If God Loves Me, Maybe I Can Stop Hating Myself

Yesterday, I walked into an audiology office for a hearing test and new set of hearing aids. As I’m getting fitted, I hear at full volume again for the first time in weeks. And it’s a revelation. My own voice seems odd to me, the doctor’s tone is so vivid, the sounds of the world are so clear again.

So I say to the audiologist: No wonder I’ve been so tired the past few weeks. I’ve been trying to process everything through this fog of fuzzy hearing. She gave me a knowing look and said: Your brain’s been working really hard just to keep up. Of course you’d be tired.

Suddenly, it was as if I was in therapy or confession. That brief moment of empathy was so unburdening, I didn’t know if I wanted to hug her or cry; instead, I just leaned back and took what felt like my first deep breath in weeks.

I’m not always much for these lingering deep breaths. I prize my toughness, stoicism, and independence. I’ve run marathons, one of them on a balky Achilles. When I joined a rowing studio, I trained until I had the most meters rowed per week. I know how to ignore pain and carry on. But perhaps this is sometimes more curse than gift.

The reason I was in that audiology office was because I had lost one of my hearing aids in a bike accident, the same accident in which I bruised my ribs, hip, leg and knee, while sustaining a concussion and knocking my bike out of whack. And that accident came on top of a long head cold and respiratory congestion that was long and fierce enough that it settled into a case of pneumonia in one of my kids. The Sunday just after the accident, while I was still sick, I joked at church that I’d felt a little spacey all week and could never know if it was the head cold, the concussion, or the missing hearing aid. So many options to explain my low energy and the fog in my head!

Do you know what I did last month, though? I soldiered through. I met my obligations, even taking on an extra work project that I didn’t have to, and didn’t take a sick day. When I took a few days vacation off, it was to drive my daughter 1400 miles in five days to visit colleges around the Northeast. All month, I kept pushing, aware now and then that my energy and mood were low, that I was just so tired. But not once did I ask: how do I slow down and take care of myself? What do I need right now? How can I love myself?

It turns out that many of us have difficulties loving ourselves, and these difficulties sometimes have pretty deep roots. I follow the work of the social psychologist and public theologian Christena Cleveland, who is publishing a great deal of provocative content on justice and renewal on her patreon account. In a February post on mindful self-compassion, she cited that most of us are far more compassionate toward loved ones in distress than we are to ourselves. She also discussed how we can learn to become more self-compassionate and start to reap the many benefits that come with that.

I recalled Dr. Cleveland’s words as I reflected on my revelation in the audiology office. They were an echo of some of the most significant inner work I did throughout 2018, both in months of therapy and in a year’s worth of prayer, following the 19th annotation of the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius. If God loves me as much as I hope, as much as my faith has taught me, as much as the Bible assures me, then perhaps I can learn to love myself.

There’s a lot to say about learning to love oneself as God loves us. I gave two sermons on this topic early this year. Even there, I was only scratching the surface, and obviously I’m very much a learner here myself. But one thing I’m learning is that to love myself, what I need matters. It’s not all that matters, for sure, but it doesn’t not matter. What I need matters to me, and it matters to the God who made and loves me as well.

So for a while, each morning, I’m going to start asking myself in the presence of God: What do I need today?

The funny thing is, this doesn’t only matter to me and to God, but it seems to matter to others in my life as well.

After the Spirit of God did that thing through the audiologist and gave me permission to admit how exhausted I’d been, I took a few minutes to sit with that self-knowledge, said sorry to myself for neglecting my needs, and talked to God about how God loves me, how God has room for my needs.

And you know what, that work of self-compassion didn’t seem to make me more self-centered, but less. Rather than lead toward self-indulgence, I noticed some movement toward a more empowered, more compassionate, and more generous life. Later that day, I had a more wholehearted conversation with someone I love but don’t always show that to very well. I also had a clearer head for a project I was thinking about. And a persistent work-related anxiety was triggered, and I experienced less worry. I thought: that’s a much smaller deal than I have made it out to be.

