Spiritual Gifts: Free Will

in God's image with free will to chooseThe so-called seven deadly sins represent natural gifts distorted or taken to unhealthy extremes.  Distorted behaviors upset the balance of relationships with others, with God and within oneself.  Spiritual disciplines are designed to bring these natural gifts back into proper spiritual proportion.

Lent is a good time to examine our gifts and whether they are in balance or manifesting as sins. The Christian tradition teaches disciplines of engagement to counteract sins of omission and disciplines of abstinence to counteract sins of commission.  Accordingly, each post during Lent will examine a discipline of engagement and a discipline of abstinence appropriate for bringing one of the “seven deadly sins” into balance as the natural gift it was intended to be.

Our free will to love and to create is perhaps our greatest spiritual gift and the
foremost way in which we’re created in God’s image.  We are free to seek God’s will or to choose our own way.  When distorted, the gift of free will can lead to the sin of greed.  The discipline of engagement that counteracts ignoring God’s will is prayer.  The discipline of abstinence that counteracts greed is silence.

I live in a neighborhood where the electricity goes out if the wind blows the wrong way.  If you’ve experienced an electrical outage, you may recall the sensation of all the motors in your house going quiet, and you might even become aware of electronics that run largely without your notice.  I generally notice the sound of the HVAC, but I rarely notice the fans whirring in my refrigerator or my PC or my monitor’s soft buzz until that crack of static before they cease.

My brain is a little like that.  There are processes whirring that I am not altogether conscious of—trifling anxieties about a presentation, mental notes on my schedule, little calculations of when I must finish one task to be on time for the next.  All of these run in the background when I’m concentrating on something.  And often it’s only when I stop thinking that I notice this interior noise.

Some are able to summon interior quietude amidst a cacophony, but I find a quiet environment helps me silence my thoughts.  It is in this silence that we are most apt to hear God.  When Elijah hides from the Israelites (and, incidentally, from the Lord also), God seeks him out.

He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake;and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. (1 Kings 19:11-12)

Sometimes God appears to us in fantastic phenomena, but for most of us most of the time, we find God, who has been seeking us all along, in sheer silence.

If prayer is a two way conversation with God, at some point, we have to stop talking and start listening.  A discipline of silence will help us hear.

Join the conversation.  How do you quiet the processes whirring in your mind?

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

Spiritual Disciplines

spiritual disciplinesDoing something with the mind and body to foster spiritual growth is a timely topic for Christians.  This time between Ash Wednesday and Easter is traditionally a penitential season.  It’s a time Christians look inward and re-think (i.e. repent) some of our choices.  The purpose of introspection and re-thinking is to be able to identify course corrections, however minor or major, to align our life trajectories to our own life goals and to God’s will for each of us, individually.

Course corrections and life changes can be difficult to define and even more difficult to put into effect.  Once we have decided on a change in course, it takes resolve, spiritual fortitude, grace, and often a power greater than ourselves to put it into action.  More than faith or intellectual assent is needed.

5For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, 6and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, 7and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. (2 Peter 1:5-9)

The first few words of this passage tell us a lot.  “You must make every effort to support your faith.”  Note Peter does not say, “Sit back and wait for the miracle.”  God works miracles through the efforts we make.

From a pragmatic perspective, some things are impossible to pull off without practice.  As much as I want to bat .300, simply willing it to be so without any practice or training is a recipe for failure.  Practice makes performance possible.

Spiritual disciplines condition us for the strength needed to break destructive patterns or to step up to positive life change.  Disciplines don’t guarantee life change any more than time in a batting cage guarantees I’ll bat .300, but they make possible what would otherwise be impossible.   Spiritual disciplines do something else very powerful in addition to spiritual conditioning.  The act of doing exposes us to God’s grace.  It is through our doing that God acts, taking what is weak and making it enough.

Dallas Williard’s Spirit of the Disciplines says ancient spiritual disciplines are effective because they engage the body, which Willard describes as the focal point for life.  Any of the disciplines can be practiced in a manner accessible to a beginner.  Those beginning weight training may use small weights.  Those starting endurance training might run short distances.  So it is with spiritual training.

During Lent, this blog will explore a variety of spiritual disciplines.  Like Willard, I encourage an experimental attitude.  What is a lovely practice to recall mindfulness for some can become a mindless practice devoid of meaning for others.  Or worse, it can become distorted for vanity.  My real motive in dieting during Lent may be to become more attractive rather than to find sustenance in God, for example.

Try a variety of practices and notice what works for you.  Remember, though, that practice is not an end in itself.  The purpose of practice is gaining the strength we need to break old patterns that get in the way of our relationship with God.  A strong spiritual condition frees us to choose God’s will in the face of competing cultural currents.  Moreover, spiritual disciplines are means of grace, a medium through which God blesses us and holds us fast.

Join the conversation.  What spiritual disciplines are you thinking about trying?

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

Hiding Depression

hiding depression and shameA friend recently shared disturbing news of a somewhat-related-by-marriage 23 year old who attempted suicide.  My friend described her as a genuinely nice and polite girl, the cheeriest in her family.  She is still in the hospital, so please join me in prayers for her healing.

