Session 1b: Soul Care for the Land in Between by Andy Bossardet

I thank you so much. Hi, I’m Andy Bossardet, and there’s a lot of familiar faces here, but I’m also the man of mystery, it turns out, as I’m not as well-known.

So here’s a few things about me, as we get rocking and rolling. A few things you should know about me. I’m the husband to Heather and the father to Micah and Addison. I am a pastor at First Reformed Church in Byron Center, where I started at probably the easiest time to ever start in ministry: November of 2020. My first day was the day we decided to suspend in-person worship for six weeks, as part of the second spike. That was great.

You thought it was.

Yeah. Oh, fortunately, the decision was already made. It was basically just me sitting there, going, “Okay, that’s what we’re doing. Let’s rock.” And so I am that. I am also a doctoral student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, pursuing a MDiv in Christian Spirituality. And my thesis is on trauma-informed spirituality.

And so those are some things about me. Pittsburgh Seminary is where Mr. Rogers went to seminary, for those of you who don’t know. The whole thing about him being a Green Beret is totally a legend, but the thing about him being ordained? Totally true. He went to Pittsburgh Seminary. In fact, when he would tell kids, “I love you just the way you are,” that was a summary from his New Testament class, of what the Gospel was. It’s that God loves us exactly as we are. So in case you ever see a Mr. Rogers thing, be like, “That dude’s a pastor, and he pastored more people than any of us will, combined, probably.”

Last thing you should probably know about me is that part of the reason I went into the program I did is I live … I’ve known I’ve lived, but I live with a fairly high generalized anxiety disorder and depression, as well. And so that’s just part of the journey that got me to this point, and part of what got me into thinking about, “What does it mean for spirituality to be informed by trauma?” Especially in the land between …

I’m heavily indebted to visual anthropologist Marlin Hall. Visual anthropologist just means the filmmaker, but he tells human stories. And he talks about the land between as the ecotone. If you have ever been kayaking  (I used to kayak a lot. I served for six years in Glen Arbor, Michigan, the most beautiful place in the country, apparently, and I would kayak often.) And an ecotone, it’s a space between two distinct ecosystems. And so the way you typically see this is marshy land in a pond or a lake. And what’s interesting is you have the flat ground on one side, the dry ground, and you have the water on the other side. And then you’ve got the ecotone in the middle.

And you know how to navigate water. Kayaks are useful. Stand-up paddle boards: useful. You know how to navigate dry ground. Boots, shoes: helpful. Kayaks: less helpful. But the ecotone, the space in between, is not as familiar. It’s not as easy. It’s where you step down with your shoes, and you sink down a couple feet. You try to move your kayak, but your kayak gets stuck in all the reeds. There’s nothing, really, to prepare you, on the dry ground or on the water, for walking around the ecotone. All you can do is take one step at a time and reassess. And the most beautiful thing about the ecotone is that it is messy and it’s fruitful.

Certainly, I would say over the past year-and-a-half, you’ve been living in an ecotone, and you’ve probably experienced the mess. Ecotones are where the leeches live, my friends. The things that suck your blood. The ecotones are the part of the lake or the part of the pond that smells bad. And all of us have experienced a variety of messy things, whether it’s conversations about suspending in-person worship for a few weeks and going to strictly online. Or whether it’s when to wear and when not to wear masks. Or how do you talk about vaccines? Do you talk about vaccines from up-front? I don’t know; there’s a lot of messiness. Oh, and also major social upheaval happening and continuing to happen. All of those things, and it was an election year. Talk about the perfect storm of messiness, on a macro and micro level.

Not only that, for those who … I lost a family member to COVID-19, a week after Easter 2020, and I was the first person I knew in my community who had lost someone because of that. I was actually interviewed on the radio here in Holland, because they’re like, “You actually know someone who had it, and you actually lost someone to this disease?” That was back when it was curious if we’d be able to just move through this thing by summer.

