Spiritual Conditioning for a New Way

spiritual conditioningAlthough this series on spiritual gifts is drawing to a close with the end of Lent and celebration of Easter, our time with spiritual disciplines need not, and should not, be put on hold for another year.  Jesus’ time in the desert strengthened and conditioned him for his ministry.  His time in the desert had a purpose beyond time in the desert.  So, too, does our practice of spiritual disciplines have a purpose beyond the practice itself.

If you have taken the occasion of Lent to search yourself out and to identify the course corrections you need in your life journey, I am talking especially to you.  Searching yourself out isn’t easy, of course.  Especially if you’re honest.  I commend you for that.  Kudos.  If the product of your searching is to make life changes, an even greater challenge may lie ahead of you.  You may need spiritual conditioning now more than ever.

That’s where the rubber meets the road with spiritual disciplines.  They strengthen our spiritual condition so we’re able to act in a new way.  The tough hold sin has on us demands an equally a tough spiritual conditioning plan.  Our practice should be guided by the sins that threaten us most.  This table summarizes the spiritual gifts, that when distorted, manifest as the seven deadly sins.  It includes the spiritual disciplines of engagement that counteract sins of omission and the spiritual disciplines of abstinence that counteract sins of commission this blog has explored in recent weeks.

Spiritual Gift

Distorted Gift     (Deadly Sin)

Discipline of Engagement

Discipline of   Abstinence

Free Will

Greed

Prayer

Silence

Rest

Sloth

Study

Frugality

Sustenance

Gluttony

Celebration

Fasting

Embodiment

Envy

Service

Sacrifice

Justice

Wrath

Fellowship

Solitude

Bodily Love

Lust

Worship

Chastity

Self Love

Pride

Submission

Secrecy

The spiritual disciplines are supported by infinite grace, but like any physical conditioning program, they require planning and effort.  For someone blessed with a large family, solitude and silence don’t happen on their own.  They must be scheduled.  The more conscientious our planning effort, the more endurance and strength we will command in the moments we need them most.  There’s a scriptural basis for the physical conditioning analogy.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that distracts so easily, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1)

Spiritual conditioning can be like a physical conditioning program in another way:  what at first seems onerous or arduous may grow into something enjoyable.   I wish you perseverance and joy on your journey into a new way of being.

Join the conversation.  What spiritual disciplines have helped you with the changes you needed most?

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

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Spiritual Gifts: Self Love

self love is accepting God's lovePride is the big kahuna of the seven deadly sins.  It is said to be the root of all the others.  Although pride is sometimes characterized as self-love taken to excess, it is often actually a deficit of self-love or self-esteem that underlies prideful actions.  We compensate for inner feelings of inadequacy with outward expressions of bravado.

In either case, the greatest of all sins, pride, is a distortion of the greatest of all spiritual gifts:  self-love.  Christians look to the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as the model of self-reciprocating love that permeates creation.  If the religious language of the Trinity doesn’t speak to you, try getting in touch with the love percolating throughout the universe—the love of life that keeps us going and creating.  The spiritual disciplines of engagement and abstinence that bring the spiritual gift of self-love into balance are submission and secrecy.

Ooooohhhhh, how I dislike the idea of submission.  It’s clear why submission is the least appealing of all the disciplines to the pride.  I’m not the submissive type, I guess.  I did, however, experiment with this discipline, and to my own great astonishment, I think it brought me greater joy than any other spiritual discipline I have practiced.  Truly.  Submission is serving by example or submitting humbly to the oversight of others, and it is the highest form of fellowship.  It elevates others and in so doing glorifies God.

When I undertook this discipline, I couldn’t see my way clear to submit humbly to oversight from another.  I just didn’t seem to have that kind of relationship with anyone, so I went the serve by example route.  My daughter Grace was 4 years old, and who wouldn’t enjoy fellowship with a little Grace?  It seemed like a low risk approach.  I made it my aim to serve her by example in a few small things.  It required only a little extra self-awareness and intentional effort on my part, and her response was so innocently magnificent, it was a sheer delight.  Now, you might say I did not aim very high (or low, as the case may be) with the submission thing, and I would not argue that point with you one bit.  I would argue, however, that it illustrates the principle that any of the spiritual disciplines can be practiced in a manner accessible to a beginner.  I may be a submission neophyte, but I tried it and I learned something and I was changed for the better.

Whereas submission is a discipline of engagement, secrecy involves abstinence, and it is as subversive as it sounds.  Avoiding recognition for a good deed puts our PR department in God’s hands.  We learn to enjoy being unknown and even to accept being misunderstood in peace.  Misunderstandings become our cosa nostra with God, our little inside scoop.   Above all, secrecy teaches us to serve for love alone.

So here’s the invitation:  love God loving you loving him loving you.  The apostle Paul proclaims there’s no escape from God’s love:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

Join the conversation.  How can you participate more fully in the self-reciprocating love being offered to you?

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

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.

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.

