Months ago, the worship committee at Bethel Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba, thought about planning a four-week worship series on self-care. Then with the stress and restrictions of the pandemic, the series took on “a new urgency,” says committee chair Erwin Warkentin.
So for the month of June, the church focused on self-care with one Sunday each for heart, mind, strength, and soul. Four different preachers took part in the series, and I’m grateful that the church used my book on self-care as one resource: Four Gifts: Seeking Self-Care for Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength (Herald Press, 2018).
Bethel’s associate pastor, Kathy McCamis, offered the first sermon in the series, and since her sermon gives such a great overview of self-care, I just had to ask if I could share it here. I’m glad that she said yes! While sermons seldom include footnotes in the preaching moment, Kathy has added two footnotes to her text. For this sermon, she also drew on an earlier research essay on the Sabbath that she wrote as part of her Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Her sermon is a beautiful example of personal story, attention to Scripture, excellent research, and pastoral warmth.
Thank you, Kathy, for your ministry at Bethel, and your willingness to share this sermon beyond your congregation.
by Kathy McCamis
To be honest, self-care is not something that I am particularly good at. I don’t have a lot of resounding success stories about how I’ve incorporated healthy practices of self-care into my life. Frankly, I am far better at caring for others than I am at caring for myself. I have a strong Protestant work ethic, but only sporadic success at balancing that with adequate practices of rest, play, and delighting in the goodness of all that God has created.
The Hazards of Neglecting Self-Care
I can, however, speak with some authority on the hazards of neglecting self-care in favour of the endless supply of good works and important tasks that are available to us. A little less than two years before I arrived at Bethel, a particularly challenging season of ministry culminated with an assault between members of the community where I was pastoring at the time. It left me carrying a significant load of vicarious trauma, along with physical exhaustion, which combined were pushing me perilously close to burnout.
Fortunately for me, other leaders I worked with recognized the warning signs in me, and pushed me to take time away from my work to care for myself—and they cared enough to keep pushing me until I listened. My employer told me in no uncertain terms that my job that week was to work hard at not working.
A week of napping, taking long walks in the woods, slowly savouring my morning tea, praying, and taking the time to talk with friends did a great deal to restore my soul and to bring me back to a healthier place.
Self-Care as a Work-in-Progress
I continue to work at finding healthy practices that allow me to take care of myself: heart, soul, mind, and strength—practices that nurture my physical, mental, spiritual, and overall well-being. I still carry with me the memory of the perils of failing to give these things adequate attention.
Self-care is a work-in-progress, and sometimes I’m more successful than other times.
And for those of us whose faith is rooted in taking up our cross in order to follow Jesus—rooted in doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God—it can perhaps be extra tempting to become so focused on our doing that we neglect care for our being.
I first read April Yamasaki’s book, Four Gifts: Seeking Self-Care for Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength, about a year ago now, and found it to be practical and helpful in my own thinking about self-care. In our conversations as a pastoral team, together with the worship committee, we think that self-care is important enough to our lives as followers of Jesus to merit significant attention in our worship services throughout the month of June. This was planned well before we had any idea of the toll that COVID-19 would take on our collective lives this spring, but in light of where we are now, self-care seems to be at least as important as it ever was.
Our Contemporary Context
But as I started to delve more deeply into the subject of self-care, I also became very conscious that the whole concept of self-care is a fairly contemporary one. My research on the subject tells me that the term was coined as recently as the 1950s, then recommended in greater earnest in the 1960s as a response to post-traumatic stress disorder among first responders, and grew in popularity in the 1970s as black rights activists promoted it as a means of remaining resilient in the face of the repeated injuries of racism.
This week, as we stand with our brothers and sisters in proclaiming that Black Lives Matter, as we examine what it looks like for us to take anti-racism steps and move forward toward reconciliation and active peacemaking, as we commit to learning about the realities of racism and white privilege in our own country, we would do well to pay attention to and learn from the wisdom of self-care. Practicing self-care in healthy doses is essential to enable us as good allies and advocates for justice, to build resiliency, and to enable us to stand in the hard places when that’s what we’re called to do.
A Pastoral Concern
But as good and important as all of this is, I’m still wary of the possibility of taking a contemporary concept like self-care and painting it with a thin veneer of religious language in order to sanctify it somehow. So this morning I want to try to unpack something of a theological foundation to ground us for our discussions around the topic of self-care this month.
Before I do this, however, please permit me a pastoral word: If you find yourself struggling right now, in no way is our conversation about self-care an attempt to tell you that you have to find the way yourself. We are the body of Christ together, and self-care is not a replacement for the necessity of caring for one another: “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). So, consider this an invitation if it’s helpful: to reach out to one of the pastors, or to a counsellor, a health care provider, a spiritual director, or a trusted friend or family member if you need someone to share the burdens you’re bearing right now. Asking for the help of others when we need it is in fact one of the greatest acts of self-care.
A Theological Foundation
Now, as we begin to think theologically about the importance of self-care, I want to go way back. Way, way back. All the way back to Genesis 2:3: “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.”
