Being sent out to pioneer is a “lambs in the midst of wolves” kind of endeavor (Luke 10:1-6). We must be called and gifted by the Spirit to do it, and we must always do it in community with others, but there are certain practices that can sustain us in this long, challenging, and slow work.
This is another installment of a series of posts on sustaining health as a pioneer. This article will address another important factor in pioneering frontline ministry—emotional health.
Before we can fruitful in our work for God, we must be faithful in our walk with God. Sustainability, healthy boundaries and intentional spiritual disciplines precede and undergird any conversation about keys to effective pioneering. I have been following the outline that Jesus offers in his Great Commandment to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, strength, and love each other.
We were created to love. The key to be a healthy integrated human is loving God with every dimension of our being and loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Today I offer a reflection on the heart.
What does the Bible mean by “Heart?”
The heart, scripturally speaking is not easily defined. I’ve reflected previously about the different dimensions of our humanity that Jesus describes, and how these distinct spheres weave together in a oneness.
When Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is, what is the most important thing to live the eternal life now, his response is not necessarily innovative or groundbreaking (Mk 12:28). He simply responds with the Shema, the statement uttered by faithful Jews for thousands of years. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Dt 6:4-5).
The plain meaning of these words would translate, all your heart, thinking, affections, לֵבָב (lebab), all your whole life/self נֶפֶשׁ (nephesh) all your strength/muchness מְאֹד (mehod). So quite literally, love God with all your body, breath, desires, thinking, actions, emotions, and muchness! No big deal, right?
For our purposes, we will simply understand the heart specifically as the seat of emotions and passions, which is closer to the Greek word Jesus uses καρδία (kardia), as the fountain of the desires, appetites, affections, purposes, and so on.
Jesus shows us a simple way to understand the heart dimension of our humanity, he says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matt 6:19-21 italics mine).
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. What do you treasure? The condition of your heart is predicated upon what you treasure. What do you set your affections and desires upon? What do you consistently think about? What’s the first thought you have when you wake up in the morning? Where does your sense of security, emotional well-being, and fulfillment come from? Those persons, places, things are what you treasure in your heart.
The most repeated commandment broken throughout the human story is idolatry. Idolatry is about not loving God with all our heart. It’s about setting our affections and wills on things other than God. It’s about treasuring things before God, putting other things on the thrones of our hearts beside God.The most repeated commandment broken throughout the human story is idolatry. Click To Tweet
In the Old Testament, this played out with golden calves, idols of foreign gods, statues, wealth, pleasure, and the sacrificing of children to false gods. The prophets are sent to turn the hearts of the people back to God and are mostly rejected.
In the New Testament, this manifested primarily through the idolatry of good things. The religious leaders that Jesus was often in conflict with, had turned the icons—things that once pointed to God, into idols—things that now pointed to themselves. They were worshiping the Torah, rather than the God who gave it, they were worshiping the temple, rather than the God who it pointed to, they were worshiping the religious system, rather than treasuring the people they were supposed to bless and heal.
After healing a suffering man, whom the religious leaders did not see as a person and had no compassion for, Jesus describes their condition as πώρωσις καρδία (pōrōsis kardia), “hardness of heart.” (Mark 3:5). The worst condition in the world is the paralysis of a frozen heart caught in the stone-cold state of idolatry. It happened to them, and it can happen to us.
Our idols may be different today. While we may not bow down to statues or throw our children into the fire to worship false gods, we do have our idols. Celebrity cults. Technology addiction. Sex, drugs, social media, food, success, money, and power can become our idols. Also, things that are icons, things that are beautiful, good, and true, can become our idols. Pioneers are particularly susceptible to these heart dangers.
Why Pioneers Should Guard Their Hearts
Particularly, pioneers can easily become lost in the idolatry of our work. We are wired to start new initiatives, take risks, brave new frontiers, create, remix, and design new systems, connect new people to Jesus, in new ways, in new places. We can easily make this work the center of our life, rather than Jesus. Our affections can be come centered on the sentness, rather than the sender.
What if pioneers could learn to go through every day like a treasure hunt? With our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith? What if we saw every interaction with every stranger as a moment to treasure? Every person as a treasure, a person of incalculable value and sacred worth, to offer authentic withness?
Here are eight keys you may consider to sustaining heart health as a pioneer as we journey on this treasure hunt together:
1. Allow yourself to love and be loved.
Every single person, desires to be treasured by someone. Many of our emotional deformities come from a lack of love in significant developmental periods. Children who lack parental nurturing incur wounds we carry for the rest of our lives.
The starting point of our faith is God’s unconditional love. We love because God first loved us. We are treasured by God, the apple of God’s eye. We are at the center of God’s heart. Even despite our mistakes and failures, God is crazy about us. God tattooed our names on his hands, he’s got our picture in his wallet.
