Can you be a listener rather than a savior?

The Society of Saint John the Evangelist is a community of Episcopal monks offering silence and sanctuary in the middle of bustling Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA. They strive to be “men of the moment,” responding to the call of God and the needs of the present world. One of their offerings during Lent was a series of thoughtful, if not provocative, video meditations about what it means to love in life.

One particular meditation contemplated listening as one way to collaborate with God. It asked, “Can you be a listener rather than a savior?”  Anywhere from 40 to 80 commenters responded to each meditation daily, forming something of a community over the course of five weeks. Many commenters spoke of “with-standing,” or standing with another, in response to this question.

It called to my mind a case worker in a domestic violence shelter where I volunteered fresh out of college. Clients came to her with real, seemingly insurmountable predicaments. Obstacles heaped upon obstacles were dumped at her feet for fixing. I wish I had words to convey the relief—the true blessing of grace—that would come over a client’s face when the case worker said, “Boy, that’s a tough one. I don’t know what we’re going to do about that. But, together, we will figure it out.” No answer, no remedy, no solution would have put people in crisis at ease the way she did by simply acknowledging the severity and letting them know she was in their corner.

That also put me at ease. As a naive 22 year old, I was conscious of what I lacked. What wisdom do I have to offer? Certainly I didn’t have any solutions for these inexorable real life problems. Confronting challenges we’re ill-equipped to handle is not the unique province of 22 year olds. We all face situations in life that seem bigger than we are. A neighbor pulled me over last week when I was out running. She’s the live-in care giver for my 90-something neighbor. He’s in decline, and she needed to talk. She has fear, uncertainty and doubt about the future and her ability to influence it.

We talked about loaves and fishes. Sometimes what we have to offer is woefully inadequate for the situation at hand. In the bible story, however, Jesus doesn’t ask his disciples to have enough. He asked them what they had. It suggests God doesn’t ask us to have enough, either. He merely asks us to give the inadequate bits we have so that he can do the miracle of making it enough.

Why do we resist? Are we afraid we’ll look stupid with our meager offering? Or are we afraid we won’t have enough for ourselves? Do we fear the failure that seems probable? Or do we fear a miracle even more? This last one intrigues me. It suggests we’re so attached to the notion we’re in control, we don’t make room for God’s power.

Join the conversation. To be heard, not to be fixed—is this what people really crave? Is this what God does?

Copyright 2014 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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When is Enough Enough?

Daughter competing last Saturday

Competition last Saturday

My 15 year old said a funny thing last week. It was after a Sunday school discussion I led. This otherwise outgoing and social teenager didn’t see anyone to sit with at the teen Godspell production, so she ended up in the back row of my class. It was about repentance—re-thinking our choices and where we’re headed in life—as one way we say, “Yes,” to the paschal mystery’s invitation to newness of life.

On the way home she said, “I often think I want to reinvent myself, but then I think about the time and effort required, and I realize it’s just not going to happen.” She said it with a pithy little laugh, like it was someone else’s quip she was repeating. I asked her what she meant, and she elaborated. “I think I want to compete better so I have to work out more, and I want straight A’s so I have to study more, and I want to be a more giving person so I have to participate more, but I don’t have more time for any of it.”

Well, she has a point. She trains with her team 2 hours every weekday and often more on weekends. She attends an academically competitive prep school and gets good grades — A’s in almost every class, just not all at the same time in the same semester. She does about 2 hours of homework every day, including weekends. Some nights she starts homework at 9:30 p.m. when we get home from the gym. I’m not saying she has no room for improvement. She does, but she is a good time manager, and that includes treasuring the unscheduled time she has and needs.

Her comment could have been in response to my class. The class was about how we all need course corrections on life’s journey. People who are disciplined about frequent self-examination may find only small corrections needed, while those who seldom check if they’re on track may need bigger corrections. If we re-think where we’re headed in life and find we’re on the wrong course entirely, a total turn-around may be what we need. The point is at some point, we all have to stop what we’re doing to take stock. When we make room for God and expose ourselves to transformational grace in the process, we say, “Yes!” to the invitation to experience life in profoundly new ways.

My first thought about her comment was she had taken quick stock and was saying, “No thank you” to the invitation to change. Upon reflection, though, I hear in her comment some wisdom that was NOT in my class. And that is being content with what you have to give at this moment. No one has unlimited resources, including time, so we all have to prioritize. The sky is not the limit. It takes a particular equanimity to give what you have, without self-condemnation for not having more, and to let God do the miracle of making it enough. I think I heard in her comment that who she is now is enough for now. Maybe next time the 15 year old should be teaching the class.

