“Shots fired and Michigan State’s campus is on lockdown.”
That horrifying text message came from my associate pastor at 8:38 p.m. Monday, Feb. 13. Our community spent the next three hours waiting — and praying — for the active shooter crisis to end. My kitchen table became a makeshift workspace and altar as I began responding to students on campus by text, sending out emails and praying for God’s mercy.
At 11:49 p.m., it finally ended. We learned, first from police scanners and then from the local media, that the shooter had taken his own life 3 miles from campus. Four people were dead —three students and the perpetrator — and five others injured.
But really, the end of the immediate crisis was only the start of the hurting and weeping, serving and ministering for our community.
Our congregation, St. Luke Lutheran Church, has two campuses. One is just east of Michigan State University, and the other is just west. MSU is at the center of our ministry, not just geographically, but also in our hearts.
Our congregation has many undergrad and graduate students, faculty, staff and alumni — including me. I spent four years at MSU as a graduate student in digital rhetoric while also serving my parish. I learned to love rhetoric and technology in its classrooms. My children and I spend summer days playing tag in the shadows of Beaumont Tower. My wife and I cherish our leisurely strolls through the flowers of Beal Botanical Garden. This place is an extension of our backyard.
One of the very first things that our ministry staff did — even as the police still searched for the killer — was to compile a list of all the MSU students, faculty and staff in our congregation. This enabled us to reach out personally by text and social media.
Though it was late in the evening, our leaders crafted a message that went out by email that night:
Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
“Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)
Sometimes there are no words, only tears. This is a moment where there are no words, but only tears. We weep for those who have died in the events at Michigan State University. We weep for those who were injured. We weep for those who were traumatized, distressed, and in harm’s way. We weep for the entire MSU community, their families, and all who are hurting this evening.
Jesus wept. However, Jesus did not only weep. In the midst of death and hurt and pain, Jesus brought life and peace, calm and healing. Jesus tells us …
- Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
- The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
- I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live …
- Peace, be still.
It concluded with an invitation to a prayer vigil the next morning.
Those first hours were chaotic, but we knew we needed to be strategic. Thinking in terms of concentric circles, we developed a ministry strategy that placed our closest existing relationships in the center (congregation members who study, teach or work at MSU).
The next ring included people we might encounter through the people in the inner ring. For example, a faculty member in our congregation knew an international student in need of help while the campus was closed for a few days.
Finally, the outermost ring was the MSU and Lansing community in general. These concentric circles helped us triage our time and efforts appropriately in the midst of harried days.
With our strategy for ministry in place, we first devoted our attention to caring for our closest existing relationships at MSU. We organized two events. The first was a lament prayer service the day after the shooting. One of our associate pastors put together a service that included Scripture readings and prayer litanies, as well as time for silent prayer.
A few days after the shooting, we invited all of our MSU students, faculty and staff to a time for engaging in conversation and processing what had happened. In order to keep it casual and welcoming, we included a communal meal.
We ate Jimmy John’s (they are college kids, after all) and hung out on couches. There was pain, frustration and sadness, but also a feeling of togetherness and a palpable hope that healing would one day come.
Two texts helped guide our ministry in the days following the shooting. More often than I’d like, I have used a stark word from the Gospel of John to minister to people in times of profound hurt: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). We also took a cue from the book of Job, where it talks about Job’s three friends who “sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13 NRSVUE).
We wanted to listen and weep. We steered away from commenting on what had happened; I’ve found that times of acute crisis call for listening and being present, not speculating and explaining. Instead, we leaned heavily on Scripture, prayer and simply gathering to hurt together.
Our prayers emphasized the healing hope that we have in Jesus, our wounded Savior.
The morning after the shooting, I received a call from the CEO of Lutheran Church Charities. They wanted to know whether we could host several of their Comfort Dog Ministry teams — trained dogs and their handlers experienced in caring for communities after tragedy. We agreed.
And a few hours later, six golden retrievers from around the country descended upon us. As a result of their extensive training, these creatures were incredibly serene and gentle — just what one would want in a time of crisis such as this.
