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.

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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.

Obstacles to Intimacy: Preserving Pleasures

Many of us want different consequences to our actions without actually altering our actions. I might want to get my budget under control but resist curbing my shopping habit, for example.  Or I may hope for people to start trusting me without relinquishing my controlling and manipulative behaviors.  Excessive consumption may have terrible health consequences but I can’t imagine enjoying myself without it. It helps here to focus on the “yes” rather than the “no.”

Rather than focusing on the thing we crave, we can ask God to ignite a passion for something else.  It could be something once loved but edged out by addiction, like the exercise of some natural talent that glorifies God or lifts others.  Perhaps she once loved performing musically, but excessive drinking made Rachmaninoff impractical.  Perhaps he had a gift for writing poetry, but words escape him under the influence.  Maybe something as simple as walks with your toddler in the stroller after dinner delight and attract you.  Don’t “Just say no” to one thing without saying “Yes!” to something better.

If you have trouble imagining more pleasurable pursuits, meditating on the fruits of the spirit might bring possibilities to mind.  If I were in possession of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, what pleasures would become possible?  When we surrender our wants and ways to God, we make room for God to act in our lives, joining God as a partner in the creative process and inviting the kind of life change we cannot even imagine.  When our imagination wanes, C.S. Lewis encourages trusting God’s imagination:

We are halfhearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.

When I realize God’s imagination for me is better than mine for myself, I can relinquish my silly notions that I know best how to satisfy myself.  Whether those notions have led me to complete devastation or to a dull ache of emptiness (“There’s got to be more”), relinquishing them will free my imagination for the pleasures God would have for me.  Replace life-snuffing pleasure with life-enhancing pleasure.  I hope these verses and breathing prayers encourage you to have fun, for God’s sake!

6 You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. (Psalm 51: 6-8)

Inhale:  sweet humor
Exhale:  mean humor

Inhale:  keen acuity
Exhale:  drunken dullness

Inhale:  intimate knowing
Exhale:  anonymous sex

Inhale:  Eros (life force)
Exhale:  Thanatos (death drive)

Join the conversation.  Is there anything in the attic of your psyche that needs to be given away?

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

Obstacles to Forgiveness: Guilt

“Fear is the tax that conscience pays to guilt.”  This wisdom is attributed to seventeenth century physician and writer George Sewell.  As our quest for intimacy with God leads us deeper into ourselves, and as we confront the forgiveness issues we are sure to encounter in introspection, we might discover guilt obstructing our ability to extend forgiveness or to accept it.

Guilt is something we drag around like a ball and chain.  The Greek word for guilt used ten times in the New Testament, enochos, also means bound, liable, and under obligation.  If we view forgiveness as a gift of great value, we might fear having to earn or to repay the debt in the future, as if a bounty or a bond we can never repay will be levied on us.

It is possible, however, to grow attached to guilt.  Forgiveness can threaten to sever the attachment.  Martin Smith wrote a book on reconciliation in the Episcopal tradition, and in it he states, “There is a part of us that clings to guilt as a kind of possession, and puts up a fight when the prospect of letting it go in absolution draws close.”

It is also possible to use guilt as a weapon or as a shield.  Some people aim guilt at others to coerce and to manipulate them.  We use the noun as a verb when we “guilt someone into something.”  On the receiving end of this tactic, we can use guilt as a perverse kind of shield.  For example, if I feel sufficiently guilty for my last offense, I might be spared the next episode of condemnation.  We use guilt to mask our true feelings and to keep our distance.  We fear the consequences of simply being ourselves.  If we desire intimacy, we must disrupt this dynamic.  One of my favorite mottos is manipulation tends to stop when it stops working.

The following verses reassure us that there is nothing to fear in forgiveness.  It’s a massive tax break for the conscience.  The breathing prayer points to the lightness that flows from accepting God’s forgiveness and forgiving oneself.

18 The Lord is near to the broken-hearted,
and saves the crushed in spirit.
22 The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned. (Psalm 34: 18,22)

Inhale: freedom
Exhale: guilt

Join the conversation.  How do you shield yourself from intimacy and forgiveness?

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

Obstacles to Intimacy: Fear of Brokenness

“I am barely holding it together as it is.  I don’t know how I can live with myself if I take an unobstructed look at this horror that is my life.”

Sometimes it’s not fear of pain that holds us back from taking an honest look at ourselves in the quest for intimacy with God.  Maybe you have an advanced degree in pain already.  Maybe there is something much greater at stake than feeling a little more pain.  Sometimes what is at stake is our very existence—an ability to get through this day, let alone tomorrow or the day after.  Maybe I have negotiated an uneasy peace with myself, and taking an honest look inward sounds a lot like opening Pandora’s Box.  Facts and feelings will fly out and there will be no way to stuff them safely back inside.  Or worse, maybe I strongly suspect I can’t live with the person I find under any terms whatsoever.

It’s a great paradox, seemingly nonsensical on its surface, but several traditions recognize a spark of blessing lurking in brokenness.  Twelve Step addiction recovery seekers talk about “rock bottom” as being the only ground on which an addict can take the first step to recovery—admitting powerlessness over certain things.  Jews have an expression, “There is no vessel as whole as a broken heart.”  Christian scripture offers verse after verse on the theme of dying to self and being raised to new life in Christ.

To be clear, I am not saying brokenness or rock bottom is a good thing.  No one wants to see it come to that for ourselves or for a friend.  There’s no good in glorifying or overdramatizing feeling this low.  I am not advocating that you press the pedal to the metal and hurl yourself towards it like Thelma and Louise.

What I am saying is that a lot of people have found themselves in a place of brokenness, and they have hope to offer those whose journey takes them through that place.  Sometimes it is the most effective way to break free from stubborn attachments or “bondage to self.”  Sometimes it gives us an impetus to take ourselves out of life’s center and to put God there instead.  Sometimes we need that spark of blessing more than we need to avoid brokenness.  Although all our survival instincts rebel against it, the truth remains:  brokenness saves us from ourselves.

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:17)

Inhale: healing
Exhale: brokenness

Join the conversation and give courage to your fellow travelers.  What spark of blessing did you find in your journey through brokenness?

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