Obstacles to Intimacy: Forgiveness Issues

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 are need of forgiveness, or we may discover ourselves clinging to some long hidden resentment we would do well to release.  When confronting these issues, we may discover we feel ambivalence concerning forgiveness.

Different spiritual traditions have different perspectives on the conditions for receiving God’s forgiveness.  Some require restitution and a demonstrated change in behavior whereas others require forgiving others.  I might feel overwhelmed by the gravity of my wrongdoing, seriously doubting if any restitution could ever be sufficient to merit forgiveness.  Similarly, I may feel I don’t deserve forgiveness because of my unwillingness to forgive others.  Or, I might equate free grace with cheap grace, and discount the value of anything that I am worthy to receive.

The freeing truth is none of us are worthy.  God’s great mercy eclipses all our merit. Traditions that require restitution and changed behavior as prerequisites to forgiveness embrace this truth no less robustly than traditions that only require forgiving others.  There are several reasons we don’t reach for the mercy God is waiting to extend.  Don’t rule out mercy, though.  It glorifies God when we seek it.

If you find yourself trapped in self-judgment and feel you don’t deserve forgiveness, I hope these verses and breathing prayers will free you to reach out your hand.

2 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and do not forget all his benefits—
3 who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy (Psalm 103: 2-4)

Inhale: what God desires
Exhale: what I deserve

Inhale: mercy
Exhale: shame

Join the conversation.  How have you released resentment when the person who needed your forgiveness was you?

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

Obstacles to Intimacy: Secrets

This blog has been exploring the idea of intimacy and inner truths.  When we venture into intimacy with others, we reveal inner truths about ourselves to them.  In intimacy with God, our inner truths are revealed to us.  Hence, intimacy with God involves some honest introspection.

We all have secrets, and they take energy to conceal.  The worst secrets are the ones we try to hide from ourselves.  They can have power over us.  Keeping them hidden, one way or another, inevitably impairs our freedom to make some choices.  On the other hand, exposing secrets steals their power and can give us a new energy and freedom to move on.

Several traditions make a spiritual practice of speaking aloud one’s faults in order to make a break with the past and to set a new direction in life.  This includes ancient religious practices of confession as well as the modern spiritual but not religious practice of the Fifth Step in Twelve Step addiction recovery programs.  In either case, searching ourselves is sure to unearth some secrets.  If I am carrying a secret with an especially vicious hold over me, speaking it aloud and claiming responsibility for letting it impair my choices can be the most powerful way to break its hold.  Knowing that we intend to speak aloud what we find in introspection, however, can present its own unique obstacles.  I might discover something was worse than remembered, and I might feel embarrassed to say it aloud.

If you feel drawn to make a break with your past and to enter into new intimacy with God through one of the practices of confession, but feel the tight grip of secrets holding you back from honest introspection, I hope these verses and breathing prayer will give you courage to move on.

3 While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Selah

5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’,
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Selah (Psalm 34:3-5)

Inhale: humility
Exhale: humiliation

Join the conversation.  How would you encourage someone trapped in the jaws of a secret he’s afraid to expose?

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

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.

4 Steps for Discerning God’s Will Up Close and Personal

Having a general idea that God wants to be in relationship and that he wants me to be fruitful doesn’t help me with specific decisions, like a career path or a spouse.  I make choices every day, and most don’t seem to have anything to do with God.  What does “choosing God’s will” mean in my daily life and work?

This post rounds up four steps based on what Jesus taught about God’s will that answer this question in a very personal way.  No two people will come to the same conclusions after taking these steps.

Step One: Examine Gifts

We are not given equal abilities or identical opportunities.  The unique combination of opportunities and talents that God gave singularly to you is your cosa nostra with God.  It’s something only the two of you share.  The first step for discerning God’s will on an  intimate basis is to acknowledge those gifts given uniquely to you. 

Step Two: Examine Boldness

If scripture is any indication, God doesn’t intend for us to play it safe.  God called an old man to uproot his family with no clear destination, an unwed teen to get pregnant, and his own son to death by torture.  On the other hand, he doesn’t expect us to face life’s challenges alone under our own power.  Those who trust in him receive awesome grace.  “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Matthew 7:7)  The second step is to put your gifts to use in a manner so bold that you are sure to need God’s help.  It glorifies God when we collaborate with him in this way.

