Spiritual Growth

  • "Our image of God and our image of self are two sides of Taking Mary Moments in a Martha Worldthe same coin" said Dr. Hsin-hsin Huang, the leader and trainer for  Spiritual Companions to retreatants who go through a 9-month experience of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. As we each shared our prayer and spiritual experiences, Dr. Huang continued to pepper our discussion with more spiritual insights on the path to spiritual maturity.

    Our image of God relates directly to how we view ourselves. Our first image of God often arises out of our relationship with our parents. Our early images of God can be rooted in several dynamics: fear of punishment, expectations of perfection or hyper-responsibility, an experience of abuse, absence or unreliability, and maybe even one of love and forgiveness. Just as our relationship with our parents changes over time to a more equal relationship between adults, so also can our relationship with God. We move from fear of God to love of God as we mature.

    If we fear God as a judgmental moralist who demands right behavior, then we see ourselves as an unlovable, bad person who has to do better. We consequently live with a lot of guilt and shame that leads not only to low self-esteem, but also to judgmental attitudes toward others. There are a lot of burned-out Christians today who can never behave exactly the right way for their demanding God, and others in society are also judged for missing the mark.

    The less we fear God, however, the more grateful we are to God for all God does for us in creation, in daily sustenance, in relationships, in talents and abilities, in forgiveness through Jesus. The less we fear God, the more we can love ourselves because God loves us. The more forgiving we believe God is, the more we are able to forgive ourselves and our own brokenness and imperfection. Such self-love, grounded in God's love, enables us to also love and forgive others, letting go of perfectionistic expectations.

    This is the hope of pursuing a spiritual path – that we mature from an belief about God to the felt experience of God loving us. There is a difference between intellectually understanding God and affectively experiencing God's intimate, powerful love for us. We see this most clearly in the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. Jesus invites Martha to move from doing to being – from doing for God to being loved by God in the presence and person of Jesus.

    I have always been a "Martha" – with a hyper sense of reasonability to and for the well-being of others. When I began the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola in the fall of 2013, the first prayer exercise was to "behold God beholding me and smiling." For the first 56 days, I did this exercise, but it was an intellectual exercise – I held a picture in my minds' eye. But on day 57, I felt a physical shift in my body from my mind to my gut – I felt loved. I was a little startled and said out loud to God, "you really do love me, don't you?!" And I smiled. (I had been ordained as a pastor for 24 years and had been serving a God with very high expectations of me).

    Dr. Huang offered another exercise to help us identify childhood images of God that affect our relationship with God today: write about each of one's parents, describing them in about a page. Take a break and come back 30 minutes later to notice what, if anything you have written about your parents describes your image of God. What brings you deeper in your relationship with God and of what can you let go that hinders you from experiencing how much God loves you? Then practice "beholding God beholding you and smiling - a Mary practice in a Martha world.

    Visit The Bridges Program to learn more about how you can experience the Spiritual Exercises!

    Photo used with Permission - https://vimeo.com/41702334 2012 Awaken Church Pastor Nate Witiuk, Clarksville, TN 

  • The Challenge and Gift of Forgiveness in My MeToo StoriesAfter reading my “#MeToo” story, a friend asked whether I had forgiven the colleagues and professors I had written about. As a spiritual and religious person, I am a little embarrassed to admit that I had not thought much about forgiveness in the context of my personal harassment. So as we welcomed and celebrated the Incarnation of God in the human being of Jesus, I pondered this question. I’ve come to realize that forgiveness for those who failed me in various ways when I was a young female pastor had been a part of developing spiritual and emotional maturity; it rarely came as an intentional decision.

    I saw that I’d overlooked forgiving my harassers, in part, because my anger at them was conflated with my frustration with the institutional church, which failed to listen, to take me seriously, and to help me seek justice; it failed even to require appropriate behavior from its male leaders. Further, the church had failed to provide much-needed support as I tried to serve my first two congregations.

