6 Ways to Combat Anxiety and Stress

Living UnAfraid means getting a handle on the anxiety that haunts many of us.  As part of the series on Living UnAfraid, yesterday after our service, we asked therapist, counselor and expert on anxiety, Matthew Swartz to come and talk to us.   Matthew ended the talk with 6 steps, 6 things that we can do to reduce anxiety and stress in our lives.   I will blog about one of these each day and we begin with Gratitude.   When you wake up (or anytime during the day)  list 5 things for which you are grateful .  I love the idea of turning our first thoughts in the morning to God, so let’s make this gratitude list a prayer.   “God, today I and thankful for….”   So how does gratitude reduce anxiety and stress?   We’ll get to that but first, let’s pause here for a little “word nerd”.   (You know how I love this stuff)   The word gratitude comes from the Latin word gratia which means grace, graciousness or gratefulness.  I love the connection between grace and gratefulness.   Grace (as defined by the United Methodist Church) is the “divine love that surrounds all humanity.”  In one sense gratitude is a natural response to grace.  We respond to God’s unconditional love that meets us as we are and where we are.  We respond by acknowledging the goodness in our lives.   And through that process we recognize and acknowledge the source of our goodness.  Gratitude connects us to God. 

There are some practical and psychological benefits to being grateful.   The Harvard Medical Journal has published several studies done by psychologists on the effects of gratitude.  In study after study controlled groups were asked to record  things for which they are grateful or in one study deliver a letters of gratitude.   The studies varied but the results were all the same.  In every case at the end of the study, people were more optimistic not only about their own lives but about the people around them, happier in general, experienced less stress and so on.    I was fascinated by one study from Wharton School.  (the following is an excerpt from Harvard Publishing – Harvard Medical School “Giving Thanks Makes You Happier.) 

“Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania randomly divided university fund-raisers into two groups. One group made phone calls to solicit alumni donations in the same way they always had. The second group — assigned to work on a different day — received a pep talk from the director of annual giving, who told the fund-raisers she was grateful for their efforts. During the following week, the university employees who heard her message of gratitude made 50% more fund-raising calls than those who did not.”

Being grateful can make us happier, calmer and  more productive.  Gratitude reminds us of the goodness all around us and connects us to the source of goodness, God.  

There is one more benefit that I find particularly helpful.  Taking our minds into a gratitude mode, blocks out negative thoughts which lead to negative emotions.    I may wake up and be reminded of something that causes me stress or anxiety.  I can jump down that rabbit hole, or I can turn to a different path.   Today, I am going to set the negative thoughts aside and list the things for which I am grateful.     

At this very moment, I am grateful to be able to write and blog and connect with so many people.   Truly, I am grateful for a path that leads me every day to some new thought or idea. 

Gratitude, Grace and Peace


Emotional Intelligence in Uncertain Times  

For this Lenten season I am travelling down the path of living UnAfraid in Uncertain Times.   I’m following the book by that title by Adam Hamilton which I highly recommend, but you don’t need to read to follow the blog.   I’m using that as a starting point, well actually as a goal.  Don’t we all want to go into life unafraid?   As for these being uncertain times….well, it goes without saying. 

The only thing certain in life is uncertainty.   We live in a world that is constantly changing at a pace that gets faster every day.  Change leads to uncertainty.   It feels like the world around us is moving so quickly; we are uncertain about how the world will look tomorrow.  Uncertainty makes us anxious and fearful.    Psychologists tell us that the key to being happier and more successful is learning to overcome anxiety and fear especially in the midst of uncertainty. The ability to resist being anxious and fearful and to control our emotions is called Emotional Intelligence.   The complete definition for EI is:  the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.  Emotional Intelligence is important but Psychology Today tells us there is no valid test of score for this.     Amen to that… let’s not give ourselves another score to worry about.   Emotional Intelligence is simply emotional smarts, getting smart and taking control  (as opposed to being controlled by fear and anxiety.)  Here’s  what I like about EI… it is not necessarily innate.  It can be learned.   So how do we do that?   How do we  override our brain’s natural tendency to rule by emotion when faced with uncertainty.  

The internet is filled with lists of things to do to get out of what is called the  “limbic system” in the brain and back to the more trusted rational side.  I’m going to focus on a  suggestion that  falls right in line with Lent.  It is to ground ourselves in the present.    When we are focused on the present there is not space to worry, fear or be anxious about the unknown.  Eckhart Tolle’s reminds us that focusing on the here and now can open the possibilities of our lives.  In the “present” we can acknowledge feelings of anxiety and fear for what they are… one side of our brain reacting naturally to some unknown or uncertainty.   Tolle says we can acknowledge these feelings and get comfortable with them.  That is a first step in managing them.  