Spiritual Gifts: Sustenance

hungry We’re reaching pretty low in Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs again this week with the spiritual gift of sustenance.  Literally, SUSTENANCE deals with necessities that support life:

1a: means of support, maintenance, or subsistence : living
b: food, provisions; also: nourishment
2a: the act of sustaining
b: a supplying or being supplied with the necessaries of life
3: something that gives support, endurance, or strength

Despite how highly evolved as a species we like to think we are, our lizard brains still crave what was scarce early in our evolution—sweets and fats.  Our hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands release chemical messengers commanding our bodies to eat as much as possible of this stuff when we find it and to store the energy for leaner times that are sure to come.

Lean times predominate for many people on this planet we all share.  Some don’t have enough to sustain life.  The number of children under 5 years old dying from malnutrition daily would fill seventeen 747 airplanes.  One airplane crash grabs headlines for weeks.  Teams of experts spare no expense finding the root cause to ensure it never happens again, but plane loads of toddlers  die hungry every day without so much as our notice.  Meanwhile, Americans eat enough extra calories every day to feed an additional 80 million people.  The problem for us in the US is brain chemistry maladapted to lean times that never come.

We can tip the spiritual gift of sustenance out of balance by sins of omission—ignoring others’ or our own needs—and by sins of commission—taking more than we need.  The obvious spiritual discipline of abstinence that counteracts gluttony, to use seven deadly sins language, is fasting.  Perhaps the best all-around spiritual practice for taming the will, fasting especially leads us to recognize our dependence on God.  We learn to see the great abundance set before us, and we can learn respect and moderation concerning all natural desires.  Fasting requires practice for proficiency, however.  A growling stomach, if one is unaccustomed to it, can hijack attention, and we can find ourselves spending every moment of our fast planning what we’ll eat when it’s over.  Many Lent observers abstain from a few favorite foods as more manageable reminders of how abundantly God sustains us.

The spiritual discipline of engagement that brings focus to the gift of sustenance is celebration.  Enjoyment of pleasure in conjunction with faith and confidence in God give us an opportunity to recognize our life and pleasure as gifts to us.  Jesus worked his first miracle at a celebration.  Engaging in celebration as a spiritual discipline is about fully enjoying simple things rather than extravagant consumption at the expense of others.  The point is to have some fun, for God’s sake!

Reaching higher in Maslow’s hierarchy, we have other needs—safety, belonging, love, respect, self-esteem—and God sustains us in many of these ways, too.   For today, though, let’s give thanks for food.

Join the conversation.  How do you balance your need for food with the needs of others?

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

Spiritual Gifts: Rest

sloth laziness or restSome of the inmates I work with in the Dallas County jail have homelessness in their life stories.  It is hard to get a job, to receive government assistance, or to save anything—even a few scraps of food—without an address.  One woman who hasn’t had a place for seven or so years recently said something that affected me profoundly.  She said that when you live on the streets for a while, sometimes you do things you really don’t want to do just to be able to lie down for a few hours.

Rest.  Rest is in the lowest reaches of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  In addition to being the most basic of human physiological needs, rest is holy.  If humans are made in God’s image, the enjoyment of rest is one of the most primal ways in which we resemble God.  Our Jewish brothers and sisters take the holiness of rest incredibly seriously.

And yet there’s a counter cultural element to rest, or even to slowing down.  Some of us fill every waking moment with busy-ness in response to cultural messages urging us to keep working and to work ever harder to get ahead.  Sometimes we overfill our time with busy-ness to avoid ourselves, our families or God, all the while congratulating ourselves on what hard workers we are.  I posit that habitual overscheduling as an avoidance mechanism is a sin of omission, as paradoxical as that might sound.  It neglects time scheduled specifically for meeting ourselves and God in rest.

We can find ourselves drawn out of balance in the other direction, too.  Those who enjoy a life of leisure run the risk of taking rest for granted, missing opportunities for gratitude or doing too little.  Resisting action can manifest as laziness, or in seven deadly sins parlance, sloth.  It reflects indifference to the gifts entrusted to us.  We could also characterize a reluctance to put our talents into action as a sin of omission, avoids a right use of our blessings.

The discipline of engagement that counteracts laziness is study.  Study offers opportunities to hear the word of God.  When we recognize God as revealed in scripture, we are equipped to see his work in the lives of others and in community, history and nature.  Moreover, we are equipped to act.  Try studying something you disagree with rather than something that reinforces what you already believe.  We work harder to perceive when we’re drawn into tension by differing views.  It helps us hear the still small voice amid our own well-rehearsed lines.

The discipline of abstinence that counteracts excessive busy-ness is frugality.  There are a couple of flavors.  Frugality is abstaining from spending for status, glamour or luxury.  Simplicity is a form of frugality centered on a few principles, and poverty is the rejection of all possessions.  In any form, the idea is to find our sustenance in grace rather than in material things.  In addition to releasing attachments to things, we might also ponder attachments to ideas we hold about ourselves or about others.  Ideas about self-worth in particular may be ripe for release.

I leave you with a traditional Episcopal prayer for quiet confidence.

O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and in confidence shall be our strength:  By the might of thy Spirit lift us, we pray thee, to thy presence, where we may be still and know that thou art God.

Join the conversation.  Where do you find your strength and confidence?

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

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.