    The first congregation had longstanding internal power struggles. It was an inappropriate post for a first-time pastor of either gender, yet my requests for help and guidance from colleagues and judicatory staff went unheeded. Eventually I resigned and embarked upon eight months of therapy to put myself back together, spiritually and psychically. My next call, in a different state, was from an inner-city church in need of an urban ministry strategy. I turned to that judicatory staff for help with developing a cooperative vision and a plan for resourcing and supporting it; again, I was met with inaction. Independently, for four years, I formed partnerships there with other congregations where feasible, as I pastored a congregation in frequent crisis.

    But then, after almost a decade of being a female intern and novice pastor seeking help from my church leaders and finding none, I resigned from the ministry and answered another call – to become a full-time mom and to heal an exhausted mind, body, and spirit. During my extended leave, I focused on my family and self-care. Not on forgiveness.

    Now, turning my attention to that left-behind matter, I find that something has changed, even without my awareness or intention. First, I found that I’ve often thought of forgiveness as something to offer when someone who has wronged me apologizes — forgiveness wipes the slate clean and erases a debt, giving the relationship a fresh start. Such reconciliation is essential in our close, on-going relationships with friends and family. I am grateful to have experienced this in one situation of harassment. The Bible, however, reminds me that I am called upon to forgive others simply because God has forgiven me (Ephesians 4:32). God’s forgiveness is free, unmerited, a gift of love and grace. God expects us to offer this same selfless mercy to others, whether or not it is requested, undeserved, or the hurt goes deep. This kind of forgiveness frees the other, but also frees us from bitterness, resentment, and the spiritual and physical illnesses that can result from hanging on to toxic emotions.

    Still, forgiving does not mean continuing to put ourselves in harm’s way. Forgiving does not mean accepting or condoning a wrong-doer’s behavior. Forgiving does not mean that we do not pursue justice through administrative or legal channels. Forgiving does mean letting go of the desire for revenge. “Repay no one evil for evil … Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:17-19). At its fullest, forgiveness frees us from giving those who have harmed us power over our emotions, choices, thoughts and self-identity; we stop giving them free rent in our heads and hearts. This can be done alongside an adjudication process, or without such a process. Each of us must wrestle with the healing path that is best for us.

    Taking leave to raise my children was a first step in the forgiveness process — a decision to get myself out of harm’s way to heal. What I’ve learned over that time has helped me with other important aspects of forgiveness—forgiveness both for my perpetrators and the institutional church. That included looking at myself and confronting my own expectations. I needed to stop being surprised by sin and to stop expecting the church — or any human institution for that matter — to be free of sin and brokenness. Of course, the church and the people in it fail me and others on a regular basis — as do I, and all of us! My sin has been putting my faith and trust in something other than God incarnate in Jesus Christ (a wonderful reflection as we celebrate the Nativity).

    It is freeing to understand that I am not to expect nor look to the church or anyone in it, to take care of me; that is my job through my relationship with God. I learned the distinction between asking someone to care for and about me in a healthy way versus asking them to take care of me and giving up my own personal power, volition, and responsibility. Without this shift, I would have been perpetually wounded and disappointed by the fact that the church and its leaders are all part of our fallen world. This realization opened me up to forgiving the church. This growing spiritual maturity has resulted in deeper emotional freedom. I have stopped giving my perpetrators power over my identity and confidence and, over time, I have stopped letting mistrust of male colleagues prevent me from exploring team ministry. The last step in this process has been to forgive myself, both for having unrealistic expectations and for hanging on to fear, even unconsciously. Reflecting on and writing about this has helped move me into this last step of self-forgiveness.

    After nine years at home with my children and running a home business, in 2006 I returned to parish ministry. The ELCA (Evangelical Church in America) as an institution also had grown and changed over these years. For instance, there are more policies in place to make congregations safe for everyone, including children, and when pastors or other leaders commit boundary violations, there are procedures and ways to find help. In addition, it's thrilling to be part of a denomination that welcomes LGBTQ+ people into the full life of the church, its ministry, and its marriage rites! In fact, I can say that I love the ELCA now more than I ever have since my ordination in 1989. This reveals my own spiritual and emotional growth toward the freedom and fullness of forgiveness that includes my perpetrators, the institution, and myself.

