Spiritual Gifts: Free Will

in God's image with free will to chooseThe so-called seven deadly sins represent natural gifts distorted or taken to unhealthy extremes.  Distorted behaviors upset the balance of relationships with others, with God and within oneself.  Spiritual disciplines are designed to bring these natural gifts back into proper spiritual proportion.

Lent is a good time to examine our gifts and whether they are in balance or manifesting as sins. The Christian tradition teaches disciplines of engagement to counteract sins of omission and disciplines of abstinence to counteract sins of commission.  Accordingly, each post during Lent will examine a discipline of engagement and a discipline of abstinence appropriate for bringing one of the “seven deadly sins” into balance as the natural gift it was intended to be.

Our free will to love and to create is perhaps our greatest spiritual gift and the
foremost way in which we’re created in God’s image.  We are free to seek God’s will or to choose our own way.  When distorted, the gift of free will can lead to the sin of greed.  The discipline of engagement that counteracts ignoring God’s will is prayer.  The discipline of abstinence that counteracts greed is silence.

I live in a neighborhood where the electricity goes out if the wind blows the wrong way.  If you’ve experienced an electrical outage, you may recall the sensation of all the motors in your house going quiet, and you might even become aware of electronics that run largely without your notice.  I generally notice the sound of the HVAC, but I rarely notice the fans whirring in my refrigerator or my PC or my monitor’s soft buzz until that crack of static before they cease.

My brain is a little like that.  There are processes whirring that I am not altogether conscious of—trifling anxieties about a presentation, mental notes on my schedule, little calculations of when I must finish one task to be on time for the next.  All of these run in the background when I’m concentrating on something.  And often it’s only when I stop thinking that I notice this interior noise.

Some are able to summon interior quietude amidst a cacophony, but I find a quiet environment helps me silence my thoughts.  It is in this silence that we are most apt to hear God.  When Elijah hides from the Israelites (and, incidentally, from the Lord also), God seeks him out.

He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake;and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. (1 Kings 19:11-12)

Sometimes God appears to us in fantastic phenomena, but for most of us most of the time, we find God, who has been seeking us all along, in sheer silence.

If prayer is a two way conversation with God, at some point, we have to stop talking and start listening.  A discipline of silence will help us hear.

Join the conversation.  How do you quiet the processes whirring in your mind?

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

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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.