More tomorrow.

Grace and Peace,


 “I’ll Be Home for Christmas; you can count on me. We’ll have snow and mistletoe, and presents under the tree. I’ll be Home for Christmas; where the love light gleams. I’ll be Home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”

That song is on the top ten of the Christmas playlists.  It is one of many about “home”.   So, why are we so obsessed with “home” at Christmas?  Of course Christmas is about love coming to the world and we want to be with those we love. For some that describes home; but not for everyone.  Home is more than that.  We all love the song,  “I’ll be Home for Christmas” partly because in the end the writer is only at home in his dreams.  We can all get there, right?   “Home” is a state of mind.  It is a place of love and comfort, a place where we are accepted for who we are, where we can truly be ourselves.  Let’s remember that we celebrate Christmas because of the baby in the manger.  A baby who was and is “God with us.”  Jesus would redefine “home” and acceptance.  His new version of home is one where all are welcome; where all of loved, just as they are.  We have a saying at Royal Oak First, 

No matter where you’ve been or what you’ve been through,

No matter whom you love or who loves you,

You are welcome here.

Now that’s home.  Home becomes more than a state of mind; it is a state of “soul”.   Our souls find rest in the home of love. 

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve.  I say it once again, all pastors are like Santa Claus, Christmas Eve is our big night.  At our church we have five services from 11 am until 11Pm.   I am privileged to preach the 11 am service and believe me as I type this blog, I have “miles to go before I sleep”.   So it is time to bring this Advent blog home.   Thank you for coming on the journey to Christmas with me.    I leave you with the words from one of my favorite Christmas songs, and coincidentally the title of my sermon for tomorrow.   Celebrate Me Home. 

Please, celebrate me home
Play me one more song,
That I’ll always remember,
And I can recall, whenever I find myself too all alone,
I can sing me home.   

This Christmas may you find that “one more song”… so you can remember just how much God loves you; so you can remember that never ending, undeserved, unconditional love whenever you find yourself too alone.. You can remember and sing yourself home. 

Grace and Peace at Advent,


23 Days of Advent-Day 22 Little Debbie Christmas

It’s time.  I’m going into the vault for one of my favorite Christmas stories.  

When my oldest daughter started elementary school I learned quickly that what you take to school on your birthday separates the “sheep from the goats” ….at least in the Mom’s circles.  In the world of competitive parenting, there are extra points for those special birthday treats.  As a working mom in a school where working moms were not the norm, I felt the pressure to perform.  My daughter chose gingerbread men for her birthday treat.  From that moment on… not only for her but for her sister as well, the night before a birthday, I would stay up all night baking and decorating gingerbread men.  Yes, it took me all night. I’m not the world’s greatest baker and for every G-man who made it to the tray, two went to the trash as part of my self-imposed quality control.   My son came along and I continued the tradition, until he got to second grade.  The afternoon before his birthday, he laid it all on the line.  He told me that neither he nor any of his friends liked gingerbread.  Of course, silly me.  I never even asked him what he wanted.  “So what would you like me to bake?  He said, “Nothing…, why don’t you get some of those Little Debbie cakes at Kroger, everybody loves those.”   I’m thinking to myself…”Not as long as I live and breathe will a child of mine take store bought Little Debbie cakes for birthday snack… no way!”   I was not giving up. ” How about those chocolate/butterscotch cookies that you like.  Or maybe sugar cookies in the shapes of footballs or Mario… I could do that.”   “Mom, you don’t need to stay up all night baking cookies, just go get the Little Debbies.”   “But Stewart”, I whined, ” I want to bake for you and your friends. I stay up all night because I want the cookies to be just right.  And I do all of this because I love you.”  

With wisdom beyond his years and a no-nonsense voice that my son mastered at an early age, he looked me squarely in the eyes and said, “ I know that you love me, but do you love me enough to just go get the Little Debbie cakes?”  

I could hear the question loud and clear… do you love me enough to sit down all of your own anxieties about what a kid’s birthday snack should be?  Do you love me enough to walk away from that competitive parenting nonsense?  

