First Unitarian Church of Providence
worship & spiritual practice
about sunday services


A sermon preached by the Rev. John H. Nichols to the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, on January 13, 2008

How To Be Mature

Most of us grew up expecting that the sheer passage of time would finally land us in the magical world called "Maturity." It turns out we were wrong. Maturity is not something that the passage of time automatically bestows upon us. It is something we may rise to occasionally but then only in our best moments.

More often than not we take three steps forward toward maturity and two steps back. On our worst days it is more like two steps forward and three steps back. Our childhood’s old feelings, reactions and habits pull us back. Our past trips us up. We stumble and fall more often than we care to admit.

It is part of the outrageousness of preaching that I get to talk about this because I can’t hold myself out as a paragon of maturity either. I get there once in a while, as do most people, and I would like to get there more often. I find that things generally go better when I’m being mature, and I feel better about myself. So how do I know — how do we know — what it takes to become mature? As a way of approaching this very elusive topic I want to tell you some stories, which have often led my thoughts.

Story #1. Sylvia Stocker, who is the new minister of the UU Church of Brunswick, Maine, remembers when she was appointed Forelady of a Jury. It was a difficult and convoluted case concerning the fate of a man accused of driving under the influence. After the first full day of deliberations the jury was split down the middle, and all went home with the unhappy prospect of spending many more hours or days in the court house.

The next morning – as a way of breaking the impasse — Sylvia suggested that each person try arguing the position about this man’s guilt or innocence that they had not taken the day before. Perhaps if they could learn to entertain arguments other than their own, they might eventually come to agree on a verdict. Everyone agreed this might help, and so they began.

No one but Sylvia and one other juror could actually do it. They had spent the entire first day talking at each other, and no one could remember what the people on the other side of the question had said to them. Each juror had been in advocacy mode. They had stopped listening to each other if they ever had listened. In the column she wrote about this, Sylvia worried — I think rightly — that this is too often the fate of juries and congregations.

We grow up in advocate mode. It is important for our development that we are able to speak for ourselves. Words like "mine" and "no" become extremely important at an early stage of life, because through them we assert that we have a life independent from our parents.

Years later there is a stage of our lives when we go into high advocate mode. Because our own agenda is so powerful to us we often convince ourselves that the people who care about us must also agree with us. My two children sometimes complained that we were "not listening" to them. We responded that we actually had listened to them. We then repeated what we had heard them say. We simply didn’t agree with them. At that time in their lives, they couldn’t see the difference between hearing them and agreeing with them. Unfortunately this is also a problem for many adults.

Maturity means realizing that the world is full of opinions that we don’t hold, and many of the people who have those opinions we don’t hold are perfectly wonderful people who may be prepared to like us anyway. Moreover, some of those opinions we don’t hold open up whole new avenues to the truth that we couldn’t find by ourselves. With that realization we learn not merely to tolerate differing opinions but to welcome them. We welcome them because we realize that what we can understand is bounded by our inevitable limitations, and without help from others we cannot see beyond those limitations. Maturity is allowing others to help us adjust our view of the world.

Story #2. Years ago I read an article written by the admissions director of William and Mary College in Williamsburg, VA. He told of reading one application that, in many respects, was little different from the others. The presentation and formatting of the application were faultless — as if perhaps typed in the office of the applicant’s father who happened to be a high priced lawyer. The language and imagery in the essay was spectacular but reflecting perhaps greater sophistication than an average applicant would normally have.

It was an application like many he had seen — clearly put together and perhaps even written by the candidate’s parents. There was one difference. At the end of the application, where the candidate signed it, she had written in large block letters, PLEASE DO NOT ADMIT ME. Then he realized that the candidate’s parents had filled out the application for her, and may have written parts of it. But they allowed her to sign and seal the application, and in that moment she declared herself. She had not been the person in the family who wanted her to go to William and Mary.

I cite this example because of an experience I had with our oldest child when I finally learned that my aspirations for him and his aspirations for himself were simply parts of two different lives. I now know that like many parents I had been trying to micro-manage his college search, and at some point he really pushed back lovingly but firmly. I realized then that no matter how much I loved him or cared for him or was prepared to sacrifice for him he had to be his own person — and prepared to take the consequences for his own decisions — and unless that happened our entire relationship would be partly a sham from that point forward.

Maturity means recognizing that good relationships need good boundaries. I may like you but I will not be everything you want me to be. I have my own assessment of who I am and what I want to become. You may want my help but I can only give as much as I can give, which may not be as much as you think you need. I’ll have to live with that. I hope you will too. We may enjoy being together but we each need our alone time. I cannot save or even fully protect you, and you cannot save me.

We can disagree, and that will not reflect on how much we admire, care for or respect one another. You may be furious about something, and though we care deeply about each other I don’t have to share or echo your fury. I would like for you to be happy, but I cannot make you happy, and if I try too hard to make you happy I may end up making both of us unhappy. Maturity means recognizing that the boundaries between our lives and other lives set out the limits that make our relationships healthier.

