Courage to Change

Courage is not so much feeling brave while doing something heroic as doing what you have to do even though you are terrified.  This is a reader comment on a story of true courage in a dramatic escape from domestic violence from fellow blogger, Cathy’s Voice Now.  I commend it to all readers!   

It is presently the time in the Jewish calendar known as the Counting of the Omer.  It’s the time between Passover, when Jews were freed from bondage in Egypt, to Sinai, when they received the Ten Commandments.  Lyrically described as a journey from the sea of freedom to the mountain of responsibility, it reminds us that freedom and responsibility go together.  Cathy ends her post with the perfect poem to punctuate this reality, so I share it here.   

Autobiography In Five Short Chapters by Portia Nelson

Chapter One
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.

Chapter Two
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place
but, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter Three
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
My eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter Four
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter Five
I walk down another street.

Join the conversation.  Is there a hole in your sidewalk calling you to life change?

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

Spiritual But Not Religious: Forgiveness

Forgiveness just might be the most difficult spiritual work that we do in life.  There are other spiritually difficult tasks, such as putting our trust in a spiritual reality greater than ourselves.  Letting go of attachments to ideas, habits or people that give us sense of security (often a false sense of security) is another difficult one.  Forgiveness requires both trust and letting go.

Forgiveness is the release of resentment and claim to retribution.  It takes a certain emotional energy to keep tabs on what we resent and why.  Sometimes we release resentment because we just don’t have the energy to keep nursing the resentment.  An offender’s expression of sincere remorse can defuse the resentment, making it easier to justify redirecting energy to other things instead.  Forgiveness gets more difficult in the absence of remorse, like if the offender has died or is emotionally incapable of remorse.  Forgiveness is most difficult when it feels like the subject and predicate have flip-flopped.  We may want to be released (passive voice) from the hold the offense has over our psyche rather than releasing (active voice) resentment for it.  How can we reclaim the active voice?

All religious traditions have teachings of one kind or another on forgiveness.  Some practices such as Jewish atonement celebrated at Yom Kippur and the Christian sacrament of reconciliation focus on seeking God’s forgiveness, for which getting forgiveness from others and forgiving others are, respectively, prerequisites.  In my study of how different spiritual traditions approach confession, I was struck by one difference between these religious traditions and the Twelve Steps.  The Fourth Step searching and fearless moral inventory and the Fifth Step admission of wrongs to God, ourselves and another human being are primarily focused not on getting God’s forgiveness but on getting God’s help to change.  That seems immanently more pragmatic to me.

Ultimately, I believe it is also what allows us to reclaim the active voice.  As long as we focus on our resentment, we keep putting the offender in the middle of the situation.  Our injuries impair the way we treat others, and our impaired responses keep dragging our wounded past into our present circumstances.  When we take the offender out of the center and put God there instead, taking responsibility for how we respond to others becomes more important than what an offender deserves.  When we can honestly say we care more about our relationship with God or the footprint we are leaving in the world than what our offender deserves, we are on the home stretch.  Getting to this stage, though, requires trust in a spiritual reality where each person bears responsibility for his own actions.  The act of forgiveness is a response to that spiritual reality, not a response to what our offender does or does not deserve.

Forgiveness also requires us to let go of several things: what we think our offender deserves, what the offender owes to us, and perhaps the relationship with the offender entirely.  Sometimes we hold onto resentment because it is the only thing connecting us to someone we think we need in our lives.  Letting go of ideas, habits or even people may be our most important step towards healing.

Join the conversation.  What helped you let go of a stubborn case of resentment?

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

Spiritual But Not Religious: the Way or the Church?

It’s often remarked that any institution is principally concerned with its own survival as an institution.  Perhaps this remark is made concerning religious institutions more than any other.  Mark Twain wrote in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:

Concentration of power in a political machine is bad; and an Established Church is only a political machine; it was invented for that; it is nursed, cradled, preserved for that; it is an enemy to human liberty, and does no good which it could not better do in a split-up and scattered condition.

