Spiritual Gifts: Justice

reconciliation and forgiveness with shadow selfThere are a few questions I can count on when I do forgiveness workshops, whether I am working with church parishioners, teens or women in jail.  One is, “Do I have to tell wrongdoers I forgive them?”  Despite a genuine desire for forgiveness, there’s a part of us that wants to keep them on the hook.  Resentment is such a powerful idea, we want the ones who did us wrong to think they’re under a cloud of resentment even if they’re not.

One of the reasons forgiveness is difficult, and there are many, is that our sense of justice craves accountability.  People should be held accountable for their bad deeds.  If no one else is holding my wrongdoer to account, if it appears she is waltzing off scot free, then forgiveness challenges my sense of justice.  I may feel I deserve release from my own poisonous resentment, but he doesn’t deserve to be forgiven.  I may want retribution for him but restoration for me.

Wrath—vengeful anger with a claim to retribution—is one of the seven deadly sins.  It’s what happens when our natural desire for justice veers towards retribution rather than restoration.  The spiritual disciplines of engagement and abstinence that bring our desire for justice into alignment with God’s will are fellowship and solitude.

In fellowship, we discover, are annoyed by, and eventually appreciate the great diversity of gifts and graces possessed by fellow souls.  Befriending others sustains the community, which in turn, sustains us.  The mutual care is an antidote against by-standing when justice demands we take a stand.  Moreover, when we endure irritations and aggravations, we discover just how nourishing the tokens of relationship can be—not despite our failings, but because of them, because God is present there.

In solitude, retreat from people allows us to appreciate them in new ways and to consider whether we treat them right or love them enough.  Retreat from secular influences and responsibilities inclines us to prioritize God’s will.  Creating space for solitude affords a perspective that reveals the primacy of relationship, though fraught with human frailties, because God is present there.

Reconciliation—whether between people, between groups of people, or within oneself—requires surrendering attachments in order to restore relationship.  Our most persistent attachments are our ideas about our own identity, but we can also have powerful attachments to anger and resentment, to ideas about who deserves what and to particular behavior patterns.  Anyone who has tried salvaging a relationship with an addict can attest to the wreckage visited on relationships due to the inability to surrender attachments to drugs or alcohol.  When I search myself in preparation for the sacrament of reconciliation with God, I find ideas about myself that are past their expiration date.  They’re tough to surrender, even after I see they’re obstacles to my relationship with God and my own inner peace.

It takes spiritual conditioning to be able to recognize the primacy of relationship and, moreover, to have the spiritual fortitude to surrender attachments that get in the way.  The spiritual practices of fellowship and solitude can strengthen our spiritual condition.

Join the conversation.  What steers your conceptualization of justice towards retribution or towards restoration?

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

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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.

A Time for Re-thinking

We are approaching Advent, the beginning of the Christian liturgical year.  You would never guess it by the red cups at Starbucks and commercial hubbub proclaiming the holiday shopping season, but Advent is traditionally a penitential season.  It is a time for reflecting on the past year and deciding what course corrections we need, not unlike Elul in the Jewish tradition.

The Jewish tradition offers a framework for pursuing this re-thinking of past choices, and the Hebrew name for it is teshuvah.  Literally it means “turning back” to God.  Participants in my Reconciliation Workshop for Episcopalians rank the teshuvah discussion highest.  Many Christians wondering how to repent find teshuvah to be a useful framework.  Although highly individual, teshuvah nominally consists of five elements.

Recognition:  Recognizing sin as sin requires intellectual assent to a moral compass, or awareness of right and wrong.  Awareness is key.  Someone who grew up in a house full of gossip may not immediately recognize the sinfulness of the evil tongue.  When undertaken seriously, introspection involves not only recognizing wrongdoing but also delving into the motives that drive patterns of action.

Remorse:  Once we see the moral failure in our thoughts and actions, after we have cast aside blame and have assumed full responsibility for our own acts, it is natural to feel regret for them.  We might feel a separation from God.  We might even feel a separation from ourselves, or the self we hope to be.  Actions count more than feelings in the Jewish tradition, so it is significant that this feeling finds such a prominent place in this process.  Remorse is important because it signals a change of heart.  It’s the very seed of transformation, and God plants it.

