The Benefits of Dog Ownership

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frannyEveryone knows that dogs are fun to have around, but do you know that they are also good for your mind and body?  When my family adopted Franny from the shelter last winter, our exercise levels all improved.  Not only did we walk more frequently but we started walking longer, and having more fun doing it.  There’s also something undeniably sweet about coming home after a long day to a creature that just loves you so much she can’t stop wiggling from nose to tail!

These good outcomes of dog ownership are not merely anecdotal.  Research has shown that having a dog can help reduce the stress hormone cortisol while boosting good hormones such as oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine.  These changes in brain chemistry can have very real impacts on our mood during the day, can alter what cravings we experience, and can even impact how well we sleep at night.  Research also shows the ways that owning a dog increases exercise.  A study out of Michigan State University shows that “60% of dog owners that take their pets for regular walks meet federal criteria for regular exercise. Nearly 1 in 2 dog walkers exercise an average of 30 minutes a day at least five days a week. Only about 1 in 3 of people that don’t own dogs get that much regular exercise.”  According to an article on Positive Psychology News, “owning a dog is also associated with improved blood pressure and cardiovascular health, lower cholesterol and triglycerides as well as decreased anxiety.”  Along with these myriad benefits, dog owners just tend to live longer.

Of course, my family wasn’t thinking of all these things when we welcomed Franny into our family last winter.  We just wanted a dog to love and be loved by.  If you are looking for the same, check out your local SPCA chapter or petfinder.com.  You won’t regret it!

meQuilibrium: An Innovative Stress-Management Program

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The Duke Clergy Health initiative has been talking to pastors about their wellness for nearly six years now. One theme that comes up regularly in these conversations is stress. We know that pastors juggle many responsibilities and expectations and are often asked to be present with people during their most trying moments. But what IS stress? Is it a feeling? Is it measurable? We know that stress is not experienced in the same way by every person: the circumstances that trigger the stress response in you are likely different from those that cause stress in those around you.

Earlier this year, we added a new tool for understanding and managing stress to our Spirited Life wellness program. It’s an interactive coaching system called meQuilibrium. This program caught our attention because of its highly-customizable, holistic, insightful approach and practical tools. Over the past few months, many clergy in Spirited Life have had the opportunity to take part, and we’re pleased to have negotiated a special rate that will enable any friend of Spirited Life to use the program at the highly reduced rate of only $10/year.

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meQuilibrium starts with a comprehensive meQ assessment designed to evaluate your individual personality type, thinking patterns, habits, and lifestyle, and pinpoint the areas that create the most stress for you.

Based on your responses, you’ll instantly receive your stress profile – an in-depth analysis of not only where your stress is most pronounced, but how your unique thinking and lifestyle habits led you there.  The meQ program will then give you a personalized prescription of skills that will help you change your stress response.

To learn more about meQuilibrium and to sign up at a reduced rate, visit: www.mequilibrium.com/duke-friends.

Caren Swanson

How Geometry, Acne, and Loneliness Gave Me an Appreciation for Snail Mail

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LockersI went to a tiny middle school and a massive high school. We’re talking 24 kids at my 8th grade graduation and then… BAM… 620 on the first day of 9th grade come summer’s end. I knew three people in my grade. A building constructed to house 1500 students was brimming with about 1800. I was an outsider in a sea of kids who had been in school together since kindergarten. Seniors stood against the walls to block freshmen from navigating their way to Geometry or World History. I was (seriously) in need of something to be happy about and I was pretty darn sure it couldn’t be found inside the walls of my high school.

Thankfully all of us are past the rough early days of high school, winding through mazes of hallways and trying to make friends, but I still have days or stages in life that don’t feel too far removed from the feelings of frustration, anxiety, or even despair that swept over me when I realized I was on the opposite side of the building, on the wrong floor, and completely alone, looking for Freshman gym class.

My one moment of respite each day came after lunch. I would leave lunch a little early to make sure I could get to my next class before the crowds began their tidal wave through the halls. This meant that I had a few merciful moments of peace in the hallway before 5th period. It was in one of moments that I saw it – a poster – on the AP European History teacher’s door: Things To Be Happy About.

