Sunday, February 26, 2023

Lent Self-Examination - Resentment and Responsibility

Ephesians 4:31   Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice. 

Paul's instructions are not hard to understand, but they are hard to do. I can struggle with knowing where to start. It turns out that a resentments inventory is a tool fairly well designed for that purpose. 

For anyone who has never taken a resentment inventory, the first action is simply to make a list. If there is any person, principle, or institution with which we are not at peace and it involves a resentment, the task is to name the person and name the cause of the resentment. One that is done, then we name how the thing resented affects us. 

When looking at my own list, I can see the same trend from the example in the AA fellowship text: a resentment often grows around times when I feel wronged, slighted, or see that my long-term plans are threatened. When practicing self-examination, after the list is made we set aside the other person's role. When left to my own devices, I would never set aside the other person's role. In my own mind, the focus of a resentment is always the person or thing resented. But if our goal is self-examination, then what the other person did is not actually our problem. Granted that another person said unfair things about me; wasn't I prepared to judge the situation for myself? Granted that another person interfered in my plans; why did I allow that to happen? Why it affects us, how it affects us, these are more worthy of consideration. 

I find that I tend to resent people and things that devalue me, with an underlying trend of doubt about belonging, doubt about being valued, and fear of problems that I cannot solve myself. I also hold resentments about things that put my own goals and dreams at risk, again with an underlying fear: that opportunities lost may not be recovered, and some blame-passing about whether I am responsible for ordering my own life. So a step back from the original resentment, and focusing on my own part rather than someone else's, tends to show fear or self-doubt or blame-passing. As long as I am in resentment, I have adopted a passive stance. Looking at the underlying causes opens up some doors out of the situation. 

(To be continued.)

Sunday, February 19, 2023

"I am responsible"

There is a sign that generally hangs in 12-step meeting halls: 

I am responsible.

When anyone, anywhere reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA always to be there.

And for that, I am responsible. 

Imagine the same principle adopted by people of faith. 

It is some years ago now that I began participating in 12-step meetings again. And as they say, I've kept coming back. In some ways the 12-step groups are a direct offshoot of Christianity, having been born out of "the Oxford Group", a Lutheran minister's outreach to alcoholics in the early 1900's which was founded on explicitly Christian principles. The founders of AA were influenced by that and kept much of the spiritual practice. However, the Christian origins were disguised: instead of "self-examination", the 4th step calls for a "fearless and searching moral inventory of ourselves". Instead of "confession", the 5th step walks through admitting "to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs." It continues through penance in a more classical sense, where the point of the actions is restoration and healing. There are a number of other disguised Christian practices and beliefs, seen easily enough by those who are familiar with both. 

Where many spiritual practices have fallen out of our culture, those original practices have remained vibrant and strong in 12-step groups. I think it is the core reason why the "twelve steps" -- spiritual exercises based on Christian beliefs -- have been of help in so many different fellowships, and adopted as the foundation for so many recovery and support groups. So this year as we approach Lent, my intent is to take a classic "resentments inventory" as the act of self-examination for this year's solemn season. (Yes, by this point I've done an inventory more than once, including of course the standard resentments inventory. Still, it needs doing again.) 

What Christianity shared with the 12-step groups in the early 1900's, the 12-step groups may yet share again with the Christian community here in the 2000's. 

Sunday, February 12, 2023

A family of saints and heroes

Did it start with Naomi's kindness? One thing led to another, and her daughter-in-law Ruth came back to Judea with her. Ruth's heartfelt bonds and fierce loyalty are still much quoted at weddings: "Where you go I will go, where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God." Ruth's grandson David started as a shepherd, and even as a shepherd gained a reputation as a skilled musician. When David the shepherd became King David, he was still famous as a wordsmith, a songwriter, a musician -- one who loved God, and a man of courage. As so often happens with success in this world, King David's reign was tarnished by scandal. The more lasting legacy has stayed with us through the ages in his devotion to God in psalms, including songs of heartfelt repentance after his scandal. His son Solomon followed David on the throne, and in some ways followed David in scandal. But his pursuit of wisdom has been his most honored legacy. 

The devotion to God showed up in different ways: wisdom, music, personal loyalty, a love that was strong enough to anchor a home, acts of kindness that brought a young widow to a new land. A love of God can pass along from generation to generation and leave a bright trail that still shows from a great distance in time. 

Sometimes it happens that a saint or hero of faith is alone in his faith, or very nearly so. Abraham comes to mind. And great things can come of one person of faith. But when two or three gather together? The shockwaves can last for generations, and the light can linger for thousands of years. 

Lord, may those who love you gather together and be encouraged by each others' devotion to you. When we gather together in your name, be with us, and may your light shine. 

Sunday, February 05, 2023

Thanksgiving, praise, and the peace that passes understanding

"Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise." -- Psalm 100:4

There is something about an earnest gratitude that is open to the world and open to God. There is something about honest praise -- even enthusiasm -- that lifts and expands the spirit. And so I take Psalm 100 to have a meaning apart from a physical place of worship: that thanksgiving opens the door to God in our spirits, that praise brings us to a sanctuary inside his courtyard. There is the peace that passes understanding, as St Paul says "with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God, and the peace of God that passes all understanding will keep (guard) your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus". (Philippians 4:6-7)

So Paul connects thanksgiving to the peace that passes understanding. He also connects that peace to turning our minds to things worthy of praise, as his very next thought continues: "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good report; if there is anything of virtue/excellence, and if there is any worthy of praise, think on these things." (Philippians 4:8)

My favorites among the psalms and hymns are often ones of thanksgiving and praise. Worshiping with them brings my heart and mind into that sense of sanctuary, or the safety of the sheep-pen. There his presence is more felt, and his blessings are more clear to the senses. 

May this strengthen my desire to practice thanksgiving and praise.