Do You Need A New Rhythm? ~ Part IV

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This is the fourth in a special series on Sabbath by guest blogger Rev. Dianne Lawhorn. Please read the first installment here, the second installment here, and the third here. We offer these reflections in the hope that you will feel invited to deepen your own Sabbath practice. Thank you to Dianne for sharing these thoughtful reflections with us in this space!

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I believe that there are two important things to consider when you are planning for Sabbath time.  These two things are what to include in your Sabbath time and what to leave out of it.  So, let’s start with what you might want to leave out of your Sabbath time.  We should think about doing more of what gives us life and doing less of what drains us.  This calls for some reflection on our part.  We might ask ourselves: what do we find to be life- giving and what do we find to be life-draining? What helps us to give and receive God’s love and what hinders us from doing that?  These questions may sound familiar to you as they are the Ignatian Questions of Examen.  They provide a wonderful spiritual check-in for how our rhythm is working for us.

worn white cardboard box isolated on white background..When I think about what is life-draining for me, it’s rushing, deadlines, multi-tasking, being always available, unrealistic expectations, and not feeling the freedom to do the things at my own pace.  Wayne Muller speaks in his book, Sabbath, about having a Sabbath box- where you place the things that are not invited into your Sabbath time.  So, I might put my watch, cellphone, or my calendar in the box.  The idea is that you don’t allow the things that drain you to enter into your Sabbath space, you protect yourself from them for a set- aside time.  This is about freeing yourself up to take a vacation from those things.     

Once the life-draining things of life are set aside, then, you are free to open yourself to experiencing the life-giving things that replenish you.  For me those life-giving things are easing into the day, not always being available through technology, and allowing myself to do things at a more leisurely pace, as I actually lose track of time.  As you create your Sabbath space; you should be encouraged to feel free to do whatever you need to do for yourself.

318203573_0d6273c2eb_bI have been observing Sabbath for quite some time now.  I can say that it has been the most helpful spiritual practice I have found.  It has really opened up space for me to nurture my spiritual longings, without feeling guilty about the time that I am spending doing so.  This practice has brought refreshment to my soul and helped me to embrace a new rhythm.

As you enter into your Sabbath time, you might consider using these questions of Examen as well.  For most of us, it has been a long time since we took the time to consider what drains us or what brings us life.  Considering these questions will help you design a Sabbath day that truly ministers to your soul.  I pray God’s blessings on you as you embrace the kind of Sabbath Rest that will bring you life.  I celebrate the gifts that await you within it! 

Dianne Lawhorn

DianneDianne is currently the Minister of Spiritual Formation for the Lydia Group which is a resource for spiritual wholeness offering formational teaching, retreat leadership, and spiritual direction.

 

Do You Need A New Rhythm? ~ Part III

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This is the third in a special series on Sabbath by guest blogger Rev. Dianne Lawhorn. Please read the first installment here and the second installment here. We offer these reflections in the hope that over the next weeks you will feel invited to deepen your own Sabbath practice. Check back next Monday to read the rest of Dianne’s thoughts on this important topic.

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What we are getting at here is the idea of embracing a new rhythm for life.  Rhythms are a normal and natural part of our everyday lives.  There is a rhythm of the day dissolving into the night.  There is a rhythm of growth and dormancy in our landscape through the seasons.  There is a tidal rhythm in the ebb and flow of the sea.  There is a bodily rhythm in our waking and sleeping.  At the heart of who we are is rhythm, as our hearts beat and then rest between each beat.  This rhythm of activity and rest is something that is so very essential for us.

Sacred_Rhythms_largeAuthor Ruth Haley Barton, writes about this in her book, Sacred Rhythms.  She talks about discovering that some people arrange their lives to see sunsets.  It becomes a part of their daily rhythm.  She tells the story about embracing this practice for herself.  She described rushing around, busy with errands one day, and realizing that she was going to be late for the sunset.  Hearing her beach chair calling her name, she dropped all of the goods that she intended to buy and rushed to meet her sunset, to experience holy rest at last.

