It has been almost five weeks since I've felt quite right and since I've posted any new content. If you've followed my blog for a while, you know that this isn't normal.
But, here I am on a Saturday night to say "I'm back!" And I'll tell you why I've been gone.
And no, it is not because the dog ate my homework or any excuse like that. . .
Over a month ago, I found myself in a Oklahoma hospital preparing for emergency surgery. I hadn't been feeling well for quite some time, but I seriously thought it would pass. But, after going to the doctor finally, the reason for my troubles came to the light. But I must insert here that the truth took 2 different misdiagnosis and 2 ER visits to come out.
Before surgery, there was a bit of a scare that my illness could have come from cancer: not cool! But, when the pathology report came back from the lab afterwards it was determined that my painful condition was not a long-term problem (no cancer) and the surgery had cleared me of infection. It was just a freak event. All of this was great news, but simultaneously, I faced a couple of months recovery process.
Life certainly took a different turn than I expected in August and September. And my October plans have been altered too.
When folks have heard what I've gone through I've felt a lot of pity. "Oh, my God. I'm so sorry" has been the most common response. So, I tell you all of this not to seek your pity or well wishes (honestly, I don't find comfort in a person's pity), but to focus on the positive and say that this time has been life-giving in its own way. And, I have a lot to be thankful for:
Most of all, I'm alive and don't have cancer.
Without much time to research doctors or hospitals, I felt like I got great care where I landed on August 21st. I was in good hands with the surgeon given to me.
Kevin was not out of the country when I got sick but by my side the whole way (even sleeping at the hospital on a cot for a couple of nights!). He doesn't just run a large non-profit, he's my husband and an amazing one at that!
Help came when I needed it the most: my mom flew in from Tennessee and one of my best friends flew out from several states over to Oklahoma too. They were gifts to our household especially as Kevin still had to work and I wasn't ready to be on my own.
The flowers I got from Feed The Children employees, DC friends and other folks made my hospital room and then our small apartment smell amazing. (And made the hospital staff in particular keep telling me-- you must be loved).
Dear ones became even dearer to me these past several weeks-- a friend from Africa called me every day just to talk me through the loneliness, friends from all over the country called to pray for me or let me cry when I needed to process how scary this entire ordeal was, and my one Oklahoman friend Susan brought the actual presence of joy to our apartment with her visits and often brought yummy food that Kevin enjoyed (even if I didn't feel like eating).
I even got one of those amazing Washington Plaza Baptist "get well" cards that I had signed for countless other people during the years I served as that church's pastor, but this time it was for me.
And now as I'm able to get up and move around a bit more, I'm more grateful than ever for the gift of life's simple pleasures.
Driving my car is a big accomplishment of the day, not a chore.
Being able to shower and even shave my legs (finally) by myself is a joy, not one more thing to do in the morning.
Having enough mental energy to write words on this computer screen is not mundane task, but one full of delight.
Gaining enough strength to fly on an airplane to my home in DC was not just an average day, but one to be celebrated!
Why? Because I simply could. A couple of weeks ago I could not.
Early on, I needed help brushing my hair, dressing and getting propped up in bed. I could not go to the bathroom without being watched. I could not eat food without asking permission. In all of this, I received lessons in being served by loved ones and strangers alike.
Prior of all of this, I was eating well, taking vitamins, and working out, doing all of the things a doctor says "healthy people do" and without any known medical conditions. But all of a sudden, I wasn't well. My illness came on strong. And I was out. I hardly felt like texting or talking either-- two of my favorite things.
Most of all this is what I learned: never let age keep you from being grateful for your health. This 33-year-old named Elizabeth Hagan is excited about her recovery and feeling strong again. And maybe one day I'll write more about it.
But for now, I'm going back to the couch to keep "doing my time" in recovery to be good as new soon. And when I am, certainly know I'll be even more grateful.
