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.

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.

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.

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.

Christian-Muslim Dialog

Christian-Muslim DialogMissionaries are a unique breed.  If you’re in the company of one, you can’t so much as hop a taxi or buy a hotdog from a street vendor without delving deeply into the life stories of the taxi driver or hotdog vendor.  Missionaries are ethnic restaurant connoisseurs, not so much for their love of food as for their love of stories.  Somehow they get busy owners to sit down and pour out their life stories.  Coming from Texas, I’ve met a lot of great story tellers, but missionaries collect stories like no one else.  They’re story curators.  They thrive on that stuff.

I had the good fortune to be with a bunch of missionaries when I studied at Duke’s Center for Reconciliation earlier this summer.  I took a class called “Listening Together” that examined scripture from the Bible and the Qur’an.  Many of my classmates were missionaries or had been at one time, and many had spent a lot of time in predominantly Muslim places.  A few told a particular story in common, and I found it to be rather poignant.

These classmates got started as missionaries in Muslim lands with the goal of converting Muslims to Christianity.  But as they experienced the extraordinary hospitality and gentleness of their Muslim friends and neighbors, and as they witnessed their neighbors’ devotion to God playing out in daily acts of love, gradually my classmates came to see they could do a lot more good by fostering Christian-Muslim dialog and understanding than by converting anybody.

Many of those individuals now work with an organization called Peace Catalyst.  Peace Catalyst’s mission is fostering reconciliation broadly, but much of their present work focuses on promoting connections and understanding among Christian and Muslim communities.  Peacekeepers work primarily with evangelical congregations and sponsor events with mosques to start dialog and build friendships.  I don’t know why Peace Catalyst chose to focus on evangelical communities.  It seems other denominations, Episcopalians for example, would make an easier starting point.  Maybe the founders had evangelical connections or felt Christian-Muslim dialog would have greater impact with evangelicals.  Regardless, I have to credit their vision and the loving way they go about their work.

One frustration voiced repeatedly was that Christian communities tend to compare their best to Islam’s worst.  Peace Catalyst initiatives help Christian communities to filter the media noise, to reject the stereotypes (e.g. all Muslims are violent extremists), and respect Islam as a peace loving and God loving religion.

While at Duke, horrifying news of a British soldier’s savage murder by an Islamic radical broke.  In the aftermath, a group fueling the anti-Muslim backlash planned to protest at a small mosque in York.  Having caught wind of the protest ahead of time, York Mosque greeted the protesters with tea, custard creams and signs reading “York Mosque welcomes anyone who condemns extremist violence.”  My favorite part of the story was that the potential confrontation, after 40 minutes of talking over sweets, gave way to an impromptu game of football.  The protesters wanted to be heard, and the Muslims listened.  In the end, they were united in their conviction that extremist violence must stop.

Once we start a genuine dialog with people from spiritual traditions different from our own, we may, like the York Mosque protesters, find more that unites us than divides us.

Join the conversation.  Has considering another’s perspective ever deepened your insight into your own spirituality?

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

Misunderstood

Reza Aslan interviewA TV interview dubbed “the most embarrassing ever” is garnering bad press for the interviewer and book sales for the author interviewed.  Although admittedly painful to watch, the interview lacks any real substance.  The ensuing brouhaha is classic news-making-the-news media sensationalism.  I suspect the only reason it is getting coverage is the interview comes off as a Christian-Muslim ambush fail.  The aftermath leaves me wondering who ambushed whom.

I happen to think the interviewer asked a good question, and the author, Reza Aslan, missed an opportunity.  The interviewer asked why a Muslim would write a book about Jesus.  Aslan responded, perhaps a bit patronizingly, that as an academic New Testament historian, it is his job.  By responding to the question as a personal attack on his authority or motivation, he missed an opportunity to elucidate Muslims’ regard for Jesus as a great prophet.  The bigger opportunity he missed, in my opinion, was making a case for why anyone from any spiritual tradition ever considers different ways of looking at things—it fosters deepening spirituality.

No spiritual tradition has cornered the market on truth.  The spiritual experience is full of mystery.  Some questions are bigger than the human capacity to comprehend.  Yet some people are more perceptive than others.  How do the perceptive ones do it?  We expand our power to perceive when we steady ourselves with truths anchored in traditional wisdom and reach into the unknown.  Some truths transcend many spiritual traditions.

When making the case for reaching across traditions, I like to point out that Moses changed his perspective to get a better look at the burning bush.  (Ex3:3)  We too must change our perspective to see truth in a new light.  We work harder to understand even our own comfortable beliefs when we are drawn into tension by differing views.

On a personal note, Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew fundamentally changed my understanding of Jesus’ parables.  Oh, and by the way, Levine is a New Testament scholar at predominantly Protestant Vanderbilt who also happens to belong to a Conservative Jewish congregation.  As songwriter and occasional Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman sings, “They Ain‘t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” and Levine quite compellingly explains how Jesus’ Jewishness is essential to understanding his ministry.  It’s a good read.

Christian-Jewish dialog, however, is nowhere near as charged as Christian-Muslim dialog these days.  Christian and Jewish authors can only dream of receiving the publicity Reza Aslan is getting.  Aslan made the question all about him when he could have made the question about all Muslims or about all spiritual seekers.  Maybe he has a publicist who told him being a jerk and making a spectacle of the interview would sell more books.  While true, it obfuscates the substance of his book and leaves unanswered important questions about what we all can learn from each other.

Join the conversation.  Have you had a spiritual experience that transcended a particular religion?

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