Jews did exactly that – split up and scattered—after the destruction of the first temple.  In making the move to diaspora over edifice, the kitchen table replaced the alter table and Jews looked simply to the Torah as the Way.  The temple was reconstructed, however, and came to represent the institutionalization of authority and codes of conduct that Jesus rebelled against.  Much has changed over the millennia, and it is now Christians who have priests, alters, and lines of institutional authority.  And some things haven’t changed.  Codes of conduct fuel splintering divisiveness in religious communities today.

Standing in contrast to the hierarchical structure of many religious traditions, the Twelve Step tradition is starkly egalitarian in nature.  The enduring success of Twelve Step programs can be attributed not only to steps that capture a spiritual essence shared by many faith traditions but also to organizational philosophy.  A.A. is a self-organized, self-supported “fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.”  The A.A. support organization assiduously avoids religious, political or ideological affiliation.  There are no dues or formal membership, so the number of participants isn’t known.  The best estimate is 2 million members.  Its operating structure has been described variously as an “inverted pyramid” with no top-down authority and as “benign anarchy” by one of its founders.  Even in meetings, there are guiding principles but no leaders.  Everyone enters with equal authority.

Theologian and Rabbi Shais Taub writes movingly of the theology reflected in the Twelve Steps.  When asked whether it is in agreement with Jewish theology, he says, “The answer I usually give is not only that is there nothing in the Twelve Steps that is problematic from a Jewish perspective, but also that the Twelve Steps can actually help Jews to better understand their own God.”  I have observed the same to be true for Christians.  There are those who left the church for the Twelve Steps because they just couldn’t get there—to spiritual awakening or profound life change—with what the church offered.  Truly for those, the Twelve Steps were the Way.

The question—the Way or the Church—is particularly germane following yesterday’s announcement of a Vatican crackdown on US nuns.  Along with the recent Catholic involvement in political discourse, the move appears to elevate institutional authority over compassion for the poor and powerless.  Here is the article’s poignant conclusion:

“I don’t know any more holy people,” [canon lawyer and former dean of Duqesne Law School Nick] Cafardi said of American religious sisters. “I see a lot more holiness in the convents than I see in the chancery.”

Join the conversation.  What attachments is your faith community willing to surrender to follow the Way?

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

Spiritual But Not Religious: Meet Me Where I Am

Growing public discussion about the decline of religion, and Christianity in particular, highlights to my mind many things that the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous do right.

Most poignant, perhaps, is that no one is left out.  There are no excluded or castigated groups.  Everyone is accepted as they are.  Christians may be thinking, “Gee, that sounds a lot like Jesus,” but serious observers of religion know that every Christian era has had its pariahs.  The Twelve Step tradition meets people where they are, no matter how despicable or lowly that place may be.  It doesn’t tell anyone what they must believe to be included.  Rather, it simply encourages openness to spiritual possibility.  It says, “Healing is possible if you’re willing to reach for it.  Here are steps that worked for us.”

The huge irony is some of those most in need of saving grace want nothing to do with God.  They’re mad.  So mad, they ignore his presence whenever possible, and failing that, they face God with seething resentment.  “I was an innocent child!  How could you unleash unspeakable abuse against an innocent?  What kind of almighty monster are you?”  The incidence of childhood trauma among substance abusers has tragic proportions.  Is it not logical that, if healing proves elusive, one might at least find an anesthetic within reach?

The Alcoholics Anonymous founders were sensitive to this spiritual hostility, namely because they were agnostic at the beginning of their journeys to recovery, and they didn’t want to discourage other alcoholics from beginning the steps.  “We find that no one need have difficulty with the spirituality of the program. Willingness, honesty and open mindedness are the essentials of recovery. But these are indispensable.”  They knew what looks preposterous at the journey’s beginning morphs into profound truth after spiritual awakening.  The Twelve Steps don’t foist the unbelievable on the unbelieving.

For the sake of inclusion, most Twelve Step programs recognize God across many faith traditions, and many interpretations of God are respected.  The “higher power” can be understood as the consciousness of the fellowship, in that the group consciousness may offer recovery seekers some power to do what they cannot do on their own.  Others find the higher power in nature, a la Mother Earth and Father Sky.