“Perfectly toasted golden marshmellows”

“Fuzzy socks”

“A new toenail polish color”

“Snail mail”

You’re starting to get the picture, I’m sure. The little things. The little things that seemed completely insignificant in the face of hallway confusion, constant strange faces, loneliness, and feeling generally overwhelming. Nevertheless, those things, and others, were worth being happy about. The poster was right.

As I started to make some friends, I began to share my discovery with them. By the end of the year, there was a little crowd outside of that door every afternoon before 5th period, scrolling through the long list, shouting out their favorites.

“The sound a new can of tennis balls makes when you first pop off the lid!”

“Milkshakes for breakfast!”

“Old people holding hands!”

Book CoverOne of my friends, who is now a teacher, keeps the spin-off book, 14,000 Things To Be Happy About, on a table in her classroom. Another made a customized list for a friend’s birthday recently. You can even click here for today’s list.

What’s on your list? How can you remind yourself about the little things to be happy about, even when there are 1,797 unfamiliar, pimply, sometimes-smelly, and maybe-exclusive teenagers threatening to sweep you off your feet and carry you down the hallway?

– Ellie Poole

 

 

Creativity and Your Desk

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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

Create Calm

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Picture this: you’ve just completed two parishioner visits in hospitals thirty minutes apart, you returned a phone call to the finance chair on the way back to the office, and you stopped by the craft store to pick up supplies for VBS.  Your mind is full of thoughts for finishing the bulletin, and your arms are weighed down with shopping bags and your favorite coffee cup.  You enter your office at the church (or parsonage) only to trip over a stack of books just inside the door and then to discover that there’s not a single surface for the craft supplies or even your coffee mug.  Shoulders tense and head pounding, you brush some papers to the floor and dump the contents of your arms on the desk.  You plop down in the folding chair and begin digging through the emails that arrived in your absence.

I’m feeling tense just imagining this scene, but I’ve been there.  Office space can truly have an impact on your stress level- for good or bad.  Wouldn’t it be nice if your office were a mini oasis where you could find solace on such a busy morning and instantly feel a sense of calm and relaxation?

2830454169_174c0d1a95_zHere are some tips for creating a calming and comfortable workspace, whether it’s in the church or a spare bedroom at home.

  • Declutter: Do what you can to remove clutter from visible surfaces (meQ has a great module on decluttering). This will cut down on frustration from things getting lost and will also make your office more visibly appealing.  Once you’ve got your space a little more organized, commit to spending 5 minutes a day keeping it tidy.
  • Lighting: Allow as much natural lighting in as possible; trim bushes or trees outside the window if necessary.  If your office doesn’t have a window, bring in a couple of lamps for a warmer glow and a homier feel.
  • 3181843446_f23b6e39d2_zPlants: Plants not only improve air and sound quality, but they also have been proven to lower stress and increase productivity.
  • Inspiration: In addition to the family/friend pictures you probably already have on your desk, consider adding one or two photos from your latest vacation for a mental getaway.  Hang artwork, tapestries, and/or Scripture on the wall, too.  (Be careful about selecting images– seeing the Titanic every time you walk in your office might be sending you subliminal messages).
  • Get comfortable: Ditch that hard, uncomfortable folding chair in favor of a chair that is ergonomic and adjustable; it may cost more, but it will make a huge difference in how you feel about being in your office (consider using your Spirited Life small grant).
  • Aromatherapy: Scents can evoke strong memories or emotions; certain ones have also been shown to reduce stress.  Candles, diffusers, and plug-ins can provide a subtle aroma.  Lavender and chamomile are two good options for stress relief.  See others here.
  • Sound: Background noise can help calm and increase concentration.  Try a white noise machine (or website), classical music, or water feature.
  • Fun: Add a couple of toys, a stress ball, or Rubik’s Cube to your desk to pick up and play with when you’re feeling stressed or need a distraction.  For a fun selection, check out this website.

How do you make your office space calming and inspiring?

