Prisoners of the Past

past wounds and forgivenessLast month in the county jail we were working on healthy communication, but we had one of those sessions where we never got to the class material because some issues needed airing out.  This is where group therapy gets its potency.  The women’s honesty and courage in sharing their experiences raise everyone’s self-awareness and understanding.  Here’s what came out.

Lauren (name changed) forgave her abusive mother.  It happened in a worship service a local congregation provides for inmates on Sundays.  Lauren described feeling lighter, as if chains wrapped around her ankles had fallen off.  Her mother died years ago, but Lauren’s experience was as powerful as if she had spoken to her mother directly.  Without the blinders of anger and resentment obstructing her view, Lauren could see her mother suffered the same kinds of child abuse to which she had exposed Lauren.  Lauren can now see the threads of both victim and perpetrator weaving through the complex tangle that was her mother’s life.

Lauren said something I lingered over.  Seeing her mother as an abuse victim didn’t allow Lauren to release resentment.  Releasing resentment allowed Lauren to see more clearly the reality of her mother’s complicated situation, and finally, to have compassion for her messed up life.  Forgiveness came first.

Christa (name changed) had a tough week.  With several new inmates in the pod, the environment gets loud at times.  It’s driving Christa crazy, and she’s struggling to contain her anger.  In the jail we talk about anger as a secondary emotion, like the visible part of an iceberg floating on top of emotions hidden under the surface.  Christa had no hesitation in identifying the emotion underlying her anger.  It’s loss of control.  In childhood, Christa endured rampant sexual abuse by her father, brother, uncles, “pretend uncles,” and anyone else to whom her family made her available.  It started at an age before she knew it was wrong.  There was no protection for Christa.  And no control.

Christa drags feelings about loss of control from her childhood like chains wrapped around her ankles into her present situations.  “It’s all connected,” she lamented wearily when examining the origins of her recent anger.  Indeed, it is a worthy lament.

We all do that.  Whenever anger flares, the source of the flame is rarely the immediate situation.  The present situation is merely a spark igniting something that was already there deep within us.  Unresolved hurts from our past – feelings of betrayal, abandonment, humiliation, or shame—lurk within us like invisible explosive gas.  For me it’s hurt pride—feeling put down, belittled, or disrespected.  Even being ignored can be felt as a form of disrespect.

We may think we’re hiding our feelings or that we have reconciled ourselves to past misfortunes.  Here’s the test.  If a seemingly innocuous situation can send us into a fiery fit of anger, then something lies unresolved within.  And we drag that tinderbox of past emotions into every new encounter.  Christa protested, “But forgiveness is hard.”  For someone with her past, I honestly cannot fathom how hard.  Nonetheless, forgiveness remains the only way I know to free us, once and for all, from the chains of painful pasts.

Join the conversation.  When your anger flares, what underlying emotions fuel the fire?

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

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Forgiveness in Jail

forgiveness in jailWe’re talking about forgiveness in the Dallas County jail this week.  Everyone in jail has been charged with some offense, obviously, and many long for forgiveness from victims or family members who suffer consequences from their actions.  Many also struggle to forgive themselves for the direction their lives have taken.  Many are mothers who grieve not being there for their kids, and they can’t forgive themselves for falling down on that job.

A startling number of incarcerated women became victims of sexual abuse and violence long before committing any crime.  In some cases, the signs of abuse are physical, permanent, and quite visible.  Other signs are hidden.  Child abuse has its most insidious and lasting effects when children are made to feel culpable in some way for the abuse against them.  Sometimes they blame themselves for not preventing abuse against others, too.  While some trauma survivors want to forgive their abusers in order to heal painful pasts and to find personal transformation, others need self-forgiveness for being crime victims.  In short, the undercurrents nudging us to forgive and to seek forgiveness rampage like tidal waves through this group.  Self-forgiveness proves the toughest nut of all.

Many of the inmates with trauma histories are incarcerated for criminal behavior consistent with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder behavior patterns.  When we talk about forgiveness, anger management, or any psychological issue in the jail, we use particular care not to trigger trauma memories.  Jail for most is not a safe place for processing the wounds of trauma.  Trauma memories can trigger PTSD behaviors that endanger other inmates, and that has severe consequences in jail.  Jail is not a treatment facility, after all.

