendent might sometimes be toil and struggle, just as the work of ministry can be. I was also profoundly grateful for the kind of energy I have often felt God inspires within me. Certainly, I get weary, and this pandemic time has brought weariness closer and deeper. Yet even in this time, I am grateful for the kind of energy God in Christ through the Spirit works in me. This verse has inspired me often since that moment.
Equally important, though, is the “for this.” In the context of the first chapter of Colossians, the “for this” that Paul struggles to achieve is helping people mature in Christ. The church exists not simply to engage people to participate in its life. The church exists to engage people to participate in such a way that their lives are made different, and the world transformed. The church exists to help people know the power of God’s love in Jesus Christ and to help them grow and mature in that love.
I thought about maturity again recently when reading an essay by the writer Ursula LeGuin. LeGuin’s essay is a meditation on maturing. She begins by sharing that a t-shirt company contacted her, asking if they might use one of her lines for a shirt: “the creative adult is the child who survived.” The only problem is that LeGuin could not recall ever writing the line. After extensive research, and with the help of others, she discovered the closest thing she’d ever written: “I believe that maturity is not an outgrowing, but a growing up: that an adult is not a dead child, but a child who survived.”
She then discussed her problems with the proposed t-shirt quote. “To respect and cherish the freshness of perception and the vast, polymorphous potentialities of childhood is one thing. But to say that we experience true being only in childhood and that creativity is an infantile function – that’s something else.” (No Time to Spare, 122). LeGuin goes on to write: “The innocence, the unjudging, the unqualified openness to experience of the young child, can be seen as a spiritual quality attainable or rettainable by the adult” (125). She thinks this may be what Jesus had in mind in encouraging childlikeness. She goes on to say, “however conscious we are of the freedom and awareness and joyfulness we lose as we age, we live a full human life not by stopping at any stage, but by becoming all that is in us to become” (125). Part of maturing is appreciating the gifts of childhood while also growing up. “Uncontrolled spontaneity wastes itself. Ignorance isn’t wisdom. Innocence is wisdom only of the spirit. We can and do all learn from children, all through our life; but ‘become as little children’ is a spiritual counsel, not an intellectual, practical, or ethical one.” (127)
“Part of maturing is appreciating the gifts of childhood while also growing up.”
One might say that in her essay, LeGuin encourages us to see the value of childlike qualities and to see the complex relationship between childlike qualities and adulthood. Thinking in more complex ways is an important element of maturity. If openness, wonder, and curiosity are valued childlike qualities, maturing involves allowing those qualities to help us think in more complex ways. I think this is also part of Christian maturing.
Diana Butler Bass, in her book from a few years ago, Christianity for the Rest of Us, argues for “the importance of intellectual openness to vital spirituality” (191). “Openness, tolerance, and generosity” are “marks of mature Christian character” (191). Bass argues against a tendency common in the church to “pit the mind against the heart” (189).
Part of maturing in Christ is keeping mind and heart connected. It is fostering intellectual curiosity and encouraging more complex thinking. The church has not always been strong in tending this crucial element of maturing.
If all this seems abstract and barely relevant, stay with me.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a Nigerian-American writer. In a thought-provoking TED talk from a few years ago, Adichie spoke about “the danger of a single story.” In speaking about her life as an educated African, whose story is more complex than stories of poverty and catastrophe that often characterize our “story” of African, Adichie said, “All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story…. I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”
“The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” ~ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The attorney and civil rights activist Bryan Stevenson spoke a couple of years ago to corporate CEOs sponsored by Fortune magazine. In his speech, which is easily found online, as is Adichie’s TED talk (“The Power of Proximity”), Stevenson spoke about four rules for helping change the world. Among the rules was the importance of changing narratives. We must “change the narratives that make us comfortable with injustice and inequality.” He argues that narratives of fear and anger lead us to tolerate injustice. He offers that “the true evil of slavery was the narrative of racial difference that justified it.”
We are at the beginning of a new year. I want to invite us all to recommit ourselves to maturing in Christ by growing in our thinking, being willing to think in more complex terms, holding together appreciation for childlike qualities with maturing, holding together heart and mind, listening to multiple stories that help us change the narratives of single stories that justify inequality and injustice.
This is no easy task in our social media age. The quote that Ursala LeGuin never wrote is still attributed to her online, and LeGuin sees little hope of changing that. “A false attribution on the internet is like box elder beetles; the miserable little things just keep breeding and tweeting and crawling out of the woodwork.” In the essay from which I quoted earlier, LeGuin writes, “That’s all a part of what I like least about the internet. A ‘blah blah blah, who cares, information is what I want it to be’ attitude – a lazy-mindedness that degrades both language and thought” (122). The internet and social media encourages single stories and encourages people to listen only to others who share that single story. This is a kind of lazy-mindedness. Social media are especially good at promoting narratives of fear and anger. Just look at our politics. If we are to encourage complex thinking, the internet and social media have also helped keep ministry alive in wonderful ways during this pandemic.
Single stories tend to polarize. Mature, complex thinking helps us listen to multiple stories and perhaps find common ground in a deeply polarized world and in a church that may be on the verge of division when General Conference finally occurs.
“Mature, complex thinking helps us listen to multiple stories and perhaps find common ground in a deeply polarized world, and in a church that may be on the verge of division when General Conference finally occurs.”
Single stories tend to polarize, seeing the past unidimensionally, great or horrible. Mature, complex thinking helps us listen to multiple stories to see both the beauty and the wretchedness in our history.
Single stories tend to polarize; either one stands with law enforcement or for racial justice. Mature, complex thinking helps us listen to multiple stories and understand both the absolutely critical need for policing reform in the face of the continued injury to communities of color and the real challenges of policing in a society where violence is all too prolific.
Single stories tend to polarize, evangelism and spirituality as against social justice witness. Mature, complex thinking helps us listen to multiple stories where we begin to understand that the struggle against racism is interwoven with our spiritual journey with Jesus, whose life and ministry worked to break down barriers, where we understand the necessity of holding together vibrant evangelism with courageous social witness.
Maturing in Christ is more than thinking in more complex terms. A fuller picture of such maturity is found in Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Yet part of patience is a quality of mind open to the wonder, beauty, and complexity of the world. Generosity is not only in giving but also generosity in thought and spirit.
To help us mature in Christ, for this, I toil and struggle with all the energy God inspires within me. It is a journey, a joyful journey, one we walk together in this new year.