Feelings Oh Feelings
Sermon preached November 15, 2009
Texts: I Samuel 1:4-20; I Samuel 2:1-10
For the second week in a row, the American poet Emily Dickinson gets the first word in the sermon:
I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!
Inebriate of Air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro endless summer days –
From inns of Molten Blue – (#214)
The United Methodist Church is not a creedal church – and you are wondering how I am going to tie this in with Emily Dickinson, aren’t you? The United Methodist Church is not a creedal church, that is, we do not have specific creedal statements that we say everyone must agree with in order to be United Methodist. We are not indifferent toward what people believe, and we have creeds, ancient and more modern in our worship resources, but we are not a creedal church. And for this congregation, we do not make use, very often, of the creeds of the church. Within my first year here I tossed out the idea to a few people about doing a sermon series on the Apostle’s Creed – the excitement level was such that I soon scrapped that plan!
But if we were to use creeds more often, there is one I recall from my seminary days that particularly grabbed my attention. I won’t share the whole thing with you, only the last two sections. It was composed by a woman named Barbara Troxell, a United Methodist.
We believe our believing affects our daily walking and talking, our doubting and struggling, our decisions and our choice-making, our responses to persons and systems. We intend in this community in these days to raise questions hopefully, to work for justice lovingly, to grow in understanding the ways of God, to share a ministry faithfully, and by God’s grace, passionately!
I think I was so struck by this creed because it ended with the word “passionately.” It was not a word I was used to in the church. Passion – I taste a liquor never brewed!
Passion, feelings – that’s what this sermon is about. As I was thinking about the sermon for today, I couldn’t help but recall some of the songs in the iPod in my brain (I am old enough to use the image, “jukebox” in my brain, but some might not even know what that is) that make reference to feelings: “Hooked on a Feeling;” “I Feel the Earth Move;” “Do You Feel Like We Do?” “See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me;” ‘I Feel Fine;” or just “Feelings.” All these feeling songs seem testimony to the words of Michael Eigen: “Feelings matter. Feeling matters.” (Feeling Matters, 152) The novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote, “God gave us so many emotions and such strong ones. Every human being, even if he is an idiot, is a millionaire in emotions” (quoted in Michael Eigen, Flames from the Unconscious, 30)
Feeling is important to who we are. We are rich in feeling, yet many of us are suspicious of feeling, concerned particularly with the combination of feeling and religion. We hear stories like the following and wonder about the potentially poisonous combination of faith and feeling. A judge in Stuart, FL was about to sentence pastor Rodney McGill for real estate fraud, but McGill was undaunted, addressing a courtroom prayer for enemies: “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, for every witness against me, I pray cancer in their lives, lupus, brain tumor, pancreatic cancer.” The judge then sentenced him to 20 years in prison. (Funny Times, December 2009, 15).
Outside of religion, there is a lot about feeling that should give us pause. I am in the middle of Wally Lamb’s novel The Hour I First Believed, which I am reading with an interfaith book group in the community. Part of the story takes place in Littleton, Colorado, and brings in factual material from the shootings at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. Here is a line from Eric Harris’ journal – Harris was one of the Columbine shooters. This is from his journal in 1998: “I will sooner die than betray my own thoughts, but before I leave this worthless place, I will kill whoever I deem unfit…. I’m full of hate and I love it” (Lamb, 179). Maybe it’s best to keep feelings within a tight leash, suppressed. Maybe feelings are best overcome, part of the corrupt nature of the human that God wants us to struggle against.
As powerful, and powerfully dangerous as feelings are, a faith that stays just in our heads, that never also energizes our hearts, seems lacking. Somehow all of who we are – mind, heart, soul, body – belongs a part of the journey of faith. Feelings are a part of the good gift of God’s creation.
I think I get this from the Bible, from today’s Scripture reading. Hannah prays fervently in her distress, so ardent are her prayers that Eli, the priest, mistakes her praying for a drunken spectacle. The descriptive words are rich – her heart is sad, she weeps bitterly, she is deeply distressed, deeply troubled, she pours out her soul – pours out her great anxiety and vexation. When her prayers for pregnancy are answered, Hannah sings out in joy. “My heart exults!”
So when was the last time someone mistook a church gathering for a raucous party? When has anyone ever been concerned that what is going on in church is fueled by wine flowing too freely? Yet when we think of some churches where we consider the display of emotion too wild, those are uncomfortable images, too – holy rollers and the like. Passion, emotion, by themselves are not what we are after, but a faith that integrates passion and thoughtfulness.
We are a church, after all, that has its beginnings as a particular expression of Christian faith in the thought and experience of John Wesley. Wesley had been a priest in the Church of England for ten years before this experience described in his journal. On May 24, 1738, Wesley attended a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death. Methodists historically have been advocates for a warm-hearted faith.
