Well, we had our first real taste of winter this week, as temperatures dipped down to the 20s at night and ice covered our birdbaths and frosted the fields. On Wednesday morning, I had the heated seats in my Jetta turned all the way up, but I still shivered most of the way to the workshop I was giving at the McCordsville Wellness Center.
The topic of the workshop was stress and the holidays. Because I facilitate mindfulness groups at the hospital, the organizers wanted me to share some ideas on how to ease the stress we can feel as we try to tackle our long to-do lists, figure out how and when to do our holiday shopping, and try not to spend money we don’t have. Add to that list high expectations for Christmas cheer and brotherly love and you’ve got a classic recipe for holiday stress.
I like to invite people to share their own stories in the workshops I lead, and on Wednesday people talked about the different kinds of stresses they feel at the holidays. We noticed right away that we all felt stressed by different things. One person was feeling anxious about how or whether to make her mother’s rocky road fudge for the annual Christmas gathering. It was a tradition her grandmother started long ago, but this year, her daughter had told her not to bring the fudge unless she could figure out how to make her own marshmallows from scratch. Her daughter recently became vegan, which means she doesn’t eat anything that has an animal product in it. And—this may be a surprise to you, but marshmallows have gelatin in them, which is actually made from cow and pig parts. Sorry if you hadn’t heard that before—you may never look at a marshmallow quite the same way again.
Another person in the group shared that time is the culprit that causes her so much stress at the holidays—there’s just too much to do in too little time. A man sitting in the back said that going to the mall gives him anxiety attacks; he can’t deal with the crowds and the traffic. Another gentleman said he worries every year that he’ll be invited to parties on the same day…he dreads having to choose which one to accept and which one to decline. He doesn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings.
As we talked, an interesting theme began to emerge. We could see that even though we all have different things that cause us stress, we shared a common, human reaction to it: When we feel stressed, our natural response is to pull away, to shut down, go within, pull the blinds, and pretend not to be home. We need to put a safe distance between us and what’s causing the stress. A moment of protection, so we don’t feel quite so vulnerable to all the things that are pulling on us. And if those we love don’t recognize our stressed out signals, we might bark at them in response. That’s our hard-wired, fight-or-flight reaction kicking in, trying to help us cope.
What fascinates me here—and where I see the potential for God’s intervening—is how our energy can shift, depending on whether we’re feeling stressed or we’re feeling peaceful. When we feel relaxed, supported, and safe, it’s easy to smile, to be generous, to enjoy the company of others. Our warm light shines naturally. We don’t even have to think about it. No one needs to look too hard to see God’s love in our eyes and our hearts. They can feel it as a loving, calm energy. And just by being close by, those around us may start to feel the same way.
But when we’re feeling stressed, our energy is much different. We pull away from people, we feel on edge, we may be short-fused and impatient, perhaps inwardly criticizing ourselves or others. It’s hard to feel the glow of God’s love when we’re super stressed—or when we’re standing beside someone else who is super stressed.
I think it’s a purposeful part of the way we’re made, that we pick up on each other’s signals—and broadcast our own—whether our energy is happy and loving or hurting and anxious. That’s one of the ways God makes it possible for us to share joys and burdens. No words even need to be said—often with a look in someone’s eyes, or maybe even less than that–we can feel someone’s impatience, their good mood; we can recognize sadness, or share a quiet joy.
And even though it might sound nice to be around happy, shining people all the time, we don’t have to look far to recognize that people around us are hurting, fearful, and struggling in our world today. And even though that’s true—it’s also not an unchangeable reality. As creative beings, as children of the light, we can use our God-given energy—this glow of love—to improve our environment, to connect with others, to help lift burdens where we can.
And this can happen so much faster and so much easier than we think. Last Christmas I was in a long line at Kroger. People were buying gift certificates and cashing checks and getting lottery tickets. There were at least 15 people in the line I was standing in. I was about halfway back and I could feel the grumbling and the hear impatient sighs of those around me. Everyone seemed uptight and annoyed. And then suddenly the elderly man in the front of the line said something and laughed loudly, and one person after another started laughing in response. Instantly the tension dissolved, and we relaxed. It was a moment I’ll always remember that shows how fast things can change for the better. One moment, we were a line of stressed, disconnected people, and the next, smiling, friendly folks of all types were enjoying a laugh together.