Hence, the forgiveness discussion requires a “trauma informed” approach.  One way we prevent exposing inmates to triggers is not giving anyone a chance to share trauma stories.  I make it clear that the introspection exercises they do in class are for their eyes only.  Another way we steer clear of trauma triggers is to focus exercises on current resentments the participants are experiencing in jail.  Those might result from tensions with other inmates or tensions with friends or family on the outside.  It’s rare that an inmate does not have one or the other.

To be candid, I have an “elephant in the room” feeling about focusing introspection on current irritations.  On the one hand it is easier to learn the steps to forgiveness with resentments that are not deeply held or woven into the fabric of one’s life.  On the other hand, it’s also something of a missed opportunity that makes my heart ache.  When I do forgiveness workshops with church groups, the hunger participants have to be healed once and for all from old wounds is utterly compelling.  Of course, one who hungers, in all likelihood, is in a physically and psychologically safe place for confronting past hurts.  As much as I want to expose inmates’ deepest wounds to the healing power of forgiveness, our first obligation is to keep everyone safe.

An exquisitely talented therapist leading the class with me is more than capable of managing any difficult psychological situations that arise.  I’ll probably throw in a closing comment about applying the steps to process deeper wounds when one is in a safe place to do so.  Tune in next week for some observations about what we all learned.

Join the conversation.  What conditions make it safe to start the forgiveness and healing process?

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

How to Forgive in 5 Steps

how to forgiveIt wouldn’t be terribly helpful to ponder why forgiveness is hard without considering what exactly we can do to overcome the obstacles. It seems to me there is a lot written about the healing power of forgiveness but very little about how actually to do it. Here’s where spiritual conditioning can help us do the right thing, even when it’s difficult. These are the steps that help me.

1. Name the Action
I am looking for specific 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.

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.

3. Own my Response
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 actions. This is not victim blaming. It’s control claiming. Confronting my misdeeds leads to the realization that I stand in need of forgiveness, too.

4. Ask for Grace
I believe 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.

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

5 Reasons Forgiveness is Hard

forgive and forgetHas anyone ever told you to “forgive and forget” or “just let it go”? They make forgiveness sound easy, as if it’s an automatic response to deciding forgiveness is in our own best interest.  But releasing resentment in an act of forgiveness can be monstrously difficult, even when we genuinely want to leave old episodes in the past. It helps to see clearly what holds us back from the forgiveness we desire.  Here are five things that make forgiveness hard.

1. Misconceptions
Sometimes what forgiveness is NOT poses obstacles to forgiveness. Forgiveness does not condone the offense, liberate anyone from consequences, or restore trust. Forgiveness does not compel anyone to forget anything, to tell anyone they’re forgiven, or to stay in relationship at all. If I’m laboring under the misconception that forgiveness requires any of these things, I might quite understandably find forgiveness impossible to do. Fortunately, forgiveness is simply the release of resentment and claim to retribution—no more and no less. It is possible to release resentment and then end a relationship or return to a different kind of relationship with less trust.

2. Accountability
Most of us expect a little recognition for good deeds and to be held accountable for our mistakes. When someone does us wrong, we want that person held accountable. It flows from our sense of justice. If our offender appears to be waltzing off scot free, with no one holding her to account for her wrongdoing, we naturally feel drawn to fill that void. Thus, our desire for justice and accountability can work against releasing resentment.

3. Superiority
Being the victim of someone’s harmful choices can have several consequences. It can really hurt of course, but being the victim can have subtle payoffs as well. Recognizing another’s moral failings can make us feel better about ourselves, or at least better than the moral flunky who did us wrong. In addition to feeling superior, we might feel entitled to something from that person. Our attachment to superiority or entitlement pulls us away from releasing resentment.

4. Connection
In a badly tattered relationship, resentment may be the only thing left between two people. If it’s someone I think I need in my life, I may cling to the resentment because it’s all that’s left. This phenomenon sometimes plays out in parent relationships with adult children. A parent might cling to resentment for adolescent behavior as her only connection to a time when her child needed her. That desire for connection is at odds with releasing the past.

