Emotion and Christian Discipleship – a sermon on Psalm 145:1-8

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just wake up thinking like that every day? If we could just be filled all the time with wonder at the world around us and awe of the creator? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we constantly overflowed with joy and delight in what God is doing?

Well, maybe. I do know that this is often what I’ve heard we are supposed to be as Christians: constantly happy and praising God. Christians are joyful, I’ve heard, with the clear message that if we do not present as joyful, it’s because we just don’t have enough faith.  

But what if instead of waking up full of wonder at a brand new day, I wake up after tossing and turning all night, filled with anxiety about whether I’ll be able to pay my bills?

What if instead of awe of the creator, I’m filled with anger at the injustice of the world, and wondering when that creator is going to do something?

What if I spend the day in crippling grief because I’ve lost someone I love? What if the only prayer I have is emptiness?

Does that mean I’m lacking in faith?

What if I’m depressed, or suffer from attacks of PTSD, or have bipolar disorder or schizophrenia? What if I need therapy and medication to go to work and interact with my family? What if even therapy and medication don’t work? What does that say about my faith?

Fortunately, although Psalm 145 is a lovely psalm and represents one posture toward God, that isn’t the whole scope of Scripture, or even the whole scope of the Psalms. If you read through the book of Psalms, you will find the whole range of human emotion: yes, joy and wonder, but also rage and grief and doubt. Jesus himself was not immune to so-called negative emotion; he was known to get so angry that he drove people out of the temple courts with a whip, or so sad at the death of his friend Lazarus that he broke down in tears – even though he was about to resurrect him.

Like Jesus, we’re not going to be all happy-clappy all the time, and frankly it would be weird if we were. There is a time for laughing, and also a time for crying, and for yelling, and for silence.

The cover of your bulletin today comes from the movie Inside Out. It’s the story of a young girl named Riley who moves across the country, or rather it’s the story of what happens in her emotions when she experiences upheaval. Each of her emotions are personified, as you can see on the cover. Joy, the character that has dominated her childhood, suddenly gets swept off by Sadness, leaving Anger, Fear, and Disgust at the steering wheel. Everyone thinks that what Riley needs is to get Joy back in the driver’s seat, but in the end, it’s a balance of emotions that helps her cope with transition, and also grow in empathy for others.

I’ve heard way too many sermons about how we ought to be joyful all the time, and not enough about how we deal with the reality that we’re simply not joyful all the time. I’ve heard more than enough about using emotions as a gauge for how strong your faith life is, and not enough about how to use faith to navigate whatever emotional landscape we encounter. So I’m going to attempt to remedy that a bit.  

Part of the difficulty is that we each have an emotional landscape that is unique. All of us react to and process events very differently. So, the interplay of emotions and faith may be very different for us, and what works for me will not necessarily work for you. All of this takes some effort toward self-understanding and growth. But these are some principles that I think are helpful as we try to understand how emotion and faith function together, and can be partners in our growth rather than competitors.

The first thing, which I’ve already suggested, is that emotion is not necessarily a measurement of our faith. Emotion is simply a response to an experience. It’s affected by our personality, past experiences, work we’ve done in training our own responses, and probably a bunch of other factors. Emotions are complex; often they aren’t just one thing or another. You might be able to learn over time how to express emotion in healthier ways, but training yourself to just not feel sadness or anger, for example, would just be creepy and possibly sociopathic. Emotions just are. We should be having them all.

This is even more complicated and even more necessary to remember when it comes to mental illness. When your internal chemistry pulls at your emotional responses, or when your psyche has built up defense mechanisms because of the circumstances you’ve faced, it certainly is not a reflection of your faith. Sometimes faith just looks like having a little patience with yourself and knowing you’re doing the best you can. And in case one of you out there is suffering in silence with no help, and no one has ever told you this, Scripture and medication are not enemies. Counseling and faith are not enemies. God loves the whole you and wants you to experience healing by whatever means that comes.   

That said, faith does give us resources to process emotion. They’re not the only resources, but they are good ones. The Bible is a wealth of stories of people dealing with their emotions and encountering God and working out all the messiness between. There’s nothing quite like the biblical prophets if you ever need proof that someone can be angrier at God than you are. The Psalms and Lamentations are full of examples of people pouring out their grief and loss to God. Job…well, Job is the whole range of conversation with God. Simply reading the Bible and listening for what it has to say to us can have a remarkable effect on our ability to understand and process our emotions.