Step Three: Examine Compassion

We can use our gifts boldly to lift others up or to cut them down.  Jesus’ ministry of free healing and open table radically challenged cultural norms, and if we dare to follow his example, he leads us to relate to God through relationships with others, including the despised and outcast.  Ask yourself: Am I going about my daily life and work in a way that promotes egalitarianism or in a way that excludes?  Does my daily life and work contribute primarily to the well-being of others or to my bank account?  Do I focus on safety for my inner circle or security for all?  Step three is to exchange attitudes and actions that leave people out or drag them down for attitudes and actions that embrace all and lift people up.

Step Four: Examine Motive

Many of us take right actions without the right frame of mind.  We want credit for going through the right motions, but we stop short of looking at the true motive in our hearts.  Are we driven by unquenchable love and a desire to work in partnership with God?  Or are we racking up credits, paying our dues while banking on a future reward?  Step four is to look on all your daily tasks, important and tedious, as your very personal and unique offering God.

A career in ministry is not the only way to do God’s will or to put talents to a bold and compassionate use.  When we find joy in serving God, even in the small things, and that joy becomes our motive in all we do, we have found new intimacy with God in our daily life and work.

Join the conversation.  Where do you find intimacy with God?

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

Making God’s Will Personal: Step Four-Examine Motives

One can find “cosa nostra” with God by looking to the gifts God gave singularly to her and by putting them to use boldly for the sake of God’s glory and the welfare of her fellow man.  It is possible, however, to take right actions without the right frame of mind.

Jesus’ parable of the prodigal illustrates going through the right motions with the wrong motive.  Both sons love earthly stuff more than serving the father.  One broke the rules and one followed the rules.  The one who followed the rules generally had an easier go if it.  Confronted with the father’s rejoicing upon the prodigal’s return, however, the obedient son’s resentment reveals he was not serving his father out of love and thankfulness for all the father gave.  He wanted earthly rewards for his obedience.

The rule followers among us are especially at risk of failing to recognize a misplaced motive.  We want credit for going through the right motions and for exercising self-control.  Self-control, after all, isn’t easy.  It’s a lot harder than following every whim.  Why does self-control seem to get less reward in the bible than a major failure mea culpa?

Self-control has its own rewards, of course.  Or rather, lack of self-control begets its
own punishment, a la the prodigal.  The real invitation, here, is to examine the true motives in our hearts.  Are we racking up credits, paying our dues banking on a future reward?  Or are we driven by love and desire to share joy with God?

Medieval rabbinic authority Maimonides recognized the dichotomy between actions and motives. He defined degrees of teshuvah.  Often translated “repentance,” teshuvah is the process of turning back to God and it requires sinning to stop.  To stop sinning due to fear of earthly consequences is a lower degree of teshuvah than to stop sinning due to fear of divine consequences after death, which is yet a lower degree of teshuvah than to stop sinning due to a change of heart.  To stop sinning because of love is the highest degree of teshuvah, but it is not required for forgiveness.  Maimonides establishes that lesser modes of rapprochement are fully adequate.  God yearns for love but right actions lead us towards him.

Biographer, novelist, and translator of seventeenth century religious classics H. L. Sindey Lear (1824-1896) suggests the small things are our best training ground for spiritual growth.

“When persons have learnt to look upon the daily course of their ordinary life, with its duties and troubles, however common-place, as their offering to God, and as the safest school for themselves of perfection, they will have made a very important step in the spiritual life.  Another step, so simple that it is often despised, is to do everything, however ordinary, as well as it can possibly be done, for God’s sake.  A third is to be always pressing forward; when a mistake is made, or a fault committed, to face and admit it freely; but having asked God to supply the deficiency caused by our own infirmity, to go on steadfastly and hopefully.”

Join the conversation. What is your daily offering to God?

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

Making God’s Will Personal: Step Two-Examine Boldness

God doesn’t intend for us to play it safe.  He wants us to stretch.  In discerning the will of God on a personal and intimate basis, not only must we recognize that unique combination of gifts given, but also we must put the gifts to bold use.