See, I may be harder on myself than on anyone else in my life, but hating myself does have an impact. My self-criticism starts with me, but radiates out into the lives of those closest to me, making me a harsher critic, less tolerant of weakness and difficulty. And the particular form of self-hatred that disregards my own needs saps me of life.

In one of the high points of the Bible’s spiritual reflections, the apostle John tells us, “God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them.” (I John 4:16) Likely John is remembering the many things Jesus said about the centrality of love in the abundant life God offers. Or perhaps he’s remembering Jesus’ practice of the great love of laying down his life for his friends. Or maybe simply remembering how much Jesus loved him; with no embarrassment, John gave himself the nickname, “the disciple Jesus loved.”  

You and I too are the friends of Jesus that Jesus loves. If God loves me, maybe it’s time I stop hating myself. Maybe you too.

How Cognitive Generosity Makes You a Better Neighbor and Citizen

This is part three in an occasional series on being part of diverse communities. These blogs are meant to explore in brief some of the why of diverse community involvement – why such a thing is great for us, great for the broader worlds we live in, and even central to the story of what Jesus is doing on earth, as I understand it. It’s also meant to speak to some how’s – how we can be more effective in our participation and building of diverse communities, how this can go better and more enjoyably for us and others.

We’re starting by reviewing some of the key insights from the powerful book by Christena Cleveland, Disunity in Christ. Cleveland is a social psychologist and public theologian who thinks and writes and speaks about the things that keep people apart, and the work of justice, empathy, and reconciliation that can bring people together. I’ve found her book really helpful and hope these entries will entice you to read it yourself! She says far more far better than I ever will on this topic.

While she’s discussing how humans erect divisions between groups, Cleveland introduces one of the antidotes to these divisions, which she calls cognitive generosity. Cognitive generosity involves developing a more positive perception of other people and groups. We tend to think less generously of people and groups we are not familiar with, or who we perceive to be very different from us. Cognitive generosity intentionally reverses this process, helping us consciously think better – and so likely more honestly – about these same people and groups.

Let me illustrate.

I grew up in the last years of the Cold War. My childhood and teen years were still full of movies and media portraying Russians as cold-hearted enemies of the great American way.


But then, in the opportunity of a lifetime, I had the opportunity to travel to Russia during the waning days of the Soviet Empire. Along with a couple of dozen mates from my high school chorus, I sang in St. Isaac’s Cathedral in Leningrad. I stayed with a host family in the 1000-year old city of Yaroslavl. I made my first ever black market transaction, trading American blue jeans for an old Russian army uniform. I traveled to Estonia in the month they first flew their own country’s flag. And while touring an old watch factory in Uglich, I was abandoned by my group while hobbling on a sprained ankle, only to be helped down some long stairs by a Russian factory worker.

That single act of hospitality, alongside many others on that trip, taught teenage me that Russian people were… well… people. They weren’t a class of foreigners, or spies, or enemies, but men, women, children, parents, friends… human beings. And some of them were inclined to show tremendous kindness and hospitality to this non-Russian speaking, clueless American teenager who had stumbled into their country on a choral tour.

This led to an increase in cognitive generosity in my attitude toward Russians, which in turn led me to study Russian language and literature in college and take another trip to that country. I had moved past entry-level stereotypes of a whole people group and on to the capacity to think well of Russian culture as a whole as well as individuals within that culture.

Here’s the thing. Cultivating cognitive generosity takes reflection and positive exposure. Even progressively minded White Americans, for instance, tend to harbor negative racial stereotypes toward Black Americans. However, positive interactions with and even viewing positive images of Black Americans has tended to lower these stereotypes by producing cognitive generosity. White people with little opportunity for actual relationships with Black Americans can also read books and watch films that focus on reality based, humane, or even heroic portrayals of Black Americans.

Certainly for White people in America like myself, the cultivation of cognitive generosity is an important practice. Whether it be going to a multi-ethnic church, living in a diverse neighborhood, or working on a diverse team, looking for positive interactions with people different from us gives us the opportunity to develop more respectful, reality-based assumptions about cultures we are not part of.

