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steve taylor – feeling the emotional weight of texts

Last week I provided the opening night input for a citywide lay training event. The topic was God at earth. What does it mean to follow a God who in Jesus is real, local and grounded? In preparation I began to reflect on the feelings of Jesus: Jesus who feels sorrow in the Garden of Gethsemane; tears at the death of a friend, Lazarus; anger in the temple; compassion at the crowds harassed and helpless; and radical love when faced by the rich young ruler.

As I explored the Scriptures, I began to sense some implications for mission, for our following of God at earth. In response to compassion in Matthew 9:36, Jesus sends the disciples on mission. In response to anger in Mark 11:15, Jesus enacts justice. In response to radical love in Mark 10:41, Jesus extends the challenge of radical discipleship. So often mission comes out of our heads. But what might it mean to connect our feelings with the feelings of God at earth?

In preparing for the evening, I was forced to reflect on my own feelings – the pain of a recent change of ministry and location, the suffering of watching my home city of Christchurch experience such destruction and disturbance in recent months. Coincidentally, the last week has been incredibly difficult emotionally. I found myself awash in sadness. I began to wonder if I was losing it, burning-out even.

In hindsight I have since begun to wonder if I was simply processing the Biblical texts, working through the pain of my past, the pain of my city, the pain of being the Christ, holding the cup of suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane in Mark 14:33. Might it be that some sermons are simply heavier, weightier, more emotionally draining than others?

With reflection, I realised that it was a similar experience leading a church through Holy Week one year by offering on each day a twenty minute worship experience. Betrayal, abandonment, sin, death – these are heavy themes to process. They left me exhausted.

This matched a similar exhaustion I experienced one week after preaching Matthew 5:17. One commentator called it “the most difficult passage to be found anywhere in the Gospel.” Trying to present the text clearly, gracefully placed new demands on my emotions and energy levels.

Am I being neurotic? Or should I avoid such places, and instead invest my time in Bible texts more likely to build the body? Or might it be that in fact some Biblical texts, some sermons actually do cost us more? They demand a depth of emotional engagement, a facing of the dark side of human nature, which will leave us vulnerable and fragile?

If so, how does one care for oneself, be a good father, a courteous team player, under the emotional weight of such texts? I am not sure I have many answers. But I do wonder if the dark places of preaching might in fact be the most transformative of us and others.

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Steve Taylor is a Baptist-on-loan and a kiwi-in-exile, working as Director of Missiology for the Uniting College of Leadership and Theology, Adelaide, Australia. He is author of Out of Bounds Church?, Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change and writes regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz

2 Comments

  1. Geoff New says:

    Thanks Steve. I think what you describe and call us to is akin to the Psalm rhythm of lament to praise; the NT rhythm of dying and rising; and both those rhythm’s seen at work on the Road to Emmaus (sadness/bewilderment to revelation/hearts burning). What challenges me in what you have written is the sense (and I hope I have read you correctly) – is to not necessarily finish such a journey in the one sermon every time. Unlike many sermons which might begin with emotional weight such as lament/dying/sadness – but just like every episode of the Brady Bunch – all is then happily resolved within 30 minutes.

  2. steve says:

    Thanks Geoff. That’s a really interesting insight. I hadn’t thought of it, but yes, you are right, the danger that every sermon, every story we tell, is “resolved” and so the underlying message is that the only things welcome in the church are resolved, together people. Thanks for pushing my thinking a bit more,

    steve

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