Spiritual Steps to Life Change

Easter celebrations bring an end to Lent, a season many Christians observe with contemplation and disciplines designed to prepare ourselves for the newness of life that Christ’s resurrection promises to all who surrender themselves to God.  A relatively small subset of Christians practice introspection and confession in particular as powerful steps toward making needed course corrections in life.

In contrast to ancient religious practices, another influential and well-established tradition offers a more contemporary take on practices for finding life change and spiritual awakening.  The tradition is spiritual but not religious, and celebrated Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr describes it as “America’s most significant and authentic contribution to the history of spirituality.”  It is the Twelve Step tradition pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous.

Every year, millions of Twelve Step recovery seekers embark on a searching and fearless moral inventory and admit their wrongs aloud to God and another human being as essential steps towards profound life change.  What do these recovery seekers know about spiritual transformation that millions of religious seekers don’t?  A lot, as it turns out.

First is that life change starts with recognizing the limits of our own power.  Consider the difference between a religious seeker who approaches introspection believing he had the power to make better choices (but simply chose not to) and a Twelve Step seeker who acknowledges that his defects of character took away his power to make better choices.  Although we can find a false sense of security in our own power, it leads us towards unrealistic expectations for ourselves (and unwarranted derision).

The second thing Twelve Step recovery seekers know is that life change is possible but only with God’s power.  Some religious seekers don’t really believe in the transformation that is being offered to them, or they walk away from confession unchanged but determined to make better choices in the future without genuinely depending on God’s power to make them.  Acknowledging that God has this power, that we don’t have to change through sheer force of will alone, is the kernel of hope for healing.

The third thing recovery seekers know is that we have to create a power vacuum in order to make space for God’s power to enter, and that actually relying on God’s power instead of will power is incredibly difficult.  Relying on one’s own will is easy.  I want what I want, after all.  Being demanding or strong-willed about what I want takes little strength of character.  Laying down my will, conversely, takes enormous spiritual strength.  Religious seekers sometimes approach God in search of a little auxiliary power without taking the difficult step of creating the power vacuum.  They may want God to be almighty, but on their terms.

These three truths align to the first three steps of the Twelve Steps.  Like the first three, the remaining steps outline a path to healing, life change and spiritual awakening that is much more specific and instructive than much of what religious doctrine offers.

Join the conversation.  Do you think God cares or do you actually trust God’s care?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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Veering Off

The ways we veer off course are as many and as individual as people on the planet.  We can’t make the corrections we need, though, until we recognize how we veered off.  The last post suggested that many of our strengths and shortcomings may flow from strengths and shortcomings in our spiritual lives.

When I said to forget about new year’s resolutions to lose weight or to save more for retirement, I didn’t mean that taking care of yourself or saving are not important and responsible things to do.  To make a personal confession here, I am constantly challenging myself about where I build up my treasure.  As a fervent saver and frugal if not stingy spender, it would be the height of hypocrisy for me to discourage saving for retirement.   Rather, the suggestion intended to provoke questions about what gets in the way of our intended destination.  There’s a saying that if one wants to know what his priorities really are, he need only look at his calendar and his bank account to see where his time and money are actually spent (or not spent).  Obstacles getting in the way of saving might be a desire for ever more stuff or maintaining a certain “standard of living” or hanging onto an asset we can‘t really afford hoping someday to cash in.  Realigning priorities can help overcome these obstacles.  Putting God in the center of my life and being “on course” spiritually doesn’t automatically fill my retirement account or make the pounds melt away, but re-centering my priorities may make it easier to follow through on the changes I need.

Different traditions use different language to describe our wrong turns.  Religious traditions call it sin.  Hebrew texts use three words for sin.  Chet translates literally to missing the mark.  Avon means desire, and pesha means rebellion.  Episcopal doctrine defines sin as squandering God’s blessings and “the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.”

“Sin” can be a religiously charged word, and the Twelve Step tradition avoids it altogether.  It focuses instead on the defects of character that underlie wrongdoing.  The Third Step in Twelve Step programs is deciding to align one’s course to God’s will and to surrender one’s own will where it departs from God’s will.  Surrender is a difficult step.  All of the Twelve Step recovery seekers I have known have spoken of turning their will over to God in a Third Step and “taking it back” at some point in their journeys.

