Guard your Heart and Mind (by Beth Davis)

iStock_000003436262ThankfulIn the 1960’s, sociologists projected their expectations as to how Americans in the 21st century would use their leisure time. Some researchers predicted that the average workweek would shrink to 20 hours. As it turned out, Americans now, sleep less, have little leisure time, and complain about being too busy. This persistent lack of time can lead to stress and eventually poor health.

So, with a New Year ahead, I invite you to join me on an intentional journey to live well—spiritually, mentally, and physically. The following list is a work in progress. It offers some practical steps in establishing healthy habits.

Eat healthy foods every day. The danger in quick-fix fad diets is that when we finish the diet, we will too easily re-gain the weight that we lost. God created food for our substance and enjoyment. I find that it is easiest to recognize good food by asking a question. How close is this food to the way in which God intended for it to be eaten? Is it refined and full of preservatives? Does it have a lot of additives including additional salt and sugar? As you consider purchasing or eating various foods, train yourself to recognize how far the item has evolved from its original “packaging.”

When food is first harvested, it is whole and healthy. The more processes that it takes to bring that food item to our shelves in the supermarket, the less value it has to our health. Low fat, high fiber diets, which include plenty of fruit and vegetables, focus on food that God created—foods that bring health and healing. What about coffee, coca cola, and our favorite desserts? You’ll have to discover what is best for you, but I believe moderation is the key. Certainly Jesus seemed to enjoy food and the fellowship that it offered. But as a lifestyle, it is helpful to keep in mind that God created food, and man created junk food, fast food, and food with long shelf life. Planning what we put into our bodies each day can make a huge difference in how we function as Christians.

Control food portions.  In recent years, the people of Okinawa have become known as the longest living people in the world. Their relaxed and carefree life-style may account for their mental and emotional health which gives them high resistance to disease. Further studies of the Okinawan diet point out the unique emphases on eating well, but less. Three key phrases suggest the following principles:

  • Kuten gwa (eat little portions)
  • Hara hachi bu (eat until 80 percent full only)
  • Nuchi gusui (eat as though food has healing power)

These concepts are valuable tools for physical stewardship. Learning to eat the proper amounts of food in moderation will help prevent disease and promote health.

Remember that exercise is the best diet. God designed our bodies to move and to stay limber throughout our life. In an agricultural society, exercise is built into daily routine. However, in highly technological western societies, where so many people work at sedentary-type jobs, exercise is a vital key to living the way in which God intended us to live. Whether it is running, swimming, walking, jumping rope, or joining a gym, we need to move on a daily basis.  Jesus walked almost everywhere. Perhaps he used the time for reflection between daily events. At times, he conversed with His disciples during walks along the beach.

The benefits of exercise are numerous. During exercise, the body releases neurotransmitters known as endorphins, which gives a sense of well-being. The release of these endorphins helps us to manage stress as well as control our appetites. When the body is on the extended “endorphin high,” which exercises produces, the brain is better equipped to make good healthy choices in food selection. Rather than grabbing fast food, which is often grease and sugar-laden, the exercised body (and brain) will choose something that will enhance health. That is why I consider “exercise to be the best diet.”

Make wise exercise choices. Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper , in his book, Faith-Based Fitness  explains that at the beginning of an exercise program it is important to remember several key points: Visit a medical doctor and get clearance; start out slowly and progress gradually; Pursue all three major components of a complete condition program—endurance exercise, strength training, and flexibility; Always observe the fundamental four-step sequence for every workout; the warm-up; the main workout; the cool down; and the strength segment.  It is helpful to incorporate exercise into daily activities. Choose to walk, rather than drive whenever possible. Add the element of faith by expressing gratitude to God for the ability to stretch, bend, and climb stairs. Exercise, as a part of one’s daily life and routines, can become part of worship.

Discover contentment. Life in the 21st Century presents the potential for stress. Anxiety and worry will rapidly deplete our physical health. Neil Warren in his book, Finding Contentment lists 10 characteristics of people who know deep contentment: 1) they live in the present; (2) they are free of fear; (3) they are not judgmental; (4) they genuinely appreciate themselves; (5) they hunger for the truth; (6) they are adaptable and flexible; (7) they have a strong sense of gratitude; (8) they love to laugh and are lighthearted; (9) they exhibit a high degree of dignity; and (10) they sleep well! Make this list your focus for the New Year. In a world filled with fear, envy, and anxiety model the characteristics of contentment.

