A Radical Leaving

Karen Rodman was charming, vivacious and enterprising. She instigated more good works than I could list. The entire arc of her professional and personal life was dedicated to making the world a better place in one way or another. She possessed a huge heart and a pioneering spirit. She lost her life too early to cancer last week, and her memorial service was Friday.

I’ve been lingering over something her priest said in his homily. It was an uncharacteristically evangelizing and passionate homily, by Episcopal standards. The priest sought to reach mourners right where they were in their faith journeys, and according to at least one friend, he reached his mark. He claimed that once one accepts oneself as a beloved child of God, and moreover, once that becomes the central pillar of one’s identity, the pressure to perform is off.

I couldn’t disagree more. Or at least, that does not track my journey in faith. My experience is informed more by the notion that to whom much is given, much is expected. When I contemplate the incredibly lucky hand I’ve been given—and let’s face it, anyone born in North America got a pretty lucky hand, globally speaking—I feel a great pressure to do good with it. If sufficiently focused on the abundance in my life, I cannot conceive how much must be expected. It is humbling beyond words.

A now retired priest in my parish was fond of saying, “Beware of arriving safely because you sailed too close to shore.” I know there is a time for rest, but there is also a time for stretching to the point of discomfort. Scripture abounds with examples of the faithful
who leave the place that’s comfortable and answer God’s call to venture into the unknown.

The Reform Jewish prayer book recalls what Abram had to leave behind in order follow God’s call. Abram left his homeland, his friends, all he had accumulated over a lifetime, and all that was familiar–for what? He didn’t have an answer, but he had trust and hope. “Radical Leaving” is what the prayer book calls Abram’s courageous step, and Rabbi Norman Hirsh’s poem “Becoming” describes how we encounter it.

Once or twice in a lifetime
A man or woman may choose
A radical leaving, having heard
Lech lecha — Go forth.

God disturbs us toward our destiny

By hard events
And by freedom’s now urgent voice
Which explode and confirm who we are.

We don’t like leaving,
But God loves becoming.

Karen embraced this radical leaving, undoubtedly more than once in her life, but certainly at her life’s end. When we said goodbye the last time, she expressed such exuberant and contagious hope—hope for a medical miracle, hope for an adventure beyond bodily death, hope for the world she was leaving behind and hope for friends and her daughter’s long life ahead. I pray for God’s blessing on her becoming.

Join the conversation. How have hard events or freedom’s urgent voice exploded and confirmed who you are? Do we ever encounter our destiny any other way?

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

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Lies and Elephants

The county jail program I write about from time to time is operated by a nonprofit organization named Resolana.  Resolana helps incarcerated women make life changes to reap their true potential, which includes staying out of jail.  The program has a life skills class, and last week we started a unit on self-esteem.  As always, the women exhibited admirable candor and had profound insights.  It’s fitting to share some of those insights here, as they illustrate the lies we believe about ourselves described the last post about shame.

The self-esteem unit starts with a rather sad description of how captive baby elephants are trained not to roam.  By tying the baby elephant to a stake it isn’t strong enough to break, the animal is trained to think it can’t overcome the obstacle, and eventually it gives up trying.  Adult elephants are easily strong enough to pull the stake out and to roam free, but they are trained to think they can’t, so they don’t.  The adult elephant believes a lie about itself.

The women pondered the lies they believe about themselves.  One shared that she believes she is a bad daughter.  Her parents divorced when she was young, and like so many kids who experience the loss of a parent, she blamed herself for her dad’s choice to have a relationship with his girlfriend’s children instead of with her.  Another described being indulged as a child.  Her mother invariably protected her from the consequences of her own actions.  As an adult, she had an attorney who extricated her from legal tangles.  Her lie was that rules don’t apply to her.  Somebody else described a home where keeping up appearances was all that mattered.  She believed she had to project an enhanced image of herself because the truth could never be good enough.  It was heartbreaking to hear one woman describe a widespread family pattern of sexual abuse, a pattern that she and another young family member together managed to break, but not before being imprinted with the lie that being used sexually was all she was good for.

After calling out these lies, the women wrote affirming statements that tell the truth about themselves.  I am a good daughter.  My dad’s addiction kept him from being a good dad.  I have to follow the same rules as everyone else.  My truth is better than my image.  I am a worth saving.  I love myself.  For many women, the affirmations felt good and true.  Other women were so accustomed to the lies, they struggled to find affirming statements that felt authentic.  One woman was moved to tears when pulling away from a painful stake in her past left her feeling suddenly free to be.  The class ended with encouragement to speak the truth to oneself—and to others—70 times a day for seven days.  It is the surest way to find hope for healing from shame.

Join the conversation.  How has your “training” held you back from reaping your true potential?

