Give Yourself the Gift(s) of Self-Care: a book review

 

“In an emergency situation, putting on your own oxygen mask first allows you to breathe and think clearly enough to help someone else” (April Yamasaki, Four Gifts, Herald Press, 2018, 30).

Far from being ‘selfish,’ appropriate self-care is necessary if we are to become people who flourish and can ably care for those around us. Still, with the demands of life, work, family, ministry, etc., we don’t always take care of ourselves. Furthermore, we wonder what self-care looks like for followers of Jesus called to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him. April Yamasaki describes a holistic approach to self-care in Four Gifts. Utilizing the terms, “heart,” “soul,” “mind” and “strength”—words we most often associate with the love of God in Jesus’s version of the Shema (Mark 12:30). She describes what it means for us to care for total well-being, our spiritual well-being, our mental well-being, and our physical well-being.

9781513803340-330x495April Yamasaki is an Asian-Canadian Mennonite Pastor, speaker, and author. She is a fellow alumnus of Regent College, in Vancouver, Canada, though our time there did not overlap. I first became aware of her through her blog (www.aprilyamasaki.com) and occasional interactions on my blog and on social media. She is also a member and contributor of the Redbud Writers Guild (a collective of women faith writers online), whose previous book, Everbloom(Paraclete Press, 2017).  I reviewed, which Yamasaki contributed to. I’ve known her to be a wise and gracious presence online, and she has encouraged me on my own faith journey.

Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength are the organizational motif and so the book divides naturally into these four sections. In the “Heart” section, Yamasaki describes our care for our total well-being. She instructs us to review our core commitments, establish appropriate boundaries, cultivate a community which will sustain us, and invest in relationships. In the “Soul” section she explores what it means to care for our spirits, through devotional practices, Sabbath, lament, and self-discipline. In the “Mind” section she details how to mind our focus, our digital worlds, our mental health, and what it means to renew our mind. In the “Strength” section she surveys ways to care for our physical well-being (e.g. exercise, healthy sleep habits, and good food choices).

This is the sort of book that straddles the line between being a book about spiritual disciplines and being a “self-help” book. My standing critique of both genres is how individualistic their advice often is. However, Yamasaki tempers her personal advice by highlighting the context of community, as part of appropriate self-care.  In chapter 3, she uses the story of Jethro’s counsel to Moses and the Early Church’s appointment of deacons to properly care for widows(Exodus 18, Acts 6) to illustrate both our need  for other people’s support if we are to thrive, and to illustrate how appropriate self-care means we sometimes need to challenge systems and structures that are destructive of our personhood:

As in the time of Moses and in the early church, we need social and structural change. We may not have the power of Moses to singlehandedly change the system, or the collective power of the twelve apostles to restructure a community. But we need the practical wisdom of Jethro and the openness of Moses to listen. We need the nondefensive posture and the willingness to act that was shown by the early leaders of the church. We need good questions, sustained engagement, ongoing action, and vigorous prayer (54-55).

By including the notion of systemic change in her notion of community, Yamasaki makes self-care as being so much more than self-indulgence but instead sees it as a step toward the work of social change.

Dismantling racism and sexism, ending poverty, and addressing other social ills requires ongoing work, determination, prayer, and yes, self-care. We need self-care that genuinely cares for ourselves and our deepest needs without isolating us from the needs of others. We need self-care that refreshes and validates us for our work in the world without it becoming our permanent destination. We need self-care that can both comfort us when the way is hard and empower us to live with compassion and perseverance (55).

Also, her including space for lament in self-care lends itself to the work of justice in the world beyond ourselves. By attending to the areas of hurt, grief, and brokenness in u,s we can move forward and channel our lament into seeking change.  We are motivated to “cry out for justice. Challenge the status quo. Find allies, and consult with professional advisers as needed” (102). This is a refreshing movement in a book about self-care!

But one of the things that I really liked about Yamasaki’s book was the overall graciousness of her tone. A ‘self-help’ book would tell you what you are supposed to do. A self-care book like this one doesn’t prescribe so much as cultivate our awareness of what we need to attend to, to best care for our well-being. Yamasaki offers no hard-and-fast rules. She describes self-care in her introduction:

For me, self-care has been a deep breath and sacred pause, a meandering walk along the waterfront, the New York Times crossword on a Sunday afternoon, a dish of stir-fried rice with greens and almonds after too many days of dairy products have made me feel tired and weighed down.

