Saturday, August 27, 2016

"The Core Components of Self-Compassion"

            Last Sunday, I began a new sermon series, exploring “Self-Compassion, An Overlooked Christian Value.”  One of the inspirations for this series, as well as a guide in developing the series, is the book, Self-Compassion, The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, by Dr. Kristin Neff.[i]  This week, August 28th, we continue with the second proclamation in the series, an exploration of the three core components of self-compassion, as outlined by Dr. Neff.
            Our foundational scripture this Sunday comes from Mark 12:  28-34a.  For our purposes, the key portion of this scripture occurs when Jesus summarizes the Divine Law;

“One of the scribes…asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?  Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel:  the Lord our God, the Lord is one, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”’”

This scripture is very rich, and a whole series of sermons could be preached on these few verses alone.  Many Biblical scholars and preachers have focused on what it means to love God with all of our heart and soul and mind and strength, while others have focused on what it means to love our neighbor.  However, for our reflections this week, I would like to focus on the third, implied object of our love:  ourselves.

            Jesus says that we should love our neighbors as ourselves, which implies that we should love—or, have self-compassion—for ourselves.  What I will suggest this Sunday is that we love in response to God’s initial love for us.  Through the lens of Christian faith, we understand that the Divine seeks to enter into a loving relationship with us.  We respond to God’s amazing and boundless love for us by loving God, our neighbors, Creation, and ourselves. 

            Imagine an empty goblet.  When we begin to pour water from a pitcher, the goblet slowly fills to its rim.  If we continue to pour water into the goblet even after it is filled, then the water will begin to overflow, spilling over the edges and down its sides.  Similarly, we open ourselves to God’s love through faith in Jesus Christ, and God’s love fills us to overflowing.  Filled to overflowing with God’s love, then we respond by loving God, loving our neighbors, loving Creation, and loving ourselves.  We do not love out of obligation but simply because we are so filled with God’s love.

            In the proclamation, I will suggest that self-compassion is critical to this process of love.  If we cannot accept ourselves and have compassion for ourselves, then we have not truly accepted God’s love and we are incapable of loving our neighbor or God’s good Creation.  That is, if we cannot love ourselves first, then we are unable to keep Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

            In her study of self-compassion, Dr. Kirstin  Neff suggests that there are three core components:

1.       “Being Kind to Ourselves.”  Being kind to ourselves means that we end our harsh self-criticism, in which we condemn and beat ourselves up whenever we make a mistake or have a failure.  Dr. Neff writes, “But self-kindness involves more than merely stopping self-judgment.  It involves actively comforting ourselves, responding just as we would to a dear friend in need.  …We make a peace offering of warmth, gentleness, and sympathy from ourselves to ourselves, so that true healing can occur.”[ii]

2.      “Recognizing and Acknowledging the Common Human Experience.”  Loneliness and isolation are enemies of self-compassion.  As Kirstin Neff explains, “When we focus on our shortcomings without taking the bigger human picture into account, our perspective tends to narrow. We become absorbed by our own feelings of insufficiency and insecurity.  When we’re in the confined space of self-loathing, it’s as if the rest of humanity doesn’t even exist. This isn’t a logical thought process, but a type of emotional tunnel vision.  Somehow it feels like I am the only one who is being dumped, proven wrong, or made a fool of.”[iii] 

By contrast, we need to recognize and acknowledge that failure and set backs are simply part of the common human experience.  No one of us is perfect.  We all make mistakes; “to err is human.”  And, each of us experiences failures and disappointments.  So, an important component of self-compassion is acknowledging and accepting these common human experiences of mistakes and disappointments.

3.      “ Mindfulness.”  Mindfulness simply refers to the ability to be cognizant of what we are feeling, when we experience failure, disappointment, or pain.  Neff describes “mindfulness” in this way:  “We certainly feel the sting of falling short of our ideals, but our mind tends to focus on the failure itself, rather than the pain caused by failure.  This is a crucial difference.”[iv]  By developing mindfulness, we develop the ability to recognize what we are feeling.  Through this recognition, we gain control over all of our negative self-criticism and this facilitates our ability to be self-compassionate.

Kirstin Neff spends some time discussing suffering, which she argues is caused by resisting pain.  When disappointments and failures occur in our lives, Neff argues that we experience pain.  The temptation is to resist that pain; to fight against it.  Yet, when we resist pain that is beyond our control, then the resistance only exacerbates our suffering.  As she concludes, “Pain is unavoidable [in life]; suffering is optional.”[v]

            To summarize, there are three core components to self-compassion:  (1) Self-kindness; (2) Recognizing and acknowledging that our set-backs are part of the human experience; and (3) Mindfulness.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area, come, join us this Sunday, August 28th, at Christ United Methodist Church, as we continue with the second of our five-week study concerning self-compassion as a Christian virtue.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] Kirstin Neff, Self-Compassion, The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself (New York:  William Morro, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2011).

