Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Sermon: "Emotional Renewal" (Delivered 3-30-08)

Opening Words
[These opening words were written by Rev. Thom and read by a child in our congregation.]

When children are young sometimes their parents tell them not to make faces or else their face will get stuck that way.

When a child is mad and furious and angry, she may make an angry face. Let’s see you squint your eyes, bare your teeth and make an angry face with me. And her mom will say to her, “Don’t make that face or else it will get stuck like that.”

Or, when a child is upset or sad, he may make a pouting face. Cross your arms, stick out your bottom lip, and make a pouting face with me. And his mom will say to him, “Don’t make that face or else it will get stuck like that.”

And, sometimes, children just feel silly. They like to stick out their tongue or make their nose into a pig snout or pull on their ears or do funny things with their eyes. What is the silliest face you can make? And, the parents of this child will say, “Don’t make that face! It might get stuck like that and what if you had to walk around for the rest of your life with your tongue sticking out.”

Now that I am older and know more, I know my parents were wrong. My face didn’t get stuck looking angry or sad or silly. But, every once in a while, I see somebody who looks mean all the time. Or I see somebody who looks angry all the time. Or I see somebody who looks sad all the time. And I wonder: were their parents right? Did this person’s face somehow get stuck like that? Or, is this person just constantly angry or mean or sad?

I guess some people do get stuck feeling the same way all the time. When they do, what sorts of things can they do to get unstuck? What can make them smile or laugh? This morning’s worship service is about these sorts of questions. Let us worship and let us learn together.

A few weeks ago I was at the gym, riding the stationary bicycle while watching the news on CNN. As I pedaled, my gaze lowered to the bottom of the screen, to those scrolling news bits that cycle from right to left across the TV screen. And then an item passed that read, and I am not making this up, quote, “Sirius Satellite Radio to launch station dedicated to 24-hour coverage of Eliot Spitzer scandal.”

I had to confirm if it was true, and it was true. Allow me to quote the actual announcement from Sirius: “For those who can’t get enough of the sex scandal that brought down New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, Sirius Satellite Radio has launched what it is calling ‘Client 9 Radio,’ a special channel dedicated to covering all aspects of the Spitzer saga.”

Among the many questions one might ask about this is, “Why?” And, who would actually listen to such a station? And, could a person who would set their dial to “Client 9 Radio” be described as a healthy, balanced person?

Or, take another news story that is stirring people up at the moment, the story about the various controversial statements made in sermons by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Last June I had the pleasure, and it was a pleasure, of spending a day with Reverend Wright as he presented a day-long workshop to UU ministers on the subject of prophetic ministry and congregational growth. And, while I don’t mean to spend too much of my allotted time this morning playing the role of cultural pundit, I might offer a few observations about this news story. First, spending a day with Rev. Wright I found him personable, funny, engaging, and flat out brilliant. He served for seven years in the Marine Corps and Navy and was the valedictorian of his naval corpsman training. He has earned advanced degrees in theology from some of the world’s finest Divinity schools. In a thirty-six year ministry in Chicago he built a ten-thousand member mega-church that later affiliated with our sister denomination, the United Church of Christ.

Jeremiah Wright is to the South side of Chicago what Rev. Bob Meneilly is to Prairie Village, only Wright is several times more accomplished. Last week I had the chance to run into Bob Meneilly and George Tormohlen and discuss Rev. Wright with them. I asked them, “If someone sifted through every remark you’ve ever made in all your decades of public speaking and picked out two or three sentences and played a loop of them over and over again on television, how would it make you look?” They agreed that they have said things just as controversial as Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Three brief comments:

First, Jeremiah Wright didn’t say anything about the United States that the prophet Jeremiah in the Bible didn’t say about the people of Israel. In fact, compared the Biblical Jeremiah, Reverend Wright is fair and balanced and calm and restrained. Allow me to read from the Biblical Jeremiah:
“The Lord shall raise his hand against the inhabitants of this land. For all, high and low, are out for ill-gotten gains; prophets and priests are frauds, every one of them; they dress my people’s wound, but on the surface only, with their saying, ‘All is Well’ All well? Nothing is well! They ought to be ashamed because they practiced abominations; yet they have no sense of shame… Therefore they will fall with a great crash and be brought to the ground on the day of reckoning.” (Jeremiah 8: 10b-12)
Second, you can find sound-bytes from just about any pastor in America – McCain’s pastor, elders in Romney’s Mormon church, Clinton’s pastor (I presume), Mike Huckabee himself, the evangelical leaders who meet with President Bush, not to mention Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Jerry Johnston – and, yes, Bob Meneilly, John Tamilio, and even some guy named Thom Belote – you could find sound-bytes from any of these people that would make Jeremiah Wright sound moderate and understated.

Third, the media stations, like those that think it would be a good idea to create a 24-hour station devoted to Eliot Spitzer, that repeat sound-bytes over and over and over are engaging in exactly the same sort of emotional manipulation and distortion that they accuse Reverend Wright of trying to stir up in the pulpit.

Alas, I digress. It is just that anger, rage, and indignation are easy places to begin if we are going to speak about emotions. There is a well-known bumper-sticker that liberals tend to put on their cars. The bumper-sticker reads, “If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention.” The people who put such stickers on their cars are alluding to issues such as war, poverty, health care, discrimination, environmental degradation, and so forth. But anybody could put this bumper sticker on their car. If you are not outraged, you are not watching CNN.

