Spiritual Gifts: Embodiment

mother teresa service and sacrifice

A portrait of service and sacrifice

We live in a material world, in physical bodies that depend on material things for continued existence.  We need air to breathe and water to drink, preferably clean enough not to cause bodily harm.  We need clothes and shelter to protect us from harsh weather.  We need a safe place to sleep.  We on occasion need medical care.  Some of us don’t have enough and some of us take way more than we need.

Our natural dependence on and desire for material things easily drift to excess.  Our culture seems to celebrate excess.  Worse is a winner-take-all attitude or a scarcity mindset, wherein if you have enough, there’s not enough for me.  Disdain for another’s good is the deadly sin of envy.

The spiritual disciplines of engagement and abstinence that bring our relationship with material things into balance are service and sacrifice.  Sacrifice takes frugality several steps further in giving up what we need and also giving up the security of being able to meet our needs.  Abundance can be distracting.  A recent New York Times article decried possessions possessing us.  Abandoning our needs to God has a way of quieting the distractions.

Acknowledging and responding to the material needs of others in service sheds a fresh perspective on our own needs and abundance.   It inclines us towards gratitude, and more importantly, it’s how we collaborate with God.  I’ve noticed service is how God answers prayers, too.  There’s an urban myth about an earnest young seeker going through something of a dark night of the soul.  His friends seem to enjoy intimacy with God, while he wrestles with belief in God at all.  He prays a familiar petition, “God, if you are there, please give me a sign, and I’ll do anything!”

When driving home one night, the dejected young man gets an odd impulse to turn a different way, the story goes.  “God, is that you?  I’ll do it.”  After ending up in a bad part of town, he gets an odder impulse to buy milk.  “This is crazy, but I’ll do it.”  A door in a run-down apartment complex catches his eye.  “I am not knocking on that door.  This isn’t just crazy, it’s dangerous!”  Against his better judgment, he sets the milk on the door mat, knocks and hustles back to his car.  A disheveled man answers and starts yelling.  Frightened, the young man looks back.  A woman carrying a crying baby runs towards him.  “We ran out of money, and we prayed for an angel to bring milk for our baby.”  That’s the story.  A fearful, unbelieving angel’s prayer was answered not in an earthquake or fire or a great wind but in a humble act of service.

19th Century priest and writer James Smetham urged his readers to believe in God’s abundance.

I hope this may be the happiest year of your life, as I think each succeeding year of everybody’s life should be, if only everybody were wise enough to see things as they are; for it is certain that there really exists, laid up and ready to hand, for those who will just lay hands upon it, enough for everyone and enough forever.

Join the conversation.  What keeps you from drifting to material excess?

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

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Spiritual Gifts: Sustenance

hungry We’re reaching pretty low in Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs again this week with the spiritual gift of sustenance.  Literally, SUSTENANCE deals with necessities that support life:

1a: means of support, maintenance, or subsistence : living
b: food, provisions; also: nourishment
2a: the act of sustaining
b: a supplying or being supplied with the necessaries of life
3: something that gives support, endurance, or strength

Despite how highly evolved as a species we like to think we are, our lizard brains still crave what was scarce early in our evolution—sweets and fats.  Our hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands release chemical messengers commanding our bodies to eat as much as possible of this stuff when we find it and to store the energy for leaner times that are sure to come.

Lean times predominate for many people on this planet we all share.  Some don’t have enough to sustain life.  The number of children under 5 years old dying from malnutrition daily would fill seventeen 747 airplanes.  One airplane crash grabs headlines for weeks.  Teams of experts spare no expense finding the root cause to ensure it never happens again, but plane loads of toddlers  die hungry every day without so much as our notice.  Meanwhile, Americans eat enough extra calories every day to feed an additional 80 million people.  The problem for us in the US is brain chemistry maladapted to lean times that never come.

We can tip the spiritual gift of sustenance out of balance by sins of omission—ignoring others’ or our own needs—and by sins of commission—taking more than we need.  The obvious spiritual discipline of abstinence that counteracts gluttony, to use seven deadly sins language, is fasting.  Perhaps the best all-around spiritual practice for taming the will, fasting especially leads us to recognize our dependence on God.  We learn to see the great abundance set before us, and we can learn respect and moderation concerning all natural desires.  Fasting requires practice for proficiency, however.  A growling stomach, if one is unaccustomed to it, can hijack attention, and we can find ourselves spending every moment of our fast planning what we’ll eat when it’s over.  Many Lent observers abstain from a few favorite foods as more manageable reminders of how abundantly God sustains us.

The spiritual discipline of engagement that brings focus to the gift of sustenance is celebration.  Enjoyment of pleasure in conjunction with faith and confidence in God give us an opportunity to recognize our life and pleasure as gifts to us.  Jesus worked his first miracle at a celebration.  Engaging in celebration as a spiritual discipline is about fully enjoying simple things rather than extravagant consumption at the expense of others.  The point is to have some fun, for God’s sake!

Reaching higher in Maslow’s hierarchy, we have other needs—safety, belonging, love, respect, self-esteem—and God sustains us in many of these ways, too.   For today, though, let’s give thanks for food.

Join the conversation.  How do you balance your need for food with the needs of others?

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

Spiritual Gifts: Rest

sloth laziness or restSome of the inmates I work with in the Dallas County jail have homelessness in their life stories.  It is hard to get a job, to receive government assistance, or to save anything—even a few scraps of food—without an address.  One woman who hasn’t had a place for seven or so years recently said something that affected me profoundly.  She said that when you live on the streets for a while, sometimes you do things you really don’t want to do just to be able to lie down for a few hours.

