Stressed Out

February 18th, 2014

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn

Deuteronomy 30

When all these things have happened to you, the blessings and the curses that I have set before you, if you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, and you and your children obey him with all your heart and with all your soul, just as I am commanding you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the Lord your God has scattered you. Even if you are exiled to the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will bring you back. The Lord your God will bring you into the land that your ancestors possessed, and you will possess it; he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors.

Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live. The Lord your God will put all these curses on your enemies and on the adversaries who took advantage of you. Then you shall again obey the Lord, observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, and the Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil. For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors, 10 when you obey the Lord your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of the law, because you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Exhortation to Choose Life

11 Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 14 No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

To ask someone if they are stressed out is almost an absurd question in America today. Of course they are stressed out! But here is the crime; children in America are more stressed than adults, and this is not something they are choosing for themselves. That is what a recent survey from the American Psychiatric Association tells us. 31% of young people say they are under a great deal of stress.

What is stressing them out? School is stressing them out. A make it or break it testing culture is stressing them out. Grades are stressing them out. Sports are stressing them out.  A Hollywood expectation of what they should look like is stressing them out. Relentless social media that follows them 24/7 is stressing them out. And stressed out parents are definitely stressing them out. 

To be stressed means to be under pressure. Stress is the measurement of the body’s fight or flight impulse. Stress is the outward and visible sign of our body’s desire to survive. Stress is physiological and real. The heart beats quicker, breathing becomes more rapid, adrenaline is released, hormones are released, muscles tighten, blood flow changes, the neo-cortex shuts down and the middle and lower parts of the brain take over, the eyes become more sensitive to light, the nose to smell, the skin to touch, and we sweat. 

That is how 31% of our children feel a lot of the time. They want to fight or they want to run. And that is not what God wants for them, or for anyone, you or me included, unless we’re being chased by a bear. That is why the fight or flight mechanism was put in place in the first place, not for math tests or violin recitals or college applications.

Today I want to speak about stress and the body and God. Here is my take home: Focus on God not the body, and stress will fall away, and the body will still be OK. It is the line of reasoning Moses used as he stood on the Moab plateau overlooking the Promise Land. He said it this way, “I set before you today life or death, choose life.” (Deut 30:19)

Stress is the body saying, “I want to live.” Stress is saying, “this hunk of flesh, this beating heart, this spinning brain, wants to survive.” God gave us that instinct so we would live long enough on Serengeti plains to move our gene pool forward. That is evolution, that is how God works, and that is good.

The question is: Have we moved beyond the fight or flight impulse? The question is: Have we evolved any further than this?  Are we different than our ancestors who ran from Saber tooth tigers?

Moses lays before us a revolutionary option to choose our evolutionary destiny. Will we be creatures limited to our evolutionary biology, or will we choose evolutionary intentionality? Will we continue to try to cram a fight or flight impulse into a world radically different from the ones our ancestors lived in or will we choose a different way? The culture of stress we are passing onto our children makes this an open question.

We have a choice. Moses said to the Israelites as they look to the Promise Land. “I set before you today life or death, choose life.” (Deut 30:19) And they replied, “Do we have to go up in the sky to get life?” “No,” Moses said! “Do we have to go beyond the seas to get life?”  “No,” Moses said! “Your God is right here, very near you, in your mouth, and in your heart, for you to see.”

Moses’ conversation with the Israelites was similar to one I had with my ten-year-old son, Desmond, the other day. 

“Where is God, beyond the seas, up in the skies?”(not quite his words but the same idea) “No,” I replied, “God is right here.” “Where?” “Right here.” “Like here?” he asks waving his finger in the air. “Am I touching God?” “Yes,” I replied, as I reached over and touched his elbow. Now it was my turn. “Am I touching Desmond?” I asked. “Yes.” “If I look inside your elbow will I see Desmond?” “No.” “How about if I take your brain out and examine it. Will I see Desmond?” “No.” “Why not?” “Because I am my brain and I am more than my brain.” “Are you more than your parts?” “Yes.” “How far does that go?” We talked for a while, and it seems that part of him extends beyond himself to include places like his school, church, and extended family.

