Looking for the Living

I had the pleasure of being a part of an ordination service a few weeks ago at Christ Church Cathedral in Houston.   It was a lovely space and a wonderful service. Walking in, a friend and I commented on how you could smell the history of this place… the beautiful aged wood and generations of incense and prayer. 

Somewhere in the process of the service, I noticed a beautiful stained glass window behind the altar. Though the image I offer you now is not very good (I really need a class in iPhone photography!), perhaps you can make out enough to see the angel in the middle.  Best I can tell, it is a depiction of the resurrection.  The angel is standing in front of the tomb with women to one side… I can’t quite make out who is on the right.  In any event, as I was admiring it, the words that the angel said to the women came to mind and echoed deeply within my soul:

Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Do you hear it?

And then there is also the story of when Mary Magdalene met Jesus in the garden.  He did not allow her to cling to him; but instead, told her to go and use her voice to announce a new reality.

Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  It’s not just a question for the women of old… it’s a question for us today.

Habits and ruts are so powerful.  Our brains are bent toward forming them for efficiency of life. At the same time, they often cause us to unintentionally resist the new work of God. We get stuck looking for the living among the dead because we forget the deep vitality and dynamic nature of life in the Spirit. I love this picture of Blue Hole from Laity Lodge. The ripples tell me that these headwaters of the Frio River have continued to flow even in drought. Why is it that I would ever choose deadness over new life?

As Brian Taylor writes in Becoming Human:

“This is the scary part, and probably why we unintentionally block God’s efforts to renew us.  For God, in making us new, may make us unrecognizable to ourselves as we are today, as Jesus was after his resurrection.  We think we know who we are, and we want to remain recognizable to ourselves.  We think we know what our personality, our gifts, and our limitations are. We think we know who we want to become.  When things get hard and we suffer, we think we know what healing would look like. We imagine a restoration of things back to the way we like them to be, and we even pray for this.” …

“In God we are becoming a new creation, and by faith we cooperate with the Spirit to bring about what is yet unknown to us.  … What is required of us is radical openness.  This is what faith really is, a radical openness to what God might be asking us to become.”  (pg. 207)

So, sitting in the pew of that old, old cathedral, the question deepened for me:

Where am I persisting in trying to find life in places where it has left?

  • In friendships grown distant?
  • In expectations of parents or spouses whose well is dry?
  • In drivenness or accomplishment that leaves me oddly empty?
  • In a stale prayer practice?
  • In trying to resist or deny the reality of aging?

Sometimes looking for the living among the dead looks like banging on a door that will not open.  As Parker Palmer   so eloquently writes in Let Your Life Speak :

“As often happens on the spiritual journey, we have arrived at the heart of a paradox: each time a door closes, the rest of the world opens up. All we need to do is stop pounding on the door that just closed, turn around-which puts the door behind us- and welcome the largeness of life that now lies open to our souls. The door that closed kept us from entering a room, but what now lies before us is the rest of reality.” (pg 54)

Clearly, the first step toward finding new life is to choose to leave what is dead.

Lot’s wife had a really hard time with that one.

Jesus’ words said it like this:  “You have to lose your life to save it.” When I was growing up, I was told that those verses mean that we should minister until we are exhausted. Now I hear them as an invitation to transformation.

So, where in your life are you still looking for the living among the dead?

Repentance redefined: standing tall

” Not one more day did Jesus want this woman to live bent over.”

As I was completing work on my third book, My Own Worst Enemy,  I encountered the story of the woman bent over.

Listening once more to this Jesus-initiated, compassion-driven, Sabbath day healing of a woman bent over for 18 years, I was suddenly overwhelmed with all the ways that we as women may live bent over:

  • We tend to the needs of others while neglecting our own.
  • We exist in life as a “living apology,” seeking to earn worth through service, never quite hearing “well done.”
  • We diminish our gifts, wisdom, and brilliance.
  • We apologize for our voice or perspective, even if it’s helpful.
  • We feel selfish when we wisely choose self-care.
  • We relegate our desires to the “if I have time or extra resources” status…. and rarely “find” the time or resources.
  • We accept being “second class citizens” at church and in the world

Standing tall is not about elevating our ego, but about living into the freedom and dignity of our personhood.

