The last word in Resilience

Tony Horsfall and Debbie Hawker have combined their unique talents to produce a new resource – Resilience in Life and Faith.  As one would expect from two authors with excellent track records, it does not disappoint.

Defining resilience not as merely ‘bouncing back’ (as I so often have done!) but helpfully quoting a variety of authors to demonstrate that although the status quo in our lives may not be restored after a trauma, what we learned in the process changes us for the better, they have come up with their own model for understanding the different facets of life which impact upon our ability.  They call it ‘SPECS’ and I will not explain that here so that I don’t have a negative impact on their book sales!  Suffice to say it considers all aspects of our human being to ensure we have a complete awareness of how to balance our lives well.

The chapters explore each of these facets in turn, first the psychology (Debbie) and then a character study from the Bible (Tony).  This useful pairing means that the theory, presented simply enough for the amateur to understand but deeply enough to be helpful and authoritative, is balanced with lived-out practice, which is thoughtfully and interestingly brought to us.  Each chapter closes with helpful questions for reflection, which gives the book the feel more of a devotional rather than a textbook, usefully bringing together two genres.  At the end is a quick but effective self-assessment to highlight the reader’s current life practice and how it affects each facet of their resilience.

Reading this book I felt better informed about resilience, and inspired to maintain it.  I commend this resource to practitioners of pastoral care for whom it is an invaluable addition to the bookshelf, and to all Christians who will find information to help them thrive in their daily lives.

You can buy Resilience in Life and Faith direct from the publisher – just click here.

Resources on resilience

008In this series on resilience, we have made the point that resilience is essential for our survival as mission workers.  We need to develop it before we go, sustain it when the going gets tough, and restore it when things get easier.  Today we’re going to look at some resources to help with this, several of which we have already referred to in other blogs because they’re so good, but it does no harm to bring them together in one place.

Books

The best single resource we have come across on this subject is a small booklet called Spirituality for the long-haul, by Tony Horsfall.  It is a simple, practical and accessible way of making sure you have everything you need in place, and you can buy it online from Kitab for just £3.  Tony is also the author of Working from a Place of Rest, which helps us combat overwork.  Gene Edwards’ A Tale of Three Kings and Marjory Foyle’s Honourably Wounded are both classics in helping people wounded by their own leaders and colleagues. And Laura Mae Gardner’s Healthy, Resilient & Effective is a great handbook for leaders of agencies and churches in helping develop resilience in their mission partners.

Online resources

There is now a vast number of websites dedicated to supporting mission workers, and out of them all you might like to look first at Member Care Media with its vast array of podcasts on a variety of topics.    The Headington Institute has a variety of fascinating articles about self-awareness, stress and resilience.

Retreat

We frequently talk about the importance of retreat to restore our inner peace and create a space to reconnect with God.  While there are many places across the world providing retreat for mission workers (see our retreats page) we particularly recommend Penhurst Retreat Centre in East Sussex for its cosy, informal atmosphere, effective debriefing and focus on mission workers.  Those of you in extreme stages of burnout or trauma may find a visit to Le Rucher helpful, and of course there are similar resources in other continents.

Deep Calls To Deep

9781841017310-l“Much of our spirituality is geared toward relieving our pain and finding ways to ensure happiness, success and well-being… Those who face struggles in their walk with God are accused of unbelief or dismissed as lacking in faith or strength of character…”  So writes our favourite author Tony Horsfall in his latest book, Deep Calls To Deep.

So when we are suffering, where in the Bible can we turn to for encouragement?  To Job, who rails against his situation and receives a revelation of God which silences him but brings no understanding of what actually happened?  To Paul, who seems to brush suffering off as “momentary, light afflication” (2 Corinthians 4:17)?  Or to James, who tells us to be glad because it’s worth it in the long run for our character development (James 1:2-4)?

Tony suggests we should turn to the Psalms to find authors who really understand what we’re going through.  He reminds us that many of them were conceived in pain, whether in David’s fugitive years or the subsequent exile in Babylon.  In Deep Calls To Deep, Tony effectively uses Walter Brueggemann’s observation that the Psalms contain psalms of orientation (when all is right with the world), disorientation (when everything has gone wrong), and re-orientation as the psalmist reconciles the difference between the world he experiences around him and the worldview which he holds.  Tony selects some psalms which show evidence of these characteristics to unpack and expound, looking for the encouragement even in the dark places that God deliberately takes us into for the sake of our own spiritual formation.

