November 20, 2016
Anthem: Sing of the Lord's GoodnessSenior Choir
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
Last week on my way to Dawn Christenson’s Ecclesiastical Council, I caught a replay of the NPR Science Friday show. One of the segments was on post election stress. The host was interviewing Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist and researcher at the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism at Stanford University. The host asked, how do we get rid of stress?
I have bad news and I have good news. The bad news is that chances are, we cannot get rid of a lot of our stress.
But there are several forms of good news. The first is that stress is not all bad. Stress is a signal that something we care about is in jeopardy. Stress is a signal that something we love is not safe.
There is more good news, namely that we have different stress responses. And if we can change our responses to the stress, we can find new ways through it.
One of the stress responses we have seen so much of in the lead up to the election, which has not abated following the election either, manifests itself as social distrust. We circle the wagons; we name, blame and publically shame someone; we scapegoat. This response is a threat response. It puts us into a mode of fight or flight reactions.
Fight or flight reaction is a survival mechanism. As the comedian Gallagher used to say, we did not descend from slow cavemen who got ate up by saber toothed tigers. We descended from the quick ones who got back to the cave.
But when the stressors in our life are not a limited encounter, but a prolonged slog through difficulty, the fight or flight reaction takes its toll on our immune system. There is even evidence that prolonged time in a threat reaction mode alters our gene expression. It manifests as despair and illness and can change us on the genetic level.
This is where the disciples are in today’s reading. Three times they express this circle the wagons, threat response, fight or flight way of thinking:
An argument arose among
them as to which one of
them was the greatest.
Fight or flight means somebody has to win.
Master, we saw someone casting
out demons in your name,
and we tried to stop him,
because he does not follow with us.
Threat response says if you are not for us, you are against us.
On their way they entered a village
of the Samaritans to make ready for him;
but they did not receive him,
because his face was set towards Jerusalem.
When his disciples James and John saw it,
they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command
fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’
The reason he was not received, it tells us, is that his face was set towards Jerusalem. He had no intention to stay in this Samaritan village, no sermon to give. He was headed to the Temple.
But his disciples don’t care about the reasons. They are insulted on his behalf. At the beginning of this same chapter in Luke, Jesus told them that if a place did not receive them, they just need to shake the dust off your sandals and keep going.
Fight or flight has little room for dust shaking. It wants a good smiting.
That the disciples are stressed is understandable. Jesus has told them the terrible things that will happen to him. And if they do not understand them, that may mean more stress, not less.
To each of their expressions of this threat response, Jesus has an answer:
Welcome the children. Be like the children.
For the least among you will be the greatest.
Serve the least of these in your midst and
you will see what greatness looks like.
Do not stop the man doing good things
and healing in my name.
For whoever is not against us is for us.
And in the last instance, Jesus does not even bother with another lesson. He turns and rebukes them. I do not know what the Aramaic word for “Knock it off!” is but I can imagine the tone of voice.
Thanks be to God that there are other stress responses, not just this threat response and social distrust that wrecks our body, mind and spirit.
One of these stress responses is a challenge response. Whatever the stress is, it gives us energy and a call to action. It allows us to move and act and seek solutions.
Is this not half of the commentary during sporting events, whether the Olympics or football or basketball. “They came out of that locker room like a new team.” “I don’t know where she found that, but she dug deep and found a new gear.” “They rose to the challenge.”
At Stanford, they have done studies of this challenge response. What they found is that when they reminded people that people can change, that situations can be changed, people are more likely to speak up against bias, against racism and sexism, were more able to collaborate and interact with people with whom they disagreed rather than avoid them or humiliate them. And aren’t avoidance and humiliation just the social and emotional versions of flight and fight?
For many of us, it is easier to avoid those who are different, or to try and humiliate them. The left mocks Trump and his supporters; the right mocks Clinton and her supporters. And if we do in on Facebook, chances are we have already culled our friends list so that we are saying it to likeminded folks anyway.
This is not a liberal or conservative problem. This is not a left or right problem. This is not a Christian or non-Christian problem. This is a human problem.
Two more pieces of good news to come out of the studies about our stress responses. The first is that community is a buffer against the harmful aspects of stress. Election stress was so much bigger than personal stress. Broken world stress is so much bigger than personal stress. So we need connections with others, a community to which we belong, so that we are a part of something positive that is bigger than our personal stress as well. We call it church.
The other is that when we live a life composed of threat responses, we experience moral devaluation and despair. But, if we can find ways of experiencing moral elevation, we can counteract the despair and the devaluation. Things like giving to the coat drive, bringing in our brown bags of food, mentoring others, helping people, community dinners, Festival of Trees (the proceeds of which go to help people in our community). These acts, which Kelly McGonigal calls “moral elevation” are like an antidote to despair. Studies show that they actually boost the immune system.
We cannot change many of the stressors in our lives. Sad but true. But we can choose how we respond to them. And we can let the Gospel not only tell us what is important enough to be stressed about, and also guide us to better responses.
So that we might respond like Jesus and live.
Thanks be to God. Amen.