Seek Solitude. This ancient, Christian discipline is becoming increasingly more difficult to observe. And yet, God continues to invite us to find time to be alone with Him. Jesus modeled the value of this important practice in Mark 1:35, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.”

Henri Nouwen, in his book Out of Solitude explains:

In the center of breathless activities we hear a restful breathing. Surrounded by hours of moving we find a moment of quiet stillness. In the heart of much involvement there are words of withdrawal. In the midst of action there is contemplation. And after much togetherness there is solitude. The more I read this nearly silent sentence locked in between the loud words of action, the more I have the sense that the secret of Jesus’ ministry is hidden in that lonely place where he went to pray, early in the morning, long before dawn.

In the lonely place Jesus finds the courage to follow God’s will and not his own; to speak God’s words and not his own; to do God’s work, and not his own . . . (John 5:30) . . . John 14:10) . . . It is in the lonely place, where Jesus enters into intimacy with the Father, that his ministry is born.

The careful balance between silence and words, withdrawal and involvement, distance and closeness, solitude and community forms the basis of the Christian life.

Create space for the Spirit. Although devotional time is foundational for Christians, I have talked with many who find they have no energy to pursue their primary purpose for living. The failure to live with physical disciplines has a direct effect on our spiritual disciplines.  Without energy it is almost impossible to study, pray, and minister. I challenge you to prayerfully carve out time to spend with the Creator. Stay home a bit more. Allow yourself to sit quietly with your thoughts and plans. Reflect. Extend your morning or evening quiet time.  Eat simple meals with the people you love. Cherish moments and pay attention to your longings. Foster the inner life of your spirit.  “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).

To learn more about guarding your heart and mind, we invite you to read chapters 3-17 of Rebound from Burnout: Resilience Skills for Ministers. Please click on the photo of the book, below, to obtain a copy.

Rebound from Burnout cover

Choose Life (by Beth Davis)

iStock_000010542885CoverLast week I headed to my neighborhood gym in hopes of shedding the extra pounds that mysteriously crept on my body during the holiday season. I grabbed the last available tread mill wondering why the gym was so unusually crowded. Then it dawned on me that it was early in January, and I, like so many others, checked into the gym in search of better health. January presents us with a clean slate—the opportunity to fill our lives with good choices, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well.

Alerting new research states that members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at higher rates than the rest of the general public. In the past ten years, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. This recent documentation of ministry burnout is startling, yet throughout biblical history God’s people have always struggled to maintain balance in their daily lives.

In the Old Testament, God gave His people, the Israelites, clear direction on how to live. The reoccurring theme along their journey reminded them that, if God’s people obeyed all the words of the covenant, God would bless them.  And yet, they disobeyed, they failed to trust, they complained, they worshipped other gods, they questioned God’s authority. In modern terms, many of them seemed to burnout. It is tempting to label our ancestors as ignorant, selfish, and certainly foolish. They consistently made poor choices; and, it got them into trouble.

In Deuteronomy chapter 30, God renewed His covenant with His people. We often focus on the words from verse 19, “I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Therefore, choose life.” Supporters of pro-life groups use these words to promote their agenda. And, although physical life is sacred, these words suggest far more than the right to a heartbeat. The Israelites had grown use to making choices that resulted in death in life.  God had provided everything they needed to live well. And, yet, over and over, they made choices that led to death in life.

In the Old Testament, God promised that life and blessing resulted from obedience to His commands, decrees, and laws (Deut. 30:16). Jesus emphasized the importance of God’s commandments when a teacher of the law asked him to describe the most important commandment. He responded with, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31). When faced with God’s commands, the Israelites struggled, New Testament Christians struggled, and so do I. The simple, but all consuming words of the Great Commandment require choices—will I choose life or death. Too many times I choose death in life when I fail to live the abundant life which includes a right relationship with God, others, and myself.

