I read an article in the January issue of Guideposts Magazine that author Debbie Macomber has a daily practice of choosing one word to focus on as part of her meditation and devotion for an entire year. Each word has changed and enhanced her life and relationship with God. Since reading her article I have been wondering if I were to do the same thing, what word would I chose and why? If it’s one that I will focus on for 365 days, it needs to be an important word that will have a lasting impact on my life and my relationship with God.
As I think of a word, I can’t help but reflect on 2011 and everything that happened. The moments are abundant and thinking about them is overwhelming. Maybe if I chose one word to focus on, that will help to discern what I have learned and how I will mature. Four words come to mind. All of them are important in my life right now, but I recognize the need to narrow the list down to one. Let’s see if I can do that.
I am humbled at the moments and places where God uses me. God sets me in the precious arrival of life, the heart-breaking moment of illness, and the gracious stillness of death. When I think that the next minute can’t top what I’ve encountered, God provides another breath-taking pause in my work and ministry. It has been during the summer and fall where I have been learning to be a presence for God and share God’s word, even without uttering a sound. I hold a hand, sit at bedside, or share a tear. These have been moments of grace I will never forget. I walk down the halls of the hospital not knowing what I will face when I enter a patient’s room. God knows and for whatever reason, has allowed me to enter in and be that presence. I am humbled.
2011 also brought opportunities to encounter people who quite honestly, didn’t seem to know what the word “humility” meant – at least not in their words and actions. I hope that I am wrong. This area is where I struggled the most. How did these words and actions come out of people and how do I respond as a person of God? I wish I could say I responded with dignity and grace but I can’t. Sometimes I did, but many times I got angry or worse, I believed everything that was said to me or done against me. I didn’t pray or think with humility as often as I could have. Maybe that’s where I need to work on my humility and allow God to take care of what I can’t.
I have to be honest with this word. I lost trust. I lost trust in people. That’s been one of the hardest results of 2011 and I am still coming to grips with that. When I put my belief and trust in others, I was deeply hurt in ways that are still being revealed today. People said they were going to be there but weren’t. People said they had my back but didn’t. For reasons I am not at liberty to say, I lost trust in this institution built by the people called the church. It’s had to build trust back when you expect people and church to be who they claim to be. What’s sad is that I can see and feel the anger in these words and that hurts. I don’t like feeling this way and it’s going to take time to let go of the anger and begin to build trust again. People are human and churches are filled with people, including me. Recently, I realized just how hard it’s going to be for me to build trust in the church again. I know it has to do with my being unwilling to be as unguarded as before. I get that. That’s why I recognize this is an area for me to work through.
There is another area of trust I need to improve. When I first got back to Richmond, I developed a list of goals that would allow me to begin the healing process. One of those goals had to do with building God’s trust in me again. I failed at what He needed me to do. I need to regain God’s trust. I shared this goal with a friend of mine who said, “God’s never lost trust in you.” I can hear him telling me that right now. Those are words of assurance that are whispered over and over in my mind. I know he is right but somehow I feel like I’ve let God down. Did I break God’s trust or mine?
Specifically, I am talking about self-compassion. For those who know me, you understand I don’t have much of that. It’s something I’ve had to work on for some time and it hasn’t come as easily or as quickly, as I would like. Grace, mercy, forgiveness, kindness, and this compassion are not words that come in my daily practice, at least not when it comes to providing pastoral care to myself.
Dr. Kristin Neff, Associate Professor in Human Development and Culture at University of Texas at Austin, writes that self-compassion, “involves being touched by and open to one’s own suffering, not avoiding or disconnecting from it, generating the desire to alleviate one’s suffering and to heal oneself with kindness. Self-compassion also involves offering nonjudgmental understanding to one’s pain, inadequacies and failures, so that one’s experience is seen as part of the larger human experience.”[i] I immediately see the words: touched, open, heal, kindness, nonjudgmental, and understanding, and I recognize the importance of not only providing compassion for others, but for myself. So why can’t I? The bar I set for myself is extremely high, one that has been with me for a very long time. Unfortunately, I have been unable to reach that bar. No matter how hard I try, that bar is always beyond the touch of my hand and heart and I suffer consequences beyond my understanding. Yes, apparently this compassion is a work in progress as well.
I come to the word “sacrifice” and I think of Jesus Christ and what He did on the cross. I think about that night in Gethsemane, but I also think about all the nights before that. Jesus sacrificed His life before He died on the cross. Look at the life Jesus led and the sacrifices He made to speak out for God and live out the two commandments that hang above all other laws of the land. Yes, Jesus died but He lived first and sacrificed so much, to do what is right.
I have done nothing to scratch the surface of giving back to Jesus. I have my times when I recommit my life, stand and write my covenant over again, sit and pray for forgiveness and find myself lost in wilderness looking for a way out. At church, we had a contemplative service during the Advent season. There was an opportunity to come forward for prayer and then take Communion from one of the ministers. I couldn’t do it. At that moment in time, I was overwhelmed and felt unworthy of taking in the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made for me. I thought, “I hadn’t done anything to deserve this,” so I didn’t partake.
You can see my messed up theology at the moment. It’s not what I normally practice. It was an extremely vulnerable time for me. That night, I was overwhelmed with emotion after some very intense weeks between the hospital and classes. I know better than to deny myself the invitation of Communion. I’ve served Communion to many over the years and the invitation comes for those who are at any point on the journey with Christ, including the vulnerable soul sitting within me. Still, I know this moment was when I realized I could sacrifice much more for the One who sacrificed so much for me.
When I reflect on the words humility, trust, and compassion, they seem to have one thing in common … sacrifice. When I sacrifice my time, devotion, heart, and journey for God, then the other words just might fall into their rightful places in my life. When I surrender what is desirable to me, whether it is work, play, control, time, anger, or addiction, I can break down the barriers that keep me from strengthening my relationship with God and live by the commandments taught to me by Jesus: love God with my heart, mind, soul and strength; and love my neighbor as I love myself. See those last words, “as I love myself”? I can possibly break the barriers that keep me from strengthening my relationship with myself. That would be a bonus.
2012 is going to be a challenging journey to be on. It will be tough to get to the point of where I think I can be, but it is a sacrifice I am willing to make.
[i] Neff, Kristin Dr. “Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself.” Self and Identity. Psychology Press; Taylor and Francis. © 2003 p. 86
Dr Neff recently came out with the book Self-Compassion. I have the book sitting beside me. Doesn’t hurt to have it on hand.