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Too Blessed to Be Stressed
By SUZAN D. JOHNSON COOK
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 1998 Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook
All right reserved.
Chapter OneToo Blessed to Be Stressed
I'm Sujay, and I need an entire month off." The words tumbled out with a laugh.
In that awkward millisecond while my brain was processing what to say next, I scanned the room. A dozen women had gathered around a conference table in the library of the stately Convent Avenue Baptist Church. The group of sister ministers met monthly for encouragement and fellowship. With so few women in ministry, and even fewer black women, the peer group was invaluable.
Before I could come up with my next line, the moderator, a Christian counselor named Doris, spoke up. "Say that again, please."
Perhaps she didn't hear me, I thought. So I complied. "I'm Sujay, and I need an entire month off."
Doris had started the meeting by asking each woman to introduce herself and share something she needed in her ministry. Usually we spoke about our accomplishments and goals, the successful sermons, the people we had helped. We were all new in our ministries and excited to have embarked on a great adventure with God.
But this day the conversation had taken an introspective turn. The two or three women who preceded me spoke of resources they lacked or advice they needed. They opened up about problems they were facing.
Not Suzan "Sujay" Johnson. When my turn came, I tried to make a joke out of it. Me? Admit a struggle? It wasn't in my nature. I was born with a winning attitude. When I reach for a star, I always manage to grab one. My dreams are bigger than I am—that's big because I'm almost six feet tall—and the word defeat is not in my vocabulary.
My attempt at humor bombed.
Doris wasn't laughing. "Say that again," she insisted.
Why is she singling me out to mess with me? I was aggravated, but I said it again: "I need an entire month off." And when I heard myself say it for the third time, it finally dawned on me that it wasn't funny at all. I really did need a month off.
In my early twenties, with tons of energy, I thought I could do it all—I thought I had to do it all. Somehow I had equated being a leader with making myself indispensable. So I worked seven days a week. And because I was single, I placed few boundaries on my private time or space; others placed no boundaries at all.
"Tell me more about it," Doris said.
"Well, I've just completed my first year of pastoring. I guess I really am tired. I haven't taken a vacation, but I really can't."
"What did you say you need, Sujay?"
"I said I need a month off. But ..." I started making excuses.
"Take the month off," Doris said.
The others chimed in. "If you need a month, take a month."
I protested a while longer, but I had to admit I was exhausted. I had been working nonstop. All my hard work had paid off, though. Under my leadership, in just six months Mariners' Temple had grown from fifteen tired saints to more than 150 people of all ages who were enthusiastic about church and eager to hear God's Word.
Now, in spite of my success in ministry, I was depressed and irritated. No wonder. I had not taken the time my body needed to rest and recover. Somehow I thought vacations were for everyone else, and I could just hold on while they were off having fun, then I would preach about how they should take a vacation again when the time permitted.
I had not heard my own sermons. I celebrated my members' promotions, attended their appreciation banquets, advised them on their relocations, encouraged them to be good to themselves because they deserved it. "You've worked hard," I would say, "so go for it." Meanwhile, I had neglected myself and jeopardized my emotional and physical health.
I was stressed out and headed for burnout.
Women on the Move
I entered the ministry at a time when it was not popular for women to be leaders in the church. In many quarters, women leaders are still not accepted. I was the first African-American woman in my denomination elected as a senior pastor, and some of the male vanguard from many places were determined that would never happen. To merely say that doors were slammed in my face would not give you a true understanding of the challenges I faced. (I will share some of those challenges with you later.)
Finding my place in ministry was always stressful and at times distressing. Yet I had to deal with the challenges, for I truly believed God had called me to be an ordained minister. I had to learn how to live with stressful situations without becoming stressed out. That is one of the lessons I want to impart to you: stress does not have to stress you out.
One of my sister-friends recently visited her "energy therapist," who informed her that the reason for her stress was that her body was moving ahead of her "aura." I would simply say that she was moving too fast and her spirit could not catch up. That is my definition of stress: when body and spirit are not in the same place at the same time.
Blessings are gifts from God that allow us to align our bodies with our minds and souls. If we learn to walk in those blessings, to make them a way of life, then we will become too blessed to be stressed.
The church world has made it difficult for women to take a role in leadership, but society as a whole is still trying to make adjustments for women at any level of leadership in any arena. Those who are breaking the barriers in their fields have been through struggles similar to mine.
