A Life of Prayer


Spirited Life has been a holistic health program, and we have tried to offer a broad framework within which participants can define health for themselves. This wellness wheel wellness wheel image color(seen at right) while comprehensive in its characterization of health, is also limiting because it keeps these parts of our lives in separate, neat and tidy little circles. I don’t know about you, but for me, that’s not quite how life works. So, how do we reconcile a life in Christ when our days are filled with grocery shopping, meetings, charge conference papers, and if we’re lucky, a trip to the gym?

A couple of years ago, while preparing for a Spirited Life workshop, we came across this article by Rev. Sam Portaro, an Episcopal priest and faculty member at CREDO.  In the article, Rev. Portaro expands the definition of prayer. He suggests that by reframing what it means to have a prayer life, we can move from a daily ritual of spiritual practices to living a life of prayer where we are in constant and holy relationship with the Lord, even in our mundane activities. In some respects, Rev. Portaro is offering us a way to integrate the compartments of our lives.

Click here to read Rev. Portaro’s article, “Practicing a Life of Prayer,” which originally appeared in William S. Craddock’s All Shall Be Well: An Approach to Wellness.

Holy Friendships


The support (or lack thereof) we get from our friends and family plays a huge role in our overall health and well-being. Clergy Health’s research shows a correlation between feeling socially isolated and a greater incidence of depression. A 2011 worldwide study found that friends and family are one of the biggest influences on health; nearly half of respondents reported that their social circles had the most impact on their lifestyle choices.

There are so many types of relationships that can produce protective benefits for our mental and physical health, and I imagine that they look different for every person. But I was recently introduced to a type of friendship that I think might resonate with clergy in particular—holy friendships. In an article for Faith & Leadership, Duke Divinity School’s Greg Jones describes holy friends as those who “challenge the sins we have come to love, affirm the gifts we are afraid to claim and help us dream dreams we otherwise would not dream.”

I love that part about “challenging the sins we have come to love.” In my own life, I have plenty of friends who are on my team all the time. But the relationships that I value most are those where my women tea bookloved ones know me and my values enough to challenge me when I veer from the course. Yes, this might produce some unpleasant conversations, but ultimately, these people make me stronger. They hold me accountable, and yet they appreciate my strengths and are able to help me dream dreams I wouldn’t dare reach for otherwise.

And what about those times where we want to make a significant change in our lives—starting a new ministry, pursuing a lifelong passion, getting our health back on track? Jones encourages, “Change is hard, but when others illumine hidden potential in our lives, and offer ongoing support as we lean into that potential, we discover hope, and are empowered to embody it.”

Discovering hope through holy friendships by Greg Jones (Faith & Leadership June 2012)

Cultivating Institutions that nurture holy friendships by Greg Jones with Kelly Gilmer (Faith & Leadership August 2012)

-Katie Huffman

10 Things I Want My Daughter to Know About Working Out


4627134131_95949d83af_oBrynn Harrington, of the wellness blog Wellfesto, recently wrote a post that resonated with me about what messages we pass on to our children about health and well-being. She starts by telling the story about being in an exercise class and having the teacher tell the class to picture themselves fitting into “that dress.” For Brynn, this is NOT the reason she works out, and not the message she wants her young daughter to internalize about her body.  She then goes on to write ten things she DOES want her daughter to know about working out:

“I want her to grow up knowing that…

  1. Strength equals self-sufficiency.  Being strong – particularly as a woman – is empowering.  It will feel good someday to be able to carry your own luggage down the stairs if the airport escalator is broken, and it will be important to have a solid shot at outrunning a stranger should you meet one a dark alley.
  2. Fitness opens doors.  Being healthy and fit can help you see the world differently.  The planet looks different from a bike or a pair of skis than it does from a car or an airplane.  Out in the elements you have the time and space to notice details and meet people and remember smells and bugs and mud and rain and the feeling of warm sunshine on your face.  And those are the moments that make up your life.
  3. The bike is the new golf course.  Being fit may help you get a seat at the table.  Networking is no longer restricted to the golf course, and the stronger you are – and the more people you can hang with on the road and trail – the more people you’ll meet.
  4. Exercise is a lifestyle, not an event.  Being an active person isn’t about taking a class three times a week at the gym.  It’s about things like biking to the grocery store and parking your car in the back of the lot and walking instead of taking a cab and catching up with friends on a hiking trail instead of a bar stool.
  5. Health begets health.  Healthy behavior inspires healthy behavior.  Exercise.  Healthy eating.  Solid sleep.  Positive relationships.  These things are all related.
  6. Endorphins help you cope.  A good sweat session can clear the slate.  You will have days when nothing seems to go right…when you’re dizzy with frustration or crying in despair.  A workout can often turn things around.
  7. Working out signals hard-working.  The discipline required to work out on a regular basis signals success.  Someone recently told me they are way more likely to hire marathon runners and mountain climbers because of the level of commitment that goes into those pursuits.
  8. If you feel beautiful, you look beautiful.  Looking beautiful starts on the inside.  And being fit and strong feels beautiful.
  9. Nature rules.  And if you’re able to hike/run/bike/swim/ski/snowshoe, you can see more of it.
  10. Little eyes are always watching.  We learn from each other.  You may have a daughter—or a niece or a neighbor or a friend – one day.  And that little girl will be watching and listening to everything she you say and do.  What messages do you want her to hear?”

She concludes: “I’ll never talk to my daughter about fitting into THAT DRESS.  But I will talk to her about what it sounds like to hear pine needles crunching under my feet and what it feels like to cross a finish line and how special it is to see the world on foot.  I will talk to her about hard work and self sufficiency.  I will teach her the joy of working out by showing her I love it.  And I’ll leave the rest up to her.”  Read the whole post here.

What are the reasons YOU work out and what messages do you want to pass along to your children and grandchildren about health and exercise?  Try making a list and see what you come up with.  You might even surprise yourself.

Caren Swanson

Image by flickr user Saurabh_B via Creative Commons.

When Our Parents Need Care


Holding Hands with Elderly PatientOne of life’s milestones is the role reversal of caring for aging parents.  While for any of us, this has its joys and its challenges, it can be particularly challenging for clergy who are already in a position of caring for the members of their congregations, and often appointed to churches far from family members.  One of the ways to be better prepared for this season is to know what to expect and to have good communication between the generations about what expectations are.  Jane Brody recently tackled this topic on Well, the NY Times wellness blog, looking at the complex web of emotions that can accompany this experience, and the various ways caring for our aging parents can impact everyone involved.  From the article:

Maud Purcell, a psychotherapist and executive director of the Life Solution Center of Darien in Connecticut, offers a laundry list of emotions that adult children are likely to experience when parents age and their health declines. Among them:

* Fear, when you realize that the roles have reversed and that you may now have to care for your parents

* Grief, as a once-robust parent’s ability to function independently declines abruptly or little by little

* Anger, frustration and impatience, when a parent’s needs interfere with your life

* Guilt, in response to the above feelings or because you are unable to spend enough time with your parent because of distance or other life demands

Ms. Purcell suggests that you accept these feelings as normal and not fight them. Rather, recognize that you cannot change what your parents are going through beyond providing help and support to the best of your ability.

She wrote: “Don’t take on more than you can handle. Consider your commitments to your work and to other family members. Overextending yourself will leave you stressed and will put a strain on your other relationships. Worst of all, you may end up taking your frustration out on your parent, causing you intense guilt.”

While caring for aging parents can place a very real strain on the adult children, it can also be a joy.  It can be an honor to be the caregiver for someone who spent their life caring for you.  And for those who chose to invite their parents to live with them, inter-generational households can be a real blessing.

What have your experiences been caring for your parents or being cared for by your children?

Caren Swanson

What Do You Like About Your Body?


By the time they are 13, most girls report that they are unhappy with their bodies.  Interrupt Magazine decided to find out what younger girls do like about their bodies, and what they found was both inspiring and interesting.  Many of the girls reported liking what their bodies can DO–draw, walk, run fast, dance–and one little girl simply said that her body is magic.  What a refreshing perspective!  And when you think about it, our bodies are pretty magical!  As my 8 year-old daughter was saying last night (when she was supposed to be going to sleep!) “Isn’t it amazing that I’m talking right now because my brain is sending signals to my mouth???”

I rarely focus on all the things that my body can do–I’m usually too busy worrying about the clothes I can’t fit in, or how out of shape I am.  These young girls convicted me to focus more on praising God for giving me a body that is fairly healthy and strong, and not spend so much time wishing it was different.  What do YOU like about your body?

Laila Sofia


Caren Swanson

Images by Interrupt Magazine.

