"An irritable restlessness"

In January I'm preaching again at my church. Which should be interesting as my last sermon didn't go over too well with some. I used the word "crap" and compared spiritual formation to peeing straight in a public bathroom. Some thought this was a bit inappropriate. Oh well... At least it was a different kind of sermon.

In this coming sermon I want to try to describe the Christian's experience in the world. And by "the world" I mean, in light of the most recent series I did, the principalities and powers. The way markets, political structures, nations, and institutions make slaves of us and cause us to dehumanize each other. I want to describe how anonymous marketplace encounters cause me to see the person standing in front of me in a line at WalMart as less than a person. These people in my way are just obstacles. Impediments. Rocks in the path of my life.

I want to talk about how the Christan should feel about all this, all these dehumanizing influences that we rarely pay attention to. I want to describe how many Christans are lulled into a kind of moral stupor, just going with the flow of American culture without ever objecting. Or even noticing that there might be something objectionable in the first place.

Words like "rebellion", "resistance" or "counter-cultural" come to mind. Talk like this also gets people thinking about social justice. But what I'm after is a description of a basic dissatisfaction, a sense of not fitting in with the world. Of being discontented with how the world is functioning, how it grinds people down. Here's the phrase I've been kicking around for a week or so:

An irritable restlessness.

I'm wondering if this phrase--an irritable restlessness--captures the experience of being a Christian in the world. And to be clear, I'm not saying that Christians should be cranky. I'm saying that they don't fit in and they get upset about how the world treats people. The irritability here is with the dehumanizing forces of modern living that turn us all into anonymous ciphers.

I think an irritable restlessness characterized Jesus' ministry. He seemed frequently frustrated by the social and religious arrangements that created forces of dehumanization. So Jesus breaks bread with tax-collectors and sinners. Jesus seemed impatient and restless with the status quo, with how things were going. His entire ministry seemed to crackle with an irritable restlessness. A morally charged dissatisfaction and a refusal to submit to a status quo that dehumanized people.

In a sense, then, I guess I am talking about a kind of crankiness, of being a sticky wicket, a sore spot in the world, someone who mucks up the smooth running machinery of indifference. In short, Christians aren't supposed to make the world run better. Rather, we object--get irritable and restless--when asked to submit to the status quo. We just aren't going to treat people that way. And if that means I'm less efficient, on time, or productive. Well, world, you can go to hell. I'm taking my time to treat people differently. I'm a bit fed up.

This might sound revolutionary. But what I'm talking about is more workaday and private. An intentional refusal in my day to day interactions to treat people as strangers, as obstacles, as blank faces in the crowd. Everything in modern life is forcing me into that pattern of living. But I'm irritably restless with it all. It's not right. It's dehumanizing. So I choose kindness. Patience. Warmth. Humanity. Dignity. Not for myself. For you. To wash your feet. To open the door for you. To listen to you. To offer a word of gratitude. To pause for a moment in a marketplace exchange to connect with you as a person. To recognize you as a sacred miracle, as an Image of the Invisible God.

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14 thoughts on “"An irritable restlessness"”

  1. Seems to me that it is the person who is thoroughly "of the world" or dominated by the powers who is truly out of joint with reality, which is God's shalom. Words to describe this as you have already mentioned - dehumanizing, alienation, anomie...

    But there is ground for attributing the restlessness to the Christian. Jesus said the son of man has no place to lay his head. The Spirit is restless, moving over the waters. One of my favorite is a phrase my pastor used to say in the church where I was ordained: You shall know the truth and the truth will make you strange.

  2. The term I have found that best expresses my disquietude is the sanskrit term 'dukkha'दुःख that is a conceptual counterpart of Theravada Buddhism. Dukkha is the deep, abiding sense of discomfort due to the desire to seek permanence or recognise the self in a way that is reconcilable with the world, when neither are currently possible. Dukkha is understood as one of the fundamental, and all pervasive facets of human existence. Look into it if it interests you.

    Mark Weathers

  3. One of the great joys of my profession as a chaplain is the opportunity to encounter people as an intimate stranger. The irritable restlessness that you speak to goes beyond the marketplace and seems to infiltrate every facet of our lives together. The compartmentalization of spirituality aids in the dis/integrative process that results in the dehumanization you speak to above. The aim, of which we continually fall short, is that of integration, of recalling our humanity, our sacredness, our reflection--however skewed--of God's nature in the places where it's not expected. How might we better reclaim our humanity in a society that runs better on the fuel of anonymity and efficiency than by reclaiming both our own uniqueness and that of others in the only way possible: noticing others, listening to others, and speaking to others out of our real, authentic, vulnerable selves? It is time consuming, but it is also incredibly meaningful. Maybe through our authenticity in a multiplicity of contexts we might reintegrate or reclaim some approximation of that which seems to have been lost amid all our “progress.”

