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: 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: Embodiment

mother teresa service and sacrifice

A portrait of service and sacrifice

We live in a material world, in physical bodies that depend on material things for continued existence.  We need air to breathe and water to drink, preferably clean enough not to cause bodily harm.  We need clothes and shelter to protect us from harsh weather.  We need a safe place to sleep.  We on occasion need medical care.  Some of us don’t have enough and some of us take way more than we need.

Our natural dependence on and desire for material things easily drift to excess.  Our culture seems to celebrate excess.  Worse is a winner-take-all attitude or a scarcity mindset, wherein if you have enough, there’s not enough for me.  Disdain for another’s good is the deadly sin of envy.

The spiritual disciplines of engagement and abstinence that bring our relationship with material things into balance are service and sacrifice.  Sacrifice takes frugality several steps further in giving up what we need and also giving up the security of being able to meet our needs.  Abundance can be distracting.  A recent New York Times article decried possessions possessing us.  Abandoning our needs to God has a way of quieting the distractions.

Acknowledging and responding to the material needs of others in service sheds a fresh perspective on our own needs and abundance.   It inclines us towards gratitude, and more importantly, it’s how we collaborate with God.  I’ve noticed service is how God answers prayers, too.  There’s an urban myth about an earnest young seeker going through something of a dark night of the soul.  His friends seem to enjoy intimacy with God, while he wrestles with belief in God at all.  He prays a familiar petition, “God, if you are there, please give me a sign, and I’ll do anything!”

When driving home one night, the dejected young man gets an odd impulse to turn a different way, the story goes.  “God, is that you?  I’ll do it.”  After ending up in a bad part of town, he gets an odder impulse to buy milk.  “This is crazy, but I’ll do it.”  A door in a run-down apartment complex catches his eye.  “I am not knocking on that door.  This isn’t just crazy, it’s dangerous!”  Against his better judgment, he sets the milk on the door mat, knocks and hustles back to his car.  A disheveled man answers and starts yelling.  Frightened, the young man looks back.  A woman carrying a crying baby runs towards him.  “We ran out of money, and we prayed for an angel to bring milk for our baby.”  That’s the story.  A fearful, unbelieving angel’s prayer was answered not in an earthquake or fire or a great wind but in a humble act of service.

19th Century priest and writer James Smetham urged his readers to believe in God’s abundance.

I hope this may be the happiest year of your life, as I think each succeeding year of everybody’s life should be, if only everybody were wise enough to see things as they are; for it is certain that there really exists, laid up and ready to hand, for those who will just lay hands upon it, enough for everyone and enough forever.

Join the conversation.  What keeps you from drifting to material excess?

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.

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.