perceived stress

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The scripture for this past Sunday was the story of Jesus’ followers trying to figure out how to choose someone to replace Judas. It is a story of grief and community.

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One of the tools counselors used to help their clients evaluate what is happening in their lives is the Perceived Stress Scale. One version is ten questions that look at the changes a person has recently gone through, asking them to answer on a 4 to 0 scale, with 4 being very often and 0 being never. Listen to the questions:

    • In the last month, how often have you been upset because of something that happened unexpectedly?
    • In the last month, how often have you felt that you were unable to control the important things in your life?
    • In the last month, how often have you felt nervous and stressed?
    • In the last month, how often have you felt confident about your ability to handle your personal problems?
    • In the last month, how often have you felt that things were going your way?
    • In the last month, how often have you found that you could not cope with all the things that you had to do?
    • In the last month, how often have you been able to control irritations in your life?
    • In the last month, how often have you felt that you were on top of things?
    • In the last month, how often have you been angered because of things that happened that were outside of your control?
    • In the last month, how often have you felt difficulties were piling up so high that you could not overcome them?

Feeling stressed yet?

I thought about the survey as I read our passage and imagined what it must have been like to have been one of Jesus’ followers. In the weeks preceding our passage they had seen him ride into Jerusalem as people cheered, listened to his words about his death, seen him arrested tried and executed, betrayed and abandoned him, witnessed his resurrection, received news that Judas had taken his own life, experienced Jesus’ ascension—which meant also that he was no longer physically with them, grown in numbers as a community, and tried to figure out what to do next.

Their perceived stress score was off the charts.

I point that out because our reading today falls less in the category of “pay attention because this is the way we should do things” and more along the lines of “we can understand what they were going through, so let’s learn from them.”

This is a story about living through grief and stress, which means it is a story about living life because grief and stress are almost always in the mix.

Jesus was gone. They had seen him die and come back to life and had hardly adjusted to that new rhythm of life when he said it was time to go and he ascended into heaven, which was and is hard to fathom, but we can understand that he was no longer with them. His instructions about what to do next boiled down to “Love one another” without many specifics.

Judas was also gone. Though he was not the only one who betrayed Jesus, he was the only one who could not find his way to forgiveness and he took his own life. Whatever feelings the others had about him, he had been in their circle the whole time they were with Jesus. They must have grieved the loss of their relationship with him, the trust that was broken, and the fact that they could not reconcile with him. They could feel his absence, so they decided to find someone to take his place. In the middle of everything, that was a tangible, specific decision they could make.

So they did.

When Peter offered a theological explanation for what they were doing, he went back into the Hebrew Bible to talk about how scripture was being fulfilled by Judas’ death, making it sound like what Judas did was part of a bigger plan. Then he said they needed to choose another disciple because Jesus had chosen twelve.

As I read his words, I couldn’t help but think about the ways we as human beings look for meaning (or for explanations) in times of grief and stress. We want things to make sense. That is true of both personal grief and shared of communal loss as well.

We want things to make sense. We want to know things are going to keep going. We want to feel okay, to control something. So we do what we can.

What the nascent community of believers could do was choose another disciple. They had the first ever congregational meeting, set up criteria, they took nominations, and then they tried to figure out a procedure that honored their trust in God and in one another. Rather than take a vote, the text says they “drew lots,” which means they took some small stones (some sources say they used sheep’s knuckles), marked one for Mattias and one for Barsabbas, and rolled them like dice to see who would be the new disciple.

Mattias was chosen and is never mentioned again.

What seemed crucial in the moment appears to have had no lasting significance. That twelfth spot didn’t have to be filled for life to go on, other than in that moment it felt like it did. As other disciples died, they were not replaced. As the faith spread across the region, one of the primary movers was Paul, who never walked with Jesus. And they were just days away from the Feast of Pentecost when their understanding of who God was and how God was working among them was completely changed.

They couldn’t see any of that; all they knew was they wanted to add a twelfth disciple. They wanted to do something to give order to their grief, to their life together. As I said, it wasn’t a decision that had the lasting consequences they imagined, but it was an action that helped them move on to what’s next in the middle of their grief.

That’s an important distinction.

The fact that they didn’t keep filling vacancies among the twelve or make it where only the Original Twelve were allowed to be leaders as the church grew, gives us a sense that they perhaps understood that the choice of Mattias was an action on the way to something rather than an institutional rule that needed to be set in stone.

We can learn from them.

First, their story can remind us that life is stressful and we need to be aware of how that weighs on us.

Though the discussion about replacing Judas was important, the gathering to cast lots was not a crucial day in the life of the community like Pentecost would be—and which they had no idea was about to happen. They were figuring out how to live with the stress of being together every day. We always have choices to make. Some feel more critical than others in the moment, and all of them carry some level of stress. In the middle of it all, they figured out a process that fostered trust in both God and each other.

Second, they remind us how easily it is to do things because “that is how it has always been done.”

They filled the twelfth position because there had been twelve disciples for as long as there had been disciples. No one appears to have thought or said, “Why do we need twelve?” When we look at how things worked out, they seem to have asked it later on, which is also worth learning from, because this is where we, like many congregations, find ourselves.

We live in the creative tension between how it has been done and what we need to do now. We live in the middle of profound change. We want our congregation to continue beyond us, we have invested deeply in the structures and methods we have both inherited and created, and we must keep asking ourselves, “Why are we doing it this way?”—and then listen to our answers, and to God.

Lastly, they remind us that we don’t know what is going to happen next no matter how prepared we are. We can make choices. We can create structures and procedures. We can fill slots and dream dreams and grow endowments and do whatever we do, and life will still happen beyond our control or expectation, which brings us back to Jesus’ words of instruction: Love one another.

That always matters.

When we invest our lives in our relationships, we create the love that will sustain us, whatever the circumstance. In the middle of our grief and stress, we must cultivate the attitudes, the actions, the mindsets, the heartsets that say, “No matter what happens, we are in this together with the help of God.”

And then we love each other and roll the dice. Amen.

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