Churches must promote good health habits, humor, author says

By David Gibson
Catholic News Service

Good health care is not defined solely by the medical assistance we receive during times of illness or after an accident, Cal Samra insists in The Physically Fit Messiah. Life patterns that foster good health ought to become personal goals of ours long before a virus attacks or a bone is broken.

This is a book about good, personal health care habits, but its scope exceeds that. It also is a book about Christianity’s deeply rooted interest in good health. Their faith inherently encourages Christians to foster their own health and that of others, Samra suggests.

“The great appeal of early Christianity was not only that it promised heaven and the afterlife, but also that it was viewed as a healing faith in this life,” he writes.

After pointing out that churches sometimes are called “hospitals for the sick,” Samra asks: “If that is so, isn’t it the responsibility of churches to teach people how to live a healthy lifestyle?”

In chapter after chapter, the author highlights religious leaders throughout history who assumed roles in promoting the building blocks of good health.

He recalls an episode of “60 Minutes,” CBS-TV’s weekly newsmagazine show, on the “remarkable longevity” of the Orthodox monks of Mount Athos in northern Greece. Do their long lives reflect the monks’ habit of eating simply, consuming fish, fresh vegetables, fruits and grains they grow themselves?

Samra notes that the monks also “do physical chores and walk everywhere.” In addition, they adhere to Orthodox days of fast and abstinence and “pray constantly.”

John Wesley, the 18th-century founder of Methodism, “recommended a diet close to vegetarian… and drinking a lot of water,” says Samra. Wesley, he adds, advised the clergy to “get open-air exercise three hours a day by walking or horseback riding.”

The keys to sound health that Samra recommends extend from good nutrition and regular physical exercise to prayer, days of fasting and a cheerful attitude that allows plenty of room for laughter. Even a nap can be restorative.

“When Jesus slipped away from the crowds, I believe he did so not only to pray, but also to take a nap,” says Samra.

It is unsurprising that Samra views humor and joy as basic factors of a balanced lifestyle that supports health. He is the long-time editor of a publication called The Joyful Noiseletter that encourages pastors, churches, seminaries and others to make humor a constant in their lives.

Samra is confident that Christ “used humor, as well as prayer and compassion, in his healing ministry.”

Given his long career devoted to securing a place for humor in churches, one might expect Samra to point out, as he does, that “Christianity recognizes joy as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.”

But “humor and laughter are expressions of joy,” he notes. So why, he wonders, have so many “super-serious” theologians “failed to recognize” humor and laughter as “gifts of the Holy Spirit with great healing power.”

His long career equipped Samra with a reservoir of good jokes, and he rewards readers of “The Physically Fit Messiah” with quite a few. In one a doctor says to a patient: “Eat more and exercise less. I could use the business.”

I should point out that healthy lifestyles contribute not only to the well-being of Christians as individuals and families, but can spill over to improve the environment in churches.

Samra calls attention to an 1866 article by Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” expressing hope that “the proper ventilation of (Christian) churches and vestries would remove that spiritual deadness of which their prayers and hymns complain.”

Despite a sweet tooth, I am dedicated, as Samra recommends, to sound nutrition. I allot generous amounts of time to physical exercise too and take spirituality seriously. There is much, then, in this book for me to appreciate.

I assume that the exercise, good nutrition, sense of humor, prayer and habits of life recommended by Samra would benefit almost anyone. The book conveys this message effectively.

In what ways, though, is this well-balanced approach to life limited – for example, in cases of mental illness? Samra’s chapter critiquing various mental health professionals and medications they prescribe came across to me as rather harsh and in need of fine-tuning.

Samra’s overall message is welcome, however. He challenges churches, asking if they “have neglected Christendom’s centuries-old commitment” to health and downplayed “Jesus’ reputation as ‘the Great Physician,’ who spent many of his days on earth healing people and teaching them healthy lifestyles.”

(Etta Dale is an educator whose “love for physical fitness led her into bodybuilding competitions and later into a career as a personal trainer,” with a keen interest in nutrition. A graduate of Regent University, she is the editor of LiveLiving Magazine in Atlanta, GA, a publication of LiveLiving International Foundation, whose goal is “to educate believers to live a productive and wholesome life.” She wrote the following book review of The Physically Fit Messiah for LiveLiving:)

By Etta Dale

What a gift! When I received the book The Physically Fit Messiah for review from Robert D. Reed Publishers, Bandon, OR, I had no idea that it would inspire, teach, share, enlighten, and encourage me in my love for health and wellness and from a faith-based perspective too.

Steve Allen
Etta Dale

That is not to say that this book is only for a faith-based audience. Absolutely not! The book is suited for anyone who has any interest in health and wellness for the whole being. Samra, an octogenarian, is truly a journalist who knows how to tell a good story. But that is not to say that the book is fiction.

