Inner Inventory: 4 Types of Choices

As free will beings, everything we do is a matter of choice, whether conscious or not.  Gossip may be a conscious choice for one person who knows it’s harmful but an unconscious habit for another with less awareness.  Thus, we need an approach to introspection that gathers obvious choices and brings more subtle ones into our awareness.  This is the first of a 4-part series outlining a structured method for taking this kind of inner inventory.  The series will prompt those engaging in introspection to consider their choices in four categories:  active choices, reactive choices, passive choices, and non-choices.

The first type, active choices, are the obvious wrong choices we made when better alternatives were available and within reach.  Broken promises and commandments, intentional harm to someone (including intentional harm to self), missed opportunities because of laziness, and misused opportunities are examples.  I would include the early stages of an addiction, when I still had the power to make a choice and I chose the destructive path.  Serving my own needs and desires ahead of another’s in a way that left bruises belongs here, along with just about any willfulness that resulted in unfairness, disrespect or injury.

There is Jewish teaching, I believe from Medieval times and alert readers please correct me if I am mistaken about that, concerning the “evil tongue.”  A woman searching her conscience to make teshuvah in preparation for Yom Kippur confronted her gossip about a neighbor.  Struggling with how it was possible to make amends for her actions, she consulted the local rabbi, who told her to go home, to get a pillow, to go up to her roof, and to shake all the feathers out before returning to him.  Perplexed but full of remorse, she did as he instructed and watched the wind carry the feathers in seemingly all directions for miles and miles.  She went back to the rabbi and asked him what to do next.  He then told her that gathering up all the feathers would be easier than gathering up hurtful words carried by the evil tongue.

Our childhood choices may be less harmful, silly even, but if a memory stands out for you, capture it here.  Writing it down will free your conscience to move on with the inner inventory of less obvious wrongs.  For example, I would note that time I bombarded unsuspecting passersby with M&M’s from a balcony, regaled by the unexpectedness of it, because it revealed my 12 year old appetite for manipulation.  Harsh words and the evil tongue are an equal opportunity sin for all ages.  Childhood experiments with meanness may have been outgrown, but any memory that weighs on your conscience should be offered up here.

Whether you are approaching introspection with the intention of making a confession in a religious tradition or simply finding the course corrections you need as you embark on a new year, making detailed notes about your choices in these four categories will not only capture both the obvious and the elusive but also help you make a break from past patterns of choice.

Join the conversation.  Does the weight of past choices diminish the range of options available to you at present?

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

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One’s Victim as One’s Hope

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams asserts many Christians tragically misinterpret Acts 4:12 “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved,” by taking it out of its specific context. Appreciating Jesus’ Jewish point of view helps us understand Williams’ point.  In this case, Jesus was addressing the people of Jerusalem following his crucifixion and resurrection.

The context is Pilot found no fault with Jesus.  He tried to get Herod to indict him, but Herod declined and sent Jesus back to Pilot.  Pilot was desperately looking for any excuse to spare Jesus so as not to have Jesus’ blood on his hands.  Pilot would have been all too glad for the crowd to have advocated for Jesus’ release.  The crowd could have tipped the balance of Jesus’ fate to justice, but instead they yelled, “Crucify him!”  The audience addressed in Acts 4:12 is not all of humanity.  Williams points out, “It is not a neutral audience, and it is not an innocent audience.”

Similarly, Jesus’ statement in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me,” is addressed specifically to his closest friends the night before they betray him.  In Judaism, atoning for our sins leads to the door of our victim—in this case, Jesus. Hence, from Jesus’ Jewish point of view, his statement to his disciples in the upper room can be understood to mean their only way to atonement with God is teshuvah through him.

Williams describes a double reversal, wherein Jesus returns to judge the people of Jerusalem who condemned him, and more startling, the prospect of being judged by the victim Jesus is perceived not as a threat but rather a promise of hope.  Williams goes on to describe the early resurrection preaching as, “an invitation to recognize one’s victims as one’s hope.”

We are not all dealt the same cards in life.  Some people get a really sorry hand, and there is nothing fair about it.  A young woman recently reminded me of this.  She grew up in a house full of abuse, and she received a ration of it at the hands of both her father and his brother.  She spent significant portions of her childhood in foster care and a residential psychiatric facility.  At 15, she birthed a baby boy.  By the time he was 6 weeks old, she was back in a psychiatric facility, unable to care for him.  She survived numerous suicide attempts and finally escaped her childhood when she married the same kind of man her father was.  She subsequently had four more children, and the horror continued into adulthood.

She desperately wanted to give her children a different childhood than she had, to break the cycle, but she didn’t.  The hardest thing for her to survive has been losing parental rights for her children.  What hurts most is sheer grief for the loss.  She had no vision for her life as an adult alone.  She thought it would be impossible to stay alive, but her life persists day by day nonetheless.  She hopes someday her children will look for her, and she imagines they will want to find a person, a healthy and whole person rather than a death certificate stamped suicide.  Her victims are her hope.

Join the conversation.  What power do you have to redeem the one who hurt you?