The light doesn’t need a lot of time to work. All it takes is a heart that is willing to be uplifted, willing to start a chain reaction.
Years ago, I learned that gratitude instantly dissolves stress. If you’ll try it, you’ll see that no matter how small the thankful idea might be, you can immediately feel a difference. One reason for this is that gratitude is a quality that connects us with the light of God within us, in the here-and-now, whatever we’re experiencing. When we can find something to be grateful for, even the tiniest thing, we’re saying, in effect, “Oh, there you are, God. I see you!” And that realization calms us, reassures us, and reminds us that God’s light is at work in our circumstances..
I learned this from experience a dozen years ago. The night before a big presentation, I woke up sick about 2AM. I immediately started to panic. The thought in my head was, “I can’t be sick! I can’t be sick!” It did occur to me to pray, but even my prayer was just, “God, I can’t be sick!”
After struggling for a few moments, I came up with a real prayer. It was something like, “God, this presentation tomorrow is really important to me. Will you please help me feel better?” And the answer—as clear as any answer to any prayer I’ve ever had—was just two simple words: “Thank me.” I was baffled. “Thank you?” I asked. “Thank you that I woke up sick?” For a minute or two, I couldn’t understand how I could thank God for feeling so bad and so stressed in the middle of the night.
But then, quietly, a few ideas started to bubble up.
“Okay, well, thank you that I’m not worse than I am.”
“Thank you that I still have four hours til I need to get up.”
And then arose a thank you that I really felt: “Thank you that I’m warm. Thank you that these covers are soft.”
And then a deeper thanks, “Thank you that you know everything about me. You know what my body needs. You know how to bring it back into balance in the blink of an eye.”
I felt myself growing more peaceful. The panic was fading. “Thank you for being with me,” I prayed. “Thank you for calming my fear.”
I settled into the pillows and felt my muscles relax. I remember turning my head and looking out the window, where I could see the stars on that cold night. I gently drifted back off to sleep. And when I woke in the morning, I felt fine. There was no trace of the illness that had seemed so real to me in the middle of the night.
That experience taught me that gratitude is not only something we feel when things are going our way, but it’s also an active, creative energy that can change our reactions to our stressful experiences, turning them into moments that glow with the light of God. We’ve heard Paul say in 1 Thessalonians, “In all things, give thanks,” and this is what I think he means—we can always be thankful because God is present in every circumstance, in every moment of our lives. If we look for God, we will find something to be grateful for, and our energy—and maybe the energy of those around us—will start to lift and shine.
Our New Testament reading today suggests this glow of gratitude is one of the fruits of the light found in all that is good and right and true. Those are qualities of God, qualities that gratitude helps us see. Paul ends this passage to the Ephesians with, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Being grateful—even in difficult or challenging circumstances—helps to wake us up from the sleep of a stressed and deadened life, making us aware of the light of God, within us and all around us.
One of my favorite Mary Oliver poems speaks of this idea—how the shining of the light gives our lives meaning and presence and peace. This glow, we learn, is mystery as well as ministry:
The Buddha’s Last Instruction by Mary Oliver
“Make of yourself a light,”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal — a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything t
hat had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire —
clearly I’m not needed, y
et I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.
Those last lines are so powerful, aren’t they? Slowly, beneath the branches, he raised his head. He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.
Maybe for us, the frightened crowd is the group of stressed out people we meet at the mall. The guy that cuts us off in traffic. The person in the workshop worrying about marshmallows and her relationship with her daughter. How can we bring light to the hurting and frightened crowds that we meet? How can we shine the peace we’ve found into their circumstances?
Buddha said, “Make yourself a light.” Jesus said, “Let your light shine,” and Paul reminds us that the light that shines through us is the light of God, bringing all that is good and right and true into our world. And for that, we can be truly and eternally grateful.
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- OT: Psalm 103: 1-5
- NT: Ephesians 5: 8-14