Join the conversation. How do you discern the course-corrections you need without self-flagellation?

Copyright 2014 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

 

5 Steps to Forgiveness

how to forgiveWe talked about forgiveness in Sunday school last week.  The paschal mystery invites us to experience newness of life, and releasing resentment in an act of forgiveness is one way to say “yes” to that invitation.  A couple participants asked me for my presentation material and notes, so I thought it might be timely to recycle an old post on the 5 Steps to Forgiveness.

Step 1: Name the Action
I am looking for action verbs, here. Putting a name to the wrong done against me sets that action apart as unacceptable. It establishes a healthy boundary defining what is and isn’t ok with me. In the process of pinning down the exact action that upset me, however, I might realize the offense wasn’t so bad. Maybe hunger or fatigue exacerbated my response. Maybe my offender made a harmless remark that triggered a harmful memory. Realizing this gives me an opportunity to look deeper within for the true source of my resentment. It also allows me to release resentment for one who meant no harm.

Step 2: Name my Feelings
The key here is a simple, blame-free statement. “When you X, I feel Y.” Most things that upset me result less from malicious intent than people intent on their own agenda, oblivious to repercussions. Showing someone the unintended consequences of his actions creates the opportunity for genuine remorse. Even genuine remorse might not pry the lid off my resentment if I fear being hurt again. A candid conversation about how to prevent repeat performances can restore trust. Sometimes wrongdoers have good ideas for that.

Step 3: Own my Actions 
There’s no question that the absence of remorse makes forgiveness hard. The thing I do here is take the unremorseful offender out of the matter and focus on my side of the street instead. I take a cold hard look at how the wounds I received played a role in the wounds I inflicted, and I take responsibility for my impaired response. This is not victim blaming. It’s control claiming. Confronting my misdeeds leads to the realization that I stand in need of forgiveness, too.

Step 4: Seek God’s Forgiveness
We act out our relationship with God in how we treat others. Recognizing how I treat God in the face of how God blesses me fills me with remorse and desire for renewal. When I can honestly say I care less about what my offender deserves than I care about restoring my relationship with God, I’m on the home stretch to forgiveness.

Step 5: Respond to God’s Grace
It is the ultimate liberation to see forgiveness not as a response to what my offender deserves but as a response to God’s grace towards me!

Join the conversation. Which step do you think is the hardest? Which helps the most?
Copyright 2014 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Health Care Access: Two Stories

health care handsHealth insurance exchanges launch next week.  To honor the occasion, a couple stories feel like they need to be told.  One was a story I heard on NPR about a Yale University professor.  She cut her hand in a freak accident when cleaning a glass bowl.  She told the Yale hospital emergency room physician treating her that she was a knitter, and that fine motor control was important to her.  He assured her he knew what he was doing and she would be fine.  Unexpectedly, one of her students interning in the emergency room happened by and exclaimed, “Professor, what are you doing here?”  Her attending physician stood rigid.  “You’re a Yale professor?” he asked.  When she affirmed she was, he stopped and called in a surgical hand specialist.

Moral of the story:  We don’t have equal access to health care.  Even the affluent.

The other story I heard last night in jail.  An inmate was a passenger in a car wreck six months ago.  She was rushed to the nearest emergency room where surgeons operated on her right hand.  She needed more surgery, but she didn’t have insurance.  The day after the accident, doctors amputated mid-forearm.  The following day, she was discharged with 30 pain pills.

Nothing hurls someone recovering from addiction into relapse like fresh trauma.  That’s the arc of this story.  Traumatized by the accident and in excruciating pain, she turned to drugs.  She was arrested on a drug charge two months later.  It was in jail that her cast, bandages and stitches were removed, revealing her stump to her for the first time.  She shed a grateful tear when describing the officers’ care for her in jail.

Moral of the story:  We don’t have equal access to health care.  Especially the uninsured.

Lest we be tempted to disregard this as an isolated case affecting only the poorest, let’s look at the numbers.  It’s a sad fact that Texas inmates receive better health care than the 26% of Texans who lack insurance.  Uninsured Texans outnumber the entire population of Yale’s home state, Connecticut, by a factor of almost 2.  One in 4 Texans could reasonably expect this level of care.  Only because the woman became incarcerated did a caseworker recognize her need for additional medical care, trauma counseling and rehabilitation to help her learn things like writing with her left hand, buttoning her pants, and slicing a bell pepper.