Self-care means taking all my vacation days even through 43 percent of my fellow working Canadians don’t take all of theirs. It means keeping an off-and-on journal, with page after page of random thoughts, poems, and prayers when the mood strikes—and page after page of blanks when it doesn’t. Self-care as journaling and not-journaling means I’m free to write or doodle or ignore the empty pages at any time. (16).

Yamasaki’s understanding of self-care as being gracious with herself is what hooked me from the start. And she allows space for each of us to appropriate whatever we may need in her discussion of self-care. For example, her chapter on relationships ends with this encouragement, “If working at relationships sounds too busy to be self-care, give yourself permission to take a sacred pause. Rest in the knowledge that God is with you” (67). She also notes that little indulgences (e.g. a Netflix binge, within limits, a night of fast food, comfort food, etc) may be exactly what constitutes self-care. This is not The Seven Habits of the Anal Retentive Soul. This is a book designed to help us care for ourselves in the midst of the demands of life.

And Yamasaki’s life is in these pages. She describes medical and vocational worries in her family life and how she learned to care for herself. I heartedly recommend this book -★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from the author and publisher as part of the book launch team, in exchange for my honest review.

Speak Up: a ★★★★★ book review

I am not sure exactly when I first heard Kathy Khang’s voice but I know it was online. In real life (IRF), I am about 1 degree of separation from her, having friends in similar circles (e.g. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, ministers and activists and the Evangelical Covenant Church). But I know I am grateful for getting to know her voice, and she’s challenged me (mediocre white male, that I am) to rethink stuff and be more mindful about systemic racism and appropriation. I vividly remember Kathy calling attention to Lifeway’s Rickshaw Rally, the all white cast of a progressive Christian conference discussing the peace of the Gospel without any thought of diversity, and challenging White Evangelical complicity in systemic racism and Empire (i.e. Trumpism).

4540In part 1 of Raise Your Voice, Khang shares how she learned to ‘raise her voice.’ She emigrated from South Korea as a child, and navigated American culture as an Asian American, an immigrant and a woman and mother. In lots of ways, she was pressured to be silent and remain silent. However, she found her voice and began speaking about cultural appropriation, faith, violence against the Black community, feminism, and politics. As she shares her own story of speaking up (or sometimes not speaking up) she also reflects on the biblical example of Moses (afraid to speak up when he was called),Esther (who learned to raise her voice to save her people, the Jews, from certain destruction and the Bleeding Woman (Mark 5).

Part 2 offers some practical reflections on how to speak up. This is not a ‘how to’ book, but Khang shares some insights and practices that have helped her both listen well, and speak up when she needs to (these are related domains). She explores what it means to use our voice in real life and the various spheres we occupy (everything from our ‘underwear family’ all the way to our job). She also describes her process and gives practical advice on how to engage with people online and on social media and the various ways each of us can use our gifts and talents as we learn to speak in our own voice.Khang conducted interviews with Reesheda M. Graham-Washington,  her friend Brenda, and artist, Maggie Hubbard which she includes here to show these women learned to raise their voices.

I read Khang’s book eagerly with anticipation. Her voice is one I really respect, and often when issues come up in our culture (e.g. immigration, lies, collusion, white supremacy, violence), I look to see if she’s written anything about it. She has a peculiar gift for cutting through the crap with both truth and grace.

I’m a white male, and therefore my voice has been culturally privileged.  I’ve had to learn to stop and really listen before I speak (and as an extrovert this is hard to do). But in other ways, I too can be silent and not speak up in the face of the authorities and in the case of injustice. Sometimes I am too afraid to speak up. Sometimes I don’t feel like I understand enough. But to speak up is to name our hope that real change is possible. Kathy’s words and her voice give me courage to raise my voice.

I give this book five stars. You should read it. –★★★★★

I received a copy of this book from the Author and IVP in exchange for my honest review. I also purchased a copy to share with someone else.

