Spiritual Gifts: Bodily Love

self reciprocating love triangleResearching my book, Secrets of Confession: Healing Power Across Traditions, led to a lot of conversations with a lot of people about their experiences of healing.  The conversations I appreciated most were those with recovering addicts, some of whom are now recovery counselors.  Maybe it is the brutal, unflinching honesty of people in recovery that grips me.  I spoke with one counselor whose practice is almost entirely composed of people with sex addictions.  She said the proliferation of smartphones and ubiquitous internet availability allow addicts to consume pornography in almost any setting, even during one-on-one business meetings.  I participated in Celebrate Recovery, a Twelve Step program for recovery from hurts, habits and hang ups, when I was researching the book.  Lest anyone assume pornography and sex addictions are the unique province of men, the number of women struggling with these issues was a real eye opener for me.

Human sexuality is a powerful gift, and it is a gift with which we serve God.  One of our deepest human desires is to know another and to be known deeply, as we truly are.  It is said God’s desire to be known was his impetus for creation, and that our desire to know and to be known is one way we’re made in God’s image.  To know another intimately by means of the whole body is how we experience the wholeness of love as embodied beings.  As Christians, it one of the ways we participate in the self-reciprocating triune love of the Holy Trinity.  And yet some of us fear intimacy.  We simultaneous crave closeness and fear being known as we truly are.  Those conflicting desires can distort our relationship to our own bodies and how we relate physically with others.   Perhaps the most distorted manifestation of these conflicting desires is anonymous sex—knowing without knowing.

An intense sexual desire unaccompanied by love or appreciation for the other as a whole being is lust, one of the seven deadly sins.  The obvious spiritual discipline of abstinence that brings the spiritual gift of bodily love into balance is chastity.  Perhaps less obvious is the spiritual discipline of engagement that can restore balance to this spiritual gift.  It is worship.  Praise through words, symbols and rituals gives honor to God.  Corporate worship is where we meet God as a body of believers.  Expecting everyone in the body to share the same preferences or ideas is like expecting every musician in a symphony to play the same instrument. It is precisely because of our differences and the tensions between us that coming together in worship is such a powerful spiritual phenomenon.  Worship reminds us it’s the differences—between people and between humans and God—that draw us into love.

Chastity, of course, is abstaining from sexual thoughts or actions.  It reminds us of the sanctity of knowing and being known by bodily means, and it also can deepen our appreciation of our partner.  Making space for this deeper understanding to coalesce only enhances our joy in and enjoyment of physical intimacy.

Blessed be
the beds that bring us down
to worship one another
in the night–
Never, oh never naked
enough
to know the
Being of the other                                  ~Lee Pieper

Join the conversation.  What’s your favorite love poem?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit 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.

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.

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.

Obstacles to Intimacy: Fear of Pain

It takes a certain fortitude to bring our full attention to inner inventory.  A tendency to avoid introspection or to cut the search short whenever we embark on it could indicate a fear within us asking to be addressed.

One possibility is fear of pain.  Looking honestly at where we fell short and feeling compassion for people we harmed can be painful.  Avoidance and denial can elude pain in the short term.  We pack painful memories into moving boxes, seal them with duct tape and chunk them into the attics of our psyches.  There they stay.  They might not interfere with day-to-day matters, but they don’t go away, either.  We can’t move on without dealing with them somehow.  We can lug them with us like dead weight or lighten our loads by unpacking them, deciding what needs to be discarded or given away, and choosing only those things of value for our journeys.

It’s often said fear of a thing is worse than the thing itself, and I have found that to be true with unpacking painful memories in introspection.  It’s no accident that Twelve Step programs call for fearlessness in the Fourth Step moral inventory.  Honest introspection is the most fearsome part of the practice of confession.  It helps to remember that the pain we fear can be extremely useful.  When we embrace it, it saves us from treading the same ground again.  When gathered up, it fuels the journey from the place where you were wounded to a place of healing and newness of life.

