When I first started leading the worship I followed a series called the courage to cope; now this covered things like the courage to cope with choices: loneliness, ageing, family problems and sin and temptation. Now there are two remaining items in this series: the courage to cope with death and dying, which I don’t intend to cover, and the courage to cope with pressure, stress, exhaustion and breakdown. This is the one I want to talk about today.
Firstly, let me say that preparing and then delivering back-to-back services has not been easy and, in fact, it has been quite stressful and put me under a lot of pressure.
I have had a terrible week.
I can’t do another thing.
I am so tired.
I am at the end of my tether.
That’s the last straw.
And it’s all too much.
How often have we heard or spoken these words?
There are lots of expressions that we use to try and describe for ourselves and to others what we are experiencing when we are under so much pressure that we feel totally exhausted and sense that a breakdown may not be too far away.
Now stress and pressure are situations which we cannot possibly avoid or ignore. They are truly part of the human condition. In fact, the process of birth itself is one of the most stressful things that happen to us. Each stage of life brings its own pressures and we know there are particular high points: when we have to make important choices which will have life-changing effects or we move through transition phases. But quite ordinary events are also significant. You may have seen the well-known stress chart, which allows us to add up and score points according to what is happening to us at that moment. If a normal stress level is seen as about 60 to 80, then we can understand that very particular events like a death in the family can be worth 100 points. But Christmas is there, too, and changing eating habits and any alteration in church activity is seen as being worth 19 points. It is important to point out that there is a normal stress level with which we can cope. In fact we cannot live at all without the existence of these equal and opposite tensions that hold together the very atoms and molecules of which the universe is made, and which allows the millions of cells of which our bodies are made to work together as an integrated whole. This manageable level of stress allows us to anticipate, to prepare, and to release the energy needed to live.
Boredom, inactivity and lack of challenge themselves are not part of the solution but will, if continuous, lead to such a low energy level that we will end up being more over stressed than before.
Much of the stress comes from the relationship and social situations in which we live. Other people, if we let them, can really cause us to blow our top when they have finished winding us up. Other pressures come from the constraints of time, the expectation of society and our attempts to meet targets and standards which may well be imposed by other people. For many people work brings an especially high stress level.
We may be asked to go along with a decision that we cannot agree with or that are in conflict with our own and Christian principles. We may be passed over and not recognised and so frequently have to cope with disappointment. We may be the subject of jealousy and accusation.
So how do we cope?
One of the first things is to recognise the signs and symptoms. Stress affects all of us in every part our body, our thoughts and our emotions. It is therefore important to look out for those stress warning signals which can include things like:
- Loss of weight
- Weight gain because of an increased appetite
- Irritability, lack of sleep and the inability to concentrate.
It’s even more important to work out some ways of dealing with the situation. Perhaps the first thing is to identify the problem and try to work out how important it really is, then take the appropriate actions before we become to engulfed and everything gets too much. There are lots of things we can do to put the balance right again, things like taking up a new activity; exercising; talking it out; relaxing; writing about it, and having a good dose of laughter.
The danger is always there that we can turn to other ways out, like being abusive to ourselves and others which of course only make things worse. Best of all we can try and recognise all the positives that we have on the other side: Family and friends that can understand and allow us to express the tension, the support of our church community, the examples of others. But it is never easy; it often feels like an uphill struggle. But we need to deal with it before it reaches the top and we tip over.
From our reading from Kings this morning, the story of Elijah contains a very clear example and description of the state of exhaustion and breakdown; Elijah, whom we may think of as a giant of a man, a prophet walking so close to God that he must have always been able to cope. But what is most interesting is that Elijah has just had several satisfying and exhilarating times. He had been fed in the time of famine; he had been used of God to raise a child from the dead; he had had an amazing victory for the Lord over the false prophets and Baal; he had seen rain come as an answer to prayer after three years of drought, and he had just run 17 miles in the pouring rain back to the palace. But then he met that last straw in the form of Jezebel. In the reading from Kings 19 verse 4 he says
He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
There are several things we can pick out at once that are often found at such times. Firstly, it often happens that, after something good has happened to us, we suffer soon after from an opposite and equally down reaction (second day baby blues). This could almost be expected because of the situation it will have cost a lot in terms of emotional and physical energy.
We are very often over tired and have used up all our energy stores. And, like Elijah, one of the best starting points to recovery is to have a really good sleep.
The state of our bodies affects every other aspect of our personality and our coping mechanism. Elijah was experiencing the 3 Ds:
At such times we can get caught in a downward spiral and become totally enfolded in distorted fears, doubts and perceptions we may suffer at the hands of other people at such times. They may suggest that it’s our fault for taking on and doing too much, that we should count our blessings that we are much better off than lots of others and that we must pull ourselves together and snap out of it. That’s not very helpful and certainly not healing. But Elijah’s experience shows us a different way and we notice that God is always present and involved. We discover a sequence that matches the despair. It started, however, with Elijah’s acknowledging to himself that things were not right and going away to deal with it.
This is often very hard to do. That first acknowledgement may be the most difficult step to take. And, best of all, Elijah never left God out of the situation. Oh yes, he was screaming out in despair and felt that everything was at an end, but he did scream it to God in prayer.
We can learn much from Elijah’s story and the way in which God was with him and enabled him to cope. We can learn to recognise these times in our lives and perhaps even side step them. We can come to know that, even as we go through them, they will end. We can use the guidelines to help us to be with other people at such times, trying to offer support and encouragement. And with God’s help we can grow as we absorb and accept these times as spiritual opportunities
When John the Baptist was at his lowest point, he sent a message to Jesus asking: ‘are you the one who was to come or should we expect someone else?’ The commentator G. Campbell Morgan writing about this passage says this:
The picture of His dealing with John shows us that honesty is always valued and patiently answered. Let us be true with the Lord; do not let us affect a confidence which our heart does not feel. Only, if the doubt be there, instead of turning our back upon Him and abandoning His cause, instead of turning to the philosophies of men for explanation of the method of God, let us go straight to Him and tell Him. Oh the comfort of being able to go into the Master’s presence and tell Him that He is doing something that we cannot understand. He loves honesty, He would rather the Thomas who blurts out his unbelief, than the Judas who kisses Him.
Hear these words and think about them in silence, offering Jesus your honesty. Feel his presence and accept his comfort and healing.
In heavenly love abiding,
no change my heart shall fear.
And safe in such confiding,
for nothing changes here.
The storm may roar without me,
my heart may low be laid,
But God is round about me,
and can I be dismayed?