Navigating Obstacles to Intimacy with God

There’s a Twelve Step expression that a path with no obstacles probably doesn’t lead anywhere interesting.  Some theologians assert that life’s meaning is revealed in the obstacles, as if life were an obstacle course that is pointless without obstacles.  A previous post spoke of lingering at the threshold of intimacy with God and pondered how to surmount the obstacles in our paths.

One obstacle everyone who attempts meditation or prayer encounters is distraction.  It afflicts even the most respected spiritual guides.  When we remember that God rejoices in our returning, however, we can see distractions as opportunities to delight God simply by acknowledging them and returning our attention to God.   If the distraction persists, we can bring it into conversation with God, asking what he makes of it.

Ultimately our attention is our choice, and several visualizations can aid our returning.  My favorite is attributed to Martin Luther:  “You can’t stop birds from flying overhead, but you can stop them from nesting in your hair.”  It applies to events that nudge us off course, but it applies no less to distractions that lure us from prayer.  It’s ok to notice the occasional bird flying by.  Just let it keep flying on.  A Christian monk taught me that prayer can also be like observing a stream.  If a fish swims by, let it swim into and out of view.  You can notice the fish as a part of the stream’s life without the fish absorbing all of your attention.

It may help to spend time in reflection about what holds you back or gets in your way and to pray about it.  The simplest prayer is a breathing prayer.  There is a deep connection between breathing and prayer.  Language reflects the connection.  Hebrew and Greek bibles both used one single word for wind, Holy Spirit and God’s breath—rauh in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek.  The text that provides the scriptural basis for Jesus bestowing the power to forgive sins to his apostles, John 20, is an example:

22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh noted, “Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts.”

One approach to breathing prayers is to inhale with a mental focus on what one desires, concentrating only on that word or short phrase.  Then when exhaling, one’s focus shifts to what gets in the way.  Typically the prayer is repeated several times, simply inhaling the desire and exhaling the obstacle.  For example,

Inhale: presence
Exhale: distraction

Join the conversation.  Can you share wisdom for overcoming distraction?

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

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Do Beliefs Matter?

Preoccupation with belief is a distinctly Christian attribute.  Its origins trace to a concept introduced by the first century Jesus movement, namely that belief in Jesus, or more specifically that the person of Jesus was fully human and simultaneously fully divine, confers eternal life in some fashion.  The gospel of John, written significantly later than the other accounts, is the only one to put such an emphasis on belief.  One statement, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die,” (John 11:25-26) immortalized in canon two startlingly new concepts that thereafter marked Christianity.  The concepts are (1) beliefs have consequences and (2) the possibility of life after death.  

Other religious traditions don’t emphasize belief.  Jews care more about what one does than what one believes.  Whether I am deeply conflicted about what action to choose or I’m steadfast, it’s of no consequence if in the end I chose the right action.  Action matters.  In Buddhism, it’s perception and understanding that matter.  Believing without perceiving or understanding is a construct that has no merit or usefulness in Buddhism. 

Beliefs do influence our choices, however, and thus do have consequences.  Beliefs inform actions which form habits which reflect character.  My understanding of God’s nature influences how I respond to him.  We are responding to God all the time, whether or not we are aware of it.  Especially when we are looking for life change—significant emotional healing or life change—the road we take depends on our understanding of God.  If we are seeking God-help rather than relying solely on self-help, we will ask God to do something for us that we cannot do on our own unaided.  Our beliefs inform how we approach that request.  

The Old Testament recounts story after story of people saved by faith.  The New Testament makes many references to people healed by their faith.  Our faith is what we believe about God’s ability and his inclination to intervene for us.  If we lack belief in God’s power, we can go through the motions of searching ourselves for what needs to change, but we are unlikely surrender our way (that has led to despair) for God’s way (that leads to healing). 

The Twelve Step tradition teaches recovery seekers are not prepared to embark on the Fourth Step moral inventory until they have an understanding of God and also a willingness to trust God based on that understanding.  Significantly, the Twelve Step tradition does not dictate what that understanding should be.  It simply asserts that an understanding and trust are necessary 

Join the conversation.  What is your understanding of God?  What difference do your beliefs make? 

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

Self-Help vs. God-Help

Have you ever undertaken a new year’s resolution or committed to avoiding an old pattern only to find your efforts or will power lacking?  If so, I have a compliment for you.  You recognized a change was possible and you had the initiative to pursue it.  I especially commend you for reaching for something that was difficult.  I’d like to offer a word of hope and encouragement.

