...self care is never a selfish act- it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch.

Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

Friday, February 29, 2008

Hell, Hate, and St. Francis of Assisi

Years ago, I was phoned early on a Sunday morning by someone identifying himself as a preacher who said he was taking an informal survey of beliefs. The only thing he wanted to know was if I believed in the existence of a physical burning lake of fire where unbelievers go. I suspect his findings were to be aired in a sermon that morning as evidence of whatever he was trying to prove. That was West Texas.

That there is judgement is an undeniable tenet of Christian belief. It is just how that is used that bothers me. When faith is used on others to hurt, shame or harm, then my faith quickly becomes a tool for hate and injury instead of healing. In a 90's poll measuring belief in Americans, around 95% of those polled said they believed in God. Of those, 65% said they believed in a literal, burning hell BUT only about 6% thought that's where they would end up. This means that most American Christians probably believe in hell for someone else, but not for themselves. That is using the faith to do harm, not good. I wouldn't be surprised if current surveys from Gallup, etc. showed very similar results among Americans.

So what would I do if I was asked that question about a real burning lake of fire in 2008? At the advice of a UMC bishop and friend of those years, I would ask in response, "Do you believe in hell on earth?" Another friend who is in my spiritual direction class said, and I quote "Religion is for those who want to be saved from hell; spirituality is for those who have already been there." That's from Bill, a Catholic Christian, who is in recovery. We can all learn from him.

My study this Lent has brought me in close connection with St. Francis of Assisi, who knew Jesus not as the judge but as the judged, the condemned. Alot of the world's suffering seems to be caused by people of faith who think that their God is out to get them- or others who don't agree with them. So much suffering in the world is caused by a false image of God, one that is shaming and condemning and very much like them. Jesus died to show us that, no matter what we do to God, to Jesus, or to love, God continues to love the world in a way that heals and does not harm.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Gratitude and Energy Level

Researchers at The University of California, Davis, compared the results of keeping a daily gratitude journal with a control group and then measured emotional, physical, and social well being over a three week time frame. The subjects, all who suffered from a neuromuscular, chronic disease, reported:

1. Significantly higher levels of positive emotions in the gratitude group.
2. No difference in negative emotions.
3. Significantly higher positive effects for life appraisal, such as connection to others, life as a whole, and the upcoming day
4. MORE HOURS OF SLEEP! ALMOST ONE FULL HOUR OF SLEEP for those in the gratitude group.
5. No more exercise and no effect for pain was reported.

#4 is amazing! Just think what your energy level could be with almost one more hour of sleep per night!!

My Clergy Peer Group Works!

"I felt drained by the demands" was the prevailing reason pastors gave for leaving a position in local church ministry. (58%) The next reason was a feeling of isolation and lonliness. (51%) The study was reported in the 2005 book, Pastors in Transition: Why Clergy Leave Local Church Ministry. No real surprizes here.

After serving in a ministry setting outside a local parish for several years, I realized how isolated and disconnected I was in my previous years on a large church staff. After returning to a local church staff in late '03, I convened two or three different groups of clergy, but one in particular has stayed together. It's now made up of four male clergy who, like myself, find a monthly lunch together followed by prayer time a welcome sabbath. We have been meeting now for over four years, with some changes in the group members. For the third year, we are planning a retreat. This year's content on the Enneagram is a continuation of last year's study. It is led by a Spiritual Director of the Cenacle Retreat House.

A wise professor at Duke Divinity School (John Westerhoff) frequently advised us that if we hope to lead others in the spiritual life in healthy ways, a pastor needs both a spiritual director and a therapist. That is, we would need both if we plan to do good to others by first doing no harm. I have often found that wisdom beneficial. I would add to that guidance: "Find a peer group where you can be yourself, and where you can pray for each other."

"You show me the path of life..." (Psalm 16:11)

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Gratitude Works!

Do you doubt the impact that practicing gratitude has on wellness? If this is just happy-ology, then it is powerful enough to change longevity and life satisfaction for the better.

For example, the oft-cited Nun Study by the University of Kentucky looked at the autobiographies of nuns by coding each one for both negative and positive emotions. The study found an amazing SEVEN year difference in the life-span between the most negative and the most positive. Of those who used a low number of positive emotions, 54% had died by the age of 80 and of those who used the highest number of postive emotions, only 24% had died by 80. Or look in the great little book, How Full Is Your Bucket, by Rath and Clifton, in which this study is cited.

In his lecture titled Gratitude: The Science and Spirit of Thankfulness, Robert Emmons of the University of California presented a study on "gratitude intervention" among middle schoolers. Sixth and seventh graders were asked to count their blessings over a three week span. The gratitude induction correlated with higher optimism, and overall life satisfaction with different domains, such as school, home, etc. at both the immediate post test and the three week follow-up.

One way to get started with gratitude as a spiritual practice: try doing a daily gratitude examen. At the beginning of each day- or in the evening if you prefer, take a few minutes to reflect on the previous 24 hours and list 2 or 3 experiences for which you are grateful and why (how did this benefit you?). Clergy are in special need of a practice like this- not in order to avoid the spiritual life- but to draw us into a deeper experience of it.

There is no instant spiritual life or community, despite what church ads promise! Gratitude works,and gratitude also is a practice, a discipline.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Grace of Gratitude

When I heard about the amazing results in the new field of gratitude studies, it was as if heaven opened. Dr. Emmons of the University of California, and author of THANKS! , maintained in a 2007 lecture that practicing gratitude can have a positive impact on everything from quality of sleep among those with chronic illnesses to life satisfaction and optimism in middle school youth.

Many core findings can be found in his little volume,Words of Gratitude, and also in the article "Positive Psychology Progress" available at http://www.authentichappiness.org/.

My own story includes traumatic (and not totally unique) early childhood events, such as having my stomach pumped due to an accidental overdose of chewable aspirin. Another time my wind pipe began to close from a severe viral infection. Blue in the face, I required emergency breathing assistance until the EMS/Police could arrive with oxygen. Our neighbor and friend, Dr. John Bibbs, was available each time and in my gasping episode, he tilted the vaporized air flow into my nose and mouth with a cupped hand. Brilliant! After my struggle for air, I can still remember the wonderful relief of just having the air to breathe!

From these experiences, a recognition which fostered a deeper gratitude began to take shape. I began to see my life and the contributions others made to it in a different way. I realized that the benefits I received were life- changing- and that they were intended for my good. The help came from outside myself. But gratitude, according to Emmons, is not only a virtue or a gift- it is also a discipline and one that works wonders in the human spirit!

If gratitude intervention works for middle schoolers, surely it works for clergy! Those middle schoolers and a group of Kentucky Nuns is what we look at next.

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Why Clergyspirit?

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Having been in ordained ministry in the UMC for 34 years, I've experienced the truth that although, clergy are frequently present for others, no one can offer what they don't have.That's why if you're a clergy person, you need someone who will listen to you. Not the random next closest person available, but rather someone like a spiritual director, a therapist, a peer who can be fully present to you. I hope the links and posts you find here will give you ideas, humor, hope and encouragement. Scott Endress

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If you want a formula for making the best of the less-than-perfect and making the most of what you have been given, then begin to compare your lot to what you were before you were born, and it will empower you with wonder every time. John Claypool

Making Good Decisions