Religious traditions coalesce around common experience and belief.  Some are rigid about belief, behavior and belonging while a precious few treasure the richness of their diversity.  It seems to me that some of the ancient religious institutions experiencing a decline (moral, cultural, financial….pick a category) could learn something from the Twelve Steps.  The steps recognize addiction as a spiritual malady at its root, and thus they invite spiritual growth and intimacy with God.  Isn’t that also the aim of religion?  Or at least, isn’t that what religion purports its aim to be?  While the Twelve Step tradition goes to great lengths to avoid dictating beliefs, it goes to equal lengths to encourage people to expose their lives to the transformational power of God, however they might experience that.

Join the conversation.  What could your house of worship learn from the Twelve Steps?

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

Fourth and Fifth Step Healing

“The First Step was easy.  If I’ve gotta do all twelve, then the Second and Third can go pretty quick too, whatever they mean.  But Step Four, that’s where the real work starts.”  The Fourth Step is a searching and fearless moral inventory, and the Fifth Step is admitting aloud the exact nature of one’s wrongs to another human being and to God.

I asked one recovery seeker about his biggest obstacle starting the Fourth Step, and he laughed, “The Fourth Step dread that formed instantaneously the very first time I laid eyes on the Twelve Steps!”  Another recovery seeker, focusing on the quickest possible cure, bought one Twelve Step guide and did the first three steps, but the guide didn’t provide a simple prescription for the Fourth Step.  He bought a second book and did the same.  Disappointed in how the second book approached the Fourth Step, he got a third book.  After repeated disappointment, he realized there was no quick Fourth Step answer.  It had to come from within himself, not from a guide.

Both responses are utterly human.  This blog’s regulars will recall the fable of Sufi Mullah Nasruddin and his house key.  Nasruddin searches frantically for the key to his house outside under a lamp post.  His neighbors come to his aid, and after hours of searching, one asks where he was when he lost the key.  Nasruddin replies he lost it in his house. The neighbor asks, “Why are you looking outside?” Nasruddin responds, “Because the light is better out here under the lamp.”

Like Nasruddin, we find it infinitely easier to analyze external conditions than to take a candid look inward.  Healing, however, requires us to leave the light of the lamp post and to go deep into the darkness of our own houses.  What impedes our journey is less fear of what anyone else will think of us 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.

Some report the work of introspection, although painful and exhausting, to be cathartic.  They want to get the ugly secrets they have been hiding exposed to the light of day.  Where the Fourth Step can feel cathartic, the Fifth Step can be intensely emotional.  “Acknowledged in AA literature as one of the most difficult steps to take (and one often avoided), the Fifth Step is also one of the most necessary to long term sobriety and genuine peace of mind,” observes one Twelve Step guide. The guide quotes a life-long Roman Catholic, a priest who had experienced the religious sacrament of confession innumerable times, about his experience of confession in the Fifth Step:

In retrospect, I associate it with a turning point in my life: an experience of inner healing, an event that revealed to me a loving God who had always been so near and yet so far.

Join the Conversation.  Which of the Twelve Steps do you think is hardest?

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

Spiritual Steps to Life Change

Easter celebrations bring an end to Lent, a season many Christians observe with contemplation and disciplines designed to prepare ourselves for the newness of life that Christ’s resurrection promises to all who surrender themselves to God.  A relatively small subset of Christians practice introspection and confession in particular as powerful steps toward making needed course corrections in life.

In contrast to ancient religious practices, another influential and well-established tradition offers a more contemporary take on practices for finding life change and spiritual awakening.  The tradition is spiritual but not religious, and celebrated Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr describes it as “America’s most significant and authentic contribution to the history of spirituality.”  It is the Twelve Step tradition pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous.

Every year, millions of Twelve Step recovery seekers embark on a searching and fearless moral inventory and admit their wrongs aloud to God and another human being as essential steps towards profound life change.  What do these recovery seekers know about spiritual transformation that millions of religious seekers don’t?  A lot, as it turns out.