I simply love this idea of embracing as a spiritual practice watching the sun go down every night.  I love the idea of scheduling your activities so that you don’t miss out on one of earth’s most beautiful rhythms.  I’m sure for Ruth Haley Barton, her time in the sunset is time that she sets apart to sit in the presence of God.  I’m sure it provides a relaxing and peaceful end to her busy day.  This is a rhythm that she has embraced to include holy rest– not every month, or every week, but every day of her life.  It’s a beautiful idea, isn’t it?

For most of us, it sounds great, but it isn’t something that we feel is very practical.  But why can’t this kind of a “stop” be a reality for us, maybe not every day, but just one day a week?  Are we really too busy for that?  Have we lost this rhythm of life, the balance between work and rest forever?

What we are being invited into through Sabbath-Rest is a new rhythm.  It’s a rhythm that God designed for our benefit.  It’s a rhythm where we take a long, loving look at our Creator and leave the work up to God.  It’s a rhythm where we stop, we become still, we notice, we celebrate our God, who is the source of all blessings. Only when we stop, will we really enter in to God’s rest.  Only when we stop will we experience the recovery of mind, body, and spirit that we need.  So, the question we are left with is- how do we do it, how do we make this kind of holy rest a reality in our lives?

Dianne Lawhorn

DianneDianne is currently the Minister of Spiritual Formation for the Lydia Group which is a resource for spiritual wholeness offering formational teaching, retreat leadership, and spiritual direction.

Do You Need A New Rhythm? ~ Part II

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This is the second in a special series on Sabbath by guest blogger Rev. Dianne Lawhorn. Please read the first installment here. We offer these reflections in the hope that over the next few weeks you will feel invited to deepen your own Sabbath practice. Check back on the next two Mondays to read the rest of Dianne’s thoughts on this important topic.

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Now this idea of observing a “stop day” isn’t a new one.  It was thought of long before any of us were.  We find it in the biblical concept of Sabbath-keeping.  I love the way that Exodus 20:8 gives us this command: “Remember the Sabbath Day and Keep it Holy.”  Dr. Matthew Sleeth speaks of this.  He says “In the beginning of time, God created for 6 days and what did God do on the 7th day?  He rested.  God created the world and said it was good.  God created humans and he said they were very good.  God created the Sabbath and he said it was holy.” 

8537281481_7aeec88600_hThe Sabbath was something that God created, observed, and modeled for us, not because God needed it, but because God knew we needed it.  That’s why God provided it for us as a gift,  blessed it for us, and made it holy.  Sabbath was all about helping the Hebrew people to establish rhythms for life that would sustain them.  Their identity was shaped by embracing God’s rhythm of working for 6 days and resting on the 7th day, letting it be a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord.  The Hebrew people were no different than we are, they didn’t think they could take a day free from work and still get everything done.  Moses encouraged them to trust that God would take care of their needs.  With baby steps, they learned how to cease from their labors, how to enter Sabbath- rest.  Developing this pattern in their lives involved a radical re-ordering of their priorities.

Do we think we’ve evolved beyond needing this rhythm that God created for the people?  If we are honest, we’ll admit that we need this radical re-ordering of our priorities, now more than ever.  The business, the hurry, the overload of our lives is so much less than what God wants for us.  We’ve been missing out on the pace of a Sabbath day for a long time, on experiencing a rhythm that includes stopping, slowing, and resting.  Can you imagine what this might look like, feel like, and mean to our lives to have a day every week for Sabbath-rest?

So, maybe for pastors Sunday can’t be our Sabbath.  We can certainly claim this kind of a day on another day of the week, can’t we?  I believe Sabbath-rest can be a reality for us, if we recognize the need for it, and create space in our lives for it.  Maybe we, like the Hebrews, could simply take a baby step today by embracing even just an hour of true Sabbath time.

