Spiritual Maintenance

It takes spiritual maturity to recognize dependence on God when things are going well—either before we hit rock bottom or after salvaging life from a broken place.  When we have been saved from that broken place, and when we have experienced some healing and perhaps some spiritual growth, embracing redemption means leaving the past in the past.  We can look inward to see if we are being called to further life change without rehashing the past.  Introspection can focus less on one’s past and more on one’s present relationship with God.

A regular practice of inner inventory will keep us moving from intellectual awareness into action.  Many spiritual traditions rely on introspection to keep us from settling into a comfortable rut.  The Catholic tradition has a practice of confessing weekly before celebrating mass.  Early Buddhist texts indicate monks confessed individual faults to a superior privately twice a month at the full and new moons.   Jews observe Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, annually with prayers of confession spoken aloud in community.  Outside of ancient religious traditions, Twelve Step addiction recovery programs rely on the power of introspection in the Fourth Step, searching and fearless moral inventory, but also as an ongoing practice.  The Tenth Step calls for frequent inventory in order to make prompt amends.

What is the optimal interval?  It’s individual, of course.  Some Twelve step recovery programs encourage nightly examination.  Several protestant traditions incorporate weekly confession into Eucharistic prayers.  When we look at our challenges with a daily or a weekly focal length, however, we can overlook patterns.  Most of us have to step back from what occupies us day-to-day and week-to-week to discern the major themes at work in our present journey.

Jewish and some liturgical Christian traditions also give a framework for annual self-examination with Yom Kippur and Lent.  For a truly searching and fearless moral inventory of the patterns in my life, I find that a yearly interval is practical.  Embracing your own new life alongside others in your faith community can intensify the experience.  Traditional symbolism can deepen meaning as well.  Alternatively, confessing annually on the anniversary of a first confession or, in the case of addiction recovery seekers, the anniversary of one’s last drink may have special meaning.

An American commentator (and I am hopeful an alert reader will remind me of which one) drew the analogy that a white fence grows black over time unless it is repainted every year.  We, too, are in need of spiritual maintenance at intervals.

Join the conversation.  How do you know whether you need spiritual maintenance if you don’t stop to look?

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

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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.

Obstacles to Intimacy: Secrets

This blog has been exploring the idea of intimacy and inner truths.  When we venture into intimacy with others, we reveal inner truths about ourselves to them.  In intimacy with God, our inner truths are revealed to us.  Hence, intimacy with God involves some honest introspection.

We all have secrets, and they take energy to conceal.  The worst secrets are the ones we try to hide from ourselves.  They can have power over us.  Keeping them hidden, one way or another, inevitably impairs our freedom to make some choices.  On the other hand, exposing secrets steals their power and can give us a new energy and freedom to move on.

Several traditions make a spiritual practice of speaking aloud one’s faults in order to make a break with the past and to set a new direction in life.  This includes ancient religious practices of confession as well as the modern spiritual but not religious practice of the Fifth Step in Twelve Step addiction recovery programs.  In either case, searching ourselves is sure to unearth some secrets.  If I am carrying a secret with an especially vicious hold over me, speaking it aloud and claiming responsibility for letting it impair my choices can be the most powerful way to break its hold.  Knowing that we intend to speak aloud what we find in introspection, however, can present its own unique obstacles.  I might discover something was worse than remembered, and I might feel embarrassed to say it aloud.

If you feel drawn to make a break with your past and to enter into new intimacy with God through one of the practices of confession, but feel the tight grip of secrets holding you back from honest introspection, I hope these verses and breathing prayer will give you courage to move on.

3 While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Selah

5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’,
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Selah (Psalm 34:3-5)

Inhale: humility
Exhale: humiliation

Join the conversation.  How would you encourage someone trapped in the jaws of a secret he’s afraid to expose?

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

Inner Inventory: 4 Types of Choices

As free will beings, everything we do is a matter of choice, whether conscious or not.  Gossip may be a conscious choice for one person who knows it’s harmful but an unconscious habit for another with less awareness.  Thus, we need an approach to introspection that gathers obvious choices and brings more subtle ones into our awareness.  This is the first of a 4-part series outlining a structured method for taking this kind of inner inventory.  The series will prompt those engaging in introspection to consider their choices in four categories:  active choices, reactive choices, passive choices, and non-choices.

