Hot & Bothered, In a Good Way

II Kings 4:42-44

July 29, 2012

by Abigail Hastings

I might as well tell you that the original title for today was The Most Annoying Sermon Ever. I felt confident I could deliver on that promise, but I might have wondered about why you would stay for it. And I know right now you are making your own list of things-that-really-annoy-you, aren’t you? I’m so sorry.

I was interested in sharing this service with Jenny because having a toddler at home reminded me of one of the most glorious and annoying periods of my life. When Nate was Sebastian’s age, I would confess to people: the kid is great, really awesome, but motherhood sucks. A million little annoyances every day like tiny paper cuts all over your body and brain; but it was also maybe the best time of my life.

I want us to look at the pesky part of life today, not to torture you, but to figure out what Jeremiah was talking about when he claims that God has plans for us to prosper and not for harm, to give us a future with hope.

A future with hope is the scarcest commodity for me in an election year. I’m exhausted by living in a country of extremes, stuck in public discourse dominated by what’s called “motivated reasoning” and what I call “thinking with a hijacked brain.” Dan Kahan explains motivated reasoning as assessment that is “independent of accuracy.”1 I think that’s what we used to call lying. If truth is the first casualty of war, no wonder it feels like we’re on a battlefield.

Thanks to Jonathan Haidt, I have a little game for my partisan irritation. Haidt says we have a primal need to be a good team player—and that the primary teams these days, Republicans and Democrats, are motivated by different values, by different moral intuitions: loyalty, authority, sanctity on the one hand; care, fairness and liberty on the other. 2 Every argument depends on the template you use. It explains why reason will not win, “facts” no longer share the same DNA as truth.

Why does this make things less annoying for me? Because I no longer try to open the eyes of my brethren (literally, my younger brother, as we cancel out each other’s vote every four years) because I now see that I can’t change his mind with reason. He’s a good team player for his team—now I try to see what virtue he is espousing in whatever he posts on Facebook.

Does contextualizing help? For me it does. I’m interested in motivations because I’m interested in one of the most fundamental of theological tenets: the radical notion that change is possible. Donna was teaching me the Greek word, metanoia, literally, changing one’s mind, though it is sometimes interpreted as repentance—in my experience, those things often travel together anyway. Metanoia can signal an evolving understanding of how current thought patterns are limiting, no longer useful, or just plain wrong headed.

No wonder so much of the bible is devoted to the exercise of metanoia. In today’s passage, God is trying to say that there’s “bread enough and to spare.”3 But the servant guy’s hesitancy was understandable: there was only the one sack, just some bread and corn at the end of a harvest set in the midst of famine—and he’s looking at 100 hungry, hungry people. This to me is not about the prosperity gospel that so many fat cats are fond of—this to me is God’s way of saying, you can do this, it seems impossible and improbable, but you can do this, and the reason is pretty much because I, Yahweh, said so.

This is what I love about the bible—it’s such the record of human frailty and goofiness. Here’s a quick way to know if someone reads it: ask them if they think Eve ate an apple.4 Many think the bible is a collection of sweet stories, unaware of the rampant violence, comic misunderstandings, and often expurgated scenes it contains. Many will know of Noah’s big boat; fewer of his drinking and incest. As children we acted out David and Goliath, but what we should have played out was chapters later when David acted crazy as a loon in a successful plot to avoid war with the king of Gath.

What’s great is that the bible doesn’t leave out the annoying bits either: you’ll recall the parable of the persistent widow from a few months ago, what a pain in the buttinsky she was; or look up the Syrophoenician woman, begging for her child’s health, and the way Jesus told her, “not now” but she wasn’t having it, even daring to annoy the Great Healer.

Or look at Jesus who gets annoyed at a fig tree. A fig tree. When I first heard that growing up, it was full stop—what? Jesus gets annoyed? How can these things be?

I stumbled on Romans 8 not long ago: “creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice—it was the choice of the one who subjected it—but in hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children.”

Ok, so what it sounds like is we have a God with a sense of humor, make that a wicked sense of humor. Annoyance is a part of life, built right in. A certain amount of it may lead to action—exhibit A: Occupy Wall Street. But the daily wear and tear of annoying things is usually not so dramatic, and there’s the rub.