May God guide us as we seek to recover this precious gem that has been lost, so that we can experience a new rhythm of life that includes holy rest.  With a deep breath, a prayer intention, and willing trust in God to provide for our needs, let us begin to reclaim the gift of Sabbath-rest.

–Dianne Lawhorn

DianneDianne is currently the Minister of Spiritual Formation for the Lydia Group which is a resource for spiritual wholeness offering formational teaching, retreat leadership, and spiritual direction.

Image from Flickr user Grand Canyon NPS, via Creative Commons.

How I Spent My Small Grant: Rev. Ron Weatherford

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One of the ways that we encourage participants in our Spirited Life program to focus on their wellness is by awarding them each a one-time grant of $500. Pastors are encouraged to use the grant to offset costs associated with their pursuit of the health goals. They’ve used their grants for everything from gym memberships to hobby supplies.

Rev. Ron Weatherford used his small grant to further his love of painting. Below is an interview with Rev. Weatherford:

Q. How long have you been in ministry?
A. My first church appointment was in 1988 and last appointment was in 2011. Currently I am classified as local pastor. I am not in an appointment.july__17_2013_028Q. What did you do before you entered into ministry?                  
A. I was a bi-vocational pastor for 25 years. I retired from the U.S. Postal System in 2009. I also founded a non-profit called Nia’s Ark that addresses health issues in the Retirement ExpressAfrican American church.  We have partnered with UNC Chapel Hill “Ethnic Minority Health Organization” on research projects in the faith community. We are currently planning prostate cancer workshops in the faith community for the fall of 2013.

Q. What did you purchase with your small grant?
A. I used the grant to purchase art supplies and to pay membership fees for local artist guilds. I bought canvases and paints and brushes.

Q. Are there other artists in your family tree?
A. My son majored in art in college and plans to pursue a master of fine art degree.

Q. What about art inspires you? What do you find relaxing about it?
A. I have always enjoyed art. As a child I enjoyed creating art. My favorite art form was ceramics at summer camp. I began painting in February 2013 after looking at some photos of the stars from the Hubble telescope. I was attempting to capture the beauty of the universe through painting. I found that painting allowed me to channel my feelings onto canvas. I started to experiment with different styles of painting. I studied the styles of various artists. There was a practice period where I tried to duplicate others’ work. During this period I had to learn about what brushes to use and how to blend colors. I eventually started to be able to bring my own visions to bring to life on canvas. I paint what I feel on a given day. My inspiration comes from conversations with friends and life itself. There is still a lot I have to learn. Art is instrumental in helping to maintain my mental health. I started doing art when I was going before the Board of Ordained Ministry. The outcome was not what I expected and art allowed me express what I was feeling. I did a painting called Jacob’s Ladder that came out that experience.  When I started sharing my art with friends they were surprised because it was something new. I was commissioned to do a few pieces for a local business. My art is on display for purchase. Art allows me to tell a story on canvas.

Q.What do you do with the art work when it’s completed? Sell it? Donate it? Keep it?
A. When I complete my art I post it on the Fine Art America website.  This is a great website as people from all over the world are viewing my art. I am trying to get art galleries to take them on consignment.photo_(22)Many thanks to Rev. Weatherford for sharing!

– Angela M. MacDonald

Homegrown: NC Women’s Preaching Festival

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In an article on sustaining pastoral excellence, the Rev. Sally Brower, a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, writes:

“For women clergy, sustaining pastoral excellence is not only about spiritual practices and leadership skills. It is also about retaining gifted women pastors for whom ministry is all too often an ordeal of grace under fire.”

As a young female member of my church, my heart warms at the sound of a feminine voice resounding from our pulpit. Hearing the gospel articulated by a woman has a refreshing sense of strength and courage.

