“What brought you here?” you may ask. How was I able to finally lose weight and take better care of my body? Now that’s a long story, and you’d need to read my books and blog posts to follow my slow, meandering journey of transformation. It wasn’t easy, simple, or quick.
My journey isn’t over, and it’s not yours. But here are twenty things I learned looking back that may be helpful to you.
1. I realized that God’s big plan to save and restore all creation (including us and our bodies) is to love and accept us deeply and completely as we are.
For years, I thought this meant that God would love me just as much whether I ate a big bag of chips or not. And I was right. That’s true.
Sometimes I thought this meant God didn’t care if I ate that bag of chips. I imagined him as the indulgent grandfather, “Go ahead, darling, eat as much as you like!”
At other times, I believed that overeating was a sin that separated me from God. This didn’t stop me from overeating. I turned away from God and ate what I wanted, despite the guilt and shame I felt knowing I had chosen my love of food and my desire to feel good in that moment over God. It followed then, that God acquiesced and turned away from me as if my choice to sin relieved God of any responsibility for my demise.
Then one day, I saw Brad Jersak perform the Gospel in Chairs, and I realized that no matter what I do, God turns towards me. I heard it in songs such as Lenten Lands by Steve Bell and in the story of the prodigal son and in Isaiah 30:15-18. I also began to believe what Jesus, Paul, and David said: nothing, including sin, can separate us from God. We were in this together.
2. I woke up
I woke up to the reality that God’s love is truly unconditional–given before we are forgiven or transformed or confess wrongdoing. Love never gives up. God loves my body and that means God cares for my body. God actively listens to it, feeds it, exercises it, gives it rest, and reduces the stress it carries. God enjoys my body, what it can do, and that it is the recognizable “me” in the world. God is in my body, in the energy flowing through it. Even though God loves me whether I am obese or not, God is invested in caring for my body so I can be healthy, happy, and whole.
I woke up to how extravagant, meticulous, and intentional God’s love is for me and my body. I also woke up to the TRUTH–the reality that I was not just overweight, I was obese and my obesity was increasing my risk of death from a heart attack, stroke, and diabetes, as well as throat cancer from acid reflux. My excess fat was also contributing to fatigue, malaise, planters fasciitis, depression, and self-loathing. My preoccupation with food meant I would often lose sight of others in a room when food was on the table.
I received one wake-up call after another. My nurse practitioner wanted to put me on medication to reduce my cholesterol. A friend who was obese died suddenly. I repeatedly heard that those who are obese are more likely to die of COVID. Truth shouted: “WAKE UP! Stop pretending that you can continue to eat what you want and avoid serious consequences.”
This was the TRUTH that helped set me free. Was God shouting at me? Oh, yes. Not in a mean tone but in a loud I-want-to-save-your-life-because-I-care-about-you tone. It was the panicked shouting of a mother that sees her child wandering onto a busy street. God was also whispering in the voices of Anthony de Mello, Richard Rohr, Justin Michael Williams, Tara Brach, Pema Chödrön. “Wake up! Wake up!”
3. I received regular spiritual direction and learned to discern the voice of Love that seemed to come to me in what my spiritual director calls “surround sound.” I have received spiritual direction monthly for almost 20 years. In spiritual direction, I can share openly and honestly and hear what’s true and untrue. I gain confidence in what’s from God and what isn’t.
4. I followed the inner voice of Love. God wasn’t just interested in getting pounds off. Love led me to people who loved me and held my hand through the terrifying fear of trusting their love. Love led me to slow down, receive instead of strive, practice self-compassion, enjoy beauty, quiet, and solitude, pray in different ways, do what I love, and become more self-aware.
6. I took Living from the Heart and prayed the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. Years passed before something shifted in my eating, but these retreats in daily life started me on the road to believing I was loved and cherished.
7. I changed careers. I stopped doing what was stressing me out. I enjoyed being a pastor, but more often than not, the desolation I named in my practice of the Examen was something that happened at work. So in December 2014, I left my job as a pastor and gave myself more time to write and offer spiritual direction.
