Loving one’s self.

Several months ago, I attended a church service in which the senior pastor decided to tackle the issue of “health care in America”. He spoke thoughtfully about how the bulk of Jesus’ ministry involved healing sick people, and instructing his followers to care for the vulnerable members of society. During this part of his sermon, I felt that kind of uneasy feeling then that I really like – the kind of feeling that reminds me how far my own head can get lodged up my own ass, and then empowers me to think about practical ways I could be caring for my community.

Towards the end of the sermon, however, the pastor tried to drive home his point by reminding his audience that when asked which was the “greatest commandment”, Jesus answered,

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength”, and then immediately went on to say,”The second is equally important: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these”. (Mark 12:30-31).

My immediate reaction to this sermon’s meant-to-be-powerful conclusion was to wonder whether or not church-going folks are any good at loving themselves, and whether or not the church does a good-enough job of teaching people how to love themselves. Because, I thought, without a basic capacity to love oneself, part 2 of the ‘greatest commandment’ doesn’t carry much weight or power.

Since then, I have checked in with several handfuls of my church-going friends and asked them if they feel like the church is good at teaching people how to love themselves.

I’ll let you guess what their answers may have been.

And here’s the thing: it’s a pretty big deal if the church and church-goers are missing the mark re: the ‘loving oneself’ target. Reading the gospels, I find a considerable amount of evidence to suggest that A) Jesus loved himself – i.e. received God’s love – without reservation and B) that he extended this same whole-hearted love to every person he met. In fact, this was a big part of what made him so controversial during his time on earth. The religious leaders of his time did not appreciate the unbounded enormity of his love for himself or for others.

Somehow (and grievously), while I was growing up in church, I got the impression that I was supposed to first accept how fundamentally bad I was – you know, that whole original sin drama – before I could authentically and earnestly beseech Jesus to lobotomize those bad parts of myself, and finally become more pleasing to him.

Well, it’s pretty near-to-impossible to love yourself if you you’ve been taught – explicitly or implicitly – that you are basically evil. It’s equally near-to-impossible to love others when you assume that, like you, they are also basically evil. And because of this unfortunate assumption about human nature, you are then psychologically primed to start searching for people who appear to have “conquered” their evil impulses, in order to reassure yourself that it can be done.

Public Service Announcement number 1: no one conquers “evil” (please click that link); we simply have an opportunity to become more and more psychologically and spiritually honest, which allows us to make wiser, and healthier choices.

Let me briefly explain why it is 100% impossible to love others well if we don’t first love ourselves well. I will use myself as an example:

When I am critical and intolerant towards myself, I am critical and intolerant towards others. If I notice some unacceptable aspect of myself – those shadowy, hard to admit parts of my psychology – parading around in someone else’s skin, my first defensive instinct is often to judge that person harshly, or perhaps to reject them entirely. Somehow allowing myself to feel curiosity or compassion towards them becomes threatening to me, as if I’ll have to admit my own similar shortcomings if I get too close to other peoples’.

Does that make sense? Maybe it’s a bit ‘Psychology 101’ for some of you, but I find that for a lot of people this is a fairly complex idea. So let me make it even more simple:


Here’s some good examples:

  • A closeted gay person expressing homophobic ideas or actions.
  • Someone that cares a great deal more than they’d like to admit about wealth and material things, who then condemns wealthy people for how they choose to spend their money.
  • Deeply felt inferiority feelings parading around as machismo, or bullying.
  • Systemically disempowered women being critical of “successful” women.
  • Someone with partisan political sentiments (who cannot admit this blind-spot to themselves) dismissing another person’s political ideas as partisan.
  • A compulsive over-eater who frowns upon compulsive [anything else].
  • Someone who feels insecure about their romantic relationship (or lack thereof) being critical of other people’s romances.
  • Christian extremists’ hatred for Islamic extremists.
  • An arrogant person noticing someone else’s arrogance and pointing that out disdainfully (I’m real guilty of this one sometimes, ugh).

Do you get the picture? It’s impossible to be compassionate with others if we cannot first be sincerely compassionate with ourselves.

And, why do I think it’s the church’s responsibility to teach this to it’s parishioners? Because Jesus did it.

