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.

John 14:5

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”-John 14:5

So far in the upper room, Jesus, Peter, John, and Judas have all been named. Familiarity with the gospels gives us clues to the personalities of several of the disciples. I think Peter was impulsive. He was the type of guy who would blurt out answers without raising his hand. John was a lover. His gospel and letters reveal a man overwhelmed by Jesus’s love, but that had not always been the case. He and his brother James had been nicknamed Boanerges—“son of thunder” (see Mk. 3:17). Judas was the betrayer—calculating, judgmental, and greedy.

In 14:5, Thomas entered the story. If I asked you for one word to describe Thomas, I suspect most people would respond, “doubter” because in John 20:25, Thomas would not believe Jesus had risen from the dead unless he actually saw and touched his physical wounds. However, in this passage Thomas was a scoffer. Jesus had been explaining that he was going away, but that they would know the way to him. As I picture Thomas in this scene, I imagine him standing with arms crossed and rolling his eyes, becoming more agitated as Jesus continued talking. Finally, he had enough. Irritation bled into his words: “We don’t know the way. How can we know the way?” I don’t think he was asking for clarification, he was voicing his exasperation.

Impulsive Peter, passionate John, scheming Judas, and scoffing Thomas—Jesus loved them all. He did not call disciples with the right theological credentials or right personality. The twelve proved that Jesus can, and does, use everyone.

Jesus, I am grateful that your circle of friends included all kinds of people—the intemperate, the passionate, the impulsive, the angry, and the self-righteous. You are able to see beneath the surface of our masks to the inherent worth in every one of your image bearers, including me. Help me to remember that everyone can be used for your kingdom. Amen.

John 13:21

After saying these things, Jesus was troubled in his spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.”-John 13:21

What does it mean that Jesus was “troubled in his spirit”? I think it means that Jesus was stirred up, upset, wrestling, or visibly bothered. When we think about the characteristics of Jesus, most of us would never think to describe him as “troubled.” We imagine him as serene, peaceful, or even disengaged.  When we base our understanding of Jesus on those assumptions, we come to believe that in order to be like him, we need to be emotionless–or only allow the positive emotions–happiness, joy, contentment, or humor.  We view “negative” emotions, such as anger, fear, or sadness, as less godly.  But Jesus was troubled because he was human.

He was facing death. His friend had betrayed him to the Sanhedrin and soon, they would come to arrest him, try him, and deliver him to a brutal crucifixion.  If he wasn’t “troubled in spirit,” he would be inhuman.

It is profoundly human to feel deep sadness over loss, anger about injustice, anxiety in the face of threat, or mirth when you hear a dumb joke. If you want to learn from Jesus, do not whitewash his emotional life because if you do, you erase his humanity.

Prayer
Jesus, help us to know that to be created in your image is to be emotional.  Thank you for revealing your emotional life, so that we might know that our emotions make us more like you.  Help us to be honest with our emotions so that we will become fully alive. Amen.

Prismatic Praise

Write 31 days, day 12

Writing prompt: praise

What does it look like to live a life of praise? Can we praise in sorrow as well as joy? In celebration and lament? I think about Job sometimes. He faced loss and suffering of mythic proportions. He laid his complaints before God. Did he ever stop praising?

Here’s the thing: I think that sometimes Christians get it in mind that a restricted emotional wavelength is preferable. Joy is welcome. Happiness, sure. Also contentment. We even allow sorrow–for a season, but then we expect it to give way to happiness. Do we believe that God is somehow incapable of handling prismatic emotions? The biblical record corrects us. We see men and women living lives of praise who deal with fear, anger, sadness, grief, and shame as well as joy. Perhaps when we bring all of these feelings before his throne, we truly offer robust praise.

For reflection: as often as you think of it today, ask yourself how am I praising God in this moment.