Sermon: Feeling the Feels
Texts: Jeremiah 8:18-9:2; 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 26
Date: October 16, 2016
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
Remember when Creation was brand new, when Adam and Eve were still in the Garden of Eden? There was that one day that they ate the apple, and their eyes were opened, and they had to quick quick make fig leaf clothes for themselves. They dove for cover when they “heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.” [Genesis 3:8] They seem to hear God’s footfalls, rustling in the fallen leaves there in the Garden.
I love the picture that conjures in imagination. At the same time I find it ridiculously quaint and naïve, primitive. Not for one minute do I think the Lord God Almighty donned feet like ours to scuff through the orchard in the cool of the evening. The swanky word describing this phenomenon is “anthropomorphism”—human beings portraying God in their own image.
The worship theme for today flirts with anthropomorphism: “Break my heart for what breaks yours.” Does God have a heart that can break? Does God have feelings that are in some way akin to our human feelings?
The prophet Jeremiah certainly comprehended God as a Being with great depth of feeling. Immense, God-sized feelings. Jeremiah’s call as a prophet, more than any other prophet, was to apprehend the feelings of God and communicate them to God’s people. In the moment in time in which Jeremiah’s call as a prophet came, God’s wrath was at the forefront. There’s wrath aplenty in the pages of Jeremiah’s prophecy; sometimes he’s nicknamed the prophet of wrath. God is fed up with the corruption of the people, their inattentiveness to justice and righteousness. “Everyone is greedy for unjust gain,” “everyone deals falsely,” “they acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush.” [Jeremiah 6:13, 15] God is fed up with their refusal to acknowledge the wound of the people: “they have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace’ when there is no peace.” [Jer. 6:14]. God notices, and responds with anger and indignation.
Does God get angry and indignant?
Anger isn’t all that Jeremiah believes God feels. There is pathos, grief, melancholy. Sorrow over what the people have come to. You know that thing parents say sometimes when they are about mete out some punishment—“This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.” Jeremiah was warning of punishment that was coming, but it clearly gave God no pleasure. God was feeling profound disappointment, feeling shunned and rejected. God was heartbroken over having to discipline the people.
Does God suffer grief and sorrow?
All of these Divine feelings were rooted in the deepest feeling of all: love for the people. The prophet uses the most tender words he can think of to describe what God’s love was like. Like a newlywed husband for a bride. Like the father of a first-born son. Elsewhere in the Hebrew scripture God’s love is compared to a mother’s love for her nursing infant. God’s love was a “sacred certainty” which Jeremiah and the other prophets tried to instill in the minds of the people.
Does God feel love?
Let’s leave the question of whether God has feelings for a moment. Humans certainly have feelings, and we see all those expressed by the prophet Jeremiah as well. The prophet stood between God and his own people, identifying with their feelings as well. He felt incredible grief over the impending disaster about to be unleashed on his family, friends, neighbors. As biblical scholar Abraham Heschel puts it, “his inconsolable grief over the destiny of the people is an expression of fellowship and love; the people’s anguish is his anguish.” He was compelled to express what he understood as God’s wrath, disappointment, grief, and broken-hearted love; but he did it out of love. In Heschel’s words, “Impassioned with a sense of the divine disturbance, Jeremiah could condemn with a vehemence that was at times terrifying and devoid of charity. But his own heart was rich in tenderness and sensitivity to other people’s suffering. He terrified in order to save.”
He was truly heartsick on behalf of both God and the people. You can hear it in the remarkable words of the prophet we heard earlier, which actually expresses all three of the voices that were contained in Jeremiah’s voice: his own, the Israelites’ and God’s. He speaks in v. 18: “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.” He voices the people’s baffled query in v. 19a: “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?” Then he voices God in v. 19b: “Why have the provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?” Back to the people in v. 20, a wail of despair: “The harvest is over, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” Then the prophet’s own voice in v. 21: “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.”
As the young people might say, he’s feeling all the feels. He really plunges into grief in 9:1: “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people.” Are you feeling the feels listening to that?
