Are you a backslider?

I think I was saying something irreverant when my husband quipped, "Watch out, or you will become a 'backslider.'"

We both giggled a bit about this.

The term has fallen out of vogue lately. I haven't heard it in awhile. But it got me thinking: who came up with this phrase in the first place?

Why does it get wielded in threatening ways in some Christian circles? Or at least it used to. According to my formerly Baptist dad, this was one of the worst things you could ever call a fellow church member.

I looked up a definition of backsliding and this is what I found:

The term "backsliding" is usually used to describe believers making unrighteous choices such as excessive drinking, sexual immorality, foul language, low church attendance, or similar outward behaviors.

"Huh," I thought.

So we are doing ok when we are making "righteous choices" which, according to this definition, look like no alcohol, sexual purity (whatever that is), no swearing, and going to church.

Ok.

But which of any of those behaviors have anything to do with following Jesus and loving my neighbor?

I am not advocating becoming a foul-mouthed, bar-hopping, sex addict.

But I do wonder if the whole idea of "backsliding" is way off target.

After my husband jokingly labeled me as such, I started to wonder,

What if the sliding we were worried about in backsliding was sliding away from love?

Moving away from compassion?

Slipping down the slope away from empathy and toward hard-heartedness?

Falling away from humility and landing in a pile of self-righteous arrogance?

What if backsliding was less about harmful personal behaviors and more about the ways we harm our neighbors?  (Sometimes even in the name of religion.)

Or harm God's good creation?

Or harm the poor, the sick, the hungry, the lonely, the broken, the tired, the bruised, the orphan, the fatherless, the widow?

What if I was not a backslider because I said a coarse word when I dropped a plate,

but because I refused to feel sorrow and move toward right action when I saw children being ripped from their parents at the border?

What if you are not a backslider because you don't go to church as much,

but because you don't go to your neighbor's house with a pot of soup?

What if we are not backsliders because we enjoy a cold beer on a hot day,

but because we refuse to enjoy the creation God has entrusted to our gentle care and instead treat the earth as some kind of cheap, dispensable commodity?

I wonder if it might be a good idea to bring the word backslider back into vogue.

Only to be used - of course - in our own self-examination process,

and to help us see that the really dangerous slippery slope

is always the one that moves us away from love.

Always.

My body is my own

I first realized my body was not my own when I was about 15.

My swim coach started to weigh me alongside my teammates. 

Publicly.

Each of us had to stand on the scale in front of each other.

Our coach recorded our weights in a little black notebook. We got on the scale prior to performing a rigorous set of calisthenics and then diving into the pool for our second grueling swim practice of the day.

I was traumatized.

It was the beginning of my sense of shame for being female. For being a developing adolescent. For being hungry; for wanting to eat a lot after swimming four hours a day.

The message was never spoken outright. And perhaps it wasn't the message I was supposed to receive. But the message my young mind heard was:

"You are faster when you are thinner.

You are admired and celebrated when you are faster.

Therefore, if you can remain thinner - even pre-pubescent - you will be more valuable."

I started to keep track of calories in my journal, recording even apples and carrots to the calorie.

I wrote full-page notes to myself that simply said: "Do not eat." And then I drew little hearts around that toxic message.

Instead of celebrating all the changes of puberty, I dreaded them.

I never developed a full-fledged eating disorder but I certainly developed disordered eating.

I developed a quiet, ever-present sense of dread about the normal growth of my human body and it has never left. 

The weighing thing only lasted a summer. But the scars remain.

Why am I telling you this?

Because I am 100% confident I am not the only woman with a story like this.

And, because I am finally - in my mid-50's - using the full-force of my mind and heart to push back against the toxic message I was given as a vulnerable adolescent young woman, eager to please her swim coach.

My body is no one's but mine.

My body - no one's body - should ever be a source of shame.

I should not feel the need to starve it or assess it or harm it to try to fit into someone else's idea about how it should look or move or be.

My body is my own.

And today I am honoring it for all the things it has allowed me to do in life.

Run two (really slow) marathons!

Complete multiple triathlons.

Survive a ruptured appendix, faulty sinus surgery, a shredded ACL in my knee.

Give birth to three of the most exquisite human beings I know.

Live a happy, healthy, hearty life.

