Charting a Course: Remembering

Studies on American consumerism and happiness reveal money can buy happiness if you spend it right.  The happiness we gain from buying stuff is short lived, though.  No sooner have we acquired stuff than our attention turns to new stuff.  By contrast, spending on experience, a reunion or a special trip, for example, has a longer lasting effect because we can relive the experience and feel happy all over again.  The converse is also true.  Remembering a painful experience hurts.  Recalling where we have been, however, is essential to charting the course to our destination.  We’re liable to repeat the past if we fail to examine it.

Navigating painful memories is easier when we don’t do it alone.  “Con dos, no peso un
muerto.”  My friend Marja is a chef and learned this wonderful expression from her grateful line cook when she stood in for an absent prep assistant one day.  It means,
“With two, even death isn’t heavy.”  Scripture offers companions.

Spend some time in Isaiah 53.  Isaiah here foretells of one to whom the Lord is revealed but who goes without any form of majesty.  He endures astonishing rejection and injustice.  While Jews see a suffering servant representative of the house of Israel in this prophesy, Christians see Jesus (an interpretation that does not agree with the context of the preceding songs of Isaiah, by the way, but is suggested in the gospel of Luke nonetheless).  Both interpretations find a fellow sufferer.  The injustice borne
by Jews through history may put one’s own suffering into sharp relief.  If we can appreciate the juxtaposition of extremes that the person of Jesus embodied—condemned by the ones he came to save, champion of justice treated unjustly—we find someone well acquainted with pain.

The Psalter is a fantastic companion for walking through painful memories.  This book of poetry offers words to capture the full range of human emotion and experience.  You will have no difficulty finding verses that voice your ill-will for the one who wronged you, for example.  My personal favorite is Psalm 63.  Here is the ending:

9 But those who seek to destroy my life
shall go down into the depths of the earth;
10 they shall be given over to the power of the sword,
they shall be food for jackals.
11 But the king shall rejoice in God; all who swear by him shall exult,
for the mouths of liars will be stopped.

Visualizing a group of jackals sitting around, gnawing on a pile of my tormentor’s bones bearing little teeth marks was a salve to my wounds.  When you find a Psalm that gives voice to your emotion, pray it with vigor.  The honest exhortation to God will give you some release.

Some Christian faith traditions embrace remembrance of Mary, mother of Jesus, as a
companion.  As one chosen to carry an inconceivably great mission, she knew fear.  As a low born unwed pregnant teenager, she knew disgrace and the humiliation of being misunderstood.  As a merciful and courageous companion to her son in his suffering, she knew grief.  The suffering interlaced with blessing that Mary represents is captured beautifully in the prayer we know as the Hail Mary.  This prayer can bring the interlacing of our own blessing and suffering to mind.

Join the conversation.  How has confronting painful memories brought clarity to your destination?

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

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Charting a Course: Sources of Hope

Many years ago, a friend’s beloved black lab was diagnosed with cancer.  It was a particular kind of cancer that was proven to be treatable in dogs, but the treatment had severe side-effects.  Doctors can tell human patients, “There’s good news and bad news.  The bad news is it will feel like this treatment is killing you.  The good news is it will actually save your life instead.”  You can’t communicate that to dogs, though.  Dogs receiving treatment gave up on life and died in distress in such great numbers that veterinary best practice evolved to making dogs comfortable as long as possible before euthanizing.  Dogs couldn’t bear the journey without some concept of the destination.  They couldn’t endure without hope.

The destination can be a source of hope for us, too.  When we have an idea of where our life is heading, we can put obstacles and hardships into perspective and persevere.
The destination also gives us hope when we look inward to determine the course correction we need.  Looking inward is difficult.  Confronting the fact that we veered off course can be painful, and the pain can arise in a number of ways.  Here are three of them.

Consequences:  Incarceration, civil damages, foreclosure, loss of relationship, health, job, or life…some consequences are exquisitely painful.  So is genuine grief for years one can’t get back and opportunities that won’t come again.  Someone who spent her childbearing years in an unfruitful relationship might grieve the years gone by.  She
might morn the lost opportunity to put a little sock on a little foot every morning or to teach someone how to eat an apple.  Facing what is lost is one way we encounter pain.

Compassion:  The earnest seeker will, at some point, stop defending himself from the
truth.  In an effort to rationalize our actions to ourselves, we erect barriers to truth.  We hold our victims culpable in some way for our actions against them.  When we release ourselves from the self-defense pretense, we have an unobstructed view to the pain we caused others.  Feeling their pain, compassion, is a natural response to confronting this truth.

God’s pain:  Imagine being in a relationship in which you’re ignored.  Your continual demonstration of love and support is overlooked or taken for granted.  Your intervening help saves the day over and over, but your partner acts as if she had it under control all along and you didn’t have anything to do it.  You work hard to dream up the perfect gift and are excited to give it, but it is left unopened, not even important enough for her to bother unwrapping.  What kind of relationship is that?  It is how I treat God.

God, in his infinite compassion to all, experiences all the pain—the pain someone caused me, the pain I caused someone else, the compassion I feel for the one I hurt.  Perhaps most significant is what God feels when we fail to hold up our end of the relationship with him.  When we come into a full realization of the impact our choices have on our relationship with God, we grow into compassion, reciprocal compassion, for God.  This is a special kind of pain.  To feel the pain God feels over you is to grasp just how much he loves you.  It is a big step into intimacy with God, and it is our greatest source of hope.

Join the conversation.  What hope sustained your honest look inward?

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

Is it time for a course correction? How do you know?

I’m a sailor, and I am dating myself here, but I remember the days before GPS was ubiquitous and one actually had to chart a course.  When cruising someplace where we anchored at night, every morning we would make coffee, get out the charts, pinpoint where we were based on the geography of the shore, and decide where we were going to sail that day.  A handy clear plastic sliding parallel tool made it a simple matter to determine the compass heading that would take us there.  Any sailor who has tried to steer to an exact compass heading manually, however, knows that actually doing it is more difficult.  The task is trickier still in ocean crossing because determining one’s exact position involves greater discernment, and a small heading error can make a big difference over a long distance.

It strikes me that navigating our lives is kind of like that.  Sometimes we are close to shore and we know exactly where we are.  Sometimes we don’t even need to read our compass heading because the destination is within sight.  Other times it feels as though we haven’t seen land for days, and although we have a general idea of where we are, we’re not exactly sure.  Taking stock of where we are is critical.  A heading that is just a few degrees off can put us hundreds of miles away from our intended destination if we sail merrily along without periodically pausing to assess our position and direction.

Brian McLaren offers a spiritual exercise to this effect in his book, Finding Our Way Again.  He suggests:

Think about who you were yesterday in terms of character, compared to who you are today. How would you fill in these blanks: “Today I’m more _____ and less ____ than
yesterday”? Do the same regarding a year ago and ten years ago.

He then asks:

What will your character be like in ten years, given your current trajectory?

This was a useful and provocative exercise for me personally, but it begs the bigger question:  Where do you want to go?  This is the question for Elul.  Maybe we haven’t figured out our life’s destination, but we can contemplate our destination for the year ahead and take stock.  At the risk of torturing the metaphor, sailing the course is difficult and corrections can offset our mistakes.  Further, sometimes life events alter our destination.  If I’m sailing for Gibraltar and a hurricane pops up in my path, I might be wise to course correct to Florida.  It pays to stay alert in hurricane season!  At times my course may need only a few degrees of adjustment, and at times it may need a total turn-around.  But how does one ever know if one doesn’t stop to look?

Join the conversation. What inspires you to take a compass reading on your life path?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.   Visit 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.