5. Remorse
The big kahuna of forgiveness obstacles is a lack of remorse. Genuine remorse on the part of our offender gives us a sense that forgiveness is complete. Without it, forgiveness feels one-sided and unfinished. Sometimes offender remorse is impossible, though. An addict deeply in denial, for example, doesn’t have the capacity for remorse. In the case of long past childhood wounds, the offender may have died. Even in stubborn cases without any offender remorse whatsoever, there are steps we can take to lead us to the healing power of forgiveness.

Join the conversation. What has made forgiveness most difficult for you?
Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Spiritual Conditioning for a New Way

spiritual conditioningAlthough this series on spiritual gifts is drawing to a close with the end of Lent and celebration of Easter, our time with spiritual disciplines need not, and should not, be put on hold for another year.  Jesus’ time in the desert strengthened and conditioned him for his ministry.  His time in the desert had a purpose beyond time in the desert.  So, too, does our practice of spiritual disciplines have a purpose beyond the practice itself.

If you have taken the occasion of Lent to search yourself out and to identify the course corrections you need in your life journey, I am talking especially to you.  Searching yourself out isn’t easy, of course.  Especially if you’re honest.  I commend you for that.  Kudos.  If the product of your searching is to make life changes, an even greater challenge may lie ahead of you.  You may need spiritual conditioning now more than ever.

That’s where the rubber meets the road with spiritual disciplines.  They strengthen our spiritual condition so we’re able to act in a new way.  The tough hold sin has on us demands an equally a tough spiritual conditioning plan.  Our practice should be guided by the sins that threaten us most.  This table summarizes the spiritual gifts, that when distorted, manifest as the seven deadly sins.  It includes the spiritual disciplines of engagement that counteract sins of omission and the spiritual disciplines of abstinence that counteract sins of commission this blog has explored in recent weeks.

Spiritual Gift

Distorted Gift     (Deadly Sin)

Discipline of Engagement

Discipline of   Abstinence

Free Will

Greed

Prayer

Silence

Rest

Sloth

Study

Frugality

Sustenance

Gluttony

Celebration

Fasting

Embodiment

Envy

Service

Sacrifice

Justice

Wrath

Fellowship

Solitude

Bodily Love

Lust

Worship

Chastity

Self Love

Pride

Submission

Secrecy

The spiritual disciplines are supported by infinite grace, but like any physical conditioning program, they require planning and effort.  For someone blessed with a large family, solitude and silence don’t happen on their own.  They must be scheduled.  The more conscientious our planning effort, the more endurance and strength we will command in the moments we need them most.  There’s a scriptural basis for the physical conditioning analogy.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that distracts so easily, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1)

Spiritual conditioning can be like a physical conditioning program in another way:  what at first seems onerous or arduous may grow into something enjoyable.   I wish you perseverance and joy on your journey into a new way of being.

Join the conversation.  What spiritual disciplines have helped you with the changes you needed most?

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

Spiritual Gifts: Self Love

self love is accepting God's lovePride is the big kahuna of the seven deadly sins.  It is said to be the root of all the others.  Although pride is sometimes characterized as self-love taken to excess, it is often actually a deficit of self-love or self-esteem that underlies prideful actions.  We compensate for inner feelings of inadequacy with outward expressions of bravado.

In either case, the greatest of all sins, pride, is a distortion of the greatest of all spiritual gifts:  self-love.  Christians look to the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as the model of self-reciprocating love that permeates creation.  If the religious language of the Trinity doesn’t speak to you, try getting in touch with the love percolating throughout the universe—the love of life that keeps us going and creating.  The spiritual disciplines of engagement and abstinence that bring the spiritual gift of self-love into balance are submission and secrecy.

Ooooohhhhh, how I dislike the idea of submission.  It’s clear why submission is the least appealing of all the disciplines to the pride.  I’m not the submissive type, I guess.  I did, however, experiment with this discipline, and to my own great astonishment, I think it brought me greater joy than any other spiritual discipline I have practiced.  Truly.  Submission is serving by example or submitting humbly to the oversight of others, and it is the highest form of fellowship.  It elevates others and in so doing glorifies God.