  4. Yeah, the rebel thing is completely a puzzle, especially because you're calm about it. ;)


  5. Now Mark, you wouldn't be trying to contradict me here, would you?

    Upon second thought, and after some self-examination, the second paragraph of this post is total self-deception. I'm deleting it.

    For those who what to see what I wrote, for archival purposes, the deleted part is here.

    Funny thing is, I'm considered by many around these parts to be controversial and provocative. That I like to shock people. Perhaps this is true. But I keep telling my wife, "I don't feel rebellious." I don't feel any particular anger or disgruntlement. I don't take glee in stirring people up. Inside I feel calm, relaxed and happy. I'm very jolly for being a rebel. And I don't feel like I'm attention-seeking. Generally, I'm a loner and like to just wander off to read books. But if you give me a microphone I'll tell you what I think. Not to stir people up or poke them in the eye. It's just what I think. And if I think a urinal illustration is a good illustration then I'll use it. I'll admit to poor judgment. I'm horrible a gauging people's reactions. But the motive isn't rebellious. More oblivious than anything else.

  6. Aric,
    Your comment made me think of a figure/ground reversal. If the Christian is set against the background of the world then you get my post. If the world is set against the background of God then it's the world that is restless.

    Mark W (btw, the Mark in my comment above is for Mark L, an unfortunate friend of mine),
    Thanks for that. From my readings in Buddhism I was aware of dukkha. But I had not made the connection with what I was describing in this post. Keep on the dharma path my brother!

    I can imagine how important these issues are for being a chaplain. It's good to hear your thoughts again.

  7. > Everything in modern life is forcing me into that pattern of living
    > the world
    > the world
    > the world

    Christians vs The World might play well in church, but I don't think it's fair to locate the problem "out there", or to lament our special vulnerability to it. As Mark W implies, self-absorption and a desire for permanence are old, old problems, not owned by any culture.

    And as far as rabble-rousing ... I'm pretty sure if you're really shaking things up you don't get asked to talk again. Your particular level of rabble-rousing makes people talk without impeding your ability to rouse rabble (which, incidentally, is a balance I've never managed to master). So I think you've found a good volume. Hi five.

  8. "... all these dehumanizing influences that we rarely pay attention to."

    Goodness me. Well, I'll tell you. Once you start paying attention to them you will never ever stop.

    Excellent post. I think the change does occur at the micro level, certainly. I also think that we all have much more influence on the macro than we would think by our small little efforts, but I can't really explain why I think that :)

  9. Restless, Irritable and Discontent

    "Men and women drink essentially because they like the effect produced by alcohol. The sensation is so elusive that, while they admit it is injurious, they cannot after a time differentiate the true from the false. To them, their alcholic life seems the only normal one. They are resteless, irritable and discontented, unless they can again experience the sense of ease and comfort which comes at once by taking a few drinks, drinks which they see others taking with impunity. After they have succumbed to the desire again, as so many do, and the phenomenon of craving develops, they pass through the well-known stages of a spree, emerging remorseful, with a firm resolution not to drink again. This is repeated over and over, and unless this person can experience an entire psychic change there is very little hope of his recovery.

    On the other hand and strange as this may seem to those who do not understand, once a psychic change has occurred, the very same person who seemed doomed, who had so man problems he despaired of ever solving them, suddenly finds himself easily able to control his desire for alcohol, the only effort necessary being that required to follow a few simple rules."

    Excerpts from "The Doctor's Opinion"

  10. GREAT post! I'm really looking forward to your sermon. I think.

    Would you mind giving me a heads up before we go in to the auditorium if you are going to tell the world to "go to hell" from the pulpit? Just wanting to know what I'm in for. :)

    Your wife

  11. I think perhaps telling the world to "go to hell" from the pulpit might be a bit much. At Highland, anyway. :)

    I am looking forward to this talk too, though. And I've often felt that irritable restlessness - a deep, abiding sense that things are not the way they're supposed to be, and it's therefore difficult to live well, treat people decently, etc. But it's still on me to choose warmth, patience, compassion, etc.

    Thought-provoking post.

  12. "The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us." - Walter Brueggemann

    If Brueggemann is right, then you are, too, as a corollary to him. In this case, anyway.


  13. Dr. Beck,
    I wish I could attend the service in which you are preaching. I am neither a Texan nor anywhere close to Texas. Any chance you would post the sermon you delivered here?

    Thanks much for your consideration -

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