Do You Mind? a book review

My own interest in mindfulness is spiritual. Sure, it has its roots in Buddhism and I am very much on the Jesus-y Christian end of the world religious spectrum, but as my spiritual director observed, “All prayer begins with something like mindfulness”— paying attention to yourself, your world, and God. So, I picked up Mind Your Life: How Mindfulness Can Build Resilience and Reveal Your Extraordinary in the hopes that it could help me move past my own anxious feelings and my Spiritual ADHD.

mindyourlifecoverMeg Salter is a mindfulness coach and Integral Master Coachâ„¢ who explores how mindfulness can help each of us experience life more fully, be more present and have greater resilience. She tells the story of her own mindfulness journey, and shares stories of how others journeyed toward greater mindfulness, discusses its benefits. She also offers a “Unified Mindfulness System” composed of three attentive skills, three types of practices and a variety of practices, related to the three types (83). The three skills are (1) concentration, (2) sensory clarity and (3) equanimity (allowing experiences to come and go without a push and pull or trying to manipulate them). The three types of practices involve appreciating ourselves and our world, transcending our self and world and nurturing our positive selves and our world (95). Three chapters (chapters 7 to 9) describe a variety of practices as they relate to each of the practice types.

There are some super-duper benefits to mindfulness. When you begin to practice it, you are more alert, more resilient, less anxious, less stressed and you get a good night’s sleep because you have no insomnia. You even smell better. Okay, I made up that last one. People who practice mindfulness may still smell bad, but because of their non-judgmental stance toward themselves, they feel a lot better about it.

I appreciated this book. Mindfulness practices (e.g. cultivating awareness of our breath and body in sitting practice, or taking note on our internal experience throughout the day) easily maps upon a variety of Christian practices, even if this is not an explicitly Christian book (it isn’t explicitly anything, except integral spiritualityâ„¢). I made several notes in the margins and flags some of these practices to try to press into later. Her sitting practice aims at about 10 minutes of intentional practice (which is more doable than the 20-25 other mindful authors tell you to aim for).  I also appreciate that Salter pulls out of her coaching arsenal an exercise of creating a ‘mindfulness topic statement’ to help clarify both our future hopes for mindfulness and our present discomfort (there is a worksheet in the book, to create one, three different times). I give this book three-and-a-half-stars ★★★½

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for my fair and honest review.

 

The Twelve Steps of Arrogant Anonymous: a book review

Joan Chittister, OSB is one of our great contemporary spiritual writers. She’s written on hope, liturgy, world religion, peace, feminism and her Wisdom Distilled From the Daily (along with Kathleen Norris’s works) was my gateway drug to Benedictine Spirituality. Her new book, Radical Spirit promises (in the subtitle) 12 ways to live a free and authentic life. If that sounds a little self-helpy, she isn’t waxing eloquent psychobabble about twelve steps to a better you. This twelve step program is cribbed directly from The Rule of Benedict, chapter seven: “The Twelve Steps of Humility.”

RadSpiritusChittister  began her life as a nun in the 1950s and 1960s. She reflects on what she has learned in her experience as a sister in the Benedictine community and the wisdom of the rule. She describes the underlying issue addressed by each step and the spiritual implications for trying to live them out. The chapters titles, follow St. Benedict’s original steps, though Chittister has given the rule a twenty-first century facelift:

  1. Recognize that God is God
  2. Know that God’s will is best for you.
  3. Seek direction from wisdom figures.
  4. Endure the pains of development and do not give up.
  5. Acknowledge faults and strip away masks.
  6. Be content with less than the best.
  7. let go of a false sense of self.
  8. Preserve tradition and learn from community.
  9. Listen.
  10. Never ridicule anyone or anything.
  11. Speak kindly
  12. Be serene, stay calm (205-206).

Benedict wrote his rule in the 6th for monks living in community under an abbot. Chittister’s larger project has been about presenting the wisdom of Benedict to the wider world—oblates, roving Protestants like me, and beyond. Certainly she makes adjustments from the original document (e.g. ‘seek direction from wisdom figures’ was originally ‘we submit to the prioress or abbot in all obedience for the love of God’ and ‘never ridicule anyone or anything’ was originally states ‘we are not given to ready laughter, for it is written, ‘Only fools raise their voices in laughter). But Chittister’s editorial license preserves Benedict’s intent: a Godward, humble spirituality free from anxiety or pretension and released from false images of God and ourselves.

