“For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.” Ecclesiastes 5:20 ESV
I am a Gen Xer. Our generation was specifically encouraged in our late teens and early twenties to be radical Christians; Jesus freaks if you will. I went to a Christian college with weekly chapel services highlighting mission work all over the world. Many times, my friends and I would weep at the altar, offering ourselves like Isaiah to be sent to the ends of the earth. We devoured Elizabeth Elliott’s Passion and Purity and any story about sacrificial and pioneering missionaries like Hudson Taylor and Lottie Moon.
I loved the idea of being a part of something bigger than myself, even if it cost me everything. In fact, the idea of suffering for my faith seemed like the highest calling there was. I was eager to do my Christian duty and to be another name in the annals of Christian heroes. My path seemed clear, and I was anxious to prove my worth.
Despite my enthusiasm, that wasn’t God’s plan for me. Instead of calling us to an exciting journey overseas to serve him, God called my husband and I to serve at home in America doing youth ministry. My husband worked as a youth pastor while I taught high school English. This was far from the vision of pioneering missions that I believed would be my life.
Despite this, my life has not been devoid of suffering. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize that you don’t need to go anywhere to experience the hardship of life. Even an ordinary life can be marked with struggle. We have experienced heartbreak, loss, betrayal, fear, depression, grief, and more. My faith has been tested even without the benefit of an adventure. These experiences have challenged me and my ideas of what a healthy Christian looks like.
In my early years of faith, I felt like the only answer to difficulties was prayer and Bible study. There is no doubt there is wisdom in this; however, there is more to us than just our spiritual selves. We have been created to live embodied lives with physical and emotional, as well as spiritual, needs.
A one-dimensional faith isn’t quite strong enough to drown out the terrors we all experience at one time or another. Instead, I’m learning to find my way through the discomfort by creating healthy coping mechanisms. I’ve learned that I have been given resources that I didn’t even consider.
After several difficult years that included the death of my father, leaving a job I loved, moving to a new location, and starting a new job, I was in a slump. I decided to go to counseling, realizing that I had never adequately dealt with the trauma of my childhood, and that I had been trying to muscle my way through life. The recent challenges had brought things to a head, and I sought out help. Besides many insights that my counselor brought to me, she said one important thing.
As I was leaving an appointment that actually came to be the last due to scheduling difficulties, she looked at me pointedly and said, “Take care of yourself.”
This phrase surprised me. I didn’t realize that I hadn’t been taking care of myself but, between raising three small children and doing ministry, I realized that I hadn’t taken care of myself in a long time. That began my journey in self-care that has helped me reconnect to myself and, ultimately, to God.
We all need help dealing with the challenges in life. We can be tempted to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms that hurt us when instead we need to purposefully pursue those things that are good and lovely and don’t harm our bodies or relationships with others.
Several things have worked for me: community, body care, sanctuary building, and joy seeking.
I start with community because while the church has many, many problems, I have never encountered a group of people more generous. When my father died, the ladies in my church came around me to support and help me above what I could have expected. They cleaned my house while we were away at his funeral. They bought us groceries and meals for several days. They took me aside to get coffee and talk and process my loss. I could never have survived that time without that support.
Having a group of friends that I can be honest with and do fun stuff with has been one of the biggest blessings in my life. I absolutely don’t know how I would cope without them. Even though I have now moved to a new church, I have a new group of ladies who have shown me so much love and with whom I enjoy spending time. God made us to be relational and, if this is lacking, we will not prosper.
Before I had kids, I was a physical fitness trainer. I loved to teach classes on weight training and Pilates. After having kids though, my schedule and energy level did not leave much time for working out. When I started thinking seriously about taking care of myself, I made this a priority. My new job allowed a much more flexible schedule, and I can now work out several times a week again. While I love this, I realize this isn’t the only piece to body care.
It also includes long walks with my dog enjoying sunshine and breaks from my computer. It means eating food that makes me feel good. Stretching and regular chiropractic visits helps keep my body and neck from becoming sore. Instead of pretending like my body should just exist without needing to be maintained, I’ve made a point to try and understand my body and to care for it. It has, after all, been entrusted to me.
This body care isn’t about weight management. It’s about managing the complicated resource of a physical body and doing my best to give it what it needs.
During the lockdown of 2020, I, like everyone else, found myself cocooned at home. Spending this extra amount of time home helped me to consider what I wanted this space to feel like. For most of my life, I paid minimal attention to decorating. It seemed too difficult and too superficial. Flipping through social media, I saw an image that woke me up. It was a picture of a living room with tons of plants hanging from macrame holders. The floor was overlaid with a rug with geometric shapes and the couch was buried in furry pillows and draping blankets. To the side on a table, an oil diffuser was running, blowing what I imagined was aromatic air into the space.
Little by little I recreated that vision in my living room, dining area, and then my home office. Being surrounded by greenery while snuggling in my cozy blankets, and inhaling the aroma of jasmine and sandalwood has been my own personal heaven—a place of comfort when things are hard. My home has become my sanctuary. Though it is not perfect, I am so grateful to God for the ability to create a space for the healing of my mind, soul, and body.
The Bible verse at the beginning of this essay surprised me when I first read it. Ecclesiastes speaks quite clearly about the meaninglessness of life. The author bemoans how bad things happen to good people, that hard earned possessions just get left to the next generation, and that there is nothing new under the sun. He leaves one caveat. Even though much of what we fret about is meaningless in the larger scope of the world, we have been given a gift of joy. Throughout the book he repeats that “there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live” (Ecclesiastes 3:12 ESV).
There is no denying that life is hard. There are so many ways we can be injured, but there are also many ways we can find joy. Tish Harrison Warren in her book Liturgy of the Ordinary explains:
“In reality, the church has led the way in the art of enjoyment and pleasure. New Testament scholar Ben Witherington points out that it was the church, not Starbucks, that created coffee culture. Coffee was first invented by Ethiopian monks—the term cappuccino refers to the shade of brown used for the habits of the Capuchin monks of Italy. Coffee is born of extravagance, an extravagant God who formed an extravagant people, who formed a craft out of the pleasures of roasted beans and frothed milk” (p. 130-131).
When we enjoy the gifts God has made available to us, we join in worship with creation. When I revel in a perfectly brewed cup of tea made from plants he created, I am in awe of his gift. When I read a beautiful story that invites me into a new world and helps me forget my current problems, I’m given a respite from the pressures of life. These are all gifts that provide a joy that helps ease the pain that we all carry with us.
I still want to be a radical follower of Jesus, but now I’m envisioning this to mean something a bit different than I did before. Instead of seeing radical as meaning a neglect of earthly things, I’m learning to see that being radical can also mean finding joy in the gifts and the giver. This means I live more fully within my community, within my own body, and in my own home, letting them provide opportunities for joy.