In My Feelings
February 10, 2019
You are probably familiar with the Myer’s Briggs Type Indicator personality test, but if you’re not, let me oversimplify it for you so you get the basic gist. The Myers Briggs is a test developed for people to learn more about themselves based on different tendencies we each employ most of the time. There are four categories and two tendencies for each, though some people fall very close to the middle in one or more categories. When you take the test, you discover whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, whether you are intuitive or sensing, whether you’re a feeler or a thinker, and whether you are judging or perceiving. The test then helps you understand how you are energized or depleted, how you gather information, make decisions, and perceive the world.
I have always been fascinated by personality tests, which is not true for everyone, but I believe they help us know ourselves and others better and aid us in our work places and relationships. Knowledge is power, right? Unless that is, if you are a feeler. That’s mostly a joke, with a good dose of truth to it. You see, I am a big, fat, F on the Myers Briggs- off the charts on feelings. And let me tell you it has often been an uphill battle for me. To feel everything so deeply, especially things that others have a more logical way of looking at, can be frustrating. You know the phrase “feeling all the feels”? That is me, all of the time, and it’s exhausting. Of course, there are benefits to being a feeler. I can sense the feelings in others more acutely, and I care deeply about others’ feelings. Realistically, it can sometimes be a burden, to pile other peoples’ feelings on top of all the ones I already have, but ultimately it’s a gift in ministry. Along with that, I tend to have a greater sense of empathy and compassion, and a passionate and idealistic moral compass. The bottom line is that FEELERs get to experience the world through joy and heartbreak much of the time, and if I had to take a stab at it I would peg Isaiah as the ultimate feeler.
Now, consider the circumstances. History tells us that, at this point, the Judeans had forgotten and forsaken the Lord; their worship was futile; corruption marked their leadership; and greed led to injustice. Sound familiar? Isaiah then, in verse one, says he appeared on the scene in the year of King Uzziah’s death. The death of a King was a big deal, but it was also a turbulent time because of the decisions he had made. Uzziah reigned for 52 years. He started out serving the people of well, obeying God, and staying out of trouble. But his pride got the better of him, and the Assyrians got the better of Judah. God finally put a stop to Uzziah’s power hungry destruction by striking him with leprosy and quarantining him until his death. It left Judeans among the Assyrians- a people who trusted in domesticated Gods, created to confirm their own desires and preferences.
The God of the people of Israel, described in this scene, is clearly not a God who is affable, and will not affirm injustice and a lack of humility. God does not even lower God’s self to Isaiah, but sits upon a throne. The seraphs are put to work singing God’s praises, and descending- or condescending– to Isaiah, putting him in his subordinate place. Simply put, God isn’t happy with Israel, and this imposing figure God embodies in the temple speaks volumes.
I can almost hear the heartache and fear in Isaiah’s voice when he admits to God, on behalf of all of Israel, what shame they have brought through destruction and sin, and begs God for forgiveness. As imposing as God appears, though, God wastes no time in sending a seraph down with a burning coal, to burn the words from Isaiah’s lips, instantly relieving him of his guilt. And as soon as God asks for a volunteer to lead the people of Israel out of their predicament, Isaiah responds with some of the most famous words in all of scripture. Here I am! Send me! What follows is God’s litany of problems that Isaiah must address, and I’d venture a guess, as a fellow feeler, that he might have wondered if his willingness and passion had just gotten him signed up for too big of a job.
At its heart this is a call story. And Isaiah steps up to the plate because he feels passionate about caring for his people during a fearful time. Isaiah’s willing heart and God’s boldness in removing his shame have always struck a chord with me. It’s so moving, this vision of God that defies reality, where God in the temple rises above the political fray of the time, inspiring Isaiah to say yes to the future that God wants.
I have often felt as though my feelings are not productive- that they get in the way of real work. Our culture tends to value decision-making that is “logical” rather than feeling-based. But after reading this story for maybe the hundredth time I finally wondered, maybe it’s our lack of feelings that are part of the problem. We teach our boys it’s not okay to cry, we raise our girls to think getting angry isn’t feminine, we tell people not to get too emotional at work, but we expect our leaders to be appropriately emotional when the time is right. We are taught not to lean into our feelings but to control them, use them strategically, and deny their tendency to embolden us toward honesty and action.