In a situation like a mass shooting, a deluge of outside help can overwhelm a community. However, in this situation, we were able to expedite caring for our folks by connecting people in the community with outside resources.
I spoke with congregation members working at MSU to see whether they wanted a visit from the dogs — an offer that many gladly accepted. Additionally, we used congregational connections at the regional hospital to orchestrate visits there with the golden retrievers.
The dogs, accompanied by their handlers and some of our pastors, visited staff at the hospital, including in the laboratory where victims’ blood types had been processed with extreme speed and precision to prepare for blood transfusions.
It has now been a little over a month since the shooting at MSU. While we are still hurting and processing all that has happened, our congregation has started planning for the future. Sadly, as the recent school shooting in Nashville shows, it’s necessary.
Our staff is preparing scenario planning exercises to think through how we would minister to our community if something similar happened at one of our high schools. We have already begun working with our local school district to serve as a reunification site if the need arises.
Though we are thinking about the future, we are still hurting in the present. Ministering through this pain is something that is measured in months and years, not hours and days. We are lingering with our people, together, to hurt and to heal.
We preach about this in sermons. We pray about this in worship. And we continue to meet in small groups to process the pain.
As we grieve, however, we do not “grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Instead, we are hurting and healing with our eyes on Jesus.
I came to rest through exhaustion.
I went to the doctor thinking I had some serious medical condition, but all the tests came back negative. It turned out I was just totally exhausted.
Around this time, I was given a book called “The Rest of God,” by Mark Buchanan, which reintroduces the virtue of stillness. Reading the book started me on a journey of rediscovering rest.
I first learned that there are different sorts of rest: physical, emotional, mental, social and spiritual. We can all feel exhausted and may recognize our need for rest, but do we know the sort of rest that we need? How good are we at recognizing the areas in which we are drained, where we need to be refreshed, restored and re-energized?
Physical exhaustion is perhaps the area that we are most familiar with, and it may be that we have only ever thought about rest in terms of our physical needs.
However, for many today, work is primarily emotional and mental rather than physical, and we are just as likely to be emotionally or mentally exhausted as we are to be physically tired.
During a year of living with a pandemic, we have all been doing a lot of extra emotional, mental and spiritual work and are probably more drained in these areas than we would be normally, even if our jobs are physically taxing.
When we are physically drained, we know that we might need to eat or drink, sit down for a while, have an early night, or even take a nap. Do we have the same awareness about what we are supposed to do when we are emotionally, mentally, socially or spiritually drained? What can restore us in these areas?
When I was suffering from exhaustion, I thought I needed to stop and just do very little, to physically rest. But in fact, I found that even though I was doing very little, I didn’t feel any more rested at the end of the day.
Eventually, I discovered that my primary exhaustion was emotional, not physical. Physical rest wasn’t what I needed. Actually, in some ways, it made things worse, because “doing nothing” just gave me more time to focus on my anxiety and worry.
I gradually learned my personal ways of emotional rest. I discovered that being in nature buoyed me emotionally — in particular, spending time with trees.
There was something about their solidity, their rootedness, their age. They had been here before I was and would still be standing long after I was not. I was comforted thinking about how they went through seasons and weathered the effects of those seasons.
The different and bigger perspective on my circumstances brought me back down to earth and out of my own head. I found it peaceful and regenerative. In fact, I found that being in nature refilled me in other ways as well, giving me mental, social and spiritual rest.
Rest need not be inactive. For me, doing physical activity that requires focus can be emotionally restful. I garden, cook or create something. If I occupy my hands, I find that my mind wanders away from my concerns.
Active rest may sound counterintuitive, but resting can simply be stopping ordinary work. Doing something that might be work to someone else may be restful for you.
If you’re feeling exhausted, noticing the areas in which you are weary is a good place to start. Is your exhaustion physical? Or is it actually emotional, mental, social or spiritual? Or is your tiredness a result of a combination of these types of exhaustion? Discovering what sort of rest you need is key.
However, it is one thing to know what sort of rest you need and quite another to actually find that rest.
Today, perhaps more than ever, rest is contested. Eliza Cortés Bast illustrates this beautifully in her essay “Rest can be hard work.” There are many factors that can keep us from resting, even when we know what we need.
