The Healing Power of Nostalgia


An article in the New York Times this week highlights the positive impacts that nostalgia can have on a person psychologically.  It turns out that historically, nostalgia was seen in a negative light–“living in the past” and looking back with rose-colored glasses.  New research, however, shows that fondly recalling things that have happened can enrich our lives, as long as we don’t fall into the trap of comparing the present to the past.  The article explains,

Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer… Nostalgia does have its painful side — it’s a bittersweet emotion — but the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening. When people speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future.

The article was brought to my attention by a pastor who shared it on our facebook page, saying, “This is good news for all of us who itinerate.” In this season of unpacking boxes and inevitably pausing to think about what has been left behind in a move, it is encouraging to know that these thoughts can be helpful–can anchor us amid life’s unpredictability.  One nostalgia researcher, Dr. Constantine Sedikides, says, “Nostalgia made me feel that my life had roots and continuity. It made me feel good about myself and my relationships. It provided a texture to my life and gave me strength to move forward.” Another researcher, Dr. Erica Hepper, says, “Nostalgia helps us deal with transitions.”


If you’ve moved recently or are facing another transition, what helps you feel rooted?  What do you take with you move after move, and what gets left behind?  If you have a story about nostalgia, we’d love to hear from you in the comments.  And for all those who have moved, we pray for smooth new beginnings.

–Caren Swanson

Image by flickr user CliffMueller via Creative Commons

Also by Caren Swanson: To Love a Place

Sleeping for gratitude


Please see the note at the end of Monday’s post for our giveaway winner, and don’t forget to check back next Monday for our next giveaway!

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The following post is offered by Spirited Life wellness advocate Lisa MacKenzie.

Remember when sleep came easily? Maybe you remember the smell of the cool sheets fresh off the clothesline and the night sounds through the open window near your bed, a soft breeze lulling you into a peaceful rest or the soft breathing of your cat at the foot of the bed.


Sometimes it’s not that easy. Sometimes we find ourselves falling into bed feeling stressed, overworked and over-stimulated and just not able to settle down. Poor sleep patterns catch up with us and can affect body, mind and spirit. New research points to the fact that poor sleep can also impact our relationships with people around us.

An interesting study out of the University of California at Berkeley contends that good sleep fosters psychological well-being and even gratitude. “In the past, research has shown that gratitude promotes good sleep, but our research looks at the link in the other direction and, to our knowledge, is the first to show that everyday experiences of poor sleep are negatively associated with gratitude toward others — an important emotion that helps form and maintain close social bonds,” says Amie Gordon, co-author of the study. She goes on to say that “Poor sleep is not just experienced in isolation. Instead, it influences our interactions with others, such as our ability to be grateful, a vital social emotion.”

WOne resource that promotes both gratitude and a peaceful night’s sleep is the Three Blessings exercise from Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness. Every night for the next week, right before you go to bed, write down three things that went really well during the day. These things can be small and ordinary in importance. As your list grows over the course of the week, think about why these good things happened, and you may find that you’ll rest better.

The following tips from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine might also help you get the sleep you need:

  1. Don’t go to bed unless you are sleepy. If you are not sleepy at bedtime, then do something else. Read a book, listen to soft music or browse through a magazine. Find something relaxing, but not stimulating, to take your mind off of worries about sleep. This will relax your body and distract your mind.
  2. If you are not asleep after 20 minutes, then get out of the bed. Find something else to do that will make you feel relaxed. If you can, do this in another room. Your bedroom should be where you go to sleep. It is not a place to go when you are bored. Once you feel sleepy again, go back to bed.
  3. Begin rituals that help you relax each night before bed. This can include such things as a warm bath, light snack or a few minutes of reading.
  4. Get up at the same time every morning. Do this even on weekends and holidays.
  5. Get a full night’s sleep on a regular basis. Get enough sleep so that you feel well-rested nearly every day.
  6. Avoid taking naps if you can. If you must take a nap, try to keep it short (less than one hour). Never take a nap after 3 p.m.
  7. Keep a regular schedule. Regular times for meals, medications, chores, and other activities help keep the inner body clock running smoothly.
  8. Don’t read, write, eat, watch TV, talk on the phone, or play cards in bed.
  9. Do not have any caffeine after lunch.
  10. Do not have a beer, a glass of wine, or any other alcohol within six hours of your bedtime.
  11. Do not have a cigarette or any other source of nicotine before bedtime.
  12. Do not go to bed hungry, but don’t eat a big meal near bedtime either.
  13. Avoid any tough exercise within six hours of your bedtime. You should exercise on a regular basis, but do it earlier in the day.
  14. Avoid sleeping pills, or use them cautiously. Most doctors do not prescribe sleeping pills for periods of more than three weeks. Do not drink alcohol while taking sleeping pills.
  15. Try to get rid of or deal with things that make you worry.  If you are unable to do this, then find a time during the day to get all of your worries out of your system. Your bed is a place to rest, not a place to worry.
  16. Make your bedroom quiet, dark, and a little bit cool. An easy way to remember this: it should remind you of a cave.