We rest, because God rested.
This idea has been fundamental to the people of God going way, way back—long before our contemporary ideas about self-care ever came onto the scene. In fact, it is central enough to the community of God’s people that rest was one of the Ten Commandments issued at Mount Sinai:
Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it (Exodus 20:8-11).
Before I go any further, let me say this: if you have a viscerally negative response to the word Sabbath, you’re probably not alone. In the past, the practice of a Sabbath day in which work was prohibited could become legalistic and tiresome, and today it often seems out of touch and nearly impossible to implement for many of us who have been forced to adapt to the twenty-four/seven world in which we now live.
I confess that when I think of the practice of keeping Sabbath, I think back to Laura Ingalls in the Little House on the Prairie books that I read as a young girl, in which the Sabbath was a solemn affair with many rules and ample boredom for little girls to contend with. Not at all appealing.
But the Christian practice of keeping Sabbath is more than observing a set of strict and outdated rules enforcing rest on one day out of every week. And it goes deeper than our contemporary convictions about finding improved balance in life. Practicing Sabbath is meant to be more. It is a practice intended to root us in our identity as God’s own people, holy and dearly loved. It is a practice shaped by the stories of Creation, Exodus, and Resurrection.
For the people of Israel, keeping the Sabbath weekly set them distinctly apart from their neighbours. The Babylonian calendar knew nothing of regular days of rest, but rather held certain days upon which work stopped because the day itself was deemed evil. Ancient Israel in fact stood out for their practice of having a day that was set aside for worship, prayer, and leisure.
In the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath is the climax of Creation, a holy day during which we are commanded to rest, following the example of God who also rested on the seventh day. In keeping the Sabbath, we are being shaped in God’s image.
Deuteronomy 5:15 adds the following:
Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.
Here the practice of observing the Sabbath finds an additional rationale in Israel’s identity as a people freed from captivity in Egypt. Sabbath, then, is a gift from the God who granted this freedom, meant to ensure that nobody among them would be forced to work without ceasing again. Practicing Sabbath is a testimony against the slavery and bondage that they had left behind, and a way of enacting justice for themselves and all those with whom they dwell. It marks the people of God as clearly different from their Egyptian neighbours.
As Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it:
Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity placed in the soul. 
Among early Christians, the first day of the week became the norm for keeping the Sabbath, so that in addition to pointing us back to God’s rest at the completion of creation, and to our fundamental freedom from enslavement, it also points us forward to the rest and peace we will have in Christ when he comes again.
So, we rest because God rested—because that is core to who we are, and to the One in whose image we were made. We rest because we have been freed from the tyranny of being defined by our productivity or by our consumption. We rest because we trust the good news of resurrection—that the peace of God will ultimately prevail against all that stands against it.
A Gift and Invitation
Ultimately, the practice of Sabbath is a gift to us, not a set of rules to be burdened by. It’s intended to be an invitation to stop and delight in God’s good gifts, which are ours unconditionally.
When we lean into this idea of Sabbath, we say “enough” to the productivity and consumption that seek to define us, and learn to lean into the larger “enough” of God’s all-sufficiency. We are enough, just as we are.
For this reason, it seems to me, we can affirm that finding ways to stop from our productivity and to care for ourselves as God cares for us is one way to enter into the spirit of the Sabbath. It is a gift offered to God’s people. And if such rest was important enough to be one of the Ten Commandments given by God, surely it is worthy of our attention also.
At its best self-care, like the Sabbath, invites us to enter into a time of rest and re-creation, of enjoying the good gifts that God has placed all around us, and of remembering that we are not defined by our productivity, but by who we are and whose we are.
So, as we dive deep into conversation about self-care this month, let’s be guided in our conversation by the same principles that shaped the practice of Sabbath, for these are the deeper truths that I pray will shape us, will shape our faith community.
Self-care is not an end in itself; and it is not synonymous with self-indulgence or selfishness. It is not an invitation to take upon ourselves all of the burden of care and concern. Instead, it is an invitation to rest, knowing that we were created for both work and for rest; to pursue justice and to delight in God’s goodness; to work and to worship.
May our self-care lead us ever more deeply into the awareness of the God who cares for us. May it invite us to know the freedom from productivity that is God’s gift to God’s people, and to trust that there are times when we can lay our care-full-ness at God’s feet, and be held by the One who loves us more deeply than we can possibly imagine.
And may our self-care also be an act of resistance against a world that tries to seduce us into thinking that we are what we do, or that we are shaped by what we consume. May it instead remind us that our identity is shaped by something much deeper than these forces. May it serve as a witness to those around us that different, more life-giving ways of being in this world are in fact possible.
You are loved, more than you can possibly know. You are enough, just as you are. May that be, for you, for me, for all of us, a place where we can rest this week. Amen.
Kathy McCamis is an associate pastor at Bethel Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She finds deep joy in walking alongside people in all of the various seasons of the journey of faith, and hopes that the church can be a safe and inviting place for people to explore conversations about the things that truly matter.
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