Women are not new to ministry — witness Mary, the Mother of our Lord, and her cousin Elizabeth. However, women are relatively new to the world of formal preaching and inclusion in denominational leadership roles, and this still-recent cultural shift can create unique challenges for female pastors.

img_2104 A pregnant minister once told me that the number one question she is asked is, “Are you going to keep preaching?” “Yes, Lord willing,” she frequently replies. It is not a harmful question or an unexpected one, but I don’t believe that male pastors get asked the same question when their wives give birth or when they adopt a child.

On top of the biases that color others’ view of women in ministry are the questions that female pastors often ask themselves (ones that are equally reflective of our cultural expectations): How will I pay for childcare on a pastor’s salary? Make time to cook dinner and clean my house when I’m on call 24/7? Make visits to the hospital with a nursing baby? How do I come across as nurturing but not too soft? How can I be feminine without being hyper-emotional? How can I, as a woman, be unique — but not too different from men?

Do you find yourself longing to be in the company of other female ministers? Worshiping with one another is a way of sustaining one’s ministry and diving into these questions.

Join us at Homegrown: North Carolina’s Women’s Preaching Festival this fall, October 10 and 11 in Durham, N.C. to receive the word from and worship with other female clergy and explore all that women have to offer the church.

–Kelli Sittser

Instructions for Living a Life

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Yesterday evening I watched the shadows march across my backyard as the sun meandered toward the horizon. Above my head a perfect blue sky was framed by the crown of willow oaks, dappled in the day’s remaining golden light. It was beautiful, in such a simple way, and I could feel the stress of the day ease off my shoulders. For a moment there, breathing deeply, I paid attention enough to be amazed at the beauty of God’s creation and the blessing of having the ability to enjoy it.

Is it worth telling you about this? According to the poet Mary Oliver, it is.

Telling about our wonder, or, in her words, our “astonishment” is part of paying attention. When I notice beauty, or take pleasure in something, or tend to some pain, and really pay attention to it, something shifts in me, and that shift becomes even more real when I share about it with another person. We live in a magical world, if only we have eyes to see it. Poetry helps me to see. What is helping you pay attention today? What are you being astonished by?1170697_10152205016022576_545809727_nCaren Swanson

Top image via blogger “An Octopus’ Garden,” bottom photo by Caren Swanson.

There Is Endless Potential in the Clay: A Lectionary Reflection on Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Psalm 139

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Welcome to the tenth and final post in a special summer series of guest posts featuring lectionary-based reflections on health. We offer these reflections in the hope that in these weeks, you’ll consider the lectionary readings in a new light — one of health and wholeness. We post the reflections on Wednesdays, a week and a half prior to the Sundays on which the readings fall.

Our tenth guest post is by Ed Moore, reflecting on Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Psalm 139.* 

When I was a student at Duke Divinity School, I considered becoming an archaeologist. I had toyed with the idea as an undergraduate (religion major, as many “pre-mini’s” were back then) and then attended a lecture by Duke’s renowned Eric Meyers on his recent dig in the Middle East. I was fascinated as Meyers explained that strata in a ruin inhabited across millennia by different peoples could accurately be dated by identifying the various types of pottery.

With just a few shards, an expert could give a fair estimate of the date when this or that group “owned” the place. I thought my interest in archaeology had been shelved when I opted for the pastoral ministry, only to discover within a few months of arriving in my first appointment (a congregation founded in 1788 – Asbury preached there several times, the locals were quick to say) that identifying strata in a congregation’s past was nearly as demanding as digging up Nineveh. And some of the pottery shards were, well, surprising.

9371760700_d5ac835f13_hJeremiah knew about potters, their wheels and shards. In the reading for September 8, he imagines Yahweh sitting at the wheel, shaping the destinies of nations, just as a potter would a common vessel. As preaching technique, this is powerful stuff. Everyone who heard Jeremiah had seen potters at their wheels, and watched them gently form the wet clay into the desired shape. Occasionally the potter would be dissatisfied with the way the work was going, would collapse the clay back into a lump, and would start all over again. The shape hadn’t been right, and the work needed a fresh beginning. Just as Jesus’ parables drew upon the commonplace to connect with his listeners – lost sheep, prodigal offspring – so Jeremiah used everyday imagery as a vehicle for the prophetic Word. If you heard Jeremiah describe God at the wheel, you would remember the sermon next time you passed the neighborhood potter’s shop.

