Monday, August 8, 2011

Caring for Our Souls

Over the years as I have had the privilege of visiting Cambodia, one of the challenges that full time workers encounter is the heaviness and oppressive environment that is part of living in Cambodia. Asian countries and I suppose African countries and probably places in the Middle East, seem to be more in tune or sensitive to the spirit world than we who live in North America. In the East, I attribute this much to the superstitions that are so imbedded in the culture and also the religion practises here. As one drives along the local city roads or as you head out to the more rural areas, it is quite common to see 'spirit houses' stationed outside businesses or homes. The purpose behind this is to ward of any evil spirits and to elicit protection from the 'good spirits.' While we in the west may easily laugh about this and take this lightly, people from the East do not.

One of the ways the heaviness manifest itself is in the form of harassment or irritations in our own spirits over time and discouragement and loss of joy slowly creeps in as the 'darkness' begins to overwhelm a person's spirit. This can come in the shape of negative feelings about every aspect of living here and also involvement in ministry.  Every thing becomes a source of irritation and relational conflict can easily set in. A downward spiral sets in when we were not aware that we have stopped focusing on the 'light' and instead one falls into a pit.  For those who are involved in helping victims of sex trafficking, I have observed that they often suffer from what we call secondary trauma stress. In simplest terms, it is the stress resulting from wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person.  Persons who work with or help traumatized persons are indirectly or secondarily at risk of developing the same symptoms as persons directly affected by the trauma. 

Secondary trauma for those who seek to care for others who have been traumatized, can easily lead to burnout, sickness, weariness of spirit and considerable fatigue if we do not care for our souls and give ourselves permission to rest. Here in Cambodia, people who work in this ministry often experience these symptoms and so in coming to Cambodia, God has impressed upon my heart the need to care for my soul, to ensure that I take time to rest and recalibrate my soul.  Ratanak as an organization is committed to facilitating this process and God has chosen to connect us with one of the best organizations 'International Health Management (IHM)' who  seeks to provide holistic care in order to ensure one's well being, effectiveness and endurance overseas. So why am I mentioning all of this at this juncture in the journey. After all I just got here.

This evening as I was reflecting back on my activities today, I had a sense that the Lord is teaching me to set my personal boundaries in 'soul care' in order to ensure that I stay emotionally healthy. One of the ways is to establish routines that will help keep me 'fresh like a well watered garden in this sun scorched land.' And so today, I joined the Phnom Penh Sports Club for a 3 month membership to check it out as there are many other places to work out.

This is one of two pools---its the kids pool for those who can't swim!

 The treadmills I hope to use!

One of the most interesting signs as you enter the club!

The cost is quite reasonable and one has access to a pool, gym, sauna, steam room, jacuzzi, aerobic classes and table tennis and of course a $4.00 one hour massage! I think I might be using this latter service a lot! :-) My friend Cathy joined me on a tour today as she is going to try it out on a trial basis and I was chuckling at the fact that it is highly unlikely that I would use the sauna or steam room. After all, I just have to walk outside of my apartment and I enter into a natural sauna and steam environment. However, I am looking forward to using the gym but I can tell my Asian thinking has set in as to when I might use the pool. Over here people are very concerned about getting too dark so you will see young women wearing long sleeve shorts and sweaters despite the sweltering heat. All of this to ensure that they stay as 'fair' as possible. So too I am thinking of swimming when the sun goes down! We'll see how this all works out.

But for now, it looks like my 3 other Canadian international worker friends may be part of this routine. We're thinking of meeting on Saturday mornings to exercise and then have a relaxing breakfast and connect with each other! All of this in the hopes of nurturing our spirits and nurturing community. We hope that through this process, we can live what Stephen Smith describes in his book Soul Custody'---living with a sustainable rhythm is a way of coping with stress and caring for our souls. God has created the world with a rhythm by which we work for 6 days followed by a day of rest. But it is also true that human beings need a rhythm of rest each day. We know that the body and soul cannot thrive when the soul is empty. Rhythm allows each person to engage, then disengage, be involved, then withdraw, work and contribute, then rest and recover. To recognize and live according to God's rhythm fosters and nourishes life. To ignore and deny this soulful imprint of ebb and flow says in the end 'I know best. I know what I need to do and want to do.' Everything gets twisted when rhythm is ignored. The soul gets kinks that cannot be easily untwisted through years and years of doing life our own way. What rhythm allows us to ask ourselves is this: What time is it for my soul right now? What does my soul need at this particular time? Living with this question and having the courage to ask it repeatedly of ourselves and those we love helps create a redeemed culture that chooses life over drivenness, recovery over burnout and serenity over perpetual anxiety.

So as you pray for us all who work with children and young women who have been traumatized, pray that for each of us, we will be able to consistently discern God's rhythm in our lives. That we would be granted daily wisdom to care for our souls whether it be through exercise, through meaningful conversations, through a time of solitude and reflection---whatever it is, may we be intentional in this spiritual disciple of soul care.

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