Can we begin to imagine a world in which women stand tall?

Our inclination to bend seems to be written deeply within us.  It is recognized across many faith traditions. Integral theory proponent and author Ken Wilber has said that men need to bow to Buddha a thousand times a day and women need to stand up just as many times. For me, right now that looks like asking family, retreat centers, and others to accommodate some fairly burdensome dietary limitations.  (I had no idea how many foods contain night shade vegetables, MSG or MSG-like natural flavorings!) Why is it so hard to ask for myself when I would happily do for someone else?  I think it’s because somewhere inside there’s still a part of me living as a bent over woman.

We see many women in Scripture learn to stand tall:

Miriam

Hannah

Esther

 Jairus’ daughter

The women who followed him and watched at the cross

The woman caught in adultery

The woman who anointed Jesus

Jesus thought a woman’s freedom to stand tall was so important that he broke the law and healed this woman on the Sabbath. I hear in his actions a holy impatience: Not one more day did Jesus want this woman to live bent over.

Can we hear that healing and freeing passion now?  For us? For you and me?

On our pilgrimage to Germany last fall, I was struck by both the massive trees on the hill where the ruins of St. Hildegard’s monastery remain as well as several statues of St. Hildegard standing tall. In her life, she stood up against abbots, bishops, and royalty. She spoke up, at first hesitantly, later boldly about the visions God had given her, visions that reflected a more feminine spirituality that valued the earth and wholeness and welcomed all.

Will we dare to feel Jesus’ healing, freeing touch every time we are tempted to

make ourselves small?

apologize for existing or speaking?

diminish our accomplishments or contributions?

excuse those who exclude, silence, or diminish us?

forget our own needs or desires?

 It is not okay with Jesus for us to live bent over.

Did you hear that?

Living bent over is not an acceptable option to Jesus.

Repent, oh, woman. Stand tall. Stand tall.

How are you tempted to live bent over? What will it look like for you to stand tall today?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Self-compassion and friends

 “…through the door of my friend’s compassion for me, self-compassion came and softened my heart…”

It was a simple note really, a text I got this morning from a dear friend:

 “Thinking of you this morning- sending a little love your way.”

Surprisingly, that short, thoughtful text message stirred up a great deal of unexpected emotion in me. You see, what was not said, but clearly understood, is that she’s sending me love because she knows how much I need it right now.  She is familiar with my pain journey which, at least for today, feels like the story of the woman with the hemorrhage

26 She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse.

Though I haven’t spent all of our money, I am confident that I’ve spent as much money as I personally have made this year in my small business. In addition to time and energy and hope. And I am no better. Only worse. (All right, biomechanically, I am moving better, it’s just that my pain is worse.)

At first, I didn’t reply to my friend at all.  To reply meant to admit that I still hurt.  It meant I would be known, once again, as a needy person who is suffering right now.

I don’t want that identity.

I thought about pretending… but what’s the use of that?

So, I replied:

“Thank you friend. I don’t really want to respond because I don’t want to be known as the friend whose pain is not able to be explained and is not going away… But neither do I want to be alone in this reality so I will risk yet again being honest and hope that asking you to carry this with me is not asking too much.”

To not be alone, to be available for connection, is to be known authentically. To be known right now for me, is to be known as a woman struggling with pain. It’s not all of who I am, clearly, but it is a major piece.

I cried as I wrote because through the door of my friend’s compassion for me, self-compassion came and softened my heart… a heart I had not recognized as slowly growing hard  and stoic within me.

My tears also opened a new door of curiosity for me: if I feel like the woman with the hemorrhage, maybe she has some wisdom for me. One thing I know about her story is that she broke some rules to find her healing.  I am such a rule-follower; but I wondered if I needed to break some rules, too. The ones that came to mind are the rules that add to my own pain and suffering like the ones that say things like:

  • It’s not okay to be the needy one in relationship.
  •  It’s not okay to admit you hurt if you don’t have a clear indication of exactly what is wrong, external evidence to validate the pain.
  • It’s not okay to show up for work if you come with any distractions like pain.
  • It’s not okay to not work just because you hurt. (Yes, I have internal accusations on both sides of that one!)
  • It’s not okay to write about your pain on your blog.

