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Sunday, February 11, 2018 | 4:00 p.m.
Feeling Our Way to the Present
Pastoral Resident, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Psalm 104:1–4, 31–35
I was in college. Sophomore year, sitting on my dorm-room bed in the afternoon when I should have been working on my homework that was sprawled out in front of me, but I just couldn’t. I was so upset. One of my mentors from the National Network of Presbyterian College Women had just been laid off due to denominational budget cuts.
I found my way back to faith with that women’s group. With them I met women pastors for the first time. We learned about race and sexuality and power; we practiced loving ourselves and God, and we dreamed about how the church could be.
Without the staff person and a budget for this group, we no longer had the resources to gather as we had before. I was crushed. My muscles tensed; tears welled up in my eyes and flowed down my cheeks. Feelings of anger and sadness and fear flooded my body. Anger about the pain my mentor and friends were feeling, sadness that the transformational identity development that I and others had been experiencing over the last couple of years seemed to not matter to the people that cut the program, fear about how to find community now and even how to finish this paper that I was working on.
I was so uncomfortable sitting in all those emotions alone that I needed to talk to someone. So I called up my dad. My friends were busy; my mom’s work schedule wasn’t flexible; but my dad’s was. My dad usually got the crying calls from me during the day.
When he picked up the phone, I poured out what had happened and he said, “Calm down, Abbi. Let’s try to think logically about this.” Enters the twenty-year-old’s eye roll. I responded with, “Dad, I know how to think logically. How do you think I function in my life?” I was in the middle of my feminist-awakening, so I had to explain to him what was going on. “Dad, I’ll deal with this logically tomorrow, but right now, I need you to listen to me and affirm my feelings. I need help feeling these feelings.”
I know this was hard for my dad, getting the brunt of my emotional mess. So I sent him an Eve Ensler poem for teenage girls called “I am an emotional creature” to teach him about how I was experiencing the world. (I also just need to say, as I’m throwing my dad under the bus a little bit, that he is, in fact, a great listener, and I still interrupt him during the day regularly to process things.)
Here’s an excerpt of the poem I shared with him:
I am an emotional creature.
I love that I do not take things lightly.
Everything is intense to me.
The way I walk in the street.
The way my mother wakes me up.
The way I hear bad news.
The way it’s unbearable when I lose.
I am an emotional creature.
I am connected to everything and everyone.
I was born like that.
Don’t you dare say all negative that it’s a teenage thing
Or it’s only because I’m a girl.
These feelings make me better.
They make me ready.
They make me present.
They make me strong.
(Eve Ensler, I Am an Emotional Creature, p. 135)
● ● ●
Peter had a rush of emotion on that mountaintop with Jesus, James, and John. Maybe a hike was just what those disciples needed to help them process the conversations and experiences they had been having with Jesus. Yeah, some time to get the body moving, get away from the rest of the group for a little bit, some time to just think about how they had dropped their old lives and ventured on an unknown journey following Jesus.
Hiking up that rough terrain maybe they reached the top a little sweaty, a little thirsty, a little delirious. Just as they made it to the top, a silence settling upon them as they gazed out on the landscape below, lost in thought, Jesus becomes brighter than the eyes can handle. Elijah appears. Moses appears and those three start talking.
Waking up to this strange and miraculous reality, if it’s reality, that quiet moment becomes too much for Peter. “Uh, Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here. Let’s . . . let’s . . . make three shrines—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” God speaks from the clouds and says, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!” And with that (snap), the moment’s over. It’s just Peter, James, John, and Jesus again.
Before hiking up that mountain, they had witnessed healings, exorcisms, miracles together. They fed thousands of people with seven loaves of bread and a few fish. Jesus had walked on water. And yet they came: that flood of emotion, triggered from the pain of the past, releasing a fear for the future, all wrapped up in the messiness of the present.
What happened, Peter? Was it the culmination of witnessing so many miracles, forming deep new relationships, leaving home and family who would never understand all that you’ve seen? Was it that six days before hiking Jesus had said that for those of you who want to follow him, you must give up your lives and take up your cross? Then, on top of all that, Jesus transfigures in front of you? Was it all just too much Peter?
