In the gospel today, Jesus said that anyone who does the will of God is his mother, brother, or sister. He defines his family by those who do God’s will. Jesus also taught us that our God is a God of love, which is the starting point for knowing God’s will. Jesus reminded us of the great commandments. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
I’ve had some very helpful nudgings from this congregation recently. Many of them have been in your consistent reminders to take care of myself since my knee injury, and collectively you’ve seemed to know that I would need a lot of those reminders. Being patient with my body isn’t easy for me.
There were two more nudgings as well. One of you asked if I could say more to acknowledge the pain people have and struggle with. That certainly felt important. Then came another call, asking me if I could preach about self-love.
I’ve concluded that the Spirit herself has been at work in all of this. Self-love is a very exciting topic to speak about! I’ve spent most of my continued education time during my years as your pastor working on this for myself, and I think I’ve learned a few things that might be of use. Yet, this is also a nerve wracking topic to talk about, both because it requires great vulnerability and because it is a tender topic with which I might accidentally do harm.
Nevertheless, it is time to talk about loving ourselves. When we say“Love your neighbor as yourself,” we tend to ignore the implicit assumption that we love ourselves contained in the rule. To prepare for this sermon I asked on Facebook and through some emails for people to offer definitions of love. I told them it was for preaching, I did not share that I was going to preach about loving ourselves!
The answers were, of course, amazing. A lot of the responses reflected careful consideration followed by a conclusion that defining love is very difficult and perhaps impossible. I got wished “good luck” rather a lot! Some tried to find the words anyway, and I think you’ll find them useful for reflection. In order not to distract you, I’m going to offer some of your definitions words without attributing them.
- Love is more of an action than anything else. For example, I find making the bed in the morning a complete waste of time, my husband loves to come home to a made bed, when I make the bed, I do it for him because I know it will make him happy, that’s love.
- The glue of the Trinity, spilling over into creation.
- I feel that love is a choice. It stems from a feeling, but it is a solid, daily choice. the movement of goodness itself…
- Spirit is Love and Love is Spirit
Accepting each others thoughts and feelings
Reaching a hand in church
In the middle of the night reaching out to touch
- love cannot be defined because a definition automatically puts boundaries and love is not bounded
- One can give examples of the affects of love on both the lover and the object of that love (animate or inanimate) and the effects of love-Love casts out fear
Finally, one among you shared a set of profound thoughts, which I cannot summarize or shorten without weakening it:
Love can mean many things depending on the context.
I think you mean love as it involves people or spirit rather than things like ice cream or sports.
With regard to people, love is a state of unlimited commitment where two people or even in some cases like a pet dog become so in sync with one’s feelings that the object of love is an extension of the person and foibles are overlooked or forgiven.
Then there is spiritual love =the love of God or Jesus which is our rock of support -it is often recognized in retrospect like in the expression `If not for the love of God I would have suffered’. When one recovers from a traumatic experience or accident one is grateful for the love of the Divine.
I know that scientists and engineers are often tagged as non-believers unless some measurement standard can document the cause of an event. I don’t agree – there’s more than mortals can conjure up that is involved. So these are my ramblings – I’ll be interested in the views of others and remain thankful for all the love I have experienced.
Another among you has since reminded me to tell you that love is so powerful as to be very dangerous. Since I was reminded of that I’ve been trying figure out if that applies to self love or not. It seems to me that romantic love is far more dangerous than self love, but then again that the world as we know it would fall apart if we were good at self love. (At least, the US economy would!) So perhaps self love is quite dangerous as well.
Now, the logical among you (and there are plenty of you!) are going to wish that at this point I’d offer a definition of self-love, despite the fact that I’ve just shown you by example how very hard it is to define love at all. I’m going to give this my best shot. Self-love is “loving yourself as you’d love your neighbor.” Or, perhaps it might be better for some of us to say “loving yourself as you’d want a dearly loved one to be able to love themselves.” I say this because most people I know are far kinder to their loved ones than themselves. We speak to ourselves in ways we’d never permit ourselves to speak to anyone else.
There are 4 girls in this world I consider my nieces, including one who is biologically my niece. The two oldest are old enough to sometimes be terribly hard on themselves, and life has sometimes given me the chance to have heart-to-heart talks with them when they’re in the midst of self-blame. Because of my deep love for them and because of the training I’ve had in listening, I’ve sometimes been able to help them translate their own self-criticisms. It turns out that “I’m an idiot” usually means something else entirely, for instance, “I’m feeling frustrated that I can’t find my long underwear, and I’m afraid it is a fundamental flaw in my humanity that I could have lost them.” Once translated, it becomes much easier to think together about whether or not misplaced long underwear are really such an enormous failure.
