THE EXCELLENT WAY, 12: I DON’T WANT YOU UNDER MY SKIN
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
January 8, 2017; Non-lectionary sermon
Exodus 34:1-10; James 3:13-4:3

“Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?
Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?”
James 4:1

Well, it’s been a long time since we last looked at 1 Corinthians 13. Stewardship time and the Advent and Christmas seasons are now behind us — and Epiphany besides — so “the hour is coming and now is” to continue our conversations about the nature of Christian love.

I don’t know how it’s been for you, but for me this whole sermon series has been a deep dive into the richness of Holy Scripture.

Unlike most series I’ve done over the years, I haven’t had a definite plan for this one. There are 13 verses in this chapter, so I had a vague idea that maybe I’d cover something like a verse a week. But it hasn’t worked out that way. The more I’ve delved into the original Greek, the more I’ve discovered that’s worth telling you about. So we’ve paused to enjoy the scenery along the way.

Love is a topic that’s relevant to all our lives, so I hope you’ve found these messages to have some practical value.

It’s been a couple of months since we last did this, so let’s take a moment and remember where we’ve been.

We spoke about that young church in Corinth, all aflame with the fire of the gospel — but also torn apart by conflict. There were factions in that church: Christians of Jewish origin and Christians of Gentile origin. Some thought followers of Christ ought to follow strict dietary laws, like their Jewish ancestors. Others had a far more freewheeling approach to the question of what’s for dinner. Some thought the Lord’s Table was a place for feasting, while others saw it as a penitential meal.

There were strong leaders in that Corinthian church. There was Paul himself, of course, the founding pastor — but he wasn’t often there with them. When Paul was away on one of his extended missionary journeys, he had to resort to letters like this one. In his absence, a teacher named Apollos had a major role. His name is of Greek origin, so possibly he was the leader of the Gentile-Christian faction. There were also followers of “Cephas.” That’s the original name of the apostle Peter, so even if he wasn’t there himself, in Corinth, to advance the cause of the Jewish-Christian faction, they very likely appealed to his authority.

Then there were some who rejected all factional labels. They identified themselves by simply saying, “We’re Christians.” Then, as now, it’s wise to be very careful around such people. They present themselves as refreshingly pure and simple, rejecting all factions or denominations to get down to the true essence of the faith. But, in reality, they have very strong opinions indeed, and are subtly trying to say they’ve got a monopoly on the truth.

So, in the midst of Paul’s letter to this deeply divided Christian community, he pauses for a chapter to give the Corinthians an extended sermon on love. His words are some of the greatest in all of scripture.

*****

As we arrive at today’s selection — which is just a single word, really — we’ve been in the midst of a long list of words. Some of these are words that describe what love is. Others describe what love is not. Here’s verse 4 and the first part of verse 5:

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way…”

The second part of verse five says love “is not irritable or resentful.”

Today I want to talk about just that one word, “irritable.” Next time, we’ll have a look at what it means to say love is not resentful — or, to put it another way, that love does not keep score.
To some of you, I know, to say “love is not irritable” is to come a little close to home. Maybe you live with someone who tends to be a little irritable at times; or, maybe you know you’re one of those irritable people yourself.

Me, I probably fall into the second category. Always have. I was the oldest child in our family, and just one year and two weeks after I was born, my brother Jim came into the world. When that happened, my life changed instantly. I don’t remember those days, of course, but I’ve heard from both my mother and my aunt that, once I learned to walk, I used to totter around the house in my diaper and hold onto one of the end tables in the living room. I would then proceed to howl and shake that thing until they were afraid the lamp could fall over. Their conclusion? It was plain to see. I was a wee bit irritated to have a competitor for my parents’ affections.

I hadn’t learned yet, at that tender age, that love is not irritable.

I can get a little irritable still, at times. Just ask my dear wife.

