February 19, 2017
We are living in stressful times. I bet you’re feeling it. I know I am.
Between the years 1983 and 2009, stress increased 18 percent for women and 24 percent for men. That’s according to research at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Hit especially hard were people with lower incomes and less education. Overall, most of us are feeling more stress today because of economic pressures and the difficulty of protecting ourselves from the world and its constant flow of information. These days, just reading the morning newspaper is a stressful experience.
But there is some good news, according to USA TODAY (June 13, 2012): Stress decreases as you age. Yes, that’s right. If you can stay alive and keep aging, eventually you’ll feel less stress. If I can live to be 100, I’ll be a very mellow man.
So what are people doing to deal with their stress? Adult coloring books are huge right now, and some are actually advertizing “stress relieving patterns.” The Washington Post (May 2, 2016) reports that about 12 million adult coloring books were sold in the United States in 2015. Books have been created for fans of cats, fans of Taylor Swift, and even fans of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Adult coloring books are being developed for anyone with a need to relax. In other words, everybody.
People are also turning to technology. Oddly enough, the smartphones that create so much stress for us are also trying to help us relax. These devices normally make us anxious by buzzing and pinging at us, constantly demanding our attention. But now apps are being developed to calm us down.
One of these apps is called “Headspace,” according to The New York Times (May 4, 2016). It offers a guided meditation in which a narrator “talks through a mental exercise and meditation session intended to help meet a goal, such as reducing stress or coping with anxiety.”
Another guided meditation app is called “Calm.” It is simpler than Headspace, and offers themes such as “coastline at sunset” or “fireplace,” accompanied by a soothing soundtrack. Ahhhhh.
I don’t want any of you to download these apps right now. Please wait until after the sermon. But if you really need to use your phone, go to a search engine and type in Psalm 119, verses 33 through 40. That is our Scripture lesson for today.
Each of us needs stress relief, and there is nothing wrong with adult coloring books and smartphone apps. But long before any of these approaches were invented, Psalm 119 provided people with a path to inner peace. This biblical song promises to teach us God’s ways, with no need for colored pencils or a handheld electronic device. You can call it God’s Life-App.
So what does it do? More than you might think. The first feature of God’s Life-App connects us to God and to God’s ways. “Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes,” says the psalm, “Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it” (Psalm 119:33-35). The psalm-writer wants to learn God’s statutes, laws, and commandments — not because there is value in a list of rules and regulations, but because these guidelines contain the way to life and peace.
Think of the Ten Commandments, every one of which is designed to help us, not hurt us. These laws are created to make us feel good, not bad. Every one of them is intended to be life-enhancing and to give us a positive framework for our words and actions. I won’t go through them one by one, but they do break down nicely into two major sections: The first four commandments provide us with guidance for our relationship with God, while the last six explain what it means to have a healthy relationship with each other (Exodus 20:1-17).
Our Presbyterian ancestor John Calvin saw this. He said that God divided the law into two parts: The first part dealt with the worship of God’s majesty, and the second part dealt with “the duties of love” that have to do with people. The two parts are equally life-enhancing, and equally important for inner peace. I believe that Jesus had this same approach in mind when he said that the greatest commandment was to “love the Lord your God” and also to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:36-40).
Love the Lord. Love your neighbor. These are the path of God’s commandments — a single path that contains both the Ten Commandments and the great commandment of Jesus. Nothing can be more calming than the knowledge that we are right with God and right with our neighbors, walking in God’s ways.
But that’s not all that Psalm 119 gives us. The second feature of God’s Life-App steers us away from the stresses of the world around us. “Turn my heart to your decrees,” says the psalm, “and not to selfish gain. Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways” (vv. 36-37). Instead of focusing on a soothing soundtrack, the psalm advises us to turn away from “selfish gain” (v. 36). Rather than looking at a “coastline at sunset,” the psalm tells us to turn our eyes away from vanities (v. 37).
Selfish gain and vanities. There is so much of this, all around us. We see it on Wall Street, in Hollywood, and in Washington, DC. Even our state governments are in the business of dangling riches in front of us through lottery ads, inviting us to “play a little,” “give your dream a chance,” or “imagine the possibilities.”