But Jesus has given us an invitation to come to rest (Matthew 11:28). Rest was even listed among the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8) — yet when was the last time we asked for forgiveness for not resting?
People in every walk of life are exhausted, but we have a God who gives permission to rest, who invites anyone who is weary to come to rest.
Rest need not be inactive.
When doing the research for her new book, “The Soul of the Helper,” Holly Oxhandler found that the lessons emerging from her study of mental health care providers would also apply to all caregivers, even those outside health care.
Looking at the degree to which mental health care providers were integrating their clients’ spirituality or religion into their mental health treatments, Oxhandler found a positive relationship with the quality of care — and a personal mission to help people acknowledge their own spirituality when caring for others.
“[Recognizing one’s own spirituality] is really applicable to everyday helpers, especially given the large percentage of folks who identify as being religious or religion being important in their lives,” Oxhandler said.
Across all sorts of care professions, having a healthy spiritual life oneself can correspond quite closely with being able to provide spiritual care to others, she argues in the book.
Oxhandler is an associate professor of social work at Baylor University and has a background in spiritually integrated mental health.
She spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about the book and the hope she has for caregivers to recognize and care for their own souls before caring for others. The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: Who are the readers you wrote the book for, and what did you hope they would learn?
Holly Oxhandler: The ideal readers that I had in mind with this book are the everyday helpers for whom faith is important, and perhaps they are wrestling with mental health struggles or they love someone who is wrestling with mental health struggles or they are bumping up against those edges of burnout.
They continue to go and do and help and serve in whatever ways they are uniquely equipped to care for others, but they’re realizing that in their efforts to serve, they just get exhausted. They are realizing that they need to find new ways to refill their own wells as they go out and serve others.
Especially after these last couple of years, the book is for parents, teachers, faith leaders, mental health care providers and general health care providers, but also the everyday helpers like the baristas and our engineers and our community organizers who are still serving others in their own unique ways. It’s those informal caregivers especially I was thinking of when I wrote this book.
F&L: How would you go about convincing people who don’t think they are caregivers that they are providing care?
HO: First of all, I think that each of us has the capacity to be a caregiver or to be a fellow helper in one way, shape or form.
As we go about our days, we are tending to and supporting and helping and loving those around us in a number of different ways, whether that’s through our volunteer service or in connection with our friends or family members or the people that we interact with at work. On a daily basis, we’re engaging in some form of helping or serving or just connecting with those individuals.
I really would hope that those who are serving in these myriad ways recognize that the ways that they interact and support and serve and help and care for others are profound and have a big impact on the lives of those around them, whether that’s a close loved one or a complete stranger.
As someone who identifies as Christian, I think about the idea of loving my neighbor as myself. That really does have a strong emphasis on recognizing that I am serving others in some capacity, even just as someone who identifies as a Christian or who is trying to embody and live out a life that follows what Jesus taught me. I mean, I would really push and try to encourage folks to recognize that we all have the capacity to be a helper in one way, shape or form.
F&L: Why do you think considering one’s own spirituality is so important in offering care?
HO: The heartbeat of this book is recognition that caregivers and helpers have got to wake up to the sacred, to that divine spark, that image of God within themselves as they go out and serve others.
We need to wake up to the fact that we are worth caring for and tending to — the gift of our precious and sacred life. And that this life is not promised, and that it is a gift to get to steward it.
We have to wake up to it within ourselves so that we can care for ourselves well, especially so that as we go out and serve others, we’re better positioned to discern and best meet the needs around us and to recognize and tend to the sacred, the image of God, that divine spark within our neighbors as we go out and serve.
In part, my fear is that if helpers are not taking that time to tend to their own inner landscape and all of those layers within them that make up who they are, there is a risk of them imposing the pain, the difficulty that many of us experience through our lives on those around them as they’re trying to help.
Father Thomas Keating writes about “programs for happiness” — that many of us will go through our lives aware or unaware that we are seeking power, control or affection. And my fear is that helpers are not paying attention to the sense of their own belovedness, that they are worth that love and care, and they will unintentionally go out and seek those programs for happiness as they serve others and unintentionally cause harm in that process.
