Most of you know I have two small children. As a parent, I have found it’s important to set expectations, create good habits, and make common sense rules. Many of you have parented, or taught, or taken care of small children. Consider what rules you have set for them. Perhaps these include guidelines about sleep, eating, screen time, exercise, time outdoors, kind behavior, or how to save and use money.
We all have ideas about how to create a safe, healthy, and fulfilling life, and we try to cultivate that kind of life for people who are in our care. Unfortunately, I have found that having great parenting ideals is not enough to make everything go smoothly. When I’m actually with my children, somehow instead of focusing on the really important stuff, I find myself spending a lot of time saying things like: “we can’t eat until you put your clothes back on,” or “please just go to your room until you can stop crying.”
more alarming than the contrast between parenting ideals and parenting reality,
however, is the contrast between the rules I set for my children and the things
I decide to do for myself. After limiting their sugar and their screen time,
and sending them to bed at a reasonable time, I find myself up hours later, after
consuming significant amounts of cookie dough, binge-watching a TV show, and impulse-buying
things I definitely don’t need on the internet.
The prophet Isaiah speaks to this disconnect between what we truly need, and what we often choose instead. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good… listen, so that you may live.”
was speaking to a people Israel who were just at the end of their exile in
Babylon, or who had just returned from it. These are people both physically and
spiritually hungry, and the prophet speaks to both hungers. Pay attention to your deepest needs, the
prophet encourages: seek good physical and spiritual nutrition. Be good
stewards of your time, your resources, yourselves.
What the prophet Isaiah describes sounds a little bit like what we might today call self-care. When we are worn out by work, by life, we are told: take care of yourself; you deserve it! In our culture, self-care often consists of movie marathons, bottomless tubs of ice cream, and baths with an improbable amount of bubbles. Self-care is wine glasses large enough to serve soup in. Self-care is luxury items with which to delight our senses, decorate our persons, and astound our neighbors.
Self-care, according to today’s wisdom and advertising, is pleasure. Superficial, momentary pleasure. Pleasure isn’t necessarily bad. It can be delightful and harmless, especially in moderation. But choosing pleasure to excess, or choosing pleasure as our only form of self-care, is like choosing a bag of cheese puffs, or a pouch of sour-patch kids, when our bodies are longing for dark green leafy vegetables.
Last week, a clergy colleague of mine commented on social media that about 30% of her pastoral care consists of one thing: encouraging people to get some sleep. Which is to say, the deepest needs of our bodies and souls aren’t usually terribly complicated. It’s not so much that we don’t know what to do to take care of ourselves. We’re not that complex to care for. Many of us simply need more rest, more movement, more dark green leafy vegetables. And then, to round it out, we need a little safe space in which to feel our feelings, and a little affirmation that we’re loveable and loved.
Our needs aren’t so complicated. But these simple, deep needs: these kale salads for our soul are somehow hard to choose. It’s easier to reach for the cheese puffs, the sour-patch kids, and the soup-bowl size glass of wine. What is the harm? We’re adults, after all! No one is the boss of us. No one can scold us and make us go to bed early.
But what if, when our pleasures don’t truly satisfy us, we just keep masking our deepest hungers with more pleasures, until our bank accounts and our bodies and our spirits are depleted? What if we spend our whole lives going hungry, when a feast is within easy reach?
There’s also another reason to try something different. The prophet Isaiah proclaims: “See, I have made you witness to the peoples.” Whatever we do, other folks will notice: our children, our friends, our loved ones. As God’s people, we have a responsibility to live a full and deep and beautiful life, not only for our own deep satisfaction, but to show others that it can be done: to help other folks choose abundant life
So here is my question. If you really cared about someone – a child, an adult, anyone – if someone was precious to you, what are the suggestions that you would make, to help them live a happy, healthy, fulfilling life? What are the most important rules, habits, expectations, or reminders, would you offer them?
You have some wonderful wisdom, I know, about how to live well: deeply, generously, abundantly. So, please: consider taking your own advice. Write your suggestions down, post them on your bathroom mirror, keep them somewhere where you’ll see them often. Be your own loving parent, and send yourself to bed early, and well-nourished.
Please pray with me.
God, your thoughts are not our thoughts; your ways are not our ways. Your thoughts and ways are so far above ours. Again and again, we choose what does not satisfy us; what cannot help us live well, love God, or serve our neighbors, but only depletes us, and wastes our time and money. Help us to care for ourselves and what is ours in a better way; as well as we would advise others to do. Draw us towards healthy food for body and spirit, a liberating word for our hearts and our lives, for you are always offering us what is good. Thanks be to God. Amen.