Sleep well!

–Lisa MacKenzie

Images used with permission.



Hope Amid Disaster: Sermons After the Boston Bombings


As I type, it is Monday afternoon, and I am keenly aware that almost exactly one week ago, moments of celebration for Boston Marathon runners and spectators quickly shifted from a time of unity and celebration to terror, death, and horror. During times of national tragedy such as occurred over the past week, pastors and religious leaders are tasked with the monumental role of comforting their communities.


TIME magazine asked seven pastors from across the country, from Copley Square to rural Ohio to Los Angeles, to share the reflections and sermons they would offer their communities after the tragedy in Boston.

Katie Crowe is the pastor of Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church in Durham and works with Spirited Life in providing training for pastors on the practice of Centering Prayer. She is one of the pastors who offered words of hope as an antidote to violence, reflecting on the passage from the Gospel of John where Jesus shows the disciples the scars from the wounds of the crucifixion.

Katie shares that Christians have a Savior who shows his scars as a sign of solidarity; he knows the trials we endure and the pain that comes along with them. The scars are also the place where God’s work of healing can flourish.

“When Jesus bore the world’s brokenness on the cross, God’s grace filled in the gap between human sin and God’s righteousness, building a stronger body by uniting us with God through Christ as one. Today, the scars on Christ’s body represent the brokenness and sin of the world that can break us down, create gaps in our faith, and tear us apart as a human family. In this painful and anxious place, God’s grace fills in the gaps by the work and power of the Holy Spirit, building us all into a stronger body of believers, and making the moment of crisis a means of transformation within disciples, communities, and the world.”

As we pray for our healing in our country and peace within our world, we also pray for pastors and religious leaders who are sharing messages of hope, peace, and comfort, messages that allow us all be reminded of where we gather endurance for the races set before us. Thanks be to God for your work and ministry.

Catherine Wilson

Image from flickr user txfc of a vigil for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing Monday, April 22, in Davis Square, Sommerville, Mass., used with permission via Creative Commons.

Collected tears


photo-001I have been struggling all week with today’s blog post. Monday’s post went up in the early afternoon, before the tragedy in Boston, and the post scheduled for Wednesday was on the topic of reconciliation, which felt appropriate to post, but here I am, at nearly 2 on Friday afternoon, and I still don’t have anything that seems right to share for today.

The truth is, this Boston thing has shaken me. Partly because I’m from New England, and Boston is “my city.” Partly because I have numerous friends who live there, and many who were involved with the marathon in some degree or another. Partly because I have loved ones who are runners and have run or are working toward running the Boston Marathon. Partly because it was such a beautiful, perfect day, and in some naive part of me, beauty and evil just don’t mix.

Monday found me home in New Hampshire for a long weekend visiting my mom and my sister and her family after the recent arrival of my niece. I literally spent the day cradling the tiny body of my 13-day-old niece and chasing after my two young nephews, and the news of the attack sent a shudder through my body. What kind of world are we raising our children in? was my first frantic thought. What will I tell my 8-year-old when she asks me why everyone is talking about Boston?  

The only answer I can give is that this is a broken world, marred by sin, by that line between good and evil, which runs through the heart of every one of us**. This world is one in which too many people live every day “in the valley of the shadow of death,” rocked by violence and destruction, wrecked by poverty and lack. And yet this is the world that that God “so loved… that he sent his only begotten Son.”  This is the world where people ran toward the bomb explosion on Monday’s sunny afternoon, in the hope of saving others. This is the world where I get to jump on a plane and fly a thousand miles away to spend days snuggling a sweet newborn.  This is that very same world.

And even though Boston is in lock-down today, leaving that beautiful, vibrant city a ghost town, and even though West, Texas, was nearly blown off the map by a terrible explosion two days ago, God does not leave us alone to muddle through all of this. God sees our tears, counts them, even. And the Holy Spirit works mysteriously, even through such things as the lectionary, whose assigned Psalm for this Sunday is that old favorite, and source of so much comfort in times of trial: the 23rd. For all of this, and so much more, I am grateful.


Caren Swanson

Top image by Caren Swanson. Lower image created by Caren Swanson, with the original photo by flickr user 55Laney69 used with permission via Creative Commons.