8. I began to welcome and listen to all of my feelings. This required courage, compassion, companions, and practices such as Welcoming prayer, focusing, and EFT tapping. A cloud of witnesses (Ignatius, Anthony de Mello, Rumi, Brené Brown, Mary Mrozowski, Thomas Keating, Tara Brach, Cheryl Richardson, Nick Ortner, Jessica Ortner, Brad Yates, Donna Varnau, Glennon Doyle) emboldened me to welcome my feelings without identifying with them. They encouraged me to let them speak without shushing them and receive their insights and wisdom.
9. I offered compassion to others and myself. Something shifts in me when I move from being hard on myself or others to naming with God, “This is so hard.” I am so grateful for Sound’s True’s Radical Compassion Challenge in 2020 and the wonderful teaching of Tara Brach and Kristin Neff.
10. I learned to listen to my body and paid attention to the felt sense of my emotions–the tension in my shoulders, the knot in my stomach, the constriction in my throat. I noticed how good I felt after exercise. I paid attention to when my body was tired or sore and noticed when I pushed myself to do more.
12. I began eating what was good for my body and the planet. Hands down, evidence supports a whole food plant-based diet as the way to go. Plants contain foods high in nutrients and fiber and low in cholesterol and addictive dopamine-producing oil, fat, salt, and sugars that turn on food cravings. I credit the consumption of eating greens and omega threes with my prefrontal cortex’s new ability to strengthen my self-control.
13. I made a commitment to get outside every day and walk, bike, or run.
14. I stopped working so hard and made time to play. I became intentional about getting enough sleep and reducing stress by practicing yoga, meditation, and mindfulness. Notice I said “practicing” as in I need to keep practicing to get the hang of it.
15. I learned what works and doesn’t work for my body. I stopped believing I was fighting with my body and spoke more kindly to it. I gathered information to help me stay awake and keep making healthy choices. I got a good scale and weigh myself daily to keep me honest. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth so it wasn’t difficult to cut out sweets. Eating in the evening or at night is driven by my emotions, and I’m not hungry in the morning, so I drew clear lines. I eat only between noon and 7 pm and try not to snack in the afternoon.
16. I didn’t do things perfectly. I still eat some processed foods (Beyond Meat Burger and plant-based “cheeses”), have fries occasionally, and wine.
17. I plan ahead for situations that might be challenging. I take my lunch with me if I’m going to be out and about. When I know I will be a guest, I offer to bring my own food and plan what I’ll say so as not to offend others. If I give myself time, the words come. God is with me in this.
18. I leaned into Lent and COVID. Lent was a good way to begin a plant-based diet without offending anyone. In my circles, people have space for whatever you decide to give up for God for 40 days. COVID gave me a break from social gatherings where I would be tempted to eat what everyone else was enjoying. Honestly, I don’t think I could have done it if it wasn’t for COVID.
19. I received grace. I couldn’t make myself lose weight when I wanted to. Willpower wasn’t enough. I had a zillion failed attempts. So many times I decided to cut back on my eating, and my resolve lasted less than an hour. But something was different when I decided to quit snacking in the middle of the Food Revolution Summit on April 29, 2020. God had prepared me to take flight and got me off the ground.
20. I let it take as long as it did. More truthfully, it took a long time, and I learned to live with it. It’s been a hard journey. I’m not talking about the year it took to lose 35 lbs. That’s one of the last chapters of this story. God, in every chapter of my life, worked to bring me here.
This is hard. We can do hard things.
–Glennon Doyle, Untamed
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How you walk with today’s Lenten question depends on where “here” is for you. If “here” is spacious and full of light, something in my blog post may resonate with you. But what if “here” is dark and heavy? Does exploring that question seem more fitting for you? If so, take courage, be gentle with yourself and invite God to be with you. Listen with compassion and curiosity. Notice what you feel, say, and believe. Perhaps you will become aware of blame and the desire to measure, judge, or fix yourself. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or feeling panicky, you may want to pause and consider continuing this exploration with a counselor or spiritual director.