When most pastors leave congregations and don't have another official job to go to, it is for one reason: burnout. They've worked too hard. They've shepherded congregations through major change which has taken a toll on their own health. They've made the church a greater priority over their family or own emotional wellbeing and simply need to re-prioritize. Or, they're simply bone tired for a thousand different reasons. And they can't imagine setting foot back in a church building for a really long time (for the sake of the church's wellbeing many of these folks don't need to). In fact this article has been all the buzz with my clergy friends over the past several days as one high profile pastor has left his post for not taking care of himself or his family over the long haul.
But, as I stand (or sit on the couch in all accuracy) on this my first week officially off duty-- when I'd normally be getting the swing of the Epiphany season at church and now am not there, I need to say that I'm in this place of life not because of burnout. Sure, I needed some rest from the craziness of balancing this huge tradition for our family with Kevin's new job and living a part for some time, but burnout, no.
I really liked being a pastor. I really liked my job. I left on great terms with the congregation. And, as much as I know my leaving WPBC at this time was the right thing to do, I still miss it. (I really didn't know what to do with myself yesterday when there wasn't early church responsibilities to get up for. All I knew to do was try to enjoy the break by eating waffles and watching my favorite political news shows, thanking God for the chance to be in my pajamas at 11 am-- something I never, ever get to do). Then, as I was listening to the radio on the way to the gym this afternoon, I heard a song and my first thought was, "That would be a great piece for a call to worship." (And I teared up a little thinking that I no longer had anyone to suggest that we sing it to).
So, what do you do when you are not in a church by choice-- or any 9 to 5 job for that matter-- for a chunk of time when you aren't experiencing a burnout?
Though I'm sure many would say things like, "volunteer!" "get busy making connections for your next job in your new town" or even "hurry up and get back in the saddle because you don't want to lose your relevance," I just can't make myself do any of these things.
I don't want to rush into filling my days with thousands of lunch appointments or extracurricular activities-- even if I could.
I don't want to rush into commitments for work to come.
I don't want to have to be asked to have a spiritual word for anyone other than myself for a while-- even as much as this I'd really rather not go down this silent path.
I need to work on my book long project-- but I'm not even pushing myself back into this yet. "Breathe, Elizabeth, breathe" is what wise ones have been saying to me.
We all need Sabbath. And apparently it is my time.
I've always been a much better do-er than I have a wait-er or rest-er. As a child, I hated dates off from school like federal holidays because they really seemed to throw me off of my routine. I begged to go to school even as my parents thought I was crazy. I really wanted something to do. I couldn't stand to be idle.
And on this day, I need to tell you that I really want something to do. Please don't roll your eyes at me when I say, it's so hard to rest! In fact, as more as I've gotten into it, I've realized that I'd rather not have Sabbath. I'd rather hide behind work. I'd rather avoid myself. I'd rather avoid God. But, I trust that Sabbath will be good for my soul and the future souls of those in whom I care for, so I will try.
I will try to see what Sabbath teaches me about my value and worth-- and from where it comes.
I will try to see what Sabbath teaches me about the gift of time-- what it is I really need to do and what I don't.
I will try to see what Sabbath teaches me about calling-- what is the best use of my gifts and what is not.
Most of all, I will try to listen. I will fight the fear that my voice will be weakened if I don't use it for awhile. I will try to remember this is only for a season. I hope you can too-- in the Sabbath moments of your life schedule that find you this week.
So, if you don't see me blogging as much as I normally do, you know where I am: breathing in Sabbath. Remembering that my value is not based on what I produce. I promise, I'll share with you whatever I learn when I return in a couple of weeks or whenever . . .
God Calls You to Take Care of Yourself
I Corinthians 6:11-20
Today we begin a series of messages in this season of Epiphany all about God's calling to us.
It's the time of year that the Christian calendar asks us to do some consideration again about this life of faith that we've committed to live in. It's the time of year for us to hear from scripture again some of Jesus' hopes for our becoming as people called the Body of Christ. And, today's "God Calls You" blank inserts the words "To Take Care of Yourself."
