People often ask me what I do to take care of myself. How do I rest? How do I find ways to sustain the energy it takes to do the work that I do? First, I have to say that I am not very good at it. I am a workaholic. I was raised with a work ethic that taught me that the number of items I mark off my to-do list each day determines my worth. I have to fight this natural inclination, and the voice in my head that always says, “There’s more to do.”
With that said, I have become better at resting and taking time for myself. Ugh. Even writing those words stirs up that inner critic. “See that. You wrote “myself.” Selfish.” Sigh. Guilt is another thing I am still overcoming! But this I will do. We can do hard things. :-)
Here are some ways I take care of myself:
1. More than ten years ago, a good friend and pastoral person in my life encouraged me to learn contemplative methods of prayer. He talked about his own burn out and shared how contemplation had literally saved his life. He taught ancient Christian forms of prayer, including The Examen, The Jesus Prayer, Centering Prayer, and Walking Prayer. I listened to everything he said, and I believed him . . . but I didn’t put any of it into practice. I was still running on adrenaline and an attitude that said, “I’m fine. I don’t need that.” Besides, ain’t nobody got time for that!
It wasn’t until some painful experiences in my life brought me to a place where my adrenaline was gone. I could not deal. Pain swirled and overruled everything. It was in this condition that I happened upon a retreat being held by Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism in Omaha, NE. The weekend was to be spent learning these methods of prayer and gaining some inspiration to incorporate them into daily practice.
I respected Phileena and Chris Heuertz, the Founders of Gravity. I had watched their ministry from a distance for more than twenty years. They had lived in some of the roughest, emotionally taxing places and situations, building community among AIDS orphans, human trafficking and genocide survivors. Plus, they had spent time in India with Mother Teresa! They had seen ministers come and go, not able to sustain such difficult work, and many completely burned out of ministry and some even faith entirely. They founded Gravity to help activists like me. I decided to go to the retreat.
We spent the weekend practicing these methods of prayer, which are different from any other form of prayer I had seen in my own Christian experience. Rather than petitioning God for the things we want, or even the things we think/hope God wants, and different from prayer that actively listens for God’s voice (the subject of my first book), each of these methods is designed to quiet the soul, to simply sit in the presence of God, and to allow the great Physician to heal and transform the parts of my soul that God knows (even better than I) need to be healed. Phileena says: “Through activism we confront toxicity in our world, but through contemplation we confront it in ourselves.”
So, practically, how this works for me is that I try to spend at least twenty minutes every day in Centering Prayer/Meditation. I am a perfectionist, and so even as I write that, I am aware that the recommended ideal is to spend two twenty minute sessions per day, and my inner critic shouts, “You’re falling short! God won’t really be able to help you until you do it right!” But I am learning to be gentler to myself. I am learning to dismiss that inner critic and to treat myself as I would a friend. I remind myself that I am doing better, and where I used to insist that I don’t need this kind of time alone with God, I am now very aware of my need and often find myself craving my next twenty-minute prayer sit.
The result? I am less reactionary than I was before. Triggers that used to initiate instinctual responses of anger in me happen less often, and when they do, I am much more able to breathe and get back to my “center”—which for me is about remembering who I am. Who I am to God. Who I am to my family. Who I am to the few people who matter most in my life. And who I want to be as a human being. Living from this centered placed makes me a kinder, gentler person—to others and to myself. Being still saves me.
2. I have been trying to regularly schedule time to get away. Actually physically away. I schedule a few a days to go somewhere where I have no responsibilities. No expectations upon me. I let my people know that I am not available to handle things back home, so they will just have to figure it out. On these personal retreats, sometimes I write, sometimes I sleep, sometimes I look at nature. The point is to only do things that I enjoy doing! No work.
Usually, I take these retreats alone, which means both solitude and silence. I am an introvert, so for me, this is heaven. My life is crowded and loud. All the time. My nerves are constantly being stimulated, and my energy drained. These personal, quiet retreats refresh my soul. Usually by the end of the third day, I am missing people. I don’t want to eat alone any more. I have things I want to say. That is how I know I am ready to go home—refreshed.
3. As a family, we take an annual vacation. After having been in full-time ministry for more than fifteen years and never having taken a vacation, some of our mentors and friends required us to go. The one condition of the vacation was that there could be no work involved. We were not allowed to tack on a speaking event, or even a visit to a financial supporter. The purpose of the trip was to spend time together as a family, resting and having fun together.
Vacation for me is defined by having no schedule. No place I have to go to be there at any specific time. We do visit sites and give the kids opportunity to see and experience new places. But most importantly, we sleep in, we take naps, we play lots of cards and those silly board games where people shout and laugh til the tears pour. And if at all possible we look at the ocean.
4. Finally, I have incorporated some indulgences into my life. I have a terrible time receiving. Receiving gifts. Receiving help. Receiving acts of service. I grew up in a home where there wasn’t much help available to me, as my mother was in a painful world of her own, and I learned to be self-sufficient. Yet, at the same time, I get frustrated that “nobody” is helping me. I’m doing everything here people! All the while, I don’t ask, and I put off an air that says, “I don’t need your help.” How dumb is that?!
