A Question about Forgiveness

A question came up when I was listening to a group of women in the county jail talk about forgiveness last night.  It didn’t surprise me.  The question comes up every time I have led a forgiveness workshop.  It is particularly meaningful to those being honest with themselves about whether they really want to forgive the one who did them wrong.

“Do I have to tell the person I’m forgiving that I have forgiven him?”

Several different motives can give rise to the question.  Sometimes we cling to our resentment because it is our only connection to someone we think we need in our lives.  If we let go of our anger or our claim against the person, there would be nothing between us at all, and that can be a painful reality to accept.  Even when we have known intellectually for a long time that a relationship is over, letting go of the relationship on an emotional level by releasing resentment can be much more difficult.  Other times we hold on to resentment because we don’t want to let the one who wronged us off the hook.  We want those people held accountable, and perhaps no one else is stepping up to that job.  Our sense of fairness tells us those people deserve harsh consequences, not forgiveness.

That sense of justice or fairness is, ironically, what can help us break through a stubborn case of resentment and be free to forgive.  When it seems our offender lacks appropriate remorse or is not suffering the consequences he deserves, we can take a cue from Sister Helen Prejean.  She was the nun behind the movie Dead Man Walking, and movie trailers quoted her saying, “The question is not whether death row inmates deserve to die.  The question is whether we deserve to kill.”

Like Sister Helen, instead of focusing on what my offender deserves, I can take a cold hard look at what I deserve.  No one escapes emotional wounding of one kind or another, and for all of us, those wounds impair how we treat others.  My first response to an angry friend cannot be reaching out in compassion if my first response is protecting myself.  Only one can be first.  In ways that are subtle and blatant, the injuries we sustained get tangled up with the injuries we inflict on others.  In forgiveness, we cannot escape looking honestly at both.  When I take a searching and fearless look at the ways I allowed my wounds to impair how I treat others, I come into awareness of the forgiveness I need.  This is not victim blaming.  It is control claiming.

Whether you think of this inner inventory as taking responsibility for the footprint you are leaving in the world or as healing your personal relationship with God, it is a spiritual exercise.  Take your offender out of the middle of the situation and put your spiritual reality in the center instead.  It is the ultimate liberation to see forgiveness not as a response to what an offender deserves but as a response to the grace we have received.

Join the conversation.  What frees you from dwelling on what your offender deserves?

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

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Putting the Fun in Dysfunctional

I haven’t written much about family.  To put it in euphemistic psycho-speak, family is a personal growth area for me.  To be more blunt about it, I am tangled up in a bunch of splintered, fractured, impaired and unresolved relationships, and the only commentary I’m equipped to offer is more like that of the junior reporter in a rain slicker staggering against the wind and rain as she reports on the approaching hurricane than that of the news anchor safely ensconced in the studio.  My husband (the second one) likes to say we put the “fun” in dysfunctional.

I have come to realize, perhaps reluctantly, that family, for all its messiness and imperfection, has inescapable spiritual significance.  Hospice chaplain Kerry Egen explained it as poignantly as anyone in an article she wrote about what dying people talk about.  Early in Egan’s Harvard Divinity School training, and having just started work as a student chaplain in a cancer hospital, a professor asked her what she talked about with patients.  She said patients mostly talked about their families and she mostly listened.  The professor derided her not only privately but also in class for failing to address big spiritual issues like God, religion and the meaning of life with people nearing life’s end.  Although ashamed and full of self-doubt at the time, 13 years later Egan says she would answer his question exactly the same way but with confidence.

What I did not understand when I was a student then, and what I would explain to that professor now, is that people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God. That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives. That is how we talk about the big spiritual questions of human existence.

We don’t live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories. We live our lives in our families: the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends.

Egan points out that family is where we first experience love.  It’s where we are first cared for and where we learn to care for others.  It’s where we learn to trust and where our trust is first betrayed.  It’s likely to be the first place we were hurt by someone we love.  For many people, it is where we receive our deepest wounds.  Some people respond to the wounding by repeating hurtful family patterns, while others respond by creating families that become the ground for healing and hope.  Family is where we confront our spiritual reality in the midst of our daily living.  It’s the framework in which we wrestle with the big spiritual questions about God and the meaning of life.

Egan shows us that this crucible where life’s journey begins is also where we return at the journey’s end.  Our experience of family—the brokenness and the healing—gives us our most descriptive language for expressing the content of our human souls as we encounter the divine.

Join the conversation.  What significance has family had on the search for meaning in your life?

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

Timeless Truth vs. Modern Manifestation

The Vatican grabbed headlines last week, frustrating the efforts of US bishops to keep Catholic lawsuits about contraception in the spotlight.  Both news stories offer a small window into how difficult it is for religions to change.  Some religious groups like the Amish resist all change, moral and technological, while others like the Society of Saint John the Evangelist were founded to be “men of the moment,” present to modern day hurts and needs just as Jesus was in his day.