God is like that.  You can’t see God by looking at a tree, even if the tree is part of God, any more than you can know Desmond by looking at his elbow or his school or his grandparents. God is right here, very near, closer to us than our own body. And this is the Good News; having God this close makes the world a very safe place to be. With God closer to us than our own body, our body can go away without it impacting our relationship with God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew this safety, which is why he could elect to stay in Tegel prison even when he had a chance to escape. Escape would have protected his body sure, but that was going away anyway. Instead he stayed and was able to say with confidence as he was lead to the gallows at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, “This end for me is the beginning of life.”

So choose life. Make a decision that life will be better by thinking more about God and less about the body. Take the gamble that organizing life less around this fleshy bag of bones and more around God will actually reduce stress. That is the choice, and only you and I can make it.

Moses gives us some advice that might be helpful. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul, in order that you should live.” (Deut 30:6) The key words are heart and soul. They are the parts of us that are eternal.  To attend to them is to attend to our long-term relationship with God.

We’ll start with the heart, what it is and how to attend to it, and then we’ll move on to the soul. The heart is also known in the Bible as the “will” and the “spirit.” It is the center of our being, that deep place within us. It is the executive center of who we are.  It is the core of our character. The heart is that voice that comments on our thoughts and feelings even as they are happening. Inviting God into our heart happens when we are in the habit of considering God first.  One of the best ways to facilitate this is to learn things about God by heart.

Here is a challenge. Learn the opening Collect we say every Sunday by heart.  “Almighty God to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of my heart by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy Name.”

Take the Collect home today. Memorize it. Learn it by heart. Then intentionally say it often. It is a good way to keep our heart focused on God. “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy Holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

“Keep the Lord always before you,” the Psalmist says in Psalm 16, “then your heart is glad and your soul will rejoice” (Ps 16:8-9)  Which brings us to Moses’ second key word, the soul. Here is the best description of the soul that I have ever found, “The soul is the non-physical part of us that unifies all aspects of our human “kingdom” by interrelating them: thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions, representations, concepts, beliefs, choices, and character, including our body and our social context.  The soul makes one life out of the many elements that composes a person.” (Divine Conspiracy Study Guide, p. 37). Another way I like to think about the soul is: the soul needs God, as our lungs need air, as fish need water. The soul, when it is healthy and open and not stressed, breathes God through all of the interrelated parts of a person.

When I was a priest in Beverly Hills a man I’d never seen before came into my office.  He was about my age, and a bit disheveled, but in that way that people in Hollywood look intentionally disheveled to show their genius. The first words out of his mouth were, “I can’t breathe.” He was clutching a screenplay. He was stressed. His soul was suffocating under a pile of I don’t know what and he came to the church.  He grew up in the church in Maine, he told me.  He hadn’t been to church for years but church is where he came when his soul was suffocating. So I took his play, and said I’ll look at it (as he asked) if he would breathe with me. So we breathed.  That’s all.  Once in, once out, once in, once out.

God gave us the body for a reason. When I advocate for God first and the body second, it is not to diminish the body, but to normalize its role, and in that way give it room to be young then grow old, beautifully and without stress.   One of the paradoxes of our physical breathing is that when we intentionally instruct the body to do something it does automatically, like breathing, we make room for the soul to breathe God –in and out, in and out. It is why I am such an advocate of the meditation work Pieter Drummond does at Epiphany. By getting us to focus on our body’s breath we make space for our soul to breathe God.

So here it is: Choose life, not stress. Choose God first and not the body, and stress will fall away, and the body will still be OK. Learn something about God by heart and make space for your soul to breathe. This is intentional evolution beyond the biology of fight and flight. This is the express train to the Promise Land and it is what I hope for our children and our children’s children. It is what we can pass onto them, if we possess it ourselves.