I Want to Reduce Stress

I Want to Reduce Stress

About this sermon series

Matthew 7:6

“Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.  9  Is there anyone among you who, if your child asked for bread, would give a stone?  10  Or if the child asked for a fish, would give a snake?  11  If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! Let us pray.

O Lord, startle us again with your peace that surpasses all understanding, and in my words, may your people hear your word. Amen.

In preparation for this sermon, I asked my own dad what I had asked for growing up,
specifically. He thought on it a bit and said it was a hard question because I rarely asked for
things. I asked for a sandbox. In high school, I asked for a leather jacket with a map of the world inside. Good call, me. I had asked for travel money after graduation. Mostly I asked for letters and cards when I was far away. But there were so many things that I know I wanted that I never mentioned. I didn’t mention the Guess Jeans because I knew they’d be too expensive, and I didn’t want to seem vain. I remember after a sleepover in 4 th grade, a friend told me my bed was hard, and I asked my parents about maybe needing a new bed, and they said, “Are you kidding me? Your bed is the best one in the whole house!” My Dad proved the point by stretching out and napping on it. So, when they got rid of it when I was in my 20s because my grandparents were coming to visit, I asked sincerely why they’d want to trade out something of value like that. “Oh, that bed has always been horrible. We just couldn’t afford to replace it until now.” I was stunned then deeply impressed. All those years I had spent sleeping on basically an elevated carpet floor, and yet I had felt like royalty. I had even felt badly for my friend, as if she had poor taste.

Looking back, I know I grew up with a different kind of comfort, a sense of trust and
safety at home. I appreciate now what a luxury that is. I also spent this week researching for today’s sermon “I want to reduce stress.” It is one of the most common New Year’s resolutions. Gallup reported that Americans are feeling stress, anger and worry at the highest levels in decades, with 55% of adults reporting they experience stress during “a lot of the day,” compared to 35% of adults globally. 1 The American Psychological Association agreed that there is mounting evidence of the psychological impacts of collective trauma in our society. 2 And, when we say we are worried sick, that is scientifically accurate. There are many health concerns that arise not just from what we eat, but from what is
eating at us. Worry can make it hard to sleep in any bed.

Worry comes from an Old English word, wyrgon. It means “to strangle.” Worry feels
like we are being strangled. And we are not the first people in history to worry. In his most
famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mountain, Jesus spends much of chapter six on this topic:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will
drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body
more than clothing?  26  Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather
into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than
they?  27  And which of you by worrying can add a single hour to your span of life? ”

In chapter six, Jesus says, “Do not worry.” The Greek word is merimnate. I love that. It
sounds like do not marinate, all this stewing without doing. Instead, Jesus invites us to marinate on the ways of nature. How the birds of the air have never lost sleep about missing a deadline. How the lilies of the field do not toss and turn at night about how well their petals fit. How worry, even if it seems natural to us, is unhelpful. It doesn’t add a second to our lives, even though it sure can make things feel longer. How worry, even if it seems reasonable, is not reasonable at all. It makes small things seem bigger; that tiny comment someone made becomes a giant monster to our nighttime brains. It can turn things utterly beyond our control into a frantic midnight to-do list. It can make things that are exceedingly rare seem inevitable. So Jesus lovingly invites us to stop merimnating on that. It is a waste of our precious imagination.

It reminds me of the beautiful poem by Wendell Berry:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Jesus spent chapter six telling us what not to do, but in chapter 7, Jesus gives us his best
action verbs. Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. And then he asks, if you have already been banging on the door, what if you assumed God was at least as loving as a decent parent? What if you cracked the door on the possibility that goodness could come? In Chapter 7, the antidote to anxiety is action.

And this doesn’t mean that Jesus denies the aching needs we do have. The blinding grief.
The searing pain. The multitudes in our world who don’t know when or if that truck with
humanitarian aid will come. Or the daily frustrations of being a human. But Jesus calls people not to concede hope in advance. Not to assume a snake-bit future.

I know I need to be reminded of this. Continuing to ask a good question is better than
assuming I already know the answers. Searching is better than spiraling as if already I know how people will respond. Using my weary imagination toward faith is better than projecting fear upon the future as if I have more information than God. In chapter 7, the call is simple. Knock on a door.

It is a really brave thing to ask for something you need.

In early August, I was driving home from dropping Davis at Camp Hanover. The cicadas
were buzzing away when I got a call out of the blue from my friend from college, Amanda. She is one of the clearest communicators I know and yet in this call she was halting. She said her dear friend Wendy was dying of cancer and was at the point where she wanted to talk about her funeral, but she’d let the church part of her life lapse. So … she stammered… Could you? Would it be ok? I don’t know how this works and I know you have a ton of your plate… I don’t want to add any stress …” I asked, “Would you like me to visit your friend? Because I do that.” “Will you get in trouble? I don’t know if this is out of your jurisdiction?” “Listen, churches don’t see ministry as just a perk of membership. We’re called to love our actual neighbors.” So a few days later I knocked on Wendy’s door.

Over the 3 months that followed, my life was blessed by time with Wendy to the extent
that I lost track of who was helping whom. It seemed like the stress of my life grew smaller
every time I knocked on her door. She had stumbled over a threshold and she had one foot in eternity and the other here, and with her I felt this peace that passed all understanding that stayed with me long after I left.

In her final months, so many people knocked on her door. College friends dropped off
flowers. A neighbor tended her garden. One friend came every single day, just to deliver her favorite tea. She let people pamper her son who is the same age as mine. She let grief enter but also joy. She let anger enter but also laughter. Some days she asked for company and other days, she asked for time alone to cuddle her son. She asked for help, but the helpers received this experience of community and meaning. It was not a burden, far from it. I have rarely felt so blessed.

At one point, I realized we had written down all the service details and I wondered if she
was done with needing a pastor. I didn’t want to hog her time. Isn’t it interesting how we can feel like visiting people can be a burden? An intrusion? “No, I really want to feel God’s presence through all of this.” Then she said something I’ll never forget. “And I hope Jesus saves my soul. Talk about Johnny come lately.” She said it with a laugh, but something told me she was dead serious. And that was when I pronounced the most earnest assurance of pardon I have ever said in my life, “Listen. God loves you. You know that, don’t you? Can you imagine ever turning away from your son? In a million years? No. Love doesn’t work like that. Love endures all things. Believes all things. Love never ends. And, this is the author of love we’re talking about here.” And then and there, her shoulders relaxed. I think her soul relaxed too.

My conversations with Wendy helped me realize what we all want more than anything.
More than Guess jeans or a spa day for self-care. We don’t really need a promise that life will be stress free and happy all the time if we do these magic 5 life lacks. We need to know that we are accepted, on the deepest level, by God and by other people. We need to know in the midnight of our need, we will not be alone and that when we knock, the door will open and Christ’s light will shine. And for the rest of us, we actually need to be needed. This door swings both ways, friends, letting us into heaven and also letting heaven into us. The best sleep comes not from a new bed but from a day spent close to what matters most and a heart that believes God can be trusted with tomorrow.

Ask. Seek. Knock. And brace yourself for good things.


1 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/25/us/americans-
2 https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2023/collective-trauma-recovery