Essay on the Freedom of the Will
Rest Is Resistance

Emotional Overload

Emotional Overload

John 21:1-19

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

21 May 2023

            I almost entitled this sermon “Gone Fishin’,” thinking of the Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby duet.  Reflecting on this text, I thought about my Dad going fishing.  He was a high school principal and a work-aholic, a type A personality (which is one reason he died of a heart attack at 41).  One of the few times he took for himself away from all his responsibilities was to go fishing with his friends, and drink a few beers, and relax.

            But I decided on “Emotional Overload” instead for the title.  This Easter season I’ve been focused on the reactions of the disciples to their experiences of Jesus’s death and resurrection—the running of Peter and the beloved disciple, the weeping of Mary, the fear of those gathered in the upper room that eventually led to their empowerment, the doubting and then believing of Thomas.  In this final, poignant story from the Gospel of John, we encounter a few of the disciples who’ve gotten away from Jerusalem and everything that has happened to them.  They’ve gone to the lake, to fish, and build a campfire on the beach.  This is a story that resonates easily with us, because we can identify with this act of getting away from it all, the act of rest and recreation, embodied in a fishing trip with friends.

            The title I did choose came from Gary D. Jones’s commentary on this passage when he says, of the disciple’s fishing trip, “This is how human beings often respond to emotional overload.”

            Think about it.  Their friend they spent pretty much every day with for the last three years was assaulted, arrested, tortured, and brutally murdered, and they were eyewitnesses to some of that.  They feared the same would happen to them.  Surely they have some PTSD? 

            And after all that horror, they then have a series of encounters with a living, resurrected Jesus.  How overwhelming must that have been?  I’m certain that they couldn’t wrap their brains around it.  I’m sure they were feeling all the feels—such a swirl of emotions that they couldn’t figure out which ones they were feeling at any given moment. 

            And, so, they just got away from it all.  Tried to take a break, have some rest, do something familiar.  They went fishing, as a way of coping with their emotional overload.

            And emotional overload didn’t seem to just be a great lens for examining this story, but also timely and appropriate for us. 

            For one thing, this is Mental Health Sunday.  We are a WISE congregation.  Which is an official designation of our denomination, the United Church of Christ.  This congregation has committed to be welcoming, inclusive, supportive, and engaged for mental health and wellbeing.  And, a point of pride, we were the second WISE church in the entire denomination and the hosts of the very first WISE Conference.

One of the ways we are living into our WISE commitment today is through the town hall following worship to discuss and brainstorm about the current public health crisis in adolescent mental health.  I hope you’ll join us in Memorial Hall if this issue is of concern to you, or you are a parent, or you are part of the ministries of this church that care for, educate, or support our teens.

So, emotional overload seemed fitting for Mental Health Awareness.

But, then, it also became an emotionally overwhelming week for thousands of us. It was particularly a rough week for the local LGBTQ community and those of us who’ve spent much time and energy this year trying to thwart legislative attempts to rob us of our freedom of conscience and bodily autonomy.  Please check in with your queer and trans family and friends, for they are under assault, and they need you to be loudly and vigorously defending them right now.  This is a struggle for the survival and autonomy of queer bodies.

            And once I leaned into this idea of emotional overload, a number of serendipities occurred this week.  And I delight in serendipities.  Especially during an emotionally difficult week.

The first serendipity occurred on Tuesday—that rough and difficult Tuesday.  One of my Facebook memories that day was a post Kerrie Kleppin-Winn had shared on my timeline two years ago of “tiny sermons by tiny people.”   It was a post that she’d seen somewhere else on Facebook and then shared with me and Katie Miller. 

These tiny sermons were one sentence comments by children that resonate with profound meaning and humor.  Kerrie had originally shared them on May 16, 2020, right around that moment when we all knew for certain that the Covid isolation wasn’t going away soon.  The children’s comments resonated deeply in May of 2020.

But I also found the wisdom of these kids was helpful for me this week of emotional overload.  So, I was quite glad that they came to my notice again in my Facebook memories.  Here’s what these children preached:

2-year-old Henry said, “Don’t wipe my tears away; I want to feel them on my face.”

6-year-old Ezra remarked, “I know two things that are permanent: love and sharpies.”

An anonymous six-year-old commented, “Sometimes I fall down on purpose so that I can take a break.”

Gideon, 7-years-old said, “Sometimes when my feelings are big, I like to sing them.”

Keira, also seven, advised, “I’ll just take a nap.  That’s how you solve that.”

2-year-old Jameson wisely proclaimed, “I’m too sad for pants.”