Goal oriented people are accustomed to scheduling objectives with the full expectation of achieving them on time.  This may describe you.  You may have a high level of confidence in your ability to accomplish whatever you set your mind to.  If so, I applaud you.  I also want to encourage you to dream even bigger.  Ask yourself whether you returned from a voyage safely because you sailed too close to shore.  What if you contemplated something so big, so significant, so difficult but wonderful, that you couldn’t possibly do it all by yourself?

Maybe this does not describe you.  Maybe you may feel so downtrodden you expect to fail.  Perhaps you have no confidence that you can follow through on anything.  Whether this describes you or you are the goal-oriented achieving type, there is wonderful news.  The weight doesn’t have to rest on your shoulders alone.  God will do some heavy lifting.

I look to Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand not only for inspiration but also as a how-to guide for inviting God to do heavy lifting.  In all four gospel accounts, Jesus retreats with his disciples to a remote place for rest and encounters a crowd.  Having compassion for them, Jesus teaches and heals until late in the day.  The disciples grow anxious about where their next meal will come from and ask Jesus to send everyone away.  Jesus doesn’t go for it.  Instead he instructs his disciples to feed the crowd.

What happens next is the crux of the story.  The disciples say, “We don’t have enough.”  Jesus says, “Give me what you have,” and then he does the miracle of making it enough.  So it is with us.  If we are really stretching, doing something bold with our talents, we will feel like we don’t have enough–enough acumen, perseverance, persuasiveness, tenacity, grace, generosity, etc.  If you do have enough, then you might just be playing it too safe.  Jesus didn’t ask his disciples to play it safe or to have enough.  And he didn’t ask them to do it on their own.  He asked them to give what they had in partnership with him.

That is where the rubber meets the road in distinguishing an ordinary self-help program from a spiritual practice of introspection, healing and renewal.  We must give God what we have—all the self-control, patience, generosity, faithfulness, and gentleness we can bring to bear—and he will do the miracle of making it enough.

Whether the life change you seek results from addiction or deeply rooted coping mechanisms or a recent change in circumstance, rest easy in the knowledge that you can’t find healing and renewal on your own.  Accept yourself where you are and know that you are not alone.   It is only by God’s grace that any of us have come this far, and only his help will move us on.  It glorifies God when we choose his power over will power.

Join the conversation.  Glorify God and encourage others by sharing the heavy lifting God has done for you!

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

The Problem of Suffering

The problem of suffering in the world confounds many who seek an understanding of God.   Addiction recovery seekers who have survived childhood trauma struggle to understand a God who is all-powerful and all-good yet permits children to be victimized.  Religious missionaries and hospital chaplains of all faiths minister amid immense suffering and few answers.  The problem of suffering is a central theme in Buddhism.  The existence of suffering is a feature of the human experience that transcends all faiths and traditions.  How do we reconcile the ideas that God is all-powerful, God is all-good, and evil exists?  

One way to approach the problem is to assume God is all-powerful, and in his desire for relationship, God cedes power to beings in the gift of free will.  A free choice is actually a false choice if the outcome is controlled.  Free will choices have consequences that, in the spirit of true freedom, God may decline to control.  Certainly much of the world’s suffering can be attributed to human choices.  That doesn’t answer questions about the physical world, though, such as why an all-powerful God allows the earth to evolve in a way that includes earthquakes and tsunami’s and birth defects.  Certainly those aren’t the product of human choice.  Even acquiescing to the idea that some humans might have some limited ability to choose to avoid those realities does not answer the question of why destructive forces exist.  This reality leads us to question God’s goodness.  

The question of God’s goodness reminds me of a needlepoint canvas.  My grandmother was a prodigious master of needlepoint.  Sitting at her knee, I gazed up at the underside of her canvases.  They had loose threads and frayed ends.  The colors did not form tidy shapes.  Sometimes a pattern could be made out roughly, and sometimes it was indecipherable.  Yarns stretched illogically across the back of the canvas.  Invariably, though, she produced gorgeous works of art, always balanced in color and theme.   

Our suffering might be like that.  We may see knots and frayed ends.  There may be a thread woven through the fabric of life that has inflicted intense suffering or shame.  If viewed alone, that thread is not pleasing or artistic.  It might be an ugly color or trace a broken line.  It does not stand alone, however, and the canvas might not ultimately be as beautiful and balanced without it.  Sometimes from our vantage point, we cannot see how our suffering weaves into life to produce anything good at all.   

Where we cannot see goodness, however, we can have faith in goodness.  No physicist who seeks a deeper understanding of the universe believes his perception is all there is.  There is reality that lies beyond human perception.  There is mystery, and that mystery is a source of hope.  When we cannot perceive the meaning in our or another’s suffering, we can have faith that God is other, not limited to seeing the underside of the canvas as humans are, and that he gathers all the loose and frayed ends and uses them for good. 

Join the conversation.  What inspires hope in the face of suffering for you?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved