When You’re Not Feelin’ It
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, June 24, 2018, the fifth Sunday after Pentecost. A Tempo sermon series.
Texts: Isaiah 55:8-13, James 5:7-8
Every Sunday I extend the same words of welcome at the beginning of worship. Among those words are these: “No matter what you feel or don’t feel today…” Sometimes, I adjust to say “No matter what you feel or if you’re just not feelin’ it today…” you’re invited to come and be met by God who knows you, loves you, and wants to be closer to you.
A phrase that’s used these days for experiencing lots of emotions is “having all the feels.” For many over the past couple of weeks, the most prevalent “feels” have been rage, disappointment, and heartbreak as the stories of thousands of children separated from their parents at our border have come into the public consciousness. Part of the tragedy here is that migrant children have been suffering at our borders for a long time. Using this suffering as a deterrent to coming to the U.S. is new (through the “zero-tolerance” policy), but for years the horrendous violence and poverty in countries like Honduras and Guatemala have meant that children—both accompanied by a parent and unaccompanied—have arrived on our southern borders seeking a better life, a place of safety, and have not always found what they were seeking. Our failure as a nation—and across administrations—to mend our broken immigration system and to invest in a humane program to consistently care for children and families in a way in line with our core values has meant that trauma is added to trauma for vulnerable members of our human family. This most recent horror takes that to new heights, the only possible benefit being that it’s opened the eyes of many to this suffering being inflicted in our name and may have the effect of spurring some substantive change through public pressure. Of course, it’s hard to believe that will actually happen when we’ve seen other violence done to children yield no such change. And, of course, the suffering of immigrants and asylum-seekers is but one of many instances of profound pain in our world.
Sometimes in the face of such overwhelming pain and struggle, we are drawn more closely to God, seeking solace, guidance, courage, and inspiration. Other times, we may be left feeling distant from God, as in a dry and weary land. Sometimes we may feel energized by the opportunity to serve and to be in community with God’s people at church, to organize and strategize, to vent in safe space and to seek ways to engage in acts of sacred resistance. Other times, we may not find energy at all—not to worship, not to serve, not to engage, not to pray. Sometimes, we’re just not feelin’ God or church.
And that response can happen for so many reasons. Sometimes it may be due to what’s happening in the world. Other times, we may feel uninspired or aggravated by what is happening in our church—to what other people are doing, to what is being said or sung or prayed or how things are being managed or organized. Other times, it may be our own stuff that leaves us feeling untouched, unmoved… like “meh.” That is, we may be exhausted, overwhelmed, distracted… And there may be times when we are simply in a season of spiritual “dryness.” This is a common experience, even for famous Christians! In 2007, a collection of Mother Theresa’s private writings[i] was published revealing that she’d suffered for most of her adult life with spiritual dryness. She didn’t feel God’s presence at all.
And that is the worst kind of “not feelin’ it.” To want to feel that Christ is near, to want to feel Spirit’s love and power, to want to feel the comfort and care of God our Father and Mother, and to not feel any of it…that is difficult and painful. The revelation of (now) Saint Theresa’s spiritual suffering came as a shock to many since her public life of self-giving service to the destitute and dying in Kolkata was so steady, so constant; her daily practice of spending hours in prayer is the stuff of legend.
And it is there we receive the core message of today. Saint Theresa just kept serving. She just kept praying. She just kept bringing herself to be before the One Who Is even when she didn’t feel anything. //
Both our scripture texts today employ images of planting and harvest. James writes, “The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient.” And in Isaiah we hear God promise: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” When we are in a moment or a season of spiritual drought, we are encouraged to be patient. And we are given assurance that our patient waiting will not ultimately be in vain. We don’t know God’s thoughts or God’s full purpose, but we are assured that God’s word is poured out and is potent. In the beginning, our story goes, God spoke and the whole world was created. God’s word—eternally spoken—God’s word of love and justice and peace and mercy and restoration is like water, life-giving and life-sustaining.
I imagine Saint Theresa… continuing to show up, putting herself in the flow of God’s grace, in the flow of God’s word, through service, worship, sacrament, and prayer. Not necessarily feeling God’s presence or power, but patiently attending to those practices that put her in proximity to the word and work of God. I have read that Saint Theresa’s presence was powerful, that love and light was felt when she was in the room. Evidently, even though she may have not been feeling God’s presence, God’s love and light were made manifest through her. You see, God’s word accomplishes that for which it is purposed…
When we’re not feelin’ it, it remains so important to continue to show up. If you are in a season when you feel you’ve lost faith, then show up in worship and let the church hold faith for you and hold you! If you’re feeling cynical, show up at a service project and observe the commitment and hope in action of others. If you’re fed up with the fact that the church isn’t all it’s supposed to be and are thinking the whole organized religion thing is a waste of time, then show up and really look in this or any congregation and see where love and reconciliation and hope and restoration and joy and justice really do happen in ways large and small. I think that some folks believe that if they’re not feeling something they think they’re supposed to feel, then something is wrong with them or something is wrong with the church. What I want to suggest is that sometimes, just like many of our spiritual ancestors, you just won’t be feelin’ it that day or even for a long while. And no matter what you feel or don’t feel, you are welcome, you are encouraged, to come and at just be in the midst of the gathered body and the music and the prayers and the words and scriptures and to be reminded that just because you’re not feelin’ it doesn’t mean that God is not present and working for good in the world…
If you struggle to pray because it seems like nothing is happening and no one is there, just keep showing up and allowing the word of God—through scripture or a prayer book or a song or a poem—to be in your mind. A dear friend, Dr. Ann Jervis, a teacher of New Testament and an Anglican Priest, once shared how, in her daily praying of the Hours—the morning, midday, evening, and night prayers from the Book of Common Prayer, she would sometimes feel deeply moved, but other times, she’d just “get through it.” Sometimes, she said, she just went through the motions, read the Psalms, recited the prayers, and the rest, without feelin’ it at all. But, she said, the feeling is not what it’s about. It’s about making yourself available. It’s about showing up.
Spiritual master Evelyn Underhill writes, “Intellect and feeling are not wholly in our control. They fluctuate from day to day, from hour to hour; they are dependent on many delicate adjustments. Sometimes we are mentally dull, sometimes we are emotionally flat. On such occasions it is notoriously useless to try to beat ourselves up to a froth: to make ourselves think more deeply or make ourselves care more intensely. If the worth of our prayer life depended upon the maintenance of a constant high level of feeling or understanding, we would be in a dangerous place. Though these often seem to fail us, the reigning will remains. Even when our heart is cold and our mind is dim, prayer is still possible to us…The determined fixing of our will upon God, and pressing toward [God] steadily and without deflection; this is the very center and the art of prayer.”[ii] This is what my friend Ann was saying. And I witnessed a quality of being in Ann that communicated a spiritual groundedness that can only be the fruit of a deep, sustained practice of being in the flow of God’s grace.
I’m not suggesting that showing up through attending to spiritual practices and holy habits will automatically restore to you what is missing; it certainly doesn’t solve the tragedies in our lives and in our world. But the long record of God’s people through history affirms that God can and does bring new life out of the dry places. And, I don’t know about you, but I find that sometimes when I am in a dry and thirsty season and manage to get myself into a space shared between friends over a cup of coffee, or the space of a classroom, a mission gathering, or a sanctuary—sometimes, when I least expect it, something happens in that sacred space that feels like water seeping deep within me to touch seeds of hope, courage, wonder, and love I didn’t remember were there. In those moments, I might cry, I might laugh, I might shout, I might grow silent and still, I might discover a new resolve to act or to serve. In those moments—perhaps you know what I mean—I find myself thinking, “The Lord is near…” And—sometimes only for a moment—I’m no longer thirsty…and it’s enough.
[ii] Evelyn Underhill, Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals & Groups, Richard J. Foster & James Bryan Smith, eds. (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 115.