He embraced all types of culturally repugnant people, and offered them intimate counsel and friendship. Some of the religious leaders of his time found his associations very troubling, and asked his disciples why he would choose to “eat with such scum?” (Matthew 9:11). Jesus answered them by asking them to “go and learn the meaning of this scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.'” (Matthew 9:13).

I believe we have to “show mercy” both inwardly and outwardly simultaneously for mercy to be genuine. And I’m pretty sure Jesus said almost exactly this in his own cryptic, ancient semitc way:

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.

Love each other in the same way I have loved you.”

– (John 15:9, 12)

In a sense, I believe he’s saying “my ability to receive (accept, or believe in) love is directly correlated to my ability to give love. Now, follow my lead: open yourselves up to the divine love that’s always available to you, and then give it away in exactly the same limitless way you have received it”.

To boil it down further: if we can’t embrace the darkest, hardest aspects of our humanity, then we sure as sh*t can’t embrace other peoples’ dark parts either. And from what I can tell, the whole entire ministry of Jesus was about embracing others, especially those willing to stand humbly in own their humanity.

So, Church leaders: if you don’t know how to teach this kind of love, and especially if you don’t know how to genuinely receive this kind of love for yourself, you need to hire people that do. We can’t fall asleep at the wheel when it comes to loving ourselves, or we can’t love others well. And if we can’t love others well, we can’t be the church.


Religious Sensibilities

“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined, not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.”

– Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Love each other.

The invitation is exquisite:

Love each other well.

‘Here, let me show you how’, He said.

‘It’s not burdensome, it’s easy’.

It’s light.

Why then is it hard to do?

That mortally vulnerable part of ourselves is such a tyrant.

So defensive about our own well-being.

‘Consider the lilies of the field’, He said.

‘Why are you so worried’?

Our timid unbelieving hearts do tremble.

Could it be that simple?

God, wouldn’t I love to be brave enough find out.

For my grandma.

Evelyn Olga Peterson | 2.14.1926 – 6.6.2016

[The following words were shared in remembrance of her life on 6.11.16 at Atonement Lutheran Church]:

If you knew my grandmother, Evelyn Peterson, even a little bit well, you knew that she loved to tell stories. If you had the good fortune to spend a lot of time with her, or to know her really well, you may have even heard some of her stories more than once.

I want to honor her today, in part, by sharing with you some of these stories, and what it was she taught me through the telling of them.

Born on Valentine’s Day to Scandinavian farmers in a small town in Iowa, her father published a birth announcement in the local paper that read: “Ben Erickson reports that a new daughter showed up at his home on St. Valentine’s day“.

Over time, this story somehow morphed a bit, and by the time I heard about this birth announcement from my grandmother, she told me that he had written “a little sweetheart showed up at his home on St. Valentine’s day”.

The point of this re-telling of the birth announcement, however, is that it was true: a sweeter heart there never was.

My grandmother’s most defining characteristic was the sincerity with which she loved other people. Her love was lifelong and enduring, relentlessly forgiving, and unconditional. She saw goodness in people where others could not, and delighted in any opportunity to make someone she loved feel special and important. And if you were really listening to all of her stories, it became clear that almost all of the stories she told reflected this deep love she had for others.

She spoke of her own parents with such pride and affection. The way she talked about her father’s playfulness, her mother’s humility, both of their hard-working spirits, and their commitment to their faith, you could hear the love and adoration for them in her voice.

This always made a big impression on me when she spoke of them because I experienced her as embodiment of those same qualities. I once told her this, saying, “I think you are a lot like your parents”, and she replied “well, we grew up working alongside them on the farm”. Even as a young child, I understood what she meant by this. They taught her about virtue and about values through their example, rather than their words.

And what wonderful things she must have been taught through their example, because when she walked off the farm, and out into the world – as the first person in her family to attend college – she was ready to embrace this big, new world she would find herself living in with all the love, humility and faithfulness she had learned at home.

While her parents may have held a great place of honor in Evelyn’s big beautiful heart, she had room for everyone else too.