The first type, active choices, are the obvious wrong choices we made when better alternatives were available and within reach.  Broken promises and commandments, intentional harm to someone (including intentional harm to self), missed opportunities because of laziness, and misused opportunities are examples.  I would include the early stages of an addiction, when I still had the power to make a choice and I chose the destructive path.  Serving my own needs and desires ahead of another’s in a way that left bruises belongs here, along with just about any willfulness that resulted in unfairness, disrespect or injury.

There is Jewish teaching, I believe from Medieval times and alert readers please correct me if I am mistaken about that, concerning the “evil tongue.”  A woman searching her conscience to make teshuvah in preparation for Yom Kippur confronted her gossip about a neighbor.  Struggling with how it was possible to make amends for her actions, she consulted the local rabbi, who told her to go home, to get a pillow, to go up to her roof, and to shake all the feathers out before returning to him.  Perplexed but full of remorse, she did as he instructed and watched the wind carry the feathers in seemingly all directions for miles and miles.  She went back to the rabbi and asked him what to do next.  He then told her that gathering up all the feathers would be easier than gathering up hurtful words carried by the evil tongue.

Our childhood choices may be less harmful, silly even, but if a memory stands out for you, capture it here.  Writing it down will free your conscience to move on with the inner inventory of less obvious wrongs.  For example, I would note that time I bombarded unsuspecting passersby with M&M’s from a balcony, regaled by the unexpectedness of it, because it revealed my 12 year old appetite for manipulation.  Harsh words and the evil tongue are an equal opportunity sin for all ages.  Childhood experiments with meanness may have been outgrown, but any memory that weighs on your conscience should be offered up here.

Whether you are approaching introspection with the intention of making a confession in a religious tradition or simply finding the course corrections you need as you embark on a new year, making detailed notes about your choices in these four categories will not only capture both the obvious and the elusive but also help you make a break from past patterns of choice.

Join the conversation.  Does the weight of past choices diminish the range of options available to you at present?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

An Irresistable Invitation

Elul stirs mixed feelings for me.  The last month before the Jewish New Year and High Holy Days is a time for reflection and preparation.  It’s a time when Jews take stock of their actions over the past year and decide what course corrections they need to turn back to God to live more just, loving and kind lives in the year ahead.  It is a magnificent invitation.  Whereas Yom Kippur sees “the closing of the gates,” during Elul, the gates are wide open for all who take the necessary steps to walk through them.  With such a magnanimous and loving invitation, why do we pause at the threshold or procrastinate taking those steps?

Several traditions ponder this human reticence.  There’s a Sufi story about Mullah Nasruddin searching for the key to his house.  He looks frantically outside under the lamp post and his neighbors come to help him.  After hours of searching, one asks where he was when he lost the key.  Nasruddin replies he lost it in his house.  “Why are you looking outside?” asks the neighbor.  “Because the light is better out here under the lamp.”

A friend who is in recovery from addiction described approaching the Fourth Step—searching and fearless moral inventory—in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous in much the same way.  When he got to the Fourth Step, he found his Twelve Step guide to be woefully lacking in helpful information for completing the step.  He bought a second guide and worked diligently through the first three steps but again found insufficient direction on the Fourth Step.  He bought a third guide and became increasingly frustrated that the book was short on answers.  At that point, he came to see that, like Nasruddin, the answers he needed could never come from an external
light but could only come from looking within.

Several Christian traditions observe preparatory and penitential seasons, namely Advent preceding Christmas and more especially Lent preceding Easter, during which introspection and confession are encouraged.  Although Catholics receive more exposure to this practice than other Christians, as many as 75 percent of US
Catholics
report they never attend confession, or do so less than once a year.

Several traditions teach the only thing that can possibly stand in the way of God’s love for us is ourselves.  When we make ourselves vulnerable in the act of honest introspection, we are rewarded with intimacy with God and with self.  Moreover, when we expose ourselves to God’s power, he can help us make the very changes we seek.

Join the conversation.  In the face of an irresistible invitation, why do we resist taking an
honest look inward?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.   Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Conditions for Forgiveness

The Jewish tradition has three words for sin:  Chet translates literally to missing the mark.  Avon means desire, and pesha means rebellion.  We all miss the mark or fall short of our good intentions.  We each have free will, and at times, following our desires leads to rebelling against God’s will.  What does God do when that happens?  Different traditions answer that question differently.