But we have seen emotion in faith taken too far, and often react by keeping our faith a head thing, so much so, that perhaps we have lost our sense of balance. John Cobb, a brilliant, sophisticated United Methodist theologian thinks that part of our problem is our failure to integrate head and heart, to seek a thoughtful and passionate faith. I quoted Cobb a couple of newsletters ago. Writing about “oldline churches,” like his own United Methodist Church, Cobb, penned this: As a group and on the whole we are lukewarm. We do good things. We serve real needs of real people. But we inspire no passion. We no longer even call for primary commitment to the gospel we purport to serve. We are quite content if, among the priorities of our members, Christian faith comes in third or fourth, after family and employer and nation perhaps…. We are lukewarm because we do not have an understanding of Christian faith as supremely important either for ourselves or for our world. (Reclaiming the Church, 4, 8)
For those worried about a faith that is too much passion and not enough thought, I also noted the word of philosopher Dylan Evans who, while he acknowledges that we cannot deny “that emotions sometimes affect our reasoning to our detriment,” goes on to say: On balance, a creature who lacked emotions would not just be less intelligent than we are; it would be less rational (Emotion, 180).
A thoughtful and passionate faith seems a more complete faith, a more intelligent faith, than one that is either all heart or all head, but how do we get there? I will quickly offer four steps.
We get to a faith that integrates passion and thoughtfulness by acknowledging our emotions, by feeling them honestly. Hannah is a wonderful model for us, as are the Psalms. “Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord” – Psalm 130. “My tears have been my food day and night” – Psalm 42. Our emotions are an important part of who we are. They are a part of the goodness of God’s creation – though like other parts of that creation they can be bent, warped, misshaped. They tell us things about our own experience. They tell us things about the world.
We get to a faith that integrates passion and thoughtfulness by acknowledging and feeling our feelings, but then questioning them and recognizing that we don’t have to act on them all. Our feelings need to be questioned – interrogated. The Psalms also encourage this. “Why are you cast down O my soul?” (Psalm 42). We need to ask questions of our feelings, especially when they seem disproportionate to the circumstances. Rage when we are stuck in traffic, or when some little thing bothers us, seems unjustified, and we should stop and ask what is going on inside us.
We question our emotions to find out what might be going on, and we do this while being aware that we don’t have to act on all our feelings. I find this less in today’s Scripture passage than in the broader biblical and Christian witness which understands that our emotions, important as they are can be bent in unhealthy ways, can become inflamed unnecessarily. Simply following our feelings, without critically examining them, can get us into trouble. Not long ago, in the city of Bennington Vermont, four young people in their twenties were arrested after a Chili’s burglar alarm sounded at 4:30 a.m. According to police, the four intended to remove and steal the large chili on the restaurant’s sign using a hacksaw and power drill. However, not possessing a battery-operated drill, they had strung extension cords together running to the nearest outlet they could find, which was 470 feet away, across four lanes of highway and through a Home Depot parking lot. (Funny Times, December 2009, 15). These four would have done well to check their emotions a little more thoroughly. In an interview, the Dalai Lama discusses “healing emotions” and notes that compassion often leads to suffering, “but there is a great purpose for cultivating this temporary uneasiness or unhappiness, because of the great benefit that will follow” (Healing Emotions, 171). Not all uncomfortable emotions are to be avoided. We need a thoughtful, passionate faith.
To get such a faith we need to allow our faith to shape our emotions, our feelings. Psychoanalyst Michael Eigen writes, “attitudes mold affects” (Coming Through the Whirlwind, xii). John Wesley defined perfection in love as the humble, gentle, patient love of God and neighbor, ruling our tempers, words, and actions. Clearly he believed that our “tempers” could be shaped by love. Anger is an important emotion and has a place in the life of faith – anger at injustice, for instance. But anger needs to be shaped by love and diminished by love. It shouldn’t be our primary default emotion as we grow in God’s love. Spiritual practices and disciplines shape our emotions.
Finally, I would like to note that while the focus of this sermon has been on the inner life, the inner and outer are connected – remember the mobius strip I used a few weeks back. Theologian Jurgen Moltmann makes this connection powerfully. Today life itself and actual survival are called in question. Death is threatening life on earth…. So the passion for life must be awakened and the numbing spell of apathy must be broken. Before the earth dies its nuclear and ecological death, men and women will die the death of apathy in their hearts and souls. The powers to resist are paralyzed if the passion for life is lacking. (The Spirit of Life, 178). A passionate, thoughtful faith is not only life-enhancing for those who cultivate it, such a faith enhances the life of the world.
Seek a faith that weaves head and heart, that is deeply thoughtful and profoundly passionate. Such a faith is what we need. Such a faith is what the world needs from us. Such a faith allows us to taste a liquor never brewed, the living water of God’s Spirit, and to live in that Spirit passionately! Amen.