Ministers spend a lot of time helping people—members of the church and community, students, colleagues, extended family, and many others with whom their paths cross. The constant act of giving out can easily lead to spiritual, emotional, and physical burnout. The words God spoke through Moses to the Israelites, “choose life,” continue to have meaning in everyday contemporary situations. Choosing life requires that we follow God’s commandments, paying careful attention to:

Soul Care (loving God). I can easily criticize the Israelites for worshipping idols, but not recognize my own idols that keep me from developing a deeper relationship with God. Modern-day idols can be anything from technology to entertainment. And sometimes, even ministry can become more important than spending time with the One who called us to ministry.

Last summer, I recognized a longing to spend more time in nature. My office hours and travel schedule created a daily schedule that seemed lopsided and out of balance. I craved not only more time with God, but also time to experience the beauty of nature. I discovered that by simply changing the location of my devotional time brought a new sense of joy. A rocking chair on the backyard deck has become an oasis for good-weather mornings. Somehow hearing the birds sing and listening to the water trickle in the fountain has added a refreshing dimension to my soul care.  During the colder months, I sit near a window and often burn a candle to warm the atmosphere. When we carve out sacred space and time to spend with our Father, we choose life.

Team Care (loving others) Why is it that we sometimes treat strangers more politely than our own spiritual family members? Most ministers belong to at least one team and sometimes several. Serving together gives us the opportunity to model Christian teamwork. For instance, at the conclusion of seminars our ministry team invites participants to share concepts that have been the most helpful to them. A comment I will never forget was from an attendee who explained that what she appreciated most in the seminar was the way in which our team members related to one another. She observed validation, encouragement, and respect among the group of presenters. It was obvious to her, as on onlooker, that the team truly enjoyed working together. When we demonstrate genuine love one for one another we choose life.

Self Care (loving ourselves). In his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer states that “self care is never a selfish act. It is good stewardship of the gift of life. When we care for ourselves, we do so not only for ourselves but the many others whose lives we touch . . . and other people will suffer—if we are unfaithful.”

I minister to a lot of people who are experiencing various types of crises. Sometimes, depending on how emotionally close to them I am, their trauma takes a toll on me. When I feel physically and spiritually drained, it becomes my responsibility to take care of myself. No one else will tell me to take a time off for tennis, hiking or simply a day of solitude. And yet, if I fail to do so, I will suffer and so will those around me. When we care for ourselves we choose life.

With the New Year ahead, I invite you to get out of the wilderness, stop complaining, destroy your idols, and shake off the sense of imminent burnout. Instead, choose life.  Remember that life is so much more than a fit body or the ability to lose or gain weight. Embrace abundant life by making healthy choices every day, all day long. The following list is just the beginning of ways to do this.

  • I choose life when I step back from ministry and take a complete day of Sabbath.
  • I choose life when I take an extended time away from my work for rest and restoration.
  • I choose life when I validate my team members rather than focus on their weaknesses.
  • I choose life when I keep my devotional time meaningful rather than allowing it to become legalistic and dull.
  • I choose life when I face my fears and walk into them rather than away from them.
  • I choose life when I embrace my strengths rather than wallowing in my insecurities.
  • I choose life when I list my blessings rather than my complaints.
  • I choose life when I seek to engage in communication rather than avoid conflict.
  • I choose life when I replace anxiety with gratefulness.

Create a list of your own. And, choose life. It is far more than an initial or final heartbeat—it is choosing to be in sync with the heart rhythm of the Creator. You will discover that God’s promise is still true, “Love God. Walk in his ways. Keep his commandments, regulations, and rules so that you will live, really live, live exuberantly, blessed by God” (Deut. 30:16 The Message).

To learn more about choosing life and self-care for ministers, please obtain of copy of Rebound from Burnout: Resilience Skills for Ministers. Please click on the book cover (below) to order a copy.

Rebound from Burnout cover

A Personal Look at the Story of the 99 Sheep

MapofElSalvadorKLMBeth and I recently returned from our second trip to El Salvador. As we returned from the remote mountains, one of the members on our medical team reflected that my trip resembled the Biblical story of the 99 sheep. I now understand this story a little differently.

