Stress: A Pathway to Prayer?

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StressYour refrigerator just conked, your boss is threatening more lay-offs, your back aches, your checks bounce, your head throbs, and your dog ate the neighbor's newly planted pansies. The last thing you need is some chirpy voice from the remote land of spirituality counseling, "Pray."

But maybe that's exactly what's needed. We tend to avoid prayer when we desperately need it most. It could be similar to this situation: the computer geek explains a short-cut that takes twenty minutes to learn. Knowing it will save hours! But do you learn it? Of course not! You're too busy to take that twenty minutes.

Such short-sightedness can also interfere with a habit of prayer that could take even less time. If you've got an hour to crash in front of t.v. or the time it takes to fix a drink and consume it, you've got breathing room to pray. And the rewards will be much greater.

Stress is here to stay. So what are the blessings in this darkly wrapped package? How can it become a pathway to prayer? Several suggestions follow.

Jesus and Stress
If we think of Jesus as floating amiably three feet above earth, never dirtying his hands or his garments, always surrounded by a golden aura and enjoying a perpetual serenity, the gospels quickly correct that image. John 6, for instance, tells of Jesus crossing the Sea of Galilee, followed by a large crowd. Tired and hungry, he sits down to rest with his friends. But guess what? A large, demanding, hungry crowd invades their privacy.

Some of us would run the other way. But Jesus asks Philip where to buy bread to feed them. That leads to the miraculous feeding of five thousand. Afterwards, realizing the people want to make him king, Jesus "withdrew again to the mountain by himself" (15).

That alternation between action and prayer seems to be a constant rhythm in his life. He never says, "Today I fed five thousand, or cured a leper. I don't need to pray." Or, "Those Pharisees are really stressing me out! No prayer today!" He seems to draw the strength and energy for draining work from life-giving times apart with his Father. As regularly as we feed our bodies, he feeds his soul. And if he who was God needed such nourishment, how much more do we!

Restored Perspective
During our time apart, we remember we're not alone in the current dilemma. Nor have we been apart from God in any other crisis. We invoke God's enormous power and creativity to help us squeak through another tight spot, as God has done before.

Just as the tabernacle lamp draws attention to God's presence, so prayer is our response: we stand before God in need—again.

We've all muttered tensely through gritted teeth, "If you want me to ___ , God, I'll need your help!" Indeed, I once survived seven flight cancellations to give talks in Manhattan, NY and Manhattan, KS during the same blizzardy weekend, all fueled by prayer. As I sprinted through airports, I sang silently Amy Grant's song, "Breath of heaven, hold me together ... Pour over me your holiness, for you are holy." 

One benefit of prayerful journaling is the ability to read back over tense times in our past. We can see not only what troubled us, but how remote it seems now. Not to discount issues that were once important, but most of us can't even remember the problems we lost sleep over three years ago. In God's grand, cosmic design, our little snits and tensions seem like small potatoes indeed.

When we don't have the perspective of time, prayer gives us a similar distance. In even a few moments, we can slow down, breathe deeply, and remember it's all in God's hands—whatever trouble "it" is now.

During a crisis that makes us want to scream with frustration, the deep breath of prayer can remind us that this one will pass as others have. Some wonderful surprise could also emerge. As playwright James Goldman wrote in The Lion in Winter, "In a world where carpenters get resurrected, anything is possible."

A Broader Notion of Prayer
If we think of prayer as long, uninterrupted stretches in a quiet church or retreat house, we might get more stressed out worrying that we'll never achieve that. Instead, we might want to think of prayer in terms of the different voices heard in John 11:1-44.

It's definitely a stressful situation. Lazarus, the beloved brother of Martha and Mary has just died. Making matters worse, Jesus has delayed coming, even though he knew Lazarus was ill. His disciples are annoyed with him for returning to an area where the Jews were just trying to stone him. Emotions must be running high, but various forms of prayer appear during the crisis.