** “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” 
― Aleksandr SolzhenitsynThe Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

Suffering and hope in the balance


It is with deep sympathy that Christians across the United States offered prayers last Sunday for the family of Rick Warren, California mega-church pastor and best-selling author of The Purpose Driven Life. The news of his son Matthew’s suicide after a lifelong struggle with depression broke on Saturday, bringing mental illness into not only national headlines, but also into the conversations of churchgoers, who, truth be told, have not always been the most sympathetic and understanding of this complex issue.


I recall a time when as a college student, I overheard a conversation between a friend and another young woman who happened to be a committed Christian. My friend shared that she had lost her teenage brother to suicide after he spent dark years struggling with depression. The other woman informed her in no uncertain terms that depression is a form of demonic possession, and that if her brother had received healing prayer, he would not have died. Needless to say, this did not inspire my friend to join the young woman’s church. Now, of course, this is an extreme example, but it highlights the fact that that the church hasn’t always been the best at untangling the physiological, emotional and spiritual threads that surround mental illness.

The good news, which many churches have been shouting from rooftops for years, is that God is with us, even in our suffering. The Dark Night of the Soul is not a sign that God has abandoned us, or that we are somehow being punished. The other good news is that the Body of Christ is alive and well in the world, and, in many churches and communities, it offers a safe harbor from the storms of life, even the internal ones.

Furthermore, medical and therapeutic advances over recent decades have shed ever-increasing light on the mysteries of mental illness, making them more treatable than at any point in history. Nothing will alleviate suffering completely, as the death of Matthew Warren reminds us, but it is important to see the hope that we have.

When Rick Warren shared the news of his son’s death, he chose to write a letter to his congregation, telling them about his son’s struggles, and also about his joys. It is heartbreaking that any parent should have to write such a letter, but it is a beautiful expression of love and loss and vulnerability:

To my dear Saddleback Family,

Over the past 33 years we’ve been together through every kind of crisis. Kay and I’ve been privileged to hold your hands as you faced a crisis or loss, stand with you at gravesides, and prayed for you when ill. Today, we need your prayer for us.

No words can express the anguished grief we feel right now. Our youngest son, Matthew, age 27, and a lifelong member of Saddleback, died today.

You who watched Matthew grow up knew he was an incredibly kind, gentle, and compassionate man. He had a brilliant intellect and a gift for sensing who was most in pain or most uncomfortable in a room. He’d then make a beeline to that person to engage and encourage them.

But only those closest knew that he struggled from birth with mental illness, dark holes of depression, and even suicidal thoughts. In spite of America’s best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided. Today, after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life.

Kay and I often marveled at his courage to keep moving in spite of relentless pain. I’ll never forget how, many years ago, after another approach had failed to give relief, Matthew said, “Dad, I know I’m going to heaven. Why can’t I just die and end this pain?” but he kept going for another decade.

Thank you for your love and prayers. We love you back.

Pastor Rick

When someone in such a position of influence in American Christianity is touched by mental illness, I can’t help but hope that the stigma that exists in our society at large, and in the church in particular, will be eased at bit. People are talking about depression and other mental health issues this week, which is a great place to start. There is an abundance of articles and resources available online, including an excellent post on the Her~meneutics blog on that has many practical suggestions for making the church a more hospitable place for those with mental illness. As the author reminds us, we are not called to have all the answers or be able to fix everything, but we are called to love.

As we pray for the Warren family, let us pray too that God will open our eyes to the suffering in our own congregations, families and communities. Truly, lives are in the balance.

— Caren Swanson

PLEASE NOTE:  Find more posts on this blog about depression and mental health by clicking on each word.

(Image by flickr user spinster cardigan, via creative commons.)

Mediterranean diet helps decrease risk of cardiovascular disease


A new, large-scale study with over 7,000 participants (aged 55-80) at high risk of heart disease, has concluded that eating a traditional Mediterranean diet can significantly reduce the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and death from heart disease among those predisposed to them.*  

All study participants had either type 2 diabetes or at least three of the following major risk factors: smoking, hypertension, elevated LDL, low HDL, overweight or obesity, or a family history of premature coronary heart disease.

What is considered a traditional Mediterranean diet?

  • High intake of extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, beans, fruits and vegetables
  • Moderate intake of fish and poultry
  • Low intake of dairy products, red meat, processed meats, and sweets
  • And wine in moderation with a meal


Below are excerpts from the New York Times article reporting the research findings:

“About 30 percent of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease can be prevented in people at high risk if they switch to a Mediterranean diet…

“The findings, published on The New England Journal of Medicine’s web site on Monday [Feb. 25], were based on the first major clinical trial to measure the diet’s effect on heart risks.  The magnitude of the diet’s benefits startled experts.  The study [conducted in Spain] ended early, after almost five years, because the results were so clear it was considered unethical to continue.