Now, clearly, misplacing one’s long underwear does not an idiot make. We all have the capacity to assure a beloved child of that. I’m less confident about our ability to remember that when dealing with ourselves. We jump from a small infraction of our ideals to an enormous overstatement of our failures. We keep the self-criticism tightly wound inside, most of us keep it so tightly wound that we try to pretend it away even to ourselves.
The jump from small infraction to utter failure is the work of an internal “self-critic.” We all have them. These are parts of ourselves that manage to jump to strong, universal, and nasty criticisms at lightspeed. They sound like this: “I’m lazy.” “No one really likes me.” “I’m stupid.” “I’m selfish.” “Everything is wrong and it is all my fault.” “I’m going to fail.” “I’m fat.” “I’m going to get fired.” “I’m ugly.” “I’m unlovable.” “I don’t deserve to be here.” Most of us have a lot of them, and they’re powerful. While they all sound more or less alike, each of us have our own set with their own particular refrains. Self-critics within say things we’d never allow others to say to us – and would never say to others – and they say them regularly.
The most shocking thing I’ve learned this decade is that self-critics are TRYING TO HELP us. They’re just really, really bad at it. They actually want to protect and support us, but they have bad communication skills. They think yelling at us and shaming us will motivate us to do better. Instead, it can cripple us at times, it keeps us afraid, and it doesn’t give us any sense of freedom. However, it is possible to learn how to TRANSLATE the criticism! Under the ugly words is a loving intention, and if you listen to that self-critic the way you might listen to a beloved niece, you can find it. The best part is that once you hear the loving-intention underneath the criticism, the critic often stops yelling and gives you some peace!
Listening to our self-critics is terrifying. However, in my experience, it is more frightening to contemplate than to do. Because the self-critic always has a loving intention, and because that loving-intention hasn’t usually been heard, it is actually sort of lovely! It is far worse to hear the criticisms regularly yelled from within than it is to hear the loving-intention!
One of the harshest critics I’ve had in my life used to tell me quite often that I was “too much.” This was extended to include, “too loud, too big, and too pushy.” I heard it MANY times a day. With the guidance of a loving teacher, I was able to hear beneath it. The self-critic was still feeling the pain of being an unpopular elementary school student, and was trying to help me control myself in ways that might make me more like-able. The self-critic hadn’t meant to hurt me! It really did want to help, it was just scared! Once I heard the loving-intention, it toned down. I still hear from her once in a while, but only in fairly extreme circumstances (when maybe I should be keeping my mouth shut after all!). Even then, the bite that once sought to control me isn’t there anymore.
There is a quote I’ve always loved, “Love me when I least deserve it because that’s when I really need it.” This applies to others when they’re not able to behave well, and it applies to ourselves when we’re not able to behave well, and it applies to our self-critics! , Now, I don’t want to send you off to face your self-critics without a bit more guidance. If you are ready to live without quite as much internal yelling, then I suggest a few things. It helps a lot to write things down. “I’m too much” was a terrifying, almost heart-stopping thing to hear inside myself, but in black and white on paper it looked a lot smaller. If you have a person you trust, they are often quite helpful in working on translating with you. (Including your pastor.) The process takes some time, so be patient with yourself. It may sound silly, but it requires actually listening to the self-critic in order to get to the loving intention. And, as loud and hurtful as self-critics can be, they’re also sorta shy. Here is a link to a list of universal feelings and needs:
https://workcollaboratively.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/wc_needs-feelings-inventory.pdf. It helps to remember that we all have needs, the needs are universal, needs do not make us weak – AND most self-critics are trying to help us meet a need!! A very difficult to internalize reminder: we can actually get along without self-critics. They are not the only reason we get anything done, we are able to function and even thrive without internal yellers.
I started this conversation with the precious moments I’ve had when I’ve been able to help translate my niece’s fears. I started that way on purpose. Our inner critics are a lot like hurting children, and they respond best to patient, gentle, loving attention; and they sometimes need some affirmation that we know they’re hurting before they can trust us to work with them. The ways we seek to help children when they’re hurting are the same skills we can use to be more loving to ourselves.
Doing the work to love ourselves is a part of God’s will. If God loves us, then God doesn’t want us spoken to in hurtful and abusive ways. Thus, the time it takes to find the loving-intention is time well spent. Furthermore, love itself is a cool thing. Every time it stretches out in a new direction, it expands its capacity. As we love others more, we can love ourselves more. As we love ourselves more, we can love God more. As we love God more, we can love others and ourselves more.
Love is the will of God.
May we do God’s will. Amen
Rev. Sara E. Baron
First United Methodist Church of Schenectady
603 State St. Schenectady, NY 12305