If you’re not feeling it yet, listen to this poem by Ariel Dorfman, exiled after the Argentian coup of Pinochet, writing about weeping for the victims of conflict:
I’d have to piss through my eyes to cry for you
Salivate, sweat, sigh through my eyes,
I’d have to waterfall
I’d have to wine
I’d have to die like crushed grapes
Through my eyes,
Cough up vultures spit green silence
And shed a dried-up skin
No good to animals
No good for a trophy
I’d have to cry these wounds
Powerful words. Feeling the feels.
Who would like to volunteer to feel this kind of anguish, express this kind of shattering heartbreak for either God or humanity? Or for oneself? Who wants to volunteer? Nobody, right? Pain hurts. Even Jeremiah, whose JOB it was to feel and express the fullest range of divine and human emotion, wished wholeheartedly that he could just get away and be done with this miserable prophetic pathos. “O that I had in the desert a traveler’s lodging place, that I might leave my people and get away from them!” [Jeremiah 9:2] He was on the verge of a nervous breakdown more than once. Pain hurts.
I was browsing on this nifty website, “Know Your Meme” as I was trying to make sure I get what “feeling the feels”—relatively new slang, as slang goes—means. (My willingness to put my foot in my mouth only goes so far.) Anyway, there was this meme linked there that pictured a guy laid out on the ground with another fellow hovering over him with a device that looks like a defibrillator. The text said something like “this guy caught the feels, turning on the defeelbrillator.” The defeelbrillator. (Well played, unknown meme guy, well played.)
It got me thinking about the many defeelbrillators we employ in our lives trying to stay cool, calm, collected, comfortable: Being consumed by work or hobbies. Distractions like games, sports, and shopping. Alcohol and other drugs, legal and illegal. Rationalizations. Distancing ourselves from the troubles of others—“That’s your problem.” Conscious and subconscious de-humanization strategies—“They don’t value life the same way we do.”
Reflect for a moment on some defeelbrillator you have employed, recalling under what circumstances you have felt the desire for a defeelbrillator. What strategies have you used to avoid feeling the feels, or dull the edge of feelings? [Make a note of it on the post-it in your bulletin, if you would.]
I judge no one for the occasional employment of defeelbrillators of one sort and another. I believe it’s a 21st Century necessity. It’s possible to get knocked out of commission altogether by feeling too many feels too strongly, too often. Especially in this era of 24 hour news and social media coverage of the world’s continuous calamities, we could be drinking out of a firehose of feeling around the clock. It’s too much; we’re not equipped to handle it. Some have a higher capacity than others to absorb the world’s pain and anguish, but there’s a limit for all of us.
On the other hand, we will lose our humanity if we shelter ourselves from feeling altogether. Few are called to be prophets as Jeremiah was, amplifying the feelings of God and the people to the degree that he did. But aren’t each of us called to empathy and compassion? One can’t be utterly dispassionate and compassionate simultaneously.
I want to return to the question of whether God has feelings. Caution is appropriate whenever we sidle up to anthropomorphizing God. The Holy is ultimately unknowable, ineffable, mysterious. We must never forget that we can’t possibly plumb the depths of God’s being. The God that can be understood isn’t God.
And yet. There is so much about the passion of God in the Bible. The God revealed in our most revered text is anything but dispassionate. The human writers of the Bible believed they were channeling God’s own heart and mind. What’s more, our fleeting experiences of union with God through prayer and insight are passionate experiences. Liminal experiences have feeling.
Even if we are not sure that God’s feelings are just exactly like ours, our tradition and experience suggests God is responsive. Not the Unmoved Mover the Deists posited. Walter Bruggemann writes eloquently of a responsive God, the one we see represented by Jeremiah. God the enraged judge is skillfully portrayed in the prophet’s words. But rage is not God’s singular response. “The judge remembers to be a parent: a father in wistfulness, a mother in yearning, a God of grief flowing with tears beside the deathbed. The angry God remembers to be a God who cares about the beloved partner.” Bruggemann says the tears of the judge are what open hurt to new possibility. “If the judge had spoken only in harshness, the people of God would be fated. But the tears of the judge have cracked the fate the stern judge might impose.” A new move can be made from our side, the human side—a choice for obedience, devotion, and self-giving.