My grandmother adored her sisters and brothers, and often described them to me as her oldest and dearest friends. When Evelyn’s oldest sister, Irene, left the farm, she was so heartbroken by her absence that she begged her mother not to wash the bed sheets because they smelled like Irene’s perfume.

I could probably spend the rest of the afternoon recounting all of my grandmother’s beautiful stories about her siblings – the way her oldest brother helped her be able to afford college, and how devoted he was to her own children, the sacrifices her older sister made to help take care of the younger children on the farm, the courage and the depth of spirit she saw in her other brother, the closeness she shared with her sister nearest to her age, and the affection she had for her baby sister. She was proud of all of them – proud of who they were, and proud to belong to them.

What I learned from all of her stories about her beloved brothers and sisters was how important sibling love is, and how rewarding it could be. Often times, our siblings are our best allies, teachers and friends throughout much of our life, and if we take good care of these relationships, we can expect to be able to lean on each other well from the beginning of our lives until the very end. Well into their mid to late 90’s, my grandma was in regular contact with her living siblings — speaking with them on the phone weekly and even daily sometimes. They were each other’s greatest, most enduring support systems.

And while her brothers and sisters may have been her oldest and dearest friends, they were certainly not her only friends.

In fact, to be Evelyn’s friend, meant you were going to be her lifelong friend. She stayed in touch with people she had met while living all over the country, wrote them letters – or eventually emails – spoke to them as often as possible by phone, and prayed for their families regularly. My grandmother was always quite frugal with her money, yet I often noticed that she had a wonderful long-distance phone plan. Maybe one of her only real extravagances, but to her – it was money well spent.

She loved her husband, Bill, with a kind of devotion that I have rarely – if ever – seen from anyone else I’ve known. She supported his career and his creative ambitions, moving all over the country as his company directed, and never once complained about this. She simply rolled up her sleeves, made a new house into a home, found a church, befriended neighbors, and got involved in her children’s schools and activities.

Both of my grandparents lived far away from their parents, and my grandma decided early on in their marriage that every time she put a letter in the mail for her own parents, she would put one in the mail for my grandfather’s parents too. His family became her family; it was one of the many, may ways she showed her love for him.

She was also so proud of him – proud of his good looks, his brilliant mind, his beautiful singing voice, his commitment to God and to church, his service to his country, and his devotion to his family.

He was proud of her too.

He loved her cooking, and the way she took care of their home and their children. He would often invite people from work – colleagues and clients – over for dinner at their home without much notice, and while this is something that would drive most women completely crazy, my grandmother was so proud that my grandfather thought her kitchen and her hospitality would be the best way to impress someone in town.

As my grandfather became more and more incapacitated by Parkinson’s disease at the end of his life, she took care of him without argument. It was hard and it was painful for her most of the time, but she brought the same determination and devotion into that part of their marriage as she had to any other part before then. Her word was her bond, her promises were gold, and if she said she was going to do something, she was going to do it. When she said “for better or for worse” she meant it.

My grandmother taught me more about the determination of true love during these final years with my grandpa.

Of course, it may not surprise you to know that my grandmother’s children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren all benefited immeasurably from her love and devotion to them as well. My grandma talked about all four of her children – well into their adulthoods – with the kind of joy and affection in her voice that you usually only hear from new mother’s of tiny babies. She was completely smitten with each one of them.

While I was preparing for this eulogy, I asked my mom and her brothers if there was anything in particular they wanted me to include on their behalf today. And while they each had their own way of saying it, they all said the same thing: “I knew my mom would have done anything for me”.

And boy, was that true.

I only saw my grandmother as a mother to her adult children, but if any one of them needed something from her, she would drop everything, and go to them. I think every single one of her grandchildren would probably say that she helped raise them when they were tiny. And while she may have done that in part because she loved to be with us grandkids, she also did this because she wanted to help her own children manage the impossibly wonderful burden of good parenting.

And how lucky for us – because I know firsthand how much her grandchildren benefited from all of her loving attention.

Last Christmas, while we were all gathered at her house, I said that every single time I called her on the phone, she would say to me “well, isn’t that just the sweetest voice in all the world”. Several of my cousins immediately replied, “she says the same exact thing to me!” She made us all feel like the center of the whole universe, and I believe that her heart was big and deep enough for this to be true.