This time of year tends to evoke memories for United Methodist pastors, since many of us began serving new appointments on the first of July. It is inevitable that, as we leave one place of ministry for another, we reflect back upon what was good – and not – in the place we’ve been. If we’re not careful, we begin to dwell upon the “if only” scenario: if only I had been more pastorally sensitive in that situation five years ago, I’d have avoided serious conflict. If only I’d been more decisive in dealing with that difficult staff issue, the congregation would have been healthier. If only I’d been a better listener, preacher, counselor, manager, fund raiser . . . you get the idea. Yes, of course, the New Jerusalem would have descended had I only gotten my act together.

But I didn’t, and now it’s moving time again. This sort of selective remembering is really an archaeological dig. As we go down through the layers of ministry, we find shards of what-might-have-been. We gaze fondly upon them (as the Puritans loved to say), pick them up, and allow their sharp edges to wound us afresh. Each one is a stark reminder of some brokenness, either in ourselves or in the parishes we served. Stratum after stratum, year after year, they surface, each a relic of some shortcoming or missed opportunity.

When I was assigned the lections for September 8 and read again that passage from Jeremiah, I remembered a church camp experience from years ago. At the end of the week we had a consecration service (the planners weren’t clear about the meaning of that theological term, but meant well), in which we were asked to recall some sin we needed to confess. We were to write it down on a piece of paper, fold it up, and toss it in the campfire as we all sang, “Have Thine Own Way, Lord.” You know the lyrics, straight from Jeremiah, “Have thine own way, Lord, have thine own way! Thou art the potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me, after thy will . . .”

8329324494_2572067fa7When we allow those freshly re-dug shards from the past to wound us, we miss the grace the Psalmist understood so well when she wrote, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me . . . and are acquainted with all my ways. . . In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them yet existed.” It’s helpful to hear the Psalmist’s words through the prism of that old hymn. God, as Jeremiah imagined God at the potter’s wheel, is constantly about the work of re-forming when something gets out of shape, because there is endless potential in the clay. Lord, help us wait, “yielded and still,” for the gracious, reshaping touch of the Spirit.

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Ed Moore is the Director of Educational Programs for the Clergy Health Initiative, and an ordained elder in the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Questions for Reflection

• Our memories are imperfect, and as such they can wound long after the fact. Why is that shard from a past ministry still hurting you? Why do you dig it up so often? The process of remembering can itself can become unhealthy, overweight with baggage that dulls the spirit. How can the healing of your memories begin?

• Sometimes it is helpful to note what scripture does not say. In this passage from Jeremiah, the prophet doesn’t mention the importance of water in the potter’s craft; he assumed everyone knew it. The potter always works with wet hands, shaping the clay until it yields to his skill. The waters of baptism are on the Spirit’s hands, too, molding the clay of your life and shaping it gracefully. How can the memory of your baptism be a means of healing and wholeness for you?

* These reflections first appeared in the collection, “Connecting the Mind, Body and Spirit: Reflections on Health,” produced by the Duke Clergy Health Initiative in summer 2010.

Pastor’s Reflection: The Best Walk of My Life

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The following post is by Spirited Life pastor Matt Smith, who serves as the Associate Pastor at Guilford College United Methodist Church in Greensboro, where he paces himself on runs of moderate distances.  A version of this story appeared in the Crossroads Chronicle.