I enjoyed this book as a practical commentary on the Rule. I am not a Benedictine but I’ve learned a lot from that tradition (as has everyone in the Western Spiritual tradition).  Chittister’s prose does meander a bit as she traces out implications for each step. Occasionally I found her difficult to follow and indirect. But there is a lot here that is helpful and instructive. I give this book four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review

Today Was a Good Day: a book review

We all want to have a good day, but we also have our share of bad ones. Those days where we don’t get done what we set out to do, we feel like we are spinning our wheels. when we feel anxious and stressed out and don’t navigate our relationships well. We feel low energy and give up when we see no path forward. But what if there was a way to have a good day or at least make the most of the ones we have? in How to Have a Good Day, executive coach and management consultant Caroline Webb draws on the insights of behavioral science to give us seven-building blocks for a good day. These include priorities, productivity, relationships, thinking, influence, resilience, energy. These building blocks are the components of what people describe as a good day.

HaveaGoodDayIn her introduction, Webb probes the components that make up ‘a good day.’ This gives shape to the rest of her book (the seven building blocks described above). Webb draws on “rigorous scientific evidence from psychology, behavioral economics and neuroscience.” Her purpose is to “translate all that science into step-by-step techniques for imporving your day-to-day life (5). She does this by presenting research, giving practical advice and sharing stories. Her focus throughout the book is on the business world. So are her examples. However a broad application of these principles can be made to other aspects of life.

Each section of this book is one of the building blocks of a good day. Part one is about setting priorities and being intentional in work and life. Part two discusses productivity. This is the longest section of the book and Webb covers the importance of ‘single tasking,’ planning deliberate down time, overcoming overload and beating procrastination. Part three discusses how to manage relationships well. Part four probes how to be more creative, wise and intelligent at work. Part five explores how to influence and maximize impact on others. Part six describes what resilience looks like in the face of setbacks, hard times and annoyances. Part seven puts the pieces together, and describes how to approach live with energy and enthusiasm. A postscript includes three appendixes with suggestions for how to have a good meeting, how to be good at email and how to reinvigorate your routine.

The whole book is helpful. I especially liked the productivity section and the relationships  and influence sections. Chapter four, on single tasking explodes the myth of multi-tasking. Webb argues convincingly that though multi-tasking makes your day more interesting, actually reduces productivity (72). While some people (a tiny single digit percentage of people) are ‘supertaskers’ able to process multiple tasks at the same time, the vast majority of us work slower when our attention is divided among too many things. Webb points out the irony that “the people who are most confident of their ablity to multitask, are in fact the worst at it” (73).  So Webb offers practical suggestions for ‘batching tasks and zoning your days. In the relationship and influence sections, Webb offers a number of practical suggestions for handling difficult people and motivating others through positive communication.

This is one of those business self-help books. But don’t let that turn you off. Because Webb roots her practical suggestions in research, there is substance to her message. This isn’t fluffy. It also isn’t super technical (she explains her terms and a glossary also gives working definitions of psychological terms. Her seven domains are more comprehensive and inclusive than your ‘seven habits’type books. The twenty one chapters each offer several suggestions for habits, though some of these stack on top of each other (i.e. chapter five’s discussion of deliberate downtime and mindful practices is reinforced in the section on resilience).

I give this book four stars and think that this is a helpful for leader, managers, executives, or really anyone that wants more good days. Of course each section of the book can delve deeper than Webb in fact does (she includes suggestions for further reading). but I have no real complaints. This is a great book. Having finished it, my day is already better and there is a lot worth practicing here.

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review

Midlife Mission, Not Midlife Crisis: a book review

I have a confession to make. I’m forty. I aged out in June and I am forced to face the fact that I’m statistically closer to the grave than the cradle. In many ways I don’t feel forty yet. I feel like I’m still becoming who I was meant to be. I don’t feel like I’m established. There is so much I had hoped to accomplish at this point,  there is security which has eluded me, such as a fulfilling job and  life success.

4434Authors Peter Greer and Greg Lafferty both have successful ministry careers.  Greer is the president and CEO of Hope International, a global micro-finance organization. Lafferty is the senior pastor of Willowdale Chapel in Jennersville, Pennsylvania.  Greer watched Lafferty navigate his forties and decided to learn from him about how he could avoid a midlife crisis and be propelled towards meaningful mission (17). 40/40 Vision: Clarifying Your Mission in Midlife is Greer and Lafferty’s call for us to reevaluate our lives and press into the things which matter.