How Walking May Lower Risk For Breast Cancer


Any regular reader of this blog knows that we champion the benefits of walking frequently. Well, not to be a broken record, but there may be one more reason to lace up those walking shoes and head out the door–breast cancer.  A study from the University of Minnesota, written up in the New York Times, found some encouraging links between walking and a decrease in breast cancer rates.  From the article:

Exercise, by altering the ratio of estrogen metabolites and also reducing total body fat, may change the internal makeup of a woman’s body and make it harder for breast cancer to take hold.

But, of course, exercise, is not a panacea. Some of the women in Dr. Patel’s study who dutifully walked every day developed breast cancer. Many who rarely if ever exercised did not.

“There is still a very great deal that we don’t know” about how cancer of any kind starts or why it doesn’t, Dr. Patel said.

“But physical activity, and especially walking, are so simple and so accessible to most women,” she continued. “And statistically, they do seem to reduce breast cancer risk. So why not?”


As stated, exercise of any kind, and walking in particular, is not a sure protection against cancer.  But if it consistently lowers cancer rates, than that is one more great reason to move!  What motivates you to exercise?

Caren Swanson

Image by flickr user Temari 09

Creativity and Your Desk


22well-tmagArticle-v2Here’s an encouraging tidbit for a Friday afternoon: having a messy desk may not mean that your life is a mess; it might just mean that you are creative! This is certainly good news for me, since my desk is a perpetual mess. I LIKE having a neat and tidy workspace, I just rarely achieve that. Fortunately for me, researchers at the University of Minnesota recently conduced a series of experiments that found that working in an untidy workspace might encourage thinking “outside the box” and help people to be more creative. According to an article in the New York Times,

The results were something of a surprise, says Kathleen D. Vohs, a behavioral scientist at the University of Minnesota and the leader of the study. Few previous studies found much virtue in disarray. The broken-windows theory, proposed decades ago, posits that even slight disorder and neglect can encourage nonchalance, poor discipline and nihilism. Chaos begets chaos.

But in the study by Dr. Vohs, disordered offices encouraged originality and a search for novelty. In the final portion of the study, adults were given the choice of adding a health “boost” to their lunchtime smoothie that was labeled either “new” or “classic.” The volunteers in the messy space were far more likely to choose the new one; those in the tidy office generally opted for the classic version.

“Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition,” Dr. Vohs and her co-authors conclude in the study, “which can produce fresh insights.”

Now that I’m feeling creative, I’ll save my usual Friday afternoon desk-cleaning till next week!

–Caren Swanson

Illustration by Brian Wiseman

Questioning the Necessity of Breakfast


3692867013_59a2b2e3a8A new report questions the age-old wisdom that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and that it is essential for weight loss. It has long been assumed that folks who eat a healthy breakfast are less hungry throughout the day, thus consuming fewer calories, but it turns out that there is little evidence to substantiate that claim. Furthermore, the breakfast foods that usually ARE consumed (cereals, muffins, bread products) are known to help pack on the pounds. So why the confusion? To eat breakfast or not to eat breakfast?

According to a recent New York Times article, very few studies have been done that look at the correlation between weight loss and breakfast eating, and of those that have been completed, the findings are mixed. There is no question that eating breakfast can be an important part of a healthy day, but is it essential? Probably not. While many Americans have included breakfast as a part of their weight-loss diet, it is unclear whether breakfast-eating itself is a contributor to the weightloss.  As the article explains:

Data from the National Weight Control Registry showed that after their weight loss, about 80 percent of people reported regularly eating breakfast. “There was no difference in reported energy intake between breakfast eaters and non-eaters,” the registry showed, “but breakfast eaters reported slightly more physical activity than non-breakfast eaters.”

The research showed only that eating breakfast was a common behavior among people who were actively trying to avoid regaining weight, just as diet soda might be a common drink of choice among dieters but not necessarily the cause of their weight loss.

4041800875_c26b204e80None of this will be news to anyone who watched even the first video of the Naturally Slim program (the mindful eating program available to all Spirited Life participants). Marcia Upson, the Nurse Practitioner behind the program, insists that instead of eating breakfast out of habit, we should wait until we’re hungry. If we stay hydrated, drinking our “H2Orange,” then we may not be hungry until 10 or even 11 in the morning. We may then decide to instead eat an early lunch, reducing our number of meals consumed to two a day. By paying attention to their bodies’ true hunger cues, many people have successfully lost weight on her program.

