Choosing Intimacy with God

At the beginning of this reflective season of Lent, this blog pondered how one accepts God’s invitation to intimacy.  It explored reasons we pause at the threshold of intimacy and ways to navigate the spiritual obstacles that get in the way of intimacy with God.  But returning to the initial question, after navigating the obstacles, what do we actually do to choose intimacy?

Curtis Almquist suggests, in a Lenten sermon he gave five years ago, that God has chosen us first, and so the better question might be how do we respond to our chosenness.  Here is the wisdom he shared then:

We hear in this gospel appointed for today [John 5:19-26] the recurring reminder that we are “chosen,” chosen persons by God. “You did not choose me, but I chose you,” we hear Jesus saying.

My own sense is that many of us are quite ambivalent about being chosen. On the one hand, most of us, by the time we’ve reached 3rd grade or so, have suffered the experience of not being chosen, of being left out, or passed over, or even rejected. And this can set the stage early on for lots of compensations we may learn to make in life: of trying to improve our skills, or to become charming or attractive, or to endear ourselves to the perceived power brokers. Or we may just settle for less, for being inferior and orphaned, for being undesired and undesirable. It is very hard not to be chosen in life.

The only thing that may be harder in life than not being chosen is when we are chosen. Sometimes being chosen is just terrific, clear and simple. But other times, at least in my exper­ience, being chosen can create fear and trembling… either because we’ve changed our minds in the meantime – “on second thought, I don’t think I want this after all…” – or, once we get on the inside – inside a relationship, inside a vocation, inside some new experience that we very much (thought we) wanted – it looks very different from the inside than it did from the outside. Quite humbling, often; maybe quite sobering. How could we have set ourselves up for this?

Isn’t it fascinating, though, that we have been created with wills, with the God-given capacity to desire. And this capacity is part of our being created in the image of God, who is full of desire, and who desires us, and who desires our very best. And yet, we’ve not been created as robots, for God to simply align us like a formed piece coming off a conveyor belt in a foundry. Rather, we’ve been created in the image of God with wills, with the capacity to desire. I would say that in the Incarnation – in God’s taking on human form, human desire, a human name in Jesus – we see God stooping to us, meeting us on our own level, speaking our own language, appealing to our own desires, and ultimately leading us, like with breadcrumbs, down pathways we have freely chosen to that place where we belong: the melding of God’s choosing us and our choosing God, all of it quite freely.

Isn’t it amazing where you find yourself just now? That is certainly true for me. I suspect for many of us, where we find ourselves just now has come out of a series of life choices, of roads taken and not taken, of many right decisions, which have been blessed by God, and – at least for me, maybe for you? – wrong decisions, which are being redeemed by God, and that has made all the difference.

You might find it a graceful exercise to spend some time this Lent in reflection how you’ve gotten to be where you are: the many choices that have been made for your life – choices made by you and by others – which have shaped and formed your life. Make peace with those choosings. See where you can find gratitude for those choosings. And if you come up short, if you find you don’t know what to make of a choice you’re living with that doesn’t yet make sense or has not come to fruition, to pray for the grace to live into this choice as fully and freely as possible, believing that in the fullness of time, you will understand as you have been understood by God, all along: God, who chooses you, who understands your desires, and who desires your very best.

Join the conversation.  How does examining your choices lead you closer to God?

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

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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: Preserving Identity

As our quest for intimacy with God leads us deeper into ourselves, we may find ourselves resisting God’s call to us because we fear losing something.  Although made in God’s image, we can grow rather attached to the identity we craft for ourselves.  We may fear losing our identity, wondering who we will be without the patterns or traits that define us.

Unfortunately, harmful patterns become part of our identity just as healthy patterns do.  Who am I if not the one known for her acerbic and stinging wit?  Who am I if not the fashionista ruthlessly issuing fashion citations?  I may not like myself, but I am the only self I know.

Dying to self is a notion that finds its roots in the Torah.  Mikvah immersion, a ritual for purification and cleansing of sins, symbolizes our dying to self and being resurrected as a new creation.  The scriptural basis for mikvah immersion includes Exodus 19:10 (God’s command to wash clothing as a symbolic act of purification), Leviticus 8:6 (ritual washing upon ordination) and Leviticus 16:4 (washing before and after ministering the Yom Kippur Holy of Holies).   Mikvah immersion is required of converts to Judaism.  This is the ritual immersion for purification of sins that John the Baptist practiced, and thus Christian baptism finds its roots here as well.