If you find yourself lingering at the threshold of introspection, you may need a shot of courage.  Ask God for it.  When we ask for God’s help navigating obstacles, we tend to be modest.  There are several reasons we ask for too little.  One is we miss the forest for the trees.  Our fixation on an immediate need or desire blinds us to a deeper trait that leads us repeatedly into distress.  Or we hesitate to ask for what we need because we don’t want to seem too greedy or to take more than our share of God’s mercy.  We ask for too little also because don’t really believe God can or will give what we ask, and doubting God seems safer than trusting him, being vulnerable, or being wrong.  We hedge.

Despite our modesty, scripture indicates nothing delights God more than answering the prayers of those who earnestly seek him.  God’s mercy is boundless.  Your share is not apportioned.  Consider whether you want to be driven by fear or something else.  Stephen Hawking put forward radical ideas about physics.  He wasn’t afraid to be wrong.  If he had been, black hole radiation would not have been discovered.  He was too curious to be held back by fear.  Let curiosity about what God can do in your life lead you forward.  Maybe these verses and breathing prayer will bring you courage for the first step.

7Remember not the sins of my youth, or my transgressions; according to thy
steadfast love remember me, for thy goodness’ sake, O Lord!
15My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for he will pluck my feet out of the net. (Ps 25)

Inhale: curiosity
Exhale: fear

Join the conversation.  Is there anything in your attic that you need to give away?

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.

Sacramental Approach to Intimacy

In the Christian tradition, Lent is known as a season of preparation, discipline and reconciliation. We face our mortality and the course corrections we need.  We exercise self-discipline so we will gain the freedom to change.  And we seek to reconcile ourselves to ourselves, to God and to others.  One practice for doing this is the sacrament of reconciliation.

A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  It is an action imbued with a spiritual reality.  Not all Christians recognize the same sacraments.  The two sacraments Jesus instituted during his life are baptism for the forgiveness of sins and communion for re-calling Christ.  Some Protestant denominations, Methodist and Presbyterian for example, recognize only these two as sacraments.  Baptists practice baptism and communion as outward expressions of faith but they do not believe they confer divine grace as sacraments.  Catholics, Anglicans, and some Orthodox believers, by contrast, recognize these and additional sacraments:  confirmation, ordination, marriage, confession and unction.

The sacrament of reconciliation entails naming one’s sins.  It involves counsel with the person hearing the confession in order to clarify wrongdoing and to assess faith and remorse.  When administered by a priest, the rite concludes with absolution—complete forgiveness and remission of the sins confessed—pronounced by the priest on behalf of God through the power vested in the priest by Jesus Christ for this specific purpose.  When given by a lay person, the rite concludes with an assurance of pardon.

To focus exclusively on forgiveness in the sacrament of reconciliation, however, is to miss a larger point and the point of Jesus’ life.  Jesus came not only to forgive but also to show us a new way to relate to God (new Covenant) and to each other (kingdom of God on earth).  The point is relationship and a fresh start on life.

Obstacles on the way towards newness of life take shapes as varied as humankind itself, and this blog will explore ways to overcome some of them during Lent.  Many obstacles boil down to fear.  Some of us fear intimacy or the vulnerability interwoven with it.  Some of us resist the very relationship for which Christians believe we were created and that Jesus was sent to reclaim.  That resistance transfuses all our relationships.  It limits our ability to have intimacy with others and, indeed, even with self.

The sacrament of reconciliation is about confessing those obstacles in the way of our relationship with God, being freed from them and, most importantly, starting anew.  The sacrament is a celebration.  Although the remembrance of our wrong turns can be painful, reconciliation doesn’t end there.  It is followed by forgiveness and returning to God.  That returning is cause for great rejoicing.  “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.”  (Luke 15:7)

Join the conversation.  Will you make room for God’s creative power to collaborate on your re-creation and renewal?

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