Luke 15— Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

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On our second trip to El Salvador we traveled with a medical team to a remote mountain village about 4 hours outside San Salvador. The medical team would run a three-day medical clinic in the village. However, Beth and I would present a three-day resilience seminar at a nearby Bible School to help the local pastors deal with the emotional stress of gang violence and the recent civil war. We arrived early in the morning at the local Bible School to present the seminar. No one showed up. Unfortunately, the district leaders had failed to notify the local pastors. I felt dismayed. I had traveled so far, spent so much money for the trip, and now nothing good would come from it. I felt extremely discouraged, even angry. How could they be so disorganized?

That same afternoon, the local missionary noticed several local gang members casing out the medical clinic. She closed the clinic two hours early and hurried everyone back to the safety of the hotel. She asked if Beth and I would go with them the following day to the clinic. I told Beth that I didn’t feel obligated to risk my life. If I couldn’t safely train pastors as initially planned, I simply wanted to go home. I wasn’t ready to risk becoming a martyr when gang members were actively casing the clinic. I felt scared, and mentally started to make up excuses for why I should not go. To my dismay, however, the next day we found ourselves clinging to the sides of a cattle truck as we briskly bounced across roads of boulders to the medical clinic.

DSC09230Patients lined up in front of the local school to receive medical aid, dental care, and eye glasses. We set up an outside “office” too, offering counseling and prayer for emotional pain. Even in this small, remote village at the backside of nowhere, every family was directly affected by gang violence and the civil war.

My, (Nathan’s) first client was Kevin, a 12 year old boy. The local gang had murdered Kevin’s uncle just one month before we arrived, so Kevin was still in deep grief. I taught Kevin some basic self-care tips, and assured him that his grief was normal.

NathanThen a young Christian father, Martin, asked to talk about his son, Samuel. Martin and his wife attended the local church, and raised all their children in the church. He explained that their oldest son, Samuel, was starting to get involved with the local gang. He wanted to know how to stop his son from joining it. We discussed several strategies, and he seemed encouraged that the strategies might work. I asked to talk to Samuel, but the father explained that Samuel was working at a construction site in the next town, and wouldn’t return until late that evening.

Upon finishing with Martin, I noticed a young man peeking from behind the corner of one of the buildings. He perfectly fit the description of the local gang. Every time I looked at him, he tried to hide behind the building. It looked as if he was trying to discretely case out the clinic. Over the next half hour, he sprinted from building to building, peeking around the back corners of each one. He carefully watched my every move and the activities of everyone else at the clinic. Soon, another missionary couple also noticed and pointed him out to me. We discussed our concern. I reflected on Kevin’s story, and I felt somewhat afraid.

However, I suddenly felt convicted that I should talk to him. I asked my interpreter if he was willing to risk talking to the gang member, and he agreed to serve as an interpreter between us. But just then, Beth motioned for the interpreter to help her council a mother. As he left to help Beth, I realized that my chance to talk to the gang member had vanished. Without an interpreter, I could only watch the gang member peek from behind each building, trying to case the clinic. I expected an attempt to extort money. So I made a point of intentionally catching his eye several times to let him know that I noticed him and could identify him.

After about 30 minutes, Beth motioned for me to join them. She explained that the mother’s son was the local gang leader. As I reached out to shake her hand, the gang member that I had noticed all morning suddenly appeared from behind the corner of the building. The mother said, “This is my son, Samuel.”

I swallowed hard, reached out my hand to him, and told him that I had been wanting to talk to him. He said, “Yes, I noticed you looking at me and I really want to talk to you, too.”

I asked about his construction job, and found that he was suddenly laid off that day because the local concrete truck failed to arrive. We shared similar construction experiences and laughed together about the unpredictability of construction projects. Samuel shared that he worked actively in the local gang. Knowing that the Holy Spirit had already dealt with Samuel before I even arrived, I quickly embarked on sharing the Gospel with him. I started by noting that he reminded me of Zacchaeus in the Bible.

Luke 19— Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Just like Zacchaeus ran around the edge of the crowd and climbed a tree trying to see Jesus, I told Samuel that I saw him peeking from behind each building trying to see what was happening at the clinic. And regardless that the tax collectors at the time of Jesus extorted money from others, Jesus said that He would stay at the house of Zacchaeus. I noted that likewise, the Holy Spirit was now saying that He had come today to stay with Samuel, regardless his past.

