Leaping off a roof into faith

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Growing up means learning limits and the intrinsic value of self and others
October 1, 2004

My little son jumped off the roof of the garage, as has many a child, because he thought he could fly. More accurately, he did not know he couldn’t fly. The crash landing was a great gift to him.

Whether it is jumping off a garage, trying to make a bicycle fly or trying to make a broken doll come back to life, each child needs a story like this one. An important part of a child’s development is learning about her limits, her difference from the world around her. It is amazing how important this learning of one’s smallness is.

Until that moment, a child experiences total love and nurture from mother and the environment and assumes it’s all hers and there are no limits. When she discovers her limits and imperfections, a much more vital discovery can be made. Limited, imperfect, she finds that mother and father still love her, that she is infinitely valuable just as she is.
Healthy people grow up sensing themselves to be of infinite value. To obtain health, other people must recover a sense of their worth.

If our growth stops with that sense of our value, however, we become truly dangerous. The next part of the process that begins on the garage roof is not only to discover that we still are loved with all our limitations, but also to generalize from that experience and learn that every other person is of infinite value, too. The final stage sees us move on to learning to honor that value in them with their own limitations and imperfections fully present. That is growing up.

People who do not value themselves are not going to relate to others in the best way. Jesus restored notorious sinners to health and usefulness not by scolding them, but by befriending them, eating with them and offering them life.

People who do not discipline themselves to see the infinite value of the lives around them also will be threats. The salesperson who sees others as objects to be manipulated and exploited, the deposition-taker who deliberately destroys the confidence of another human being, the demagogue who amasses power by playing on people’s fears -- all have lost a functional respect for the value of each life. Jesus had harsh words for those who had no compassion -- no respect -- for others.

The balance is crucial: Loving neighbor and self makes sense only if the love of neighbor and of self is based on an awareness of the value of all life. Do the spiritual practices offered to you help you mature in this direction?

I ask this because some spiritualities are stuck on the infantile side of the coin. People are getting saved over and over, or revived and re-revived, or are trying the meditative technique of the week, looking to find peace for themselves.

Everybody needs to be saved, revived and at peace in some sense. When that is all there is to it, however, one remains an infant, almost an addict, easily controlled by the ones with the supply of what makes one feel good, safe, even omnipotent.

If one is a leader in the church, the task becomes harder as the church sets out to care for and motivate people.

Certainly people need to grow in the knowledge of their worth, and to do so through all the stages of life. As human beings in a pattern of growth, however, they also need to know of the value of others.

This often means that we must seek an overall church program that invites us out of our comfort zones.

Unless there is disciplined engagement with others as valuable, religion becomes a kind of personal property. God is domesticated into a kind of utility that gives one an hour’s peace on demand.

Having fallen from life’s garage roof, a grown-up and healthy religion is not concerned solely with making people feel good about themselves and certainly does not dabble in making them feel superior to others. It does not reinforce feelings of persecution and victimhood, but asks its adherents how they will put their awareness of their own value and purpose into practice as they encounter other, equally valuable people.

Is your parish helping you in the process of growing up? It might be interesting to keep track of the messages you receive from it in the next month in word, print, image or act. How many messages move you beyond valuing self to valuing others? How many messages encourage suspicion or mistrust of others? Do messages direct your attention to the past or to a creative future? Sharing those perceptions with your parish leadership might help the church move more deeply into its mission -- or at least push them off the roof.