Obstacles to Intimacy: Fear of Pain

It takes a certain fortitude to bring our full attention to inner inventory.  A tendency to avoid introspection or to cut the search short whenever we embark on it could indicate a fear within us asking to be addressed.

One possibility is fear of pain.  Looking honestly at where we fell short and feeling compassion for people we harmed can be painful.  Avoidance and denial can elude pain in the short term.  We pack painful memories into moving boxes, seal them with duct tape and chunk them into the attics of our psyches.  There they stay.  They might not interfere with day-to-day matters, but they don’t go away, either.  We can’t move on without dealing with them somehow.  We can lug them with us like dead weight or lighten our loads by unpacking them, deciding what needs to be discarded or given away, and choosing only those things of value for our journeys.

It’s often said fear of a thing is worse than the thing itself, and I have found that to be true with unpacking painful memories in introspection.  It’s no accident that Twelve Step programs call for fearlessness in the Fourth Step moral inventory.  Honest introspection is the most fearsome part of the practice of confession.  It helps to remember that the pain we fear can be extremely useful.  When we embrace it, it saves us from treading the same ground again.  When gathered up, it fuels the journey from the place where you were wounded to a place of healing and newness of life.

If you find yourself lingering at the threshold of introspection, you may need a shot of courage.  Ask God for it.  When we ask for God’s help navigating obstacles, we tend to be modest.  There are several reasons we ask for too little.  One is we miss the forest for the trees.  Our fixation on an immediate need or desire blinds us to a deeper trait that leads us repeatedly into distress.  Or we hesitate to ask for what we need because we don’t want to seem too greedy or to take more than our share of God’s mercy.  We ask for too little also because don’t really believe God can or will give what we ask, and doubting God seems safer than trusting him, being vulnerable, or being wrong.  We hedge.

Despite our modesty, scripture indicates nothing delights God more than answering the prayers of those who earnestly seek him.  God’s mercy is boundless.  Your share is not apportioned.  Consider whether you want to be driven by fear or something else.  Stephen Hawking put forward radical ideas about physics.  He wasn’t afraid to be wrong.  If he had been, black hole radiation would not have been discovered.  He was too curious to be held back by fear.  Let curiosity about what God can do in your life lead you forward.  Maybe these verses and breathing prayer will bring you courage for the first step.

7Remember not the sins of my youth, or my transgressions; according to thy
steadfast love remember me, for thy goodness’ sake, O Lord!
15My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for he will pluck my feet out of the net. (Ps 25)

Inhale: curiosity
Exhale: fear

Join the conversation.  Is there anything in your attic that you need to give away?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Navigating Obstacles to Intimacy with God

There’s a Twelve Step expression that a path with no obstacles probably doesn’t lead anywhere interesting.  Some theologians assert that life’s meaning is revealed in the obstacles, as if life were an obstacle course that is pointless without obstacles.  A previous post spoke of lingering at the threshold of intimacy with God and pondered how to surmount the obstacles in our paths.

One obstacle everyone who attempts meditation or prayer encounters is distraction.  It afflicts even the most respected spiritual guides.  When we remember that God rejoices in our returning, however, we can see distractions as opportunities to delight God simply by acknowledging them and returning our attention to God.   If the distraction persists, we can bring it into conversation with God, asking what he makes of it.

Ultimately our attention is our choice, and several visualizations can aid our returning.  My favorite is attributed to Martin Luther:  “You can’t stop birds from flying overhead, but you can stop them from nesting in your hair.”  It applies to events that nudge us off course, but it applies no less to distractions that lure us from prayer.  It’s ok to notice the occasional bird flying by.  Just let it keep flying on.  A Christian monk taught me that prayer can also be like observing a stream.  If a fish swims by, let it swim into and out of view.  You can notice the fish as a part of the stream’s life without the fish absorbing all of your attention.

It may help to spend time in reflection about what holds you back or gets in your way and to pray about it.  The simplest prayer is a breathing prayer.  There is a deep connection between breathing and prayer.  Language reflects the connection.  Hebrew and Greek bibles both used one single word for wind, Holy Spirit and God’s breath—rauh in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek.  The text that provides the scriptural basis for Jesus bestowing the power to forgive sins to his apostles, John 20, is an example:

22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh noted, “Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts.”