For all of us, we might examine if there whole classes of people we’ve begun to view with any level of disdain. If so, we can consider how to regain cognitive generosity towards others, cultivating a positive view of them unless they deserve or prove otherwise.

You can find the first entry in this series here. 

The second entry on the outgroup heterogeneity effect is here. 

One Reason You Want to Be in Diverse Communities

This past week, a number of us attended a Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) event called “Out of Many, One.” The inspiration was the United States founding motto, E Pluribus Unum, which translates as the title of this gathering. The founding fathers wrote this, envisioning a unity of the original 13 colonies, and also a united nation of people from various Western European ancestries. In the pledge introduced at this recent gathering, we had the opportunity to affirm the significance of this aspiration for all peoples of the United States. I gladly signed, as did many clergy and members of faith communities, as well as some prominent civic leaders.

This vision of one people emerging out of difference is core to the hope of the good news of Jesus as well. The first century faith entrepreneur, Paul of Tarsus, was animated by a vision of faith communities that brought previously separate and hostile cultures into a shared community of love. Paul wrote, For he (Jesus) is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Ephesians 2:14) The two groups Paul is referring to here are Jews and Gentiles, i.e. Roman non-Jews. Paul himself was both ethnic and religious Jew as well as Roman citizen, and so this Jewish/non-Jewish divide that was significant to the first century Roman empire was for him the great separator of human cultures. Throughout his letters, Paul argues for an end to such division, for communities to find common ground and practice mutual acceptance. This appears to be one transformation that will authenticate the good news of Jesus.

Two weeks ago, I wrote that community building across difference is one of the two big things I want to be part of and think God is doing at Reservoir Church in post-Trump-election America. Today, I’d like to follow-up on that post by introducing one of many tools from the powerful book by Christena Cleveland, Disunity in Christ. Cleveland is a social psychologist and public theologian who thinks and writes and speaks about the things that keep people apart, and the work of justice, empathy, and reconciliation that can bring people together.

In her book, Cleveland writes that “group separation and prejudice have a bidrectional relationship – that is, prejudice tends to result in division between groups and division between groups tends to result in prejudice.” (33) In other words, diversity isn’t window dressing. Being in diverse relationships and communities, or not, makes us different. When we’re around others more, we are less prejudiced, whereas when we’re around less diversity, we’re more prejudiced. Whether we want to be or not.

One reason for this, Cleveland explains, is a dynamic called the “outgroup homogeneity effect.” We tend to view groups we’re not part of as made up of people who are all similar to one another, while we tend to view members of our own group as unique.

For example, I was raised in an almost entirely White small suburb, with almost entirely White classmates, friends, neighbors, and family. I never thought that White people looked alike. I also knew several White people with various regional or national accents and different speech patterns and levels of education. I noticed these but never defined people by them.  The people in my group were obviously all very different from one another.

When I went to university, I became best friends with a Chinese-American woman and started attending a large Chinese church in Boston. At first, I noticed that Chinese people looked more alike to me. It wasn’t as easy for me to pick someone I knew out of a crowd of hundreds of Chinese-Americans. Everyone, for instance, had black hair. After years of membership in this faith community, though, most of my friends and social acquaintances were Chinese-American, and it seemed ridiculous to think they looked alike. After all, most of the human race has black hair! This outgroup becoming part of my ingroup had changed my perceptions. (I’ve also had the reverse experience now, being part of a Chinese-American’s process of discovery that White people don’t all look and act and think alike!)

This is a relatively small example and wasn’t, in my case, tied to any particular damaging effects. We don’t have to look far, though, to realize how the outgroup homogeneity effect impoverishes the experience of people that hold it and harms those who are subject to its resulting skewed perceptions. When we stereotype others, we don’t benefit from their strengths and experiences and we are potentially suspicious of or hostile to them. And when we combine the outgroup homogeneity effect with imbalances of power and privilege, we get discrimination and injustice.

