Friday, September 2, 2022

Emotional overkill. . .

Emojis are part of the emotional currency of this age.  We cannot simply say what needs to be said, we feel compelled to add an icon to attach to the words our emotional state at the moment.  From the first few emojis that first crept into usage, the world of the little icon has exploded to the point where emojis are being added to the library of emoticons faster than we can keep up with and you can even manufacture your own through apps for Android or iPhone users.  They were simply cute but now they have become almost more important than the words themselves.  To some, they communicate more than the words do.  Emojis are the perfect accompaniment to a world in which feelings always trump facts and sentiment is more than truth.  Ours is a culture in which emotions are front and center.  Gone is the stiff upper lip and here is the you need to know what am I feeling at this moment world.  

I am probably the wrong person to write about this.  On the one hand I find emotions crippling and on the other, following years of covid conditions, people who have not returned to the pews, and the recent departure or retirement of my associate pastor and most of our church staff, my emotions are on edge more than in a long time.  I am weary, to be sure, but what drives me are not emotions.  It is the simple fact that the work needs to get done.  That means that emotions have to take a second place to the responsibilities of life.  My wife the (now retired) nurse knows this as well as I do.  She worked while dealing with family issues and life troubles because the sick need to be cared for and cannot wait until we are at an emotional peak for us to jump in and do our jobs.

Social media thrives on emotion.  From the anger that urges us to respond in anger to the easy bruising of our egos, social media exploits those emotions and counts on them to fuel the use of their platforms.  There is not that much fact on social media and emotion seems to be everything.  That is part of the reason we are so divided as a nation -- it has less to do with the facts over which we disagree as our feelings laid out there for the world to see along with a dare to ignore us or disagree.  We live in a time of over-sharing emotions and emoticons have become part of the essential ritual of our friendships and our disagreements.  I wonder if they are not also a symptom of our loneliness and if their use is not an attempt to hook people or to hook into their sympathy or righteous anger along with us. 

Because we live at a time when brevity is more valuable than nuance, emoticons communicate a great deal without any words -- perfect for the short capacity of Twitter (140 first and then 280 words) and the visual age of Instagram.  It is perfect for this time in our communication but do emojis really communicate anything at all?  Are we really concerned for the emotional state of the person who sends us the little face with a tear or is that simply the veneer of emotion we expect from folks today?  I fear that the person investing in the emoji has a vastly different expectation of the little icon than the person receiving it.  Perhaps the angry or tearful emoticon is simply saying to the reader "run away."   In any case, the vast amount of attention given to emojis has not helped us communicate better or more substantially and may be a symbol of how badly we do communicate and listen to one another.

I fear that Christianity is being sucked into all of this emotion in ways that work contrary to the Gospel itself.  For the faith we confess lives not in the ups and downs of our feelings but in that which is the substance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.  Faith is not an exercise of opinion or emotion but the encounter with a fact that has the power to transform us.  Scripture is not designed to appeal to our emotions (though it certainly does) but to engage us with the facts of God's mighty deliverance in which we meet His mercy to forgive, restore, redeem, and rescue with eternal life.  Again, God's primary concern is not to make us happy but to make us holy.  Holiness is not an emotional state or one dependent upon our feelings.  It is the saving work of Christ accomplished on our behalf, made known to us by the Holy Spirit working through the means of grace, so that the same Spirit might work in us to desire and to do that which is well pleasing in His sight.  Sanctification cannot exist without justification but justification is not the same as sanctification.  One happens apart from our will and desire and the other manifests itself in a new will and desire.  Both justification and sanctification can be appreciated on an emotional level but neither resides there.  We apprehend justification by faith and by faith we learn to know and to want what is good and right before God.  The currency here is not how we feel but what we trust.

The problems with contemporary worship seem to include the expectation of a sustained emotional plane and the confusion of this emotion with faith.  The music is designed to appeal to our emotions and the preaching reaches us more with stories designed to motivate and inspire rather than with the facts of the Gospels.  What generally passes for contemporary worship (though I hate the term) has as its central focus an appeal to emotion.  While this was well learned with the old pattern of preaching and music that accompanied the sinner's prayer and giving your heart to Jesus, evangelicalism has left behind the revival and turned worship into a spectacular production.  While it was created in order to reach beyond the borders of Christianity into the secular world, the reality is that its primary appeal was to bored Christians who yearned to experience an emotional mountain top experience.  Contemporary Christian music and worship have themselves become emoticons -- in contrast to the experience of the transcendent and the reception of heavenly grace that is the center of liturgical worship.  The emotional overkill in church has done the same thing it did in society.  It has created a shallow and plastic niceness that distracts us from what sin has done and what Christ has done to overcome sin.  We are just as effusive in our insistence of how wonderful God is and how wonderful we are to know Him as we are praising the latest selfie or rundown of the day from our friends on social media.  In the end it all means the same.  Not much. Or the wrong thing -- hey, everybody, look at me.

Part of the blessing of the liturgy is that it challenges this emoji world that has crept into and taken over so much of what passes as church.  It is emotional overkill in a world which insists our emotions are the best things about it and may be even what it means to be created in God's image.  Lord, help us, if that is true.

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