F&L: What kinds of beliefs and practices do you think lead to burnout for caregivers?
HO: I want to emphasize that the contribution to burnout comes from individual but also systemic sources. Individuals may be wanting to seek the affirmation, the accolade, just the addictive dopamine bump that they get when they’re giving and serving and helping others, but also they may have been surrounded by systems that communicate that their worth is dependent upon what they do. If their value is dependent on their productivity, or the way that they help and serve, they just go without even realizing the ways that it could potentially be hurting themselves and others.
Then the other piece, especially around those systemic issues, is when we have organizations and systems set in place that don’t allow the helpers to truly heal and rest and recover from the occupational hazards of the work that they do in serving others.
Without having systems in place to support them, burnout is inevitable in some ways, because of the ways that health care providers, faith leaders, other caregivers are exposed to secondary trauma, vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and more. Without having systems in place to allow them to heal, I think, it just really increases their risk of burnout.
F&L: What are some things that need to be realigned to create more sustainable habits or more sustainable conditions for caregivers?
HO: What would be implemented would be unique based on the individual, the organization, the system, the region, the type of caregiving and things like that.
Some of the things that need to be put in place, though, are individuals starting to recognize their inherent worth and that they are worth a slower pace, and beginning to advocate for others to have access to this as well.
This is a big part of what social workers do, and I love that I get to be a social worker and the ways that we can advocate for more policies and systems to be in place for things like, for example, a paid maternity leave.
I do hope to see more helpers modeling the need to do this work — to slow down and to ask for help, to learn to ask for help with humility, and recognizing that the previous helpers were not able to do everything for everyone all of the time. So learning how to humbly ask for help and to receive — not just ask but receive — that help.
That’s not easy for helpers. I don’t think that’s easy for many of us, but when we have picked up that narrative that we are the helpers, we do all the service, it’s really hard to humbly allow others to care for and help us. So I think some of that modeling is important. And the advocacy piece, I think, is important.
Advocating for more mental health care would be something that I would just love to see more generally.
We know that about half of all lifetime cases of mental illness in the U.S. pop up by the time kids are 14, and about 75% by age 24. So we see this in younger individuals. And then again throughout life, over 80% of us meet criteria for a mental health struggle at some point.
Having space for mental health treatment to allow us to do some of this self-reflective work, I think, is really important too, alongside our spiritual practices and religious practices that help us connect to God, to whomever we believe in in terms of our higher power.
F&L: What is your Namaste Theory for helpers?
HO: I found that mental health care providers who were more deeply motivated to live out their belief (whatever it was that they believed in) and were more deeply connected with the divine within themselves tended to have more positive views and were more likely to actually integrate their clients’ religion or spirituality into treatment.
And it wasn’t just in my sample of social workers, psychologists, family therapists, counselors and nurses, but we saw this in other samples where the mental health care providers who had higher levels of religiosity — were more frequently engaged in their religious practices — tended to integrate the clients’ faith in more.
Namaste, which translates to mean “the sacred within me recognizes the sacred within you,” really brought order to what I was finding within my research.
As I talked with other helpers, it made sense to them too. When folks are more deeply grounded in what they believe in, they’re able to hold that space for those around them to explore and to ask questions and to wrestle with their faith in a nonjudgmental way.
Translating that to the everyday helper is really where the heartbeat within this book is. And recognizing that we as helpers — it’s really on us to pay attention to our inner landscape, including that divine spark, that image of God within ourselves, as we go out and serve others so that we can recognize it within others while recognizing that we are worth the love and care that we give to so many others.
Twenty-five years ago, the book “Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People,” compiled and edited by Dorothy C. Bass, initiated a conversation about Christian practices that continues today.
“Practicing Our Faith” inspired a score of other books that explored specific practices, addressed different age groups, and encouraged theological reflection on practices in seminaries.
Bass, a practical theologian and historian of Christianity, has spoken widely on practices, vocation and spirituality. Her most recent book is “Stepmother: Redeeming a Disdained Vocation,” published by Broadleaf Books in April 2022.