“The diet helped [reduce the risk of major cardiac events in] those following it even though they did not lose weight and most of them were already taking statins, or blood pressure or diabetes drugs to lower their heart disease risk.**

“The researchers were careful to say in their paper that while the diet clearly reduced heart disease for those at high risk for it, more research was needed to establish its benefits for people at low risk. But [Dr. Ramon Estruch, the lead investigator on the study and a professor of medicine at the University of Barcelona,] said he expected it would also help people at both high and low risk, and suggested that the best way to use it for protection would be to start in childhood.”

Do you eat a Mediterranean diet? 

The New York Times has posted the survey designed by the study’s researchers in Barcelona.  Use it to determine if your current diet is heart healthy.  Take the quiz.

Looking for recipes?  You can find lots of tasty suggestions for Mediterranean-style dishes you might enjoy on these and other websites:


— Melanie Kolkin


* At the time of enrollment, none of the participants had cardiovascular disease.

** It is important to note that the only health outcome researchers looked at in this study was the effect of the Mediterranean diet on major cardiovascular events (acute myocardial infarction, stroke, or death from cardiovascular causes) in high-risk individuals.  It did not assess the diet’s affect on the other physical and mental health or quality of life consequences associated with the heart disease risk factors mentioned in paragraph 2.  For example,  smoking can cause emphysema and various kinds of cancer, while being overweight or obese increases an individual’s risk of developing osteoarthritis, cancer, and complications during pregnancy.

Kolata, G. (2013, February 25). Mediterranean diet shown to ward off heart attack and stroke. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Estruch R, Ros E, Salas-Salvadó J, Covas M-I, D.Pharm., Corella D, et al. Primary prevention of cardiovascular disease with a Mediterranean diet. New England Journal of Medicine. Online publication February 25, 2013.

(Image courtesy of USDAgov via Flikr)

How we pay attention


I heard a fascinating story about attention on NPR last week. Apparently, when our minds are focused on one thing, we often miss something else that is very obvious, like a man in a gorilla suit, for example!

Researchers at Harvard, led by Trafton Drew, conducted a study in which they showed slides of lungs to radiologists, who are trained to find cancer nodules where most us wouldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Inspired by the famous “Selective Attention Test” featuring a gorilla suit (see the video below!) the researchers planted an image of a man in a gorilla suit on some of the slides, and asked the researchers what they saw. 83% didn’t see the gorilla! From the NPR story:

This wasn’t because the eyes of the radiologists didn’t happen to fall on the large, angry gorilla. Instead, the problem was in the way their brains had framed what they were doing. They were looking for cancer nodules, not gorillas. “They look right at it, but because they’re not looking for a gorilla, they don’t see that it’s a gorilla,” Drew says.

There is a beauty in being so focused on a task that we don’t notice anything else around us. Psychologists call this “flow.” My daughter, working on an art project in her room, is a beautiful example of that. But there can also be a danger when we focus so much on one thing, particularly, as the NPR piece points out, when that is something we are trained to or expecting to see, that we are unable to notice anything else.

In other words, what we’re thinking about — what we’re focused on — filters the world around us so aggressively that it literally shapes what we see. So, Drew says, we need to think carefully about the instructions we give to professional searchers like radiologists or people looking for terrorist activity, because what we tell them to look for will in part determine what they see and don’t see.

Pastors are asked to pay attention to a great many things, often at the same time. What do you notice about yourself when you are trying to do a focused task, like write a sermon, versus when you are visiting with parishioners after church, which requires a totally different kind of attention? Are you better at one kind of focusing than another? Would you see a man in a gorilla suit if he wandered past your door?

–Caren Swanson

Image by Trafton Drew and Jeremy Wolfe, via NPR’s Shots blog


Exercise and the brain


So, it’s January 9th, nine days into New Year’s resolutions.  If you’re looking for a little inspiration to keep up with a resolution to “move more,” as the public health campaign urges, look no further than an article in today’s New York Times, highlighting two new studies on the effects of exercise on the brain.  The connection between exercise and brain health has long been established in the medical community, but one thing that hasn’t been studied much until recently is how long the positive impacts–improved memory, mood and clarity of thought, among others–last should the individual stop exercising.  The conclusion?  Keep it up!

[T]he brain benefits “wear off quickly,” said Dr. Michael Mazurek, a professor of neurology at McMaster, who oversaw the study. “This is analogous to what happens to muscle bulk or heart rate following exercise withdrawal.”

