Ambivalence and the Holy Trinity

Sermon for Sunday, May 30, 2021 || Trinity Sunday B

I did not understand the concept of ambivalence until my kids were about three years old. (That would have put me at 34 years old if you’re counting.) Before then, I had a vaguely negative idea about ambivalence. If I had used the word in a sentence, I might have used “ambivalent” as a synonym for “uncomfortable” or “aggravated.” 

But then, I watched an episode of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood with my kids, and I learned all about ambivalence. Daniel Tiger is the modern day equivalent of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood from when I was a child; many of the animated characters are drawn directly from the old show. And even though Mr Rogers himself is not in it, the new show has the same tone and the same dedication to learning about feelings that the original show had. Each episode of Daniel Tiger includes a short, snappy song – like a jingle – that sums up the theme of the episode. What I learned that day watching with my kids is that the concept of ambivalence is neither negative nor positive, and that’s sort of the point. Ambivalence is feeling multiple emotions at the same time. 

As Daniel Tiger sings, “Sometimes you feel two feelings at the same time, and that’s okay.”

Learning this definition of ambivalence helped me so much because I realized that the negative connotation I gave to ambivalence had to do with the inherently uncomfortable feeling of holding conflicting emotions in our bodies at the same time. Let’s talk about ambivalence this morning. As we slowly emerge from the pandemic, ambivalent feelings are coming to the forefront in so many of our lives. And while we may desire for one of the feelings to claim the spotlight, that’s not how feelings work. We feel what we feel, and trying to turn off an emotion usually just leads us to add the emotion of frustration to the list.

So instead of trying to curate our feelings into “how we are supposed” to feel, we can give ourselves permission to float in our ambivalence. And the good news is that the ocean in which we float is our God, who reveals God’s nature as a Trinity of persons.

We’ll get back to the Trinity in a minute. First, see if this is familiar. At the beginning of the pandemic, you felt a mix of fear, grief, and – oddly – creativity, as you learned to adapt to a strange, new world. Then came the long months of numbness to the horrible state of the world, a numbness interrupted by bouts of terror. Then, as the vaccines began to proliferate, a new feeling of hope filtered in, and it nestled itself beside the low-level anxiety that had become your baseline. 

Then, in the last month, the Covid map here in Connecticut flipped from almost all red to almost all gray and yellow. Everyone twelve and up is eligible for the vaccine, and Connecticut is leading the country in vaccination rate! Schools are back to full in-person learning. Restaurants are opening. Church is opening. You can hug again. You can see the bottom halves of faces again. You should be feeling joyful, exuberant!

And yet. And yet, you’re not. Or, at least, not just feeling joyful. Ambivalence emerges. The joy is there, having cracked open from the seed of hope and begun sending its shoots to the sun. Right next to the joy is the grief that appeared at the beginning of the pandemic, but which went into hibernation during the long months of numbness. Perhaps the base of anxiety remains too. I know this is my emotional state today. Maybe yours too.

The discomfort comes when I try to curate my emotions, when I decide what is the right emotion to feel and then ignore the others I’m feeling along with the so-called “right” one. Saying, “I’m supposed to feel” or “I should feel” is ultimately unproductive – and can be counterproductive – because our emotions just happen. We can choose how we respond to our emotions, but we can’t choose not to feel them.

So, recognizing that ambivalence is a pretty common emotional response right now – the joy and the grief – how do we respond? The revelation of God as a Trinity of persons and a unity of being shows us the way.

This world pushes us to either/or thinking: the zero-sum game; if you win, I must lose; joy OR grief. The life of the Holy Trinity invites us to embrace both/and thinking. We believe God’s essence is love; therefore, before there was a creation for God to love, there is only one possible answer for whom God loved. God loved God – not vainly or narcissistically, for those are distortions of love – but God loved God perfectly; so perfectly that there was still only one God and, at the same time, God was revealed as a Trinity of persons: the Parent, the Child, and the Love flowing perfectly among them. God, in God’s very being, created the both/and paradigm. God is both One, and God is revealed in the perfect relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When we embrace ambivalence, when we honestly assess that we are feeling two (or more) feelings at the same time, we are living in the light of the Holy Trinity. We exercise the same both/and posture that existed within God before creation came to be. We resist the urge to choose (and thus artificially order) our emotions, trusting that God carved out enough emotional room within us for us to feel everything we need to feel at any given time.

These are extraordinary times, so it makes sense that our emotions are all jumbled up right now. We might desire to curate our emotions simply so we can grasp onto some semblance of control. Unfortunately, such control is an illusion, because the emotions we are trying not to feel are still there, and they will come out sideways if we don’t acknowledge them. Instead, I invite us all to embrace the life of the Holy Trinity. Embrace the both/and nature of God. See God at work in our capacity to live lives full of all kinds of feelings. Take your joy and your grief and everything else to God in prayer, and find there the ocean of God’s love upon which to float.

And remember the wisdom of Daniel Tiger: “Sometimes, you feel two feelings at the same time, and that’s okay.”

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