A few years ago fourteen buddies and I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. We climbed in four stages. The first day we walked through tropical rainforest and could not even see the summit. Incidently, the guys who came with gortex and North Face outfits got just as wet as those of us with cotton socks and tennis shoes, because it rained and we were walking up a path that turned into a river!
Day two we walked through mountain savanna and scrub brush around boulders with fantastic vistas of the summit up ahead, almost laterally ahead of us. It looked light years away, and I wondered how we were going to make it to the top.
Day three, now at nearly 12,000 feet, we walked through alpine desert, a dusty flat slope up to the last place we would sleep before attempting to summit the next morning. We would sleep until midnight at Kibo Hut at about 16,000 feet, wake up, walk in the dark two steps forward and one step back on scree (like fine gravel), trudging up switchbacks for six hours. At dawn we looked back and the sun was coming up, illuminating the path ahead and the expanse below from which we'd come.
Dawn of day four was the most fantastic sunrise I've ever seen. We'd groped up the mountain six hours in the dark and the sun over the Mwenzi Peaks immediately warmed me and I forgot how much my head was hammering and how I was ready to quit. We reached the first peak, about 19,000 feet. A walk along the snow filled crater in the center of the mountain led to the highest point, Uhuru Peak, at 19,300. Eleven of our group went on up, four of us decided to enjoy the success of reaching the first peak. All fifteen of us sang "We shall assemble on the mountain" and shared a moment of communion together to remember our Lord as the brother who held this brotherhood together.
Were we climbing Kilimanjaro the first day, even when we couldn't see the summit? Yes. We were. Were we climbing Kilimanjaro when the summit seemed so far away the second day? Yes. Was alpine desert part of the climb? Absolutely. What about that last day when we were in the dark, slugging our way up ankle deep in fine gravel? Yes. All the stages were climbing and all were important to reaching the summit.
Lynn Anderson details Westerhoff's stages of faith in the Jan/Feb 05 ethics issue of Wineskins. Like climbing Kili, we move through the stages of faith and find value in each one. First, we experience faith then affiliate with the faithful, the church. Third, we search, ask questions, move beyond only affiliating with a church but seek to find faith in Christ himself, asking questions like his disciples, sometimes off-based, sometimes angrily, sometimes blindly, other times faithfully. Fourth, we own our faith. We make God's story our story, recognizing that faith is not only experiencing but it does include experience, that faith is more than affiliating with a church but that this affiliation is with Christ himself as we are being shaped by him, not only doing what he does but being as he would be if he were us.
Nehemiah 9 is one of the great summaries of God's story, told after Nehemiah returned to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and Israel was returning to worship God. The story is about God's covenant faithfulness, Israel's stiff-necked (like a horse that doesn't want to turn) rebellion, God's discipline, Israel's return to the Lord. It's a cycle: God chooses, Israel accepts but grows stubborn and rejects God and in his compassion he disciplines or punishes them and they return.
The story is messy, and it doesn't progress like Westerhoff's movement from experience to affiliation to searching to owning. Someone might correct me here. I haven't read his book firsthand so he may acknowledge the messiness and cyclical nature of faith and Israel and our own faith, how it will dodge and turn even as it moves not by perfection but in the God direction.
Now, there are a couple of basic ways that people over time have viewed children and faith. The predominant Catholic view for centuries has been we are born lost. We are baptized as infants and move toward faith. In Churches of Christ, we have started from a safe position then at age of accountability we drop off the cliff into the lost position. In John Mark Hicks's and my book on baptism, we discuss a third option, one which affirms that children are maturing participants in faith if they are growing up being taught the gospel. So their faith and baptism becomes more like signposts than a U-turn. I believe we need more of these markers in our children's lives. How can we help put more of these markers in our children's lives?
For instance, handing keys to a sixteen year old is not a very good entrance into adulthood, but our society doesn't do much better than this for rites of passage into adult life. Similarly, when we hand keys of the kingdom to newly baptized, it ought to have been through a series of signposts along the way that give them a clear understanding about who they are believing, less about how much they felt they knew but in whom did they have faith when they were baptized?
By giving more signposts along the way, we are blessing our children with a movement toward baptism in faith, not baptism as the first step. My children, six, eight, and eleven all express faith in Christ, love for God, devotion to the Lord. But none are baptized yet. When Anna wanted to be baptized on her seventh birthday, we talked more than ever about her faith, how she could express it in many ways before being baptized and we still needed to experience some of these together.
How does a child express faith? I would like to hear more about how you encourage your children to express their faith in signpost ways. What is authentic faith? What does climbing a mountain have to do with Spiritual Formation? What metaphors make sense to you?