Bumped

I got bumped yesterday. Emotionally, not physically. In general, I consider myself to operate on a relatively even keel. Steady. Unflappable. But over time, I am coming to realize that as stresses pile up, I feel shaky and uncertain.

Like many people, the uncertainties of COVID-19 has had a significant effect upon me. I have been aware of a simmering anxiety for a couple of weeks now, a whispering shadow that lurks in the cobwebbed corners of my mind. It hasn’t devolved into full blown panic, yet its murmuring is incessant.

Even after nearly 25 years as a trained counselor, I continue to learn new lessons about my emotional life. One of the things that I have more recently discovered is that anger is my prime emotion, what those who are familiar with the Enneagram might call my core passion. But my anger rarely boils over, it simmers. When we were first dating, my wife would often say “Jason got so angry about that.” Not coincidentally, I would get irritated when she said that because I truly did not believe I was an angry person. I didn’t blow up or yell. Twenty-five years together and I’m beginning to understand she was right. I am continuing to work on understanding the complex interplay of my emotions, but one thing is becoming more obvious to me: I am likely to experience a variety of emotions as variants of anger. When I get anxious, it may come out as irritation. When I feel sad, I can feel resentful. Shame leads to self-deprecation.

COVID-19 and all of the changes it has brought in its wake has made me anxious and sad, but I am also discovering that those emotions are spilling out as anger, resentment, or irritation. Two mornings ago, I felt irritated that my son was breathing too loudly and I told him to breathe more quietly. Yesterday, a friend shared a political position that was different than mine and I could feel irritation boiling up within me. It spilled over as I expressed how tired I am of all of the divisiveness. My gut reaction was to view him as guilty, but I quickly recognized those same tendencies within myself, Paul’s words in Romans 2:1 (NIV) flashed through my mind, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.

I long for serenity regardless of circumstance. I want to develop an internal stillness that remains steady even when I am bumped. If my cup runs over, I want it to overflow with the love of Christ and not with anger.

I want to conclude with the text of this prayer from Reinhold Niebuhr, a prayer that was adapted by Alcoholics Anonymous as the “serenity prayer.” My friend Perry, a fellow pilgrim who has been helping me to see the impact of my anger, shared this version yesterday.

God, give me 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.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen.

Still our hearts, Lord

God of hope,
our world seems hopeless.
An unseen enemy assaults us,
emptying our streets,
yet filling us with anxiety.

We have no mooring, no anchor.
We ride white-capped waves
in small vessels
that were never meant
to weather these storms.

Our stockpiles dwindle,
but we cannot see the shore.
We lash ourselves to the mast
and pray we do not capsize.

Our prayers are groans
and tears
and tumbling thoughts.

Many of us hope for the light to break through,
but all we see is darkness.
We don’t even know where to look.
Our darting eyes betray our anxious hearts.

Still our hearts, O Lord,
Still our hearts.

John 13:30

So after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.–John 13:30

Every time I read the phrase, “and it was night,” my skin tingles.  It is ominous.  It conveys the sense that there is no turning back. It is no mere proclamation of the setting sun, but it heralded the eve of the darkest day in history. Good Friday.

This band of brothers, so closely tied together, was fracturing. Judas had left. Jesus was troubled. The others were confused and fearful, trying to recall their interactions with Judas, hunting for clues. They were trying to remember everything Jesus had said, again hoping for hints.

Night is confusion. Night is darkness. Night is fear. In the opening paragraphs of this epistle, John identified Jesus as the light of the world. Light is hope; darkness is hopeless.

You may know the night too. When the doctor calls you personally and says, “It’s cancer,” it’s night. When your child, whom you have poured your heart and soul and guts into, whom you have prayed for and protected, has decided that Jesus isn’t really her thing, it’s night. When you’ve saved your money, little by little, trying to be a good steward, and you get a call from the IRS saying that they want to go over your most recent tax returns, it’s night.

Darkness comes to everyone. Life is not always how we want it to be. But even in our darkest nights, Jesus is still light.

Prayer
Jesus, I cannot imagine what you were feeling that night. Were you afraid? Were you angry? Regardless, you did not leave your friends. Help me to remember that even in the darkest times, you are light. Amen.

Growing Whys

31 days of writing, day 4
Today’s prompt: Why

Almost from the time we are able to speak, we begin to ask why. Parents of preschoolers can regale us with tales of their children repeatedly asking, “Why? Why? Why?”

Why is the sky blue?
Why are turtles so slow?
Why are sidewalks gray?
Why can’t I have ice cream for dinner?

As we grow older, our questions mature along with us. Presumably. In grade school, we ask, “why do I have to go to bed at 7:30?” In middle school, “why is my best friend ignoring me?” In high school, “why won’t she go out with me?”

Our development is intimately intertwined with attempting to make sense of the world  and our place in it. But as we press further into our confusion, clarity often dims. More and more often, our “whys” remain unanswered.

Too often, Christians dismiss why questions. We are supposed to have all of the answers, wrapped up in sparkly paper and finished with a bow. When people bring us their hurts we ask “have you prayed about it?” People muster their courage to share their fears and we respond “the Bible says don’t be afraid” or perhaps even “fearfulness is a sin.” Ugh.

But the biblical narrative reveals that God’s people were not afraid to ask why. Habakkuk asked “Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?” (1:3). Jeremiah asked “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?” (15:18). Even Jesus, echoing David, pleaded “why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?” (Psalm 22:1).

Premature answers and biblical platitudes often fail to comfort. People need to hear that God is strong enough to bear their pain. They need to understand that asking difficult questions is not a sign of faithlessness.

Maybe, if we live in the world of easy answers, we would do well to ask ourselves, “why?”

For reflection:

What questions are you afraid to bring before God? How do you respond when people share their difficulties with you? 

Stillness

God of all power and love,
when my thoughts rage on
anxiety can overwhelm me.
I desire reprieve, but find only…chaos.
But I look in 10,000 places,
except to you.
Yet you surround me with love and power.
All else may be utterly destroyed,
but you, O LORD, will not.
You command stillness in chaos.
When creation is quaking
I can stand still nowhere,
except in the shadow of your wings.