That’s a bright spot, I guess, but I have to add, time and time again I see people in jail who wouldn’t be there if they had access to health or mental health care.  The lack of access puts a terrible strain on jails, to speak nothing of the strain on people falling through the cracks and landing in jail.  And for the cold hearted out there unmoved by the human toll (you know who you are), our de facto jail-as-a-last-resort system costs taxpayers more than access to appropriate care in the first place.  Would a surgical hand specialist have saved this woman’s hand?  I don’t know.  What I do know is recovery in jail costs more than recovery at home, and now she qualifies for disability for the rest of her life.

Access to health care will never be equal.  Some will always have more.  I don’t begrudge them that.  Here’s the salient point: starting next week, no one else has to live this inmate’s story.  That’s a relief.

Join the conversation.  Where do you draw the line between a person’s responsibility for his own health and our responsibility for each other?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Banality of Evil: Take Two

let them eat cakeThe “Let them eat cake” celebration by House Republicans marking today’s passage of yet another bill to defund healthcare for the uninsured and continuing the sequester is unseemly.  The New York Times called their glee “grotesque.”  Having just separated millions of people from public housing subsidies, Head Start, and unemployment  benefits, and coming as it did on the heels of ending food stamps for almost 4 million people, one might expect a somber tone.  Celebrating the sequester… who wudda thunk?

Rather comically, the Majority Whip took pains to emphasize, repeatedly, the vote was bipartisan.  Perhaps being math challenged is part of the House’s problem.  Two of 190 Democrats voted for it.  I would call that 99% along party lines, but, hey, that’s just me.   Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who pushed yesterday’s food stamps vote, shared the podium.  The provisions of that bill would impact those with an average yearly income of $2,500 or less, truly the poorest of the poor. One commenter poignantly wondered what Cantor prayed for on Yom Kippur.  Could it have been to take even more away from those at the bottom?

The juxtaposition of such harsh treatment of the poor happening the week following the highest Holy Day of the Jewish year, the Day of Atonement, is difficult to reconcile, even for non-Jews like me.  The Jewish path to Atonement with God requires t’fillah, teshuvah, and tzedakah.  These translate roughly to prayer, repentance for wrongs, and the charity that justice demands.  Charity is a particularly bad translation for tzedakah.  In many ways, they’re opposites.  Charity is optional, at the discretion of the giver, and something to which the recipient is not entitled.  Tzedakah is commanded of each and every individual, regardless of wealth, and in the Jewish tradition, recipients are entitled to tzedakah.

The Jewish tradition doesn’t try to equalize income or wealth.  While it t recognizes vast gulfs between the haves and have-nots, it also recognizes a sense of fairness.  Food, clean drinking water, a safe place to sleep and other essentials for survival are things every human is entitled to, for the sake of social justice.  Even those who receive tzedakah are required to give it.  They may render aid rather than material provision.  The Jewish way of engaging with those in need is full of dignity, on all sides.  Dignity is what seems to be sorely lacking in the US House of Representatives this week, but today especially.

The specter of powerful politicians usurping the powerless is not the worst of it.  What gives me greater pause are the millions of Americans drinking the Kool-Aid and voting against their own economic interest.  It calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s landmark book chronicling the trial of a Nazi war criminal.  In it she coins the term “banality of evil” and argues the Holocaust (and indeed, all the great evils in history) resulted not so much from the actions of evil people as from ordinary people blindly accepting and participating in evil behaviors promoted as “normal” by the state.  About the criminal she concludes, “…everybody could see that this man was not a ‘monster,’ but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.”

While it may be tempting to describe our elected representatives as clowns this week, the consequences of their clownery is costing real people real lives.  Who represents them?

Join the conversation.  Why do so many Americans participate in the anti-healthcare, anti-poor rhetoric?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Looking for Cover

Jerry McClure/Dallas Morning News Special Contributor

Jerry McClure/Dallas Morning News Special Contributor

My local paper had this photo of scantily clad revelers on its main page most of last week. Unusual? Hardly.  The Dallas Morning News served a steady diet of bikini pics throughout the summer.  I ask, when did wearing skimpy bathing suits to public events become a good idea? Never mind. It was never a good idea. Perhaps the more salient question is:  When did it become a cultural norm?

I’m seeing more skin in mainstream media. I think it started with “news” coverage of celebrities lacking coverage. Recently, it extended to pornography personalities. Six months ago, I couldn’t name a single porn star. Now I can, thanks to Huffington Post main page headlines. I’m not sure when porn stars became mainstream. I’m more concerned about when wearing bikinis to public events became mainstream.  Are they related?