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

Hanging by a Thread

My favorite thing about Jewish teaching on teshuvah, and truly, in many ways my favorite thing about Judaism, is its embrace of human nature—not the way we should be, but the way we really are.

Teshuvah is the name for the rabbinic concept of repentance that, along with prayer and tzedakah, is necessary to receive God’s forgiveness.  It is a process for turning away from our old ways, turning to God, turning to relationships with others, and turning to one’s true self–the self one was created to become.  The process of teshuvah includes feelings of remorse for our wrongs, intellectual assent to what is right and intent to change–all of which are interior and lack a clear external benchmark.  The external benchmark that matters for teshuvah is simply to stop wrongdoing. Doing so undoubtedly requires those interior changes, and indeed teshuvah requires them also, but completing teshuvah rests on action.

The Jewish tradition recognizes degrees of teshuvah.  To stop sinning due to fear of human consequence is a lower degree of teshuvah than to stop sinning due to fear of divine consequences after death, which is yet a lower degree of teshuvah than to stop sinning due to a change of heart.  To stop sinning because of love is the highest degree of teshuvah, but it is not required for forgiveness.  The right actions are enough.

Jesus’ parable of the prodigal reads like a “how to complete teshuvah” guide.  He veers off course, he realizes his wrongs, he regrets them, he confesses and offers amends to his father and he stops his riotous living.  But why?  Did the son return to his father out of love, his hardship having led him to appreciate his father in a whole new way? Or did he return because he was hungry?  In the Jewish tradition, it doesn’t matter.  The salient point is that he turned.

For some, a complete conversion of interior motives might seem dauntingly out of reach.  Judaism does not require inner transformation in the process of repentance and forgiveness.  Rather, it recognizes lesser modes of rapprochement as fully adequate.  A
penitent who continues to struggle with the same patterns that led him to sin prior to teshuvah, yet nonetheless manages to desist from sin, even if barely hanging on by a thread, is assured of forgiveness despite his continuing inner struggle.

In time, perhaps the inner transformation will come along also.  Rather than approaching the steps in teshuvah in a particular order, some approach them as a spiral.  Each step is visited and revisited as the penitent’s teshuvah deepens.  As a person makes amends, he comes into a more complete recognition of his offense.  As his remorse deepens, he desists from wrongdoing with greater earnestness and his confession becomes more genuinely humble.

Join the conversation.  When have you had to “fake it ‘til you make it?”  How did it work?

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

Making Amends

Of all the steps in teshuvah, I am especially interested in restitution, or making amends.  The Jewish and Twelve Step traditions recognize great power in this step, but Christians place little emphasis on it as a step towards healing or reconciliation with God.  What are we missing?

When we realize we have done something that hurt another person, it is natural to seek that person’s forgiveness as well as God’s.  In our house, we try to avoid the word “sorry” in apologies.  There are just too many ways it can go wrong.  There’s the pre-teen, sullen, single-word sentence uttered with downcast eyes that really means, “If I say nothing, maybe they’ll get bored and leave me alone.”  There’s the teenage, “Dad!  I said I was sorry, ok?” screamed defiantly and followed by a door slam that shouts, “No remorse here!”  Then there’s the one I personally despise, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” that actually means, “I’m good.  This is your problem.”   All of them remind me of the country western song, “Don’t tell me you’re sorry, I know how sorry you are.”

I encourage family members not to try to fake an apology if genuine remorse is absent.  It’s just better to ask for time to think about it.  When some remorse can be found, the script goes, “I realize how wrong I was.  Will you forgive me?”  Thanks go to my godfather who supplied the script.  We tend to do better with that.

Restitution is more than an apology, though.  The idea of restitution is to restore in a direct way that which we have broken or damaged or to do it symbolically if we can’t do it directly.  “I’m sorry I broke your lamp when I was drunk,” is an apology.  Replacing or repairing the lamp amends the offense.  If someone gets drunk, drives, and kills somebody in a traffic accident, he can’t go back and “un-kill” the person who died.  Becoming an organ donor is a symbolic amend that can give life back to someone in the future.  If I was careless with someone’s feelings, maybe donating to a cause the person cares about is a symbolic way of restoring care.

Of course, this is all hypothetical for me.  I have been practicing confession in the Episcopal tradition regularly for years, and I have never approached restitution as a part of the process.  Realizing the prominent role it plays in other traditions brought a real blind spot in my personal practice to light.  I take absolution to heart, burning my confession notes and not looking back.  Believe me, when I set about writing a book about confession, I would have loved to have had 10 years of notes to refresh my memory.  I can’t honestly regret burning them, though.  It’s wonderful to feel free.  Here’s the thing, though.  While I don’t feel burdened by my past, I do feel disconnected from it.

Making amends not only mends bridges in broken relationships.  Perhaps more significantly, it also mends bridges to a broken past.  Instead of regretting or recoiling from the past, restitution builds on it, allowing us to raise something good out of the ashes of something bad.  I suspect I’d have a very different feeling about my past if I had had the fortitude and courage to have made amends.

Join the conversation.  Have you ever fled the past instead of building on it?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Learn more at 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.