Today, because of my friend’s kindness, I found the courage to break a few rules. I found a soft space within that allowed me to meet my pain with honesty and openness and compassion and to receive comfort from others, God, and even from myself.

I wonder if that’s a part of why Jesus had the woman with the hemorrhage come forward and tell her story.  Though she was healed, she still had to somehow deal with her whole history of pain. I wonder if she needed to not only experience physical healing but also the healing of the compassion of Jesus and others who heard and held her story of despair and pain as well as the miracle of her healing. I wonder if, in the retelling of her story in the presence of others, she found the tenderness of self-compassion as I did today, through the love of friends.

When has friendship opened a door for self-compassion within you?

 

 

 

Self-compassion and unconditional love

“…will we dare to grow up… into the one who extends the unconditional love and deep compassion of Jesus to ourselves?”

I have recently been re-reading The Return of the Prodigal by Henri Nouwen, a thoughtful book reflecting on the story of the prodigal son through the lens of Rembrandt’s painting of the same.  Nouwen places himself inside each of the characters in that story and offers some wonderful reflections on the love of God.

The part of the book that has caught my attention this week revolves around Nouwen’s reflections on becoming the father:

But what of the father? Why pay so much attention to the sons when it is the father who is in the center and when it is the father with whom I am to identify? Why talk so much about being like the Sons when the real question is: Are you interested in being like the father? It feels somehow good to be able to say: “These sons are like me.” It gives a sense of being understood. But how does it feel to say: “The father is like me”? Do I want to be like the father? Do I want to be not just the one who is being forgiven, but also the one who forgives; not just the one who is being welcomed home, but also the one who welcomes home; not just the one who receives compassion, but the one who offers it as well?

Isn’t there a subtle pressure in both the Church and society to remain a dependent child? Hasn’t the Church in the past stressed obedience in a fashion that made it hard to claim spiritual father hood, and hasn’t our consumer society encouraged us to indulge in childish self—gratification? Who has truly challenged us to liberate ourselves from immature dependencies and to accept the burden of responsible adults? And aren’t we ourselves constantly trying to escape the fearful task of fatherhood?

In my own life, I often notice how much I struggle to grow up.

I also notice how often I consider myself to be the singular exception to my calling to love unconditionally.

Jesus taught us how to have compassion on ourselves by extending compassion toward us and by pointing our attention back toward ourselves rather than always toward others:

  • In the midst of Martha’s  distraction, Jesus helped her see herself and offered her a picture of an alternative way of living: “Martha, Martha you are worried and upset about many things”
  • In the midst of the woman at the well’s fearful hiding with half-truths, Jesus gently brought the full story to the surface so that generously compassionate, courageously authentic connection could be established: “I, the one speaking to you—I am he (the Messiah).”
  • In the midst of the woman with the completely healed hemorrhage’s chosen invisibility, Jesus stubbornly and silently held time and space for her to find enough faith to come and tell her story: “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.
  • In the midst of the woman bent over’s hope-less absence of a request for healing, Jesus felt compassion and touched her, unwilling that she should suffer one more day, even healing her on the Sabbath: “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.”
  • In the midst of cultural and religious systems that cut her off from access to the healing of her child, Jesus first seemed to uphold and then broke those rules crediting the Canaanite woman with her daughter’s healing: “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.”

So, today, this moment, will we dare to grow up, as Nouwen says, into the one who extends the unconditional love and deep compassion of Jesus to ourselves?

  •  When we are worried and bothered… will we look in a mirror and envision other possibilities
  • When we are ashamed of the truth or afraid of rejection… will we gently tell the whole truth and connect with others
  • When we are hiding in the safety of the shadows… will we hold patient silence and space for ourselves until we are ready to move forward
  • When we are bent over… will we let our hearts be moved to self-compassion, offering ourselves freedom and tender touch even if the timing is not convenient
  • When we are excluded… will we remind ourselves that we cannot not belong in the love of God

 

What will unconditional love in the form of self-compassion look like for you today?

