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A new stress learned

Stress

I do not respond to stress in a logical manner.  Or perhaps more specifically, the catastrophes and disasters that sound terrifying to the average person, elicits a very minor response in me.  This would be a powerful advantage if only the inverse were true as well.  But no, I manage terribly under the common and insignificant annoyances of daily life.  It is as if my mind, frustrated by the lack of truly cataclysmic events, decided instead to appropriate all the adrenaline and endorphins reserved for a major emergency and pour them upon every minor irritation.

In the absence of a saber tooth tiger to flee or mastodon to slay, my adrenal gland instead empties its contents upon such trivialities as the sight of a parking ticket.  Perhaps after 500 years of adaptation the human body will learn to respond appropriately, but for now I die in anxiety from a thousand tiny pricks.

Return me to the stone ages please, I believe I would flourish. I wonder how many prescriptions for depression medications would go unfilled if we all periodically chased a woolly mammoth across the plains of Montana. Recalling the most intense moments of stress in my life, I find little evidence of lingering damage.  There was the dead body we pulled from the Snoqualmie river in high school.  And the time in Honduras when a man walked up to our clinic with his arm dangling and nearly severed from machete fight. Or when a friend and I found ourselves stuck in a dead zone between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, surrounded by an angry mob.  After all of these, I slept quite soundly.

One would imagine this realization would have come much earlier in life.  My mother tells me it was clear from the moment I entered 1st grade.  I must take her word, I can’t recall anything from that year except perhaps the color of my shoes. Even that is in doubt. Fortunately she has a memory for details of more importance.  Evidently, prior to grade school I was cheery and happy, full of the same bright energy I see in my nephew, Jackson.

This quickly slipped away.  Somewhere between the red brick hallways and twisting tetherball I learned the fine art of stress.  I cannot blame my teachers, many kids tumbled along with lighthearted ease.  But I saw things differently.  I learned that people thought I was well mannered and sweet, and because of this, they liked me.  Naturally I desired for this to continue, so I made a mental note to maintain this posture in the future.

Undetectable in the moment, this minor mental adaptation placed the first tiny weight upon my young shoulders.  With time, it would grow much heavier, but each new piece was placed with such imperceptible slightness, I did not notice the change. The approval of friends, success in grades, it all appears so ridiculous in hindsight.  But oh, how a day hung upon who was picked first for the kickball team.

Elementary school came to a close and Junior High opened with new and useless stresses. Questions of kickball teams were replaced with the looming shame of junior varsity. Football, wrestling, the internal pressures ticked upward with insidious steadiness. Girls soon entered the storyline, bringing their own unparalleled ability to wreak havoc upon the minds of young men.

Everything was very normal to this point. I imagine nearly every boy toils under the same tension and strain.  But as high school arrived, a new breed of worries quietly entered the room.  I had found God.  Or more accurately, God had opened my eyes to His presence and realness. This, I was told, was the moment when my burdens and stresses are cast at His feet and I begin a new life of blissful content.  I responded differently.

I began to sense the weight of holiness.  In many regards this was a tremendous blessing, pushing a young Christian beyond the puddles of complacency. But it came with attachments not easily pulled apart.  In a cruel irony, the same anxiety that compelled me to serve my King soon tore away the satisfaction of that very act of service.  The fuel for energy became also the chemical that burned and destroyed.

I found little help in fellowship.  Most Christians simply tossed feeble accusations, questioning my attitude of discontent.  They told me God orchestrated everything and theologically, my role didn’t matter. If God wants something done, he’ll do just fine without you, so don’t worry about your role.  A pious cut was often attached, asking why I thought I had such an important role in His plan anyway.

In better moments, I kept my response to myself.  In others, I replied caustically, declaring that I simply must have an important role if the church is full of complacent sluggards like you. This was not an effective response. Especially when the great majority of my life did not reflect the words I easily tossed about.  I grew more measured in my responses, but a restlessness remained.

Finding few answers, I looked for a Christian with this healthy discontent.  Someone who felt the unceasing pull towards holiness, yet who also reveled in the gift of His grace and joy.  I quickly found those who lived entirely in the former, their lives an uninterrupted blur of service projects, bible studies and church groups.  I would learn little from them.  Others I found lying motionless and defeated; sad, grey souls who long ago succumbed to their haunting sense of imperfection.

But there were others.  My favorites I encountered in books, authors long dead and not likely to disappoint. Dietrich Bonhoeffer became a close friend. As would Andrew Murray and John Paton.  Faith lived out on the ragged and desperate edge, far from the smooth black walls of complacency.

I looked at their lives and found a very different stress. By nearly every measure it was incredibly difficult, but somehow this burden brought the opposite reaction. If anything, the trials only increased their desire to serve.  Curious, I looked for an explanation.