*****

The Greek word for “irritable,” found in this verse, is paroxynetai. We have an English word that sounds a whole lot like it — which is no surprise, because it comes from the same root. The word is “paroxysm.” My Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives it a medical meaning: “An episode of increased acuteness or severity of disease; a sudden recurrence or attack…” The dictionary also gives it a non-medical meaning: “A violent attack or outburst of a (specified) emotion or activity; a fit; a convulsion. Also, a natural disturbance, as an earthquake, volcanic eruption, etc.” Sometimes “a volcanic eruption” is the best way to describe the reaction of an irritable person!

Paul’s a pretty astute psychologist, as well as a fine theologian. When he says “love is not irritable” — love does not bring on a paroxysm — he’s talking about a person who’s more than just a little peeved. Think “volcanic eruption,” here. Think “fit.” Think “convulsion.”

We’ve all been around people like that. Maybe some of us, who have problems controlling our own tempers, are people like that. Even Paul got that way on occasion. Acts 17:16 says that Paul, visiting Athens, “was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” Same word. The sight of those pagan idols gave Paul a fit!

It’s one thing to talk about righteous anger played out on the large stage of an entire city, but quite another when it’s the smaller stage of marriage or family life. Intimate relationships can be damaged by repeated outbursts of anger, especially if it’s a predictable pattern. The classic abusive relationship, as a matter of fact, is like that. One partner has a volatile temper that explodes unpredictably, while the other partner assumes a passive, enabling role. The angry partner swings back and forth between outbursts of rage, and tearful confessions of guilt accompanied by earnest-sounding promises never to do it again.

But it doesn’t have to be so dramatic as that. Constant, low-level irritability can also exert a long-term toll on intimate relationships. Over a long period of time, a pebble in the shoe can be just as disabling as a kick in the shin.

There’s an old Cole Porter tune, now a jazz standard, that goes like this:

“I’ve got you under my skin
I have got you, deep in the heart of me
So deep in my heart that you’re really a part of me
I’ve got you under my skin”

If it’s love we’re talking about — as Old Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, surely is as he sings this song, than having you under my skin is a very good thing. If it’s not love but irritability, though — that’s different!

Irritability, as today’s scripture text from James reminds us, is often an indicator of conflict deep within us:
“Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?”

Commenting on this verse, J. Barrie Shepherd points out:
“What poisons relationships, devastates home life, withers marriages and covenants, shipwrecks friendships and partnerships? Is irritability not close to the heart of the problem? It’s not so much the big things, the major crises and catastrophes, but the daily frictions — the silence here, sarcasm there, that can nibble away at love until it crumbles and collapses from within.” [J. Barrie Shepherd, Aspects of Love (Upper Room Books, 1995), pp. 71-72.]

*****

I’ve been having great fun listening to the audio version of Bruce Springsteen’s new autobiography, Born to Run: narrated by the author himself. Far from the typical celebrity tell-all, Bruce relates his life story with humility and risky honesty. One of his most important relationships growing up — some would say the one that’s at the heart of the book — is his relationship with his father, Doug.

Doug was a World War 2 veteran, a working-class kind of guy who held a variety of unsatisfying jobs, from janitor to factory worker. In the evening, after supper, he would sit at the kitchen table in their cold-water flat in Freehold, smoking cigarette after cigarette, downing more than a six-pack of beer each night. He’d say barely a word, except when he was angry. Then he would become verbally abusive. Bruce describes what it was like, as a teenager, to walk past that darkened kitchen, to see the cigarette glowing ominously red, never knowing whether he would be met with indifference or rage.

Doug was a man of few words who had a hard time expressing any emotion other than anger. Later on he would be diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, but no one knew that in those early years: nor did the family understand why he was so driven to use alcohol and tobacco in a vain effort to self-medicate.

“I was not my father’s favorite citizen,” Bruce writes, early on in the book. “As a boy I just figured this was the way men were, distant, uncommunicative, busy within the currents of the grown-up world… When my dad looked at me, he didn’t see what he needed to see. This was my crime.”

Doug Springsteen was less than supportive of his teenage son’s musical aspirations. It was Bruce’s mother who helped him buy his first guitar. It was quite a long time before even his successes were met with anything but indifference from his old man.