Regardless of language or spiritual tradition, we all “miss the mark,” have “desires” that drag us off course, and “rebel” against the course we set for ourselves from time to time.  Those occasions may deplete our morale or dent our pride, but they harbor a great invitation—an invitation to turn back, to get back on course.  The next several posts will explore ways to recognize where we have veered off course so that we can accept the invitation to make the turns we need.

Join the conversation.  When you drill down on the things in your life that seem out of balance physically, emotionally or intellectually, can you trace the imbalance to spiritual roots?

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

Good Works: Cause or Effect?

Spiritual conversion describes an inner transformation, and good works are the exterior evidence for it.  Do the good works done by sheer
force of will bring about a spiritual conversion, or are they an effortless byproduct of conversion?  This question is a point of contention in New Testament scripture.  Pharisees were the pillars of Jewish life and quite popular among the peasant class.  They were devoted to practicing good works that were widely perceived to benefit all in the community.
Paradoxically, they received New Testament criticism for their commitment to good works.

In the Christian tradition, the cause-or-effect question has a two-part answer.  First, works flow from the natural inclination of one with faith.  God desires relationship, and we act out that relationship in how we treat our fellow man.  Hence, good works inspired by our love for God bring joy to God, our fellow man and ourselves.  Martin Luther wrote that it is “impossible to separate works from faith—yea, just as impossible as to separate burning and shining from fire.”  By contrast, works done for the sake of correct behavior alone or for the sake of social stature miss the central point of relationship with God, and that is the New Testament warning to the Pharisees.

The second part of the Christian answer lies in the actions we can undertake to develop our spirituality and thereby enhance our natural inclinations towards good works.  The spiritual disciplines which strengthen and prepare us for good works are distinct from the fruits of a strong faith.  The apostle Paul warns the Colossians against following disciplines for their own sake:

If with Christ you died to the rudiments of the world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence. (Colossians 2:20-23)

Spiritual disciplines are not an end in themselves, but a means to an end.  They are a cause of spiritual strength.  Those who desire the effect of spiritual strength will have great difficulty producing it through sheer force of will without submitting to the process of actual transformation.  It would be like joining a baseball team with the expectation of batting 300 without any practice or training simply because one wills it to be so.  Practice may not make performance perfect, but it does make performance possible.  Thus, spiritual disciplines condition us for good works.

The consideration of good works brings us back to God’s will.  He wants to be in a relationship with you.  He wants you to be a partner in your own re-creation.  He wants to do some heavy lifting for you.  He delights in the fruits of your faithfulness.  We are drawn to do good works not to earn God’s love but because we love him back.

As is often the case, the Twelve Step tradition crystalizes this cause and effect wisdom in a pithy one-liner:  “Fake it ‘till you make it.”

Join the conversation.  What good works do you wish flowed naturally from your faith?

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

Salvation: 3 Perspectives from 3 Traditions

 

Someone in a desperate battle to escape his brokenness might reasonably look to scripture to visualize healing with God’s help.  The concept of salvation and the scriptural basis for it, however, evoke markedly different reference points across different traditions.  

Jews recall God’s acts to save his chosen people—parting the Red Sea, sparing Nineveh, and preserving Noah’s passengers.  There is a rich diversity of views about redemption within the Jewish tradition.  Orthodox Jews believe in the promise that a human messiah will unite the people of Israel and rule in peace.  The most Orthodox Jews adhere to the most literal interpretation, wherein the messianic era will lead to supernatural events culminating in bodily resurrections of the dead (leading traditional Jews to shun cremation, embalming and organ donation).  At the other end of the spectrum, Reform Jews believe it is each individual Jew’s responsibility to live as if the coming of the messianic age rests on her own shoulders, giving rise to the social justice imperative.  People are saved when they turn to God and do as he commands in faith.  Reform Jews have altered traditional prayers to refer to “redemption” rather than “redeemer.” 

