Life is Like Baseball

Life can be a lot like throwing a baseball. Seriously. A single throw of a baseball doesn’t put all that much stress and strain on your arm. A few dozen throws and you’re starting to feel it. Especially if you haven’t worked up to it, if you haven’t been training your arm, preparing it for multiple throws in a row. And even more so if you ignore the throbbing in your arm and just keep throwing, without taking a rest.

Throwing a baseball puts stress on your arm in very unnatural ways.

Throwing a baseball puts stress on your arm in very unnatural ways.

A couple years ago, I volunteered as a helper on my son’s little league baseball team. I spent most of my time throwing with the boys. Four nights a week I was on the field, warming them up, playing catch, and throwing them grounders and pop flies. You have to understand, as much as I enjoy watching and playing sports, I’m a middle-aged college professor. I exercise at the gym when I can, but most of the time I’m at a desk in front of a computer or in the classroom or laboratory. Grading exams just doesn’t prepare your arm for throwing baseballs the way you might think it would. Go figure.

My shoulder had been sore, but I figured I could just push through it. So I kept on throwing. One Sunday, my own kids wanted to hit some balls at the park, and I was all-time pitcher. We’re not talking 90-mph fastballs here. Just overhand tosses into the strike zone. But a couple hundred pitches later, my shoulder had had it. The next morning, I couldn’t lift my right arm over my head. I knew I had pushed too hard and damaged something.

Rest, physical therapy, and even cortisone shots all failed to relieve the pain. And of course life goes on, rudely ignoring my shoulder pain. I still had to work on the house, which was torn up from a remodel we had begun. I still had to drive to work every day, vacuum the floors, and brush my teeth. In other words, I had plenty of uses for that injured shoulder, so I pressed on despite the warning signs.

Eventually, surgery became the only option. Major medical intervention. All avoidable.

My shoulder surgery required nine suture anchors like this one from CONMED to piece me back together.

My shoulder surgery required nine suture anchors like this one from CONMED to piece me back together.

As I sit typing away on my laptop right now, I am nursing a sore shoulder from the surgery three weeks ago. Three tears had to be repaired, stitched down to anchors drilled and set into my bone. The bicep tendon was so badly torn that the surgeon had to detach it completely and re-anchor it a few inches away, a procedure called a bicep tenodesis. I can’t use the shoulder at all for six weeks – no driving, no brushing teeth with my right hand, no hugging my wife. And for another 6-12 months, I’ll be in physical therapy, trying to regain mobility and pain-free use of my arm.

Far too often, I go through life this way. I naively take on small stresses and underestimate their collective power. Each stress alone may seem pretty harmless, but stress after stress, pitch after pitch, without adequate preparation and neglecting to rest – they add up. It turns out that stress is cumulative. And the results, the often avoidable consequences, are that we become disabled and require major intervention. Cumulative mental stress, like cumulative shoulder stress, hurts. It damages us, limits our ability to function optimally, and can take months or years to recover from.

What can you do to prepare for stress before it comes? There are many possibilities, but most experts seem to agree that exercise, rest/fun, and positive self-talk are among the most important. Once stress comes – and it will come – continue practicing these things. Make sure you have a close friend to confide in and share your struggles with. Identify the stressors that are out of your control, and determine not to worry about those. Focus your efforts on changing the stressors that are in fact in your control, or at least under your influence. Finally, be willing to get professional help if it becomes clear that your stress is affecting your health or your relationships. There is no shame is getting professional help when you need it.

We can’t always avoid stress. But it doesn’t have to control us either. With some forethought and a clear plan, we can not only survive periods of stress, we can even experience great personal growth. So you see, life can be a lot like throwing baseballs.

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Thanksgiving Challenge

Thanksgiving Challenge

In the US, Thanksgiving is generally a day of food, football, and family. We celebrate God’s abundant provision for our lives with a feast. We rest with friends and family. And we take turns telling what we have to be thankful for.

Sydney is baking pies today, a Thanksgiving tradition in our home.

Sydney is baking pies today, a Thanksgiving tradition in our home.

But the Thanksgiving season can come with some challenges as well. Maybe you’ve had a tough year and are finding it hard to be thankful. Maybe you’ve lost a job and life isn’t feeling so abundant right now. Maybe you’ve said goodbye to a loved one this year and today you are trying to celebrate your first holiday without them.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 says, “Rejoice always, pray continuously, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Rejoice. Pray. Give thanks in all circumstances. Not easy marching orders when life is difficult. But that is precisely when we most need to choose to rejoice, choose to pray, choose to give thanks. The Father doesn’t command us to do things that are not within our ability to choose. If He tells us to rejoice in all circumstances, it is because He knows that we can. And there are no circumstances in our lives that are beyond His understanding (Hebrews 4:15).