Something about God

“When I speak about God, I offer my words as a beginning…”

My fellow Patheos blogger, Tony Jones, issued a challenge  this week to those who call themselves “Theo-bloggers” to “Write something substantive about God. Not about Jesus, not about the Bible, but about God.”

Since I am just now owning the title of blogger,  Theo-blogger feels like a stretch.

I am also still in that “four generations of women needing extra care” family space, so these aren’t deeply seasoned words.

But since, through the kindness of my internet connected friend, Bob, I know of this invitation, I thought I would give it a shot. But, truly, to ask me to write about God without writing about Jesus feels like blogging without using words.  It simply isn’t something that interests me. Stories of Jesus are the best language I know. So, I’m breaking the rules (won’t be the first time).

God is I am:

When I think of God’s “I am-ness”, it makes me think of the Samaritan woman. God is free to set God’s own rules and speak when and where and how God speaks. At the same time, I generally find God using that freedom and largeness and otherness to engage me, to invite me to connect with the One who speaks to me face to face, in Spirit and in truth, and offers me a taste of living water within.  These days I meet God’s I am-ness often in my longstanding back pain.  I meet God there and we talk, though I have to say, honestly, I’m not sure where our conversation is headed.

 God is Love:

Born of Mary, nurtured in her body, suckled at her breast, bonded to her in love.  Maybe it’s because I am witnessing my first grandchild bond so beautifully with my daughter and son-in-law these days… wonderful parents who eat and sleep (or not) love for their daughter.  It is giving me a new sense of the beauty of God coming as an infant inside Mary’s body and the Love implicit in that exquisitely tender and humbly chosen vulnerability.

 God is Comfort:

Life is painful… at times, immensely so. Pain so real and sometimes so intense and unending that we are completely silenced by it.  This week I have witnessed great pain in others facing pending death, mental illness, abuse, sickness, job loss, and betrayal. Yet, somehow, someway, somewhere God is present with comfort or perhaps, better said, God is present as Comfort. I think of the tears of Jesus with Mary of Bethany on the road after Lazarus had died.  What more could be said? What more needed to be said?

So, now I waive my magic wand and turn all my readers into Theo-bloggers and

I invite you, too, to write something about God.

For some of you, that will be easy, for others, not so much.  This was a wonderful invitation for me… harder than I expected and it was especially interesting to explore why that was so.  Interestingly, the difficulty wasn’t because I don’t know what I believe, but simply because I see “belief “ differently than I used to see it.

When I speak about God, I offer my words as a beginning, utterly aware of how much I don’t know especially in regard to God!  I speak about God with what feels like a healthy fear, risking speaking in order to step further into relationship with God and other people.  At the same time, I feel that I live in a world in which many people see, and read, belief as an endpoint, as a non-negotiable, definitive knowing, the place where curiosity has completed its work rather than simply paused to speak.  Sometimes, I wonder if there’s room for even faith to exist in the context of their unwavering certainty. Though Truth itself is solid ground, my knowing of Truth is inherently incomplete: a humbly offered, faith welcoming “best guess” on which I have staked my life.

So, in the safety of my confessed incompleteness, I hope you will take the risk to write a few things about God… or if not that, maybe you will let us in on why you elect not to write about God.  And, don’t forget, on my blog, it’s okay to break the rules.

Crazy like Jesus

“The soul of society is law; the soul of community is love.”

-Roberto Rossellini

About a year ago, I was at a women’s retreat where one of the icebreaker questions for Friday evening was something like, “Who do you want to be when you grow up?”

As we went from woman to woman, a bit of a theme emerged, many saying in one way or another that they hoped to become a “crazy old woman” as they aged.  Though those responses were obviously humorous, I think they also referenced a deep desire on our part to live with more freedom, especially freedom from “people-pleasing.”  As the gender more known for our relational awareness, we are also, though of course not exclusively, known for our inclination to relational accommodation. Sometimes that is healthy care; and sometimes it isn’t. But, I digress… back to the crazy old woman thing.