So I decided to pay some professionals for their help. This felt more comfortable to me than asking for help. This is what they do. They get paid to do it. I started with a massage. I’d never had a massage. How do you find a place to go? I opened my web browser, and I actually prayed before I searched, “God, please lead me to the right person.” (I have trust issues too!) A place caught my eye, so I made the call.
The woman who answered the phone asked me a few questions about what I was looking for. Then she said, “We have other massage therapists here, and I usually don’t answer the phone, but I think I am the one who is supposed to give you your massage.” She went on to tell me about her methods, which include aromatherapy, using essential oils to treat physical, emotional and even spiritual maladies. I was sold!
I now go to visit my friend, Tina, about once a quarter. I should go more often, but have I mentioned I have guilt issues? Tina is more than just a massage therapist. She is a healer. I usually end up on her table when I am an emotional wreck, crying, “Fix me!,” to which she responds, “What took you so long to come see me?”
Next, I decided to get a pedicure. It’s something I don’t need at all. There is nothing necessary or responsible about me getting a pedicure—in any way. And that is the point. Let me tell you about my nail salon.
I went one afternoon—alone, of course. The thirty-something, Vietnamese man met me as I entered the store. There were no other customers there, and only a couple of other workers. I suddenly felt concerned. Maybe there was a reason they didn’t have much business. I told him I was looking for a pedicure. He pointed to a wall of shelves and said, “You pick color.” I chose purple, because I like purple. It matches nothing that I wear, because I’m not that brave. But I like purple.
The man then led me to a big, maroon colored chair with a washtub at it’s base, where I took off my shoes and climbed into the seat. He turned a knob and warm water rushed into the basin, covering my feet in peace. Then he pressed a button, and massage rollers began climbing my back. He said, “You sit back an’ rest.” Perfect. This was just what I needed.
I set the book I had brought to read on the chair next to me. It was by Phileena Heuertz, Pilgrimage of the Soul. I had been reading about her calling to missions, about her marriage to Chris and her desire to go to India. I related to her story and wanted to learn more. Maybe there was something in this book to help me be a better person—a better minister. I’d read it after I settled in.
He sat down on a little stool, and before he began, he aimed a remote control at the stereo. The smooth voice of Lionel Richie sang out, “Hello, is it me you're looking for?” I smiled. He asked, “You like?” I nodded that I did. I hadn’t heard that song in years, and it was like coming home. Weird, I know, but I went to high school in the 80’s.
Again he said, “You sit back an’ rest.” I closed my eyes, and I wish I could say I did just that. But as he began clipping and filing my toe nails, I started thinking about how ridiculous this was. I minister with the poor. I spend most of my days with people who could never afford a pedicure. What a ridiculous waste of money. I could even pay for a hotel room for one of my homeless friends with this money. Have I mentioned I have guilt issues? Breathe, Jamie. Why does this feel like I’m receiving a spinal tap, instead of a gift?
Then I heard something. It was quiet at first. I wasn’t even sure I had heard it. I listened closer. Stevie Wonder was now singing, “I just called to say I love you. I just called to say how much I care.” But there was another voice, a sweet, nasal voice, with a distinct Vietnamese accent. “I jus call to say I ruh you. An' I mean it from da bottom uh my har.” I opened my eyes. He noticed. “You like my singing?” he asked. I told him he had a beautiful voice and closed my eyes again.
Next came George Michael’s, Careless Whisper, “I don’t ever wanna dance again. Guilty feet have got no rhythm.” My pedicurists’ stilted, Vietnamese accented version brought a smile to my face. I wanted to laugh out loud at the irony, at the sweetness, at the ridiculousness of the whole scene. His confidence grew with each song, which means so did his volume. I peaked through my eyelids to see his eyes closed, head tilted back, my foot in his massaging hand. He didn’t miss a beat as he sang along with Whitney Houston, even hitting the high note of the key change, “Ahyeeahhyeeahh will alway ruh you.”
When Endless Love began, I opened my eyes wide. You’ve got to be kidding me. He sang both parts. The man and the woman. Loud and strong. I was getting it. We listened to Mariah Carey, the Commodores, Celine Dion, and Michael Jackson. All love songs. All the while he massaged my tired feet and legs. I laughed and said out loud, “Okay, God. I hear you.” I believe in love. I aim to be and give love. But have I mentioned I have a hard time receiving?
When he had painted my toe nails bright purple, he looked up at me and asked, “You like?” I told him I did. He stood up from the stool and aimed the remote at the stereo. He scrolled through some songs and pushed a button. Then he climbed into the massage chair next to mine and waited. Strange. I guessed he was on a break. No other customers here for him to serve. He just had to wait for my polish to dry. Then the music started to play:
Tears streamed down my face, as Tony, my new friend, sang the words at the top of his lungs. When I got home, I showed my toes to John and he asked, “How was it?” I said, “God was at the nail salon,” which elicited the appropriate eye rolls and “whatever, moms” from the kids.
I go for a pedicure about once a quarter. Every time I go is not as special as that first time, but I rest and pay someone to serve me for an hour or so. Because not only did God tell me it was okay for me to do so, but God taught me that as I do, together we will make the world a better place.
To learn more about Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism and Phileena and Chris' work, check out their web page. If you can get to a retreat, it might just change your life! https://gravitycenter.com
Songwriters MICHAEL JACKSON, LIONEL RICHIE Published by Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.