I still struggle. Those old wounds fester.

But in the spirit of self-compassion and less self-aggression, I am making friends with this ol' body of mine. 

Because she is mine. 

And she is good.

 

 

The Inner Critic ...

The great TS Eliot - in his play The Elder Statesman - puts it best:

What is this self inside us, this silent observer,

Severe and speechless critic, who can terrorize us

And urge us on to futile activity

And in the end, judge us still more severely

For the errors into which his own reproaches drove us?

Ah, The Inner Critic ... Hello, old friend!

This voice lives inside our heads, exists to call out our flaws, flagellates us for having them and drives us onward in a never-ending quest to perfect ourselves.

For some, the voice is loud; others soft. For the rare few, non-existent.

Mine is pretty loud - squawking at me for minor infractions like snoozing a few times past my alarm, not exercising hard enough, wasting time reading the news or letting the home get dirty, dusty and generally um ... lived-in.

As I've gotten older, I've learned to quiet it a bit. I hear it, I recognize it and I tell it that it can take the day off. That I can handle things on my own, thank you very much.

But as I've been pondering my resolution of "less self-aggression; more self-compassion" (see last post) I have been wondering how my Christian faith is tied up with my Inner Critic.

Where does this inner critical voice come from? 

Is it of God? Is it part of what it means to be aware of my own sin? Is it a voice the kindly leads me to repentance - to changing my mind about how I want to live and turning toward better ways? 

Or is its origin elsewhere? And does it lead - if we let it -  somewhere darker, more sinister?

Does this voice of indictment come from the source Christians call "The accuser?" 

If so, how do I respond to it?

Is it some strange hybrid of both light and darkness?

And is part of my job to untangle the sources?

More questions than answers today.

Curious about your thoughts, though. Have you ever wondered about these things?

How loud is your inner critic?

Have you learned to quiet him or her at all?

To what or whom do you attribute the criticizing statements in your own head?

What is their source?

 

Radical self-compassion ...

Here it is - the end of 2020.

Last year at this time none of us could have imagined what this year would bring.

Truth is, none of us know what lies ahead this year, either.

Uncertainty is the nature of life.

Rather than leaning into this reality many of us try to reduce uncertainty by controlling the one thing we think we can control.

Ourselves.

Typically, this looks like the good ol' New Year's Resolutions deal.  We take a look at ourselves, at our lives, we find what's wrong and we set our mind on fixing it. Fixing ourselves. Getting control over all that feels out of control. Our eating, our drinking, our spending, our speeding, our talking, our sleeping, our watching, our playing, our working, our yelling.

Nothing terrible about this, BTW.

If this floats your boat, go ahead and set sail.

This year - for me - is going to look different. 

This year I am going to choose only one thing to focus on, to work on, to try harder at.

Less self-aggression; more self-compassion.

Just writing it makes my shoulders drop, my jaw relax, my neck feel less rigid.

You see, resolutions tap into my inner critic. They tap into a sense of shame about who I am and what I'm like. They rely on guilt and willpower for energy. And truth be told, they almost always fail. And that creates a vicious cycle ...

And I am tired of running in circles.

So, this year I am giving myself a gift. And by doing so, I hope to give the rest of the world a gift, as well.

Because a less self-aggressive Alice means a kinder Alice. And boy oh boy, this world could use a kinder Alice.

And a more self-compassionate Alice means a gentler Alice. And man oh man, this world could use a  gentler Alice.

So as 2020 silently morphs into 2021, I will look back. I will think through this last year. I will attend to where I've succeeded as well as where I've stumbled.

And I will take a deep breath and I will whisper to myself: "You did the best you could, sweetheart. You survived, even thrived in a few areas. You mostly tried to pay attention to what matters. You got sidetracked here and there and you've got some habits that don't serve you. But - thanks be to God - you did the best you could."

And I will whisper a prayer of gratitude for another chance to be alive in this amazing and confounding world.

And I will practice kindness, gentleness and compassion. 

And I will start with myself.

And I will let that be enough.

Don't surrender your loneliness ...

Sometimes, amidst the holiday hustle and bustle, I feel lonely.

Do you?

I don't quite know why and maybe that doesn't matter.