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

Symbol of Hope

Symbols have power.  The ancient Romans were onto this, and they knew how to wield it.  They dominated conquered people and kept them subjugated through that timeless implement of control—fear.  The Romans planted symbols everywhere to keep the fear fresh.  One of the most enduring and fearful symbols was that symbol of execution by crucifixion, the cross.  The Romans didn’t invent crucifixion, but they did tune it for maximum cruelty, and they did use it liberally, at least in Judea.  The cross was a potent symbol of gruesome torture, fear and oppression for a thousand years until Constantine abolished crucifixion to honor Christ.

The symbol of the cross is no less potent now than it was thousands of years ago.  But a remarkable thing happened.  It now stands for love, hope and salvation.  Even the atrocities of the Crusades and Klu Klux Klan, committed bearing the sign of the cross, didn’t permanently throw the symbol’s meaning back to its ancient horror.  That the meaning of this symbol could be so radically transformed and still be powerfully evocative today is no less miraculous than bodily resurrection itself.

If you seek radical transformation for yourself, if there is a part of you that fills you with horror or angst, or if you desperately seek to make a break from your past, the symbol of the cross might offer you hope and encouragement.  It has a thousand year history of darkness, and yet it was radically remade into a symbol of light and love.  That remade meaning has endured for thousands of years more.  If that hateful image could be redeemed from its past and fundamentally transformed, then surely by God’s power, we can be, too.

My Easter prayer for you is that the darkness in your past will be redeemed.  The history of the cross’ symbolism wasn’t rewritten, and your history won’t be rewritten either.  Whatever malice or spite is lying in your past will remain there.  However, Jesus assures us in scripture that our returning is made more joyful to God because of our past sins, not despite them.

I used to wonder why Christians perceive more joy over one sinner returning than many staying on righteous paths.  Staying on the straight and narrow is no mean feat, after all.  I suspect the reason has to do with heartbreak.  To use a sailing analogy, imagine a sailing ship returning with all her crew from a routine voyage.  Certainly loved ones would happily welcome the expected return of any voyage.  Imagine the heartbreak and grief instead if the ship failed to return and all were feared lost at sea.  And then, imagine the ship limping into harbor with all souls accounted for.  The rejoicing would be greater because the returning conquers the heartbreak.

There is heartbreak and grief when we veer off course.  We inflict it on ourselves, on others and on God.  Upon returning, the heartbreak is not just repaired as if we had never veered off but surmounted, vanquished, and transcended.  It is like the resurrection of Jesus conquering his death or a symbol’s meaning transforming from cruelty to salvation.  So search yourself for the darkness within you, acknowledge the heartbreak there, and look to the cross with hope for redemption.

Join the conversation.  What is your deepest and most fervent hope?

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

Obstacles to Intimacy: Preserving Pleasures

Many of us want different consequences to our actions without actually altering our actions. I might want to get my budget under control but resist curbing my shopping habit, for example.  Or I may hope for people to start trusting me without relinquishing my controlling and manipulative behaviors.  Excessive consumption may have terrible health consequences but I can’t imagine enjoying myself without it. It helps here to focus on the “yes” rather than the “no.”

Rather than focusing on the thing we crave, we can ask God to ignite a passion for something else.  It could be something once loved but edged out by addiction, like the exercise of some natural talent that glorifies God or lifts others.  Perhaps she once loved performing musically, but excessive drinking made Rachmaninoff impractical.  Perhaps he had a gift for writing poetry, but words escape him under the influence.  Maybe something as simple as walks with your toddler in the stroller after dinner delight and attract you.  Don’t “Just say no” to one thing without saying “Yes!” to something better.

If you have trouble imagining more pleasurable pursuits, meditating on the fruits of the spirit might bring possibilities to mind.  If I were in possession of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, what pleasures would become possible?  When we surrender our wants and ways to God, we make room for God to act in our lives, joining God as a partner in the creative process and inviting the kind of life change we cannot even imagine.  When our imagination wanes, C.S. Lewis encourages trusting God’s imagination:

We are halfhearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.

When I realize God’s imagination for me is better than mine for myself, I can relinquish my silly notions that I know best how to satisfy myself.  Whether those notions have led me to complete devastation or to a dull ache of emptiness (“There’s got to be more”), relinquishing them will free my imagination for the pleasures God would have for me.  Replace life-snuffing pleasure with life-enhancing pleasure.  I hope these verses and breathing prayers encourage you to have fun, for God’s sake!

6 You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. (Psalm 51: 6-8)

Inhale:  sweet humor
Exhale:  mean humor

Inhale:  keen acuity
Exhale:  drunken dullness

Inhale:  intimate knowing
Exhale:  anonymous sex

Inhale:  Eros (life force)
Exhale:  Thanatos (death drive)

Join the conversation.  Is there anything in the attic of your psyche that needs to be given away?