Have you ever been in a meeting, making an important decision and the only approach to it is “rationalized,” thinking? Processing through the lens of reasoning is important, of course, but making big decisions involves risks and rewards, and those things make us feel. They make us feel nervous and fearful and protective. But they can also empower us and make us feel alive and hopeful. Feelings are what cause us to sacrifice. A shared feeling can create an inseparable bond, and a sense of empathy that can change minds. Naming our feelings in intense moments is something we ask of our children but not the grown-ups. How did that make you feel? It’s a question we should ask more often to get at the heart of our deepest joys and hurts, and our biases. What would our decisions look like if we paid more attention to all the feels? Some would say it would look messy, but when I look around lately, whatever they are claiming is logical looks plenty messy.
You know, part of what was happening in Israel at the time of Isaiah’s prophesying was occupation of the people and the land. There was land degradation, a lack of gratitude for the simple gifts it provided, and inequitable disbursement of resources. God’s good creation was being taken advantage of and squandered, and, as usual, it most profoundly affected the least among them. This made God sad, and angry. God could have cared less about the military or capital gains Uzziah obtained during his reign, because God felt the pain of the world left in his wake.
Perhaps this is why God appeared so fantastically in the temple. It almost renders as a piece of art, right? Art is a way to express the feelings we have inside of us, but it can also evoke feelings in us, too. We can be challenged by it and moved. I imagine this story from Isaiah as a work of art. A stirring, theatrical rendition of God in the temple, lofty and mystical, surrounded by swaths of beautiful velvet robing and mythical creatures, with little ole Isaiah standing there looking up at it all. Frankly, it’s an illogical sight, unreasonable even. But, maybe that’s the point. God’s greatness has been called into question by Uzziah and the people. They have run amok. The earth is groaning under the weight of misuse, people under the strain of military violence and oppression. God feels all of it and knows the only way to call Isaiah to attention is to make it ridiculously clear that the world cannot go on as it is, nor will it.
If only God’s feelings were always so clear.
My daughter Gwen has always been interested in why people would want to litter. Not because she herself never leaves garbage around- you should see my car- but because, she says, litter makes the earth sad. Five-year-olds understand the power of feelings, and naming them, particularly in this way, evokes a kind of solemnness from us. “Yes, honey, you’re right,” I say. We often make the earth sad. More often we make God sad. But when we remember our feelings, I at least, would like to believe we bend toward care and compassion, and make different decisions. Studies have shown that people often don’t change their mind based on facts (which is really a whole problem in and of itself) BUT they are able to shift their opinion when they are affected personally.
If you’re not a feeler, though- and I am here for you too- maybe another way to think about this story is this: these few verses from Isaiah, much like art, raise the question of how we define “reality.” Do the crushing problems we face define reality, or does faith offer a reality beyond what we can see? Now, the devastating effects of climate change are well-proven and already upon us. But, does God show us a different way to approach it? An alternate vision of how the world could look? On the throne of glory, God wipes out the sin of Isaiah and says, ‘whom shall I send and who will go for us’? In this reality the past is finished, and an opportunity is offered, to forge a new way forward. Isaiah feels a sense of call, realizing the fate and faith of Israel depends on his immediate, emotional, and uncalculated response.
I often say that I feel the best in worship after the confession is over. I feel a sense of relief that we’ve all come together to name all that is not right in the world. God’s forgiveness of us doesn’t really make sense most of the time, but because of it, and God’s rather illogical and unreasonable love, we have chance after chance to do what is right- to create a new reality. This is what God called Isaiah to, and this is what we are called to, as well. To use what is in our hearts, our feelings, maybe you think of it as your soul, your moral compass, to use this part of you and answer “Here I am. Send me.” I can say confidently the world needs more feelings, and less bias against them. We are ready for them- hungry for them. Do not be discouraged by the big feelings you have, if you do. They are what will turn the world around. Amen.