–Katie Huffman

Sources: Careertopia, Mind Tools, PopSugar Smart Living, DesignM.ag

(Images by flickr users notashamed and brianyeung, both via creative commons)

Stoic Christianity

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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)

The Healing Power of Nostalgia

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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.”

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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

Summer Reading

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Ahhh, summer. Kick back. Relax. Soak up some sun and sleep a few extra hours.

Ok, ok – so summer might not be quite this dreamy, but it is a cultural and seasonal reminder of our natural human need for rest. Maybe you’ll get to head to the beach or the mountains with family. Maybe you’ve tacked a few days onto the front end of Annual Conference to spend time with your family. Maybe you’re not physically leaving town this summer, but you’re looking for some sort of “vacation” from the buzz of fall, winter, and spring.

One of my favorite ways to escape, whether I’m traveling or in my own living room, involves pulling my knees up, propping my feet, and settling into a good book for awhile. Whether I’m lulled by the rhythm of beautiful poetry or fascinated by the winding and weaving of a good novel, the engagement of my imagination in a world that is completely “other” is incredibly restorative!

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So, this summer, I’m challenging you to read one good book. Not a book for sermon prep. Not a book for your summer small group. Just a book for fun. You might be amazed at how fun it is to check out of your world for an hour or two and jump into your imagination.

Here are a few book lists to get you started:

  • NPR publishes an annual Summer Books list with a wide variety of categories (also available for 2012, 2011, and 2010)
  • The New York Times regularly adds book reviews of all kinds.
  • Good Reads is a social networking site for readers. Check out some users’ lists for summer reads here.
  • Oprah weighs in here.
  • Christianity Century’s book reviews might yield an idea, too!
  • Think of the last book you truly enjoyed, head to Amazon and see what other users who enjoyed that book chose next.
  • A previous blog post points to some websites that specifically review and/or sell Christian books, so if that’s what you’re looking for, you can find the information here.

Having trouble getting started? Here are a few ideas to get the ball rolling:

  • Call a friend and plan bi-weekly Skype dates to discuss a book over the course of the summer.
  • Go make friends with an employee at the local bookstore.
  • Schedule an hour for three days a week, just for the summer, and devote that time to reading. Or just read a few pages each night before bed!
  • Find a book you want to read with your kids.
  • Find a place at work, outside, or at home that is truly comfortable. This will make the whole experience much more enjoyable.
  • Ask a friend what book he/she has enjoyed recently (we all have those friends who are always reading good books – use the resource!)
  • Have a book you’ve been wanting to read but just haven’t gotten to it? Make it your goal of the summer to read the book.

Happy reading and bon voyage!

-Ellie Poole

Image by flickr user MorBCN, via Creative Commons.

Good Rhythm

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Don’t miss the news about the winner of this week’s giveaway on Monday’s blog post!  Thanks to everyone who participated in making this month-long celebration of our “blog-iversary” so much fun!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

My new medical term for the month is “A-fib.” It’s short for atrial fibrillation, a type of cardiac arrhythmia. I’ve learned the term because Steve, a friend of mine at church, has the condition.

Doctors treat A-fib with electrical impulses to “tune” the heart back into its proper wave pattern. Steve has to ease carefully back into work and exercise. But he is confident he’ll master a new routine, with God’s help and support from friends and family. He is back at church now and feeling good.

My pastor offered a simple prayer for Steve that could apply for all of us:

“Give us good rhythm.”

The beating of a heart, the rhythms of breath, of laughter and crying, show us how vibration is at the core of our being. We hear and feel rhythm in nature: birds singing, crickets chirping. The philosopher Alan Watts has a lovely meditation on the delights of rhythm. Most forms of play and entertainment depend on rhythm — variety and complexity within a regular pattern. Watts concludes, “[A]n essential component of my heaven… would be absorption in rhythm.”

I am reminded that dance can be incorporated into Christian liturgy. Indeed, the origin of dance in human history may be rooted in spirituality and worship. Liturgical dance is not a recent innovation; it is a way of recovering an ancient tradition of communing with God through rhythm and body movement. Music and dance can be employed as therapy for mood disorders, neurological disorders, even in cases of stroke and heart disease.