My challenge to you this Thanksgiving is to choose to rejoice, pray, and give thanks, regardless of your circumstances. And to maintain that attitude beyond the holiday. Ask yourself next Thursday, after you’ve returned to work and the celebration is behind you: Can I still give thanks today?

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The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde’s 19th century satire poked fun at the human tendency to pretend that we are things we are not. Even Christians put on airs, trying to convince the world that everything in life is fine and dandy when sometimes it is not. But pretending to have all the answers, pretending to have a life free of troubles, pretending that “it’s all good” when, sometimes, it’s not all good – a lack of authenticity deprives us of the abundant life Jesus wants for us and makes us difficult to relate to for non-Christians.

Last Wednesday night I had the opportunity to share my testimony – a fancy Christian word referring to God’s story of good work in my life – with about 600 college students at Point Loma Nazarene University.

dave in bw 75jpg

Jesus told us to let our light shine before others, so that’s what I’m trying to do here. And it turns out that authentic, earnest, vulnerable Christians played a central role in my story. I hope you’ll listen.

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No one is exempt

No one is exempt

A recent report identified some of the most common sources of poor mental health: criticism and conflict, family problems, stress, depression, burnout, sexual problems, and financial problems. The respondents reported that their job expectations were often unrealistic leading to high rates of anxiety (13.5%) and depression (8.7-11.1%). Respondents felt that their training was inadequate to the actual daily responsibilities of the work. Ultimately, 70% reported regularly considering walking away from their work, and 40% actually did walk away within the first 5 years.

These numbers are a bit shocking and should wake us up to the very real life-changing implications of our stressful lifestyles. Even more shocking, however, is that these statistics are taken from a survey of Christian pastors.

It turns out our pastors can get stressed out too! Who knew?

It turns out our pastors can get stressed out too! Who knew?

These numbers and observations reflect the reality that many of our beloved spiritual leaders face every day. These are the men and women that we look up to, our spiritual mentors and models, sometimes even our heroes. These are the people we turn to in our times of deepest need for strength, comfort, and guidance. What we fail to recognize is that they need encouragement and support as much as or more than we do.

Apparently, no one is exempt from the treachery of stress, anxiety, and depression.

Here are a few more insightful statistics from LifeWay Research and NAMI:

  1. Approximately 1 in 5 Americans ages 13 and up suffers from a mental disorder in any given year. The greatest portion of these suffers from one of the many forms of anxiety. Depression is a close second and sometimes comes along for the ride with the anxiety.
  1. Pastors report mental disorders at a rate of 23%, slightly higher than the general national average (18.1%). Our pastors are struggling more than the rest of us.
  1. More than half of all pastors say that they can get discouraged in ministry and over 80% of young pastors (ages 18-44) say that loneliness is a real problem.
When people struggle with stress, anxiety, or depression, they need support. But how can we support them if we don't get deep enough in our relationships to know they are hurting?

When people struggle with stress, anxiety, or depression, they need support. But how can we support them if we don’t get deep enough in our relationships to know they are hurting?

What does all of this mean to you and me if we are not in full-time ministry? I think there are a couple applications for all of us.

First, we need to do a better job of caring for our pastors. Just because they have a big smile on Sunday mornings and a spot-on sermon to challenge us doesn’t mean they don’t have their own struggles. They need prayer, they need honest conversation, and they need help. Some pastors try to do it all and too many of us are content to let them. It’s time for the church to step up and share the work of the ministry with those who have been called to be shepherds.

Second, we need to encourage our leaders to get rest and take breaks often. They need a day or two off each week, like the rest of us, and we need to honor that and help them to maintain their boundaries. Providing a sabbatical program, where the pastor is encouraged to leave normal church responsibilities and enter into a time of spiritual rest and restoration, is another way a church body can show love and care for their pastors.

Finally, spiritual leaders of all kinds, from pastors to part-time Sunday school teachers, need to intentionally care for their own physical, mental, and spiritual health. We need to learn to say no, to take breaks often, to live within our limits and our boundaries. And like Jesus, we need to escape the busyness of life frequently to refuel and be restored by the Father (e.g., Matthew 14:23).

So let’s all agree on this. As a church body we are not supposed to be consumers. We are not supposed to be observers like fans at a concert or football game, showing up every Sunday to see the show. We need to re-vision our role as co-caretakers and co-participants in the ministry of the church. And we need to look for ways to encourage, support, and share the burdens of the leaders whom God has placed over us.

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Viewpoint Article: Chronic Stress and our Health

Viewpoint Article: Chronic Stress and our Health

Some stressors are abrupt, loud, and impossible to miss: a lost job, death of a loved one, a hurricane or other natural disaster. Most of the events in life that bring us stress are more long-term, creeping in slowly so as to go undetected: an extra weekly Bible study added to an already full agenda, a long commute to work every day, financial struggles that don’t ever seem to improve.