Restitution:  An apology expresses regret whereas restitution restores justice.  Restitution may be as simple as an earnest apology.  If a pattern of destruction caused repeated or serious harm, restitution may require concerted effort and expense.  Leviticus 6:5 established restitution as the amount of damages plus 20%.  In Luke 19:8, notorious Jericho tax collector Zacchaeus turns to Jesus and declares, “If I have defrauded anyone of anything I will pay back four times as much.”  His declaration would have impressed hearers in his day as extraordinary restitution.

Resisting Wrongdoing:  The single action that can do the most to mend fractured relationships is to stop causing harm.  Sometimes this step is delineated as two separate steps, with resolving never to commit the offense in the future as a separate step, much as the Twelve Steps delineate readiness for Gods help to change as a separate step from asking for God’s help to change.  Although all the elements of teshuvah are required, desisting from wrongdoing is regarded as the most difficult and most important.

Confession:  There are many rabbinic traditions for confession.  Some recognize inserting one’s personal confession of sins into the liturgy at the proper moments in the community ritual.  Others encourage a private confession to God in prayer in addition to ritual confession.  Some insist on speaking the confession aloud, as our thoughts crystalize when articulated verbally, and words take on weight or their own when spoken.  Christians also recognize several traditions for confession, including confession in community before communion and individual private confession spoken aloud to another person. Many traditions recognize profound healing power in confession.

Join the conversation.  When do you make time for re-thinking the year gone by?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Learn more at http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Forgiving Myself

Recent posts have focused on responsibility and compassion as the secret keys unlocking forgiveness.  But what if the person I need to forgive is me?  What if I don’t feel accepted and loved—by myself, God or anybody else?  How do I find the place where honest introspection feels safe so that taking responsibility and finding compassion for myself are even possible?  

An adroit Beliefnet commenter shared a great insight in response to a post on shame.  Pastorsrus said, “Most do pretty well in loving God (although that love can be distorted because of life experience) and somewhat well in terms of loving others. Most fail miserably at loving themselves.”  And she concludes, “In short, people need to see themselves from God’s perspective, through His eyes.” 

Her insight harmonizes with the approach previous posts contemplated to forgive unremorseful offenders.  Namely, get the offender (in this case, myself) out of the center of the matter and put God there instead.  Rather than focusing on what I deserve, I can focus on what God desires.  Does God want to punish me for all the ways I fall short and miss the mark?  Or is God hoping and waiting for me to turn to him, and in so doing to turn away from the earthly cares that pull me down and away from him?  What kind of relationship will this be? 

What we believe about God informs how we relate to him, so part of the journey entails exploring our beliefs and coming into an understanding, or a deeper understanding, of God.  That will be the topic for the next series of posts, but let it suffice here to look to the analogy Jesus used—that of God as a forgiving parent.  

All summer, my youngest daughter has been persistently breaking all of the few house rules we have.  Do I sit tapping my fingers waiting for the next infraction so that I can leap into punishment?  No, I hope against hope that she will choose to cooperate with her family.  Frankly, we’ve all grown weary of escalating consequences that impact everyone around her, limiting her sisters’ fun to some degree and making more work for parents to enforce than for kids to endure. 

What does God do when we make bad choices?  Scripture does not say whether God gets frustrated or disappointed or exhausted or crestfallen like human parents.  It does say God never stops seeking us, continually giving us grace in his infinite love, and that he is overjoyed by our turning to him.  Christians believe Jesus came into the world to save sinners, helping them return to relationship with God.  On that basis, reconciliation is the whole point of Christianity. 

Reconciliation and healing are mysterious processes.  While we can’t summon them like a twinkie out of a vending machine, we can take concrete steps to expose ourselves to God’s healing power.  Hope arrives when we decide God’s desires for us are more important than what we think we deserve.  When we put God’s desires first and surrender to his unending desire for relationship with us individually, surely we are on the path to healing and self-love.  

Join the conversation.  How have you released resentment and found compassion for yourself?

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