Monday, July 25, 2016

Okay, Group Hug! You Too Anger.

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Ecclesiastes 3:1-8:

We continue in our series on the gospel in Pixar looking at the movie Inside Out.  Another film where the lead character is female, and really four of the main characters are all female.  The main lead is Riley, an 11-year-old girl who has recently moved from Minnesota to San Francisco where her father has gotten a new job. But while it’s about Riley, it’s also about a lot more than Riley because what we actually see going on for most of the movie is what’s going on in Riley’s head, and how her emotions function together and operate her life, and the lives of others around her as well.  Although we have many different emotions, for simplicity sake, the Pixar team narrowed it down to five. There is joy, who is designed to look like a star, sadness, who is designed to look like a teardrop, disgust, who looks like broccoli, and fear, who is tall and thin, supposed to be like a nerve, and my personal favorite, anger… These emotions live and work in the central complex, headquarters, pun intended I am sure, and control what is going on in everyone’s lives. Rather than trying to explain this to you, take a look at how this works….

As it turns out, Riley is miserable with the move, the moving truck hasn’t arrived with their stuff, and her dad’s job is not going well, but to make matters worse is what happens to joy and sadness.  As Riley has an experience, the memory comes into her mind as a round ball, and it is color coded according to what emotion is associated with it, red for anger, yellow for joy, blue for sadness, etc.  These balls then get moved into long-term storage at night where she can recall them and the emotions associated with them. But, it turns out, the emotions associated with them can also be changed, and so when sadness touches one of these memories, it changes from what it was to a memory of sadness. This of course makes joy very upset, and she seeks to try and control sadness, at one point drawing a circle for sadness to stand in so that she can’t touch anything or bring any more sadness to Riley, which is what Joy doesn’t want to happen.  In trying to keep sadness in her place, or where joy wants her to be, both joy and sadness get sucked into the brain where all the other memories are stored, leaving only anger, disgust and fear in control, which sends Riley’s life into turmoil leading to anger making the brilliant suggestion that Riley’s life was happy and great in Minnesota and so she decides, or they decide, that Riley should run away, while joy and sadness are desperately trying to get back to headquarters.

But, like with all Pixar films there are lots of themes we could tackle from Inside Out, including that idea of identity again, today we are going to focus on the role of joy and sadness in our lives, and how we are supposed to view them and be them. I think I can say that most of us would rather be joyful rather than sad, that we would rather be happy then in pain, but both are a part of our lives.  And yet there are some people who would tell us that we should try and avoid sadness as much as possible, which here is represented not just by Joy, but also by Riley’s mother… As Riley’s mother says, let’s just keep putting on a happy face for the world. Even if we are feeling sad, or even some of the other emotions, that we should stuff them down, not feel them, or if we are, certainly don’t show them to anyone else. It’s that “Don’t worry be happy” movement.  And we certainly see it in the church a lot.

In Philippians we are told find our joy, or to rejoice, in the Lord at all times.  Or to put it another way, Francis de Sales, the 17th century bishop of Geneva, said “I cannot understand why those who have given themselves up to God and his goodness are not always cheerful; for what possible happiness can be equal to that? No accidents or imperfections which may happen ought to have power to trouble them, or to hinder their looking upward.”  Now we’re not talking about not letting go of God even in tough times, or relying on God at all times, but instead about always being joyful, indeed cheerful no matter what happens to us. Is that possible? Is it even desirable?

That’s certainly what Joy, and others would have us think, but there are several problems with this thinking. The first is that I can’t really figure out how you actually do it. How do you remain cheerful or joyful at all times? The second problem is that even if we could figure it out, it’s probably not a healthy position, nor does it match who and what we are. Now there are certainly some benefits to trying to be happy. When we smile, even if we are just faking it, our brains release endorphins which make us feel good, and so even if we weren’t happy before we smiled we can be happy after we smile, and that has all sorts of positive impacts on our lives.  Now it has been hypothesized that if smiling is good for us, even when we don’t mean it, that focusing on our negative emotions must also be bad for us. That being angry only leads to more negativity, and there is some evidence to back that opinion up.

