Pastoral Prayer October 22

O God, we humbly come to you with both joys and concerns. We pray for others that we have mentioned or written on prayer cards or in the secret places in our hearts. But we also stand in the need of prayer. Sometimes we feel like we’re drowning in a sea of trouble and we want to ask “why me?” Our 24/7 access to world news seems to feed us nothing but news of suffering, abuse, conflict, and grief. When the world feels like it is going mad, please reassure us that we are in your hands.

We pray for wisdom and compassion for ourselves and for our nation’s leaders. Give us all hearts open to your guiding spirit. We pray for victims of abuse. Let us share the good news with them that there is still love and goodness in our world. We pray for those in nursing homes and those in homes where grudges are nursed. We pray for those caught in cycles of poverty or violence, for those in such pain that they turn to harmful drugs for relief.

Remind us again of our connections to all of your children. No matter who we are, no matter where we come from, regardless of our financial status, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation – we are welcome in this community of Christ’s church. No matter our differences we are all restless until we find our rest in you, O God. We do not worship or serve an unknown God but one who is the ground of our being, the source of our hope, and the guiding light of our lives.

When we rejoice let us share the credit for our good fortune with all those who make us who we are, and when we are tempted to lose hope in any part of our life, give us again the assurance that you are a personal and loving God that never abandons us. We have a deep peace in our souls because we live and move and have our being in the eternal God, our creator and sustainer.

Hear our prayers O God which we offer in the name of Christ who taught us to pray this prayer ….

Stages of Faith

Another of my faith journey mentors has passed on to the next stage of faith.  The news came in an obituary shared by a colleague on Facebook: James W. Fowler III, Prominent Practical Theologian and Ethicist, Dies at 75.

I discovered the work of James Fowler through his 1981 book, Stages of Faith, when I was working on my doctorate in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s.  His research and writing on the stages of faith development resonated with my own faith journey from a very concrete-literal understanding of faith to a more universal and inclusive theology and became a central focus of my dissertation on a narrative of moral discourse.  That paradigm for how preaching and teaching can promote moral and faith development has been the foundation of my ministry and teaching for the past 35 years.  I invite you to read the brief descriptions of Fowler’s 6 stages of faith development at the link below.

In the multi-cultural global village we live in today, the need for a more universal and inclusive faith has never been more needed.  I especially like this description of Stage 4, the Individuative-Reflexive stage:  “This is the tough stage, often begun in young adulthood, when people start seeing outside the box and realizing that there are other “boxes”. They begin to critically examine their beliefs on their own and often become disillusioned with their former faith. Ironically, the Stage 3 people usually think that Stage 4 people have become “backsliders” when in reality they have actually moved forward.”

And when we despair about those who seem de-churched or “post-Christian,” Fowler reminds us that a mature faith comes only with life experience.  This is what he says about stage 5, Conjunctive Faith:  “It is rare for people to reach this stage before mid-life. This is the point when people begin to realize the limits of logic and start to accept the paradoxes in life. They begin to see life as a mystery and often return to sacred stories and symbols but this time without being stuck in a theological box.”

Faith is a journey, not a destination.  It is not a straight line but a maze of twists and turns, highs and lows.  It is a dynamic adventure.  The faith stories we live by are never the same when we read or hear them again because we are not the same people we were yesterday or yesteryear.  I am so grateful for sages like Jim Fowler who teach us that we are shaped by our past but we are not defined or confined by it.

When I saw the news that he had died this week I was saddened.  Many of the mentors who shaped my understanding of myself and the divine are no longer present on this earth.  But their legacy lives on in me and countless others who have and will continue to benefit from their wisdom.  We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.  My cloud includes saints like Jim Fowler, Fred Craddock, Paul Tillich, Van Bogard Dunn, Bob Browning, Everett Tilson, Jeff Hopper, Bill Croy, Bob Chiles, my mother and grandparents, and far too many more to name.

When someone important in my life passes on, I try to take time to give thanks for his or her contribution to my life and the larger world.  And I also ask God to help me be worthy of that legacy and share it with those who are learning and growing and searching for meaning in their own faith journey at whatever stage or phase they are.  My job is not to preach or lecture or insist on my way or any particular way.  My job is to come along side others and share the journey with them.

Thanks be to God for people like Jim Fowler who have been my companion on the way.

James W. Fowler, distinguished Howard Candler Professor of Theology and Human Development at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, was Director of both the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and the Center for Ethics, and also served as an ordained elder in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.