The concept of dying to self was further championed and exemplified by Jesus: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24, Matthew 16:25).  The apostle Paul further advanced this concept in his letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Colossians, and Timothy; and it has been taken up by countless Christian writers ever since.  Despite the millennia of tradition, it’s hard.  It hurts.  It’s paradoxical.

C.S. Lewis describes the paradox this way in his book, Mere Christianity:

The principal runs through all life from top to bottom.  Give up yourself, and you will find your real self.  Lose your life and you will save it.  Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fiber of your being, and you will find eternal life.  Keep back nothing.  Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours.  Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.  Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay.  But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.

Dallas Willard in The Spirit of the Disciplines encourages letting go of old ways, likening it to letting dried old leaves fall where new leafs are budding.  Like nature in changing seasons, our identities are not static but regenerative.  Perhaps these verses and breathing prayer will invite you to join God in the collaborative process of re-creating yourself.

29 When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
30 When you send forth your breath, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.  (Psalm 104:29-30)

Inhale:  authentic identity
Exhale:  superficial identity

Join the conversation.  What old leaves do you need to let fall so that new leaves can bud?

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

Obstacles to Intimacy: Preserving our Center

Growing in intimacy requires… well, growing.  That means we have to change, and we resist change for all kinds of reasons.  At their core lies self-preservation.   We resist losing some part of ourselves.

Child development models identify egocentrism—the tendency to perceive, to understand and to interpret the world in terms of the self—in young children.  At some point, maturity leads our awareness to points of view outside of our own.  This development of perception has an analogous development of motive.  When all our desires center on self and when we live with our own desires as the driving force in our lives, we have a very narrow range of decision-making ability.  We are severely limited in thought and action, and we invariably run into conflict with others.  When we remove our own desires as the driving force in our lives, much becomes possible.

The Twelve Step tradition addresses this condition in Step 3: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”  If I seek freedom from the involuntary servitude to self-will and the confines of my bondage to it only to continue pursuing my own desires, I escape nothing.  It is a radical change, but nothing less frees us.  The Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book speaks candidly to those seeking a more moderate path:

“At some of those [steps] we balked.  We thought we could find an easier, softer way.  But we could not.  With all the earnestness at our command, we beg of you to be fearless and thorough from the very start.  Some of us have tried to hold on to our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely.”

Even self-hate reflects an unwillingness to shift one’s focus outward on God’s kingdom rather than inward on self.  Like so much else in the spiritual life, it is binary.  Only one thing can be at the center.  C.S. Lewis describes the dilemma:

“From the moment a creature becomes aware of God as God and of itself as self, the terrible alternative of choosing God or self for the centre is opened to it.”

We may wonder who will advocate for our desires if we do not.  Being open to the desires and imaginations of others, though, opens the possibility that others will delight us in unexpected ways.  These verses and breathing prayer encourage openness to the possibility that God’s imagination for us is better than ours for ourselves.

11For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29: 11-14)

Inhale:  God’s imagination
Exhale:  bondage to self

Join the conversation.  What really bad thing happened to you that, in retrospect, made a really good thing possible?

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

Obstacles to Forgiveness: Doubt

During the weeks leading up to Easter, this blog has been exploring the obstacles that hold us back from intimacy with God.  Whereas intimacy with others involves revealing truths about ourselves to them, intimacy with God involves truths being revealed to us.  Hence, there is a strong connection between honest introspection, self-awareness, and intimacy.

The last three posts have examined issues surrounding forgiveness in particular.  After spending any amount of time in honest introspection, we will confront issues of forgiveness.  We might see things we have done wrong in a new light and realize we stand in need of forgiveness, or we may discover ourselves clinging to some long hidden resentment we should release.  What holds us back from seeking God’s forgiveness may be feeling we don’t deserve it, we don’t need it, or we don’t want it.  Another obstacle is feeling forgiveness is simply not possible.

“Maybe it’s possible for you, but not me, not with what I’ve been through.”  Have you ever heard this from someone?  Or do you recognize it in yourself?  Sometimes we don’t believe God can or will do what we ask because we can’t see how the transformation we want is even possible.  It’s not possible for me to shake depression.  It’s not possible to have fun without having alcohol.  How could this suffering possibly harbor meaning or lead me to growth?  We want to make a break from our past and start life anew, but we don’t see how it is possible, so we doubt.