Story # 3. I had the good fortune to train for ministry at the University of Chicago while Elisabeth Kubler Ross was interviewing dying patients at Billings Hospital. She was trying to understand what kind of ministry would be most helpful to them. These interviews culminated in her book, On Death and Dying. I was fortunate to be an intern chaplain at the time and therefore was present for some of her interviews, which took place behind a one-way glass.

The patient, Dr Kubler Ross and Billings Hospital Chaplain Karl Nighswonger sat on one side of the glass. About 40 doctors, nurses and seminarians sat on the other side. The patients knew we were there so that they could teach us how to help people who were seriously ill.

One interview stands out for me for reasons other than what went into the book. Our chaplain supervisor was leading the interview, and it became clear early on that he was completely out of sync with this particular patient. The patient wanted to talk about one thing, and our chaplain missed every verbal cue and proceeded in other directions. The interview went nowhere. The patient left mystified and probably dissatisfied. As was their custom after the interview, Karl and Elisabeth sat down with us to discuss what had happened.

In true University of Chicago fashion the on-lookers piled on the criticism. "How could you have missed it?" "What were you thinking?" "Why did you change the subject just when you might have been getting somewhere?" Our chaplain supervisor responded, "You’re right. I blew it. I never picked up the clues." His admission only intensified the criticism, particularly from the medical students. How could this man baldly admit to having made a mistake? Surely he ought to mount some kind of defense.

Maturity means recognizing that we can make mistakes. We make mistakes for reasons that have nothing to do with our essential intelligence, competence, fitness or reliability. We make mistakes because all people – and particularly people with responsibilities — do make mistakes. And mistakes are not a stain on our character. Maturity means recognizing that we learn from our mistakes. Among other things we learn that our mistakes do not define us and then we can move on.

Story # 4 is really not so much a story but a reflection. When we first enter a loving and committed relationship with another person, we are carried along for a while by our excitement about just being together with this person. Inevitably, at some point, we will test the relationship by entering into a give and take with the person to whom we have declared our love.

And though we may never admit this to ourselves at the time, what we are trying to discover is whose ego is stronger. Who can accumulate more of the marbles, the power, in this relationship? At this point, we are still defined by the childhood needs that can dominate our lives and the first two or three years of a relationship are usually the toughest, because this kind of testing goes on.

Maturity means getting beyond this preoccupation with precisely what and how much is in it for us. Maturity means getting outside of ourselves and our needs long enough to recognize that other people need to have their own needs met and their desire that at least some of their needs be met is just as intense, sometimes just as desperate, as our own desire. And maturity means recognizing that when people are able to reach one another out of the carefully constructed and well-defended interiority of their separate lives that relationship borders on the sacred.

Story#5. A friend and colleague of mine grew up in a family that bickered constantly. I can personally attest to this and say that I could not have survived a week – let alone half a life with this family. My friend’s way of coping with this was to imagine himself as being instead a member of a family that was kind and loving, secure, peaceful and serene. He chose a family that was very well known.

This was in the early Fifties and the family of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, Charles and Anne seemed to be him to be the kind of family he would have liked to belong to. For reasons that might now seem highly misguided, this Jewish kid from the Bronx became fascinated with the Royal Family and he remained that way as an adult.

But, he carried his anglophilia very lightly. It was a game that he played with the anxieties he had about not being "good enough," anxieties, which were messages from his childhood. But though it was a game, he played it thoroughly by joining the English Speaking Union in every community where he lived and often becoming president of the local chapter. He dined with Lords and ambassadors. He taught his two young sons to "troop the colors" to a recording of British martial music.

This friend of mine often began to eat when his anxieties built up. I knew this was happening because he would start a Gourmet Explorer’s Club in whatever church he was serving. And then, when his waistline became unacceptably wide he would found a UU Weight Watchers group or encourage his parishioners to go jogging with him regularly. The idea was to make a game out of wherever his anxieties led him.

I’m not trained in therapy but I understand that a neurosis is a way in which we, individually, respond to anxiousness and fear. Many of us have neuroses, and sometimes they threaten to take over and control our lives. A neurotic is a person who suffers from a neurosis, a fear, an anxiety that impedes his/her enjoyment of life.

My friend treated each neurosis as if it were an eccentric guest. He treated the guest with kindness and with playful humor, but he did not allow it to run the household. Maturity means that we are reasonably in charge of our neuroses. They can amuse us but we do not allow them to run the household.

When my friend knew he was dying he asked me to conduct his memorial service, and he made one specific request. He chose the last hymn. At his suggestion, we didn’t distribute copies of it until the end of the service, and as the copies were passed from one end of the congregation to another a giggle rolled behind it like a following wave. And then we stood and sang, "God Save the Queen."

What does maturity mean? Maturity means that we are not afraid of differences and can even allow ourselves to be taught by them. Maturity means that we know where our own boundaries are, and we respect those of others. Maturity means that we do not hesitate to own our own fallibility and it means that we cherish our closest relationships because we know how much is being given to us through them. Finally maturity means that we can know our own demons and laugh at them and, in so doing, we stay in charge of the household of our lives.