“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
In Painting with Ashes I explore how extended exposure to mental or physical duress ultimately becomes trauma. Unresolved trauma spills out in patterns of harm and can even be passed on generationally. We are living through a series of overlapping crises that include systemic racism, inequality, poverty, climate change, political extremism, corrupt justice systems, an overdose epidemic, the disintegration of church as we know it, and a pandemic with a long tail… just to name a few!
The onslaught of COVID variants alone has been devastating. So many of us have been in a state of loss; jobs, family time, friends and loved ones. Just when we start to see some positive recovery, a new variant arises, Delta, Omicron, and so on. The continuous state of crisis throughout 2021 led to burn-out for many Christians trying to serve Jesus in a challenging season. Record numbers of pastors are quitting the ministry.
We now recognize the possibility that the consequences of this global pandemic will have lifelong implications. We have witnessed perhaps the dawning of the Covidian Era, in which the psychological, economic, and spiritual aftermath has yet to be comprehended. In the network society, the same flows that transport information and people rapidly across our global village, can also transmit a deadly virus. The likelihood of mutations, new strands, and vaccine effectiveness are already making headlines.
2021 is a welcome sight, one we know that will be ripe with both challenges and opportunities.
How we stay healthy during this extended time of disorientation?
This series is intended to help us get and stay healthy in the New Year. To start we should acknowledge that incarnational mission is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Fruitfulness occurs on the foundation of faithfulness. Our work must be secondary to the growth and health of our own being and our relationship with Christ. Proper self-care is the foundation of effective ministry.
Each reflection will be based on adopting spiritual practices that facilitate growth in love for God and neighbor, while eliminating behavior patterns that miss the mark.
Framing this in Jesus’ teaching on the “great commandment” gives us a holistic framework to understand salvation and health, which are inextricably linked. A diminished understanding of salvation is often emphasized in the Western church, whereas the biblical vision of shalom (a world at peace) is much more expansive than saving souls for relocation to heaven when we die.
Jesus tells us to “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 you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31). I will offer a reflection on each dimension that Jesus describes: heart, soul, mind, strength and neighbor.
On the foundation of proper self-care, based in “growing in love” I will offer reflections focused on sustainability, healthy boundaries, and intentional spiritual disciplines that precede and undergird any effective missional innovation.
For a person to be truly healthy, it requires an integration of all these dimensions of our humanity. To treat these parts as if they were totally separate is a false dichotomy. The Scriptures show us that there is a unified oneness to those different spheres of our being. A healthy soul is conducive to a healthy mind, a healthy mind is predicated upon a healthy body, and so on. Growing healthy in the Biblical sense is about growing in love and being good stewards of each of those dimensions.
I speak not as some expert, unveiling the secret wisdom from an ivory tower, but as a fellow pilgrim and innovator on the North American missionary road, traveling, taking-risks, learning, failing-forward, and sharing.
To speak of these dimensions, I find it helpful to understand the human condition as one primarily in a state of recovery. Every human being is in recovery from sin, therefore, growth always begins from the starting point of brokenness. We are not our best selves unless we are becoming our best selves.
Healing is a lifelong journey of restorative grace. Yet, our life is a lived response to that grace, which requires discipline and continuous intentional effort in the right direction. We have a part to play.
I find it helpful here to employ goals that are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. We begin our first reflection on “strength,” as the physicality of our existence, or simply our “body.” Loving God with our entire being includes these marvelous flesh and blood bodies that will ultimately be resurrected from death.
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1, emphasis added). What does it look like to love God with our bodies?
The quarantine life of the COVID era introduced new challenges in this area. Staying indoors, sitting in front of screens, “binge watching,” working from home, are some emerging phenomena we need to consider.
Many of the physical health problems even pre-covid were created by our sedentary lifestyles. In fact, we have created new categories of “dis-ease” featuring symptoms that are sometimes simply our bodies screaming out from being so unhealthy.
What we eat, how we exercise, and what we expend mental energy upon all affect our health.
Here are nine keys you may consider to sustaining physical health in a Covidian Era:
1. Organize your calendar for self-care.
Let’s face it, for many of innovators, workaholism comes easy. That same drive that gives us an edge and presses us to seed the gospel in host cultures where no one else has gone before, can also destroy us. On a digital frontier, there seems to be no boundaries and no end to the amount of work we can do. With the push of a button or the swipe of a screen, we are at work. The passion to move, organize, launch, start, and jump to the next frontier must be balanced with sustaining our own growth in wholeness.