Now, don’t be discouraged and think it’s not worth exercising at all! For one thing, those benefits to the brain can be felt immediately, unlike other long-term health effects of exercise. And the good news is that even a moderate amount of exercise seems to produce these effects. So whether you’re a marathon runner or enjoy walking around your neighborhood with a friend, keep your body moving, and your brain will thank you!  From the article:

 For the ongoing health of our minds, as well as for the plentiful other health benefits of exercise, it might be wise to stick to those New Year’s exercise resolutions.

Finally, don’t forget that we ALL struggle to keep our resolutions. Making behavior changes is  hard, which is why the Spirited Life program provides all our participants with a personal wellness advocate. If you are implementing some new routines in the new year, set up a time to talk with your wellness advocate, and he or she can help you make a plan that works for YOU. (Okay, shameless plug now over!)

–Caren Swanson

image used with permission via Microsoft Word Clip Art

‘Physically, Psychologically, and Spiritually Depleted’


The Charlotte Observer ran a news story last week about the medical leave of the Rev. Steve Shoemaker, the pastor of Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte.  Shoemaker wrote in a letter to his congregation on December 28 that he is “physically, psychologically, and spiritually depleted, and must get help.”

Shoemaker entered a 30-day residential treatment program in Maryland for help with depression and anxiety.  He said he had been taking prescription medication and had recently been self-medicating with alcohol.

In the article, Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown, a member of Myers Park Baptist church, ordained minister, and physician administrator, lauded Shoemaker’s passionate ministry and dedication to improving the lives of others.  She shared: “Being a pastor the way Steve does it, you’re refueling everybody else … but not often do you stop to let the big tanker come and refuel you.”

While this story may have been ground-breaking news for some readers, clergy depression is something we are well aware of at the Clergy Health Initiative.  We encourage pastors to be mindful of their emotional, physical, and mental health, and to seek the support they need to pursue wellness when they are feeling depleted.

At Spirited Life, we give thanks for Rev. Shoemaker’s honesty and vulnerability at a time of exhaustion.  We are grateful for his courage to seek treatment.  Thank you, Rev. Shoemaker, for being a witness to others of our limitations as humans seeking to follow Christ in ministry in the world.  May this time apart and away be one of healing and restoration, to the glory of God the Father, the Great Healer.

–Catherine Wilson

(image by flickr user mlhradio/via Creative Commons)


“I don’t” vs. “I can’t”


Many of the pastors participating in our Spirited Life program have had great success on Naturally Slim, a mindful-eating program that we offer them, but they often report that one of the hardest parts of their new lifestyle is saying “no” to sugar. We’re all familiar with the challenge of giving up a vice. Our resolve is strong in the first couple of days or weeks. But slowly, the siren song grows louder and more insistent. It demands a response. What will we say?

Interestingly, it may matter not only whether we say “no,” but also how we say it. A recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that people who say “I don’t” in the face of temptation are less likely to capitulate than those who say “I can’t.

As the University of Chicago Press reports,

In four studies [Vanessa M. Patrick (University of Houston) and Henrik Hagvedt (Boston College)] examined the difference between framing a refusal with the words “I don’t” vs. “I can’t.” “This insight is based on the notion that saying “I can’t” to temptation inherently signals deprivation and the loss from giving up something desirable,” the authors write. “For instance, when faced with a tempting slice of pumpkin pie, one’s spontaneous response, ‘I can’t eat pumpkin pie’ signals deprivation. Saying ‘I don’t eat pumpkin pie’ is more effective.” This approach signals to oneself (and others) a sense of determination and empowerment, which makes the refusal strategy more effective.

A group of 30 women were divided up into three different groups. One group was trained in the “I don’t” strategy; another, the “I can’t” strategy; and the third, a generalized, “just-say-no” strategy. These approaches were reinforced everyday with an email reminder, and participants were invited to share instances of success and failure with their assigned strategy.

Here are the researchers’ findings:

The “I don’t” strategy increased participants’ feelings of autonomy, control, and self-awareness; and it resulted in positive behavioral change. One participant reported “a renewed dedication to shedding those extra pounds….I bought a used folding bicycle this weekend that I can keep in my office and use to ride across campus.” Saying “I don’t” also led to increased longevity; participants reported using it long after the study was completed.

This is more evidence for the “fake it until you make it” approach to behavior change. Oddly enough, we listen to what we say, and what we hear shapes our behavior. A simple word change seems almost too simple to affect whether we reach our goals, but often the simplest tactics are the most effective.

Tommy Grimm

(Image by flickr user justinhenry /via Creative Commons)