Today we welcome Sam Dance to the Pulpit.
Our first Scripture lesson is from Psalm 103 and for those of you who are reading the Bible in a year, this just happens to be included in the reading for September 9th. This is from the Contemporary English Version and I will be reading verses 8, 11 and 12:
The Lord is merciful!
He is kind and patient,
And his love never fails.
How great is God’s love for all who worship Him?
Greater than the distance between Heaven and Earth!
How far has the Lord taken our sins from us?
Farther than the distance from East to West!
And from Isaiah, Chapter 41 verse 10. I’ll be reading from the New King James Version:
Fear not for I am with you;
Be not dismayed for I am your God.
I will strengthen you,
Yes, I will help you.
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand!
And, finally, from Philippians, Chapter 4 Verse 6:
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and
supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be
made known to God.
Let us pray:
Dear Lord, may my words this morning truly be yours and may each of us grow in our faith and draw ever closer to you. In your Son’s Holy Name.
Thanks to Bob’s leadership, support, and encouragement many have stood before me behind this pulpit: George, of course. Kathy Faber-Langendoen. Rob Anderson. To name just a few. And this is not even to mention the dozens of Mission Trip participants who have shared so beautifully with us over the years. I stand before you this morning with deep humility, with gratitude to Bob, and with great respect for those who have paved the way. I am also thankful for the assistance of Andree and for the talents of Kermit, the Praise Team and the Choir.
Session has known for quite some time that Bob would not be available today due to a late Saturday wedding at Camp Dudley. So I have had ample opportunity to contemplate the direction my thoughts would take. Last month, many of you will remember, Bob spoke about “Facing our Fears” and “Hurry and Worry”. I had decided much earlier to consider the topic of a Christian perspective on “stress”. So when Bob rolled out those sermons on fear and worry, things seemed to fit together perfectly. Almost as if we had sat down and planned it. Except we didn’t! A God moment, I thought. And then came last week’s sermon on “sex”. Talk about stress! If you missed it, you’ll definitely want to check it out on the WebSite. I suspect Bob must have experienced some stress in both the preparation and the delivery.
There’s no question that an outgrowth of both our fears and worries is an elevated level of stress. And let’s confess: we need less stress! I would like us to consider this morning first, what stress is all about and how it manifests itself in our lives. Secondly, what the secular world says about stress. And thirdly, and most important, How God suggests, through His Holy Word, that we handle stress. On a stress scale there are varying degrees of seriousness and I’ll say more about that momentarily. But, for now – generally speaking – when does stress slap you across the face and nearly knock you down?
Is it when you are forced to work with that very difficult colleague?
Is it when the “to do list” never seems to get done?
Is it when the clutter in the house just keeps piling up?
Is it when a loved one faces life threatening health issues?
Is it having to cope with a fractured relationship?
Is it when there is too much money going out and not enough coming in?
Is it when a close friend disappoints?
Is it the morning of a big test or an important presentation?
Is it when the car breaks down, or the internet connection fails or the toilet overflows and your desperate phone calls yield nothing but a recorded order to “Please Leave a Message!”?
In our home the word “stress” is rarely used. Somehow the word “crisis” made its way into our family vocabulary. As in “Dad, we’ve got a little crisis in the basement.” (The hot water heater is leaking all over the floor.) Or, “Dad I had a little crisis at school today. My English teacher is going to be calling you.”
Oh.Oh. Or Candy cries out “Sam, we’ve got a crisis in the spare bedroom closet!”
An invasion of bees. Not good and definitely stressful. Now these types of crises led to a little “stress drama” in the Dance household. And even though I don’t drink coffee, Candy couldn’t resist buying me the mug she found that said “Leave me alone; I’m having a crisis!”
And so we joke around a bit, but we all recognize that these so called “crises” pale in comparison to the very severe hardships faced by so many. For example, The Week magazine reported recently how Krista McCann of Colorado “loaded up her car with all of her worldly possessions to flee the Waldo Canyon fire.” While driving through Idaho, she crashed the car, which then caught on fire, and started another wildfire that burned some 2000 acres! Now, that’s a crisis!
So whether we use the term “crisis” or “stress” we know what we are talking about. And we also know that whether we are a student in school, a frenzied parent, and empty nester, or a retired senior, we face stress and stressful situations.