Clearly this is one reason (not the only reason, but one) that White men maintain such disproportionate power in our society. We (we for a minute being White men) see people like ourselves as unique and different, and we lump all others into the same category of “other”, people we are less likely to hire or mentor or promote or vote for. White men like myself make up less than a third of the United States population. But based on our representation in positions of power, you would never know that. Picking just two data points, over 90% of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are White men and that the US Congress is overwhelmingly comprised of White men as well. There’s a hard but important phrase for the racial side of this dominance, which is White supremacy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to unity amidst difference and the outgroup homogeneity effect.

One simple way we can be part of a more just society is to be part of more diverse communities. By being a robustly multi-ethnic community, Reservoir Church gives our members the opportunity to be in relationship with many people who are not like ourselves. In doing so, we benefit from the riches of human culture that we weren’t born into, and we also stop assuming that people who aren’t like us are all the same. “They” become part of “us”, non-uniform, interesting people God loves and that we might as well.

Two Big, Hard, Exciting Things Jesus Wants to Help Us Do

I’ve mentioned that there are two things that God’s been leading me to think about as the year comes to close.

The first is our public sphere. After the most fear-driven, divisive, and utterly insane election season most of us ever remember, we’re both exhausted and compelled by our public sphere – what’s happening in the world we share, beyond our own personal day-to-day affairs.

This year’s public sphere – not just the presidential election, but all kinds of things out there in the big world – has for me renewed my commitment to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. If that sounds sort of familiar or at least a bit more poetic than you’d expect from me, it’s because it’s a (translated) line of poetry from the Bible.

The prophet Micah, somewhere late in the 7th century B.C., was inspired to say that this is what God wants out of people: for us to do justice, to love mercy and to talk humbly with God. He said this to people who were beleaguered and confused and troubled in ways that would feel familiar to you and me in its essence, if not in in detail.

This is probably the closest thing I have to a “life verse”, a single line in the Bible that motivates and inspires me to live as I hope to live.

Who’d argue that our public world couldn’t use more mercy and justice and walking with God that is both devout and humble. I could say a lot about each of these phrases, but for now, I’ll just state that all three of these qualities seem patently in too short supply – in our churches, out politics, our leaders, our followers, our business people, our educators, and, well, everyone and all our institutions. Mercy, justice, and walking humbly with God are frankly often enough lacking in my own heart and actions.

But to be those and to advocate those is where God’s leading me.

The second thing is to be engaged in community building.

We continue to discover just how divided and fractured the United States is, let alone just how divided we are from the rest of the world we alternatively sell things to, and give things to, and bomb, and bless, and ignore.

The rest of the world aside, though, our country is more racist, less hospitable, more judgmental, less united, and angrier than may of us thought it was. From all corners, really.

On this second work of community building, I expect I’ll do some more blogging in the days ahead on insights from the powerful, insightful book Disunity in Christ, by the social psychologist and Christian leader Christena Cleveland. It’s really an extraordinary book that you’ll want to read, but I’ll at least share a few of its insights and applications with you.


Mercy, justice, and a humble walk with God.

Diverse community building of empathy and love.

Both of these things seem counter-evolutionary to me, contrary to our nature. We evolved to be tribal people, to protect our own. Our tendencies to hive off are shared with most of the animal kingdom and serve well to protect us against external threats.

But they’re contrary to the thing that Jesus seems to long to do in human story – to break down dividing walls with love and forgiveness; to establish societies of justice and mercy; to teach us to walk humbly with God; to restore all things.

This is purely speculative, of course, but I can picture God looking at our pale blue dot of a planet, seeing the human society that he created through physical and chemical and evolutionary processes set into motion billions of years ago, and thinking it’s too bad about the underbelly of all that worked out.

The story of my faith tradition, though, is that in Jesus, God has entered into human history to redeem the sin of the world and to reunite humanity to God.

I’ve got to think some of the fruit of this is a maturation of human society toward justice and peace and mercy, and the creation of communities of unity and love. Much of the New Testament of the Bible is a testament to the spiritual power Jesus has to move cooperating people and community toward these ends.

That’s what I’m leading in toward Jesus for as well.

It’s what I invite you to as well in this Christmas season.

When people lean in toward mercy and justice and a humble walk with God, and when people – as individuals and with the institutions we are part of – when people love as God loves, Jesus is there.