She and Craig Dykstra — a major contributor to “Practicing Our Faith” — also led conversations and events about faith practices.
“The book ‘Practicing Our Faith’ and the [companion] website are intended as resources for communities’ conversations about the practices that shape their way of life, both when they are gathered and when they are sent out into the world to love and serve God and their neighbors,” Bass said.
A revised second edition of “Practicing Our Faith” was released in 2019, and a new iteration of the website, produced by Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, recently launched.
The site invites congregational leaders into reflection and conversation about Christian practices, drawing on books sponsored by the Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith, of which Bass was the longtime director.
Bass spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks about this work and its continuing usefulness. The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: Let’s go back to the beginning. How did this project get started?
Dorothy C. Bass: Thanks for asking. It was during the early 1990s, in the midst of what appeared to be, ironically, both an increase in spiritual hunger in the wider culture and a growing sense of decline within mainline Protestantism.
Craig Dykstra, a scholar of Christian education who had just become vice president for religion at Lilly Endowment, had an idea for renewing Christian education and formation that departed from long-standing emphases on individual learning and classroom-style instruction.
He was convinced that the richness and diversity of the long, broad Christian tradition contained resources (including a capacity for self-criticism) that might be retrieved, articulated in fresh ways and shared, empowering contemporary Christians to grow in faith in rapidly changing times, for their own well-being and the well-being of the world.
Craig invited me — a church historian — to work with him in developing an approach that emphasized faith formation through learning, critical reflection and participation in what we called Christian practices.
F&L: What do you mean by Christian practices?
DB: Attention to practice, practices and praxis was already in the air at the time we began, as liberation, feminist and other theologians led the way in addressing the embodied, real-world implications of Christian faith. We listened to these voices throughout.
Our approach was also influenced by renewed philosophical attention to social practices and how they shape communities of meaning and purpose (most notably, for us, in the work of Alasdair MacIntyre).
I’m oversimplifying, but the important points we took were that practices are communal and embodied; they extend over long periods of time, adapt to changing contexts, and carry within them the meanings and questions of the traditioned communities to which they belong.
Practices, in this sense, are shared activities that resist individualistic and primarily intellectual notions of Christian life and faith.
Craig and I invited a dozen other educators and theologians to join us in developing this concept and how it might guide contemporary Christians in educating and forming persons and communities in our rapidly changing world.
Together, this group discerned a set of practices that Christians have embraced across history and cultures as they seek to live, as we put it in the book, “in response to and in the light of God’s active presence for the life of the world in Christ Jesus.”
We chose practices like forgiveness, hospitality, Sabbath keeping, household economics and testimony. Such shared activities are not only things we do in worship or while “at church,” though they are definitely present there.
They also address fundamental human needs and aim at the well-being of all. Such practices can take different specific forms in different cultures, but family resemblances (often arising from biblical sources) are evident.
We eventually realized that what we were really doing was describing an entire way of life by considering it one practice at a time. Interestingly, practices like these get woven together by necessity; you start doing one, and you stumble into the others.
Lacking all Sabbath, for example, hospitality will wither, and without forgiveness, none of the practices can continue for long. As we worked with these ideas over the years, we came to understand this way of life as a way of life abundant — practiced (that is, rehearsed) while we are together as church and in worship, but also practiced (that is, lived out) wherever we go in God’s great creation.
F&L: Your project was very collaborative; “Practicing Our Faith” was the joint effort of 13 authors. Why was that, and what difference did it make?
DB: Let’s start by noticing that practices themselves are intrinsically collaborative. Communities perform and pass on each of these practices, and communities are also called to figure out what shape each practice can best take within their own distinctive contexts.
In a sense, that’s what our group of writers did. I love a blurb that Parker Palmer wrote for the book’s first edition: “Practicing Our Faith is a book written by a remarkable community of people — remarkable … because its members prayed and talked and worked together to create this volume, modeling the way the church is meant to do its work.”
Christian practices can become channels of God’s active presence for us and for the life of the world. But like every human venture, they can also get broken, stuck or deformed. Most of the time, I believe, both aspects are in play in how we actually live. We rely throughout on the grace of God.