Pastor/writer Jeffrey Cootsona shares his thoughts about the rhythms of leadership. Echoing Alan Watts, Cootsona reminds us that rhythm exists through a relationship between work and rest, sound and silence, yes and no, presence and absence.

We sometimes use balance as a metaphor for wellness and right living; Cootsona proposes rhythm as an alternative metaphor. Balance, after all, suggests something static, something delicate. If we lose our balance, there is often a painful fall. Rhythm is dynamic, it is robust. If we lose the beat, we often can recover it quickly. Indeed, there are often other people, partners in rhythm-making, to coach us back into the groove.

"Sabar Ring" - Théâtre de St Quentin en Yvelines 17/03/07 (répé)

Cootsona cites neuroscience research, as well as advice from his father about carpentry, to make this point: Gritting our teeth to power our way through a creative block is counterproductive. It may even be unhealthy. Better to take a strategic break: Go for a walk. Listen to music. Fold a load of laundry. A well-timed break allows our stress to leach away, and our creativity to emerge.

How will you build constructive breaks into your routine?

A bigger question: Is there a “groove” in ministry where your best work happens, where your best self shines through, where a divine rhythm propels you or carries you along? Are there tricks or tactics to help you find the rhythm when you need it?

–John James

(Top image, “Endless Rhythm,” by Robert Delaunay, 1934, Tate Modern. Lower photo by Christophe Alary, both used with permission via Creative Commons.)

In the Brilliance of Spring, Remembering the Darkness of Advent

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Keeping the liturgical year may be conducive to better health.

Allow me to explain.

We’ve known for some time that SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder – causes lots of people to experience mild depression during the winter months, when days are shorter and the weather cold and grey. Just as it is no accident that people feel a “spring” in their step this time of year, with the abundance of sunshine and blooming flowers, so too in the darkening days of fall do many people experience a dimming of their mood.  Recent research takes the relationship between the seasons and mental health farther, suggesting that waning sunlight and advancing darkness can have more serious mental health implications than previously thought.  Seasoned pastors – pun confessed – understand this and are prepared to deal with parishioners’ angst come November.

8201390638_69580c35ab_bBut what about pastors’ own vulnerability to the grey days, with their attendant increase in demands that time and creativity be spent planning for Thanksgiving, Advent and Epiphany? Have you ever felt your energy begin to dissipate at the mere thought of trying to explain to your congregation why Gospel lections for Advent begin apocalyptically? The Gospel for December 1, 2013, is Matthew 24, “one taken, one left.” Get ready.

Perhaps it’s time that pastors thought of keeping the liturgical year as a means of self-care, especially during the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany cycle. Some years ago I wrote a liturgy for Longest Night (always either December 21 or 22) in which I confessed my own discomfort with the “tidings of comfort and joy” that cultural Christmas demands we feel, and unleashed upon the congregation the fruits of my historical-critical research by noting that Bethlehem doubtless stank when Jesus was born.  They loved it; some wept; I could scarcely make it through the Great Thanksgiving; the Holy Spirit triumphed.

And I was healed. By confessing the power of the darkness, owning that Luke’s birth narrative is scarcely so sanitized as we prefer to think, announcing that Incarnation made Mary scream in pain, and grasping that all of this is what Emmanuel – God with us – means, I was changed. Writing the liturgy displaced the darkness for me. It was unanticipated self-care, prevenient grace for us Wesleyans.

448485266_4af81d7b3b_bIn this joyful season of Eastertide, when new life is erupting all around us, take advantage of the long days and fresh energy to think ahead to the long nights of Advent and Epiphany.  It is not selfish, pastor, to ask yourself what you need in a particular liturgical season, in order first to receive the grace you have been called to sign and proclaim to the congregation. It is not selfish; it is responsible stewardship. Design those liturgies for yourself, too, and let the Spirit take care of the rest. She will.

–Ed Moore


Top image by flickr user Herr Olsen.  Lower image by flickr user Jeff Kubina.  Both used with permission via Creative Commons.