When Bonhoeffer encountered a trial or frustration he could clearly see the immediate impact of the event on the gospel.  When Paton suffered from a fever, he could draw the connection between the sickness and it’s potential affect on his ministry.  Every day that he lay sick in bed, people would not hear about Jesus.

For me, it was very different.  When I suffered a week of insomnia and migraines, I simply thought of how crummy I felt and the disappointment of missing volleyball on Tuesday night. I could pray to the Lord for healing and endurance, but it all felt very tepid and purposeless.  I read the scriptures, looking to 1 Peter for guidance.  I found great words of encouragement for suffering saints. But it didn’t look like it was written for me.  I was not suffering for the Lord, I was just suffering.

Benign and insignificant at first, this minor assumption quietly disarmed the Holy Spirit. Hope, encouragement, joy and perseverance, each silently pulled down and locked away.  Drawing a line in the sand I cast Him out, ordering Him to restrict his assistance only to areas of formal ministry.  Leave the rest to me, I cried, every stab of pain and worldly frustration I will bear alone.  And the devil grinned, reveling in his ruse.

Ground ceded to the enemy is not easily regained and many years passed before I understood the correct answer.  It came in two parts, each critical and unique.  First, I learned to grab hold of my gifts and place them in His service.  As I steadied my hand to the plow, great swaths of life came under the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Suffering regained a sense of purpose and challenge, no longer relegated to the merely abstract.

Second, I looked at my life again and found that nearly every incident carried the potential to guide the gospel. Even the most insignificant frustration and trial, far removed from the borders of active ministry, offered a profound choice to glorify or deny Him.

The passion and sacrifice of my heroes still endure as distant goal.  But until that day arrives, in the quiet stress of the ordinary, I learned to share in their holy comfort.

Comments

Comment from Nate
Time December 29, 2008 at 2:33 pm

Good work. Glad to see you are back at writing.

You have hit on several things I have personally been thinking about the past few weeks. Namely:

1. My utter dissatisfaction with complacency
2. Making the Gospel so central that that whatever it is I do, others who are aware will know the reasons of why
3. How little I actually want to work towards the two former thoughts.

Nate

Comment from Elizabeth K
Time December 29, 2008 at 2:48 pm

Excellent words, James. Another good eye-opener for me.

I remember being shocked when I vaguely began to realize that God or His word had something to do with things that I never associated with Him – “non spiritual” things. It also carried a sense of guilt, as if I was defiling Him or committing the ultimate blasphemy, to allow Him any space in my life while I was at school, or at work, or doing anything other than “ministry” or hanging out with Christian friends.

Although it had its purpose, it still saddens me that I missed out on so much of life together with Him. A towering snow-covered mountain becomes even more magnificent when I am viewing it with Him in mind. A conversation with someone else becomes much more interesting when I hear His truth from the perspective of another, even unwittingly from a Non-believer. The principles in many a book or even a movie can be applied to all areas of life as God reveals His direction or wisdom to me through them. God’s existence is not limited to great men of the past, church and the Bible, even though He may be more blatant in them and they are our standards…. It is still often difficult for me to see the reality of God everywhere and in everything, but only because of my lack of knowledge and faith, not because His Spirit isn’t always present in me.

Comment from jrmallory
Time December 29, 2008 at 11:51 pm

Thanks Nate. I love item 3 on your list. Well, I love it in the sense it is very true, but not in that I enjoy it. Yeah, I guess if I actually measured my desire not by the flurry of emotions but my actions doubt I would consider myself as passionate…

Comment from Melissa
Time December 30, 2008 at 11:25 pm

“Leave the rest to me, I cried, every stab of pain and worldly frustration I will bear alone. And the devil grinned, reveling in his ruse.”
I’m pretty sure I struggle with this daily!! This was a great read….. flowing quite nicely. Will this be part of book?

Comment from Charlotte
Time January 3, 2009 at 9:02 am

This is very good. I will leave my message on your Vox site which linked to this.

Comment from jrmallory
Time January 5, 2009 at 12:41 am

Charlotte — Thanks for the comments. I couldn’t agree me, the association with Calvinism is unmistakable and unfortunate. I guess Christians have just thrown the baby out with the bathwater. I assume it’s in reaction to the ‘me’ centered ethic of America as of late. But sad that the solution is to claim that God doesn’t care about us.

Melissa – Yeah, this is a tricky one for me. Definitely a battle for the long haul. And yes, I hope to put all these together and make some sort of book out of it. We’ll see!

Elizabeth — Yes, I guess that is what makes our relationship with Christ truly compelling. There is never the sense that you’ve explored all there is to see. Both learning about Him and also learning to simply see what has always existing, yet unseen.

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