I saw a wonderful old film this weekend: Europa51. It is a “modern” day, well modern for the post war late 40’s Rome, artistic remake of the story of St. Francis of Assisi. The story line revolves around a woman who goes through a transformation that leaves her passionate about loving everyone and very out of synch with society. In short, she dared to become a “crazy old woman” before she had wrinkles. (If you want to see the film and have cable it’s on TMC soon!)

As Martin Scorsese  notes in some of his commentary on the film, Roberto Rossellini, Europa51’s director said of the film’s message,

 “People today only know how to live in society, not community. The soul of society is law; the soul of community is love.”

The wisdom of noticing and owning that core difference between society and community not only set the stage for this story, I believe it is key to understanding the story of Jesus as well as what it means to be his follower, both historically and today.  In fact the movie reminded me of the story of another woman whose love created tension with others in the more “well-reasoned” society around her: the woman with the alabaster jar.

Bold beauty making

3While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

Though the record of this woman’s loving act is simply stated, it was not a simple choice.  As is often taught, the perfume was an extravagantly generous offering, probably her entire “retirement account”, given freely in a moment of great passion.  The abundance and lack of a measured approach is a critical part of the beauty of this moment.

The gift was not only generous it was also very sensual.  Notice the words of the passage.  Alabaster…perfume of pure nard…broke…poured.  All these words engage the imagination of our eyes, nose, ears, and touch.  John’s account says that the fragrance filled the room.  Also note the absence of spoken words.  It is as if they could only have distracted from fully absorbing the intensity of such an experience.  This was a moment of overwhelming beauty, engaging the body, heart, and emotions.

This woman’s actions were very bold.  Though anointing of the head is common in Scripture, for that act to be done by a woman is radical.  Not only that, she did it publicly, in the presence of several men.  Unmeasured generosity, overwhelming sensuality, completely unconventional.  This was a shout not a whisper.

Even still, I think the most radical thing about this moment is that the creature is ministering to the Creator.  Jesus is actively receiving the nurturing care and comforting ministry from the hands of this unnamed woman.  That powerful, radical ministry came in the form of a deeply impacting experience of beauty: the jar broke, the oil flowed, fragrance saturated the air.

A harsh rebuke

4Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? 5It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.

Somewhere along the way in our Christian tradition, the idea of being a good steward has become equated with the idea of being “practical.”  Certainly, a case can be made that God is not always practical.  After all, God makes winding rivers not straight highways.  God built feast after feast into the Jewish calendar.  And there was certainly nothing “practical” or “measured” about the ornamentation on the temple.  In fact, the gospel itself is perhaps the most telling expression of God’s “foolishness.”  Why go to such an extreme expense to save a people such as us?

Sadly, in the name of practicality disguised as good stewardship, many beauty-making moments are diminished, negated, or condemned even before they come to be.  These harsh and visionless voices are not just outside us as in this story, many times they reign within.  They seek to quench the beauty-making Spirit of God.  They seek to deny the powerfully important and loving impact of moments such as these.  Jesus acted quickly to make sure that did not happen here.

Helped by beauty

6“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.”

Hear those words again.  They are words for you, oh beauty-makers of the world.  In the face of those voices, including our own inner voices that accuse, Jesus says (in effect) “You go girl!”

Jesus calls this woman’s bold act a “beautiful thing”…no other descriptors needed.  He also leaves us with the sense that this experience has been helpful to him…just as the poor can be helped in the future.  The future He will not have on earth.

Again, we note that Jesus is acutely aware of his pending death.  How sad that in this powerful and rare moment of receiving comfort, He must move so quickly to the protection of this woman and the rebuke of her accusers.

Though there was no time to savor this experience in that moment, the overwhelming fragrance of such a precious perfume, especially in such an unimaginable abundance, must have lingered with Jesus for many days.  (Unlike many of us, Jesus did not bathe every day.)  My guess is that this fragrance was perhaps the only point of comfort and goodness Jesus carried with him into the garden and the courts.  Before Pilate and while he was beaten.  The fragrance on his head mixing with the bloody crown of thorns.  Perhaps, it even endured to the cross.  Jesus was indeed helped by this moment of beauty. …

A radical reaction

10Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. 11They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.