And how about that job stress? According to Victoria Brienza writing on the Careercast website, the American Psychological Association completed a study in which they found a full 36% of all workers say they feel stressed during the work day. And the top three most stressful jobs? The enlisted soldier came in at # 1 followed by a firefighter at # 2 and an airline pilot at # 3. Police officers came in at # 5 and taxi drivers at # 10. By the way, the least stressful jobs – according to this particular study – included a medical technician at #1 (least stressful) followed by jewelers and hair stylists.
I would like to distinguish at this point the difference between what I will call “everyday stress” and “extraordinary stress”. The victims of Hurricane Isaac, many of whom lost their entire homes and all of their belongings. Their stress is extraordinary. Or consider the families of the victims of violent crimes. We cannot even begin to fathom the physical and emotional pain following the Aurora Colorado Theater Shootings – scars that will last a lifetime. The combat soldier in Afghanistan who, sadly, must question whether his Afghan partner can be trusted. The spouse whose loving husband or wife has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. And the list goes on.
Given these extraordinary stressful situations, we know how fortunate we are and we feel guilty when we talk about our everyday stress. But that everyday stress is nonetheless real and without trivializing the extraordinary stress we seek
relief from our everyday stress. And that is perfectly reasonable.
Now, there are all kinds of stress remedies offered by our secular society.
The holiday shopping season is just around the corner – always a source of everyday stress. But not to worry. You don’t have to go to the mall or spend hours searching the internet. For several years now, the lovely village of Skaneateles has been promoting “stress free shopping”.
And I see that Stickley and Dunk and Bright are both offering a line of “Stressless” furniture. The brochure states that “Living a Stressless (the term is a trademark) lifestyle is having furniture that understands you”. You can’t make this stuff up!
And did you know that if you accumulate too much “stuff” and need to put some of it in storage there is even stress in renting one of those self storage units? We were on vacation last month and went into a New Jersey Diner. On the paper placement – I saved it – the advertisement proclaimed “stress free storage”. I brought it with me this morning because I was so amused. “Stress Free Storage”! Of course this was New Jersey and I guess they face more stress down there.
Cayuga Community College offers no less than three courses this fall on stress management taught by a PHD psychologist.
If you Google “coping with stress” you will get 23, 500,000 hits in 22 seconds. That’s enough to add to my stress! Margarita Tartakovsky, at Psych Center.com had “Five Ways to Stress Less”: Reorganize, Rethink, Reduce, Relax, and Release. Other sites emphasized breathing techniques, diet, meditation, humor, prioritizing, etc. What was interesting was the lack of a faith perspective. Helpguide.com in its section on stress management stated – and I quote – “In fact, the simple realization that you are in control of your life is the foundation of stress management.” Hm. Hm.
As Christians, I trust that we will take issue with that well intentioned but seriously misguided assertion.
There’s certainly a place for diet, and breathing techniques, and exercise, and re-prioritizing. And we can pursue stress free shopping and buy “stressless” furniture that understands us. But I would like to suggest this morning that God offers a plan for stress management that I believe is where we want to start.
And I believe fervently that His plan works for both everyday stress and extraordinary stress. It’s remarkable in its simplicity, gives us hope in its promise, and grants us peace in its assurance.
Let’s confess: we need less stress! So what is God’s plan?
First, God emphasizes repeatedly that He is with us, by our side, always. Secondly, God assures us that He loves us. And, thirdly, God invites us to bring our anxieties, our worries, and our stress to Him. That’s it! Taken together – God’s presence, His love, and His willingness to hear our concerns – and we have the formula for dealing with stress. Let’s look at each part of this divine stress management plan with some detail.
God is with us. In our Scripture reading this morning Isaiah writes “Fear not, for I am with you. Be not dismayed for I am your God. I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” I first learned these powerful words when I was in 5th grade from my devout and wonderful Sunday School teacher. She told us that this verse was one of her favorites. As it has comforted me through some stressful times, I could see why.
As early as Deuteronomy, Moses writes in Chapter 31, verse 8 “The Lord will be with you, He will not leave you nor forsake you; do not fear nor be dismayed.” (NKJV) And John quotes Jesus in Chapter 14 verse 18: “I will not leave you orphans. I will come to you.” (NKJV) And in Hebrews, Chapter 13 verse 5 “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (NKJV). And the Psalmist in Psalm 46 reminds us that “God is our refuge and strength; a very present help in trouble…The Lord of Hosts is with us.” (NKJV)
These words are unequivocal. There are no qualifiers like “might” or “maybe” or “possibly” or “I’ll try”. “I am with you.” “I will not leave you.” “I will never leave you.” If these words are not a comfort during times of stress, I don’t know what is. We do not have to face a situation alone. God has promised that He will be with us.