[ii] Neff, 42.

[iii] Neff, 63.

[iv] Neff, 81.

[v] Neff, 94.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

"Why Self-Compassion?"

            This Sunday, August 21st, we begin a new five-week sermon series, entitled:  “Self-Compassion, An Overlooked Christian Value.”  One of the inspirations for this series, as well as a guide in developing the series, is the book, Self-Compassion, The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, by Dr. Kristin Neff.[1]
            We begin this series with a simple question, “Why Self-Compassion?”  That is, “Why Is Self-Compassion Important, from a Christian perspective?”  In her study, Kirstin Neff begins by observing that most of us constantly subject ourselves to some of the harshest self-criticism.  She writes,

Most of our self-critical thoughts take the form of an inner dialogue, a constant commentary and evaluation of what we are experiencing.  Because there is no social censure when our inner dialogue is harsh or callous, we often talk to ourselves in an especially brutal way.  ‘You’re so fat and disgusting!’  ‘That was a totally stupid thing to say.’  ‘You’re such a loser.  No wonder nobody wants you.’[2]

In my own pastoral ministry, counselling many different parishioners, I have seen Dr. Neff’s observation repeated again and again.  Many within our society are especially hard on themselves, and the person they frequently have the most trouble forgiving is themselves.

            Dr. Neff suggests that there are several reasons for this very harsh self-criticism—and, sometimes self-loathing:

1.    Self-criticism is a primitive, innate behavior which helps us fit into the hierarchical  social structure necessary for survival.  Further, self-criticism allows us to preempt hostile criticism of ourselves by acknowledging and accepting our deficiencies.  Dr. Neff writes, “It’s as if we’re saying…I recognize how flawed and imperfect I am so you don’t have to cut me down and tell what I already know.  Hopefully you will then have sympathy for me instead of judging me and assure me that I’m not as bad as I think I am.’”[3]

2.    Harsh self-criticism may also result from holding ourselves to impossibly high standards, so that nothing we accomplish is ever satisfactory.  These high expectations may be rooted in feelings of supremacy.  Neff observes, “We are sending the message that normally we are very much above the average in our success, and that ‘good’ just isn’t good enough for someone so used to excellence.”[4]   Similarly, in my own life, I have often times been extremely harsh with myself in an effort to drive myself to strive for greater and greater achievement in the endeavor.  That is, I use “good” as a motivation to strive towards becoming “very good” or “great” in the future.

3.     The tendency to become our own harshest critics has been frequently inculcated by our parents or other family and close friends.  Kirstin Neff suggests that families “…use harsh criticism as a means to keep their kids out of trouble…or to improve their behavior…People deeply internalize [these] criticisms…”.[5]

4.     The broader culture also encourages us to criticize ourselves and feel worthless.  Advertisers, especially, know how to exploit our feelings of inadequacy, so that we will buy their products, even if we don’t need them.  All around us, there are forces encouraging us to be harshly self-critical of ourselves. 

            Dr. Neff proposes a heightened self-compassion as the antidote to this harsh self-criticism and sometimes self-loathing to which many of us subject ourselves:

So what’s the answer?  To stop judging and evaluating ourselves altogether.  To stop trying to label ourselves as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and simply accept ourselves with an open heart.  To treat ourselves with the same kindness, caring, and compassion we would show to a good friend, or even a stranger for that matter.[6]

Kirstin Neff acknowledges that many people may initially feel resistant to the idea of self-compassion, seeing it as an excuse or a form of self-pity or a form of self-indulgence.[7]  On the contrary, she counters that self-compassion is actually a form of healing and self-care that begins by recognizing our own suffering which is caused by this never-ending, harsh criticism and self-loathing.