Suddenly, even as I spoke about Zacchaeus, I felt extremely convicted—What if I had refused to visit that local clinic, today? What was most important to God—for me to train 99 pastors or for Samuel to know God? Perhaps God was more concerned about Samuel than my seminar and the 99 pastors who missed it. What if I had simply gone back to my home in the USA, blaming the local church leaders for failing to advertise my training seminar? Even as I talked about Zacchaeus, I realized that perhaps God had a different purpose that centered on Samuel’s role as the lost sheep and his worth to God.

Suddenly grasping that perhaps God had cancelled my seminar just so I could meet Samuel, I explained that Jesus valued him very highly. Samuel responded, “But I’ve done horrible things to a lot of people.” I immediately recalled my conversation with Kevin, and realized that I was almost certainly talking to his uncle’s killer. I remembered a sermon illustration used by a missionary the previous evening, and decided to use it. So I asked Samuel if he would like to have a dollar bill (the local daily wage in El Salvador is only $4). He responded, “Yes.” I said, “Why would you want a dollar bill?” He responded, “Because it has value as a dollar, and I can buy something with it.” I said, “What if I crumple the dollar bill into a tight ball? Would you still want it?” He responded, “Of course.” I asked, “Why?” He responded, “Because it is still worth a dollar.” I said, “What if I throw it on the ground and grind it in the dirt with my shoe? Would you still want it? He said, “Of course.” I said, “Why?” He responded, “Because it is still worth a dollar.” I responded, “Just as this dollar will always have value as a dollar, you will always have value to God, no matter what you have done in the past. Jesus values you no matter how dirty you are or what you have done to others. He sent me here today because He wants you.” And as the words left my mouth I privately thought, “And He even cancelled my seminar with 99 pastors!”

Instead of asking him to accept Jesus, I felt led to ask if he had ever given his heart to Jesus. He admitted that he had accepted Christ as a nine year old boy, but had turned away. I asked if he would like to rededicate his life to Jesus, and he said, “Yes.” I felt the Holy Spirit prompt me, “And then were you ever called into ministry?” Samuel, admitted, that “yes” he had a call on his life but had almost forgotten about the promise he had made so long ago. That day he not only rededicated his life to God, but responded again to a call to ministry.

Instead of furtively peeking around the corner of the buildings, Samuel spent the rest of the day sitting calmly in the open courtyard with his father, Martin.

As Beth and I departed at the end of the day, the interpreter asked the local pastor about Samuel. The pastor noted that Samuel was not just the local gang leader. He was the regional leader of the gang leaders. A week previously, they tried to extort $30,000 from three local families, threatening to kidnap their children if the ransom were ignored. The families fled in the middle of the night.

Consider this—What if I had simply gone back to my home in the USA, blaming the local church leaders for failing to advertise my training seminar? And I wonder—do I ever miss carrying out God’s missionary purpose because I’m more intent on my work for God?

Beth and I have traveled to over 70 countries, many of them 10 or 12 times. Just like this trip to El Salvador, every trip has developed into a different purpose than my identified purpose. I seldom tell my Stateside churches the God ordained purpose for our trips. I tell them the trip is to teach pastors about resilience skills, conflict resolution skills, and so forth. That is, I tell them the intended purpose as I know it. However, God always crafts a different purpose that I never foresee until I’m already in the middle of it. This real purpose always centers on meeting the specific needs of a single individual. God’s purpose is that we travel thousands of miles and spend thousands of dollars to meet the needs of one person who He is seeking. For the first time, however, on this trip we didn’t even get to present our seminar. Luke 15 says, “Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home.”

Some pastors value big congregations, big revivals, or at the least, big seminars with lots of attendees. In contrast to this North American success model, God searches for one person at a time. It doesn’t sound very glamorous to say that my trip resulted in one changed life. But it meant the difference between life and death for Samuel. He was the real purpose for this trip. And sometimes, He even allows us to present our seminar in spite of His purpose.

Today, I phoned Samuel in El Salvador. Yes, he is still attending his local church and planning to attend the local Bible School in preparation as a minister. As a Thanksgiving or Christmas prayer, please join us and the pastor of Samuel’s local church in asking God to give him strength to leave the gang, follow Jesus, and follow-through in his response to God’s call.