Unchecked stress can become a chronic problem, affecting our mental, spiritual, and even physical health. But we are not helpless victims, with no recourse to protect ourselves. We don’t have to live like this. We can choose a better way.

This week, instead of  blog post, I am linking to my most recent article, published in Point Loma Nazarene University’s Viewpoint magazine. I hope you’ll share it with others who you think would find encouragement in it.

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The Stress Virus

The Stress Virus

I am a microbiologist by training and part of my expertise is in infectious diseases. I direct a research laboratory that is trying to understand how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, making them difficult to treat, or even untreatable. I also teach nursing students about the germs that make us sick, how they spread from person to person, and how we can prevent infection or treat it once it begins.

Take the common cold for example. We call any mild upper respiratory infection a “cold,” and it can be caused by any one of more than 200 different viruses. A vaccine would be impossible, considering the number of different germs that can cause a cold, and it wouldn’t pay off very big anyway since symptoms are usually mild and the mortality rate is about zero (when was the last time you heard of someone dying from a cold?). Unlike polio or smallpox, exposure once doesn’t provide lifelong immunity because the next cold virus you encounter won’t likely be the same as the last one.

A rhinovirus, one of the most common causes of colds. The rhinovirus is about 30 nanometers across, or about 30 millionths of a millimeter!

A rhinovirus, one of the most common causes of colds. The rhinovirus is about 30 nanometers across, or about 30 millionths of a millimeter!   (c) University of Wisconsin.


The real problem with cold viruses, though, is what we call the infectious dose, or ID50. The ID50 tells us how many germs it takes to cause an infection. An E. coli infection in the gut, for example, requires about 10,000 bacteria to overcome our immune system and make us sick. Cold viruses, on the other hand, have an ID50 of 1. That’s right: it takes only one cold virus to make us sick. It’s a wonder we’re not sick all the time as contagious as cold viruses are!

We’ve been thinking together lately about what our kids and others we lead learn from us by our behavior rather than our words. “More is caught than taught,” is a common refrain. I think it’s useful to think of character and habits as germs. We want those we lead to “catch” good germs from us, to get infected with good character traits and healthy habits. But our less desirable features – our anger, discontentment, addictions, mistrust, control issues, abandonment issues… you name it – might be even more contagious, like the common cold.

Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. Proverbs 22:6 (NKJV)

I am beginning to believe that our stress levels and how we handle stress are also highly contagious. We’re leaving stress viruses on door handles, sneezing them out into the air around us, inadvertently sharing them with anyone close to us. The way we protect ourselves from stress – or don’t protect ourselves – and the triggers we allow to stress us out are being caught by our kids, our students, our congregation, and anyone else watching us.

A sneeze exits your face at about 100 mph, spreading droplets containing germs all through the room. This is how we spread the stress germ to those around us.

A sneeze exits your face at about 100 mph, spreading droplets containing germs all through the room. This is how we spread the stress germ to those around us.

Two of my three kids internalize their stress, like I do. They put on a happy face and either pretend or actually convince themselves that it’s all good. One of them simply never talks about stressful or unhappy things. That child forfeits the support of a loving family in times of need because the need is denied. The other expresses it physically with headaches and digestive troubles. That kid talks freely when the stressors are recognized, but, like me, has trouble recognizing them in the first place.

For the sake of my kids, my students, and anyone else foolish enough to watch me as an example, I want to learn to protect myself from stress viruses in the first place. But when I do catch a stress cold, I want to recognize it for what it is, acknowledge it, deal with it head on, and even take steps to prevent spreading it to others around me. I have a long way to go, but by inviting others into my journey, by living a transparent, authentic life as I struggle with stress and anxiety, I hope they will catch some good germs from me instead of all the bad ones.

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An example of courage

An example of courage

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I am teaching my kids through my own life, through my words and actions. I want them to trust Christ, but am I showing them clearly how to do that? I want them to be kind, respectful, and humble. But would anyone use those words to describe me?

Most recently I have been thinking about courage. Am I courageous? What courageous things do I do? I live a pretty comfortable life in a southern California suburb. My family is strong and healthy. I work at a Christian University where I can be myself without fear of what others might think of me or my faith. I don’t have too many obvious opportunities to be courageous.

One of my students, Pieter Baker, just showed me, and the world, what real courage looks like. He walked away from everything he knew – wife, baby, home, the United States – to bring his skills to bear on the Ebola crisis in Africa. Pieter had the courage to live out his idealism. I want to be more like Pieter.

© Viewpoint Magazine and Pieter Baker.

© Viewpoint Magazine and Pieter Baker.

Here’s a short story about Pieter’s life-saving work in the Viewpoint Magazine. I’m going to read it to my kids.

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