Technology is no improvement really. Gliding through the Futurama exhibit as I did at the 1965 World’s Fair, they forgot to point that out. “Creation is subjected to frustration…”

Technology has spawned new annoyances, like “half-a-logues” — cell phone conversations we only hear half of. They’re not really new, Mark Twain complained of hearing only one end of those newfangled phone conversations, but the root of the problem is less about rudeness (though that’s there) and more about real physical brain pain. Our brains work really hard to understand things, and deprived of half of the vital information puts us on edge.5

There’s something called an Annoy-a-tron, I kid you not. It’s a mean little machine you can buy that beeps at random intervals, and it’s small, so you can’t find where the beep is coming from—like cell phones going off in a darkened theater. It efficiently meets the requisite ingredients to be annoying: unpleasant (not really cruel or dangerous), unpredictable, and it leads to a false belief that it will end soon.6

Our ears are conditioned to want, to crave, order. Maybe you know the story of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring when it premiered in May of 1913 and caused a riot.7 Jonah Lehreh says perhaps it was too aberrant, and the brain abhors the new. We are pattern-seeking creatures and change comes with discomfort.8 But now that we know that “creation is subjected to frustration,” that it’s built in by our fun-loving kick-ass Creator, the real question is what do we do with our resistance to change?

Two thoughts here: R&R—renewal and resilience. When Rite of Spring was played less than a year later, the listeners were prepared to hear it, gave it rave reviews, and by 1940, it was in a Disney movie, for pete’s sake. This ability to adapt, to renew, perhaps even to experience metanoia on a cellular level is one of the most exciting aspects of neuroscience today—the discovery of brain plasticity—the ability of the brain to change and adjust. Will we eventually rewire the circuitry so we don’t hear the half-a-logues or seem to notice nails on chalkboard? Possibly.

But here are two things that are helping me now. One is a book called The Tools. Phil Stutz, one of the co-authors, was a psychiatrist out at Rikers. His patients were weary of traditional therapies, they wanted to know what will help me now. Stutz developed a more practical regiment that begins with the idea that resistance should not only be expected, but invited. Let it be a change agent—a challenge that will make us stronger, more creative, and more courageous.

This interests me because I am haunted by the biblical repetition about the power being within us. It’s as if God is saying to us: you have the power to feed all the people—I have made you to be a co-creator with me, it’s that much power. But you resist it, you don’t believe it. You are intimidated by dissonance, and work hard to avoid it, avoidance being so primary, you will seek ways to escape—living under the radar, keeping an even keel at all costs, substance abuse if necessary.

The story of “bread enough and to spare” might have reminded you of Jesus feeding the 5000—or maybe last Saturday when we fed the 5000 at Michael and Alana’s wedding. The Old Testament reading suggests we can do this sort of thing, but it’s as if we needed “magic man” Jesus to do it again and say, look this is possible, even with limited resources.

So a metanoia about resistance is a good place to start. Our new cry of faith should be: bring it. And then we should think about how to push through together. A forager bee flying off alone eventually has decreased brain capacity, but the brain can be renewed by returning to the hive. So fly back to us, or stay engaged somewhere—social isolation is not healthy for bees or humans.

The other thing that helps me break down what annoys me more efficiently is the study of Enneagrams. This is a categorization of personality traits, possibly dating from the 4th century, it got a modern update about 40 years ago. What I find helpful is that for each—the Reformer, Helper, Challenger, etc—there’s language around what motivates people, what is their most basic fear. If you see what you’re really wanting, or wanting to avoid, you find the root cause of why you find something annoying, and can move to something more life giving.

These days I’m particularly interested in what is driving our avoidance of policy in favor of drama. I was a theater major, so I’m all about the drama, but nothing really explains to me why the media, as Eric Boehlert (yes, Bart’s brother) puts it, why the media is “obsessed over the legislative process and the political implications” of the Affordable Care bill—almost half the media coverage was about the infighting, about a quarter of it was devoted to how the law would change the system, and only 9% of media coverage was on how our health care functions today.9 Reporting of this vital national conversation was reduced to a cockfight—it should have been aired on Soap Opera Digest, not C-Span.

In the song, “You Get What You Give” (New Radicals), there’s a bridge that goes by so fast, you can’t get the words. Written by lead singer, Gregg Alexander, the words are: Health insurance, rip-off lying; FDA, big bankers buying…” but ends with, Fashion shoots with Beck and Hanson, Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson; You’re all fakes, run to your mansions, Come around, we’ll kick your ass in.”

Mind you, this was 14 years ago, but Alexander says he wrote that part of the song as a test to see if the focus would be on the important issues he first mentions or just the “celebrity-dissing.” Needless to say, health insurance and big banks buying, which affected all of us, didn’t register, but hells bells, disrespecting those celebrities sure did. I’d love to understand what’s at the root of all of this. Is it because policy is hard, disrespecting is easy? Is it our love of stories? Is that why policy now has to be communicated through the compelling story of whoever is sitting next to the First Lady during the State of the Union speech?