Matt w. Green STole 2In each of the last three years, I have run in Western Carolina University’s Valley of the Lilies Half-Marathon. This year, for the first time, I wasn’t able to run that whole distance. On a seemingly endless hill, my calves got as tight as bowstrings, and I was forced to walk the last two miles. It may have been because I started too quickly or because I ate too little or (more likely) due to my inadequate training. I was disappointed, but my disappointment didn’t last long.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHaving never walked much on Western’s campus, I had never realized how beautiful it is. I learned why the event is called “Valley of the Lilies” as I enjoyed the hundreds of white and yellow blooms lining the path. I encouraged the other runners as they passed me. I savored an energy bar. My feet were no longer racing, but my mind was. As someone who was gearing up for a new appointment, I thought about how it felt like my best running in this area is behind me.

My mild disappointment at my performance lead me to question other areas of my life where my efforts come in fits and spurts. In terms of my health: wouldn’t it be better for my health to commit to running three miles every other day throughout the year, rather than gearing up for such a long run annually? In terms of my motivations: in running so far this one day, was I just trying to prove something to myself or to others?

In terms of my work: hadn’t some of my most heroic efforts to do something novel and exciting fallen flat? In terms of discipleship: is it better to read a whole book of the Bible in one sitting or read a chapter every day? Maybe that’s why Eugene Peterson calls discipleship “a long obedience in the same direction.”

In a funny way, facing the answers to these questions wasn’t demoralizing but freeing. I beamed as I crossed the finish line, having been reminded that my worth doesn’t lie in my pushing myself to my limits or beyond them. It’s not our backbreaking toil, after all, but abiding in Jesus that enables us to bear great fruit.

Image by flickr user Jason A. Samfield, via Creative Commons.

Living Wholly in Christian Community: A Lectionary Reflection on Hebrews 13

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Welcome to the ninth in a special summer series of guest posts featuring lectionary-based reflections on health. We offer these reflections in the hope that in the coming weeks, you’ll consider the lectionary readings in a new light — one of health and wholeness. We will post the reflections on Wednesdays, a week and a half prior to the Sundays on which the readings fall.

Our ninth guest post is by Christi O. Brown, reflecting on Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16.* 

The sermon was delivered, hands had been shaken, and the church doors were locked for the day. Now, it was time for the pastor’s favorite part of the week – Sunday afternoon. The family lingered over lunch, and then, ah, a glorious nap.

Five o’clock rolled around all too quickly. The young adult group from church would be arriving soon. They were in the midst of a six-week study on holistic health. They trickled in, chit-chatting about their latest projects, weekend trips, and job interviews. Then after an opening prayer, they turned to the sermon for the day, which had focused on Hebrews 13, a particularly apt scripture for this group. One of them looked at the pastor. “I liked your message this morning. But I wondered if you have thoughts about how to put it into practice.”

This is exactly the kind of question the author of Hebrews was responding to in chapter 13. As Tom Long has noted in his book Interpretation: Hebrews, the stylistic shift of this chapter indicates the formal part of the preacher’s sermon is over. Now it is on to the announcements, joys, and concerns – the point where teachings are put into practice.

DSC_0043This passage indicates what it means to be embodied Christians living faithfully in community. Hebrews 13 is a marker of what the Bible has to say about holistically living out the Christian faith. The formula in this passage is profuse, including mutual love, hospitality, empathy, simplicity, honoring relationships, praising God, giving thanks, doing good, and sharing. Overall, it is a reminder of the importance of Christian community in our ability to live wholly. None of the things the author exhorts us to do can be accomplished alone. We need to have others in our lives with whom to share mutual love, support, and accountability. As embodied members of Christ, it is our duty and privilege to care for, nurture, and help others, fully empathizing with their circumstances.