Religious attitudes towards procreation have consequences that ripple through societies in all directions.  I’d hazard a guess that for most of religious history, enhancing population would have been advantageous either for the human species in general or for certain religious groups specifically.  The medieval era saw population decimating epidemics and low childhood survival rates.  Similarly, in sparsely populated agrarian settings, increasing population would have been advantageous regardless of religious considerations.  Always a minority, Jews are one religious group that has a long history of promoting procreation, especially following the holocaust.  But on an overpopulated planet struggling to feed the inhabitants it already has, what is the ethical stand on contraception and reproductive rights?

One-time Republican presidential nomination hopeful Rick Santorum, with a straight face, told Chris Wallace he doesn’t give to charity because his children are too expensive.  He happens to be Catholic, he believes birth control is morally wrong, and his wife gave birth to their eighth child at age 48.  Tragically, the child is afflicted by a serious genetic disorder for which the risk rises with maternal age.  The bible talks a lot more about helping the poor than procreating, but Santorum clearly bought into the American Catholic priority on procreation, despite the risks.  What would our country look like if a majority followed Santorum’s example?  I shudder to imagine.

This brings a significant question into focus.  How do religious communities discern the difference between timeless values that merit preservation and manifestations of those values that change with changing societal conditions?  Jesus was clearly concerned with feeding the hungry and healing the sick.  How do those values translate into action in a society where the biggest health risk to the poor is obesity?  Surely it looks different than in biblical times, and surely addressing food stability for those who are already alive is no less imperative.  Blithely stating one is “for life” is gratuitous without addressing the poor who already happen to be alive.

My last post pondered invitations for transformation, and as a country, it seems that the healthcare reform discussion offers such an invitation.  Historical Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan boils Jesus’ ministry down to two radical elements—free healing and open table.  With that religious foundation, it’s hard to understand why the American Christian voice for healing is not louder.

Join the conversation.  What attitudes embodied a timeless truth in a bygone era and should manifest differently in current conditions?

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

Iterative Progress

Spiritual maintenance starts with a candid look inward.  For some people, taking an inner inventory feels cathartic and liberating.  For those who are approaching a major life change, introspection can reveal truths that validate their new direction and propel them towards it.  It can give them a new energy and peace for the next life stage.  For others, however, there is just too much pain in the past to confront it all at once.  Twelve Step recovery seekers sometimes describe the Fourth Step “searching and fearless moral inventory” as an onion with layers.  If one doesn’t have the capacity to cut to the core all at once, he peels back as much as he can handle, and then returns to peel back more as he is able.

Some people take this onion layers approach not only to introspection but also to forgiveness.  Forgiving is a key ingredient for healing and spiritual growth.  It is also an obligation in several faith traditions.  Medieval Rabbinic authority Maimonides instructed:

“The offended person is prohibited from being cruel in not [forgoing the other’s indebtedness], for this is not the way of the seed of Israel.  Rather, if the offender has [resolved all material claims] and has asked and begged for forgiveness once, even twice, and if the offended person knows that the other has done repentance for sin and feels remorse for what was done, the offended person should offer the sinner [forgiveness.]”

The stakes are even higher on forgiveness in the Christian tradition.  Scripture makes clear that forgiveness requires forgiving and that God extends it under no other terms.

And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. (Mark 11:25)

For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.  (James2:13)

Even with intellectual assent to the moral obligation of forgiveness, and an earnest desire to be rid of resentment, releasing it in the act forgiveness can take time.  Resentment acts like terrible blinders that restrict our view.  After releasing resentment for some aspects of wrongdoing, other more subtle aspects of the offense may come into view.  That gives us yet another opportunity to release resentment in deepening forgiveness.

Progress on the spiritual journey is individual.  Our eyes might be opened to great spiritual insights in a flash, and we may wander in a wilderness of uncertainty for long periods.  One child abuse survivor shared her story of coming into the ability to forgive her abuser suddenly and unexpectedly on this blog several months ago.  Whether your ability to release resentment deepens with effort over time or arrives all at once in an unexpected moment, forgiveness lightens our load on the journey.

Join the conversation.  Have you ever discovered something you thought you had forgiven lurking in your psyche?

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

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.

Spiritual But Not Religious: Forgiveness

Forgiveness just might be the most difficult spiritual work that we do in life.  There are other spiritually difficult tasks, such as putting our trust in a spiritual reality greater than ourselves.  Letting go of attachments to ideas, habits or people that give us sense of security (often a false sense of security) is another difficult one.  Forgiveness requires both trust and letting go.