In fact, God treasures us so much, she goes on a treasure hunt for us! (Lk 15:8-10). In the fullness of time, while we were yet sinners, God puts on flesh, moves into the neighborhood, and comes after us. God treasures you that much.
Our being God’s beloved, must shape our doing. If we get doing and being backwards, the results are devastating. We cannot earn God’s love by doing, maybe that’s what the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were up to. Doing our way into God’s love only leaves us with a hard heart.
I have observed an interesting phenomenon about many pioneers. It’s the way we do relationships. Because we are often focused on the “greater mission.” Driven to plant the seeds of the Gospel on new frontiers, or to convert others by offering them Christ. We can sometimes use people inappropriately. The dark side of pioneers gifting is manipulating people to accomplish goals. However, the missional goal is not conversion, or to bring about some preconceived result. It’s about withness. It’s about genuinely be present to people and loving them.
Love is messy, it requires vulnerability of the emotional life. When we open up and love, we allow another person to have power over us in a sense. Sometimes people can use that power in negative ways, we get hurt, and so we guard our hearts against further wounding. Many people can be married for decades and never truly love the person they are with, largely due to a mixture of fear and selfishness.
Again, Jesus identifies that the primary purpose of the heart, is to love God and neighbor. I think this is a countercultural command, we live in a love aversive world. I think there are certain aspects of love that come easy to our culture, but none of them are the kind of love that Jesus describes. The selfless giving of oneself to another person. The ultimate image of this is the cross.
We love people when it’s convenient for us, but rarely do we love people in this selfless way. Also, we tend to love people who are like us, but Jesus’ concept of neighbor is expansive and all encompassing. We can never truly live until we are able to love. Maybe a simple resolution would be to find someone in your life and love them in the way of Jesus. Be vulnerable, let it happen, love them with all you have!
Love takes time. Spend time with Jesus. Spend time with others. Not to love them into some goal, but just to love… period.Love takes time. Spend time with Jesus. Spend time with others. Not to love them into some goal, but just to love… period. Click To Tweet
2. Play, laugh, and dance!
One of the first images we see of God, is God at play. The Spirit sweeps across the nothingness, imagining, speaking, and playing creation into existence (Gen 1). In Genesis 2, the first image we see of God, is God at play. God gets down in the newly watered dust of creation and plays in the mud. God gets dirt in God’s fingernails, as God plays and makes mud pie humans and breathes into us the breath of life. God walks and plays with humanity in the garden before we do violence to that relationship by our willful disobedience. Try to laugh, play, and dance as much as possible. Find something that brings you laughter. Find people that make you laugh. Laughter cleanses the emotional life. Also, nothing breaks you out of an emotional funk like going to have some fun doing something you love to do. People who dance and play live longer. My consistent go to is entering the imaginarium of my children and playing with them. Make believe, adventure, and “returning to that of a little child” is a sure way to enter the kingdom of God. I have talked about this elsewhere as “finding our hundred-acre wood.” Dancing is not about effectiveness, it’s about finding music that makes us move and letting go. You don’t have to be a good dancer, just dance. Go in your room alone, pump some jams, and lose yourself to dance!
3. A healthy emotional life is an inside job.
Emotional wellbeing is predicated not so much on external variables, but on a deep wellness in the soul. Most people spend their lives pursuing particular feelings. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is the great US delusion. The key is to stop pursuing and experience what is already going on inside you.
When I was doing missionary work in Guatemala, I did life with people experiencing abject poverty and systematic oppression. Yet they were some of the happiest people I’ve ever met! I went there in the hopes of blessing them in some way, but I suspect they blessed me in far greater ways. Our emotional life is a sign of our deeper spiritual condition, not our external circumstances.
Paul the apostle states that “the fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.” Think of your emotional life as a tree planted in the heart. You can hang ornaments on a dead tree, but only a living tree can produce fruits. A healthy emotional life is rooted in and grows out of a healthy heart.
4. Deal with your emotional woundedness.
In the recovery fellowships we say “feelings aren’t facts.” This is true, the way we feel about something may or may not be an accurate portrayal of reality. Feelings aren’t facts, but they are real. In fact, they are so real, many people take their own lives to escape them. Feelings are like an alarm system to the condition of our hearts. They let us know when something is right, and they let us know when something is wrong. When we experience emotional pain, discomfort, and depression, we need to listen to our feelings. There is typically some untreated wound that we need to deal with. In the various expressions of churches I have served, I have worked with some very emotionally healthy people. However, at the same time, some of the most bitter, angry, depressed, and broken people I know, congregate in those ecclesial communities as well. Often, as a safe person who is there to care for their spiritual needs, they vomit their dysfunction all over me. I try to always remember that it’s not truly me that is the target of their hostility, but that something is broken deep inside of them that they have never dealt with.