It seems we tow a good line as leaders and faith seekers in Christian community on the topics of self-sacrifice, selflessness and extending beyond the bounds of our own natural abilities so that God can work mightily through us, but rare it seems that we ever talk about care of self.
While we are eager to talk about becoming something "more:" more loving, more giving, more serving, more faithful, it is rare that we talk about the physicality of a body from which all of the loving, giving serving and faithfulness comes or do we ever talk about our limits of care.
I don't know why this is, other than generations of doctrine and preaching and study has seemed to do a great job disconnecting the body and the soul.
Because of humankind's fall in Genesis 3, we learn we're condemned to a sentence of bodily suffering, pain. The body is bad and will die while the soul is good and will abide in the presence of God forever, if redeemed. Yet, we have forgotten that God previously said over the words of our birth that we were made in God's very own image and called "very good."
As a result of all of this confusion, we easily think us regular church going people, what's the point when it comes to our own health and well-being?
If we really need rest or a day of solitude and someone from the church calls us to do something, then the "godly" choice is always to say yes to others and to the church.
Furthermore, if we want our lives to be pleasing to God, then we've got to learn to give up beauty, give up pleasure, or even lay our own medical problems on the altar of denial, so we have time for everyone else other than us. Though we are taught all along about love and grace and all that jazz, we believe the only way God will REALLY love us is we die to self by putting ourselves last.
I remember my father saying to the children in Vacation Bible School once that "If you really want to be happy in life, you'll learn to love Jesus more than anyone else, even yourself."
As I grew older and had the ability to consider the deeper meaning of this saying I saw so regularly, I doubted the claim of "I wasn't really loving Jesus if I was loving myself."
Did Jesus never eat, sleep, take retreats or be quiet from time to time? But, Christian culture seem to teach me and my peers-- loving yourself was a bad thing. It you took a mental health or catch up on your sleep day, you just didn't talk about it.
We find our lection for this morning found smack dab in the middle of a long series of instructional teaching from Paul to the church in Corinth, a church we know that Paul helped to found and nurture in its infancy.
Paul sought to teach this gathered community-- new coverts to the way of Christ-- what living out their baptism (as we were talking about last week) would look like in the practical every day issues in a particular context.
(As an aside, this is often why, we as modern readers have a hard time with the epistle scriptures. While there is much to learn from the "big ideas" of these letters, we often reach dead ends of frustrating fundamentalism when we take the directives of Paul too literally).
In the verses previous to and after our lection we hear Paul describing his concerns for order in the church, legal matters, marriage and the process of worship.
So, with this understanding, it seems less random these verses about sexual morality and food before us today which say in verse 13: "Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food" or in verse 18: "Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself."
It's like we are listening into a thousand plus year old conversation, though one-way, about food and sex morality's place in the life of faith. Paul wanted the church at Corinth to know that even as he taught much about "freedom in Christ" and the truth that being in Christ meant they were no longer bound to laws about this and that behavior-- still limits existed. "All things are lawful for me," Paul reminds them but adds, "not all things are beneficial."
It's his way of saying, in the story of Christ's grace, we are not left out of the family of God for what we do and our actions do not change the way God looks at us or thinks of us, BUT freedom in Christ has limits. The limits are meant for our good.
Like a young child who will not take instructions without their parent or caregiver answering their thousand, "Why?" questions, Paul gives the whys for his considerations for this particular community about how they partner sexually and what food they put in their mouths.
Their bodies are not bad. Their bodies are not just flesh and bones with nothing to do with their souls. Their bodies gave life and thus were a part of God's very own Self. Therefore, a call resounds to care for their bodies.
I wonder how many of us in this room made New Year's Resolutions? And, among all of you who made resolutions, I wonder how many of your stated intentions related in some way to your body or health. (Any brave souls to raise your hands?)
A recent article about our New Year's Resolution practices in one US city[i] states that the top five resolutions made this year included to:
1. Spend more time with friends and family
2. Become fit in fitness
3. Lose Weight and tame the bulge
4. Quit Smoking
5. Quit Drinking
No matter that social studies say that 80% of New Year's Resolutions fail by January 20th (that's only 5 days away in fact), there seems to be a compulsion in most of us to improve our satisfaction with our bodies and an equally strong compulsion to not.
