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
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,
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?