Everything he had ever known was exploding, transforming before him, and transformation doesn’t happen linearly. Even in that transformative moment on the mountain, the past—Elijah and Moses—meets the present—Jesus—and all implicates the importance of the future: God beckoning the tuned ears to Jesus.
I get frustrated with Peter in this story, for interrupting Jesus, for breaking the present moment where the miraculous is happening. If only Peter could have just focused his mind on the present, let anything that came up just come and go like leaves floating down a river. Like I’m some expert on mindfulness or something! I started meditating a couple weeks ago, just ten minutes a day, and if there’s anything I’ve learned so far, it’s how I can’t just make myself be present. Stuff—thoughts and feelings—comes up. So I guess I can understand that with everything Peter was going through, with such a powerful moment like the Transfiguration, stuff was going to come up. And he got so afraid of that stuff, that rush of emotion. He feared his fear. That’s (snap) what broke the present moment. That’s what got in the way of God’s transformation in motion.
● ● ●
adrienne maree brown, an author who describes herself in many ways—auntie, activist, daughter, philosopher, sci-fi scholar, doula, queer black, and multiracial—writes about change. She describes that change for a more whole and equitable world requires full-scale transformation, and transformation desires presence to one another, and in order to be present, we must feel. Because transformation doesn’t happen in a straight line, seeking to be present with our feelings and with one another opens us up for transformation.
We’re inundated with tragedy and loss in the midst of beauty and celebration, and when we make space to feel individually and collectively we learn to do less harm and we experience more freedom. In her book Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown walks us through what happens when she makes space to feel. Hear this snapshot:
In the moment, I was not ready to feel the feeling, my skin too firm, my faith too solid. When the future all seemed ahead of me, it was easier to fold an emotion into me and believe it was gone, or at least silenced.
When my feelings started to work their way back out of me, to the surface, I was overwhelmed. I put my hands over my mouth to hold it in, but it didn’t matter, I was brimming, screaming.
I am not the only one like this, it may be a human condition, or an empath condition, or a black girl magic. It may even be an epidemic of consciousness. I am not convinced we get to know that.
But in my twenties, when I was gutshaking about things that were leaping out of me like emo tweens, that’s when I learned about the time-traveling emotion.
It is like anything else that traverses time, both fully of another time and fully present in the place when it appears. In the case of grief, the time traveling emotion touches into your sadness over a present-day experience of absence, and then drags forward a living satchel of the most tender innocent moments, the smallest memory. Or perhaps sucks your heart back in time.
My grandfather, impossibly big and godly, hugging me, in his own garage, just out of the near-Georgia sun, with the smell of hay and horses around us. It isn’t just the senses, but the complex spectrum of a moment completely felt.
The more I learn to feel, the less time it takes a time-traveling emotion to catch me. Years instead of decades, hours instead of months, seconds instead of weeks.
I am even learning, sometimes/more often, to feel in real time. And to survive feeling a whole emotion in real time . . .
Each time-traveling emotion softens me, especially those that return often. It’s so humbling to feel something in spite of logic, time, circumstance, and thinking the feeling is finished. Grief is a sharp visitor, her long nails a surprise in my chest. Heartbreak is heavy and fireworky, like full-body tears, swollen eyes. Joy melts my jaw.
It’s all waves though, moving towards and up, through and beyond. And once I’ve survived an emotion that has reached across time to demand my attention, I feel so resilient. That resilience makes me soft and wide enough to handle the complex mercurial existence of the present moment.” (adrienne marie brown, Emergent Strategy, pp. 106–108)
● ● ●
Peter didn’t do anything wrong. We all have our Peter moments, blubbering through our lives trying to get that discomfort away. But the moments we stop shaming our feelings, the time we gather the courage to feel the grief, embarrassment, fear, anger, or even joy, we’re opening ourselves up to the present. The distractions are gone, and we’re just there in our humanness, growing our capacity for resilience to face the work needed for change, more attune to God’s transformation. Beckoning to us, calling to us—not just from the clouds, though.
From the mountains and the snowflakes, from a stranger and the streets, from within our bodies. God’s in the time-traveling emotion, despite our best efforts to break the present moment and stop feeling those feelings inside. God still shows up with grace, shouting, “Listen!” and reminding us of the love and wholeness through Christ. God made us emotional creatures, and those feelings—they make us ready. They make us present. They make us strong. Amen.