All of this is not to imply that you should suddenly STOP eating breakfast. Everyone has different caloric needs, and everyone has different hunger patterns. Perhaps yours kick in first thing in the morning, while your spouse’s don’t kick in until much later. Either way, the best thing to do is listen to your body’s signals, and follow the wisdom that we KNOW is true: eating when we’re not hungry leads to weight gain, and learning to listen to our body’s signals can help us achieve a normal body weight. Maybe it’s time for me to kick my daily bowl of cereal habit!

–Caren Swanson

Images by flickr users *Zoha.Nve and Stephanie Kilgast, via Creative Commons.

To Bike or Run?


As we head toward fall, many people who gave up exercising outside in the heat of the summer are getting ready to lace up their running shoes or pump up their bike tires. Recently, on the New York Times Well blog, a reader asked if either biking or running are superior forms of fitness from a weight loss perspective. The conclusion of the response is that it depends on the individual. In terms of calorie-burning, you expend more calories by running for an hour than you do by biking for the same amount of time:

Someone weighing 150 pounds who runs at a brisk seven minutes per mile will incinerate about 1,000 calories per hour. That same person pedaling at a steady 16 to 19 miles per hour will burn about 850 calories. Meanwhile, walking requires far fewer calories, only about 360 per hour at a four-mile-per-hour pace.


That being said, running isn’t for everyone.

Running has a downside: Injuries are common. Biking, meanwhile, is gentler. “Cycling is a nonweight bearing activity, so it is better for your knees and joints,” Dr. Tanaka said, “and it does not cause much muscle soreness.” Walking, likewise, results in few injuries, unless, like me, you are almost comically clumsy.

The most important thing, when considering taking up a new exercise, is to find something that you enjoy. As we move toward cooler autumn days, try different activities that get your heart rate up, and see what is the most fun for you. Remember, the best exercise for YOU is the one that you actually do!  Any activity is better than none!

–Caren Swanson

Image by flickr user Ed Yourdan, via Creative Commons.

Stoic Christianity


In our feature piece in Christian Century, our research director, Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, said that if she could magically accomplish one cultural change, she would “shift the way that congregants think about their pastor.” No matter the responsibilities a pastor is entrusted with, he or she is still a human being “with flaws and graces…a person who has a life that needs fulfillment.”

This is a change many pastors desperately desire. As one pastor said, “I don’t think our congregations know how unhealthy our vocation can be. They seem to think we are super-men and -women…I keep telling them our vocation is hazardous to our health. They just don’t understand that.”

While pastors feel this pressure uniquely, it’s by no means foreign to most people. Alan Jacobs, professor of literature at Baylor University, recently reflected on the stoic values popular in the American Midwest and South, and he recounted a time when the tacit code that one suffers in silence became unmistakably clear.

When my wife was seriously ill some time ago, people from our church contacted me to ask if we needed anything. When I replied that it was nice of people to offer meals but that Teri’s chief problem was simple loneliness — no one to talk to, as she lay in her sickbed, except a very busy husband — people were, not to put too fine a point on it, shocked. I had said something unexpectedly shameful. One person even commiserated with Teri: how difficult it must have been for her to have a husband who so openly admitted that she had personal needs in her illness.

1024px-Michael_Ancher_001Let me highlight that this was not the experience of a pastor, but of a lay person, who tried to be vulnerable with his congregation and was shut down. Expressing weakness in shameful not only among pastors, but among many segments of our culture in which class and status and power are incongruent with dependency and loneliness and desire. As Alanis Morisette sings, no matter what pain we’re experiencing, we prefer to stick one hand in our pockets while explaining, “what it all comes down to my friends, Is that everything’s just fine fine fine.” Nothing to see here, folks.

In a follow-up piece, Jacobs concludes that that the Christian scriptures encourage us “to accept suffering but not to pretend that we don’t hurt or that we are somehow above the pain. Rather, we are to seek out our brothers and sisters for sympathy and support.”

Parishioners may want a pastor who is superhuman, but perhaps what they need is a pastor who is utterly human, someone who bravely opens up space for it to be okay to be weak and have needs. Pastors may not be the only ones ready to scream under the suffocating silence of stoicism.

Tommy Grimm

(Painting by Michael Ancher, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)