Martin Smith’s book on reconciliation in the Episcopal tradition encourages, “pray about what you believe and what you desire to believe more wholeheartedly.”  When our faith in God is lagging, we can take heart from God’s faith and constancy towards us.  Perhaps these verses and breathing prayer can help shift the focus from the limits of your belief to God’s limitlessness.

7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast. (Psalm 139:7-10)

Inhale: God’s faithfulness
Exhale: my doubt

Join the conversation.  What did you think was absolutely impossible before it actually happened?

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

Obstacles to Forgiveness: Guilt

“Fear is the tax that conscience pays to guilt.”  This wisdom is attributed to seventeenth century physician and writer George Sewell.  As our quest for intimacy with God leads us deeper into ourselves, and as we confront the forgiveness issues we are sure to encounter in introspection, we might discover guilt obstructing our ability to extend forgiveness or to accept it.

Guilt is something we drag around like a ball and chain.  The Greek word for guilt used ten times in the New Testament, enochos, also means bound, liable, and under obligation.  If we view forgiveness as a gift of great value, we might fear having to earn or to repay the debt in the future, as if a bounty or a bond we can never repay will be levied on us.

It is possible, however, to grow attached to guilt.  Forgiveness can threaten to sever the attachment.  Martin Smith wrote a book on reconciliation in the Episcopal tradition, and in it he states, “There is a part of us that clings to guilt as a kind of possession, and puts up a fight when the prospect of letting it go in absolution draws close.”

It is also possible to use guilt as a weapon or as a shield.  Some people aim guilt at others to coerce and to manipulate them.  We use the noun as a verb when we “guilt someone into something.”  On the receiving end of this tactic, we can use guilt as a perverse kind of shield.  For example, if I feel sufficiently guilty for my last offense, I might be spared the next episode of condemnation.  We use guilt to mask our true feelings and to keep our distance.  We fear the consequences of simply being ourselves.  If we desire intimacy, we must disrupt this dynamic.  One of my favorite mottos is manipulation tends to stop when it stops working.

The following verses reassure us that there is nothing to fear in forgiveness.  It’s a massive tax break for the conscience.  The breathing prayer points to the lightness that flows from accepting God’s forgiveness and forgiving oneself.

18 The Lord is near to the broken-hearted,
and saves the crushed in spirit.
22 The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned. (Psalm 34: 18,22)

Inhale: freedom
Exhale: guilt

Join the conversation.  How do you shield yourself from intimacy and forgiveness?

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

Obstacles to Forgiveness: Pride

Forgiveness is the highest rated search term for this blog, and I appreciate why.  It’s hard to do.  This series of posts during Lent has encouraged introspection to foster greater intimacy with God.  If your inner inventory has revealed forgiveness issues, it might be worthwhile to pause a moment to examine pride.

Pride is an obstacle to many graces, and forgiveness and intimacy are certainly among them.  What older sibling has not adamantly rejected forgiveness from a younger sibling, quite sure that she has done nothing wrong to warrant forgiveness?  Forgiveness can also challenge the “I’ve earned everything I have by my own power” mentality that pervades our culture.  Accepting a gift of great value may threaten our sense of independence and potency.  It takes some humility.

Looking honestly at our fallings and failings hurts our pride.  We don’t want introspection to take a toll on our self-esteem or to make us feel weak.  On a personal note, I think protecting my pride is my single most difficult obstacle to introspection.  The paradox is that self-awareness makes us stronger and more able, not weaker.  Moreover, when we make room for God’s power, we become equipped for much more than we can do by virtue of will power alone.

If you are in a wrestling match with pride, try thinking bigger.  Aim for something so big, so difficult and magnificent, that there is no realistic expectation of accomplishing it on your own.  When we depend on God’s grace and the contributions of others, our own roles comes into a more balanced perspective, and that, in turn, helps us recognize the forgiveness we truly need.  Investing ourselves in the big picture—God’s vision—instead of our carefully constructed self-images transforms accepting forgiveness from a crippling defeat into a healthy means to a greater end.

These verses and breathing prayer highlight the false security we get from pride and the real power we can find in God.

16 A king is not saved by his great army;
a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
17 The war horse is a vain hope for victory,
and by its great might it cannot save.
20 Our soul waits for the Lord;
he is our help and shield. (Psalm 33: 16-17, 20)

Inhale: God’s power
Exhale: my power

Join the conversation.  What was your most challenging experience with forgiveness?

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