Audio length: 7:06 minutes
While we were created with emotions, sentimentality can often get in the way of authentic faith.
On October 25th, I cupped Benji’s big boy chin in my hand. “Five years ago today,” I cooed, “mommy woke up and had to call the doctor …”
“I know,” interrupted Ben “because it was time for me to come out of your tummy and then you cried and everybody ate donuts. You’ve told me that story a million times.”
Not everyone is as sentimental as I am. I’ve always been a sucker for raindrops on roses, deliriously happy endings, and memories that grow sweeter with time. I’m a feel good junkie, forever wringing droplets of schmaltziness out of dried-out, ordinary moments - forever equating goodness with tingling warmth. Just last week I was reading about the Romanovs, holding my breath, hoping against all hope that maybe this time the outcome would be different, maybe in this version their lives would be spared. But historical fact won out in the end and I had to dab my eyes with the tissue I was using for a bookmark. Ditto for the biography of Grand Duchess Elizabeth – the unavoidable finale, while certainly humbling and inspiring, pierced my gut like a blade slicing mawkishness from cold hard reality.
As a teenager I attended youth group at the Bible Church a few towns over. One winter, we bussed it to some cabins in the woods for a weekend of sanctimonious ecstasy. We sang, until our throats were raw, soft as cotton love songs to the Holy Spirit. We confessed to one another (while drunk on Dr. Pepper) secret sins, wicked grudges, and a variety of sordid temptations. We sobbed, embraced, made passionate late night promises to be faithful, zealous, and holy. We journaled, sitting cross-legged on graffiti stained picnic tables, our romanticized aspirations - I was totally “on fire” for Jesus. Being naturally predisposed, however, to use my feelings as a gauge for genuineness, worthwhileness, and authenticity, that experience ingrained in me a permanent correlation between emotion and God’s presence in my life. I was an addict on the hunt for a high in the form of worship - repetitive, melodious, and poignant. But depression set in when the flames died down- God was absent, or angry, or worse yet just apathetic. Sobering up, after binging on such spiritual intoxication, was disheartening and disconcerting to say the least.
Throughout college I would continue to walk the impossibly narrow line between guilt and fanaticism, using my Bible like a road map to guide me. It seemed a scant pairing, even then: just my own fickle self and the Word of God. That is, I suppose, if you didn’t count the hundreds of contradictory opinions, on what the Lord really meant in those verses, being fed to me by pastors, professors, commentaries, small group leaders, and peers. But ultimately, it was my own responsibility to conjure up a belief I felt comfortable with, a task as daunting as crossing the ocean on an inner tube - a task that would eventually leave me cynical, defensive, and irritated. It seemed harder than it should be: finding a connection with the living Christ, one that wasn’t so dependent on my personal and very limited resources. It seemed that I was destined to either buck a nebulous system or to lose my relevance as a Christian through the sterility of lukewarmness.
Thanks be to God, I chose the former, swallowing ravenously the subtantiveness of the sacraments - the historical, touchable, tasteable, smellable, hearable, and recitable Truths of the Christian Faith as was lived out and died for by the apostles, Church Fathers, and saints. Thanks be to God for the stability, the community both earthly and heavenly, the continuity and authority of the Orthodox Church. As I grew in knowledge and practice, as I aligned myself less with the current culture and more with the Church calendar, as I rooted myself in the fertile soil of a Theology unaffected by the sins, biases, and imperfections of its champions, I was able to disentangle myself from the immobilizing habit of depending on feelings to translate my religious experiences. I could finally stop grinding my wheels, and move forward.
Don’t get me wrong, I relish in the joy of Pascha. I shed tears till my face is blotchy on Holy Friday. I’ve had sensations of clarity, remorse, and thankfulness as bright and searing as the blaze of a burning bush. But you see, aha!, these were gifts free and clear – unexpected, uninduced, and unrequired for my growth in the life of Christ Jesus. These were, and will continue to be, the proverbial icing on a cake that is already satisfying on its own, that was formed out of tried and true ingredients blending together, organically, under the direction of an age old recipe. The tools of the Church are building my faith: Eucharist, confession, prayer, fasting, Scripture reading, almsgiving, and participation in the Divine Services. Resources, neither limited nor reliant on ever-fluctuating hormones, moods, and temperaments, anchor my soul. I ‘m being saved on a ship that is strong, swift, and sturdy and I am grateful beyond explanation. I recall the lonely drifting, the wondering if God was pleased with me, and the anxiety that came with numbness, without melancholy. But ask me about the day of Ben’s birth, when I labored in agony for thirteen hours, when near crazy with exhaustion I pushed and screamed and groaned until he emerged like the sun out of darkness, and well… see, even now I’m getting weepy.
I’m just sappy like that I suppose.
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