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Stressed? You’re Not Alone Finding Peace in a Pandemic with First15 Craig Denison

It’s been quite the year to say the least. No one could’ve predicted what has become 2020 and many are in situations they never thought they would find themselves in. From quarantine to remote working, social distance learning to homeschooling, connecting through technology, and the list continues… stressed and overwhelmed just scratch the surface. Plus with churches across the country still closed or limiting attendance at worship, people are turning to online resources at a record rate. Risen caught up with First15’s Craig Denison to talk about finding peace, his personal panic attacks, and positive ways to stay plugged in.

Interviewed for Risen Magazine

Risen Magazine: More than one-million people start their day with your devotional, talk about what First15 is and how you developed it?

Craig Denison: I’m still in shock that it is a reality for us. Honestly, it’s as terrifying as it is exciting. First15 began for me while in college. I hit a real low point and gave God the first shot to bring me out of kind of a bad space. What I found that really transformed everything for me is this rhythm of spending meaningful time alone with God, specifically starting my day with meaningful time alone with God, in worship and reading and prayer.

In 2015, I had the chance, and really a calling, to start this devotional ministry that would help other people find and keep the rhythm that had been so meaningful for me, to help believers start their day, even in 15 minutes, in worship, reading and prayer. So it started as a website, no team, no budget, really, and just some back support from an organization my father had founded. In the first year, that website had over a million people visit it, and we got some donors and launched a podcast and an app and an email subscription, and now have a team that supports it and is behind it – things are just growing really rapidly. God has been really bringing His joy to that space and it really is an honor and a privilege.

RM: I feel like, especially now of any time with this forced, slowdown that COVID has brought to our households, it seems like such an easy step for people to incorporate into their day. Are you finding more people are coming during quarantine?

CD: Absolutely, yeah. And some of that is sad in the sense that a lot of believers have lost their rhythm they had, if they were relying heavily on the church group or gathering as their place that they’d really get connected to God or some of these other things. But I think there is a really unique opportunity inside of all of this just to recognize that God’s presence is available to us all of the time and His presence isn’t contained just to Sundays, it’s there on Monday. Corporate worship is meant to be this gathering place as an expression of what God’s already doing in our lives throughout the week. I think, to begin our day in God’s presence, as hard as it is to squeeze anything into that morning spot. If we start our day with the thing that matters most, which is saying, “If I do anything today, I’m going to get connected to You, God, and abide with You, and then live my day from that place of abiding connection,” I think has a powerful and profound effect on the rest of our day. I think it has an effect on our peace, on our stress, I think it has an effect on our ability to love others and our relationships. I think it has an effect on our perspective related to identity and purpose and anointing. So it’s been really encouraging to see a lot of people come to First15 and other resources like ours in this pandemic, and I’m hoping that it’s a rhythm that sticks even when inevitably, hopefully, this pandemic comes to a conclusion.

RM: Speaking of stress… you wrote a mini-book called Peace: Finding Rest in a Stressed-Out World. It outlines a path given to us in Philippians 4 that helps us exchange our stress and burdens for God’s peace in prayer, but ironically since Coronavirus, you’ve had a handful of panic attacks. What does that mean, how are you processing what has been happening?

CD: Almost every day on First 15, I talk about the availability of God’s peace, and scripture in Philippians tells us that that peace isn’t through our circumstances, that it’s not necessarily our circumstances change. It’s actually the greater promise and that the peace is available in the midst of our circumstances. So an extension of that was this really small booklet I wrote, kind of all walking through that passage itself and how that creates a pathway to access that peace and prayer. I firmly believe that and attempt that in my own life on a daily basis. And then, this pandemic hit me really hard on a number of levels. Before the pandemic, I think in my life I’d had maybe one panic attack that I could name, but I wasn’t really sure at the time what was going on. Now with more clarity, I can look back and realize that’s what it was. Since the pandemic, I think I’ve had five panic attacks.

