THE WAVERLY PULPIT
Richard Secrest Hays, M.Div.
First Presbyterian Church of Waverly
211 Schmitt Dr., Waverly, Ohio 45690 + 740.947.2905
Sunday, September 10, 2017
Do you have stress? I do. And it’s mounting. Will we get all the boxes packed before the movers arrive? Will I get all the tasks done in time for the church or for the Presbytery? Will we get everything to the right places: packed, recycled, Goodwill-ed, thrown out?
I know you are stressed. Three Sundays from now this familiar face and presence will be gone. There will be things that don’t happen any more. There will be lots of questions about how this is done and how that is supposed to happen. It will be all right.
I remember coming here and having very few clues about how things were done. Mistakes were made, toes were stepped on, things happened or didn’t happen. We survived and flourished in new and unexpected ways.
Those of you who have been here only a few years know very few of the changes that have happened over the years. Announcements were once upon a time in the middle of the service, disrupting the worship flow. We now have worship leaders to share the reading and prayers at the beginning of the service. Rather than “Prayers of the People” there was only a pastoral prayer. We now have some hymns written in the 1980s and 90s rather than the 1880s and 90s. There is a more informal feel to worship. Just look at how few ties are worn by the men. And we get to see the faces of other worshipers rather than the backs of everyone’s heads.
Church isn’t the only place where stress happens. According to recent reports, Stress levels are higher than ever. Higher than 1983 at the very least.
According to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, stress increased 18 percent for women and 24 percent for men between the years 1983 and 2009. Hit especially hard were people with lower incomes and less education. Overall, most of us are feeling more stress today because of economic pressures and the difficulty of protecting ourselves from the world and its constant flow of information. I guess that the sages of old were right, ignorance is bliss.
One of the wonders of the English language is that if you spell “stressed” backwards you have the word “desserts.” Unfortunately nutrition or calories raise some people’s stress rather than lowering it.
But there is some good news, according to USA Today: Stress decreases as you age. Yes, that’s right. If you can stay alive and keep aging, eventually you’ll feel less stress. I’m looking forward to testing that hypothesis.
So what are people doing to deal with their stress? Adult coloring books are huge right now, and some are actually advertising “stress relieving patterns.” The mandala pattern is adapted from a Buddhist view of the universe. For graphics and coloring it is kind of like walking the labyrinth. The Washington Post reports that about 12 million adult coloring books were sold in the United States in 2015. Whatever happened to the stress of keeping within the lines?
Or if you are an aural person, you can get a number of apps for your smart phone that work like guided meditation. A mellifluous voice quietly speaks to talk away stress and induce calm. For me, I like to tune a music app reflective music that soothes. If I need livened up, I can turn to bombastic symphonies or heavy metal rock.
Or there are apps that guide you through the discipline of journaling, allowing your pen a chance to vent your stress and relax and focus beyond the immediate.
Long before smart phones, the psalmist suggested some ways in which God’s people could de-stress. In the eight verses of Psalm 119closeAn error occurred.’s fourth stanza, the psalmist offers a simple, yet stress-relieving program designed to bring peace to the soul. The first step is to get in touch with God’s ways.
“Lord, teach me what your statutes are about, and I will guard every part of them. Help me understand so I can guard your Instruction and keep it with all my heart. Lead me on the trail of your commandments because that is what I want” (Psalm 119:33-35closeAn error occurred.).
The psalm writer wants to learn God’s statutes, laws and commandments – not because there’s value in memorizing a list of rules and regulations, but because these guidelines contain the way to life and peace.
Think of the Ten Commandments; you probably had occasion to memorize them. Every one of them is designed to help us, not hurt us. They are challenging to follow, but they are intended to be life-enhancing and to give us a positive framework for our words and actions. The first four commandments offer guidance for our relationship with God, while the last six explain what it means to have healthy relationships with each other (Exodus 20:1-17closeAn error occurred.).
Our Protestant reformer faith ancestor John Calvin noted that God divided his law into two parts. The first part dealt with the worship of God’s majesty, and the second part dealt with “the duties of love” that have to do with people. The two are equally life-enhancing, and equally important for inner peace. No doubt Jesus had this approach in mind when he said that the greatest commandment challenged us both to “love the Lord your God” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:36-40closeAn error occurred.).
Two centuries later Methodism’s founder John Wesley saw two responses to God’s grace. He called the first response “Works of Piety” which included the individual practices of reading and studying the Scriptures, prayer, fasting, regularly attending worship, healthy living, sharing the faith with others, and holding other believers accountable, which comes directly from today’s gospel reading.
Wesley’s second response to grace was “Works of Mercy,” such things as doing good works, visiting the sick, visiting those in prison, feeding the hungry and giving generously to the needs of others and with others seeking justice, ending oppression and discrimination.
Calvin and Wesley were pointing at the same dynamic relationship between the believer and God and with other human beings. The end result is that nothing can be more calming, more stress-relieving, than the knowledge that we are right with God and right with our neighbors, walking in God’s ways.
The psalmist gives us a second step helps us to avoid the ways of the stressful world around us.
“Turn my heart to your laws, not to greedy gain. Turn my eyes away from looking at worthless things. Make me live by your way” (vv. 36-37).
Instead of, or in addition to, focusing on a soothing soundtrack, the psalm advises us to turn our attention to God’s laws and “not to greedy gain.” The psalmist invites us to avert our eyes from worthless things and receive life in Gods ways.
Unfortunately, so much of our stressful world is focused on vanity and greed. Even our state governments are in the business of dangling riches in front of us through lottery ads for Power Ball and Mega-Millions, forming false dreams and harsh realities for many of the winners of the biggest pots.
This psalm, then, advises us to walk toward God and away from the ways of the stressful world around us. The psalm’s author may have written the psalm during or just after the Babylonian exile. The language of the entire psalm shows a knowledge of the wording and ethos of the Deuteronomy, which likely dates from that period. The author wasn’t a contemporary of Jesus, but his work surely points toward the Jesus whom the gospels describe as turning away from temptation, worshiping the Father very deeply, and showing compassion, mercy, and grace to everyone he met, even those outside the strict Jewish tradition. Jesus is the living free and unexpected promise from God described by the psalm-writer:
“Confirm your promise to your servant—the promise that is for all those who honor you. Remove the insults that I dread because your rules are good. Look how I desire your precepts! Make me live by your righteousness” (vv. 38-40).
Although we can’t perfectly keep the commandments, we can seek to live in right relationship with God and with the people around us. Right relationship is what the word righteousness really means. This is the key to relieving stress and achieving peace.
Think about what Jesus was saying in his Sermon on the Mount:
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst or right relationships, for they will be filled.”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of right relationships, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Following Jesus is all about right relationships. It is the key to experiencing inner calm. It puts us in touch with God’s ways and helps us to avoid the ways of the stressful world around us. Grow into a right relationship with Jesus and you can receive God’s promise of life. This is a righteous life — a life of right relationships — and it is the beginning of stress reduction and inner peace.
God promises to give life to those who respect God and walk in his ways. This is a life of right relationship with God, one which includes God’s commandments but is not based on perfect adherence to them. That is beyond our ability, which Jesus himself realized when he said, “No one is good except the one God” (Mark 10:18closeAn error occurred.).