This year’s theme is “The Body.” Today we continue that theme with…..
Learning to Listen to The Body
Chris Hughes is a youth minister at Christ Church United Methodist in Louisville, KY. He is a graduate of the University of Kentucky and Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He loves Kentucky sports and enjoys cycling.
One of the great struggles in my youth ministry career has been my own physical health. I think a lot of it has to do with the nature of the office work that I quickly learned came along with the work of youth ministry. Long hours sitting at a desk, sitting in staff meetings, committee meetings, prayer meetings and more. When I first started out, I spent a lot of time sitting in an office, looking at a computer. When I’d meet with youth or parents or other church members, it usually involved meeting them somewhere for lunch and…well…sitting. After all that in a day’s work, it seemed pretty much impossible to overcome a day’s worth of mostly sitting with exercise when I’d go home but I sure tried when I could by running or cycling.
Pretty soon I developed some bad back pain. That’s when the vicious cycle really got a hold of me. I’d come home from work and lay down on the couch for hours because I was exhausted and in pain. And then after that, I was exhausted and in pain because I’d spent hours laying on the couch. Then I’d wake up and the cycle would start all over again.
I tried several things to help. I tried sitting less but I think there will always be a minimum amount of seated hours that come along with our work. I tried a chiropractor but they just took a lot of my money and gave not much relief in return (they work for some people, not for me). And then I tried to just ignore it. I resolved that in life after thirty, suffering back pain is just a given.
The pain got worse and worse. Pretty soon I was going through spells where it hurt to bend over and to move certain ways. The back pain was spreading up through my neck and down through my hips. I started experiencing some numbness in my fingers and toes. I could hardly sit in a chair upright for longer than a half hour. Still, I didn’t do anything more to fix it. I mostly walked around in pain and did my best to ignore it.
I don’t know what it was that clicked but about a year ago, I decided that wasn’t going to be my life anymore. My brother, a doctor who specializes in sports medicine, recommended I go see a doctor in his office and maybe try some physical therapy. In the lead up to the appointment, I anxiously went straight to worst-case scenarios in my head. I was convinced because of the numbness and the pain that I had a slipped disk or that my back was so contorted now that they would have to perform back surgery or strap me in a brace for several months.
To my surprise, the x-rays, the tests, everything came back fine from the doctor. Nothing was broken or slipped or out of place. He referred me to the physical therapist. After about ten minutes, she found the source for all the pain over all those years. “Here,” she said, “this little muscle right here (on the right side of the small of my back) is not as strong as the muscle on the other side of your back. Because one is stronger than the other, it’s causing some strain on all the other parts of your back.” “All we need to do,” she said, “is work on some exercise that will strengthen that little muscle and it will balance out.”
That little muscle. THAT…was all we needed to focus on. I didn’t believe her. But sure enough, after about four sessions, she was right. The pain went away. And not only did the pain go away but so much of my life seemed to get better after that. I was no longer tired all the time – I was actually getting good sleep now because I wasn’t in so much pain. Because I was no longer tired all the time, I had more energy for other things in life. I found myself walking more places and then eventually even going on runs again. Pretty soon I found myself with enough energy and resolve to join a gym. All because I took the time to help correct a little muscular imbalance in my back.
Spiritual lessons abound. The great spiritualist, Parker Palmer, said, “Before I can tell my life what I’m going to do with it, I must to listen to my life telling me who I am.” I think the same is true for our bodies. Before we can tell our bodies what we’re going to do with them, we must listen to them telling us who we are and what we need to do. If I had paused to listen to my body instead of telling it what to do, I might have discovered the source of the pain sooner. I might have been able to take care of it better and to avoid behaviors that were making it worse. So, too, with the people God has entrusted us to care for. Maybe we ought to do more listening and less telling.
Second lesson: We’d do well to pay more attention to parts of the body that are suffering, no matter how small. I can’t believe that such a small little muscle could be the source of so much pain. And yet, when I started to listen to what it was telling me and started doing the things that would help it heal, how much relief it brought to the suffering of the rest of my body! St. Paul said it best: “The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable…God has so arranged the body, giving greater honor to the inferior member” (1 Corinthians 12:22-24). What if we started caring for the parts of the body (or the Body of Christ) that are suffering the most? What healing might it bring to the rest of the body?
Finally, I know we’ve heard this all before but dear friends we have to take care of ourselves! For years, I’ve lived unknowingly as a Greek dualist – as though my mind and spirit were separate from my physical being. One of the greatest and hardest lessons that has come out of this is how interconnected my spirit is to my mind and my body. By taking care of my body I am also taking care of my spirit. With a better body and a better spirit, I am able to better care for those with whom God has called me to minister.