Christians look at salvation on the individual level and put Jesus front and center.  Despite Christians’ universal focus on Jesus Christ as savior, Christians diverge on the interpretation of salvation.  Some view it as eternal life after death—which can be understood as bodily life or life of the soul—paid for with Jesus’ blood.  Others view salvation as pertaining to life here and now, before death.  For those, salvation is about relationship, specifically the new way to relate to God (new covenant) and to each other (Kingdom of God on earth) that Jesus taught through his words and living example. Still others view salvation as the daily life we receive from God. 

Both Testaments teem with references to salvation, giving seekers encouragement and hope.  Here are a couple from both Old and New Testaments:

5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.  15 My eyes are ever towards the Lord, for he will pluck my feet out of the net. (Psalm 25:5,15) 

For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)

Much of the bible was written in times when external enemies posed very present threats, so salvation carries an unmistakable socio-political connotation.  In parallel, the external enemy stands as a metaphor for the enemy within.  For those who are broken, the bible’s words of salvation speak just as powerfully about deliverance from our very selves—from elements of our personalities that lead us to seek self-satisfaction over God’s will, dragging us down and away from him and the life we desire. 

Leave it to the Twelve Step tradition to sum it up best: 

I tried my way.  My way didn’t work. 
I tried God’s way.  His way works. 

“I tried God’s way” is surrender.  “His way works” is salvation.

 Join the conversation.  What saved you form bondage to self?

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

Releasing Resentment

The Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book offers guidance for starting the Fourth Step “fearless and searching moral inventory.”  Notably, the guidance does not start with contemplating one’s feelings of guilt or shame.  It starts with resentment.  The Big Book declares, “Resentment is the ‘number one’ offender.  It destroys more alcoholics than anything else.” So how exactly does one release resentment?

The Twelve Step tradition offers some insight and some stumbling blocks.  It guides recovery seekers with resentment “to keep their side of the street clean,” suggesting one might have put oneself in a position where injury or disappointment was possible or likely.  Some recovery seekers strenuously resist this idea.  Unrealistic expectations or a sense of entitlement may have set some up for disappointment, but a startling number of adult recovery seekers were innocent victims of child abuse.  These child victims had no culpability for the crimes committed against them.  Is telling addicted abuse survivors to keep their side of the street clean tantamount to blaming the victims?  Not exactly.  Being wounded sets in motion patterns that, subtly or blatantly, wound others.  Recovery seekers can take responsibility for the part of the wounded-wounding pattern that was in their control, and recovery seekers can forgive the part that was out of their control. 

Naming the offense in forgiveness, or demarcating what is not acceptable, can be a powerful step towards validation, protection and healing.  Conversely, sometimes in the process of naming the offense, we realize that what the “offender” did wasn’t really offensive at all, but that our reaction to it was miscalculated, out of proportion, or reacting to something that was not actually in the content of the offense.  The offender may have made a harmless remark that triggered a harmful memory.  In my family, we try to adhere to the “When you X, I feel Y” formula for naming offenses.  In the process for isolating “X,” I might realize the problem was really “Y.”  Recognition that the mess is on my side of the street allows me to release resentment and has a reconciling effect. 

Being on the receiving end of a behavior or trait that I myself inflict on others can be especially irritating.  It’s a burr under my blanket.  Paradoxically, if I am able to identify, in any small way, with a weakness in the one who hurt me, that is a significant advantage.  It can wedge a foot in the door to compassion for my offender.  Just to be clear, this is not an exercise in victim blaming.  This is an exercise in self-knowledge and claiming responsibility. 

When leading reconciliation workshops, there is one statement I hear repeatedly from people struggling to release resentment.  They don’t want to tell their offenders they’re forgiven.  They don’t want to give their offenders that satisfaction or to signal any of the things that forgiveness is not, e.g. that the offense is acceptable or that accountability for actions has been waived.  Or they just don’t want to let the offender off the hook, which of course, is precisely what releasing resentment and claim to retribution is.  There is no obligation to tell an unremorseful offender that she’s forgiven.  However, once resentment truly has drained out of us, the fact is we stop caring what the offender knows or thinks about forgiveness either way. 

Join the conversation.  What do you do about seriously stubborn resentments?

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