And professional women are not the only ones who are stressed out by demands that drain their time and energy. Virtually every woman I meet seems to be stressed out to some degree—the frazzled wife and mother trying to juggle a career and family life, the single mother holding down two minimum-wage jobs and struggling financially, the older woman facing an economic and emotional burden because her husband's job has been downsized, or the caregiver tending the needs of a chronically ill child or an elderly parent.
Stress is no respecter of persons. It does not discriminate. It hits everyone. Stress transcends all lifestyles, ages, races, and classes.
But I have good news. Although we cannot avoid stress, we do not have to be distressed. We do not have to let stress conquer us. We can find the strength and power we need for life's journey.
I recently opened a new church. One of the myriad details that had to be taken care of was having the electricity connected. When I made arrangements with our local utility company, a representative set an appointment to come out to the premises and turn the power on. Because the building had previously had electric service, all he really did was give us access; the power was already there, even though we couldn't see it. The utility company gave us the ability to connect with and tap into that power source.
As Christians, we, too, have an invisible resource available. All we have to do is get connected to the power supply. It's already there—just make the connection and bust the stress!
Jesus Has Got the Juice
How do you make the connection? The Holy Spirit is your invisible power supply, and the one who can give you access to the power—the one who can get you connected—is Jesus Christ.
I like to say it this way: Jesus has got the juice.
In urban culture, juice is a popular term that expresses power and authority. By worldly measures, it's important for folks to know just who's got the juice. People spend a lot of time talking about it, trying to get it, or claiming they've already got it.
I worked in television in my first career, and we engaged in a constant battle over who had the juice. Was it the producer, the director, the on-air talent, the people who sold commercials? Just who had the juice? It became a cutthroat industry because everybody was trying to get the juice.
Then I went to Harvard and entered the academic world. Harvard is one of the world's great universities, but the people there were also battling over who had the juice. Was it the tenured professors, the ones with Ph.D.'s, or the non-tenured professors? Was it the adjunct faculty or the students? The whole time I was there, people were fussing and fighting over who really had the juice.
And then I went to Washington, to the White House, the place known as the seat of power in our country. Lord, have mercy! Everybody was trying to get close to those who were close to the president. For an entire year I watched folks jockeying for position because they wanted to be next to the one they thought had the juice.
Even in the church world, there is a constant demand for clarification about who's got the juice. Who's in charge? Is it the preacher? The deacons? Those who were once on fire for the Lord get into arguments, and then when they feel they've got the juice, they lose their flame. I tell my church, "Don't let the ones with the juice get loose!"
Let's look at what the Bible says about it. Jesus told His disciples, the ones who would have responsibility for building the church and carrying out the Great Commission, "All authority [or power] has been given to Me in heaven and on earth" (Matt. 28:18).
All authority. All power. Jesus has got the juice.
The world's juice is temporary. It's good as long as you've got some money. It's good as long as you look good. But you can go broke and burn yourself out trying to get the world's juice. And when you get it, it won't last.
If you want real juice in your life, hook up with the Juice Maker. Get so close to Jesus that you become juicy with fruit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22–23).
Draw close to Christ. Believe that God is, and that He rewards those who diligently seek him (Heb. 11:6). God desires spiritual intimacy with you. You can never be too close to God. You may stray far away sometimes, but you can never be too close.
Do you know the old hymn that says, "Draw me nearer, Lord"? I love to sing the hymns of the church, and I've learned many spiritual lessons through music. I can't sing these old songs for you, of course, but I've interspersed some of them in these pages, along with a little nugget of wisdom. If you have a church background similar to mine, you'll know most of the songs. As you encounter them, why not pause and enjoy singing as a devotional exercise? If you're not familiar with a hymn, just read the words—out loud if you're in a private spot—and let the Spirit put the melody in your heart.
* * *
I Am Thine, O Lord
I am Thine, O Lord, I have heard Thy voice,
And it told Thy love to me;
But I long to rise in the arms of faith,
And be closer drawn to Thee.
Draw me nearer, nearer, blessed Lord,
To the cross where Thou hast died;
Draw me nearer, nearer, nearer, blessed Lord,
To Thy precious, bleeding side.
O the pure delight of a single hour
That before Thy throne I spend;
When I kneel in prayer, and with Thee, my God,
I commune as friend with friend!
Fanny Crosby, the most prolific gospel hymn writer in America, wrote these words in 1875. As a conversation with friends turned to the topic of enjoying God's presence and nearness, Fanny spontaneously spoke the lines of this poem. She lived so close to God that her heart continually overflowed with hymns of praise and, like this one, they often seemed to spring forth whole and complete.
