Spiritual Disciplines

spiritual disciplinesDoing something with the mind and body to foster spiritual growth is a timely topic for Christians.  This time between Ash Wednesday and Easter is traditionally a penitential season.  It’s a time Christians look inward and re-think (i.e. repent) some of our choices.  The purpose of introspection and re-thinking is to be able to identify course corrections, however minor or major, to align our life trajectories to our own life goals and to God’s will for each of us, individually.

Course corrections and life changes can be difficult to define and even more difficult to put into effect.  Once we have decided on a change in course, it takes resolve, spiritual fortitude, grace, and often a power greater than ourselves to put it into action.  More than faith or intellectual assent is needed.

5For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, 6and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, 7and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. (2 Peter 1:5-9)

The first few words of this passage tell us a lot.  “You must make every effort to support your faith.”  Note Peter does not say, “Sit back and wait for the miracle.”  God works miracles through the efforts we make.

From a pragmatic perspective, some things are impossible to pull off without practice.  As much as I want to bat .300, simply willing it to be so without any practice or training is a recipe for failure.  Practice makes performance possible.

Spiritual disciplines condition us for the strength needed to break destructive patterns or to step up to positive life change.  Disciplines don’t guarantee life change any more than time in a batting cage guarantees I’ll bat .300, but they make possible what would otherwise be impossible.   Spiritual disciplines do something else very powerful in addition to spiritual conditioning.  The act of doing exposes us to God’s grace.  It is through our doing that God acts, taking what is weak and making it enough.

Dallas Williard’s Spirit of the Disciplines says ancient spiritual disciplines are effective because they engage the body, which Willard describes as the focal point for life.  Any of the disciplines can be practiced in a manner accessible to a beginner.  Those beginning weight training may use small weights.  Those starting endurance training might run short distances.  So it is with spiritual training.

During Lent, this blog will explore a variety of spiritual disciplines.  Like Willard, I encourage an experimental attitude.  What is a lovely practice to recall mindfulness for some can become a mindless practice devoid of meaning for others.  Or worse, it can become distorted for vanity.  My real motive in dieting during Lent may be to become more attractive rather than to find sustenance in God, for example.

Try a variety of practices and notice what works for you.  Remember, though, that practice is not an end in itself.  The purpose of practice is gaining the strength we need to break old patterns that get in the way of our relationship with God.  A strong spiritual condition frees us to choose God’s will in the face of competing cultural currents.  Moreover, spiritual disciplines are means of grace, a medium through which God blesses us and holds us fast.

Join the conversation.  What spiritual disciplines are you thinking about trying?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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Inviting Life Change

Good things are happening in the Resolana unit at the Dallas county jail.  The life skills class continues exploring self-esteem, and last week the discussion centered on making life change actually happen.  Have you heard the joke about the three frogs on a log?  If one decides to jump off, how many frogs are left on the log?  Anybody who has been around Twelve Step programs knows the correct answer is three.  Deciding to make a life change doesn’t necessarily mean one follows through and does it.

How does one actually follow through and make a meaningful life change?  The women learned three steps for doing it: becoming aware, making a choice and making a plan.  There were some heart-felt moments and also some laughs as the women described becoming aware of things they want to change.  One woman realized something needed to change in her relationship with a sibling.  She had always thought their relationship was great, but within the past week she recognized how her sibling’s addiction reinforced her own addictive behavior patterns, and she acknowledged something needed to change to protect herself from relapse.  Her mother had long cautioned her about that relationship, but she hadn’t understood her mother’s concern.  Another woman seemed almost unsure of herself as she revealed awareness she has an anger problem, whereupon there were stifled chuckles among others aware of that already.  That led to a humorous recognition that when we come into awareness of something we need to change, the people around us may be well acquainted with that need and, furthermore, be willing to offer us support in making those changes.

The women tended to gloss over the second step—identifying the choices we have once we become aware—but they also came to see its power.  Status quo is an option.  Changing is an option.  It is important to embrace the full spectrum of choices available.  If we give short shrift or write off options, we are in danger of making a premature (i.e. not fully considered) decision.  Giving all our options their full due, no matter how unappealing or unattainable they may seem, makes our choices conscious choices.

The last step is where the webbed toes meet the bark.  It’s the action plan delineating what we will do that is different than what we did before.  The more detailed it is, the better prepared we will be to exhibit different behavior in the heat of a stressful moment.  The women’s comments on this step revealed the true depth of their commitment to changing their lives.

Perhaps most touching of all was the awareness breakthrough for some inmates. Followers familiar with my book manuscript about the healing power of confession know how passionate I am about the hard work of honest introspection.  Some of us have been around the block.  We know our material cold.  The truth, though, is that this posture is a defensive mechanism, something that protects us from discovering something true about our vulnerable selves.  No matter how happy or content we feel in our present circumstances, honest introspection and greater self-awareness have the potential to bring us greater peace.

Join the conversation.  What is your secret for converting decisions into action?

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

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.

Haven’t I Changed Enough?

Several years ago, a friend went on a medical mission to Honduras.  Hundreds of eye glasses had been donated for the mission, and my friend’s job was to dispense the glasses to Hondurans who needed them.  The process for doing so was not unlike what an optometrist does, administering a piecewise test comparing lens A and B repeatedly until narrowing in upon the optimal correction.  The difference was the glasses were organized for that piecewise comparison rather than a medical instrument.  My friend’s biggest challenge was once a Honduran had the first pair of glasses on, he was so awed by the improvement that he would stand up to leave, hugging and thanking her profusely, without trying any other glasses.  My friend struggled through the language difference to explain that the first pair is just the starting point, and what she intended to give was much better still!