The story struck a chord in me, because a young man somewhat-related-by-marriage to me recently took his own life at age 20.  There are no words for the gaping painful void experienced by those who survive him.  I recently had dinner with someone who held him as a newborn and loved him.  This person is a medical doctor who specializes in end of life care.  She was a Hospice doctor for years.  For all her experience and insights on death and dying, this death undid her.  It seemed to make her question bedrock things she thought she knew.  So, please join me in healing prayers also for his family and friends.

These revelations instigated a conversation about the depths of depression, how some people send signals for help, and how others hide it.  One friend commented:

Having suffered depression, I can empathize with those who find themselves at such a low point in their lives. It’s a prison that is very difficult to escape. For many reasons, those who suffer from depression find it almost impossible to talk about their feelings. I think there’s a certain feeling of shame associated with depression. I know I felt like no one else would understand, I must be unworthy of love or happiness, and I couldn’t complain when everyone else seemed to be able to deal with life. It felt like huge and insurmountable failure on my part and the loneliest feeling.  That first step is so hard and such a relief, as well, to finally be able to talk and be heard.

The invitation to explore depression as a source of shame is too compelling to pass by.  The stakes are too high.  As recent posts have explored, shame arises from false messages we believe about ourselves.  For one in the jaws of depression, the false messages include:  I’m different.  Everyone else can deal with life.  I alone am a failure.

Rather significantly, the women sharing these feelings all found Buddhist teaching to be the salve that saved them from the depths.  I wondered if it is because the first Noble Truth—life is suffering—meets us where we are with no apology, no facade, and no reason to hide the truth.  Everyone who experiences life experiences suffering, so I am not different, I am not alone, and I have nothing to hide.  I am alive.  Another friend responded that Buddhist teachings about releasing attachments to ideas, especially ideas about self-identity, helped her shed layers of past hurt, guilt and conditioning.

Our self-made culture conditions us to hide suffering, but it also conditions us not to see it.  If we notice too much, we might expose or embarrass someone or we might intrude uninvited on someone’s private matters.  Or maybe we just tell ourselves we’re respecting another’s privacy when the truth is we’re afraid to encounter another’s suffering.  Airbrushing suffering paints an unreal picture, and it costs way too much.  How much better would our world it be if we all had the courage to encounter suffering—our own and each other’s?

Join the conversation.  Do you have a friend that needs to talk and to be heard?

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

Spiritual Doing

spiritual practices shabbat candlesMy spirituality study group is reading a charming book written by an Episcopalian who grew up Jewish.  It’s Laura Winner’s Mudhouse Sabbath.  Winner observes, as many others have, that where Christianity is preoccupied with belief, Judaism boils down to action.  The particular actions that Winner contemplates with narrative flair in Mudhouse Sabbath are those Jewish spiritual practices that held meaning for her and she finds missing in her Christian practice.

Winner describes the luxuriousness of real rest on Shabbat and reflects on how to make her Sunday’s stand apart from ordinary time.  She describes the mindfulness eating requires while observing kashrut, and she suggests how eating locally and in season (thus reducing indirect fossil fuel consumption) might be one way Christians could introduce greater mindfulness and ethical responsibility to their eating habits.  She explores how to bring intentionality and thankfulness into ordinary actions, like a dinner, for example, by candle-lighting.  She also makes observations about spiritual disciplines—bodily actions that strengthen spirituality—practiced in both Jewish and Christian traditions, like prayer and fasting.  Poignantly, she describes the nuts and bolts of mourning practices that honor the dead, affirm the survivors, and above all exalt God’s goodness.

Although Winner’s message is addressed to Christians, doing small acts with mindfulness or imbuing them with clear intention is good counsel for anyone looking to get in closer touch with his spiritual reality, regardless of his spiritual tradition.

My favorite part of the book describes what Winner calls a curious turn of phrase in the Book of Exodus.  “Na’aseh v’nishma” means “we will do and we will hear (or understand).”  The word order is curious because how can anyone do a command before hearing it or understanding what it is.  This captures for me the essence of the Jewish sensibility and wisdom concerning action.  Rabbinic commentary explains that it is precisely through doing that we come into understanding.  How many of us have come into a new way of seeing only after having done something for a time?  Speaking for myself, I have come into a new way of seeing people held behind bars after spending some time volunteering in jail.  Although my first visit left lasting impressions, the deeper understanding came from repeated visits.  The brain is designed to respond to experience, and experience informs our perspective.

It seems to me that Winner’s message about spiritual practices sings in harmony with this blog’s last post about affirming actions that defuse shame.  Shame arises from false messages we believe about ourselves, so repeating messages that affirm the truth disconnects shame from its source.  Bodily actions done with mindfulness and intention can reinforce the affirmation.  To take an example from last week, the person who puts away one small object every day as an oblation to God and as a ritual that clears the clutter of her soul will, through doing, come into a new way of seeing herself.

To be clear, it’s not that the new way of seeing is a reward for enough doing.  It’s that doing is the mechanism by which we receive the grace of seeing.

Join the conversation.  What bodily actions or spiritual practices help you see your spiritual reality more clearly?

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