What matters - I am learning - is that I pay attention to the loneliness, even learn from it.

Becoming a student of loneliness demands I sink down into it. That I feel it, all the way down. That I don't try to deny it, push it away, or seek to get out from under it.

I am discovering - often painfully - that loneliness has much to say to me, much wisdom to offer, even a gentle kind of friendship.

Hafiz - a Persian poet from the 14th century - writes eloquently about our misunderstood friend in this lovely, haunting poem.

"Don't surrender your loneliness
So quickly.
Let it cut more deep.
Let it ferment and season you
As few human
Or even divine ingredients can.
Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice
So tender,
My need of God
Absolutely
Clear."

Hafiz, 1320 – 1389

A poem for today ...

Poetry has been saving my weary soul lately.

I have been reading Padraig O Tuama's spiritual memoir, In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World and it is rich with his poems.

Here is one that took my breath away this morning.

Collect

God of watching,

whose gaze I doubt and rally against both,

but in which I take refuge, despite my limited vision.

Shelter me today,

against the flitting nature of my own focus,

and help me find a calm kind of standing.

And when I falter, which is likely,

give me the courage and the kindness to begin again with hope and coping.

For you are the one whose watchfulness is steady.

Amen.

God of silence,

who watches our growth and decay,

who watches tsunamis and summer holidays,

who cares for the widow, the orphan,

the banker, the terrorist, the student,

the politician, the poet, the freedom fighter.

We pray to be nurtured in our own silences.

We pray that we might find in those silences

truth, compassion, fatigue and hearing.

Because you, you, you see all, and are often silent.

And we need to hope that you are not inattentive to our needs.

Amen.

God of darkness

You must be the god of darkness

because if you are not, who else can we turn to?

Turn to us now.

Turn to us.

Turn your face to us.

Because it is dark here.

And we are in need. We are people in need.

We can barely remember our own truth, and if you too have 

forgotten,

then we are without a hope of a map.

Turn to us now.

Turn to us.

Turn your face to us.

Because you turned toward us in the body of incarnation.

You turned toward us.

Amen.

 

 

 

Most of what I love ...

I heard a poem yesterday ... or I should say, a part of a poem.

I am not sure who the author of the poem was.

I am not even sure I have the phrase right.

Nonetheless, I have been captured by its truth, this little, potentially misquoted, phrase.

Here is it:

"Lord, most of what I love mistakes itself for nothing."

I urge you to read that phrase aloud, perhaps several times in a row.

S-l-o-w-l-y ...

Most

of what I love

mistakes itself

for

nothing.

A cup of hot coffee made by my husband, often delivered to me in bed.

A late afternoon phone call from one of our adult kids, full of news of their life.

My mom's smiling face as she pulls out of our driveway with a fresh loaf of my homemade sourdough bread.

My dad's voice on the phone when he hears it's me calling ... "Hey, Al!"

The resilience of a student I know who is rising up and out of generational poverty.

The prayers of a faithful elderly widow friend.

A hot bowl of stew on a chilly night.

A lovely glass of dry red wine.

A sunset on a Thursday night.

Fresh sheets on our bed.

The friendly wave of a neighbor as I leave for work.

The smile of an immigrant new to our community whose language I do not speak.

Should I continue?

What things (or people) you love tend to "mistake themselves for nothing?"

What might you do to force yourself to see the gift these ordinary, everyday, often-overlooked gems actually are?

Why do you think this poet starts this statement by addressing God?

Is this sentence a prayer?

If so, how might it become yours?

"Lord, most of what I love mistakes itself for nothing."

(God, I pray I am quoting this poet correctly! But if not, what a fantastic mistake I have made. Forgive me.)

There is your task ...

Psychologist Carl Jung said : "Where your fear is, there is your task."

I am not sure what Jung meant by this. Nonetheless, it has impacted me as I have battled fear lately.

Here's how:

* First, it has caused me to get very specific about the details of my fear. Though it is a strange way to hone in on something like fear, I have asked myself "Where is your fear, Alice?"

Being forced to look clearly and seek intensely for the source of my anxiety, the exact location of my worry, has proven fruitful.

You can't fight what you haven't named.

* Instead of seeing fear as an enemy, as something to be run from or suppressed, I have taken Jung at face value and have started to view my fear as my task.