According the National Center for Heath and Disease Control, nearly 2/3 of adults and children in the United States are overweight; nearly 1/3 are obese. And, if we single out the church going crowd the statistics are worse. A recent study by a Purdue University sociologist "found that religious participation in the United States specially, participation in the Christian denominations (for which the Baptist church was highlighted as a chief offender)-- correlates with status as overweight or obesity.[ii]
Have you been to a church dinner lately? Have you met a group of pastors lately? Though our church and its leaders might be able to say that we've cared for the sick and dying and we've given good weddings and funerals, when it comes to taking care of our own health, our own well-being, and our own mental peace, we do a really lousy job of it.
We don't really think our bodies matter that much.
I can't tell you how many times I've been at clergy gatherings where fellow colleagues have boasted of "never taking their vacation" or "working from sun up from sun down."
I can't tell you how many pastoral encounters I've had in homes when a piece of cake or pie has been shoved on me though I really keep saying, "I'm full." I can't tell you how many times the sin of gluttony has been ignored in church life as if it is ok to eat and eat and eat some more and the sin of lust has been ignored and we all know what happens when that comes out . . . We as the church global have problems with God's call to care for our bodies.
All of this talk this morning is not meant to knock those of us who in the midst of a life-long struggle with body image, time management and finding ways to love exercise (though we hate it so), but it is this text that asks us to stop and ponder what IS God's calling to our bodies again. It's our time now to ask us what God's calling to "glorify God in our bodies" looks like?
In my early years of faith, I heard a lot about salvation as the process of being made right with God.
Salvation as making a stated confession to a community of my sin, repentance and faith in God. Salvation amounted to a prayer of confession and a lifetime of service in the church, hoping to lead as many others as possible in this prayer of confession too.
It was such a big deal that people would ask, "What was the day that you came to Christ?" And, when you appropriately answered, your salvation story was complete.
But, even as my understand of salvation began to change over the years, a class during my 3rd year of seminary, shifted my theology in a completely different direction.
Salvation was not, as Dr. Esther Acolotse, put it in pastoral care class one afternoon about a moment or a limited engagement experience. Salvation, she suggested was about become a human being-- the human being God designed each of us to be at creation. Salvation was about a journey to be made whole.
Such words lingered with me long that day after class and have stuck with me until now. That, yes, God calls us to take care of ourselves because our salvation depends on it.
But, what does this look like, you might wonder? I'm still trying to figure it out, of course, but what I've learned is that there is no way that I can act on God's calling for care of self if my schedule is out of balance.
If we try to over work or under work, if we say "yes" when we should be saying "no," we wind up cranky, drinking too much caffeine, and eventually physically ill.
But, if we remember when we look at the week ahead that it is good to care of ourselves-- the time we need to cook meals at home, the time we need to go on walks, the time we need to decompress-- as much as we say "yes" to other things, a funny thing happens.
We feel better. We might just sleep better. We enjoy my life more, and we exude the joy of being exactly the person God created us to be. And, sure there are always times in your life and mine when we need to go more than others, but afterwards we always must remember to take a step back and not let this constant rush be our norm.
The stakes are high with this calling, my friends, for you and I get into more trouble than we can ever know now if we don't live into this. Not only what we first might think-- facing life with preventable health concerns dragging us down-- but in our community relations with one another. If we are ever going to be the presence of God to one another as other callings upon our life will ask of us-- we must first start with ourselves.
After all St. Teresa of Avila once said to her community:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours.
So, what are you going to do to care for yours? AMEN
[i] Top Ten New Years Resolutions. Albrecht Powell. http://pittsburgh.about.com/od/holidays/tp/resolutions.htm
[ii]Mary Louise Bringle. "Eating Well: Seven Paradoxes of Plenty." http://www.baylor.edu/christianethics/HealthArticleBringle.pdf