After the first few, I was just racking my brain like, what is going on? Obviously things are stressful on a number of levels, but honestly, it’s been a huge struggle for me in the pandemic not just to find God’s peace, I’ve been able to find that and get a sense of it, but keeping it and grasping it and holding onto it in the midst of the pandemic, like day to day, even moment to moment has been a real struggle for me.

RM: Well, from job loss, to working at home, homeschooling kids… I’m sure many have never been more stressed-out in ways they never even thought they could be… how can they handle?

CD: You’re absolutely right. I think the reason that this article has resonated with people, which I’m so glad that it is, is that by no means am I the only one experiencing extra stress and anxiety during these really tough times. Even to illustrate that further, in the beginning of the Peace booklet, I talk about some studies that have gone out that show that stress has become our new normal as people, even pre-pandemic, that when polled people say that they’re stressed more often than they’re not stressed, and that just has kind of become normal for us.

In the pandemic what I think what’s been happening, at least in my own life, is that I was already operating at a pretty high level of stress and then this just kind of threw me over that bar. Even as I’m sitting, my brain science and like neuro chemistry, it just threw me over that threshold of what I could handle and threw me into that category of panic attack. So resolving some of the underlying stress issues has been really helping me keep from having more panic attacks and has been really fruitful.

As far as where we go from here as a people, what I’ve learned personally, I really see this to illustrate that kind of as our stress as an iceberg, and I think the panic attack has caused a lot of it to become visible to us, so maybe it’s risen above the surface to where it’s visible. We can see that, “Oh man, there’s a real thing here. This is a problem.” But what’s under the surface, and might still be unseen for a lot of people, is that there’s a greater mass of stress and anxiety that’s been there all along, and maybe the way to resolve this is actually to go at those things that are under the surface and use what has become visible in the stress around this pandemic to deal with some things that might have been there all along that have been causing stress that we just categorized as normal. Practically I’ve been going about that and getting in therapy, I have therapy every Friday morning. It’s something I cling to, and has been incredibly fruitful in my own life, my family, and my work spiritually on all fronts and all levels. I’m a huge advocate for Christians engaging in therapy if they need that. It can be really effective. For me, I start every day with a journal in front of me now, and I don’t just dive straight into worship or scripture reading or prayer, but I really begin my days with a time of self-assessment to just get a sense of how am I doing today? What is my body telling me today? Where am I stressed? Where am I anxious? What might God say to that reality? Being as vulnerable, honest with myself and with God as possible. Then the third thing I’m doing is being vulnerable, in my work and extending that into my primary relationships. My wife knows when I’m having a rough day and she’s really graceful to kind of help out with the kids, or my coworkers are really graceful to help out with work, and I’m just being open and sharing how I’m doing in a way that’s healthy and still operating with boundaries, but being more vulnerable than ever and honest than ever.

RM: As we were talking about this, a lot of times stress can be good things, you’ve taken on so much because you’re so excited about doing things but it’s important to have boundaries and know your limits. Do you have a way that you know how much of a load that you can handle?

CD: That’s a great question. Absolutely, the calendar being full and just too much on our plate is a massive problem that we experience. I think as a society, even as God’s people, we have this great call to be able to advance His kingdom and we have this great sense of what’s possible, especially in days like these that there’s so much need, I just want to jump into anything and everything I can do to try to help people. That’s what we try to do at First15 and these other resources, and that can be a lot of load to bear. We have to remind ourselves that scripture tells us that with God, His yoke is easy and His burden is light. He offers us His peace in the midst of our circumstances, and really what people need most, I think, is that we’re living out what a vibrant faith looks like in the sense of what that affords us as God’s people. That even in the midst of great need, we can have joy and peace. We can have the fruit of the Spirit. We can be people whose families are thriving.

