Thursday, July 01, 2010

Learning to Relax

One of the hardest things for me to do is relax.

There are many factors that no doubt have contributed to my being so relax-averse. One is my work ethic. Growing up, one of the worst things that could be said about someone was that they were lazy or that they lacked initiative. Because my interests--other than sports--were more sedentary, things like reading, writing, creating, and other things not mechanical, I always feared that I might deserve the label of "lazy." I'm sure that, at some level, to disprove this epithet, I've been a harder worker than many.

Don't misunderstand, I love to work and I love the work to which God has called me. But there has to be a shutdown time, a point at which we agree with Jesus to let the day's troubles be enough for that day. Clearly, one of the reasons that God established a sabbath is so that we would set aside a day on which we could rest, recharge, and pay particular heed to God's Word. Martin Luther talks about this in his explanation to the Third Commandment:
The Third Commandment.
Thou shalt sanctify the holy-day.
What does this mean?--Answer.
We should fear and love God that we may not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred, and gladly hear and learn it.
Another factor in my relaxation-aversion may be the nature of my work. While of course, I can't visit with shut-ins or the hospitalized at all hours of the night, I can work on a sermon, send a note, compose an email, or write a press release at any time. Because I've always been a night owl anyway, the temptation to do "just one more thing" is probably greater for me in the evening hours than it might be for others and when you're dealing with work that is never done (won't be done until Jesus comes back), the temptation is magnified. In recent months, I've even found it difficult to justify sitting to watch movies with my family because of a sense that I had something more to get done.

Another element of my personality working against relaxation is that I'm a widget man. A widget, in the days before computer techs took over the term, was simply a euphemism for any means of keeping score: How many transistors or hood ornaments a factory produced; How many battles a general won; How many words you got right on the spelling test. Widgets can affirm your productivity and, at a sick level, your value or worth as a human being.

Although I was an indifferent student, I always prided myself on the "widgets" I acquired in areas that mattered to me. I never got less than an A in History, Social Studies, English, or Spelling when I was growing up. I loved flaunting my supposed "mastery" of these subjects.

My first love was politics, in part I suppose, because on election night, voters deliver a score. The more votes you get, the more affirmed you are.

A close second to politics as I was growing up was sports. I was never a good athlete. But I was an earnest one. A small fry, I nonetheless loved to play basketball. Winning was so important to me that I tried to find subtle and not-so-subtle ways to compensate for my deficiencies. "Watch out," Steve, a friend of mine told another friend with a smile as we got ready to play some hoops, after we had all reached our thirties, "Mark's a dirty player."

In my twenties, two of my very best friends--Jerry and Tom--worked hard with me on my softball skills. I was the only guy on our team who hadn't played varsity baseball at least at the junior high level. (Most had played high school ball and several had played in college.) I became obsessed with my batting average and five years into our stint in an industrial league, loved showing people the stats I meticulously kept which demonstrated that I had the highest average on the team.

I even carried this silliness over into my years as a pastor. Once, I was invited to a conference for pastors of congregations in small towns or in rural areas. I was serving at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in rural Okolona, amid the corn and soybean fields of northwest Ohio. To start out, the convener asked us to give a ballpark estimate of our weekly worship attendance. The other pastors sitting around the circle said things like, "Around...," "About...," "Somewhere around...." Just before the meeting, I had gone through my weekly ritual of confirming the Sunday attendance and figuring out what that number did to the average for the year. "About 282," I said. The place erupted in laughter. "About 282?" someone asked.

When I took a call to establish a new congregation in the Cincinnati area, what became Friendship Lutheran Church, my tendency to obsess over numbers was encouraged. There are thresholds to be met by so-called "mission churches": attendance figures, membership numbers, congregational giving. These, in turn, decide whether the mission church meeting in temporary facilities, will be able to erect its own first building unit.

All of that is important, of course. I agree with the maxim of Rick Warren: We count people because people count. There is no sure way to measure how many disciples, followers of Christ, a church is making. But any pastor who doesn't care about seeing more people exposed to the Gospel should think about going into some other line of work. Jesus has given His Church a great commission, to reach people with the good news of new life as a free gift for all who repent and believe in Him. The Church is called to "make disciples."

But pastors and congregations must avoid overestimating our role in the disciple-making process. Jesus says, "I will build My Church." He didn't say, "Mark will build the Church." (Although in the passage from which that line is taken, Jesus is saying that He will use the confession of Him as Savior, like the one made by His follower, Peter, to build His Church. God's people are the central means by whom Jesus builds His Church.)

Furthermore, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, it's only by the power of the Holy Spirit that a person can confess, "Jesus is Lord." For a recovering control freak like myself, it's tough to simply share Christ by word and deed and leave the rest to the Spirit.

My heart attack has taught me what I should already have known as a Christian:
  • I'm not in charge.
  • "Successful" or not, God loves me.
  • I don't deserve the gifts of God's grace, but without personal merit, I can appropriate forgiveness and new life through faith in Jesus Christ.
Those are important facts for me to remember if I'm to learn to relax.

As I mentioned yesterday, over the past few days, I've been re-reading Dr. Keith Sehnert's Stress/Unstress, published in 1981. In a section I read last evening, Sehnert mentions Dr. Herbert Benson's book, The Relaxation Response. Benson looked at relaxation techniques from different cultures and noted that they have four elements in common:
1. Quiet environment
2. Mental device such as a sound or word
3. Passive attitude to help one rest and relax
4. Comfortable position to reduce muscular effort to a minimum
Benson then developed a method described in his book. I adapted it for myself last evening and found it deeply relaxing. After doing it, I was definitely ready to hit the sack. Here (with my adaptations in italics), is Benson's relaxation response:
1. In a quiet environment, sit in a comfortable position. (I used my Ikea office chair, extremely comfortable.)
2. Close your eyes.
3. Relax all your muscles, beginning with your feet and progressing to calves, thighs, lower torso, chest, shoulders, neck, head. Allow them to remain deeply relaxed. (I had forgotten how easy it is to relax parts of my body in this way. Keeping them relaxed is a challenge, but not insurmountable. You just have to give yourself the time and the silence.)
4. Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. Say the word 'one' silently to yourself as you breathe in; repeat it when you breathe out. (The breathing was fine with me. But in my mind to myself, I recalled promises from Scripture, prayed in Jesus' Name, and visualized and prayed for the Holy Spirit to fill and heal my body.)
5. Continue the practice for 20 minutes. You may open your eyes to check the time, but do not use an alarm clock. When you finish, sit quietly for several more minutes, at first with your eyes closed, then later with your eyes open. (I was able to keep my eyes closed for the entire 20 minutes and found it deeply refreshing.)
I understand that for many people, finding the time to do this exercise just once a day may prove impossible. For you, other modes of relaxation may work. If so, let me know. Recent events have made me very open to learning other methods.

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