Once we have mustered the courage to make a big life change, we can be like the Honduran with the first pair of glasses.  We are awed by how much better we can see and by all the new things we are able to do as a result.  The life change is thrilling.  Often we don’t realize this is just the starting point.  We don’t see that God intends much more for us.

After shaking one or two seriously harmful habits or patterns, it is tempting to feel we’re not perfect but we’re good enough.  We set a low standard for ourselves and rationalize it as humility.  To err is human.  It’s hubris to try to be perfect.  Some of us believe the struggle to make the right choices is central to the human condition, and that as long as we’re earnestly struggling, we’re following the playbook.  No one is going to bat 1000.  While that’s true, no athlete logs time in a batting cage for the sake of training time.  Rather, athletes practice to improve performance.  We shouldn’t struggle for the sake of struggling or acknowledge how we should act without actually doing it.  We also need practice to improve our choices.

This brings us face-to-face with the profound difference between intellectual assent to an ideal and earnest intent to become what God wants us to be.  The “What Would Jesus Do?” movement popularized among Christian youth groups in the 1990s has been criticized and parodied, but it clearly makes the point that ultimately actions, not ideals, matter.  When my choices fall short, there are consequences.  Certainly there are consequences for myself, but God also is present to those consequences.  He gives many gifts.  All I had to do was reach out and lay my hand upon the abundance he offered, yet I was blind, distracted, or focused on the wrong thing.  I reject a gift, and a chance to give God a reciprocal gift, when I accept struggling as good enough instead of doing the next right thing.

Join the conversation.  What change in your life looked like a destination but turned out to be a starting point?

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

Courage to Change

Courage is not so much feeling brave while doing something heroic as doing what you have to do even though you are terrified.  This is a reader comment on a story of true courage in a dramatic escape from domestic violence from fellow blogger, Cathy’s Voice Now.  I commend it to all readers!   

It is presently the time in the Jewish calendar known as the Counting of the Omer.  It’s the time between Passover, when Jews were freed from bondage in Egypt, to Sinai, when they received the Ten Commandments.  Lyrically described as a journey from the sea of freedom to the mountain of responsibility, it reminds us that freedom and responsibility go together.  Cathy ends her post with the perfect poem to punctuate this reality, so I share it here.   

Autobiography In Five Short Chapters by Portia Nelson

Chapter One
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.

Chapter Two
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place
but, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter Three
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
My eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter Four
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter Five
I walk down another street.

Join the conversation.  Is there a hole in your sidewalk calling you to life change?

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

Spiritual But Not Religious: the Way or the Church?

It’s often remarked that any institution is principally concerned with its own survival as an institution.  Perhaps this remark is made concerning religious institutions more than any other.  Mark Twain wrote in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:

Concentration of power in a political machine is bad; and an Established Church is only a political machine; it was invented for that; it is nursed, cradled, preserved for that; it is an enemy to human liberty, and does no good which it could not better do in a split-up and scattered condition.

Jews did exactly that – split up and scattered—after the destruction of the first temple.  In making the move to diaspora over edifice, the kitchen table replaced the alter table and Jews looked simply to the Torah as the Way.  The temple was reconstructed, however, and came to represent the institutionalization of authority and codes of conduct that Jesus rebelled against.  Much has changed over the millennia, and it is now Christians who have priests, alters, and lines of institutional authority.  And some things haven’t changed.  Codes of conduct fuel splintering divisiveness in religious communities today.

Standing in contrast to the hierarchical structure of many religious traditions, the Twelve Step tradition is starkly egalitarian in nature.  The enduring success of Twelve Step programs can be attributed not only to steps that capture a spiritual essence shared by many faith traditions but also to organizational philosophy.  A.A. is a self-organized, self-supported “fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.”  The A.A. support organization assiduously avoids religious, political or ideological affiliation.  There are no dues or formal membership, so the number of participants isn’t known.  The best estimate is 2 million members.  Its operating structure has been described variously as an “inverted pyramid” with no top-down authority and as “benign anarchy” by one of its founders.  Even in meetings, there are guiding principles but no leaders.  Everyone enters with equal authority.

Theologian and Rabbi Shais Taub writes movingly of the theology reflected in the Twelve Steps.  When asked whether it is in agreement with Jewish theology, he says, “The answer I usually give is not only that is there nothing in the Twelve Steps that is problematic from a Jewish perspective, but also that the Twelve Steps can actually help Jews to better understand their own God.”  I have observed the same to be true for Christians.  There are those who left the church for the Twelve Steps because they just couldn’t get there—to spiritual awakening or profound life change—with what the church offered.  Truly for those, the Twelve Steps were the Way.

The question—the Way or the Church—is particularly germane following yesterday’s announcement of a Vatican crackdown on US nuns.  Along with the recent Catholic involvement in political discourse, the move appears to elevate institutional authority over compassion for the poor and powerless.  Here is the article’s poignant conclusion:

“I don’t know any more holy people,” [canon lawyer and former dean of Duqesne Law School Nick] Cafardi said of American religious sisters. “I see a lot more holiness in the convents than I see in the chancery.”

Join the conversation.  What attachments is your faith community willing to surrender to follow the Way?

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