            At this point, I should stop and acknowledge that for many Christians Dr. Neff’s proposal may appear to run counter to Christian teachings about how Christ calls us to live faithfully.  There is a tradition of monastic self-denial, sometimes punctuated with self-flagellation, which runs like a bright red thread through Christian history and tradition.  Further, there is this teaching from Jesus on the cost of discipleship, which is contained in the three synoptic gospels.  Here, I quote the Gospel of Luke:

23 Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. 25What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? (Luke 9:  23-25)

At first blush, it does appear as though Jesus is suggesting that we must abandon all efforts at self-compassion, if we are to faithfully follow him.  However, in my proclamation on August 21st, I will suggest that self-compassion is not mutually exclusive with the demands of discipleship that Jesus outlines for his followers.  Let’s take a closer look at the three demands of discipleship:

a,  “let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”  In the first place, denial and self-compassion are not opposites, here.  In my reflections on Sunday, I will suggest that sometimes self-denial and self-compassion may work hand-in-hand.  As an illustration, consider someone who has been told by their doctor that they are overweight and that this may seriously impact their future health.  Suppose also that this patient takes their physician’s admonitions very seriously.  They begin to diet, a form of self-denial.  They also employ a physical trainer who puts them through rigorous work-outs which leave them exhausted and sore.  Given their health diagnosis, we would all agree that these forms of self-denial were actually the most self-compassionate thing they could do for themselves.    
       Further, Jesus' admonition to “take up their cross daily” does not necessarily mean that all Christians are required to be crucified, although there have been martyrs for the faith, both historically and in the present.  Instead, “to take up your cross daily” means to faithfully follow Jesus daily.  The biblical scholar Alan Culpepper argues that the Greek grammar of this verse suggests that “Jesus emphasizes not readiness to die with Jesus in the hour of persecution, but rather that discipleship requires a continuing, daily yielding of one’s life to the call to follow Jesus.”[8]

b.  “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”  In this demand, Jesus is not placing self-compassion in opposition to discipleship.  Instead, he is arguing that true self-fulfillment and happiness can only be found in investing our lives in something greater than ourselves; for Christians that means investing our lives in following Christ.  Here, it is important to remember that Christians invest their lives in following Christ in response to God’s love for us.  Through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ, we know that God’s love is always reaching out to us, seeking us, calling us to enter into a relationship with God which is defined by Divine Love.  We have come to understand that God’s love is awesome; literally beyond our comprehension.  And so, in response to this Divine love, we respond in a four way love:  We love the Divine; we love other persons; we love all of Creation; and, indeed, we love ourselves because of this Divine Love.  So, rather than being at opposites, self-compassion is consistent with the response of discipleship.

c.  “What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?”  In this saying, Jesus moves into the world of the marketplace.  Again, biblical scholar Culpepper, “In a materialist culture we are easily seduced by the assumption that security and fulfillment are achieved by means of financial prosperity.  …This saying reminds us that there are dimensions of life vital to fulfillment and happiness that are not satisfied by financial security or material wealth.  The implication left unstated is that each person should seek those things that bring true fulfillment.”[9]  Once again, self-compassion should be viewed as an essential component to true self-fulfillment.

            To summarize, self-compassion is not necessarily contradictory to faith and the Christian lifestyle.  On the contrary, what I intend to develop over the next five weeks is that self-compassion is actually a Christian virtue; howbeit, an overlooked virtue.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area, come, join us this Sunday, August 21st, at Christ United Methodist Church, as we embark upon a five-week study of self-compassion and Christian virtue.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1] Kirstin Neff, Self-Compassion, The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself (New York:  William Morro, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2011).
[2] Neff, 23-24.
[3] Neff, 24.
[4] Neff, 29.
[5] Neff, 25.
[6] Neff, 6.
[7] Neff, 12.
[8] R. Alan Culpepper, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 9, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.
[9] Ibid.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

“What Does the Lord Expect from Our Worship?”

            Every weekend, usually on Sunday mornings, millions of American Christians gather together to praise and worship God.  The gathering of the community of faith to worship and praise God is at the center of Christian life and discipleship.  It would be hard to overstate the centrality of these weekly acts of communal worship.
            Clergy and other worship leaders regularly receive feedback on whether or not our parishioners experienced meaningful worship at our weekly gatherings.  Here, at Christ United Methodist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, we have an outstanding traditional music program.  As the Senior Pastor, people frequently share with me how much they have appreciated our music program on a particular Sunday.  Sometimes they have been moved by our Chancel Choir; at other times, it is our Handbell Choir…or the Children and Youth choirs… or the Serenity Singers … or the Men’s Choir… or the Braze Ensemble… or the Quartet.  Often, people stop to share how much they appreciate the leadership of our Music Directors, John and Laura Ross.

            Whenever I hear compliments about our music program, I always try and share them with John and Laura because as a congregation we are very blessed to have their music leadership.  Sometimes, there are other compliments about the service.  Perhaps people found a particular Children’s Time especially cute, or they were moved by a prayer or some other part of the liturgy.  Many, many times, people compliment and affirm my sermons, telling me how a particular proclamation really spoke to them, and I deeply cherish each of those affirmations.