A part of reading the power of a moment is to look at the response it draws from the opposition.  It is not unusual, though it is generally unexpected, for beauty to draw such a venomous response as Judas’.  Judas, as well as Jesus, was very impacted by this pervasively powerful experience.  His lack of ability to understand or agree with Jesus’ support of her actions further alienated him from the One he once called teacher.

A part of beginning to own the powerful contribution of beauty making is to also own the strength of the opposition to it.  We cannot expect beauty making to be smooth sailing.  Many will seek not only to avoid this form of love but to actively destroy it.  Moments of beauty like this are not trivial, they are an important part of the gospel being lived out into our world.  They are worthy of the fight.  Just as Jesus was helped by this woman long ago, so, too can we use beauty making to help His body still on earth.  Let us learn to maximize our uniquely feminine gift by living well our language of beauty making.

As is most often the case, our greatest enemy will be within.  When beauty draws the fire of the enemy, we are tempted to join the ranks of that enemy, avoiding it at all costs.  In moments such as those, tell again this story, hear again Jesus’ affirmation of beauty.  May it also be said of each of us “she has done a beautiful thing to me.”

-Excerpted from The Feminine Soul

 So, what kind of societal tension is emerging around you as you love well and nurture the “crazy old woman” inside of your soul?

Self-compassion and resistance

“We tend to believe that we welcome compassion; that the world could never have enough.  At the same time, we often resist compassion,…”

She was my first introduction to these thoughts on our resistance to compassion.  I have to admit that every time I read the words of this early review of my most recent book, My Own Worst Enemy, I still flinch.

 “Out of everything that I disagreed with the most in this book I can’t complete this review without stating that adultery is NEVER okay. You can’t justify a wife cheating on her husband because she feels powerless at work and wants to get ahead by sleeping with the boss! Calling her a victim is absurd!… So I end this review just by saying “Wow…” This was not what I expected, and I would NEVER recommend this book to ANY Christian… EVER. In fact, my copy is going in the trash.”

 The trash?  Really?

I find myself wanting to defend myself.  “I didn’t say that!  All I did was extend compassion to the woman caught in adultery for being a victim of powerful men as well as a sinner.  I just tried to help folks see that sin, even adultery, is rarely a simple choice. Especially in a culture where women had so little power and the penalty for a choice like adultery was death. Is compassion really so wrong?”

But, that defense doesn’t really get me very far or last very long… I find compassion and curiosity.

I begin to wonder about the woman who wrote those words.  About what it would feel like to be a woman who feels the need to defend the rules against the healing force of compassion with such a strong response.  (Actually… I could well have written that review a few decades ago.).  Does she think compassion would weaken them? (I did.) Does she need this woman to be nothing but wrong so she can know her own boundaries more clearly? (I did… or thought I did.) I wonder about how she sees her own limitations and sinful choices.  (It wasn’t pretty for me.) How does she see her own desperate moments and less than ideal compromises? Those times when she felt trapped or lost hope? Isn’t there room to call something sin and extending comfort and compassion all at once?

I think of myself in the now…

How hard I can be on myself at times when I look at the scales.  Why do I make gaining weight shameful?

I remember…

How brutal the internal dialogue can be when I let my schedule get too crowded… or too empty.  Or how I still criticize myself when I have failed to connect at a speaking engagement.

I am not always a safe place for me.

 Why am I so resistant to compassion?

I recall…

How hesitant I am to extend compassion to myself in the midst of my chronic pain.  How much I feel like a failure when I have to take a pain pill or, alternately, don’t have the wisdom to take one soon enough and end up frozen in pain.

I can find a way to be unkind to myself no matter which way I go.

We tend to believe that we welcome compassion; that the world could never have enough.  At the same time, we often resist compassion, especially when it is pointed at someone we need to see as wrong or at ourselves.

Why are we so resistant to compassion?

          If I receive compassion, it makes my pain or my sin or my suffering real in a way that I would prefer to deny.

 It makes me vulnerable… those who need compassion seem “less than” the one who offers it.

There’s a way in which I don’t want to let compassion touch me because it might not always be there when I need it… I want to stay hard and defended rather than to hope.

Compassion seemed to be the first order of business with Jesus and women:

He stooped to more fully meet the woman caught in adultery.