Jewish theology describes God’s nature in terms of polar opposites that are simultaneously true.  God cares about justice and holds individuals and groups of people responsible for their actions.  God is also merciful to sinners who turn to him and change their ways.  Jews believe God is merciful and forgives when they take certain steps that include:

  • Tzedakah: helping those in need for the sake of fairness
  • Teshuvah: confessing, making amends to and getting forgiveness from those harmed, and, above all, stopping the wrongdoing
  • T’fila: prayer

The Jewish prayers of confession, called the vidui, include extending forgiveness to those who have harmed us.  The Jewish tradition encourages forgiveness but does not require it if the offender has not completed teshuvah.

Islam shares some similarities with Jewish teaching in the steps for receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness:

  • Confessing the offense to those harmed and to God
  • Making amends to and asking forgiveness from those harmed
  • Tauba: feeling remorse and committing to stop wrongdoing
  • Istighfar: asking God for forgiveness

Whereas Jewish forgiveness rests on evidence—e.g. securing the victim’s forgiveness rather than asking, stopping wrongdoing rather than intending to stop—in Islam, God’s forgiveness rests on sincerity.  Forgiving others, even enemies, is a virtue the prophet Muhammad taught by his words and his living example.  While God loves and rewards extending forgiveness to others, it is not a requirement if all the other conditions are
met.

The Christian tradition departs rather significantly from both these traditions with only one condition for receiving God’s forgiveness:

  • Forgiving the offenses of others, whether they deserve it or not

New Testament scripture repeatedly makes clear that God extends forgiveness under no other terms.  The Christian tradition does include a practice of confession of sins to God, but since Christians believe Jesus’ death atones for all sins for all time, Christians are drawn to confession to reconcile their relationship with God, to grow closer to him, to bring him joy and to receive his help to change rather than for forgiveness alone.

Another significant difference between Christian beliefs and beliefs shared by the
Jewish and Muslim traditions concerns the victim’s exclusive power to forgive.  In the latter two, God only forgives offenses against God, and offenses against man must be amended and forgiven among men as a condition for God’s forgiveness.  Although the Christian tradition does not require making amends and seeking forgiveness for harm done, the process of Christian reconciliation with God does require forgiving others, so it has a reconciling effect among men nonetheless.

Join the conversation.  What do you think about these different conditions for God’s
forgiveness?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

3 Pieces of Twelve Step Wisdom for Anyone Seeking Healing

When I started researching the role confession plays on the road to healing, I was intrigued by how Twelve Step addiction recovery programs approach confession.  Every year, millions of recovery seekers in the Twelve Step tradition embark on “a searching and fearless moral inventory” and “admit wrongdoing aloud to God and another human being,” the Fourth and Fifth Steps.  What do these recovery seekers know about confession that millions from religious traditions don’t?  A lot, as it turns out. 

First is that the journey starts with recognizing the limits of our own power.  Consider the difference between a religious seeker who approaches confession believing he had the power to make better choices but chose not to and a Twelve Step seeker who acknowledges that his defects of character took away his power to make better choices.  We cling to a pleasing self-image even when the facts of our lives cease to agree with it.  The discrepancy between image and reality draws us into conflict, igniting disharmony within ourselves, with others and with the world.  Acknowledging this disconnect, or brokenness, is like finding a door labeled “healing.”  Acknowledging that we are powerless to make the reality match the image is like opening the door.  

The second thing Twelve Step recovery seekers know is that only by acknowledging a power outside ourselves and stronger than ourselves can we be reconciled to the self-image we desire.  That higher power can restore us to the image, or conversely, once the higher power is acknowledged, the image we desire might be transformed.   A religious seeker who approaches confession believing she had the power to make better choices in her past runs the risk of walking away from confession unchanged.  She might walk away feeling obligated to make better choices in the future without availing herself of God’s power to help her 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 our own 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 any kind.  Laying down my will, conversely, takes enormous spiritual strength.  Religious seekers might approach God in search of a little auxiliary power without taking the difficult step of creating the power vacuum.  When talking about turning over our own will to make space for God’s power and care, recovery seekers invariably talk of “taking it back” at some point in the journey.  As difficult as creating a power vacuum is, relying on God’s power is more effective than will power.  Despite the immense difficulty of this action, recovery seekers know it’s not enough to think God cares.  They have to trust God’s care. 

These three truths align to the first three of the Twelve Steps.  Like the first three, the remaining nine steps outline a path of spiritual growth and healing that is much more specific and instructive than what most religious doctrine offers.  I’ve been moved by testimony of people who considered themselves religious but could not find the healing they so desperately sought within their faith traditions.  It was the Twelve Steps that got them there. 

Join the conversation.  How does the wisdom in these steps speak to your spiritual journey?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.acrosstraditions.com/.