Jesus’ parable of the talents makes that clear, and the feeding the five thousand (Matthew 14:14-21) shows us how.  In all four gospel accounts, Jesus retreats with his disciples to a remote place for rest and, instead of rest, he is greeted by a great crowd.  Having compassion for them, Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God and heals until late in the day.  The disciples grow concerned about where the next meal will come from and ask Jesus to send everyone away.  Not one to miss an “open table” opportunity, however, Jesus 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 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.  If you think big, God will do the heavy lifting for you, but you have to do some lifting!  The first step is yours, and it is to get working with what you have.

I wonder which would please God more:

(a)    beings who lament, despite the innumerable gifts and opportunities bestowed upon them, paralyzed by uncertainty, pleading for paint-by-numbers instructions; or

(b)   beings who imagine boldly, come up with wild and outlandish ways to use their talents and have faith they will receive serious intervening help?

At the risk of projecting human attributes on God, I imagine he’d be greatly entertained and delighted by the second group.

Scripture indicates it glorifies God when we ask for his help in this way. “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Matthew 7:7) There are no caveats on this scripture.  The passage does not say it will be given to you if only you ask for the right thing.  Undoubtedly we do ask for the
wrong thing at times.  Sometimes we are sorry we got what we wanted.  Other times we’re grateful we received something else instead.  We don’t find out, though, unless we ask.

Many religious traditions encourage jumping into action to avoid squandering the gift of life waiting for perfect circumstances to come along or for perfect clarity.  The great Indian mystic Kabir offers this poetic example:

Do you have a body?
Don’t sit on the porch!  Go out and walk in the rain!

Join the conversation.  How did you make a leap into action even though timing or conditions seemed suboptimal?

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

Making God’s Will Personal: Step One-Examine Gifts

You’re looking for an intimate and deeply personal relationship with God.  The abundance of love spilling out of you fuels a curiosity about what you can do uniquely to please and to delight him.  What should you do?

If you are looking to relate to God in a very personal, singular way, a reasonable starting point is looking at those gifts God gave singularly to you.  We are not given equal abilities.  Jesus’ parable of the talents recounted in Matthew 25 makes that clear.   Further, the parable indicates our talents are not self-generated but entrusted to us for a limited time by God.  Moreover, we are expected to use what we are given.  The worst offense is inaction because of fear.  The slave who buried a talent for safekeeping was cast “into the outer darkness” with “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  This parable does not describe a God who is into playing it safe.  It describes a God who loves boldness and risk-taking.

Yet many of us anguish and are paralyzed by uncertainty as to what God wants us to do.  Sometimes we agonize between two choices that are essentially the same.  “God, should I take the telecommunications software sales job in Santa Clara or the telecommunications software sales job in Ottawa?”  Other times, we face a decision that sets a course in life, a decision that will have long-lasting consequences such as a
career direction or marriage.

Paradoxically, the most gifted among us can suffer the greatest perplexity concerning
vocation.  Many aptitudes can create many choices that can confound decision making.
“Should I lead the consumer subsidiary of a billion dollar corporation or should I start my own company or should I lead the local chapter of a national non-profit?”  The gifted telecom executive who faced that decision now works for Special Olympics of Texas.

Ponder the abundance set before you—the talents you enjoy, the opportunities that have come your way, the love that surrounds you on all sides.  If you had the great fortune of being born in North America, count that.  Is there a gift you have been neglecting?  Is there a talent you resist using?  What is the consequence you fear?  Is it sinking in failure?  Is it rising to success?  Air this out with God.  That unique combination of gifts he gave only to you and your response to them are your cosa nostra with God—“our thing,” just between the two of you.

This pondering is not meant to become an exercise in navel gazing, however.  Scripture suggests God wants us to recognize our gifts, but he wants even more for us to get up and to do something, anything, that is a fruitful and creative response to the gifts.  Our response is our gift back to God.  Santa Clara versus Ottawa doesn’t really matter that much.  Where do the people inspire you most?  Where do you inspire others most?  Which company is the better corporate citizen?  God will give you an abundance of opportunity to love and to serve others either way.  He can’t wait to encourage you there.

Join the conversation.  What gifts have you given God this week?

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