He offered the woman at the well water.

He healed the woman with the hemorrhage even before he saw her.

He protected Mary’s brave choice to sit at his feet.

He even compassionately tried to get Martha to see herself and her anxiety instead of shaming her for shaming Mary.

Jesus felt compassion on the city, the crowd, and the woman bent over. He received the compassion of another when he was anointed for burial as he marched on toward the cross. He sought the compassion of his friends, asking them to stay up with him while he suffered.

 

What do you do with compassion?  Where do you find resistance within yourself?

Self-compassion: sorting guilt and shame

“Self-compassion is an extension of Jesus’ compassion…”

In my life and work, one of the most helpful pieces of Brene Brown’s work is the way she distinguished guilt and shame.

Guilt says: I’ve done a bad thing. It is behavior focused.  It is positively correlated with healthy change. Self is not threatened so it does not need to be defensive.

Shame says: I am bad. It is personhood focused.  It is positively correlated with self-destructive behavior. Self is threatened so often goes into defensive survival mode.

 

Guilt works to preserve and maintain connection.

Shame works to disconnect us from self, God, and others.

 

And disconnection is a big deal because most of us fear isolation more than mortality.

When we mess up, we face a choice about how we will respond.

Many of us have been taught that the way of transformation and reformation is to take our sin seriously by beating up on ourselves with appropriate self-contempt and shame. We’ve been told that we “should” feel disconnected; and that anything less than that denies the holiness of God.

However, when we look at how Jesus related to women in the midst of sin, we see a very different pattern. Jesus encouraged guilt and discouraged shame. He worked to help them face their behavior and at the same time maintain personhood and connection.

Take for example his conversation with the woman at the well.  Even in the context of a cultural divide that affirmed distance, Jesus sought to connect with this woman by initiating conversation. He drew her in as he spoke about offering her what she sought: water. But, he did not stop there.  He brought to light the “shame-full” secret that was hiding beneath the surface of her life, preventing deeper connection with him.

“Go call your husband.”

When she responded with a half-truth ”I have no husband,” he persisted in revealing the facts she most feared: “”You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

He spoke of her behavior and maintained connection all the while, even affirmed her for telling the truth without mentioning that it was only half the story! He invited her to life-transforming guilt while protecting her from destructive, soul deadening, disconnecting shame.  Transformation happened when he elevated her person by speaking the truth that he was both the Messiah and the one who was seeking connection with her: “I who speak to you am he.” Self-contempt and self-criticism had no place in the story. His compassion for her invited her to be compassionate toward herself.

The same could be said of Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery, just four chapters later in John’s gospel.  Jesus stoops low, perhaps to establish a point of connection with this woman whose guilt and shame were undeniable. He does not try to mitigate, defend, diminish, dismiss, or undo her guilt (I’ve done a bad thing).  But he does try to dispel the shame through connection. He also actively acts to create an experience for her that has the healing message: you are not less than even the most righteous person in your community.  You belong.  You can stay connected to God and your community in the midst of your bad behavior being seen by all. He seeks to level the personhood playing field in the midst of maintaining the healing potential of facing her poor behavioral choice.  Again, his compassion for her shows her the healing path and self-contempt is nowhere to be found.

When we refuse self-compassion and choose self-contempt, we become dangerous to ourselves.   And in that context of self-criticism, we tend toward denial and defensiveness about our own behavior for the sake of survival.  We seek to disconnect from the truth about our own lives and so from others and from God.  When we give into our tendency toward self-contempt, we re-inforce the idea that our personhood is bad and we embolden disconnecting shame… all of which make us less likely to change our behavior.

Jesus’ compassion provided the safe relational space in which these women could openly face their errant behavior as the doorway toward making new choices. They did not need denial or defensiveness. Self-compassion is an extension of Jesus’ compassion, offering within ourselves that same safety so critical to facing the reality of our sinful, foolish behavior. It allows us to meet our guilt while maintaining the transforming power of connection with ourselves, God, and others.

Quite simply and perhaps counter-intuitively, self-compassion is the doorway to transformation.

 

How do you see guilt?  How do you see shame? How do you see Jesus’ compassion being connected to self-compassion?