One approach to breathing prayers is to inhale with a mental focus on what one desires, concentrating only on that word or short phrase.  Then when exhaling, one’s focus shifts to what gets in the way.  Typically the prayer is repeated several times, simply inhaling the desire and exhaling the obstacle.  For example,

Inhale: presence
Exhale: distraction

Join the conversation.  Can you share wisdom for overcoming distraction?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Sacramental Approach to Intimacy

In the Christian tradition, Lent is known as a season of preparation, discipline and reconciliation. We face our mortality and the course corrections we need.  We exercise self-discipline so we will gain the freedom to change.  And we seek to reconcile ourselves to ourselves, to God and to others.  One practice for doing this is the sacrament of reconciliation.

A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  It is an action imbued with a spiritual reality.  Not all Christians recognize the same sacraments.  The two sacraments Jesus instituted during his life are baptism for the forgiveness of sins and communion for re-calling Christ.  Some Protestant denominations, Methodist and Presbyterian for example, recognize only these two as sacraments.  Baptists practice baptism and communion as outward expressions of faith but they do not believe they confer divine grace as sacraments.  Catholics, Anglicans, and some Orthodox believers, by contrast, recognize these and additional sacraments:  confirmation, ordination, marriage, confession and unction.

The sacrament of reconciliation entails naming one’s sins.  It involves counsel with the person hearing the confession in order to clarify wrongdoing and to assess faith and remorse.  When administered by a priest, the rite concludes with absolution—complete forgiveness and remission of the sins confessed—pronounced by the priest on behalf of God through the power vested in the priest by Jesus Christ for this specific purpose.  When given by a lay person, the rite concludes with an assurance of pardon.

To focus exclusively on forgiveness in the sacrament of reconciliation, however, is to miss a larger point and the point of Jesus’ life.  Jesus came not only to forgive but also to show us a new way to relate to God (new Covenant) and to each other (kingdom of God on earth).  The point is relationship and a fresh start on life.

Obstacles on the way towards newness of life take shapes as varied as humankind itself, and this blog will explore ways to overcome some of them during Lent.  Many obstacles boil down to fear.  Some of us fear intimacy or the vulnerability interwoven with it.  Some of us resist the very relationship for which Christians believe we were created and that Jesus was sent to reclaim.  That resistance transfuses all our relationships.  It limits our ability to have intimacy with others and, indeed, even with self.

The sacrament of reconciliation is about confessing those obstacles in the way of our relationship with God, being freed from them and, most importantly, starting anew.  The sacrament is a celebration.  Although the remembrance of our wrong turns can be painful, reconciliation doesn’t end there.  It is followed by forgiveness and returning to God.  That returning is cause for great rejoicing.  “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.”  (Luke 15:7)

Join the conversation.  Will you make room for God’s creative power to collaborate on your re-creation and renewal?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Accepting God’s Invitation to Intimacy

If I want to accept God’s invitation to intimacy, what do I actually do?  Intimacy in any relationship requires a willingness to reveal part of ourselves—not the image we project to the world but rather the inner truth of who we really are.   We often think of intimacy as revealing that truth to another, and we wonder, perhaps a bit anxiously, how the other person will respond to that truth.  It’s different with God.  Rather than revealing the inner truth to another, in intimacy with God, our inner truth is revealed to us.  And we wonder, with more than a bit of anxiety, how we will respond to that truth. 

Hence, many of us pause at the threshold of self-discovery.  I regularly write and teach about the power of introspection for spiritual growth, and yet, I find myself pausing, lingering, and hesitating before crossing that threshold.  Introspection is not easy, I imagine not even for the pure of heart.  There’s a Sufi story about Mullah Nasreddin who searches for the key to his house.  He looks frantically outside under a lamp post, and his neighbors come to his aid.  After hours of searching, one asks where he was when he lost the key.  Nasreddin replies he lost it in his house. The neighbor asks, “Why are you looking outside?” Nasreddin responds, “Because the light is better out here under the lamp.”

Like Nasreddin, we find it infinitely easier to analyze external conditions than to take a candid look inward.  Accepting the invitation to intimacy with God, however, requires us to leave the light of the lamp post to go deep into the darkness of our own houses.  What impedes our journey is less fear of what anyone else will think than fear of what introspection will bring to light for ourselves.  As we embark on introspection, the prospect of facing our less than best moments is uncomfortable.  For those who suspect that they won’t like (or can’t live with) the person they find, it is terrifying.  If I have negotiated an uneasy peace with my past, introspection might feel like opening Pandora’s box.  We fear changing, too.  Even if my present way of being causes conflict and suffering, I might fear giving it up or resist conceiving of a new way to be.