The Physically Fit Messiah is like a documentary film in print. It is obvious that Samra has a journalistic background. His years as an AP reporter brought credibility to his fact-sharing and art in finding the heart of the story.

Samra tracks the development of health and wellness throughout the centuries to the present. If you love history, then you will appreciate this aspect of the book. In learning about the history of health and wellness, I was shocked to find out that the pursuit of good health actually began with the early church reformers, considering that “modern Christianity has tended to neglect the health of the body,” as noted by Samra as well.

I love the quotes Samra captures and shares from his research, such as this one by Lutheran Pastor Paul Naumann: “Christians are good at honoring the body after you die, but not so much when you’re alive.” Samra tries to take an objective position as he recounts the long history behind the health movement, but one cannot help to feel his chagrin with the church in regards to health.

Samra writes: “A preacher is a hospital administrator,” Martin Luther said. It also has been said that churches are “hospitals for the sick.” If that is so, then why are so many parishioners dying before their time in pews? If that is so, then why not instruct their congregations on living healthy lifestyles?

Samra builds a strong case for the church, in particular, to reclaim its position as a healing faith and become the gospel of health it was designed to be.

The Physically Fit Messiah, however, is not just about the beginnings of health and wellness but also about individuals, groups, doctors, and fields that have all promoted health. He covers Jesus’ lifestyle, including the food he had eaten and his exercise regimen, which included walking by default since they had no cars.

He mentions the lifestyle of centenarians, particularly in “The Blue Zones” area in the Mediterranean. He includes medical doctors, such as Dr. Don Cooper who was a devout Presbyterian who “attacked his depressive episodes with faith, prayer, exercise, and a sense of humor.” Samra documents the contributions in the area of health and wellness of almost all mainstream denominations, if not all.

Samra even tackles subjects such as mental health, which he noted is always treated with “kid gloves” by the secular and religious communities. Samra goes after the facts and the truth. He is fair in his analyses, criticizing not just the church but the media as well.

Samra writes: “They blamed everything on the bishops and never investigate the role of the mental health professionals in the treatment of the pedophile priests.”

“The news media also failed to investigate the role of the mental health professional who was treating James Holmes when the disturbed young man shot dozens of people who were watching a Batman movie in a movie house. What kind of drugs had been prescribed for Holmes? What kind of psychotherapy? Was he under psychoanalysis?”

These are some valid questions that Samra presents to his readers.

Samra’s book is thought-provoking but also uplifting. He litters it with inspirational quotes and embeds it with humor. If anyone is familiar with Samra, it is probably through his newsletter, The Joyful Noiseletter, which promotes humor as a form of healing.

“Though The Physically Fit Messiah approaches some touchy topics such as depression and Alzheimer’s, there is undoubtedly a warmth and a good-feel to the book, especially the chapter on the healing power of pets. The book is easy to read. It’s one of those take-along books.

Inside this book lies a treasure trove. If you are a pastor or any type of religious leader, if you are in the area of health and wellness as a professional, including in the medical field, or if you are interested in living a fit and healthy life, then, this is a must-read. Filled with references, stories, anecdotes, quotes, cartoons, and jokes, I can assure you it will be worth your time and be an investment that will yield a return.

By Sezoni Whitfield

I found The Physically Fit Messiah inspiring and fun to read! The book
is a compelling read about human behavior and habit as they relate to
diet and health (i.e. overeating, poorly eating, excessive drinking,
smoking, physical inactivity, processed food consumption, and
the environment) ‒ all of which can wreak havoc on our health.

Samra collaborated with some big names in the medical and religious fields to help him create this wholesome, spiritually-centered book.

If you believe you can garner motivation to live longer and at the same time promote in others a healthier lifestyle, this book is a gem
for keeps!

“Thank you for Cal Samra’s new book The Physically Fit Messiah, and including me in it. I’ll take it as a sweet birthday gift since I’m 71 today. I know that a lot of my vigor comes from 45 years of regular yoga, aerobics and weight-lifting. All the best with your new book. I would love to see a physically fit population.”

—Patch Adams, M.D.
Gesundheit Institute
Urbana, IL

“This wonderful book is a godsend for Christians ‒ and anyone else ‒ who wants to live a healthier, happier, longer life. The connection between Christianity and health should be obvious, but as Cal Samra shows, it has been utterly neglected by the clergy. His historical lessons are eye-opening, his practical advice simple to put into practice, and his integration of humor and health inspiring. After reading this marvelous book, I hit my forehead with the palm of my hand and, like Homer Simpson, said, ‘D’oh!’” (5-star rating)

—John Morreall
Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies
College of William & Mary
Williamsburg, VA

The Physically Fit Messiah: Wellness Wisdom Past and Present by Cal Samra (Robert D. Reed Publishers, Bandon, OR) is available as a paperback from JN’s Bookstore ‒ or by calling toll-free 1-800-877-2757. It also may be purchased from Barnes & Noble Booksellers, and is now available as a Kindle eBook.