I can shake my head at the 20-somethings in the photos, but my three teenage daughters can’t. They have to process media messaging somehow.  As a teen unhappy with her body, the models in Elle, Seventeen and clothing catalogs tormented me. But those models were clothed. My daughters are pelted with images of unclothed women, and like it or not, that media messaging establishes cultural norms and expectations. Teenage boys have always wanted to see skin (so I’m told), but now they expect to see it. Teenage girls feel expected to show it, and they do—both the girls with bodies that conform to cultural ideals and those whose bodies do not. Feeling pressured by (and moreover, complying with) cultural expectations damages self-esteem when the message is showing skin counts more than showing intellect or showing heart.

My daughters span a wide range of changing shapes and sizes. In May, one decided to avoid swimsuits all summer. She was relatively successful, even with a beach vacation. Where highs reached the low 70’s, lounging under a beach umbrella in shorts and a t-shirt was not only comfortable but also common among the fair skinned. More difficult was avoiding our sailing club.  Kids wear life jackets by law when sailing, so that wasn’t as problematic as the club pool (where adult behavior isn’t always at its best). When the others wanted to go, she dug in her heals or went to a friend’s instead.  Consequently, our family sailed less this summer.

Her plan broke down at her evangelical Christian camp, of all places. Although the camp went to lengths to protect girls’ modesty—no spaghetti straps, shorts less than fingertip length or 2-piece swimsuits—water sports could not be avoided. She survived, maybe by wearing t-shirts over her swimsuit, or maybe because it’s a place where showing heart counts more than showing skin.

Her quandary made me ponder covered women in the Islamic tradition. Several of my Duke Summer Institute classmates spent years in community with covered women. What my classmates relayed, and what Muslim women at the local mosque expressed, was a deep sense of freedom. Ironically, the burka westerners view as oppressive Muslim women view as liberating. They feel free to be themselves and to express themselves without being judged by appearances. They are utterly aghast at the pressures American women must resist to maintain their dignity, and they can’t fathom women presenting themselves as sex objects by choice. Conversely, covered women feel respected by men who don’t expect them to show skin for male attention, and they feel protected by a culture that doesn’t prize appearance above all else.

Join the conversation. Who’s more exploited—the ones choosing bikinis or burkas?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com

Feeling Yourself Again

find yourselfGroup sessions in the jail start with each inmate’s putting a name to how she’s feeling. “Fine” and “ok” don’t actually describe feelings and usually invite further questioning. Often inmates feel anxious, in which case a little conversation ensues to make provision for the inmate to get the support she might need with a particular issue. Inmates also often feel angry or frustrated, and that generally leads to conversation about the emotions underlying anger and their origin not in the present circumstance but in some past experience.

Recently an inmate responded that she felt herself, and that it had been a long time since she felt like herself. She had struggled with drug addiction since adolescence, and on one level she was referring to the feeling of a clear head. She meant more than that, though. She turned to drugs to escape herself. She believed the lie that she deserved the child sexual abuse perpetrated against her, and she hated herself for being that child. And then she hated herself for all the things she did to become someone different. Two months in jail was the first time in her adult life that she stopped running from who she was. As she shed the various pretenses she had donned like armor, she became acquainted with the vulnerable, wounded, sweet person she really was. It was a little frightening but also a relief.

Maybe I’m thinking of her story because I am feeling relieved to feel myself again. I had a close encounter with poison ivy 26 days ago, and I have been a histamine disaster area since then. The histamines drop my already low blood pressure even lower and mess with gastric acids, so I’ve felt light headed and queasy most of the month. The histamine tidal wave started to recede yesterday, and even though my skin is still crawling off me and I look like a burn victim, I am relieved to start feeling myself again.

Or maybe I’m thinking of her story because a friend loaned me Richard Rohr’s Immortal Diamond. In it Rohr talks about casting off elements of our assumed identity to encounter what Rohr calls the True Self, our divinely created essence. Lawrence Kushner might call it our Holy Spark. There’s a divine, good and true impetus motivating all our actions, even if some of our deeds turn out to be very poorly executed, hampered by badly impaired responses or encrusted with, in AA lingo, character defects. Using either the Christian or Jewish construct, the spiritual work is to surrender those ideas or behaviors that hold one back from recognizing oneself as the dearly loved child of God that one truly is.

It seems like we spend half our lives figuring out who we are or who we want to be and trying to live out that vision for our lives. And then we spend the other half of our lives unlearning a lot of what we thought we learned about ourselves. While it might be painful or frightening to surrender a part of one’s identity, it can also be an unburdening and something of a relief.

Join the conversation. What have you unlearned that helped you find your True Self?
Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.