First is that life change starts with recognizing the limits of our own power.  Consider the difference between a religious seeker who approaches introspection believing he had the power to make better choices (but simply chose not to) and a Twelve Step seeker who acknowledges that his defects of character took away his power to make better choices.  Although we can find a false sense of security in our own power, it leads us towards unrealistic expectations for ourselves (and unwarranted derision).

The second thing Twelve Step recovery seekers know is that life change is possible but only with God’s power.  Some religious seekers don’t really believe in the transformation that is being offered to them, or they walk away from confession unchanged but determined to make better choices in the future without genuinely depending on God’s power to make them.  Acknowledging that God has this power, that we don’t have to change through sheer force of will alone, is the kernel of hope for healing.

The third thing recovery seekers know is that we have to create a power vacuum in order to make space for God’s power to enter, and that actually relying on God’s power instead of will power is incredibly difficult.  Relying on one’s own will is easy.  I want what I want, after all.  Being demanding or strong-willed about what I want takes little strength of character.  Laying down my will, conversely, takes enormous spiritual strength.  Religious seekers sometimes approach God in search of a little auxiliary power without taking the difficult step of creating the power vacuum.  They may want God to be almighty, but on their terms.

These three truths align to the first three steps of the Twelve Steps.  Like the first three, the remaining steps outline a path to healing, life change and spiritual awakening that is much more specific and instructive than much of what religious doctrine offers.

Join the conversation.  Do you think God cares or do you actually trust God’s care?

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

Symbol of Hope

Symbols have power.  The ancient Romans were onto this, and they knew how to wield it.  They dominated conquered people and kept them subjugated through that timeless implement of control—fear.  The Romans planted symbols everywhere to keep the fear fresh.  One of the most enduring and fearful symbols was that symbol of execution by crucifixion, the cross.  The Romans didn’t invent crucifixion, but they did tune it for maximum cruelty, and they did use it liberally, at least in Judea.  The cross was a potent symbol of gruesome torture, fear and oppression for a thousand years until Constantine abolished crucifixion to honor Christ.

The symbol of the cross is no less potent now than it was thousands of years ago.  But a remarkable thing happened.  It now stands for love, hope and salvation.  Even the atrocities of the Crusades and Klu Klux Klan, committed bearing the sign of the cross, didn’t permanently throw the symbol’s meaning back to its ancient horror.  That the meaning of this symbol could be so radically transformed and still be powerfully evocative today is no less miraculous than bodily resurrection itself.

If you seek radical transformation for yourself, if there is a part of you that fills you with horror or angst, or if you desperately seek to make a break from your past, the symbol of the cross might offer you hope and encouragement.  It has a thousand year history of darkness, and yet it was radically remade into a symbol of light and love.  That remade meaning has endured for thousands of years more.  If that hateful image could be redeemed from its past and fundamentally transformed, then surely by God’s power, we can be, too.

My Easter prayer for you is that the darkness in your past will be redeemed.  The history of the cross’ symbolism wasn’t rewritten, and your history won’t be rewritten either.  Whatever malice or spite is lying in your past will remain there.  However, Jesus assures us in scripture that our returning is made more joyful to God because of our past sins, not despite them.

I used to wonder why Christians perceive more joy over one sinner returning than many staying on righteous paths.  Staying on the straight and narrow is no mean feat, after all.  I suspect the reason has to do with heartbreak.  To use a sailing analogy, imagine a sailing ship returning with all her crew from a routine voyage.  Certainly loved ones would happily welcome the expected return of any voyage.  Imagine the heartbreak and grief instead if the ship failed to return and all were feared lost at sea.  And then, imagine the ship limping into harbor with all souls accounted for.  The rejoicing would be greater because the returning conquers the heartbreak.

There is heartbreak and grief when we veer off course.  We inflict it on ourselves, on others and on God.  Upon returning, the heartbreak is not just repaired as if we had never veered off but surmounted, vanquished, and transcended.  It is like the resurrection of Jesus conquering his death or a symbol’s meaning transforming from cruelty to salvation.  So search yourself for the darkness within you, acknowledge the heartbreak there, and look to the cross with hope for redemption.

Join the conversation.  What is your deepest and most fervent hope?

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