On this, the 22 day of Advent, can you hear Jesus echoing those very words.   “Do you love me enough to just get the Little Debbies?   Do you love me enough to lay down all those notions about how society says my birthday should be celebrated?  Can you walk away from the perfect Christmas, the perfect dinner, the perfect gifts?   Christmas is three days away and if you are still asking if one green vegetable at your Christmas dinner is enough, I’ll tell you right now ….. it is.   Will your children or grandchildren think your gift is the best thing they have ever gotten…. probably not but 10 years from now they will not even remember that gift.  They will remember how long you hugged them, the time you took to listen to them.  They won’t remember how many green vegetables you had at the table.  They will remember the food you prepared to give away.  The question for you and for me is:  Do we love Jesus enough to push out the anxiety and just let the love in? 

Grace and Peace at Advent


It happens every year   I start the blog at the beginning of Advent thinking ….dang… 23 days (in past years as many as 28)….yes, dang… that seems like a lot of writing.  Then I get into it; I love researching, reading new things and writing about it. I love reading your comments and the emails that you send.   I look up and it is day 21 of 23.   As my grandchildren would say… there are three more sleeps until Christmas Eve which for me translates into three more blogs.  It’s time to put down the Levine book “Light of the World” and say farewell to Matthew.  The last three days of this sacred time belong to the Gospel of Luke. 

When we left the Gospel of Luke, Mary had given birth to her first born son, wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.   The Angel, then a heavenly host of Angels had appeared to the shepherds who were watching over their flocks by night.  The Angel said, “Don’t be afraid, I bring good news for all people, for unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior who is the Messiah.”  The Angel goes on to tell they shepherds that they will recognize this special baby because he is wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger. 

We pick up the story here. “ When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.  When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. “  Luke 2: 15-18

The shepherds hear the message of the Angels and they go to tell the story, a story they may not fully understand.  But they “go”  and they simply recount what they have seen and heard.  The result is amazing;  all who heard it were amazed.  Let that sink in a minute.  Often we hear God’s call, and we don’t fully understand what is being asked of us.  Like the shepherds, all we are required to do is tell what we know.  That is truly how evangelism works.  If there is any thing I have learned in two short years of being a pastor is that I do not have all the theology down, I simply have to take the next step and tell my story along the way.   That is what the shepherds bring to the story. The shepherds don’t ask a lot of questions, they don’t call in the Rabbi, they go to see the baby and tell what has happened to them.  They retell what the angels told them. In doing that they establish a connection with Mary and Joseph. They bring confirmation of a story from an Angel; what a relief that must have been for Mary.  What the Angel told her nine months ago, was true; it was all true.  With the shepherds, the Christmas connection continues to move among human beings. Jesus, still just a baby is bringing people together.  His story still brings people together; we call it Christmas.

Grace and Peace at Advent


Giving is just fun, it is joyful. Today our church opened a Holiday Free Store at a nearby school where many of the children might not get gifts at Christmas. Our entire congregation has been bringing toys and crafts and games for the past three weeks and today we laid them all out on tables. The children came in class by class and picked out one small gift and one larger gift and a book, then put it all in a special reusable holiday bag. It was so fun to watch the children come in and see the toys for the first time. They selected carefully and for the most part, quietly; they were grateful and they were kind to each other. The little boy who wanted the Magic Box saw that his friend wanted that too. He came and quietly told me to give it to her, he would find something else. (Luckily we had another Magic Box under the table or I might have had to race out and find one….) The gift of giving comes from The Wise Men who brought gifts to the baby Jesus.read more:

Yes, the giving of gifts is a gift and I am grateful to the Wise Men for kicking it off.  They brought the first gifts to Jesus,  gold frankincense and myrrh.   In “Light of the World”,  Amy-Jill Levine tells the story of a cartoon in New Yorker Magazine.   Mary and Joseph are sitting on the floor opening gifts and the caption reads, “oh good, there’s a receipt on the myrrh.”  There is a lot of speculation about what the gifts mean.  “Ireanaeus, the second-century Church Father from Lyon proposed that the gifts had practical purposes: the gold represented Jesus’ royal status; the myrrh was to anoint his corpse and so to show his humanity; the frankincense which was burnt on alters, symbolized his divinity.”  (Light of the Word, Levine)  I’m not sure about the frankincense and myrrh, but I’m guessing that the gold financed the last minute trip to Egypt.  (Joseph is warned in a dream that Herod intends to kill Jesus and he should take his family to Egypt.)