While she was being taken care of in hospice last week, I spoke with a good family friend of ours on the phone who told me that until she had met my grandmother, she had never known a grandmother could be so involved, so devoted, and so in love with her grandkids. This friend then told me that my grandma’s example of grand-mothering had made a huge impression on the way she herself wanted to be a grandparent. It brings me so much joy to think that in some way other peoples’ grandchildren too are the beneficiaries of my grandma’s beautiful example of love.

You might think she would have just about exhausted her ability to love other people by the time her great-grandchildren were being born, but it’s almost as if she became even more enchanted with the people in her life the older she got. She spent a month of every winter visiting her two great-grandsons in Louisiana, and looked forward to it all year. Last year, my older sister and I had babies 6 weeks apart and it nearly broke my grandma’s heart that she couldn’t be in the delivery rooms with us, she wanted to meet them so badly.

And just in case you thought my grandma’s love for others only extended to her friends and family, it was available in nearly equal measure for people she barely knew, and oftentimes people she had never even met. Just a few weeks ago, she was telling me a story about a little boy in her Sunday school class from the 1960’s that she often still thought about, and hoped he was well. This past week, I attended her prayer circle here at the church and learned she was still actively promoting various mission and charity opportunities, and faithfully collecting donations for people in need all over the world.


In these last couple of weeks, while reflecting on her life I have asked myself, how is it possible that one woman loved this well, this much, and this steadfastly? I believe she loved this well because she believed that God first loved her this well.

She never missed an opportunity to remind me about how great, and how big the love of God is. And she never doubted that the love of God was sincere towards every single one of His creations. She simply shared in that abundance of Love, and gave freely from it’s overflow.

As some of you may know, ever since I was a little tiny toddler, I have always called my grandmother “Mana”. It’s an affectionate name I gave her before I could say the word “grandma”. I have two sisters, Leslie and Bailey, who then also called her Mana. When we were growing up, we had a little saying in our house that went like this: “Leslie is a Mommy’s girl, Bailey is a daddy’s girl, and Whitney is a Mana’s girl”.

She was my angel right from the beginning. The sweetness of her spirit and the radiance of her love made me want to be near her. Until I met my own daughter, whom I named Evelyn after her, I don’t think I’ve ever loved someone as purely, immediately, and tenderly as I have loved my grandmother.

As soon I understood that her time on earth would be coming to a close, I knew I wanted to spend as much of those last days, hours and minutes with her as I could. I kept telling my family and the hospices nurses that she didn’t like to be alone, but really I think I was sitting by her bedside for my sake most of all.

By some miracle of grace or timing or both, I was with her when she took her last breath, and when her heart sweet, sweet heart beat it’s last note.

And in that last moment, her final letting go, I felt a wave of the most exquisite tenderness roll right into my own body and fill my whole heart with joy. I knew then – in a way I have been unable to explain, nor deny – that she was happy, and that she was HOME.

Reunited now with so many of the greatest loves of her life, and most importantly reunited with the One that made her, I know that her love has been made perfect and her joy is complete.


Mana, we will all miss you terribly every single day. But, I also know that the best way for us to honor you now is to love each other well… just as Christ Jesus first loved us.


What the church does with its creeds and its doctrinal tradition, it flattens out all the images and metaphors to make it fit into a nice little formulation and then it’s deathly. So we have to communicate to people, if you want a God that is healthier than that, you’re going to have to take time to sit with these images and relish them and let them become a part of your prayer life and your vocabulary and your conceptual frame. Which, again, is why the poetry is so important because the poetry just keeps opening and opening and opening whereas the doctrinal practice of the church is always to close and close and close until you’re left with nothing that has any transformative power.

– Walter Brueggemann

“Dimension of the divine”.

“And the goal… is not to pray to God or have God tell you what to do, but to realize that you have been, all along, contrary to all of your illusions, a dimension of the divine. And in moments of heightened spiritual awareness, the boundary line… momentarily is erased, momentarily is blurred, and it’s no longer clear where you end and God begins.”

– Lawrence Kushner, scholar-in-residence at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, from his conversation with Krista Tippett on On Being