Rest.  Rest is in the lowest reaches of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  In addition to being the most basic of human physiological needs, rest is holy.  If humans are made in God’s image, the enjoyment of rest is one of the most primal ways in which we resemble God.  Our Jewish brothers and sisters take the holiness of rest incredibly seriously.

And yet there’s a counter cultural element to rest, or even to slowing down.  Some of us fill every waking moment with busy-ness in response to cultural messages urging us to keep working and to work ever harder to get ahead.  Sometimes we overfill our time with busy-ness to avoid ourselves, our families or God, all the while congratulating ourselves on what hard workers we are.  I posit that habitual overscheduling as an avoidance mechanism is a sin of omission, as paradoxical as that might sound.  It neglects time scheduled specifically for meeting ourselves and God in rest.

We can find ourselves drawn out of balance in the other direction, too.  Those who enjoy a life of leisure run the risk of taking rest for granted, missing opportunities for gratitude or doing too little.  Resisting action can manifest as laziness, or in seven deadly sins parlance, sloth.  It reflects indifference to the gifts entrusted to us.  We could also characterize a reluctance to put our talents into action as a sin of omission, avoids a right use of our blessings.

The discipline of engagement that counteracts laziness is study.  Study offers opportunities to hear the word of God.  When we recognize God as revealed in scripture, we are equipped to see his work in the lives of others and in community, history and nature.  Moreover, we are equipped to act.  Try studying something you disagree with rather than something that reinforces what you already believe.  We work harder to perceive when we’re drawn into tension by differing views.  It helps us hear the still small voice amid our own well-rehearsed lines.

The discipline of abstinence that counteracts excessive busy-ness is frugality.  There are a couple of flavors.  Frugality is abstaining from spending for status, glamour or luxury.  Simplicity is a form of frugality centered on a few principles, and poverty is the rejection of all possessions.  In any form, the idea is to find our sustenance in grace rather than in material things.  In addition to releasing attachments to things, we might also ponder attachments to ideas we hold about ourselves or about others.  Ideas about self-worth in particular may be ripe for release.

I leave you with a traditional Episcopal prayer for quiet confidence.

O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and in confidence shall be our strength:  By the might of thy Spirit lift us, we pray thee, to thy presence, where we may be still and know that thou art God.

Join the conversation.  Where do you find your strength and confidence?

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

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.

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.

A Mind-Body-Spirit Approach to Healing Shame

healing shameA wise and insightful friend recently got me thinking about ways to de-fuse shame. Shame has made an occasional appearance on this blog, and my friend and I explored how we might take a trusted approach to healing shame—affirmations—one step further.

As background, shame isn’t so much about the bad things we did or the bad things that happened to us as it is about the lies we believe about ourselves.  When we tried to make sense of the bad things that happened, we started believing something untrue.  For example, young children often blame themselves for losing a parental relationship, whether through divorce, incarceration, addiction or death.  The child believes—erroneously—that if he had only been better in some nebulous or quantifiable way, events would have unfolded differently.  Adults would have made different choices or God would have.

Child sex abuse survivors notoriously and tragically internalize their abuse in a way that assumes some culpability for the perpetrator’s actions.  That is a cold hard lie.  Children are not responsible for adult actions against them (or against anyone or anything else).  The simple truth is adults are solely responsible for their own actions.

Well, it sounds simple except for when a lie has been ingrained through years or decades of repetition.  One of my earliest experiences working in domestic violence shelters showed me how powerful repetition of a lie can be.  While eating dinner with a group of women and kids in the shelter, a tall, lanky woman seemingly out of nowhere said, “You know what?  I’m not fat.”  We looked around at each other and said, “No, you certainly are not.  What is this about?”  Well, her husband told her repeatedly that she was fat, and after enough repetition, she believed him.  This is someone who could look in the mirror for a reality check, and yet the reinforced lie was more powerful than visual reality.  What if the message was you’re not worth loving or you deserve to be beaten or you’ll never make it?

That’s where affirmations come in.  An affirmation states a positive truth about oneself.  I am a good daughter despite my dad’s addiction and unavailability.  I am responsible for my actions and absolved of others’ cruelty.  I deserve tenderness in a romantic relationship.  I am loveable.  God wants a relationship with me.  I am a tall, lanky person.  You get the idea.

Calling out the lies is necessary but, like the mirror, not sufficient to counteract a lifetime of lie reinforcement.  We have to fight fire with fire.  We have to state the truth to ourselves over and over and over.  My wise friend advises 70 times a day for 7 days, and that is just for starters.  It’s like losing 30 pounds.  First you need a diet and exercise plan.  Do the 30 pounds magically fall off the moment you decide on the plan?  No, you have to exercise day after day after day.  And when you slack off your program, you have to get back into it.  And after you lose the 30 pounds, you still have to exercise to stay healthy.  The same is true with affirmations.  We have to call out the lie, but we also have to affirm the truth to ourselves with vigorous repetition.  The unfortunate thing about affirmations, though, is like exercise, they only work if you actually do them.

What if I augmented verbal affirmations with a simple action?  The action’s purpose is to engage the body along with the mind and spirit in the affirming process.  An action that can be done repetitively, like a ritual imbued with meaning, might be a breathing exercise or the mindful consumption of a cup of tea, where one visualizes breathing in or drinking in the truth.  For someone mired in clutter, it might be to put away one small thing, not as a task but as an oblation honoring God’s power to do for us what we cannot do for oursleves.

Join the conversation.  Is there an oblation that affirms a truth for you?

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