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

Obstacles to Intimacy: Fear of Brokenness

“I am barely holding it together as it is.  I don’t know how I can live with myself if I take an unobstructed look at this horror that is my life.”

Sometimes it’s not fear of pain that holds us back from taking an honest look at ourselves in the quest for intimacy with God.  Maybe you have an advanced degree in pain already.  Maybe there is something much greater at stake than feeling a little more pain.  Sometimes what is at stake is our very existence—an ability to get through this day, let alone tomorrow or the day after.  Maybe I have negotiated an uneasy peace with myself, and taking an honest look inward sounds a lot like opening Pandora’s Box.  Facts and feelings will fly out and there will be no way to stuff them safely back inside.  Or worse, maybe I strongly suspect I can’t live with the person I find under any terms whatsoever.

It’s a great paradox, seemingly nonsensical on its surface, but several traditions recognize a spark of blessing lurking in brokenness.  Twelve Step addiction recovery seekers talk about “rock bottom” as being the only ground on which an addict can take the first step to recovery—admitting powerlessness over certain things.  Jews have an expression, “There is no vessel as whole as a broken heart.”  Christian scripture offers verse after verse on the theme of dying to self and being raised to new life in Christ.

To be clear, I am not saying brokenness or rock bottom is a good thing.  No one wants to see it come to that for ourselves or for a friend.  There’s no good in glorifying or overdramatizing feeling this low.  I am not advocating that you press the pedal to the metal and hurl yourself towards it like Thelma and Louise.

What I am saying is that a lot of people have found themselves in a place of brokenness, and they have hope to offer those whose journey takes them through that place.  Sometimes it is the most effective way to break free from stubborn attachments or “bondage to self.”  Sometimes it gives us an impetus to take ourselves out of life’s center and to put God there instead.  Sometimes we need that spark of blessing more than we need to avoid brokenness.  Although all our survival instincts rebel against it, the truth remains:  brokenness saves us from ourselves.

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:17)

Inhale: healing
Exhale: brokenness

Join the conversation and give courage to your fellow travelers.  What spark of blessing did you find in your journey through brokenness?

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

When Remembering Hurts: Part 3

There are memories, and then there are consequences.  Recognizing that we have veered off course or missed the mark on something we tried to accomplish can be discomfiting.  Consequences – incarceration, legal action, foreclosure—can be excruciatingly painful.  So is facing what has been irretrievably lost.  It’s natural to feel grief concerning the loss of a relationship, an opportunity, a job, another’s trust in you, your trust in another, years gone by, money spent foolishly, pleasures given up, and, of course, the loss of life itself in death.

When mired in grief over the consequences of our actions, we can take some comfort in knowing that grief is not a permanent state but a journey towards something else.  The destination—acceptance—can give us hope.  When we have an idea of where our life is heading, we can put obstacles and hardships into perspective and persevere.  We can examine past choices, and while regret for them may be heartrending, we can look forward with hope that they won’t be repeated.

The honest 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 consequence of confronting this truth.

God, in his infinite compassion to all, is present to all the pain—the pain someone caused me, the pain I caused someone else, and the compassion I feel for the one I hurt. Perhaps most heartbreaking is God’s faithful and unwavering presence to us even when we fail to hold up our end of the relationship with him.

Imagine how it feels to be in a relationship in which you’re ignored.  Your continual shows of love and support are 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.

When we own up to all the ways we turned our back on the one who never stops seeking us, we grow into compassion, reciprocal compassion, for God.  This compassion bears an exquisite 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 perhaps our greatest source of hope.

Join the conversation.  What becomes possible when you release yourself from the self-defense pretense?

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

When Remembering Hurts: Part 1

Studies on American consumerism and happiness reveal the happiness we gain from buying stuff is short lived.  No sooner have we acquired stuff than our attention turns to new stuff.  By contrast, spending on experience–a gathering of friends or an act of kindness–has a longer lasting effect because we can remember the experience and feel happy all over again.

The converse is also true.  Remembering can hurt.  Shining a flashlight on ourselves and seeing the wrong turns we have made can be painful.  Painful aspects of introspection arise from remembering upsetting events, facing the consequences of our choices, and allowing ourselves to experience compassion for those who were hurt.  If you find yourself approaching introspection with some foreboding for any of these reasons, don’t shoulder it alone.  Reach for hope in companions.

“Con dos, no peso un muerto,” is a Spanish expression that 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 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—champion of justice treated unjustly, condemned by those he came to save, son of all-powerful God born powerless—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.  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 with little teeth marks in them was a salve to my wounds during a painful time.  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.

Join the conversation.  Have you found spiritual companions in unlikely places?

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