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.

Fourth and Fifth Step Healing

“The First Step was easy.  If I’ve gotta do all twelve, then the Second and Third can go pretty quick too, whatever they mean.  But Step Four, that’s where the real work starts.”  The Fourth Step is a searching and fearless moral inventory, and the Fifth Step is admitting aloud the exact nature of one’s wrongs to another human being and to God.

I asked one recovery seeker about his biggest obstacle starting the Fourth Step, and he laughed, “The Fourth Step dread that formed instantaneously the very first time I laid eyes on the Twelve Steps!”  Another recovery seeker, focusing on the quickest possible cure, bought one Twelve Step guide and did the first three steps, but the guide didn’t provide a simple prescription for the Fourth Step.  He bought a second book and did the same.  Disappointed in how the second book approached the Fourth Step, he got a third book.  After repeated disappointment, he realized there was no quick Fourth Step answer.  It had to come from within himself, not from a guide.

Both responses are utterly human.  This blog’s regulars will recall the fable of Sufi Mullah Nasruddin and his house key.  Nasruddin searches frantically for the key to his house outside under a lamp post.  His neighbors come to his aid, and after hours of searching, one asks where he was when he lost the key.  Nasruddin replies he lost it in his house. The neighbor asks, “Why are you looking outside?” Nasruddin responds, “Because the light is better out here under the lamp.”

Like Nasruddin, we find it infinitely easier to analyze external conditions than to take a candid look inward.  Healing, however, requires us to leave the light of the lamp post and to go deep into the darkness of our own houses.  What impedes our journey is less fear of what anyone else will think of us than fear of what introspection will bring to light for ourselves.  As we embark on introspection, the prospect of facing our less than best moments is uncomfortable.  For those who suspect that they won’t like (or can’t live with) the person they find, it is terrifying.  If I have negotiated an uneasy peace with my past, introspection might feel like opening Pandora’s box.

Some report the work of introspection, although painful and exhausting, to be cathartic.  They want to get the ugly secrets they have been hiding exposed to the light of day.  Where the Fourth Step can feel cathartic, the Fifth Step can be intensely emotional.  “Acknowledged in AA literature as one of the most difficult steps to take (and one often avoided), the Fifth Step is also one of the most necessary to long term sobriety and genuine peace of mind,” observes one Twelve Step guide. The guide quotes a life-long Roman Catholic, a priest who had experienced the religious sacrament of confession innumerable times, about his experience of confession in the Fifth Step:

In retrospect, I associate it with a turning point in my life: an experience of inner healing, an event that revealed to me a loving God who had always been so near and yet so far.

Join the Conversation.  Which of the Twelve Steps do you think is hardest?

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

Spiritual Steps to Life Change

Easter celebrations bring an end to Lent, a season many Christians observe with contemplation and disciplines designed to prepare ourselves for the newness of life that Christ’s resurrection promises to all who surrender themselves to God.  A relatively small subset of Christians practice introspection and confession in particular as powerful steps toward making needed course corrections in life.

In contrast to ancient religious practices, another influential and well-established tradition offers a more contemporary take on practices for finding life change and spiritual awakening.  The tradition is spiritual but not religious, and celebrated Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr describes it as “America’s most significant and authentic contribution to the history of spirituality.”  It is the Twelve Step tradition pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous.

Every year, millions of Twelve Step recovery seekers embark on a searching and fearless moral inventory and admit their wrongs aloud to God and another human being as essential steps towards profound life change.  What do these recovery seekers know about spiritual transformation that millions of religious seekers don’t?  A lot, as it turns out.

First is that life change starts with recognizing the limits of our own power.  Consider the difference between a religious seeker who approaches introspection believing he had the power to make better choices (but simply chose not to) and a Twelve Step seeker who acknowledges that his defects of character took away his power to make better choices.  Although we can find a false sense of security in our own power, it leads us towards unrealistic expectations for ourselves (and unwarranted derision).

The second thing Twelve Step recovery seekers know is that life change is possible but only with God’s power.  Some religious seekers don’t really believe in the transformation that is being offered to them, or they walk away from confession unchanged but determined to make better choices in the future without genuinely depending on God’s power to make them.  Acknowledging that God has this power, that we don’t have to change through sheer force of will alone, is the kernel of hope for healing.

The third thing recovery seekers know is that we have to create a power vacuum in order to make space for God’s power to enter, and that actually relying on God’s power instead of will power is incredibly difficult.  Relying on one’s own will is easy.  I want what I want, after all.  Being demanding or strong-willed about what I want takes little strength of character.  Laying down my will, conversely, takes enormous spiritual strength.  Religious seekers sometimes approach God in search of a little auxiliary power without taking the difficult step of creating the power vacuum.  They may want God to be almighty, but on their terms.

These three truths align to the first three steps of the Twelve Steps.  Like the first three, the remaining steps outline a path to healing, life change and spiritual awakening that is much more specific and instructive than much of what religious doctrine offers.

Join the conversation.  Do you think God cares or do you actually trust God’s care?

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

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.

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.