Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Little Train - that can't always

When I was a child I received a little tract explaining to me the priorities regarding how to live the life of faith. Picture a train with an engine car, followed by a passenger car and a caboose. The engine: FACT. The passenger car: FAITH The caboose: FEELING. We learned very clearly that feelings are always last.

Perhaps the tract was written by someone who grew up in the great depression and fought in WWII. Many amongst that generation lived their lives wholly out of a sense of duty. After all, what kind of feelings would one feel when living through bread-lines, and dust bowls, Hitler and Pearl Harbor? I fully understand the need to get on with it, to just do what needs to be done. There are times when life comes at you and you don’t have the luxury of emoting – you need to just act. This is the mindset that brought us the primacy of words like duty and honor. They’re good words, important words, and the values they represent are in need of resurrection. Duty, based on the FACT of what needs to be done is enough. You can see both the glory of that kind of life, and the tension it creates between the generations in the well made movie, “The Queen.”

But let’s be careful not to sanctify that little train tract, elevating to the status of truth. Is FEELING really to be always at the end of train? Shall we recall David, upon learning of his wives kidnapping? Or Job with the loss of his family? How about Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Judah, Moses, Peter? I could go on, but you get the picture. In contrast to the train tract I saw as a child, the overwhelming testimony of the Bible is that emotions are a primary mover rather than a caboose. It’s not always that way, but often.

Now this is where things get a little tricky, because it’s perhaps tempting to think that we’ve evolved beyond our stoic forbearers, having moved beyond ‘duty’ to ‘authenticity’. But I’m not sure we should call that progress. Eugene Peterson addresses this well when he writes about the difference between sentiment and compassion:

We live in an age that has replaced compassion with sentiment. Sentiment is a feeling disconnected from relationship. Sentiment is spilled compassion. It looks like concern; it could develop into compassion, but it never does. Sentiment is the patriotic catch in your throat as the flag goes by - a feeling that never gets connected with the patriotic honesty of paying your income tax. Sentiment is the tears that flow in a sad movie - tears that never get connected with visiting your dying friend. We feel sorry for people; we lament the pain and suffierng in the world. But having felt the internal motions of pity, wept a few requisite tears of sorry, and sent off ten dollars to a charitable appeal, we've exhausted our capacity for care.

To feel without ever allowing our emotions to gestate and give birth to sacrifice and duty creates what Peterson has called spilled compassion. I watch “Crash”, cry a little, and think I’m no longer racist. I feel anger or outrage over some issue, attend a fundraising concert about it, and think I’ve done my part. This is as deceptive and soul killing as a life lived without regard for the passion and emotions of one’s own soul.

So we’ve lived through seeing what happens when there’s action without emotion. This paradigm seems hollow. We shouldn’t have as a goal simply the ‘completion’ of a marriage. We should seek, as we promised we would, ‘to cherish’ the other. And in the rest of life as well, the men and women of scripture exemplify the key role emotions play in giving birth, not to spilled compassion and sentiment, but to strategic action and obedience.

I think that little train derailed about 20 years ago in our culture. But we’ve not yet found an adequate model to replace it. I’m thinking perhaps seeds and soils could be a metaphor for how revelation and experience lead to emotion, which leads to conviction, which leads to action (maybe we’ll call the action ‘fruit’). We could even develop it a little bit to show how sometimes emotions well up but never become real acts of obedience – and hence fail to bear fruit. What do you think?

In order for a church to be healthy she mustn't minimize beauty, emotion, and passion. But it's equally vital that her members, both individually and collectively, develop a bias for action, and having heard from God regarding what is the next thing to do, we simply need to get on with it, whether we feel like it or not. In such a church the arts, film, and beauty in worship will have a high priority - and so will disciplined actions and obedience.


At 28/2/07 12:53, Blogger jsbrown said...

Thanks, Richard, for your reminder that emotions do play a role in our spiritual lives. And thanks for encouraging me to share my own post on the topic of sowing and soils (

As you allude to, the parable of the sower is a different way of seeing people's response to the gospel. I think there are some implications for the Church not only how we share our faith, but also how we view the Church's mission in general.

At 2/3/07 09:11, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pastor Dahlstrom-

Thanks for posting your thoughts...especially those about watching "Crash" and not feeling racist anymore or giving to a charity and feeling the work's been done.

I often think about such things, particularly in the context of the homeless. Is it the proper approach to feel guilted into giving a dollar or offering to buy dinner to the first homeless guy who crosses your path just so that you can walk by the next 20 people feeling good about yourself for "doing the right thing?" I don't know the answer to that question or what the proper response is.

BUT, most recently, God's been challenging me in another area. Yesterday, I attended a panel of homosexual doctors speaking about their experiences in the medical field and how necessary it is to provide good health care for this sexual minority group. Honestly, I frequently am uncomfortable around homosexuals until I get to know them and realize they deal with many of the same problems and issues that I deal with. Then I begin to see them as other people in need of God's love, just like myself. That initial feeling of uncomfortability is difficult for me, however, and I am concerned that one day I may act on that initial feeling and make a fool of myself. Is there anything I can I do to change this initial feeling?


At 4/3/07 16:57, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Relegating feelings to last place is un-authentic and legalistic!

At 8/3/07 17:24, Blogger Bryan said...

Once, when I was working at the Boys and Girls club, my boss was listening to me solve a simple dispute between two kids. One had taken the other's ball while he was in the bathroom, and the latter one came back, got angry and hit the first kid for taking it. I told the 'hitter' that he couldn't be mad at the first kid for seeing the ball lying on the ground and choosing to play with it since he had left the ball to do something else.
Later, after I was securely proud of the way I had 'handled' the situation, my boss asked me if I realized what I had just communicated to the hitter?

I had just told him that he could not FEEL angry about something.

What I should have said was he could not ACT upon his anger in that manner. She said his FEELINGS were things (especially for children) that can not be 'controlled.' One is either MAD, or one is NOT MAD.

It was an invaluable lesson for me- one that I have been very careful to never forget. Separating feelings from actions is important particularly when dealing with the consequences of these things.

But, for me this becomes a problem when people justify actions because of their feelings. Understanding the emotional rollercoasterness of life makes these justifications dangerous for the simple fact that FEELINGS can NOT be denied. I have noticed a distinct change in tone when people preface their ideas with "I feel that..." This eliminates any kind of room for debate or disagreement. The speaker can FEEL like anything, and no one can disagree - afterall, it's just MY opinion.

A person may FEEL like they are in love with someone else's wife/husband, but ACTING on that can not be justified because of it.

Learning how to temper the influence of our feelings on our actions is an important part of becoming an adult. But, learning how to authenticate our feelings and act appropriately is just as important.

I feel like these days people have reversed the order of the trains on the tract, and Emotion has become the engine. I feel like this is just as backwards as the original order. I feel like maybe they should all have their own tracks and/or toss the whole linear metaphor out with the bathwater. I feel like I have made my point.


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