Bruce does take a certain delight, though, in telling the story of how, visiting his parents in their new home in California, he brought along the Academy Award for “Best Song” he’d just won for “Streets of Philadelphia” — from the movie, Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks. By this time, of course, he was one of the leading rock musicians in America, having sold millions of records.

Bruce had packed the Oscar in his carry-on bag, and it showed up on the metal-detector screen at airport security. That required a colorful explanation (which I’m sure is a story in itself). When he walked into his parents’ home, he saw his dad in his usual location — sitting at the kitchen table, beer can in front of him, silently smoking and staring into space. It wasn’t the same kitchen — this being California, not Freehold — but in every other respect, little had changed.

Without a word, Bruce walked over to his father, took the Oscar out of his bag and set it down on the table in front of him. Doug gazed at the golden statuette — that “coveted award” — then slowly looked up at his son. Tears filled his eyes, and he repeated to Bruce the same thing he’d grudgingly said to him years before, after he’d signed his first record deal with Columbia: “I’m never gonna tell anybody what to do ever again.”

That may sound like faint praise, but in the jargon of the perpetually-irritated Doug Springsteen, that was as heartfelt an expression of affection as he was able to muster. Bruce seems to have regarded it as such. He tells the story as though it were one of the watershed moments of his life — which, in fact, it was.

*****

Do you start to see, though, how irritability can be the enemy of love? It’s the emotional equivalent of low-level, chronic inflammation in the body. Certain kinds of inflammation — the redness of the skin at the site of an infection — are normal, even healthy. It’s an appropriate and helpful physical reaction. It shows the immune system is doing its work. Yet, if inflammation happens all the time, in the background — as with chronic diseases like lupus — the long-term health effects can be devastating.

The same is true of the chronic emotional disorder known as irritability, that can infest our intimate relationships. It can also damage, by slow erosion, the community of love that is the church. That’s what Paul’s writing about in 1 Corinthians. He’s seen the negative effects of irritability close at hand.

Anger is a feeling — and, as such, can always claim a certain legitimacy. It’s very hard for any of us to successfully pretend not be angry — if that’s what we’re feeling. Even Jesus got angry — remember the famous incident in the Temple, when he drove the moneychangers out with a whip of cords? And remember, too, how he blasted the Pharisees, calling them “whitewashed tombs”? (Not very diplomatic of him, was it?)

In its acute variety, anger simply is what it is. It’s a feeling, and you can’t argue with feelings. Sometimes it bursts forth — sometimes even in service to a righteous cause. This is acute anger — but irritability is different. It’s the low-level, chronic variety. Irritability is not so much a reaction to specific stimuli. No, it’s more of a habit: and a terribly destructive one at that. It plays havoc with our intimate relationships. Over the long term, it hurts — sometimes even drives away — those we hold most dear.

Deep down, chronically irritable people believe there’s something wrong with them: that on a fundamental level they’re just not lovable. Being irritating is a primitive defense mechanism, a clumsy way to keep others at a distance, so as not to risk being hurt.

If you are one of those chronically irritable persons, no one wants you under their skin. You need to work on that: maybe with a counselor, certainly with prayer. The good news is that even a small amount of improvement will yield big results, in terms of the quality of your relationships. You’ll learn that people do want that variety of you under their skin, just like the old Perry Como song says.

If you are the loved one of someone who’s chronically irritable, then I encourage you to find the right time — perhaps with the support of others — to speak the truth in love, letting your beloved know you just can’t enable that behavior any longer. It’s your silence that keeps the self-destructive pattern going. There really is a better way.

That better way is love: the love of God in Jesus Christ. When we gratefully accept it into our hearts, that love flows forth from us, blessing the lives of others. Seek to demonstrate such Christlike love in your own relationships!

Let us pray:

Lord, we confess that we do not always love
as you would have us love.
There are times when we cultivate, even cherish feelings of anger.
Sometimes we let ourselves grow addicted to the adrenaline rush,
welcoming the reassuring warmth of self-righteousness.
Keep us mindful of how our deeds, our words —
and even our silences —
impact the lives of others.
Teach us to value their needs as well as our own, for Christ’s sake. Amen.

Copyright © 2017, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.