How does one get to the place where an honest and unflinching introspection feels safe?  Several spiritual traditions–some ancient and religious and some modern and secular—offer wisdom to address this question.  In observing the Christian tradition of Lent, this blog for the next six weeks will explore some of the obstacles that hold us back from intimacy with ourselves and with God, along with prayers and meditations for overcoming each one. 

Join the conversation.  What holds you back from crossing the threshold into intimacy and vulnerability?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

An Irresistible Invitation

Being made in the image of God means we are creative beings.  We are not created once, but keep recreating ourselves through many life stages.  Life circumstances can unfold in ways that nudge us off one course and onto another.  We all stand in need of occasional course corrections.  The most alert and observant among us will be the first to recognize the need.  Whereas Jews take inventory of needed course corrections in the days leading up to Yom Kippur, many Christians do so in the days leading up to Easter.   Next week marks the beginning of Lent, an occasion that invites us to ponder where we have veered off course so that we can expose those places to God’s creative power for healing, forgiveness and spiritual renewal. 

I want to dispel the notion that the practice of introspection is appropriate only for people who have veered way off course or made grave mistakes.  God extends an open invitation to intimacy to us all.  Every person who seeks to be in a more vigorous relationship with God will gain from a serious examination of what is getting in the way of that relationship.  Examining the 4 types of choices we have made is one way to approach this introspection. 

Maybe you are not sure where your life is going.  Maybe you’re lost or not sure if you are on the right course.  Maybe you’re certain you are on the wrong course.  Perhaps you’re stuck in doldrums, paralyzed by pain, shame, guilt, or wounds that won’t heal.  Maybe you are in so much pain you can’t wait for change, any change, to escape your current torment.  Or maybe you are comfortable with “the devil you know” and hesitate to believe in the transformation that is being offered to you.

Perhaps you are in need of healing after a rough patch of road, like a failed marriage or the death of a loved partner.  Being healed could give you freedom and energy to start a new stage of your life.  Or perhaps you anticipate a rough road ahead–a diagnosis, a trial or an ending–that begs for strength. 

Maybe you are in transition between life stages, stepping up to new responsibilities–marriage, parenthood, a new career direction–where the challenges call for new strength.  Or maybe you have already made significant positive changes in your life and you don’t want to rest on your laurels but to use your freedom to seek more awareness and intimacy with God.  Maybe your life path has been free of moral crisis and brokenness, and you simply wish to respond to the abundance of God’s grace in your life by drawing closer to him. 

Whatever has brought you to the place where you now stand, you are in receipt of an invitation.  You are invited to spiritual renewal.  The invitation places you at a crossroads.  You may choose to accept or to decline.  To accept is to be transformed, to experience life in a more joyful and freer way.  To decline is to leave unopened a great gift set before you. 

Join the conversation.  Will you rely on your own power or God’s power to change your course? 

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

4 Types of Choices: Non-Choices

We don’t think about our habits.  We just do them.  Unconscious choices are the fourth type of choices that belong in our inner inventory.  Most of us have some habits that are healthy and some that are destructive.  I once heard destructive habits called nuisance sins.  They may not be the most obvious obstacles in our relationship with God, but our habits inform our character.  Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “Watch your thoughts. They become words. Watch your words. They become deeds. Watch your deeds. They become habits. Watch your habits. They become character.  Character is everything.”

Our thoughts inform not only our character but also our feelings.  Many of our poor choices are fuelled by feelings like hate, greed, envy and entitlement.  Feelings aren’t a choice, but thoughts are.  Exercising self-control in thinking is shown to have an impact on feelings.  Therefore, developing habits of resisting negative influences in our thinking will inform our feelings as well as our words, deeds and habits. 

Some habits are more than nuisance sins.  They can interfere with or even destroy everything of value in our lives.  Someone fighting addiction can testify to the fact that habits left unchecked will eventually rob us of choice. 