You don't have to pray for hours to draw near to God. If you have only two minutes, take that time to commune with Him and enjoy His presence.
* * *
Lord, Keep Me from Falling Apart
Jude recorded this wonderful thought: God is "able to keep you from falling" (Jude 24 NIV). I would like to add just one word to that verse: God is able to keep you from falling apart.
I became a mother for the first time at age thirty-four, just one week before my first wedding anniversary. Marriage was a big enough adjustment, but I was totally unprepared for mother-hood—yet God kept me from falling apart through all the changes He had brought into my life.
My husband, Ron, and I had a storybook wedding. Because I am well known in New York City, and because we both come from sizable church families, it was a very large wedding. More than twenty-five hundred guests, including the mayor, the police commissioner, and many police officers (I serve as a chaplain for the New York City Police Department), joined us on October 11, 1991, at Riverside Church for the ceremony. We received the guests and cut our wedding cake at a large reception there at the church. Afterward, we had a private reception for about two hundred close friends and family at the historic Tavern on the Green, exactly as I had pictured it in my childhood dreams.
Tuxedoed groomsmen and dignitaries offered the customary toasts, their speeches accompanied by the joyful clinking of crystal. Then Ron and I spoke a few words, honoring our parents and thanking God for His blessing. As my parting shot I announced to the guests, "And we'll see you all at this time next year for our baby blessing." I was joking, as usual, but my words turned out to be prophetic.
I had always wanted a family, and Ron and I prayed about children from the beginning. God answered those prayers even sooner than we expected. He also answered our prayers for a safe delivery and a healthy baby. And on October 4, 1992, little Samuel, whose name means "gift of God," came kicking and crying into this world.
This new gift brought much joy, but it also changed my life—dramatically. I was so excited about giving birth, but somehow my brain had not grasped the fact that after the delivery there would be a lifelong process of raising a child. I thought having a baby was kind of like playing basketball: you toss it through the hoops, somebody gets the rebound, everybody cheers, and the game goes on.
Growing up, I was a tomboy and hooked on sports. (If the Women's National Basketball Association had been around in those days, the drive to play professionally might have competed with God's call to preach. But that's another story.) I didn't baby-sit frequently as some teenage girls do. Also, I was the younger of only two children in our family, so I wasn't around babies all that much. When I finally got around to having children of my own, no one sat me down and told me just how drastic and how stressful the changes in my lifestyle would be.
I was used to getting on and off airplanes at least twice a week, with no responsibility for anyone but myself. Suddenly another human being was completely dependent on me, and I couldn't even leave the apartment and take the elevator down to the mailbox without making arrangements for someone to watch him. And this tiny little creature could not tell me what he needed or wanted. He just cried, and I had to learn how to figure out what was wrong; more than that, I had to figure out what to do about it.
Perhaps the most startling revelation for this unprepared new mother was this: poop happens. And it happened with such frequency that I was appalled. Now, my husband is a gem. He has always shared responsibility for household duties, and he was wonderful with the baby. But in those first few weeks I pawned off so many dirty-diaper changes on Ron that he finally said, "Suzan, get over it. You are this baby's mother. You've got to learn to deal with poop!"
Another thing nobody told me was that you need to have Plan B ready for your Sunday wardrobe. Because as soon as you put your church clothes on and start out the door, the baby will throw up all over you. When you happen to be the pastor, having a backup outfit is not just a nice idea, it's critical. You don't want to stand in the pulpit with baby puke adorning your best silk blouse. And you can't make excuses to the congregation for being late because you had to go back and change clothes. I learned about Plan B the hard way, and I want to tell you: it was stressful.
Lord, Give Me Serenity
Some days I thought the stress would overwhelm me. How could I be a pastor, a counselor, a police chaplain, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a friend? How could I do it all?
Many women in public life put on a front in times of great stress. Pastors are even more likely to do this because we're supposed to have it all together. But I didn't have it all together. Graduating from seminary made me the Reverend Dr. Suzan Johnson, but it didn't turn me into Superchristian. I don't have a cape. I can't fly like a speeding bullet or leap tall buildings in a single bound. I'm very human, just like you.
While I was learning to cope with the new blessing of motherhood, I latched on to a prayer that I had always loved but never fully comprehended. It's called the Serenity Prayer, written by Reinhold Niebuhr, and many times it sewed the threads of my soul back together when I was coming unraveled.
God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Excerpted from Too Blessed to Be Stressed by SUZAN D. JOHNSON COOK Copyright © 1998 by Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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