Sermon: Can We Grow Up? (text & audio)


From Why Grow Up? Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age by Susan Neiman
“Growing up is more a matter of courage than knowledge; all the information in the world is no substitute for the guts to use your own judgment. And judgment can be learned – principally through the experience of watching others use it well – but it cannot be taught. Judgment is important because none of the answers to the questions that really move us can be found by following a rule. Courage is required to learn how to trust your own judgment . . . . Even more, courage is required to live with the rift that will run through our lives, however good they may be: ideals of reason tell us how the world should be; experience tells us that it rarely is. Growing up requires confronting the gap between the two – without giving up on either one.”

“Gitanjali 70” – Rabindranath Tagore

Is it beyond thee to be glad with the gladness of this rhythm? To be tossed and lost and broken in the whirl of this fearful joy?

All things rush on, they stop not, they look not behind, no power can hold them back, they rush on.

Keeping steps with that restless, rapid music, seasons come dancing and pass away ⎯ colors, tunes, and perfumes pour in endless cascades in the abounding joy that scatters and gives up and dies every moment.


The writers of the HBO series “Mad Men” had their fingers on the pulse of American culture in the late 1960s last spring when they began the first installment of that show’s final season with that old Peggy Lee hit, “Is That All There Is?”

If you remember, the song by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller walks us through one story after another from the narrator’s life – a fire at her house as a child, then a visit to the circus, and finally a failed love affair – each experienced intensely yet ending in disappointment:

“Is that all there is?” she asks, to a fire, to the circus, to love?

And then in her smoky voice, Lee sings,

“If that’s all there is, my friends, let’s keep dancing.

Let’s break out the booze and have a ball.”

The song nicely fit the state of life of Don Draper, the main character of the series, but it also echoed the times in which the show was set. All the social disruptions of the late 1960s left widespread disillusionment, and the response of many was something like dissolution – drinking, drugs, and behavior that crossed all kinds of boundaries in all kinds of ways.

“Is that all there is?” is a question that occurs to most of us at some point or another. The wonders of childhood are brought to earth, and clay feet appear on our parents, heroes and mentors. And so, we learn to cultivate the cynical laugh and the world-weary sigh.

And it’s true that some of us respond with something like the song’s suggestion, looking for satisfaction by dedicating ourselves to pleasure, while others go off seeking something new that we can throw ourselves into with boundless enthusiasm, and the rest of us . . . well, I guess we just look for a way to muddle through. What choice do we have?

I want to suggest today that there is a choice, an alternative to simply zoning out with pleasure seeking, hitching our wagon to somebody else’s star, or just plodding ahead with no particular end in mind. I think of it as a middle way of sorts, one that can be hard to navigate because we’re blazing much of it on our own, but one that I want to argue is ultimately more fruitful and more satisfying, a way I describe as:

                 Spiritual Maturity. . . . Spiritual Maturity

It is “spiritual” in the sense that it has to do core values that give our lives meaning and a sense of purpose. And since we’re talking about maturity we’re focusing on something that is developmental: a way of being, an approach to living that we come into over time.

Like physical maturity, it’s something that we are each capable of achieving, something that amounts to a full flowering of our natures. Yet, like emotional maturity, it’s something that takes work and attention to achieve, and not everybody gets there.

It is not exclusive to any faith tradition, or necessarily to religious faith at all, though its qualities can be found at the center of all the great religious traditions.

I like the observation that my colleague Kathleen Rolenz makes that the word “maturity” is related to the Latin root word “mane,” which means early, of the morning. For spiritual maturity involves waking up, coming to an awareness of what it is to be a more real and realized self. And yet, at the same time, it is no finished state. Throughout our lives, there is always room to go deeper and to see wider connections.

I want to be careful, though, not to dress this process up in flowery language and so fail to take account of the challenges it poses. The philosopher Susan Neiman, who we heard from earlier, emphasizes this point. Growing up, she says, is no panacea: quite the opposite, in fact. It’s a matter, she says, “of acknowledging the uncertainties that weave through our lives; often worse, of living without certainty while recognizing that we will invariably continue to seek it.”

It’s worth remembering, she says, that often “we choose immaturity because we are lazy and scared: how much more comfortable it is to let someone else make your decisions.” And it’s true: there is no lack of people, from curbside preachers to self-help authors, ready to offer us programs that they say are sure to bring us enlightenment. In the end, though, spiritual maturity isn’t about finding somebody else’s pony to ride. It’s about coming to terms with the way that is ours in the world.

I sometimes think that this yearning for certainty may be the greatest threat to spiritual maturity today. Unlike the 1960s, it’s not personal indulgence that seems to be distracting us from this work so much as an elemental fear: fear of a changing world, fear for our safety and that of our families, fear that is borne of loss.

And when we’re afraid we don’t respond well. A first response, often, is outrage. And so, is there any wonder that early in the presidential campaign this year it is the candidates peddling outrage who are getting a strong response? Yet, as Susan Nieman points out, “outrage is enervating.” It wears us out. We can’t sustain it. And so, in time we slip into something like numb disengagement relieved from time to time by magical thinking.

Is it any wonder, she says, that the book Peter Pan was published shortly before World War I? In such a grim time, who could blame people for being charmed by the story of a gifted child who refused to grow up? With the world falling apart around you, who would want to?