The opposite of a mindless habits is a mindful habit—doing everything, even small things, conscientiously with thankful hearts in the service of God.  19th century priest and author, Edward Meyrick Gouldburn (1818 -1897), best known for his tenure as Dean of Norwich, urged the following:

As far as human frailty will permit, each little trifling piece of duty which presents itself to us in daily life, if it be only a compliance with some form of social courtesy, should receive a consecration, by setting God – His will, word and Providence – before us in it, and by lifting up our hearts to Him in ejaculatory prayer, while we are engaged in it.  The idea must be thoroughly worked into the mind, and woven into the texture of our spiritual life, that the minutest duties which God prescribes to us in the order of His Providence – a casual visit, a letter of sympathy, an obligation of courtesy, are not by any means too humble to be made means of spiritual advancement, if only the thing be done “as to the Lord, and not to men.”

When I shine a flashlight into myself to take inventory of my choices, it helps me to make notes.  Sometimes putting words to thoughts gives them better definition and stimulates deeper thinking.  If you are reflecting over a long period of your lifetime, spend some time looking over how actions or attitudes in one stage of life connect to another.  Consider whether something unconscious in one life stage prompted a deliberate effort or reaction in a later life stage.  For example, perhaps a career or relationship setback prompted greater reliance on and intimacy with God.  Perhaps a reactive feeling such as low self-worth gave way to an unthinking habit like arrogance towards those less fortunate.  On the other hand, awareness of my earlier elitist attitudes may give rise to intentional efforts to discourage prejudiced jokes in my presence. 

If you can isolate one or two unconscious attitudes or habits that have caused you angst, then you have exposed what needs to be held up for God’s mercy and healing power.

Join the conversation.  Where has God been in the midst of your choices? 

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

4 Types of Choices: Passive Choices

Of the 4 types of choices, passive choices are the most overlooked but potentially the most deadly.  What opportunity for injustice are we creating when we allow ourselves to be swept up by cultural currents or we go along with the crowd?  The Holocaust is the inescapable example.  It was made possible by people who stood by because they thought they had no choice.  They were mistaken about that.  The choices may have been all bad, but they had choices.    

If the Holocaust seems distant, let’s turn to something nearer.  On the consumer level, how do I benefit from the oppression of others, and how do I choose oppression?  When I drink the fancy bottled water in my hotel room, am I patronizing a company in cahoots with an oppressive regime?  When I choose cheap prices at a superstore, am I supporting an industry that capitalizes on underpaid offshore workers and contributes to domestic underemployment?  I may be powerless as an individual to change an industry, but my individual actions still have consequences.  When replicated millions of times across a nation, the cumulative consequence matters. 

Turning nearer still, our culture encourages consumption, even excessive consumption.  Do I take more than I need?  What are the consequences?  Am I generous with the excess that I have?  The Jewish tradition offers guidance for prioritizing tzedakah and for establishing what, exactly, counts as tzedakah under what circumstances. 

Perhaps the most harmful of our passive choices are when we stand by on the playground or in the gossip circle.  The United States is suffering from a bystander crisis playing out in the nation’s schools.  No less than ten US government offices and agencies have initiated a dozen summits, campaigns and reports to get a handle on bullying.  Tellingly, one report concludes, “Student-witnesses appear to have a central role in creating opportunities for bullying.”  We now have massive government machinery in motion to address our passive choices. 

Cultural currents do not sweep us to compassion.  “So much of what passes for entertainment is about being rude, nasty and crass,” said Meline Kevorkian, who studies bullying at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale-Davie, Fla. “What we see as comedy is actually making fun of other people.”  Am I a customer of this kind of comedy?  If I submit that the failure of individuals often relates to the weaknesses of society, how does my commercial support for mean media contribute to cultural conditioning of young people? 

Virtually all world religions teach the golden rule and draw us to compassion.  “Thou shall not stand idly by the shedding of the blood of thy fellow man,” is a biblical commandment. (Leviticus 19:16)  The Hebrew word is not “akhikha,” Jewish brother, but “réakha,” fellow human being, Jewish or not.  In the New Testament, The beatitudes make clear that God calls us not to stand by but to stand up, especially when doing so is unpopular.  “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10) 

Examining passive choices is not meant to heap the weight of all society’s sins on your shoulders.  All actions have consequences, however.  Sometimes a minor adjustment replicated by enough thoughtful individuals is all it takes to induce a cultural course correction. 

Join the conversation.  Has choosing ignorance helped you avoid action? 

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.