Flora was born in Florence, Italy, where she embraced Christianity and met Daniel Lewis, a Christian from Albanian who was visiting Italy. They married in 1942 and remained in Italy for the remainder of the World War II. In 1945, the family – which then included a little body – decided to move to Albania because they felt compelled to share their faith with the people of that officially atheist country. They had no idea how much stress this decision would bring them.
The Albanian government under the leadership of Enver Hoxha, arrested all religious leaders and confiscated all places of worship, transferring them into gymnasiums, warehouses, and public restrooms. Any reference to religion was banned, and many believers of all faith were imprisoned, tortured, or placed in forced labor camps. Eventually, Hoxha proudly declared Albania as the only nation in the world where religion had disappeared.
Because of the horrible persecution the Lewies experienced in Albania, in 1950 they decided to immigrate to the United States, where Daniel had lived for several years and received his pharmaceutical training. At that time, Daniel and Flora had two children, John, seven, and Esther, three. On the night before their departure an informant accused Daniel of being an American spy, and as a result, the whole family was arrested. Daniel and Flora were sent to different prisons, and the children were taken to an orphanage. Both parents were tortured for their faith. They only saw each other once more – eighteen months later at their trial. Flora said the Daniel’s hair had gone white and all his teeth were gone. Flora was freed, and Daniel was sent back to prison, where he was tortured continually for refusing to work on the Sabbath. He died of heart failure two years later.
Flora was permitted to reunite with Esther, but John was kept in an orphanage and later transferred to a psychiatric hospital, where he died a few years later. Mother and daughter lived through extremely difficult times of harassment, which included the confiscation of money send from abroad and denial of their right to work until they recanted their religious beliefs, among other things.
Stress, also known as the fight-or-flight response, is the organic reaction to intense demands or alarms – for example, a wild fire or a car approaching at great speed. But alarms don’t always come in the form of physical threats. They also come as psychological stimuli – the recollection of unpleasant events, intense feelings of inadequacy, what someone says to us, feelings of guilt, or screaming toddler. This is what most people understand by stress – the overwhelming pressure caused by hostile work condition, a guilty conscience, relationship problem, tight finances, and the like.
When people perceive an alarming situation, a number of physiological mechanisms (neural and hormonal) take place inside them. The most notable changes include additional glucose production, more rapid breathing circulation of the blood, muscle tension, dry mouth, slowing down of digestion, and blood vessel constriction. All of these changes in the body’s processes increase the energy available to fight the stressor or to flee from it. Our stress response system is an excellent system designed by a loving Creator to enable His creatures to survive danger.
Of course, stress is good in moderate amount because the extra measure of energy it stimulates us to produce gives us the push we need to finish up a project on time, to run and catch the bus that’s about to pull away from the bus stop, or to finish the house cleaning. But if the alarm is sounding all the time, it soon become useless – or worse, it may cause diseases such as gastric ulcer, and irritable colon, hypertension, atherosclerosis, angina, or myocardial infarction. It might even affect out immune system.
An experiment carried out by a group of researchers under the direction of Sheldon Cohen from Carnegie Mellon University showed that stress affects people resistance to the common cold. The levels of stress of 394 college students – all in good health – were assessed over a period of one year. The subjects were also administered a nasal spray containing five different types of common cold viruses, and they were examined daily to ascertain the presence or absence of viruses in their respiratory passages and any symptoms of colds. The researchers found that (1) viruses were present in virtually all the participants, but only one-third of them had symptoms of a cold; (2) the greater the stress levels, the greater the density of viruses and the greater the number of symptoms; (3) the subjects rates as high-stress individuals had double the probability of developing the illness had double the probability of developing the illness; and (4) the stress effect remained significant even after removing variables such as age, exercise, diet, and the use of alcohol and tobacco.
