Image credit: Mike Pearce

I won’t list the things I’m thinking about, but I will confess to you that of late I have “heard things” that make me feel some more intense emotions. I hear things in the news that make me angry, things about people I respect that are hard to hear, and then things I’ve been planning on don’t go the way I want them to. Add all this to the stresses of leadership and I can sometimes find myself with a little “edge” that isn’t helpful. Some things should make me troubled, but I shouldn’t lead from a constantly troubled place. It seems that the world is very broken, and not improving in the ways I would like for it to, but I need to find some peace in the middle of things that bother me.

One of the most helpful things I’ve done is to use a very simple rubric I learned years ago while hearing Pete Scazzero teach in Michigan. (Pete is the author of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality). He shared a simple rubric for helping us process how we feel about things–sorting out our emotions. Frankly, I haven’t tracked with Scazzero’s other stuff well but this little three word processing tool has been so memorable and helpful to me I thought I’d share it.

It’s called: “sad, mad, and glad.” There are other components to what he shared but these are the ones that have been most portable for me. When I am having time along with God, an extended time away, or even just a frustrated drive in the car, I find that I need to just pause and sort things out–here’s how:

I AM MAD

I usually have to start here. I build a list of those who are ticking me off. I think through the “kinds of things” that are making me angry during this time. I review in my head the comments on social media that have made me mad. I think about situations that make me mad. I just have a grand ol angry time with a lot of gnashing of teeth.

You might think this is a bit odd–and that I shouldn’t embrace such angry “times of prayer” (although I’d point you to the imprecatory Psalms for some context.) I do find that these angry feelings are in me whether I admit them or not, and when I do not admit and work through them they end up motivating my actions later in ways that are unhealthy, overbearing, or over-correcting. A good example of this is when I get angry about someone else’s anger–and then find that I am actually more angry than they are about it all.

I also find that a few things I am angry about are overreactions in the first place–and so I resolve to not let them bother me. Other things I resolve to continue to be disturbed by. In prayer with God I can realize that some of these feelings are righteous anger–not petty preferences–and I can “double down” my anger into determination to fight against injustice (and I have done this of late on a few things, as you might have noticed). I use this processing to confirm that that anger is really just God’s yearning for justice, and to ensure the motives are pure, to perform the role Harry Wood says we have as ministers, when he advises: “You are not the voice of God, you are the echo of God.”

However, when all is said in done in this processing with God I also find that some of the things I am acting mad about I am actually just sad about.

I AM SAD

It has been helpful to pray through this more regularly for me. I think my default reaction is to be mad about things that are unjust or tragic–but that doesn’t allow for the appropriate grief in the face of such things. In part, I should just be very sad about the things I’m initially angry about. I find that when I am mad about something I don’t get over it (and some things that’s okay for–and I should be perpetually working on). Other things I really do need to heal about. This is especially true when it comes to the things I am personally impacted by. I should simply be sad about them and not just mad.

Part of how I make this distinction is to reserve my righteous anger for broader injustices, rather than lashing out from my own grief about something that hurts me. It also helps me sort out what things really don’t hurt me directly–and where I’m over-compensating by carrying the grievance of another when that is not really my right or duty, and I might not have all the information needed to truly carry that grievance with accuracy and with an appropriate open door for reconciliation. As a pastor I’ve found that some family members and close friends, for instance carry around a grudge and a chip on their shoulder about something done to someone close to them long after the person actually harmed has forgiven the offender and allowed for reconciliation through the grace of Christ. When I carry a grievance of another more deeply than even they do I have to check my motives.

One of the things I find is that when I get to this “sad” part of my internal processing I tend to cry about things I didn’t realize I was so sensitive about. I cry about friendships that I seem to be losing, dreams that are dying, leaders that are disappointing, or even projects that seem to have failed. I don’t cry about these things around other people–in fact I tend to act a little “edgy” about them with other people–which is why I need this stuff. But when just God and I are talking about them he helps me see that I’m just plain old sad. And that’s okay.

I’ll take a moment and give an example. I have been a bit disturbed about the racial tension in this country of late. I wrote a series on the 50th anniversary of MLK’s Letter from Birmingham Jail this spring and summer. Right on the heels of that personal (and public, for me) reflection it seems like many things have highlighted that our racial reconciliation is not yet as healthy as it should be “by now” as a country. Regardless of your “views on the news” I hope you would humbly admit that things aren’t as good as they should be. I was initially quite mad about this… but God started to help me realize that I’m just plain sad about this. Amidst all the anger and shouting and marching and tweeting I see out there (and I have participated in each of these) I wonder if we just need to cry a bit, friends! Sometimes I need a “cry-in” as much as a “sit-in.”

Into this moment I read a piece by Christin Taylor who was reflecting on moving from the British Isles to my hometown of Marion, Indiana, a place with a complex and divisive ethnic history. For some reason her story of swimming in the pool in my town was beautifully heart-breaking to me. After reading I reflected that some ethnic diversity progress had happened in my community. For instance, I worshipped last Sunday in the church I received christ in, my 120-year old home church in Marion which has been mono-ethnic for 115 years. Last Sunday it was a joy for me to see several rows between me and the stage with a salt and pepper scattering of multi-colored faces singing together the praise of our God. This was the very weekend so many racial tensions exploded into greater awareness in our nation and on the news.)

However, as I read Christin’s piece I found myself just crying for a while. Sad about my city, my church, my country. And it was a good cry. An appropriate grieving. Some things have been lost that were gained, or at least some dreams for our nation have not yet been realized: dreams of a true table of brotherhood, and character is not yet as valued over color as I would dream for it to be.

I AM GLAD

After I sort out the things I’m mad and sad about I always feel convicted by God to think about the things I’m truly glad about. After grieving friendships that I seem to be losing, I then celebrate new friends I’m making. After admitting some dreams that are dying, I then dream up some new ones that are even better. After shaking my head at some leaders that are disappointing to me, I remind myself of the hundreds more that inspire me with their courage and integrity. After admitting failure, fraud, even fear, I then grieve them. Then I find I can then see the forest for the trees, and start to name the treasures of my life that give me so much joy, starting with my salvation, my family, and my church.

Into this time I find I can truly receive some gifts of gladness from God, I find that I can move past my cynicism and skepticism and even enjoy a little video about a teenage boy who hopped on his bicycle and helped track down someone who had abducted a little girl in his neighborhood. Watch this to see what I mean:

After admitting and processing through with God what I am mad about, sad about, and glad about I get to a more emotionally healthy place and the “edge” goes away for a time–and I hope that it helps me “deal with” all the junk of life.

Perhaps this little rubric can help you do that too.

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