            Of course, we also receive our fair share of negative feedback.  Usually this feedback centers on some structural aspect of the service—or, some experiment that we’re trying.  For instance, I may hear observations, such as, “Hey, I’ve noticed that the services are going a little longer; can we be better at finishing up in an hour?”  Or, “I don’t like walking to the back of the Sanctuary to receive Holy Communion.  Can we go back to the old way, where everyone comes to the front?”

            I should say that I appreciate all of the feedback that we receive—both the positive and the negative—because it helps the Worship Staff and me to improve our services and make them as meaningful as possible for our gathered community of faith.  Yet, at the same time, I think that it is important to note the direction of this feedback:  it comes from the people, and it centers on how meaningful they found the service.  We could frame the underlying question in this way:  “What Does the Congregation Expect from Worship?”

            This week, our foundational scripture reading turns the question around.  The Bible asks:  “What Does the Lord Expect from Our Worship?”   This question occurs in the prophet Micah, and the answer which God provides is quite surprising.  Since the passage is rather short, I’ve quoted all of it below:

6“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 8He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (NRSV)

            Micah 6 begins with the image of a courtroom scene in which God brings charges against the people of Israel, who are God’s special Chosen People.  The basic accusation is that the Chosen People have been unfaithful in keeping the Covenant, or Contract, which they entered into with God.  That is, God’s Chosen People have been unfaithful.  Earlier in the chapter in Micah 6:  1-2, God proposes that the mountains and hills will serve as the jury in this trial. 

Then, in Micah 6:  3-5, God proceeds to remind the Israelites of how God has faithfully supported them through every trial and challenge which they have faced as the Chosen People.  God gives specific examples and reminds them of specific incidents from their history.  In this way, God builds an overwhelming case, demonstrating how God has faithfully upheld their Covenant, even though the Chosen People themselves have been very lax and neglectful.

Our passage for Sunday, Micah 6:  6-8, depicts a voice from the Chosen People, someone who speaks representing all of the Israelites.  Convicted by the overwhelming evidence just presented by God, the representative voice wonders, “What can we do to atone for our sins and live faithfully, keeping our Covenant as God’s Chosen People?”

Verses 6-7 focus on worship, praise, and sacrifice.  In verse 6, the representative voice asks about how he can make his worship pleasing to God.  The speaker lifts up the traditional understandings of worship for his time.  He mentions bowing before God and bringing calves for a burnt offering honoring God.  Then, in verse 7, the speaker ups the ante, by speaking in hyperbole, would God be satisfied with extraordinary sacrifices?

à the sacrifice of thousands of rams
à the sacrifice of ten thousands of rivers of oil

à even the sacrifice of the speaker’s firstborn child, which was a repulsive idea

In our final verse, Micah 6:8, God responds to the representative interlocutor.  And, God’s answer is completely unexpected.  It turns out that God is not interested in the quantity or quality of our worship.  No.  Instead, God is more interested in the quality of our lives and our faithfulness in keeping the Covenant as God’s Chosen People, which God extends to all persons through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ.

What does the Lord Expect from Worship?  In verse 8, God gives a threefold summary of what is expected: 

1.  “to do justice.” That is, God calls upon the Chosen People to work for fairness and equality for everyone, but especially those who are weak, powerless, and marginalized. 

2.  “to love kindness.”  The Hebrew word used in Micah is hesed, which has a very deep and rich meaning that goes beyond our simple English word of just being nice to other people.  Instead, its deeper meaning revolves around “love, loyalty, and faithfulness” towards God by treating others with “love, loyalty, and faithfulness.”

3.  “to walk humbly with God.”  To walk humbly with God means that we put God first in our lives and that we live in conformity with God’s will, working to establish justice and kindness in the world.

When we turn the question around and ask, “What Does the Lord Expect from Our Worship?” Micah provides an unexpected and radical answer.  It turns out that God does not focus on the beauty of our music, or the depth of our prayers, or the eloquence of our sermons.  According to Micah, none of that really matters to God.  Instead, what the Lord expects from our Worship is that we enter worship having lived a lifestyle of faithfulness that centers on justice, kindness, and humility, as described above.  From God’s perspective, the quality of our Worship is already pre-determined before we enter the sanctuary by the lives we have lived and the deeds we have done.


Come, join us this Sunday, August 7th, at Christ United Methodist Church, as we reflect on what it means to offer up worship which is pleasing to God.  Since justice is so central to Micah 6:  6-8, we will explore justice and how we as individuals—and as a gathered community of faith—can work for justice in our community by focusing on public education in our schools.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.