Tony taps into the honesty and emotion we find in the psalms in a way that helps us to engage with the writers and realise that they shared the feelings that we struggle with, yet held onto God in the midst of pain and confusion.  Tony comments:

We can never squeeze human suffering into a box where we can understand it, analyse it or fathom it. And recognising that God uses the difficulties of life to shape and mould us is not meant to trivialise suffering or offer a simplistic solution to the pain we face. What the Psalms teach us is to trust in God even when we don’t understand, when there seems to be no reason for our pain, and indeed our suffering seems disproportionate. They teach us to be content with mystery and not-knowing. This is part of the work of formation that God is doing in us in the darkest of nights, and the only way that faith can come to maturity is through the path of suffering.

Tony HorsfallIn a unique innovation, Tony accompanies every chapter with a letter from someone who has been through their own darkness and soul-searching, among them the pastor suffering from depression, a young couple with a severely ill baby, and a couple who have both suffered from long-term illness for 20 years.  These are not necessarily fairy tales in which they all lived happily ever after, but show how ordinary people grapple with suffering and come out the other side.

Deep Calls To Deep is short, well-written and easy to understand.  We thoroughly recommend it to anyone struggling to come to terms with the suffering they have undergone or witnessed.

Deep Calls To Deep can be bought direct from the publishers BRF Online.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Source: sxc.hu

Source: www.sxc.hu

Sadly, Syzygy has encountered several cases of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)* among mission workers recently.  For those who have not discovered it yet, this is a post-viral illness which leaves the victim feeling incredibly weary, both emotionally and physically.  Sufferers may be confined to a wheelchair, unable to do even basic tasks, and find it hard to motivate themselves to deal with even the simplest tasks, even though their outward appearance is unaffected.  This has led to unhelpful suggestions that victims should ‘pull themselves together’ or ‘stop malingering’, because it is hard for those who don’t have CFS to understand how debilitating it is. One former sufferer explained it by saying:

 “Imagine you have the toughest week at work.  Colleagues have been off work and you’ve had to take on their responsibilities.  There’s been a crisis and your boss is furious that you let it happen.  You’ve worked late every night this week to keep pace so your partner is annoyed when you get home late.  Your kids have been ill and are up at night so you’re not sleeping.  There’s a heatwave and everyone’s losing their tempers, and the gridlock is worse than ever.  How do you feel on Friday night?  That’s how I feel on Monday morning.”

Souce: (www.sxc.hu)

Souce: www.sxc.hu

Although it has been known for some 30 years, this illness still is little understood, and there is no generally-accepted medical cure for it, although some alternative therapies claim success, and the use of anti-depressants can help mitigate the symptoms.  Syzygy knows people who have been miraculously healed and others who have recovered with the help of neuro-linguistic programming, but for most people the illness can persist for many years, and they simply learn to live with it.

So why might it affect mission workers?  There is some evidence that CFS affects people who are highly stressed, with the  suggestion that people who get it may be overworked or have been through a recent emotional trauma.  This may indicate that as an illness it is potentially more widespread, but people who have been suffering from stress are for some reason less able to fight it off than others.  Syzygy’s experience is that many mission workers lead extremely stressful lives, with long working hours, emotionally-challenging situations (frequently at the hands of their colleagues), significant responsibility and heavy burdens.  In addition to this, many of us pay insufficient attention to keeping ourselves spiritually, emotionally and physically fit and to healthily managing our stress-responses.  We are susceptible to fatigue and burnout.  Which means we are prime candidates for CFS.

Some of the people we know who have CFS have helped us compile a short checklist which may help those who are struggling with this difficult illness.

What to do if you have CFS

  • Don’t feel guilty.  You’re ill, so take sick leave for as long as it takes.  The needs of your organisation, church or ministry are not your problem.  Your health is.
  • Make sure you get complete medical support.  Sometimes something as simple as a vitamin injection can help, though it’s not a cure.
  • Listen to your body and get to know the signs of impending exhaustion.  Don’t wait to stop till it’s too late.
  • Don’t fight it.  Recognise that you’re ill and there are certain things you can no longer do even if the devil tells you you’re lazy.  Having said that, it’s good to have little targets, like getting out of the house every day, just to make some small victories.
  • Don’t be afraid to get prayer.  Sometimes the disappointment of not being healed holds people back from getting prayer, but who knows if this is God’s time for your healing?
  • Learn to take regular breaks between activities.
  • Conserve your energy for things that are really important.  Don’t waste it doing things you don’t need to, or seeing people you don’t really like.
  • You may find a support group helpful, but take care it encourages you rather than dragging you down.
  • As you start recovering, take the opportunity to reflect on your work/life balance, your motivations and attitudes as decide what changes you can make so that you live more sustainably.

