Worship as Emotive Experience

This past Sunday, I became emotional in the pulpit… again. Ok, truth to be told, I’m always emotional in the pulpit. It’s part of why I never schedule anything for Sunday afternoon, because preaching a good UU sermon will wipe me out, physically, spiritually, and emotionally. I usually maintain enough reserves to make it through the coffee hour, but afterwards I have to go home and sleep for a few hours before I will be able to be worth much at all… and then it’s usually best for me to sit in front of the television and watch a movie.

It’s also why I tell anyone who has anything to talk to me about after the service that they should email me about it. I will listen during coffee hour, I will nod my head and I will even respond somewhat intelligently… and the chances of my having anything I would call “good recall and follow through” are slim. I’m simply operating in what I call my “coffee hour fugue”, a kind of emotional afterglow from the experience of worship, of preaching.

One thing I have noticed is that it was less emotional, less exhausting, and less “coffee hour fugue” inducing when I was mostly travel preaching as when I am regularly presenting worship in a congregation I know, and that knows me. The five years I spent travel preaching, the emotional content I was aware of was mostly just my own. While that was draining, I usually maintained enough energy to make it through the coffee hour and the multiple-hour drive home.

Yet in serving churches in Evanston IL, Midland MI, and now Ventura CA… that is not true. In each case, I believe I am becoming “in-tune” enough with the congregation that I am feeling more of what they feel. When, from the pulpit, I see a congregant with tears in their eyes, I know them well enough to have a fuller appreciation for what all those tears might mean. When I see a congregant laugh, I know them well enough to know some of the parts of their lives that might make laughing difficult. When a congregant comes up to me passionate and energized after the sermon, I now know them well enough to sense where that passion may be coming from (‘cause it is never actually my “wonderful sermon”).

I have said before that I believe we human beings are far more emotional creatures than we are rational creatures. Our ancestors on the evolutionary chain felt emotions far, far longer than we have had anything remotely resembling conceptualized rational thought. Our emotions have had many times many the centuries of development and opportunities to embed themselves into our nature, character and psyche than our capability for rational, symbolic thought has had. I believe that the primary purpose of reason is not to suppress or replace emotions, but rather to allow us to make some order and meaning out of our emotional lives. This understanding of reason accepts that our emotional lives remain the primary influence over who and what we are, and that reason just operates upon that primary influence.

Yet human emotion is often perceived by that reason, and by the outward society that reason reflects, as dangerous. As such, our society has created ways in which emotions can be “safely released”… Think of a football game, where emotions such as aggression, excitement, and anger can be safely released in a controlled manner about a topic that does not truly threaten our survival. Horror movies do the same for fear. Roller coasters do the same for both fear and excitement. Daytime talk shows such as Jerry Springer provide a safe experience of and release of some of our more shadow-filled emotions… jealousy, greed, superiority, etc.

At its least, congregational worship fills a similar role. I know, a shocking thing for a minister to say, to compare what we do on Sunday morning to Jerry Springer. There are some key differences… the first, and most obvious is the emotions that are brought forward in the congregational worship experience. Now, different traditions and different denominations of religious faith work with different emotions on a regular basis. I know that I experienced worship during my childhood in a different faith tradition as a regular emotional flow between superiority and shame. Superiority over all of the “sinners” who would be sent to hell when the judgment day came… and shame over my inability to save them all, and for the ways in which I too was one of those sinners. I know that when I have attended the Pentecostal churches of my mother’s tradition, there was some of that… but there was also the ecstatic emotions of joy, excitement, and connection.

The second key difference between our experience of many other societally sanctioned expressions of human emotion and congregational worship is that, at least in my understanding of the Unitarian Universalist tradition, those emotional experiences are to be shared communally. Experiencing and expressing these emotions is not a solo act. Worship should be a time where we allow the barriers that society creates around our emotional experiences to come down, just a bit… so that we can see one another as emotional creatures. And in seeing that, learn to accept our own emotional selves as normal, and beautiful.

I remember a time after a particular service where I became emotional in the pulpit, and the congregation became emotional with me. After the service, a fairly new member who was a social worker came up to me, quite disturbed. She was concerned that such an expression of emotion in a public way was unhealthy, and that it might even be unethical. Remember, this was after a sermon, so I was in my “coffee hour” fugue… but I think I responded along the lines of that congregations had been experiencing emotions together for thousands of years, and we just needed to be careful of and supportive of one another as we learned to be our emotional selves with one another. Later, that interaction helped me to develop a lens of being more aware of the emotional space of the congregation during the sermon, and to realize that some of the most important pastoral care work a congregation does happens in the Sunday Morning worship service.

Yet, I dream of something more for our time of Worship together than just an expression, even a collective expression, of our emotional selves. I dream of something more than creating a space in the lives of our congregants where it is okay to cry if you are called to cry, or laugh if you are called to laugh. I dream of something more than creating a space in the lives of congregants where it is okay to laugh with someone else, or cry with them. I dream of a space in the lives of congregants and in the life of a congregation where we can come together and not only express our emotional selves, but use the gift of our rational faculty to explore what those emotions mean for our understanding of and connection with life, the universe, and everything.

I want worship that is not only inspirational, but gets at why and how we feel inspired. I want worship that is not only deepening, but gets at why and how we feel deepened. I want worship that is not only challenging, but gets at why and how we feel challenged. I want worship that not only brings us to tears, but gets at why and how we are brought to tears. Not alone… not in a way that diagnoses what is wrong with us or makes us feel inadequate… but in a way that is simply about our learning to trust and care for our emotional souls… together.

I can dream…

Yours in faith,

Rev. David

  • Sara Mandal-Joy

    I share with you that dream…

  • Carolyn

    If only I could forgive you for leaving Midland…

    • http://www.celestiallands.org Rev. David Pyle

      It is the life of an Interim Minister, Carolyn… you love a congregation knowing from the very beginning that you are only preparing them for someone else. Be well, and be blessed.


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