And one 4-year-old cut to the chase and simply said, “This is an F word day.”

            I feel that 4-year-old.  I feel them all actually.  And what wonderful advice.  There’s something in those seven comments for most people, most days—taking breaks, singing, napping, cursing, crying, loving, etc. 

            Another serendipity occurred Wednesday morning.  It was the children’s spring concert at Field Club Elementary where Ashley Lidgett is the music teacher.  The theme of the concert was “Rules for Living” and included a series of songs filled with advice on how to live well.  I’m grateful to Miss Lidgett for sharing the lyrics with me so I could quote them in today’s sermon.

            Mrs. Riha and Mr. Jackman’s second grade classes sang “Positive,” which includes these words,

I can close my eyes and picture how I want my world to be.

I deserve and affirm, my happy thoughts are good for me.

I believe in who I am, I know my thoughts are mine.

I can change the script I write and positively shine!

            Ms. Noon and Ms. Head’s second grade classes sang a couple of songs that I really liked, and not just because Sebastian, my son, was singing them.  Though I’m sure that helped.  The song “Rules for Living” included this advice:

Laugh a lot.  Smile a log.

Eat your veggies and fruit a lot.

Work and play well today.

And say nice things a lot.

Read a lot.  Rest a lot.

Wash your hands a face a lot.

Miss Ropp and Mrs. Kerwin’s fourth grade class opened the concert with “Responsible.”

No matter what the outside throws at me,
I’m choosin’ to react responsibly with

Decency, fairness, honesty, respect.

Discipline, justice, courage, and respect.

Integrity, compassion, morality, respect.

Humility, kindness,

And did I say respect?

Those fourth graders also sang “Do the Good You Know” with this advice:

We all have sorrow.  We all have pain.

Sometimes our sunshine turns into rain.

When someone falls right next to you,

Then you must do what you can do.

Do the good you know.  Let compassion show.

You can’t save the world alone, but you can do the good you know.

            In a moment of emotional overload, the wisdom of children, singing, reminding us of all the most important things that truly matter, if we but listen. 

These disciples had had too much.  They’d felt all the feels.  And, now, they just needed a break.  And so they took it.

            Maybe we should also understand Jesus’s conversation with Peter differently than we often do?  Maybe Jesus isn’t shaming Peter.  Maybe Jesus simply wants Peter to realize that it is from an honest embrace of his own vulnerability and his failings that he’s going to be the best and most effective pastor and leader that he can be?

            I’m guessing Jesus was deeply aware of all the feelings that Peter was feeling, and Jesus is reminding him that it is those feelings which give us our power.

            The emotions that overwhelm and overload us are the source of our compassion, our agency, our strength.

            The other serendipity this week was that the next book up on my to-read stack was Tricia Hersey’s Rest Is Resistance.   I began reading it on Wednesday while eating lunch at the Crescent Moon, and it was also exactly what I needed in the moment.  It’s like the Spirit knows!

I’m still reading this one so I’m likely to have more insights from it in the future, but early on she writes:

We must see our bodies as a miracle, and a place of reverence where existing in exhaustion is not normal or acceptable.  The beauty of resting knows that we are blessed to have a body, to be chosen to be alive, to breathe, to make choices, and to proclaim that our bodies are our own, is a deep practice in care.  It is the beginning of a revolution, radical, and a resistance.

            One of the many voices this week saying “if you are emotionally overwhelmed, take a break, rest, relax.”  Breathe.  Go listen to birdsong (which the Washington Post recommended this week for its scientifically proven positive effects on mental health).  Taking a break when we are emotionally overloaded is one of the ways we love each other.  One of the ways we get in touch with the divine source of our strength.  Where we can meet Jesus, and find the sustenance we need.

            Rev. Sarah Lund, who spoke at this church many years ago when we hosted that first WISE Conference for mental health, has written a new resource for teens to support their mental and emotional health and well-being.  She entitled it the “Blessed Youth Survival Guide.”  And the prayer it ends with I’ve planned on using in our town hall today, but I realized that the prayer is also the best way to end this sermon on emotional overload:

You are amazing.
You are beautiful.

You are complex (in a good way).

You are a beloved human being.

Your brain is different and good.

The fact that you exist is a miracle and a dream come true.

You are here for a reason.

You may not know your reason yet, but trust me, it is a really good one.

Your life is important.

Getting better takes time.

Be patient and gentle with yourself.

You are more than your disability, disease, illness, or diagnosis.

It’s ok to be different.

It’s ok not to be ok for a while.

Your life matters to me.

Try your best.

Breathe.

Stay.

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