How you can support people who have CFS

  • Recognise that CFS is a real illness.  The people who have it are not lazy and would love more than anything else to get better.  Read up on it so that you are well-informed.
  • Understand that it can take all the energy they have just to get to the bathroom.  They’re often not able to pray or read the Bible, and many can’t even think clearly.  So they’re not ‘enjoying a rest’.
  • CFS sufferers can find it hard to process information, as thinking takes energy.  They can’t handle complex conversations, challenging plotlines or demanding literature, so don’t bombard them with books and DVDs.  The exception to this rule is Tony Horsfall’s excellent Working from a Place of Rest which is easy to read and profoundly helpful.
  • Appreciate that anything which takes emotional energy is exhausting.  Even conversing with friends can be demanding, so please limit your contact, and be understanding if they ask you to leave.
  • People with CFS can get very frustrated with their limitations, so be tolerant if they are irritable.
  • If you’re married to someone with CFS, recognise that they may have no energy to invest in the relationship, either emotionally or physically.  Sorry, but this is not the time for you to be making demands on them.  That will only make them worse.
  • When they get better, people who’ve had CFS will be incredibly appreciative of those who’ve supported them.  It may make them a better person.
(Source: www.sxc.hu)

Source: www.sxc.hu

In our experience, CFS can be a transformative life experience, and people come out the other side with a new understanding of themselves, God, and their approach to life.  Many say that it was ultimately worthwhile going through it all, and talk about it not as lost years, but as invested years.  This may be little encouragement to those still suffering, but we pray that this will eventually be your response too.

You can learn more about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome from the NHS website or the ME Association.  If you are suffering from CFS, do please contact us for more specific advice on info@syzygy.org.uk.  A followup blog will address issues of maintaining our general wellbeing so that we minimise the risk of getting CFS.

* CFS is also known as Myalgic Encephalopathy (ME) or Post-Viral Fatigue Syndrome (PVFS)

Working from a place of rest

Working fromI once heard a story about a colonial expedition into the African interior.  On the first day, they made excellent progress through the forest.  By the end of the second day, they had travelled much further than they had expected.  But when the third day dawned, the African porters steadfastly refused to move.  No amount of cajoling or beating from the European leaders could change their minds.  “We have travelled a long way from home,” they explained.  “And we are waiting for our souls to catch up with our bodies.”

Whether this story is true or not, it deserves to be.  It is true that our souls cannot travel as fast as our bodies do, and we ignore this truth at our peril.  One of the reasons so many mission workers suffer from fatigue, burnout and breakdown is that we don’t plan in regular times to stop and wait for our souls to catch up.  Tony Horsfall, himself a veteran mission worker who is now a celebrated author and speaker, learned this the hard way, as have many of us who have suffered burnout in one way or another.

Tony uses his own experience to encourage us to slow down and wait for our souls to catch up.  Using the story of Jesus sitting alone by a Samaritan well, he points out the importance of regular rest in our lives, as exemplified by our Lord, whose frequent breaks from ministry for rest and prayer enabled him to cope with extraordinary demands on him.  Tony invites us to

Come and sit by the well for a while. Take some time out to reflect on how you are living and working. Watch Jesus and see how he does it. Listen to what the Spirit may be saying to you deep within, at the centre of your being; and maybe, just maybe, God will give you some insights that will change your life and sustain your ministry over the long haul.

TonyWorking from a place of rest is well-written and easy to read, with short chapters that don’t weigh you down.  But the content is not light, as Tony covers such issues as The Discipline of Stopping, Remember the Sabbath and Drinking from the Well.  This book can help us discern what God wants us to say “yes” to, and when to say “no”; it can help us learn to build margin into our lives so that we work from a place of rest.

I wish I had been familiar with the concepts in this book before my health broke down and took me out of my overseas ministry early.  This book is a must-read for all mission workers who think they are too busy to stop and rest, and particularly for those who don’t think they need to.

Working from a place of rest is available online from its publisher BRF for just £6.99, as well as Christian bookshops and online retailers.