I ask the fear - "What are you here to teach me?"  "What do I need to learn from you?"  "What do I need to let go of in order for you to dissipate?"  "What misguided ways of thinking are causing you to grow out of proportion to reality?"

There are deep lessons to be learned when we are afraid. I don't want to miss them.

* When I approach fear as something I can learn from rather than something I should run from my whole mindset changes.

I no longer feel in the grip of fear. Instead, I feel empowered by my own curiosity. Fear is not something to be afraid of (see what I did there?) but something I can learn from, grow through and eventually leave by the wayside once it has served its purpose. Once I have done the work.

What I have been discovering is that there is something underneath fear that needs attention. 

When I see that deeper issue as my task, as a thought or a belief or a circumstance that is asking for my focus, the true work begins.

This has actually turned into a rich time of exploration of some issues that were badly in need of some scrutiny.

I leave you with some questions:

Where is your fear located?

What is underneath it?

What might it have to teach you?

"Where your fear is, there is your task."

Get to work, friends ...

 

 

What is anxiety?

I have been learning a lot about fear lately.

More than merely feeling  fear and "learning" that way, I have been digging in to the literature on the topic. Learning from those who study fear for a living.

Three definitions have proved inordinately helpful as I wrestled with my own thoughts and emotions of late.

Fear - The perception (thought) of imminent threat or danger to an individual's safety or security.

AnxietyAn enduring emotional state when individuals anticipate a personally aversive, unpredictable and uncontrollable future situation that is perceived (thought) to threaten their vital interests.

Worry A persistent chain of repetitive, uncontrollable thinking (there's that thought thing again!) that focuses on uncertain future negative outcomes. Also, repeated mental rehearsal (thought!) of possible solutions that fail to resolve the uncertaintly about the impending threat.

Recognize yourself in any of these definitions?

Sometimes the naming of things helps right-size them.

Putting into words what is going on in our minds is the first step in gaining some kind of upper hand over these thought processes that can feel overwhelming and overpowering when we are caught up in their vortex.

One thing I noticed with each of these definitions is that they all have to do with thoughts, perceptions and the imagined future we all create.

Now fear of an immediate danger is vital to life - think braking hard before you blow through a red light.

But all kinds of other fears - in my life at least - are simply made up. They are not reality. They are mere perceptions, thoughts I create.

All kinds of anxiety simply stems from me drumming up potential bad outcomes for future events I have either invented or over which I have little control.

Worry is merely a stubborn habit of my mind.

Naming these truths has been powerful for me. I hope they help you in some way, too.

More thoughts coming about ways I have been learning to help my poor, overworked, anxious mind in the midst of the uncertain times in which we all find ourselves.

 

A relentless effort ...

I have been thinking lately about fear, anxiety and worry.

In fact, I've been experiencing this fun little trifecta quite a bit as I go throughout my days.

I am sure the world has felt this shaky and uncertain before but I certainly don't remember it during my lifetime.

A global pandemic ...

Fresh, painful, almost daily reminders that our country still bears the deep wounds of racism ...

A toxic political environment ...

All combine to create fertile soil in which fear can take root and grow like a late-summer weed.

This sentence that has stuck in my mind as of late:

"A relentless effort to seize control is a basic element of fear and anxiety."

I read that and a sly smile crossed my lips.  "Who, me?  Relentlessly try to seize control of the universe? Well, I never ..."

But of course it is true.

Is it true of you?

When the world spins faster and faster, when chaos reigns, when even the simplest of things no longer feel manageable, don't you want to double-down on control, too?

The problem with this very understandable plan is that it sets us up for even more fear and anxiety than we originally experienced.

If a "relentless effort to seize control" is a basic element of fear, then it certainly seems that the better strategy when we feel fearful is something that looks and feels like a softening, a yielding, a kind of surrender.

Ponder this today whenever fear, anxiety or worry bubble up in your soul. Remember that control is an illusion at best, and a thief of your joy and peace at worst.

Instead, open your hands, take a few slow, deep breaths and,

Ask yourself:

*  What can I do to soften?

*  How can I yield control rather than grasp for it?

*  What kind of relentless effort do I need to surrender?

*  What might God want me to learn in this moment of fear?