 

 

 

God’s love: the source of self-compassion

“Self-compassion allows us to access a safe space of love and belonging in the midst of our imperfection because it is sourced in a Love beyond ourselves.”

My own journey toward self-compassion began with a simple observation from a passage of scripture I’ve known for a long time:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 2 Cor 1:3,4

What I noticed for the first time was the fact that God’s offer of comfort puts no per-qualifiers on the source of our affliction.

If I am hurting because of my foolishness, God offers me comfort.

If I am hurting because of my sin, God offers me comfort.

If I am hurting because of my own neglect, God offers me comfort.

God’s comfort is not in response to my doing or not doing but simply to my being and my pain. The love and comfort of God are like the rain and sunshine, falling on the righteous and unrighteous, the good and the evil, the just and the unjust.  (Matthew 5:43-48)  In fact, that kind of God-sourced love is God’s definition of being perfect.

A few months ago, I had my first at-fault car accident in almost 40 years of driving.  (Thanks be to God no one was seriously injured.) Now there may have been some mitigating factors, but when you rear end someone, it’s a pretty clear call that you’ve done something big time wrong. I was distracted by who knows what and I ran into the back of the car of a really nice guy stopped at a pedestrian crosswalk. As I stood beside the road waiting for my husband and the tow truck, it occurred to me that this was a wonderful opportunity to practice receiving the comfort and compassion of God. I had no idea how hard that would be.

As I battled this voice of self-criticism and that accusation of self-contempt, I found the image of Jesus with the woman caught in adultery coming to mind repeatedly.

The religion scholars and Pharisees led in a woman who had been caught in an act of adultery. They stood her in plain sight of everyone and said, “Teacher, this woman was caught red-handed in the act of adultery. Moses, in the Law, gives orders to stone such persons. What do you say?” They were trying to trap him into saying something incriminating so they could bring charges against him.

Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger in the dirt. They kept at him, badgering him. He straightened up and said, “The sinless one among you, go first: Throw the stone.” Bending down again, he wrote some more in the dirt.

Hearing that, they walked away, one after another, beginning with the oldest. The woman was left alone. Jesus stood up and spoke to her. “Woman, where are they? Does no one condemn you?”

“No one, Master.”

“Neither do I,” said Jesus. “Go on your way. From now on, don’t sin.” (John 8:3–11 The Message)

This woman was a sinner: no argument there from Jesus.  Though there were likely mitigating factors,  the fact of her poor choice was inescapable.

So, why was Jesus’ first move to stoop low and write on the ground, to physically place himself below her?  Since she had been made to stand in their midst, maybe a larger target for the stones (cringe!), I cannot help but feel that Jesus lowered himself to catch her shame and terror-filled eyes.

In those days after my accident, as the shame and self-criticism tried to take hold, I sensed the same thing: Jesus kept trying to catch my eye with his. I kept seeing him kneeling on the ground beside me.  I didn’t care a whit what he was writing.  Just that he was there with kind eyes, trying to connect in the midst of the disconnecting forces of shame and offering comfort in the midst of the undeniable reality of my error. He was trying to help me remember that, along with everyone else on the planet, I am prone to make mistakes and bad decisions and still worthy of love and belonging just because God loves me.

As I have said before, I am a huge fan of Brene Brown.  My favorite moment in all of her uber-famous TED talks was in the first one when she talked about holding a baby and instead of saying, “Oh, you are so perfect,” saying instead,  “Oh you are so imperfect. And you are wired for struggle. But you are completely worthy of love and belonging.”  That was what Jesus’ eyes must have said to that woman long ago and were seeking to say to me.

As Kristin Neff points out in her book, Self-Compassion, self-compassion is not the same as self-esteem.  Promoting good self-esteem tends to deny the reality of our imperfection and so is, ultimately, not real and not sustainable. It also steals the healthy motivational power of true guilt (more about that in a future blog). Self-compassion, however, allows us to access a safe space of love and belonging in the midst of our imperfection because it is sourced in a Love beyond ourselves, God’s ever-present love for us.  And that safe place is actually great soil for real change.

Go on your way. From now on, don’t sin.”