“Mary and Joseph do not say anything to the Magi, or the Magi to them.  The import for Matthew is their presence, indicating the universal rule of this new child, the yielding of all ancient wisdom to him, and the honor he receives from the equivalent of ancient science…. Advised against returning to Herod……’they went back to their own country by another route.’ (Matthew 2:12) They travel out of the text and into legend.” (Light of the World)  

And so the legend continues ….with every stately “king” who will enter the nativity scene this Christmas, with every gift that we give.  I’m grateful for the Wise Men. 

Grace and Peace at Advent


Star of Bethlehem Nativity

We’re talking about THE Star, the one that the Wise Men followed, the one that stopped over “the place where Jesus lay.”  There are lots of differing opinions about what that star could have been.  For today’s blog, I bring you two experts with very different views on the star and interestingly enough both are professors at Vanderbilt (my alma mater):  David Weintraub, professor of Astronomy and Amy-Jill Levin, professor of New Testament Studies and author of “Light of the World.”    It is not surprising to me how these two line up;  Weintraub the Astronomer makes a case for a real star that could in fact, appear to  move.  Levine has an entirely different perspective.   

Weintraub:  “One can claim that Matthew’s words describe a miracle, something beyond the laws of physics. But Matthew chose his words carefully and wrote “star in the east” twice, which suggests that these words hold a specific importance for his readers.”  Weintraub explains that “in the east” comes from the Greek phrase en te anatole.  This is a mathematical and astrological term used in ancient Greece to describe a very specific phenomenon.  Ent e anatole describes the sighting of a planet that appears in the east for only a short time.

“Though the planets, sun and moon move along approximately the same path through the background stars, they travel at different speeds, so they often lap each other. When the sun catches up with a planet, we can’t see the planet, but when the sun passes far enough beyond it, the planet reappears.”  (Modern astrologers call this a heliacal rising.)

Levine is not buying the heliacal rising theory.  Levine:  “Let’s think about this, Stars, which are giant balls of gas that fuse hydrogen into helium in a thermonuclear way do not function like GPS systems, first dropping the Magi off in Jerusalem and then rerouting to get them to the suburbs.  (Bethlehem is about five miles south-southwest of Jerusalem.)…… The star of Bethlehem is not about science it is about a search for meaning.   The star of Matthew’s second chapter is not a star as we understand starts.  People in antiquity did  not know about thermonuclear fusion or every how big starts are.  In the ancient world, stars were sentient beings, gods, or the souls of the righteous or angels.   The star is a heavenly messenger not a science lesson.” 

A couple of things strike me about these opinions.  First Weintraub, the scientist is offering a possibility.  This is what does happen; this is what could have happened.   Levine is putting a stake in the ground.   The Star in the East is not scientific… it is not even a star.   (I have mentioned it several times:  I have a love/hate relationship with Levine’s writings.  I often do not agree with what she says but I always learn something new from her work.)  

So where does this leave us.   I fall down on the side that there was a brighter than usual star in the sky but that does not exclude the possibilities of symbolism and what the star can mean in our celebration of Christmas.   Stars are a system of navigation and have been throughout history.   If you can find the north star, you can know where you are.   The story of the birth of Jesus truly needs a star, because with his birth the human race is  about to reset our compass and our direction.   Whatever it was; whatever it is, the star is about lining up our lives on the course that Jesus set.  

Oh, star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright.
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide with thy perfect light.

Guide on Star; guide on.

Grace and Peace at Advent.


So here we are, the manger scene is set.  Mary and Joseph are in the stable, the baby Jesus is in the manger; the shepherds have come to visit.   Then, here come the Kings to steal the show…  In every nativity pageant there is this regal moment when the 3 Kings enter the picture, with their glitter crowns and colorful costumes.  And the Kings come bearing gifts.  In all of my years producing the Children’s Christmas Eve pageant at church, I never had any trouble casting the kings.  Seriously, given the choice between a scrap of brown material tied around your head or a crown… the crown wins every time.   For a moment, let’s get past the glitter and the gold and look closely at the three men who visit Jesus. 

First, to find the Wise Men, we have to stay in the Gospel of  Matthew.   That is the only place where the visit of these men.     Interesting note:  in  the Greek,  Matthew uses the word μάγοι which means Magi.  Translators have added the term “wise men”… because Magi were known to be astrologers who were in fact “wise”.  And the crowns:…well, history has added that; it makes a better  entrance. 