Though we’re not imprisoned in jail or tortured like some of the early Christians this letter addresses, we are each imprisoned and tortured by our own vices. Living in Christian
community, the author of Hebrews recognizes that we must try to understand the pain and struggles of others and to be vulnerable with one another, sharing even our most shameful challenges. And it isn’t easy. The obstacles that prevent us from living holistically – whether they include overeating, avoiding exercise, working too many hours, or becoming impatient with our families – often seem like things we should be able to manage ourselves. However, this passage reminds us that the Lord is our helper, and that it is grace that strengthens the heart. The grace to live wholly is found in true Christian communities. As we run the race with perseverance, Christ is our anchor and our community is our coach. Though it’s not easy to run or stay on track when pursuing balance, the good news is that the race is not run alone.

DSC_4295Living as embodied members of Christian community is extremely helpful in times of transition, which is the one thing most young adults have in common (as do United Methodist pastors.) Change is the norm: young adults are often living in a liminal space – betwixt and between towns, jobs, serious relationships, kids. It is challenging to live holistically when nothing seems grounded or stable. This is why the mutual love and hospitality that the author of Hebrews mentions as present in a Christian community are so important. It is via the love and encouragement of others that all of us are able to press on toward living our lives as fully and faithfully as possible. In our times of discouragement, it is helpful to remember that even the author of Hebrews asks for prayer in order to pursue the goal of acting honorably. This act demonstrates the need for Christian community, where we most strongly experience the prayer, support, and grace we need to fully live.

brownChristi O. Brown is a pastoral associate at First Presbyterian Church in Spartanburg, S.C., and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Questions for reflection:

• The Bible recounts numerous stories of God’s calling folk individually – Moses at the burning bush, Isaiah in the temple at Jerusalem, Saul on the Damascus Road, Jesus into the wilderness after his baptism – but in each case, the call is to equip them to be sent
back into the community of God’s people. How might the struggle to be healthier – mentally, physically, spiritually – be God’s summons to be shaped for a more powerful ministry in the church?

• In the self-help section of any bookstore are hundreds of titles: diets, self-esteem guides, toolkits for a happier marriage, and manuals to more effective management of every imaginable topic. Is the cry for self-help a lament that community has been lost?

* These reflections first appeared in the collection, “Connecting the Mind, Body and Spirit: Reflections on Health,” produced by the Duke Clergy Health Initiative in summer 2010.

What will you regret?

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Kindness mattersEarlier this year, acclaimed author George Saunders delivered the convocation address for 2013 graduating class at Syracuse University. Saunders knows exactly what’s typically involved in such speeches: “some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you).” Nevertheless, he goes on share what he regrets most in his life, in hopes that the graduates will go and do not likewise.

What do I regret?  Being poor from time to time?  Not really.  Working terrible jobs, like “knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse?”  (And don’t even ASK what that entails.)  No.  I don’t regret that.  Skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra, a little buzzed, and looking up and seeing like 300 monkeys sitting on a pipeline, pooping down into the river, the river in which I was swimming, with my mouth open, naked?  And getting deathly ill afterwards, and staying sick for the next seven months?  Not so much.  Do I regret the occasional humiliation?  Like once, playing hockey in front of a big crowd, including this girl I really liked, I somehow managed, while falling and emitting this weird whooping noise, to score on my own goalie, while also sending my stick flying into the crowd, nearly hitting that girl?  No.  I don’t even regret that.

But here’s something I do regret:

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class.  In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.”  ELLEN was small, shy.  She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore.  When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” – that sort of thing).  I could see this hurt her.  I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear.  After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth.  At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.”  And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”

Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

And then – they moved.  That was it.  No tragedy, no big final hazing.

One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.

End of story.

Now, why do I regret that?  Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it?  Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her.  I never said an unkind word to her.  In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.

But still.  It bothers me.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness

In our superficial, health-obsessed culture, it can be easy to think that your BMI measures your worth and your pants’ size your value. Many of our participants are putting tremendous effort into improving their health, causing us to beam with pride. Yet almost all of them are remarkably kind people, and that may be the most important thing of all.

Tommy Grimm

(image by Flickr user SweetonVeg /via Creative Commons)