And yet, in another experiment, scientists asked volunteers to place an arm into a bucket of ice water which, while not harmful to participants, is extremely painful. There were two groups, ones who were supposed to say of their choice that could describe a table, and the second who were told to cuss like drunken sailors.  The original hypothesis was that the cussing would give voice to the pain they were experiencing, and thus would make the pain more obvious and make them perceive it as worse, and thus they would not be able to keep their arms in the water as long as those who were silent. But, what they found was the exact opposite. That the cussing, giving voice to their complaints, actually helped them keep their arms in the water longer. It helped them to deal with their pain. We, of course, see this a lot in scripture. While many of the Psalms are expressions of joy and thanksgiving, many of them are also cries of despair and pain, “Out of the deep have I cried unto thee O Lord, Lord hear my voice.”

We often think that there are positive and negative emotions, but what we know now is that that’s not true. Emotions are valueless in and of themselves. We are the ones that make them either positive or negative.  But what we miss when we talk about a range of emotions is that they are a part of who we are.  We are told that we are made in the image of God, and so we should ask ourselves what do we see of God as expressed to us in scripture? Does God express anger? Does God express sorrow? Does God express joy? Does God express disgust? I don’t think that in scripture ever shows God as fearful, or at least the fear we normally think of, but God certainly tell us to fear not. That is that God is not just one emotion. We see a full range of emotion in God, and in Jesus.  It is not a sin to be sad. It is not a sin to be angry. It is not a sin to be fearful. It is not a sin to be disgusted. It is not a sin to be joyful. We might talk about how these things could lead us to destructive behaviors, behaviors that break relationships, but these are a part of who we are, and so we should work to understand them.  That is what Joy must ultimately try and understand as well.  Instead of trying to contain and control sadness, Joy begins to understand the important role Sadness can play, and she sees this as Sadness sits down next to Bing Bong, who was Riley’s imaginary best friend when she was three…

Have you ever been feeling miserable and had someone who thought it was their job to try and cheer you up? Aren’t those people annoying? Now sometimes that might be the appropriate response, but often it’s just simply to be present with people, to let them know that they are not alone in their sadness, which can be extremely isolating, and to be the shoulder they can cry on so they can get it out of their system and they can move on, just as Bing Bong does. Just as Bing Bong will do for Joy when she hits a moment of despair in her search to get back home, and she begins to cry thinking that all is lost. Because as it turns out, although Joy is supposed to represent joy, and only joy, as she goes through this journey she too will experience the full range of emotions. She expresses anger at what Sadness does, and her obstinacy, she expresses disgust towards Riley’s imaginary boyfriend, fear when they encounter Jangles the Clown, and finally sadness when she thinks all is lost. Even in her joyfulness, Joy is all of these emotions, and what she finally comes to understand is that all of these emotions are present in Riley’s memory as well, as the memory that both Sadness and Joy remember fondly is the same memory…

What Joy comes to understand is that while it might be her role to make Riley happy, in  fact to be healthy and truly happy, Riley has to feel and experience all of her emotions.  Joy has, to an extent, already understood the role that disgust and fear and anger played in Riley’s life, but since sadness might be seen as the opposite of joy, she has never understood what sadness’ place was. She has never understood sadness. And yet, sadness has always been a part of her, because while all of the other characters are all the same color, only Joy has a different color as a part of her, and that color is blue. Her hair is the same as sadness’s hair, that somehow joy and sadness are linked together, that to truly have joy we must be able to experience, and to know, and to express sadness, and simultaneously to know sadness we also have to have experienced and known joy.  Joy comes to realize that she can’t talk Riley out of her sadness, or she can’t joy her out of it, she must allow her to experience it, and so as Riley has boarded a bus to go back to Minnesota by herself, Joy and Sadness finally make it back to headquarters, and then Joy does something that no one expects…

Riley is back, and what happens with this insight is that now Riley’s memories are not just one color, instead they are a spectrum of colors and fear and joy can go together, and joy and sadness can go together, that anger and joy can go together.  We are not called to fake it until we make it, as purveyors of happiness would have us believe, we are called to experience and to live into all of our emotions. We are called to live into the image of God who made us to experience all these emotions, that they all have positive and negative connotations, and in feeling and experiencing them all is where we find wholeness.  While we may seek to experience joy in God at every moment, we should never come to think that that means we have to be joyful every moment, because there is a time to laugh and a time to cry, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to sow and a time to reap, a time to keep silent and a time to speak, there is a season for everything and a time to every purpose under heaven. I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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