    This love leads me to care for the church – to help it be faithful when it fails, to seek the path of truth, reconciliation, justice, accountability, and forgiveness — but not to expect it to take care of me. I need to be okay at my core because of the salvation God freely gives in Jesus Christ, and that’s true both when the church and its leaders are faithful, and when we fail. For me, that’s the freedom of forgiveness that comes from a process of deepening my own spiritual life rooted in the love and mercy of God. Through God’s unmerited forgiveness of me, and love for me, I am freed to forgive others, and freed to love and serve as God calls me to today, regardless of what has happened in my past.

    Image: Downloaded from quotefancy.

  • The Enneagram Growing into our Pure SelfLast week I attended a conference sponsored by Revgalblogpals (a community of female ecumenical clergy bloggers!) on the Enneagram—a 4,000-year old spiritual system that describes nine ways of “seeing” the world and of responding to it. The gift of exploring the Enneagram is to learn how we can grow, change and heal our soul, becoming more fully who God made us to be. For more information, you can read The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective by Richard Rohr or visit Life in the Trinity Ministry, an organization founded by our conference speaker, Suzanne Stabile and her husband, the Rev. Joe Stabile (I am still new to the Enneagram, so please don’t learn about it from me; what follows is not instruction about it, just new information I am processing and sharing!).

    One powerful insight from the conference addressed how we take in and process information. We have three centers of intelligence—Thinking, Feeling and Doing—and while we possess all three, most of us operate out of only two centers. We usually take in information out of one dominant center, process it with a second support center, and repress the third center. Between the ages of 8 and 12, we received messages that one center was less desirable, and we repressed that area. The Enneagram helps us discover our lost intelligence center and develop it. As adults, our repressed area shows up most dramatically in our home life.

    • Thinking-Repressed: some of us Do and Feel or Feel and Do without productive Thinking. For example, we have a hard time living on budget, analyzing long-term consequences of choices, planning, strategizing, setting boundaries, and tend to leap into action without asking if the task is ours to do.
    • Feeling-Repressed: some of us Do and Think or Think and Do without awareness of or processing our Feelings. For example, we dismiss or repress feelings until they erupt, channel emotional energy into activities, avoid feelings, cannot identify or name feelings, only allow positive feelings, and avoid of intimacy.
    • Doing-Repressed: some of us Think and Feel or Feel and Think without much productive Doing. For example, we procrastinate, do what’s in front of us instead of what’s important, miss deadlines, neglect to help others when we have the skills and resources to do so, feel powerless, and can be blind to possibilities.

    Interestingly, most of us don’t believe any of these areas are repressed! It seems like we engage in our repressed function all the time, but the real question is, are we engaging it productively? I discovered last week that I am Thinking-repressed, which sounds strange to me because I am thinking all the time! But when I ask myself, “Is it productive thinking?” I am taken in new direction. It’s not productive thinking if it’s the steady barrage of self-criticism, judgment and comparison with others; it’s not productive thinking if it’s about re-doing more perfectly a task which is already completed; it’s not productive thinking if I’m planning how to take care of others while neglecting myself—you get the idea!

    Similar questions can be asked if you are Feeling-repressed: Am I expressing feelings indirectly in a passive aggressive way? Can I name how I’m feeling? Where do I feel this emotion in my body? When did I first become aware of this feeling? What’s a healthy way to release it, if it’s a negative feeling? Those who are Doing-repressed can ask questions like this: Is what I’m doing the most important task for today or just what’s in front of me? Have I prioritized what needs doing today or this week? On what tasks am I procrastinating and why? Am I doing what I committed to complete?

    These questions just scratch the surface. Deep, intentional soul work involves practicing and strengthening our repressed intelligence center, (usually with a therapist) so we can live balanced lives that allow us to bring our best to the world. It takes work and consistency, or we fall back into what’s most familiar. I was delighted to learn that 12-Step programs help us express all three intelligence centers, so if you’re thinking of working a 12-step program, go for it! (I attend Al-Anon). I have also decided to work with a new  Enneagram-trained spiritual director who can help me bring up my Thinking center. The conference speaker shared that when we operate out of our repressed center, we become our most pure self—and that’s beautiful soul work!

    Image from: Aetherforce.com

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