Coming of Age, at Any Age

A talk delivered in 2010 at Thomas Paine Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, in Collegeville, Pa.



The goal of each child in our Coming of Age class this year is to craft a credo by the end of the school year, around May. But what in the world does that mean?

Well, credo is most often translated from Latin as “I believe.” And from that, the most straight-forward way to see a credo is as a statement of belief.

But here’s the thing. If you dig beyond “I believe,” the Latin is more closely translated to “what I set my heart to.”

”What I set my heart to.”

Now, this is something that I find more useful to people, both young and old.

Because “what I believe,” to me, sets up an argument.

Stephanie: “This is what I believe.”

Kelly:  ”Well, this is what I believe.”

Stephanie: “They’re not the same. One of us is wrong.”

Or a narrative, full of details.

Kelly: “I think that when we die we go to a place where we sit down and watch a movie, like in the movie Defending Your Life. And after watching it, a jury decides whether we go to heaven or if our life wasn’t satisfactory and we’re sent back to earth to try again.”

And I’m not saying that arguments and narratives are unimportant. Take them out of this place and this group and there wouldn’t be a whole heck of a lot of sound here at coffee hour.

But argument and narrative are not what we set our hearts to. I’ve told our students this already, but they’ll have to hear it again: I don’t care nearly as much about what they believe as I want to know what they value. I want to know the things that they live for. Things like:

  • Compassion for others.
  • Loyalty to friends
  • Creativity in meeting the difficulties and challenges they face.
  • Gratitude for the abundance of their lives.
  • Justice for the stranger.
  • Kindness for ourselves, for others, for pets, for grandparents.

And I ask you the same question I ask them. What do you value? What are you willing to live for? Because credo-making is not something you do in 7th grade and place in a folder to pull out for a convenient refresher. Viewed as “what do I value, and what do I do about it,” your credo is the most living of documents. Done right, your credo is a blueprint to the life you construct. It’s how others know you, and how you know yourself.

So I ask you, what is your credo? What is it that you set your heart to?


Now some folks may be balking at the word credo. It’s pretty close to creed. And as you all know, UUs are  noncreedal. That means we don’t accept that there’s one book or revelation that explains and holds fast our worldview. Instead, we are covenantal. That means that we are in relation:

  • to each other;
  • to the world;
  • to our histories.

We see the world through lenses of our particular position in the world, of our family and personal history.

And if that’s true, then one of the most important things we do is understand the relationships and obligations that define us. As the theologian Rebecca Parker said in a 1998 address to the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, “Covenant-making must begin with the question. ‘What have we been given? What is the covenant we are already in?’ ”

And so we asked you all to reflect on your past. In other exercises with the students, we’ve asked them to build a timeline of their lives, to sketch out a family tree and put name to the various identities in their family’s pasts. We’ve asked them to name those who have had the most influence, for good or for bad, on their lives.

If you’ve got 20 minutes some day, it’s not a bad use of the time.

Because a credo isn’t conceived in a moment, any more than it is lived in a moment. It breathes in your chest, it bursts forth from you, each morning when you wake, each time you step out in to the world. But that is most likely to happen if we are intentional—if we spend time summoning it, beckoning it.

Covenant making must begin with the question. ‘What have we been given? What is the covenant we are already in?’

It’s a lesson the adults in this room should be heeding now as we work on a different covenanting process, one in which we are called to create a vision statement for our community.

I suggest as you think about your vision for this community, much like we are asking each of these young people—and each of us—to craft a vision of their faith life, to consider this: Your vision shouldn’t be about 250 members or 100 kids, it’s not about the building or the number of parking spaces we have. Write a credo for Thomas Paine. Don’t tell me how big or multifaceted it is. Tell me: What does it value? Who does it serve? What does this community sets its heart on? What does it live for? What would it be willing to die for? Answer that, and you’ll have your vision. And a path forward.


That said, our path forward as a class is to start on the next piece of our journey together. And there might be a place for you in this. We will be tackling some of the big theological subjects —god, death, why bad things happen to good people—over the next few months, and then turning toward a reckoning with our credos. And we could use some help. The students will be asked at our next meeting to think about selecting an adult mentor, someone outside the class whom they’d like to work with on their credo. So if one of these young people approaches you in the next week or two, say “yes.” Engage them on it. And do them this great favor: Share what you live for, the things you value, and, as much as you’re comfortable, the things that get in the way of living up to your values. A credo is the distillation of one person, but it is fed—like our faith—from many streams. The same as our community.

And that brings me to my final plug of the day. Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day and our Coming of Age class—and a goodly number of the leadership of this fellowship—will be participating in a Day of Service at the Unitarian Society of Germantown. If you would like to join us, let me know right after service or go to to sign up for a project. We are known by our works, and this day is a way to affirm the values of Dr. King. We invite and welcome you.

Blessed be. And let’s sing together a song Dr. King would approve of—When the Spirit Says Do, #1024 in your Teal book.

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