We must establish healthy boundaries around our time and take care of ourselves. I schedule my time with God, wife, family, and self, before it fills up with work. By being proactive in this way, I can achieve a degree of rhythm in my life. Time for spiritual disciplines, exercise, food, Sabbath, and fun are all part of my weekly schedule.
2. Resist gluttony.
Especially in one sitting. In the United States, we often consume in one meal what could be spaced out in six small meals throughout the day. Ministry is a high-stress endeavor; it’s easy to slip into a habit of stress eating. In quarantine life, the fridge has never been closer!
Each week our churches offer drive-thru community dinners. Hundreds of people line up to receive a meal, many who have never had to visit a food pantry before. It helps me to think about the children coming through that line when I eat with my family. Or consider those who die of starvation all over the world every day. This helps monitor my own eating habits. We often don’t realize in a globalized society that extravagance and overindulgence lead to disproportional distribution of food and resources. With awareness and effort, we can break out of that cycle.
3. Eat healthier.
There are endless options to make unhealthy eating choices. Even when dine-in restaurants have been closed, fast food drive throughs stayed open, and door dash rushed in to save the day. Many diseases are related to the carcinogen laden food we consume. Especially fast food. Just eliminating soda, sugar, and deserts from your diet can have a positive effect on your health. My family is trying to move to as much of a plant-based diet as possible.
4. Sweat and stink every day.
God did not create us to sit in front of computer screens, moving from one Zoom meeting to another. God designed our bodies to go out and pick fruits, berries, and vegetables. Post-fall, it is embedded in our nature to once-in-a-while hunt down a saber-tooth tiger and eat it!
We must find ways to “flow.” Cease thought and simply move. A body continuously and intentionally in motion will be a healthy body, and this, in turn, has cleansing effects on the mind. Find a hobby or a sport that feels good and keeps you fit. If you don’t like running, can you cycle, swim, skate, hike, do yoga or garden?
Try Googling the multitude of at home fitness programs. When the pandemic initially struck, I paused my gym membership and purchased a simple $20 home “multi-gym” device that can be hung from a door frame. It enables me to do pull ups, dips, push-ups, sit ups, and by hanging bags of books from the handles… curls, squats, and so on. Throughout the pandemic I’ve sustained my weight, strength, and muscle definition using this simple device.
The most frequent sin Christians sometimes commit is a violation of Sabbath. Innovators are hard-wired for movement. We have an inner impulse that pushes us to explore new territories, and be the first one to do it! Our work can even feel like it is feeding our soul. However, God did not design us to work 24-7.
We need at least one day per week to simply “be still,” “do no work” and be refreshed. In the age of digital mission, this must include a day without screens. These devices are not neutral, they bend us toward something. Giving God a day where we leave our tech behind is an appropriate form of Sabbath.
Missional innovation brings great satisfaction. When the Gospel takes root in a new culture, or when someone completely outside the scope of the inherited churches’ reach says yes to Jesus, it is exhilarating. In fact, it is powerfully addictive. So addictive, that we can neglect God, family, and even ourselves.
We become our work, and in the process, we lose our humanity. Find something that you really love to do not related to your work. Do you enjoy nature, watching sports, or comedy shows? What activity outside of your work, sparks a sense of joy and wonder? Find time to do that!
Do some form of non-digital art. The activities of painting, hand-writing poetry, making pottery, creating origami figures, and so on exercises different muscles in the brain. Getting into a state of flow during these activities helps us strengthen areas of the brain dedicated to attention, areas that diminish through engagement with digital technology.
7. Find an accountability partner.
It helps to have someone who is encouraging us and calling us out as we grow and maintain our physical health. This should be a person who is familiar with our tendencies, and unafraid to speak the truth in love.
8. Take walks.
Some of the greatest ideas in human history came through walks. Some of the most brilliant thinkers in history were known for taking frequent walks. Go outside, breath in the air, walk and decompress.
9. Pay attention to the physical environment.
While some walks should be mindless moments of flow, another great practice is paying careful attention to the physical ecosystem around you. What grows here? What critters are running loose? Who are my neighbors? What are the smells and colors of this place?
In conclusion, the physicality of Jesus’ own incarnate life is a good one to emulate—walking for miles daily, eating a Mediterranean diet, fasting, and healthy patterns of advance, retreat, rest. Sustaining the health of our bodies will have implications for every other dimension of our being and work.
As you contemplate ways you can grow in love by improving the stewardship of the “fearfully and wonderfully made” body God has given you, stay tuned for my next reflection on sustaining the health of your soul!
(Ever wondered how you could turn your greatest challenges into assets? Or how you could use your wounds to bring healing to others? Check out my latest book: Painting with Ashes)