By Father Richard S. Jones
Chaplain, UPMC Mercy Hospital
There is a psychological assessment tool called the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory that ranks stressful life events. The top ten, in descending order, are:
- Death of spouse or child
- Marital separation
- Death of a close family member
- Personal injury or illness
- Dismissal from work
- Marital reconciliation
The group that developed the tool has also made 10 recommendation for coping with stressful situations: Acknowledge the stress; don’t act, but practice mindfulness and meditation (which Christians can interpret as prayerful reflection); practice self-care; get support; clear the clutter (open space, calm mind); exercise; get a massage; eat well; have a cup of tea; practice stress prevention.
These are all recommendations that Christians can follow. We are as likely to endure stress as anyone else. Acceptance of Jesus does not guarantee that we will sail on trouble-free waters. But we also have a power to draw on that is greater than ourselves, and greater than our human support systems.
The apostles were rowing across a placid lake in the cool of the evening when a storm arose. Suddenly they were in mortal danger. Despite being experienced seamen, they were paralyzed with fear. The waters were vast, powerful and unpredictable. And where was Jesus? Sound asleep!
They thought he didn’t care about their plight – but he most certainly did. When he woke, he spoke to the wind, and everything calmed. He chided the disciples for their lack of faith. When we are stressed and afraid, we need to turn first to Jesus.
Within each one of us is the grace of the “awakened” Jesus: the wisdom, the patience, the courage to discern the presence of God amid the storms of tension, fear, anxiety, and injustice that batter our lives.
The Church has never existed without a storm. The New Testament has many accounts of severe conflict among the first believers – and God saw fit for us to know that. We must face the fact that, as long as the Church is made up of fallible human beings, and the world is made up of fallible human beings, we will experience storms. The only question will be what we do in times of storm.
Christ told his disciples not to be afraid. Every storm offers an opportunity to grow in faith, to express it in ways we have not experienced in the past. Without storms, our faith would remain shallow and weak, a blithe acceptance of things as they are because there was never a chance for things to be different.
While we are tossed about in a storm, our faith can reach out to Christ in a more profound way. During each story, we may fear that it will never end, that this disruption of our lives will continue forever. But we will later look back – in this life or the next – and see God and faith at work. Then we will rejoice and praise God. Until then, we need to recall the words of Christ amid the storm, “It is I, do not be afraid.”
As the Trappist monk, mystic, and spiritual writer Thomas Merton wrote—“ My moments of depression and despair turn out to renewals, new beginnings.” Stuck or powerless, we turn to God for help and so find him again.
Lord God, help me not to be fearful or anxious about tomorrow, help me to take each day at a time, trusting that you care about me. The Christian story is the dynamic back-and-forth between human fear and divine embrace. Jesus wants and expects us to ask him for whatever we need. He is always aware and concerned—no matter how bleak the circumstances may look. When we are conscious of his presence in the boat with us, he will give us peace in all the storms of our lives.
Jesus gives us peace in the storm of sorrow. He changes the darkness of death into the sunshine of eternal life. Jesus gives us peace when problems assail us in a tempest of doubt, fear, tension and uncertainty. We should not worry, because we can pray instead. In the storm of anxiety, he brings the peace that flows from God’s boundless love for each of us.