Perhaps you are thinking “That’s all well and good but I just don’t feel God in my life. What’s wrong?” Rick Warren, pastor, author, and proponent of the purpose driven life addresses this very issue in his book by the same name. Allow me to quote:
“The deepest level of worship is praising God in spite of
pain, thanking God during a trial, trusting Him when tempted,
surrendering while suffering and loving Him when he seems
Pastor Warren, in a chapter titled “When God Seems Distant”, argues that these times are a normal part of the “testing and maturing of your friendship with God.” He goes on to assert that God’s presence is a FACT but the manifestation of that presence is a feeling which may not always be evident. Warren speaks of what he calls “spiritual dryness” and says we must rely on God’s promise and not our emotions. He concludes the chapter by reminding us that even Jesus felt distant from his father on the cross. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” We know, of course, that God did not forsake his son, nor does he forsake us.
I found Rick Warren’s perspective to be very helpful.
The fact is God is with us. No matter what. That is amazingly comforting.
But there is more. God is not only with us, but he loves us. And nothing can separate us from that love. Listen once again to Paul’s wonderful words from Romans (which were part of our responsive reading):
“For I am certain that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
I cannot possibly say this any better or make the language more clear. God loves us. And no matter the source of our stress this morning we can be absolutely certain that God loves us. Totally. Unconditionally. Sacrificially. He gave His son for us. Psalm 103 reminds us that “His love never fails!”
Finally, God invites us to bring whatever is bothering us, whatever is causing us stress, to Him in prayer. Once again, the language is direct, specific, and incredibly reassuring. The Contemporary English version of the Bible cuts right to the chase. Paul encourages us in Chapter 4, Verse 6 of Philippians “Don’t worry about anything.” (Or we might say “Don’t get stressed out.”) “But pray about everything. With thankful hearts offer up your prayers and requests to God.”
Wow. I think we have to take God at his word here. “Pray about everything.” If we say we don’t want to bother God about little stuff – whatever that little stuff might be – then we are diminishing God’s power and love. “Be anxious for nothing” says another translation. God wants us, invites us, encourages us to bring our needs to Him.
The minister of the church where I grew up in western Pennsylvania – Dr. Bill Turner – made the point clear to me when I was in my early teens. I remember his sermon on prayer vividly. He told about a man he knew who prayed for God’s guidance whenever the phone rang, just before he picked it up. A “quickie prayer”, Dr. Turner called it. As a young teenager this was a concrete reminder to me that God is interested and willing to hear our concerns no matter how trivial they may seem. Whatever is causing us stress can be brought before God in prayer.
Our family moved to Syracuse when I was still in high school, but we maintained a connection to that church in Pennsylvania. Rev. Turner and his family faced extraordinary stress when he was diagnosed with inoperable and terminal cancer. He died in his mid forties, but his unshakeable faith left a deep and lasting impression on me and countless others.
We can never know why such things happen. But we do know that God is with us, that He will never abandon us, and that his love knows no boundaries.
Those of you who are Moms and Dads know that parenting can be pretty stressful. And let me tell the parents of young children that it gets even more stressful when they’re in their twenties. Look out! But it’s fun and somehow as we look back we kind of forget the stressful times and focus on the good times.
One of the great joys of parenting is that we recognize that in many respects our relationship with our sons and daughters bears a fascinating resemblance to God’s relationship with us.
When our son Michael was about four years old, our wonderful neighbors invited us to enjoy their large, deep in-ground pool on one of those hot, scorching summer days. Michael climbed to the top of the tall slide but was scared to let go. If a four year old can be stressed he was.
I was at the bottom of the slide and you can imagine my pleas. “I’m here Michael. I won’t leave. I love you. Trust me.” “I will catch you at the bottom”.
Michael finally let go, loved the splash and the plunge into the cool refreshing water. And of course we couldn’t get him off that slide for the rest of the afternoon.
But doesn’t this reflect the very foundation of our faith? We believe that God is with us, that nothing can separate us from His love, and that we can bring our anxieties to Him in prayer.
I dare say, this is a pretty good plan for stress management.
Let’s confess: we need less stress!
Is the God whose “love never fails” taking care of the stress in your life?
Let us pray.
Dear God, Strengthen our faith that we might enjoy the peace that passes all understanding. Strengthen our faith that we might know that you are always with us, that you will not abandon us, that you love us, and that you welcome our prayers of everyday and extraordinary concerns. In Jesus Name, we pray. AMEN