But guess what? These dreams and possibilities are stress-producing and life-diminishing. They hurt us instead of helping us. Fortune magazine (January 15, 2016) reports that 44 percent of people who have won large lottery prizes are broke within five years. Nearly a third declare bankruptcy — meaning they end up worse than before they became rich. Lottery winners frequently become estranged from family and friends, and they have high rates of depression, drug and alcohol abuse, divorce, and suicide.
Better to turn our hearts to God’s decrees, and receive the life that God wants to give us. In her sermon last week, Yena warned about the trappings of something new and shiny that distract God’s people “from remembering who they are in God and what God has done for them.”
The features of God’s Life-App are first, to walk in God’s ways, and second, to walk away from the ways of the stressful world around us. Put the two together, and you get a Life-App that comes with a totally free and unexpected promise from God. “Confirm to your servant your promise,” says the psalm. “Turn away the disgrace that I dread, for your ordinances are good. See, I have longed for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life” (vv. 38-40).
God has made us a promise: To give life to those who respect him and walk in his ways. This is a life of right relationship with God, and it includes following the ordinances, precepts and commandments of God. Now I know that this might sound intimidating, but the good news is that we do not have to walk this path perfectly. None of us can follow God’s laws to the letter. This is beyond our ability, which Jesus himself realized when he said, “No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18).
The challenge for us is to walk in God’s ways by walking with Jesus. And in recent weeks here at FPC, we have been fortunate to hear a number of Scripture passages that include the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount. We need these words to keep us grounded in our Christian convictions and walking in the ways of God. A couple of weeks ago, I preached on how we are supposed to be righteous — even more righteous than the Pharisees. If you were here, you heard me define righteousness as “right relationship” — right relationship with God and right relationships with one another.
And now today, here comes that word again. Our passage from Psalm 119 ends with a request to God: “in your righteousness give me life” (v. 40). The psalm-writer knew that the best life comes from having a right relationship with God and with the people around us. Jesus understood this as well, knowing that right relationships were the key to relieving stress and achieving peace.
So let’s go back to a passage from the Sermon on the Mount, one that I jumped over in my recent sermons. In this passage, Jesus talks a lot about righteousness. But I want us to do a quick substitution, putting the words “right relationship” in place of the word “righteousness.” This substitution can unlock the meaning of what Jesus was saying to his followers.
Matthew tells us that when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up a mountain by the Sea of Galilee and delivered his Sermon on the Mount. On my trip to Israel last summer, I learned that the natural acoustics of this hillside are excellent, so it makes perfect sense that Jesus could be heard by a large crowd of people. Then he began to speak, and he taught them, saying:
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for right relationships,” said Jesus, “for they will be filled” (5:6). Right relationships with God and with the people around us will fill us and complete us, more than any of the riches of the world.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of right relationships,” said Jesus, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v. 10). When we take stands for God and for our vulnerable neighbors, we will be rewarded — maybe not on earth, but certainly in heaven.
Here in Fairfax, I want us to take stands for our homeless neighbors who need affordable housing; our Muslim neighbors who are viewed with suspicion; and our Spanish-speaking neighbors who are treated unfairly at the Waples Mill mobile home park. We need to have relationships with these neighbors — right relationships.
“Unless your right relationships exceed those of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 20). Right relationships might not seem important to everyone, including the scribes and Pharisees of the world today. But they are the key to eternal peace in the kingdom of heaven.
God’s Life-App is all about right relationships. It connects us to God and God’s ways, and it helps us to avoid the ways of the stressful world around us. Put these two features together, and you will receive God’s promise of life. This is a righteous life, and it is the key to reducing stress and finding inner calm, in every time and place and situation.
No smartphone required. Amen.
Brinton, Henry and Vikram Khanna. Ten Commandments of Faith and Fitness. Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 2008. 7-8.
Eaton, Kit. “The Smartphone Way to Inner Calm.” The New York Times, May 4, 2016, 2106, www.nytimes.com.
Ric Edelman, “Why So Many Lottery Winners Go Broke,” Fortune, January 15, 2016, http://fortune.com.
Faller, Fred. “Right or Righteous?” Disciples Today, May 28, 2015, www.disciplestoday.org.
Jayson, Sharon. “Stress levels increased since 1983, new analysis shows.” USA TODAY, June 13, 2012, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com.
Krug, Nora. “Why adults coloring books are the latest trend.” The Washington Post, May 2, 2016, www.washingtonpost.com.