We live in a culture that celebrates the intellect and the functions of the mind, but I think sometimes the mind is overrated. It is equally as important that we feel. Most of us are so deeply wounded emotionally that we never function in a healthy way. We carry all the damage of our past, and so we are limping emotionally at best. This is truly sad, because walking around with resentment, shame, and guilt, actually poison every other dimension of our being, causing cancer, mental illness, and physical sickness. Following Jesus can bring much emotional healing. The next three items are ways to more specifically deal with the core wounds of our soul that produce an unhealthy emotional life.
5. Find a best friend.
The kind of friendship I’m talking about is soul friendship—someone that you can just be you with. Somebody that you can tell what’s going on in your heart and not be afraid of being judged. Someone you can bear your deepest secrets with. Those secrets often keep us trapped in guilt and shame. This is a person who will be with you through thick and thin, no matter what. This friendship should be an exchange of mutual blessing. I meet with my best friend once a week on his back porch. It takes effort and intentionality to grow and protect the connection, but the time you spend will be well worth it in the long run. Our back-porch time has become a sanctuary of heart cleansing. The emotional benefits are tremendous. If you don’t have a best friend, ask God to help you find one. If you have one, explain what you are doing and try to get them on your schedule regularly.
6. Join a support group.
Any human being that denies some form of trauma is in denial. No one goes through this life without being wounded. Support groups can create a circle of trust, where we are safe to dump our junk, be completely real, and receive affirmation and support. This is why I love Celebrate Recovery and our emphasis on what we call hurts, habits, and hang-ups. There is yet to be a human being who did not have hurts (emotional harms), habits (negative behaviors), or hang-ups (negative mental attitudes). One of the slogans we say among many is “you’re only as sick as your secrets” and “hurt people hurt people.” There is great emotional healing that comes through support groups. And they are free! Any support group you can find will be helpful.
Networking with other pioneers and supporting each other in this way is also incredibly beneficial. Honestly, I don’t know how people get through life without support groups. What I can tell you, most pastors and pioneers who experience burn out don’t have one. If you are interested, you can join the New Antioch Pioneer Network Facebook group here (https://www.facebook.com/groups/143251999847789/).
7. Find a good counselor.
There is no shame in going to a professional for help. In my vocation as a pioneer, I have discovered that I must go to counseling just to process all the things that I deal with on a daily basis. I often get wounded just dealing with other people’s wounds! If you are in a people profession, you probably understand what I mean. We don’t always have to go to counselors because our life is imploding, they can be used in preventative ways as well. The counselor is like a Sherpa in the tedious journey of our emotional lives. Maybe a good starting point would be finding a counselor and setting up an appointment just to do a checkup!
As we advance the Gospel into new cultural ecosystems and join what Jesus is doing there, we are exposed to the “other spirits.” Demonic forces are real. Pioneers are in atmospheres where these forces are at work around us all the time. Those spirits are stirred up as we worship Jesus in tattoo parlors, yoga studios, bars, strip clubs, and so on. These tools help us allow others to examine our hearts with us. We are not the best judge of our own emotional conditions. Having a best friend, support groups, counselors, and other pioneers, allows us to watch over one another in love.
8. A sick body, mind, and soul, cannot sustain a healthy emotional life.
See my previous reflections on body, mind, and soul… these absolutely affect our emotional life. Getting enough sleep, eating healthy, and exercise, have a tremendous impact of your mental and emotional state of health. God was onto something with the Shema, loving God with all our life, feelings, thoughts, body, and muchness is an activity of our whole being. Our bodies can reflect what we idolize, food for example. Adversely, one can turn physical fitness and eating healthy into a form of idolatry. As I have suggested previously, daily exercise, sweating and stinking every day, releases endorphins in the brain, which are a natural form of mood elevation. After you fight through the first 30 days of establishing a new habit, exercise will start to feel good, and you will feel good after doing it. If you don’t like to sweat and stink, then glisten and release olfactory ambiance!
Let’s continue on this grand treasure hunt God has invited us into together shall we? Pioneer on my fellow travelers!
If you find this helpful, please share it with others.
Rev. Michael Beck is South Atlantic Coordinator Fresh Expressions US and North Central District Cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. Michael serves as senior pastor of Wildwood UMC where he directs addiction recovery programs, a jail ministry, a food pantry, and a network of fresh expressions that meet in places like tattoo parlors and burrito joints. He currently lives in Wildwood with his wife, Jill, and their blended family of 8 children.