When I undertook this discipline, I couldn’t see my way clear to submit humbly to oversight from another.  I just didn’t seem to have that kind of relationship with anyone, so I went the serve by example route.  My daughter Grace was 4 years old, and who wouldn’t enjoy fellowship with a little Grace?  It seemed like a low risk approach.  I made it my aim to serve her by example in a few small things.  It required only a little extra self-awareness and intentional effort on my part, and her response was so innocently magnificent, it was a sheer delight.  Now, you might say I did not aim very high (or low, as the case may be) with the submission thing, and I would not argue that point with you one bit.  I would argue, however, that it illustrates the principle that any of the spiritual disciplines can be practiced in a manner accessible to a beginner.  I may be a submission neophyte, but I tried it and I learned something and I was changed for the better.

Whereas submission is a discipline of engagement, secrecy involves abstinence, and it is as subversive as it sounds.  Avoiding recognition for a good deed puts our PR department in God’s hands.  We learn to enjoy being unknown and even to accept being misunderstood in peace.  Misunderstandings become our cosa nostra with God, our little inside scoop.   Above all, secrecy teaches us to serve for love alone.

So here’s the invitation:  love God loving you loving him loving you.  The apostle Paul proclaims there’s no escape from God’s love:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

Join the conversation.  How can you participate more fully in the self-reciprocating love being offered to you?

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

Spiritual Gifts: Bodily Love

self reciprocating love triangleResearching my book, Secrets of Confession: Healing Power Across Traditions, led to a lot of conversations with a lot of people about their experiences of healing.  The conversations I appreciated most were those with recovering addicts, some of whom are now recovery counselors.  Maybe it is the brutal, unflinching honesty of people in recovery that grips me.  I spoke with one counselor whose practice is almost entirely composed of people with sex addictions.  She said the proliferation of smartphones and ubiquitous internet availability allow addicts to consume pornography in almost any setting, even during one-on-one business meetings.  I participated in Celebrate Recovery, a Twelve Step program for recovery from hurts, habits and hang ups, when I was researching the book.  Lest anyone assume pornography and sex addictions are the unique province of men, the number of women struggling with these issues was a real eye opener for me.

Human sexuality is a powerful gift, and it is a gift with which we serve God.  One of our deepest human desires is to know another and to be known deeply, as we truly are.  It is said God’s desire to be known was his impetus for creation, and that our desire to know and to be known is one way we’re made in God’s image.  To know another intimately by means of the whole body is how we experience the wholeness of love as embodied beings.  As Christians, it one of the ways we participate in the self-reciprocating triune love of the Holy Trinity.  And yet some of us fear intimacy.  We simultaneous crave closeness and fear being known as we truly are.  Those conflicting desires can distort our relationship to our own bodies and how we relate physically with others.   Perhaps the most distorted manifestation of these conflicting desires is anonymous sex—knowing without knowing.

An intense sexual desire unaccompanied by love or appreciation for the other as a whole being is lust, one of the seven deadly sins.  The obvious spiritual discipline of abstinence that brings the spiritual gift of bodily love into balance is chastity.  Perhaps less obvious is the spiritual discipline of engagement that can restore balance to this spiritual gift.  It is worship.  Praise through words, symbols and rituals gives honor to God.  Corporate worship is where we meet God as a body of believers.  Expecting everyone in the body to share the same preferences or ideas is like expecting every musician in a symphony to play the same instrument. It is precisely because of our differences and the tensions between us that coming together in worship is such a powerful spiritual phenomenon.  Worship reminds us it’s the differences—between people and between humans and God—that draw us into love.

Chastity, of course, is abstaining from sexual thoughts or actions.  It reminds us of the sanctity of knowing and being known by bodily means, and it also can deepen our appreciation of our partner.  Making space for this deeper understanding to coalesce only enhances our joy in and enjoyment of physical intimacy.

Blessed be
the beds that bring us down
to worship one another
in the night–
Never, oh never naked
enough
to know the
Being of the other                                  ~Lee Pieper

Join the conversation.  What’s your favorite love poem?

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