I think there really is this primary calling we need to own that. Scripture tells us that our primary command is to love God, but then we blow past a portion of the second commandment, which is to love our neighbor as ourselves. We just say “Oh, I’m probably loving myself enough, let me just love my neighbor” when in reality, if we’re not loving ourselves well, scripture tells us that’s the art to which we can love our neighbor as well. I think that’s a cohesive relationship, is the way we love God affects the way we love ourselves, the way we love our neighbor, affects that way we love ourselves in God. So we have to value in the midst of what is really three commandments: love God, love myself, love my neighbor. This sense of caring for ourselves, not in and of itself as a commitment, as a goal, but also to the end of being able to really care for others as well.

RM: As adults we maybe better understand the idea of missed expectations because we’ve lived long enough to know that not every dream gets fulfilled the way that we want it to, and you can work really hard at something and it just might not come to fruition, but you’re going to be okay and opportunity is created out of that. I feel like for teens and middle-schoolers there is a lot of anxiety around school not looking like it should, sports not being played and lack of interaction with friends. Can you speak specifically to the kids?

CD: I honestly feel that the trajectory that we’re on is that this issue of stress and anxiety just gets worse the younger the generation gets, and I mean multiple generations. Generation after generation, there’s just more and more available to us. There’s more and more that can distract us. There’s more and more opportunities. There have been a lot of studies on work since they invented electricity and all these things that should have afforded us more time for leisure and relaxation just have us working more and more hours. I think that’s really true for our kids. I mean, when do you turn off? How do you turn off in an environment like we’re living in, especially at that age? I’m so glad basketball’s back, golf is back, I really missed the sports, even as an outlet for me to decompress. We’re missing and losing so many of those things that we’ve used for relaxation, those times of decompression, times to kind of turn off and get out of all the stimulus that’s around us constantly.

So for kids in that generation, I would encourage you. First I would empathize and say that this is just really tough. It’s especially tough if you’re in that age demographic, and second is as an encouragement, if you can find a way to shut off the stimulation… That’s been something I’ve been learning about myself is a huge reason that I have the stress and anxiety I have is I’m just overstimulated constantly. We’re lacking as a society solitude, silence and peace. So even just five minutes of just turn the screens off, step foot outside and just take some deep breaths can be hugely helpful. Then I would say we all honestly need ways to cope with this [world pandemic]. I’m not even an advocate for like coping as a negative thing. Coping can be a really healthy thing, it’s just what you use to cope. Substances are a bad way to cope with this. They don’t help, honestly. That’s part of what makes them so bad, let alone the destruction that they bring, all the way obviously to taking your own life is no way to cope with the reality of what’s going on, and in no way does it serve or help anyone in the midst of all of this. There are better ways to cope, and I would say that one way to do that, and I hope this doesn’t sound just like Christianese, but God invites us into a place of meaningful connection with Him, and Jesus gave His life. When His life was taken, when He finally passed, the veil separating God’s presence from us was torn in two from top to bottom immediately. Seem to find that the purpose of Jesus’ death was so that God could be with us more fully now than maybe He’d ever been with His people before, in us and with us and operating through us. So there is this way to cope with stress and anxiety of all this, of just going to God with that in prayer, going to trusted relationships with that, finding time for space and solitude and silence, turning off the news feeds and the social media and entertainment, and just reflecting and reminding yourself that this is not the only day that you’ll live in. Things will get better. Life is not necessarily as terrible as sometimes it’s made out to be in media, and we do have the chance to be able to find meaningful connection with God that can help us find reconciliation and redemption even in the midst of the stress we’re experiencing.

RM: Share a few ways within your site that people can get connected.

CD: One of the main goals we’ve had with First15 is eliminating any barrier possible that we can between you getting into the presence of God, and one of those is cost. So First15 is entirely donor funded. Everything we do with the daily devotional, apart from print resources, is 100% free. It’s also available on the platforms that you already use, and so you can go to our website, First15.org and you can check out all the different ways you can plug into the content. There’s a free email subscription if you’re an email person and you want that delivered to your inbox first thing every day. We have a free mobile app that you can download and set notifications to jump into the content, a daily podcast that I voice, if you want to listen to a daily devotional guide and engage in God’s presence in that way too. Then it’s posted online every day and on social links.

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