The parallels that Susan Neiman finds between that time and ours are a bit unsettling: a culture that increasingly abandons the social safety net while celebrating material indulgence and the fantasy of the “self-made man” . . . or woman. How else to explain, she says, that instead of treating people as adults, we support moves to build increasingly sophisticated electronic surveillance or praise the market’s ability to, as she puts it, “give us comfort through a range of toys”?

By contrast, she adds, “ideas of a more just and humane world are portrayed as childish dreams to be discarded in favor of . . .finding a steady job that fixes our place in the consumer economy.” Ouch!

But is that so? Well, her judgment may be a bit harsh. There are a few still holding out hope for what she calls “ideas of a more just and humane world,” though it’s true that they risk being drowned out by the din of our consumer culture.

Today, I want to argue that cultivating spiritual maturity is a way to place ourselves among those holding out that hope. For, in cultivating maturity we come into our strength, our best natures. And from that position we can learn to recognize that strength in others and ally ourselves with it. Once we come into our strength, the focus of our life is no longer the distractions that we sought to calm our anxiety but the values that give our lives meaning. We reach a place where we no longer simply proclaim our values: we live them.

My colleague Forrest Church in his book Lifecraft tells the story of the director of a spiritual retreat who as an exercise invited his students over several days to enter a room, sit for a time on a cushion and meditate on a blue vase. On leaving, each was asked to write down her or his reflections.

At first, the students focused on the form and function of the vase. “I followed the contours of the vase,” one reported. Another imagined it as a container holding almond blossoms. The director told them they were doing too much thinking. “Just meditate, as it were, on the vasishness of the vase,” he said.

So, the students tried again and reported deeper spiritual encounters. “I seemed to merge into the vase,” was the sort of comment that followed. At the end of the week, the director removed the vase from the room. The students arrived as usual and were stunned to discover that the vase was gone.

“Where is the vase” they asked.

“Surely you don’t need the vase now?” the director replied.

So, let’s explore this a little further. In cultivating spiritual maturity our aim is a settled and secure sense of self deeply integrated into the world around us. And so it is grounded, to begin with, in a willingness to accept every person and all things just as they are, but also as distinct from ourselves.

With spiritual maturity we see that there is irreducible ambiguity, confusion, paradox and complexity in the world. There are things that we will always simply puzzle over, and we can’t make everything right. But we still hold to our values and bring compassion and empathy to our interactions with others and to ourselves.

At the same time, we are capable of experiencing and taking pleasure in beauty as well as in moral traits like justice and mercy, experiencing them not in judgment but in humble appreciation and awe. Spiritually mature people are comfortable with metaphor and the power of ritual, making themselves available to and even creating for themselves expressions of deepest felt truths.

Spiritually mature people recognize the limits of their own understanding. They are accepting of others with differing backgrounds, perspectives and life experiences, not needing to impose their own way of thinking. They claim no privileged perspective. Instead, they submit their own beliefs to evidence, steer clear of wishful thinking and leave themselves open to learning. Through it all, they remain open to wonder, to astonishment and joy; they freely offer thanks and praise.

They also resolve to recognize and take responsibility for their own power, their own agency. They seek out and dedicate themselves to the work that they are called to, and they accept leadership when it is asked of them. They recognize the need for service, and they gladly and humbly offer their aid.

This, I submit, is some of what it means to grow up spiritually. And let’s be clear about its challenges. The fear that I spoke of earlier doesn’t respond well to maturity, since mature responses can threaten that bubble of magical thinking that serves to protect a fearful heart.

Susan Neiman was right to observe how important courage is to the process of growing up, courage in the face of what can be an onslaught of fearful anger, trumped up with all sorts of claimed authority that serves in the end as subterfuge. It is easy to be drawn into the tit for tat of hifalutin argumentation that simply serves to distract us.

As Neiman put it, “there is a rift in our lives” between our ideas of what is right and good and the way things are. And that can be hard to square with what we want from the world. What is required of us, then, is a good dose of humility and compassion: for ourselves and each other as we struggle with the many consequences of that fact.

And it is here that Rabindranath Tagore speaks to me. As he says, “All things rush on, they stop not, they look not behind, no power can hold them back, they rush on.” So it is. Time gallops ahead, the pace of our lives accelerates and so much remains undone. Still, he asks, is it beyond us to “be glad with the gladness of this rhythm? To be tossed and lost and broken in the whirl of this fearful joy?”

One of the legacies of our western culture is this intense drive to know everything and nail everything down. And so we cringe at a bit of chaos and uncertainty. Tagore, coming from a much older culture, reminds us of another viewpoint, one that in many ways makes more room for spiritual maturity. It is one that embraces a deep mystery, where, as he puts it, “seasons come dancing and pass away,” as we must pass away into a fate we cannot know.

And yet, while we live, “colors, tunes, and perfumes pour in endless cascades,” and we find ourselves in a place where “abounding joy scatters and gives up and dies every moment.”

With John Lennon, we are invited to imagine ourselves into a way to be present to this astonishing world without projecting our fears on it, cherishing our companions and offering ourselves in service to the flourishing of all, while living with ready hearts and open minds.