Sanctify Exercise

By Beth Davis

RippleFitnessLoganFitnessJPGIn the dark months of winter, depression is on the rise even among the most healthy ministers. Too many cold days can add up to a depressed mood that may last from a few hours to weeks or even months. Thankfully biblical and scientific research gives a clear antidote to depression. In other words, many times, depression is preventable. However, prevention requires planning and intentionality. In the next six blogs articles, I will cover six healthy lifestyles. Each of them will add an important element to your life. Check them out. Small changes can lead to large health dividends.

1. Aerobic Exercise

Adam and Eve spent their days tending the garden. The long hours of labor provided a natural environment for physical fitness. In contrast, the modern office setting is a very sedentary existence. God designed humankind for physical activity.

Trudging to the nearby gym on a regular basis may seem like a far cry from the Garden of Eden. However, a lifestyle that includes daily exercise offers many benefits for physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Statistics reveal that ministers, just as other members of society, struggle with depression. The common symptoms of depression—lack of energy and concentration—make it challenging, if not impossible to maintain a consistent devotional life. This spiritual deficit leads to a deep sense of guilt. Moderate exercise can break this vicious cycle. In addition to preventing depression, exercise provides dividends such as:

Energy. Exercise unlocks energy. Even a half-hour work-out or a quick walk around the block will provide an extra lift and the ability to stay focused throughout a busy day.

Weight Control.  A trip to the health club results in calories burned. Calories burned equals weight loss. Research indicates that a healthy dose of physical exercise suppresses the appetite, helping curb the urge to reach for that extra candy bar or piece of cake.

A Sense of Well-Being. Extended physical activity causes the brain to release endorphins. These chemicals reduce stress and anxiety and promote feelings of peacefulness.

Financial Savings. Yes, it’s true. If you exercise, clothes will fit properly, and you can wear them longer. Preventative health efforts also pay off in money saved on medications and health care charges.

Restful Sleep. People who engage in sports or physical activity savor the effects of sound slumber. With less anxiety, sleep is undisturbed and restorative. Better rest results in higher productivity and contentedness.

Most individuals agree that they would enjoy the benefits of exercise, but they lack the determination to make it part of their lifestyle. The following list suggests tips for getting started in an exercise program:

Check with your doctor before beginning a new fitness program, to determine your ability to exercise.

  • Gather information on an exercise program that will fit into your lifestyle. In his book, Faith-Based Fitness, Dr. Kenneth Cooper outlines simple, yet safe ways to become physically fit.
  • Start out slowly and progress gradually; In addition to the benefits of aerobic exercise, Dr. Cooper suggests that for all-around health, individuals pursue three major components of a fitness program—endurance exercise, strength training, and flexibility.
  • Incorporate exercise into daily activities. Choose to walk, rather than drive, climb the stairs instead of riding the elevator, and when possible, park a bit further from your destination. Add the element of faith by expressing gratitude to God for the ability to stretch, bend, and climb stairs. Exercise, as a part of your daily life and routines, can become an important part of worship.
  • Find a partner. Exercising with a friend combines accountability with the opportunity to socialize (another important lifestyle). When one partner loses interest the other partner can stay motivated and vice versa. Whether it is walking in the neighborhood, playing tennis, or meeting at the gym, an exercise pal makes the time enjoyable.
  • Exercise at the same time each day. Discover a time that works for you and, as much as possible, stick to it. Before you go to the office, on the way home in the evening, or at lunch time, sanctify time for exercise. Your life and ministry depend on it!

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