Healthy communities of practice need to reflect critically on their practices, while also seeking out the wisdom about practices that is available in Scripture and in the practices of previous generations and diverse communities around the world today.
To support this purpose, many study guides are available on the website, and the second edition (2010 and 2019) of “Practicing Our Faith” contains ideas for using this material in a congregation or in a college or seminary class.
F&L: As the website demonstrates, this way of thinking about a way of life grew far beyond the initial book. How did reflection on Christian practices grow over time?
DB: People who go to the website will find many resources that expand on the insights in the initial book. I’ll briefly outline what’s there and how they are interconnected.
After “Practicing Our Faith” was published, we consulted with church and seminary leaders about what needs and questions deserved further attention, and we kept consulting at each stage beyond that as well.
I’ll share some high points of what came from that ongoing process.
There was eagerness to dig more deeply into some of the specific practices. This led to books by Don and Emily Saliers (“A Song to Sing, A Life to Live”), Stephanie Paulsell (“Honoring the Body”), and others.
We also sensed an important opportunity to encourage reflection on practices across generations. And so Don Richter and I gathered a group of adults and youth to write “Way to Live: Christian Practices for Teens,” which has been widely used and is supported by an excellent study guide.
Susan Briehl and I then gathered a group to address the questions and yearnings of emerging adults (college age or in their 20s), which led to the book and study guide “On Our Way: Christian Practices for Living a Whole Life.”
In addition, Bonnie Miller-McLemore wrote a wonderful book about how practices play out in family life with children: “In the Midst of Chaos: Caring for Children as Spiritual Practice.”
It was also important to develop more fully the theological foundations of this work. While practices are, first of all, embodied activities, they are always also full of meaning and thought.
What we believe shapes how we live — and how we live shapes how we believe. So Craig Dykstra and I gathered a group of eminent theologians to work on this interplay, with key leadership coming from Miroslav Volf. The result was “Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life.”
Some of these theologians continued into another seminar, which also included pastors, to consider the implications of this approach; the result was “For Life Abundant: Practical Theology, Theological Education and Christian Ministry.”
Finally, a few members of that group continued to explore these concerns by identifying the kind of knowledge that undergirds excellent practice in “Christian Practical Wisdom: What It Is, Why It Matters.”
When I think about the impact of our work on Christian practices, these books provide the most concrete examples. But many communities have also explored practices in their own contexts, so it’s impossible for me to know what the full impact has been and may continue to be. Some of what these communities did is included on the website.
F&L: What are you thinking about now?
DB: The climate emergency is my foremost concern. Awareness of this crisis has grown for me and for many others in recent years; it’s something I now think we didn’t give enough attention.
In “Practicing Our Faith,” we wrapped this concern within a more encompassing practice we called “household economics” — referring to households of many kinds, from our homes to our planet. In “Way to Live” and “On Our Way,” the practice of caring for creation got a fuller treatment.
Now, the urgency of the crisis and the efforts to address it grow daily. Practices thinking can be helpful, I’m finding, in that it requires practitioners to make connections between what’s happening in their personal, congregational, regional, national and planetary households.
Also, this approach integrates attention to shared, embodied action with rigorous reflection on how Christians have thought about and embodied (or failed to embody) the practice.
I am inspired by the energy of today’s climate advocates, and also by the theologians, novelists and others who are deepening my awareness of why and how we must develop our practice in this area.
I also brought practices thinking to my latest book, “Stepmother: Redeeming a Disdained Vocation,” where my own story is interwoven with lots of research on this challenging but crucial role. As I learned to walk a path of reconciliation and love, opportunities to practice (rehearse) reconciliation within Christian worship and community formed me over time to practice (live out) a more reconciling approach to stepfamily life.
I want to end with a word of thanks to all those who have contributed over the years to this way of thinking about a way of life, especially Craig Dykstra, Don Richter and Susan Briehl.
This work, like practices themselves, is collaborative. I urge anyone reading this interview to find collaborators and conversation partners as you consider how the resources available at the website might deepen your community’s way of life abundant in your distinctive context.