The Power of Prayer
Those who have experienced the closeness to Jesus know that prayer and communion with Him help people to handle life’s stresses with a great deal of success. In fact, it seems that prayer can boost our defenses. Based on his analysis of more than fifty studies, Kevin Seybold reached the following conclusions about the effects of prayer and religious practices on the immune system.
- Religious reflection and prayer cause a bidirectional activity between the brain and the immune system that lowers blood pressure and slows down one’ heart rate and breathing. These changes are incompatible with stress, anxiety, and panic.
- Prayer and meditation produce an increase of activity in the left hemisphere of the brain, a pattern associated with the best immune responses, particularly the production of antibodies that protect us against infections.
- Prayer and religious practices also affect the central nervous system. They activate the brain’s front lobe, balancing the activity of the autonomous nervous system, the limbic system, the hypothalamus, and the amygdala, which reduces stress. And they raise the levels of the neurotransmitters gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), melatonin, and serotonin, which are internally secreted chemicals that induce relaxation and inhabit anger and aggression.
- Public affirmation of one’s values and beliefs reduces the level of cortisol-stress hormone.
- Religious practices stimulate the production of dopamine as well as the activity of the prefrontal lobe – the part of the brain involved in making moral judgment, controlling impulses, and making decisions. This explains why religious practices, when perceived as positive, tend to perpetuate themselves.
One prayer that Elijah prayed probably didn’t bring about the benefits listed above. This particular prayer was an unusual one, which Elijah prayed after a great deal of physical, emotional, and spiritual commotion. He pleaded, “I’ve had enough, Lord. Take my life” (I Kings 19:4, paraphrased). Let’s examine some of Elijah’s experiences that preceded his moment of hopelessness. (These events are recorded in I Kings 17 and 18).
- Elijah informed King Ahab that there would be neither dew nor rain during the next few years.
- God directed Elijah to hide from Ahab in the Kerith Ravine. There, his water would be supplied by the brook and his food by ravens.
- When the brook dried up, God sent Elijah to Zarephath, where, again, he was fed miraculously – this time by a pauper widow who had a dependent son.
- Upon the death of the widow’s son, Elijah prayed for the resurrection of the boy, and God brought the boy back to life.
- As the famine became severe because of he drought, Jezebel began to kill the Lord’s prophets.
- Elijah participated in the ultimate test, which would determine whether Baal or Israel’s God was the true God. The prophets of Baal asked their god to burn up their sacrificial bull, and Elijah called upon Jehovah to bring fire from heaven and burn the sacrifice he had laid on the altar. Only the Lord of heaven responded with blazing fire.
- Elijah had all the prophets of Baal slaughtered.
- He prayed for rain, and a heavy rain fell after three years of drought.
Notice that some of the above events weren’t at all adverse. Some were positive events involving extraordinary manifestations of God’s power.
Yet, all of them were stressful. Even emotional experiences of a positive nature can add to people’s stress. The Holmes and Rahe Social Readjustment Rating Scale, a tool commonly used to quantify a person’s stress, assigns forty-seven points to being fired from work, and fifty points to getting married.
We can imagine that all of the out-of-the-ordinary events that Elijah experienced filled his stress account till it was ready to burst. It was at that point that he encountered Jezebel’s reaction to the slaughter of Baal’s prophets. Her message was explicit: “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them (the prophets killed by sward)” (I Kings 19:2). This made Elijah run for his life all the way to Beersheba in Judah and to become desperate enough to say that he’d had enough to ask the Lord to take his life.
Why didn’t Elijah think of the miracles that had happened in the previous months? Why didn’t he surrender to the same God who had given him power to resurrect a dead boy, brought fire from heaven, and send profuse rain when Elijah prayed for it? Well, as human beings, this is our life story. By evening, we’ve forgotten a great blessing that came in the morning. But, wonderfully, God doesn’t hold grudges. He picks up where we give up. He comes to our rescue and proved for our needs just as He did for Elijah.
On Sunday Morning at 8 am central US time we will have part 2 talking about the importance of prayer.