But I don’t want you to miss the other part of Alexander’s song: the refrain that repeats, you’ve got the music in you. When I mentioned we are co-creators with God, it’s not a pretty phrase—it’s the core of who we are. I’m inviting you to creativity—art, music, writing, dancing, or creatively solving problems in the world, whatever it is that is within you to offer to the world. I’m pretty darn sure that if you experience creativity and make it a big part of your life, many of life’s annoyances will fall away.

But it’s more than that: not living who you are at your very core, who God created you to be, comes at a terrible price, a much bigger price than what you think it will cost you to move through resistance and past annoyances. How difficult it is for me to see in my mother’s handwriting the Oliver Wendell Holmes’ quote: “Alas for those that never sing, But die with all their music in them!”10

Or perhaps you know a quote attributed to Judy Garland, shortly before she died: “It’s a terrible thing to know what you’re capable of and to never see yourself get there.”

Here’s one more tool. It’s what we call the Meatloaf Solution, which is not unlike the inattentional blindness Jenny told us about earlier. When Lucy the beagle has to take pills, she’s very gifted at eating around whatever we hide the pill in. Plop, out it goes onto the floor. Needless to say, Lucy is annoyed by pills. So now we put the pill in a little bit of meatloaf, but then we have a second bite of meatloaf in the other hand and well within her sightline. Lucy takes the first bite quickly and easily—her mind is fixed on the second.

When we have our priorities straight, when we keep our eye on the prize, the things of the earth, so many of those annoying things, will fall away. We will become as new creatures, dying to the self that gets in the way, arising to the self that is creative and powerful and free.

The apostle Paul used to annoy the hell out of me. Ever since I found out he was misquoted, that a bunch of crap was added in later years to his letters, I’ve gone from greatly annoyed to only mildly annoyed. That’s why I can leave you with his words from Philippians: “I have learned to be content, whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want… Finally sisters and brothers, whatsoever is true, whatsoever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if there be any virtue, if there be any praise” —well, why don’t you think on those things, for heaven’s sake.

[Video shown: “You Get What You Give” with photos of Judsonites and a bunch from the Ellick/Hartman wedding, which apparently was attended by about 275 people, not 5000]



1 “Unpopular Mandate: Why Do Politicians Reverse Their Positions?” by Ezra Klein, New Yorker, June 25, 2012. In context: “Psychologists have a term for this: ‘motivated reasoning,’ which Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale, defines as ‘when a person is conforming the assessments of information to some interest or goal that is independent of accuracy’—an interest or goal such as remaining a well-regarded member of his political party, or winning the next election, or even just winning an argument.”

2 “The Moral Foundation of Occupy Wall Street: An Illustrated Guide to the Signs at Zuccotti Park,” by Jonathan Haidt, Reason, October 20, 2011. See also Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Pantheon, 2012.

3 This is how the phrase goes when it finally hits the prodigal son that there’s plenty of food back at home, even if he was just a farm hand for his dad: “And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!” (Luke 15:17)

4 Nope, the bible doesn’t say that Eve ate an apple, though the Latin for “apple” is the same as the word for “evil” so that may have been the seed of the problem. More mistranslations to explore: And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning by Joel M. Hoffman, St Martin’s Press, 2010.

5 Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us by Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman, p. 4.

6 ibid., p. 17.

7 The music was so unusual, so foreign to audiences accustomed to the consonance of the romantic composers, people started screaming and running from the concert hall, fisticuffs along the way. Some say the riot really was caused by Nijinsky’s ballet and its depiction of copulation, which apparently not everyone wants to see on stage.

8 “Musical Language” episode on Radiolab: 9.24.07. This section quotes Jonah Lehreh, who the next day after this sermon (July 30) confessed to making up quotes and attributing them to Bob Dylan. Putting aside the question of whether or not Dylan could possibly remember what he ever said, what Lehreh repeats in the Radiolab interview is not particular to him, but that’s where it was heard for this citing.

9 "Why Media’s Health Care Reform Coverage Was Even Worse Than You Thought,” by Eric Boehlert, Media Matters, June 25, 2012. In context: The Pew Research Center recently reminded us of that fact when it highlighted the findings of a comprehensive survey they conducted from June 1, 2009 to March 31, 2010 . . . In addition, the media obsessed over the legislative process and the political implications of the bill (49 percent of the coverage), while paying far less attention to how the reform legislation would affect Americans (23 percent), or why reform was even need. In other words, how the U.S. health care system functions today (which accounted for just nine percent of the coverage). Or, as Pew put it, “only 9% of the overall health care coverage was devoted to the current state of an industry that consumes one-sixth of the U.S. gross domestic product and affects virtually every citizen.” On cable news, just four percent of the health care coverage detailed the workings of the troubled U.S. system.

10 from “The Voiceless,” a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes

55 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012 | phone: 212-477-0351 | fax: 212-995-0844