Forgiveness is the release of resentment and claim to retribution.  It takes a certain emotional energy to keep tabs on what we resent and why.  Sometimes we release resentment because we just don’t have the energy to keep nursing the resentment.  An offender’s expression of sincere remorse can defuse the resentment, making it easier to justify redirecting energy to other things instead.  Forgiveness gets more difficult in the absence of remorse, like if the offender has died or is emotionally incapable of remorse.  Forgiveness is most difficult when it feels like the subject and predicate have flip-flopped.  We may want to be released (passive voice) from the hold the offense has over our psyche rather than releasing (active voice) resentment for it.  How can we reclaim the active voice?

All religious traditions have teachings of one kind or another on forgiveness.  Some practices such as Jewish atonement celebrated at Yom Kippur and the Christian sacrament of reconciliation focus on seeking God’s forgiveness, for which getting forgiveness from others and forgiving others are, respectively, prerequisites.  In my study of how different spiritual traditions approach confession, I was struck by one difference between these religious traditions and the Twelve Steps.  The Fourth Step searching and fearless moral inventory and the Fifth Step admission of wrongs to God, ourselves and another human being are primarily focused not on getting God’s forgiveness but on getting God’s help to change.  That seems immanently more pragmatic to me.

Ultimately, I believe it is also what allows us to reclaim the active voice.  As long as we focus on our resentment, we keep putting the offender in the middle of the situation.  Our injuries impair the way we treat others, and our impaired responses keep dragging our wounded past into our present circumstances.  When we take the offender out of the center and put God there instead, taking responsibility for how we respond to others becomes more important than what an offender deserves.  When we can honestly say we care more about our relationship with God or the footprint we are leaving in the world than what our offender deserves, we are on the home stretch.  Getting to this stage, though, requires trust in a spiritual reality where each person bears responsibility for his own actions.  The act of forgiveness is a response to that spiritual reality, not a response to what our offender does or does not deserve.

Forgiveness also requires us to let go of several things: what we think our offender deserves, what the offender owes to us, and perhaps the relationship with the offender entirely.  Sometimes we hold onto resentment because it is the only thing connecting us to someone we think we need in our lives.  Letting go of ideas, habits or even people may be our most important step towards healing.

Join the conversation.  What helped you let go of a stubborn case of resentment?

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

Spiritual But Not Religious: Meet Me Where I Am

Growing public discussion about the decline of religion, and Christianity in particular, highlights to my mind many things that the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous do right.

Most poignant, perhaps, is that no one is left out.  There are no excluded or castigated groups.  Everyone is accepted as they are.  Christians may be thinking, “Gee, that sounds a lot like Jesus,” but serious observers of religion know that every Christian era has had its pariahs.  The Twelve Step tradition meets people where they are, no matter how despicable or lowly that place may be.  It doesn’t tell anyone what they must believe to be included.  Rather, it simply encourages openness to spiritual possibility.  It says, “Healing is possible if you’re willing to reach for it.  Here are steps that worked for us.”

The huge irony is some of those most in need of saving grace want nothing to do with God.  They’re mad.  So mad, they ignore his presence whenever possible, and failing that, they face God with seething resentment.  “I was an innocent child!  How could you unleash unspeakable abuse against an innocent?  What kind of almighty monster are you?”  The incidence of childhood trauma among substance abusers has tragic proportions.  Is it not logical that, if healing proves elusive, one might at least find an anesthetic within reach?

The Alcoholics Anonymous founders were sensitive to this spiritual hostility, namely because they were agnostic at the beginning of their journeys to recovery, and they didn’t want to discourage other alcoholics from beginning the steps.  “We find that no one need have difficulty with the spirituality of the program. Willingness, honesty and open mindedness are the essentials of recovery. But these are indispensable.”  They knew what looks preposterous at the journey’s beginning morphs into profound truth after spiritual awakening.  The Twelve Steps don’t foist the unbelievable on the unbelieving.

For the sake of inclusion, most Twelve Step programs recognize God across many faith traditions, and many interpretations of God are respected.  The “higher power” can be understood as the consciousness of the fellowship, in that the group consciousness may offer recovery seekers some power to do what they cannot do on their own.  Others find the higher power in nature, a la Mother Earth and Father Sky.

Religious traditions coalesce around common experience and belief.  Some are rigid about belief, behavior and belonging while a precious few treasure the richness of their diversity.  It seems to me that some of the ancient religious institutions experiencing a decline (moral, cultural, financial….pick a category) could learn something from the Twelve Steps.  The steps recognize addiction as a spiritual malady at its root, and thus they invite spiritual growth and intimacy with God.  Isn’t that also the aim of religion?  Or at least, isn’t that what religion purports its aim to be?  While the Twelve Step tradition goes to great lengths to avoid dictating beliefs, it goes to equal lengths to encourage people to expose their lives to the transformational power of God, however they might experience that.

Join the conversation.  What could your house of worship learn from the Twelve Steps?

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