This morning’s sermon is the second in a four part series on the theme of Renewal. Today, I want to address emotional renewal. Then, on the second and third Sundays in April, I will preach the third and fourth installments of this series addressing the renewal of communities and the renewal of relationships.

I’ve decided to begin this morning with anger, outrage, and indignation because they are some of the easiest emotions to recognize. I want to branch out and also consider other negative emotions like fear, jealousy, and anxiety. And, I do not want to focus just on the so-called negative emotions either. I want to ask whether, it is entirely healthy or ethically defensible to strive for perpetual happiness, sanguinity, and bliss.

To place this question in the language of pop-culture references, we can think of Neo’s dilemma in the movie The Matrix. In the film he is given the choice between two pills. One pill will cause him to return to the reasonably comfortable life with which he is familiar and which happens to be nothing but an illusion. The other pill will reveal the truth. In Biblical language, the question is whether he should eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge or not. Is there anything to be said for ignorant bliss? Or, as Bobby McFerrin sang, “Don’t worry, be happy. Cause when you worry your face will frown and that will bring everybody down. So, don’t worry be happy now.” How different that is from Martin Luther King’s injunction that we should become maladjusted and live with the experience of a divine discontent.

What I’m trying to do here is to ask you to imagine balancing emotional states. On one hand is every joyful feeling. On the other hand is everything disturbing and outrageous. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the question seems to be: “Just how happy and content and at peace should we be?” To which side should the scales tip?

But, it occurs to me that perhaps I have framed this question incorrectly. Maybe the question is not about which emotions we are justified in feeling – in response to the events of the world, in response to our own personal lives. Instead, maybe the question concerns what emotional states help us to live well and effectively. There is an important distinction here:

Red-eyed anger might be justifiable. At the same time it may be counter-productive to feel this way.

Despair and gloom might be justified. At the same time they might be counter-productive to feel this way.

So, let me suggest this definition. Emotional renewal is what we do to be able to cultivate feelings that help us to live effectively and courageously and meaningfully. Emotional renewal is less about feeling good than about feeling in ways that help us to live well. Unfortunately, understanding what Emotional Renewal is and figuring out how to make Emotional Renewal happen are two completely different things.

Oftentimes, emotions are unwieldy things. Emotions are what they are. The paradoxical truth about emotions is that the more we try to exert absolute, willful control over them, the less we are able to manage them. Within our society, we have a tendency to try to suppress or stuff or avoid or just plain deny certain emotional states. Anger, worry, sadness, disappointment. Sometimes there’s the temptation to lie to ourselves and others about our emotions, to pretend we don’t feel how we feel. We say, “Oh, I’m not bothered,” while inside we seethe. “Really, I’m fine,” when we are steamrolled by sorrow. “Everything is OK,” when we are upset.
Emotions are what they are. And denying them is not the most constructive way to face them.

In the midst of writing this sermon I happened to run into my colleague Reverend Kathy Riegelman. So, I asked her what she thinks she would say if she had to preach a sermon entitled “Emotional Renewal.” She said that she would talk about finding that delicate balance between burying our emotions so deeply that we become flat and numb and the opposite, having no capacity to express our emotions well which leaves a person an emotional wreck.

While writing, I was also sidetracked by a phone call from my good friend Reverend Eva Cameron in Iowa. I asked her the same question. She said that she would talk about how, in her opinion, Americans choose to spend so much of their free time doing things that are emotionally avoidant. These things include web-surfing, computer games, and watching television. These things also include addictions – alcohol, drugs, gambling, over-eating – things that people compulsively do in order to avoid a certain feeling. She continued that if she were to deliver this sermon she would recommend engagement with activities that are emotionally expressive rather than avoidant. Such activities include meditation and other spiritual practices, exercise, and intimacy.

Sometimes, being the serious list-maker that I am, I wonder what it would look like to take an emotional inventory. To actually make a list of the emotions I routinely feel and then to actually name what it is that I do when I feel that way. And then, perhaps, to add a third part to the exercise and ask, “Well, how is that working out for me?”

“How is that working out for you?” [When I delivered this sermon I had no idea where I picked up this saying until several people told me that it is a frequent saying of Dr. Phil. Yikes.] The question, “How is that working out for you?” is a very brash and in your face expression. At the same time it is very liberating. It suggests that we might change… perhaps not change the way we feel but change the way we react to how we feel so that our life has better outcomes.

For our reading before the service I read a meditation written by Victoria Safford entitled “A Map of the Journey in Progress.” [The reading came from her book of meditations Walking Towards Morning. As I conclude the service, I return to her reading in which she takes not an emotional inventory but makes an emotional map.

In that reading, Victoria Safford writes, “Here is where I found my voice and chose to be brave.” Where is that place for you?

Safford writes, “Here’s a place where I forgave someone against my better judgment.” Where is that place for you?

She writes, “This is the place where I said no more loudly than I’d thought I ever could.” When have you done this?

She writes, “Here’s a place, a murky puddle, where I have stumbled more than once and fallen. I don’t know yet what to learn there.” Where is your murky puddle?

The reading by Safford ends with these words: “Here is where, if by surgeon’s knife, my heart was opened up – and here, and here, and here, and here. These are the landmarks of conversion.”

I wonder where your landmarks of conversion are? I cannot know those places as well as you know them. If the cartography of your emotional life was laid out before you, what places on the map would you point to and identify as the landmarks of your conversion, of your emotional renewal?