Prayer of various types can also help us express our emotions openly, whether we are praising or lamenting or raging or pleading. Silent prayer or meditation is a way of centering ourselves and simply listening for what God might say to us, without judging the emotions that come.

Finally, because I think the church stigmatizes mental health a lot, I want to share a piece with you by Ann Voskamp on what the church should know about mental illness and suicide, written after her mother’s and her own struggle with mental illness:

There are some who take communion and anti-depressants and there are those who think both are a crutch.

Come in close — I’d rather walk tall with a crutch than crawl around insisting like a proud and bloody fool that I didn’t need one.

I once heard a pastor tell the whole congregation that he had lived next to the loonie bin and I looked at the floor when everyone laughed and they didn’t know how I loved my mama. I looked to the floor when they laughed, when I wanted them to stand up and reach through the pain of the flames and say:

Our Bible says Jesus said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a doctor, but those who are sick.” Jesus came for the sick, not for the smug.

Jesus came as doctor and He makes miracles happen through medicine and when the church isn’t for the suffering, then the Church isn’t for Christ.

I wanted them to say what I knew: The Jesus I know never preached some Health Prosperity Gospel, some pseudo-good news that if you just pray well, sing well, worship well, live well and deposit all that into some Divine ATM — you get to take home a mind and body that are well. That’s not how the complex beauty of life unfolds. The real Jesus turns to our questions of why, why this sickness, who is to blame — and he says it like a caress to the aching,“You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here.That’s the grace touch of Jesus: The dark is not your fault, the dark is not the heavy night that weighs the worth of your soul, the dark is not about blame. The dark is about bravely being a canvas for light — about courageously letting your dark be a canvas for sparks of God glory, a backdrop for ambers of mercy in the midst of your fire.

Ask Mother Teresa. Who painfully peeled back a lifetime of letting her dark become the canvas: “Let Him do with me whatever He wants as He wants for as long as He wants if my darkness is light to some soul…”

Depression may not be your fault, but a sign that this world is fallen — not a sign of personal sin, but that we all have sinned.

That’s what I’d wanted as a kid sitting there in a church full of folks chuckling at mental illness, what I wanted the whole church to say all together, like one Body, for us to say it all together to each other because there is not even one of us who hasn’t lost something, who doesn’t fear something, who doesn’t ache with something. I wanted us to turn to the hurting, to each other, and promise it till we’re hoarse:

“We won’t give you some cliche —  but something to cling to — and that will mean our hands.

We won’t give you some platitudes — but some place for your pain — and that will mean our time.

We won’t give you some excuses — but we’ll be some example — and that will mean bending down and washing your wounds. Wounds that we don’t understand, wounds that keep festering, that don’t heal, that down right stink — wounds that can never make us turn away.

Because we are the Body of the Wounded Healer and we are the people who believe the impossible — that wounds can be openings to the beauty in us.”

We’re the people who say: “there’s no shame saying that your heart and head are broken because there’s a Doctor in the house. It’s the wisest and the bravest who cry for help when lost.

There’s no stigma in saying you’re sick because there’s a wounded Healer who uses nails to buy freedom and crosses to resurrect hope and medicine to make miracles.

There’s no guilt in mental illness because depression is a kind of cancer that attacks the mind. You don’t shame cancer, you treat cancer. You don’t treat those with hurting insidesas less than. You get them the most treatment.”

I wanted the brave to speak up, to speak the Truth and Love:

Shame is a bully and Grace is a shield.  You are safe here.

To write it on walls and on arms and right across wounds:

“No Shame. No Fear. No Hiding.

Always safe for the suffering here.

You can be different and you can struggle and you can wrestle and you can hurt and we will be here. Because a fallen world keeps falling apart and even though we the Body can’t make things turn out — we can turn up. Just keep turning up, showing up, looking up.”

If we only knew what fire every person is facing — there isn’t one person we wouldn’t help fight their fire with the heat of a greater love.

Let us be a community where the suffering are safe, where we fight every fire with the heat of a greater love – our love, and God’s love.

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