I said something to a person recently that I know would floor some regular churchgoers – maybe you as well.
I said, “How we feel in our relationship with God is not all that important. ”
Feelings come, and feelings go. They just aren’t what the spiritual life is about. That’s not to say feelings can’t give us a clue about where we are on the spiritual journey, but they aren’t predictive of anything. They certainly aren’t reliable.
Even though having “good” spiritual feelings can encourage us along in our spiritual life, those feelings can be seductive. It’s easy to become fixated on the next “spiritual high” instead of on emptying ourselves more to make room for God. Feelings are overrated.
Since the day of that conversation, I’ve been wondering why we place so much value on the feelings we associate with faith. Whether joy or gratitude or connection or awe, if we aren’t feeling what we think we ought to feel or what we think we ought to get to feel, the tendency nowadays is to go church shopping or worse yet, give up on faith. It makes me wonder if many of us participate in Sunday morning worship because we expect that we’ll get what we aren’t finding other days of the week.
I know the work-a-day world leaves many of us spent. Many of us have lives that are so full there is little room for richness or beauty/for meaningful relationships or occasions of deep joy. Doesn’t it seem right that God would give that to us – that if we were to just show up on Sunday mornings? When we don’t have that spiritual boost we’re looking for, it’s easy to think it’s someone else’s fault. We’d far rather think that than to think that God’s just lying down on the job. But maybe what’s really going on is that our expectations are misplaced.
During this Lent, I’ve found myself wondering if there isn’t something we’ve lost, or that has changed, or that we have simply begun to ignore that gives us the notion that Sunday morning should be about our feelings. The older folks in our congregations have been faithful through decades of change to their Sunday worship. It never occurred to them that the church should cater to their likes and dislikes. Folk Masses? Women clergy? Modern paraphrases of scripture? It didn’t matter – those folks were there. But when you or I aren’t entertained or soothed or acknowledged … well, to heck with putting ourselves before the Creator of the cosmos. We’ll just sleep in.
Those who are called “The Greatest Generation,” they are different. They may not know about the historical-critical method of reading Biblical scripture like many of us do, but they read their Bibles. They know that God loves them. They know that when two or three of us are gathered, we are the Body of Christ. And they know that humility, service and faithfulness always will be part of the spiritual life. How you and I feel? ... not so much.
Worship designed to move us has its place, I suppose. But the focus of this type of worship is on us. Reverence, however, borne of silence of speech and mind, and humility – these are states of being that decentralize us and that place us before the Great Mystery we call God in a posture of receptivity. Younger generations have their spiritual strengths, for sure. But I wonder what will happen to the Church when those whose worship does not include a search for feelings, whose knees no longer allow them to kneel, what will happen when they are gone?
Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, 565-7865.