All those things just well up in us. And so one asks themselves the question, “How do I move through an ecotone?” And what I’ve been learning more and more is that all of my training as a Christian was to fight my depression, my anxiety, my stresses. To fight any battle that I had to face with my brain, with my thoughts. And I’d actively engage my thoughts versus the thoughts that were being had.

And here’s the problem: If you don’t know anyone with generalized anxiety disorder, you will never beat your own thoughts. If you know someone who’s battling mental illness, thinking harder isn’t the problem. You’re never going to take your own thoughts and throw them up against the thoughts that your anxious brain is throwing back at you and win. And so the thing I had to learn the most about soul care was actually, it was body care for me. I had to learn the connection between my body and my soul.

I think of the Deuteronomy 6: “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” That’s the New Testament version that Jesus does, where he adds mind in there. But I realized I was trying to do all of my spiritual disciplines with just my mind. Just think happier thoughts, or just repeat Bible verses, or just do those things. And I was forgetting that God also cares about heart and soul and strength, too.

And so one of the things I started to do was I started to pay a lot more attention to my body, as part of my soul care. Not just exercise and sleeping and all those things that people have been telling me to do. But just generally taking moments, especially when I’m really stressed out, especially when my thoughts are screaming at me really loud. I would take a moment and would be like, “Thank you, thoughts. How does my body feel?” A lot of times, I don’t even recognize how I actually am feeling. I don’t know where the pain is. And what’s interesting is your brain is connected to an entire nervous system, all throughout your body, that’s constantly sending messages. But we’re only paying attention to one part when we just think about our thoughts. We’re not thinking about the entire network that’s communicating. And so just taking a moment.

And the activity is called the body scan. It sounds science fiction-y, but it’s not. It’s just taking a moment and being aware of just the different parts of my body. And recognizing, “Oh, yeah, my neck’s a little tense right now.” Surprisingly, for me, when I’m really stressed out … And for me, it’s usually around grief, and this has been a year of grieving. And sometimes when you’re a professional griever (looking at you, pastors), you recognize that your own grief gets stored somewhere.

Well, mine, interestingly, gets stored in my legs. I don’t know why, but I have this pain that I experience in my legs, that when I actually pay attention to it, it’s like, “Oh.” Then the tears start to come, like, “Oh yeah, you’re actually emotionally grieving stuff, and your body’s just locking that away for a while, because your brain doesn’t really feel like handling it in the moment.” Sounds science fiction-y. Sounds woo-woo. It might be, but it’s true. The fact is, your body is constantly doing that. And so just being aware of how your body is actually doing has been more effective to me that any of the formulaic prayers I’ve ever been taught, when it comes to relieving the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. Just being and taking a moment.

And perhaps it’s what Psalm 46:10 is talking about when it says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Because I, for one, I think of God and I think of Moses at the burning bush, asking God, “What’s your name?” And God responds, “I am who I am.” And I think, “I am never that present.” God is eternally present in this moment, eternally present. Meanwhile, I am often not. I’m often worried about the future or obsessing about my past. But God says, “I am who I Am.” And when I’m actually in the moment and actually thinking, being aware of what my body’s trying to tell me, it actually releases some of the anxiety.

And so my 10 minutes are rapidly approaching, and so some of the things I’ve learned about soul care in the midst of this time is to recognize the body-mind-soul connection. I believe it’s Jamie Smith who says that we’re often treated as though we are just brains on a stick, and you’re not. You’re an entire person. Be aware. Drink enough water. Try to get enough sleep. Take moments. And it only takes two, three minutes to be aware of your own body.

I also encourage you to do things that slow you down. For me, it was smoking meat. I have to be really careful. I smoke meat: M-E-A-T. I make a really mean set of ribs. It’s what I do now, and it’s something that slows me down, because my brain runs at a million miles per hour. Things like that, things like what we heard earlier. Being open with your community, having time for slow, long conversations. So important.

And the most important thing I’m learning about traumatized people … And I think just about all of us have experienced some degree of trauma over the past 12 to 18 months. The most important thing is to be in an environment where you feel safe, where you feel unconditional welcome and belonging. And from then, it’s just putting the pieces together. Thank you so much.

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