Matthew 2:1  In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men[a] from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 

Look at how that begins.  “In the time of King Herod.”   Matthew sets the date and let’s us know that the story is taking a political turn.  These verses take us into  an involved story where the Magi go into Jerusalem and start asking about the King of the Jews, not such a “wise” move.  Yes, these “wise men” go into King Herod’s court and ask about another King… the King of the Jews which brings Herod into the story; no good comes from that.  I have wondered just what the “wise men” were doing in Jerusalem.   They were astrologers following a star.  All they had to do was follow that star, but somewhere along the line they were distracted by the bright lights of the city.   Maybe they had doubts.  Maybe they wanted confirmation.  But their misguided track into the city would take the story into a dark, dark place. Herod asks the Magi to come back after they find Jesus.  They do not, and in response (according to Matthew) Herod would order the murder of all Jewish baby boys under two in an attempt to kill Jesus. 

So what about the star?  The star that led the Wise Men to search for the baby Jesus.    I’ve been fascinated by the star that “stopped over the place where Jesus lay.”   Can a star stop?   Is this really a star as we know stars today? 

More on that tomorrow.

Grace and Peace at Advent


It’s the story of a man, who comes from the finest lineage in the land.  He is engaged to a beautiful young girl when …bum, bum bum …. he learns that the girl is pregnant.  What will he do?  Will he dismiss her quietly?   Read for yourself.   The Christmas story in the Gospel of Matthew:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
    and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.”  When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,  but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

And that’s all folks…No manger, no shepherds, no Angel coming to Mary, no Mary visit to Elizabeth in fact no real Mary story at all.  Matthew is Joseph’s story which to be honest, I find very strange.  Even the birth of Jesus, yes child birth, the birth of the son of God is relegated to a line about Joseph’s abstinence.  “he took her as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son, and he named him Jesus…”

It’s good I suppose to see all of this from Joseph’s perspective, but can you imagine our Christmas celebration without the Gospel of Luke.   Do you remember those first verses in Luke where he says,  lots of people have told this story, but that he has investigated it and feels that it is important to tell his version.  Amen to that.   If I am ever critical of the Luke version of the Christmas story, I just read Matthew. After all these years and reading it hundreds of times,  I am still a little blown away by the …Joseph didn’t have sex with Mary (yeah Joseph)….until she had a baby who Joseph named Jesus.    

I know, I know.  It was a man’s world and Matthew is writing to the Jews of the day.  Still, I find comfort in the fact that the baby Joseph named Jesus, will turn all of those cultural norms upside down.  Jesus changes everything. 

We will give Matthew credit for the Wise Men… those kingly men from the east who came bearing gifts that are only found in this Gospel.   More on that tomorrow.

Grace and Peace at Advent


“Like Photographs, (at least before we all started snapping pictures on our phones,) the Gospel stories develop over time.  Each subsequent report in Luke, each reference to an angel, to a meal, to a promise, will give new meaning to the Christmas events.”  (Light of the World, Amy-Jill Levine).

We’ve all seen the photographic process in person or at least in a movie…. the paper that looks blank goes into one solution then another and gradually a picture emerges. I love this image and the connection to the Christmas story.   For a picture to emerge, the paper is transformed.   Look back at the lives of people that we have met in the Gospel of Luke, their lives are transformed.  God kicks off the transformation by sending in the first Angel and the lives of Zechariah and Elizabeth are changed forever.  Another Angel enters the story with Mary, but her visit to Elizabeth makes it all real for both women.  Mary and Elizabeth are not experiencing normal pregnancies.  They start to really understand what that means when they are together.   The Angels come to the shepherds, but think about the impact of their visit to the manger.   Mary gives birth in a humble setting.  She finds herself with a new baby and a husband who is not really the father of that baby.   Did she start to wonder if all of this was a bad dream?  Did she just imagine that Angel?  Enter the Shepherds.

“Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them., with the story of the Angels and the “good news”.     

Mary and Joseph have just had the amazing story confirmed.  Angels may be hard for your human brains to comprehend, but the shepherds.  Real people.  Real. hard working, no agenda people.    The shepherds link into the big story, in a big way.   They tell their experience with the Angels and the good news that is centered on a baby… Mary’s baby, in the manger.  Mary treasured these words in her heart.   Mary has truly been transformed; giving birth to the Savior of the world just got real. 

Back to image of the developing photograph.  Can you see the story coming together?   Stories like photographs take time.  Let’s time some time in the last week before Christmas to see how the full story develops for us today. 

Grace and Peace at Advent