Lafferty and Greer share vulnerability about their experience of aging. They also engage a third dialogue partner: Qoheleth. The author of Ecclesiastes provides insights on refocusing our life midstream.  Greer and Lafferty (and Qoheleth) address midlife (ch. 1), the meaninglessness of life (ch. 2), disappointment with our life not going how we had planned (ch.3), the lose of  ‘thrill'(ch. 4), facing mortality (ch. 5), growing in generosity (ch. 6), breaking the addiction to go-go-go (ch. 7), aging well (ch. 8),  deepening our relationships in midlife (ch. 9), relinquishing control (ch. 10), finding meaning outside of ‘a job’ (ch. 11), and living a life with lasting purpose (ch. 12).

In their introduction, Greer and Lafferty write, ” Our hope is that this is not just another self-help book loosely based on Christian principles or a list of ways to ease the symptoms of midlife. Rather, we want to address the underlying questions of midlife through the timeless wisdom fo Ecclesiastes. Although many issues in their forties, others face them in their thirties or fifities” (17-18). Sharing vulnerably from their life experience, they delve into each theme, highlighting the wisdom and insights of Ecclesiaties and exploring what it means to live life on mission in life’s latter half.

This book speaks meaningfully to me in a way I wish it did not. I would rather be young, invincible, and immortal. But the experience of forty means I have to face up to life and press forward knowing that reckoning and resurrection await those who fear God  and keep his commandments (183-184).  Greer and Lafferty’s conversational tone draws you and causes you to reflect on what life could be like moving forward.

I recommend this book for those near forty, those who are forty or fortyish, and those who saw forty a long time ago and still pretend they are forty. Greer and Lafferty show how Ecclesiastes speaks to midlife. I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from IVP in exchange for my honest review.

 

I Like To Ride My Bicycle, I Like to Ride My Bike: a book review

When I was a kid, I rode my bike everywhere. When the clouds part here in the Pacific Northwest and we have a brief respite from the lingering dark, I ride still.  But my kids do not.  My oldest is seven and has a bike of her own and no training wheels, but she doesn’t know how to ride. The biggest reason she doesn’t is because she hasn’t logged enough learning hours. I have a job with unpredictable hours and I am often at work when the sun shows herself.  My wife is home, but with two other kids in tow teaching her is hard. She usually leaves me the responsibility of teaching the kids anything where they may die (bike riding, swmimming, mountain climbing, sky diving, etc.).

Mike Howerton, lead pastor of Overlake Christian Church in Redmond, Wa. His new book, The Ride of Your Life: What I Learned about God, Love, and Adventure by Teaching My Son to Ride a Bike, tells the story of how he taught his son to ride a bike in five days and the lessons applicable to life. The five lessons from each of the daily twenty minute sessions are as follows:

  1. Day one: No Fear because my dad has me.
  2. Day two: Balance (the secret to balance is to keep pedaling).
  3. Day three: Steering–you avoid obstacles by looking ahead and where you look is where you” go.
  4. Day four: Braking–learning how to stop and how to slow down.
  5. Day five: starting from a standstill (getting back up after a fall).

Howerton uses the framework of these lessons with his son to talk about life. On day one, he holds the back of his son’s seat as he rides. He got him. In similar fashion, God has us (except he doesn’t actually let go like Howerton does).  On day two, Howerton draws a correlation between the way our weight shifts as we pedal uphill, with the imbalances of our everyday life. He advocates balance in every area but love. We don’t balance love with unlove, but we do balance everything else (i.e. work/life, selfishness/self care, action/patience, etc.).  Day three has us paying attention to  where we want to end up ( our ultimate destination) and what is in our way.  Wtih Howerton’s son, we learn the importance of slowing down on day four and on day five Howerton shares vulnerably about picking himself after facing difficult  personal circumstances.

Howerton is a pastor and these refelctions are rooted in our life with God. He shares practical insights into  the spiritual life.  I enjoyed this book and find it helpful. Learning to ride is an apt metaphor for learning the disciplines which will enable us to thrive in life. Beyond Howerton’s pastoral goals, I find this book helpful for giving me a framework to teach my daughter how to ride. For that I give this book four stars.

Notice of material connection: Thank you to Baker Books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.