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Self care as holy restoration

NEXT Church gathering is exploring God’s intent for care and nurture

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Mor Shani via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Self care is “all the rage these days,” NEXT Church keynoter Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes said Tuesday during her second of three talks. It’s a “commodified topic,” but it’s not well understood. Walker-Barnes, Professor of Practical Theology and Pastoral Counseling at Columbia Theological Seminary, laid out six claims on the topic to help bring understanding to those attending NEXT Church’s National Gathering both in person at Montreat Conference Center and online.

Read a report about Walker-Barnes’ Monday talk, “Rest is resistance,” here.

Walker-Barnes’ six claims about self care are these: Self care is gratitude, stewardship, wellness oriented, holistic, reparative and holy.

On gratitude, Walker-Barnes talked about her child whose bedroom floor is typically “strewn with all manner of clothes,” sometimes even with an article she’s recently purchased for him. “I wonder if it’s like that for God, watching us neglect ourselves, the gift that God has given us,” she said. Psalm 139 “makes it clear we are not the result of a heavenly factory. God takes time to knit us together while we are yet in the womb. Each of us is uniquely and wonderfully handmade. We have the imperfections” that come from being handmade, she said. How we care for ourselves “is an act of gratitude, a response back to God for the gift, and each morning we are given the gift again” when God wakes us from our slumber. “It’s another chance to show our appreciation … We are all God’s good and perfect gift. Imagine what self care would be if each of us believed that,” especially those of us who were “taught our bodies are not image-bearers,” she said.

On stewardship, Walker-Barnes talked about one her least favorite biblical parables, the one about the talents. “It’s a weird story … It seems to run counter to almost everything else Jesus teaches,” she said. “But in terms of self care, it begins to make sense. Self care is fundamentally about stewardship.” We don’t steward ourselves to avoid God’s wrath, she said. “I think God is brokenhearted, not angry, when we mistreat ourselves. But our bodies were divinely designed to need care. When we fail to steward ourselves well, our body responds with its own wrath.”

Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes

Self care is indeed wellness oriented, she said, citing Peter’s healing at the Beautiful gate of the beggar crippled from birth. “Like that crippled man, we look for self care in all the wrong places,” including pedicures and weekend get-aways, Walker-Barnes said. “Capitalism has taken over self care. Treating ourselves can be part of self care, but it’s not the primary thing. Self care is about wellness … It enables us to participate in God’s mission in ways that are faithful, imaginative and sustainable.”

Self care is holistic. It consists of “practices we engage to develop and nurture holistic wellness as being made in God’s image and as agents of God’s mercy and peace in the world,” she said. Self care is both spiritual and corporate. It’s also relational, which is “tricky for clergy,” Walker-Barnes said. “We know lots of people,” but the relationships “are not necessarily based on mutuality and reciprocity. To some degree, that’s the job,” but “it’s vital to have relationships with people who can give as much as they get.”

Self care is reparative. Walker-Barnes said how trauma is carried is more pervasive than we initially believed. She urged those in attendance to take the online Adverse Childhood Experiences quiz to determine how trauma experienced while young can lead to a higher likelihood of health challenges later in life. Those health challenges “can also be impacted by the trauma of our ancestors,” she said. The trauma experienced by Holocaust survivors has effects on both their children and grandchildren, she said. “Our bodies keep score not just of our own trauma, but that of our ancestors,” she said, citing Jeremiah’s vision for a day we can no longer say, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”

Self care is holy restoration. Women especially tend to think of self care as “splurging on ourselves,” Walker-Barnes said. But self care is “biblically and theologically rooted in the gift of our divine Creation. Our self is God’s greatest gift to us. It is an act of faithful stewardship where we graciously and gratefully tend to the divine gift that is our own lives. Prioritizing wellness is a subversive act. It reclaims inherent dignity and worth given to us at Creation.”

“We are holy,” she said, “and self care is holy restoration.”

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