The tears of the judge create the opening for renewed life. (Well played, Bible scholar, well played.) The tears of the judge, revealing the passionate love of God, may disable the defeelbrillator as neatly as dipping a plugged in kitchen appliance in saltwater would disable it. Once we apprehend the loving passion of God with its accompanying grief for the suffering of God’s people everywhere, it will be impossible not to suffer with those who suffer and rejoice with those who rejoice.
Speaking of suffering with those who suffer, it’s been another emotional week in this remarkable campaign season. Psychologists note that so many people have been experiencing high levels of anxiety about this election that they are giving tips on how to handle “Election Stress Disorder.” If you’re feeling the stress you are not alone.
The last ten days or so in particular have surfaced many, many stories from women who have been harassed, groped, grabbed, and sexually assaulted in the workplace, at home, and in public settings. Some stories never before told are being told as social media provides a forum for sharing painful memories. Lots of women are feeling the feels that have been long buried; to borrow poet Dorfman’s words, women are “Cough[ing] up vultures spit[ting] green silence and shed[ding] a dried-up skin.” I would guess that round about 100% of us women could relate to a phrase that Michelle Obama used in a speech responding to the week’s events. “It’s like that sick, sinking feeling you get when you’re walking down the street minding your own business and some guy yells out vulgar words about your body. Or when you see that guy at work that stands just a little too close, stares a little too long, makes you feel uncomfortable in your own skin.” She went on from there. I just especially wanted to call out the phrase “that sick, sinking feeling.” The women of America are feeling the feels. Is this a good thing? Is it a holy thing?
I believe it is. We might want to race for the “defeelbrillator,” and we need to respect those who do so because they cannot revisit their traumatic memories. But for those of us who can hear this pain being expressed, it’s a fresh moment to suffer with those who suffer. Let’s not rush to shut it down.
There’s a danger of being swamped in emotion—outrage, grief—to such a degree that one becomes incapacitated. If not incapacitated, then completely incapable of reasonable thought. While I suggest it is a good thing to feel our feelings and empathize with the feelings of others, I do think we have to be somewhat moderate. Can we feel enough to grow compassion, do thoughtful analysis and galvanize for just change without drowning in an ocean of tears? It seems to me that this is what we should aim for.
I don’t know if this is helpful or not, but for some reason the word “ethanol” popped into my head while I was musing on this. As you may know, many of the fuel pumps we patronize have a fuel that’s 10-15% ethanol, a plant-based fuel that mixed with the oil-based fuel. What if what fueled our action was 10-15% feeling-based? We feel our own feelings and open ourselves to the feelings of others enough to be human, to be humane. But we don’t stray into the territory of lizard-brained outrage that shuts down reason and incapacitates our ability to hear a different point of view. 10-15% emotion, the rest thought, creativity, will, productive instinct.
We can’t possibly speculate on our ineffable God’s being, in terms of feeling/thought/instinct/will/energy, what goes into the mix of Being Divine. I don’t know if we could say God is “all heart”—because the universe relies on a God who has the capacity to “calmly pierce evil’s new disguises,” a God who is “wiser than despair.” Even so, I am glad Jeremiah portrays for us a God of deep feeling, who genuinely cares about us and cares about how we care. Even if we don’t equate our own emotions to God’s, perhaps we see through a glass darkly (to borrow St. Paul’s words) when we connect the kind of feelings we have to the passion of God. Conceiving of a God who feels what Jeremiah and the other prophets perceived—indignation, outrage, grief, disappointment, heartbreak, and, most of all, unfathomed love—will keep us more human than conceiving of a dispassionate God, an unmoved mover. So with humility, we may envision a passionate God who hopes we will never stop feeling God’s feels or feeling the feels of our suffering and rejoicing neighbors. This will keep us on the path of compassion.