The Outgoing Heart

It’s May 10, 2020, Mother’s Day, though one struggles to remember such things . . .

2020––what many are now calling the new annus horribilis, echoing what Queen Elizabeth, as it were the mother to her nation, said about 1992, the year Windsor Castle burned, and three of her children’s marriages were definitively exposed as “lost,” much to the delight of a scandal-greedy public . . .

No wonder that two months ago, March 10––has the pandemic been this long?––

B.C.’s public health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, otherwise the paragon of professionalism,

actually shed a few tears during a press conference. Her tears, thankfully, were much admired, at the time. As J. R. R. Tolkien once said, “I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”

As a frontline worker, Bonnie had been reminding the public––as Macleans magazine later put it––that there are, and I quote, “living, breathing, feeling human beings behind the effort to stymie the spread of the novel coronavirus in Canada.” And as for Dr. Henry, well, “She is human,” wrote Marie-Danielle Smith in the same Macleans article.

“We are all human.”

Shed a few tears lately? Me too. Me too . . . It seems not like two months, but ten months, under social lockdown, with no present end in sight . . . And the fatigue, the stress, the worry, the fear, can sometimes seem unbearable, even for those not otherwise on the frontlines of this pandemic. And as for doctors, nurses, EMTs, and the like, I can only imagine what it is like for them, Especially in hotspots, like Italy, and New York City.

“Time to start the day,” begins a video diary of a frontline ICU nurse––as her alarm goes off.

“I am about to take my temperature:––because every morning and every night I take my temperature, to make sure I stay healthy to take care of my patients. The unit I work in is a Covid-19 quarantined unit, which sees the sickest patients. People are much younger than we expected. I have some tears and crying right now because I’m so tired. “Never mind, take a deep breath and keep going on.” (I tell myself.) But now I’m going to continue on; I’m powering through . . . “Stay strong.” (I tell myself.) Back to the unit. Today is day 5 of a 13-hour-shift week. I usually do 3 days a week, and I’m up to five 13-hour shifts, and I’m tired. I am about to change my scrubs,” concludes this mom, “to head home to see my babies.”

“How do such people do it?,” we ask. “How do they cope with all of this, without becoming overwhelmed, or swept away, or worse still, broken, or hard as flint?? Needless to say the same question has been asked of the Lord Jesus, many times. In today’s reading we find him, like a frontline health care worker, surrounded by people in need; submerged, in fact, by people in need. Just how did he do it? How did it accomplish so much in such a short time, without burning out? How did he cope with the unending stream of human tragedy that was paraded before him, night and day? (Without, that is, cracking up, or giving up; or simply walking away??) How did Jesus keep his heart soft, both towards His father in heaven, and towards people in need??

Ordinarily, one would expect Jesus to have what professionals now call “compassion fatigue.”

Or better yet, “secondary traumatic stress,” or “STS.” “Compassion fatigue, also known as secondary traumatic stress,” reads the ubiquitous Wikipedia, “is a condition characterized by a gradual lessening of compassion over time. It is common among individuals that work directly with trauma victims such as nurses, psychologists, and first responders. In fact between 16 and 85% of health care workers develop compassion fatigue, especially those who work in hospital emergency rooms. Moreover, the decontextualized images of tragedy and suffering which now saturate media is thought to have caused widespread resistance to helping people who are suffering.”

It’s no secret that Jesus was often very tired. As we read this morning, the Gospel of Mark tells us that once upon a time, Jesus directed the disciples to accompany him to a quiet place to get some rest. “So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place,” writes Mark . . . . (not a bad idea if you ask me) “but many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them.” Talk about hijacking the poor man’s day off!

Nevertheless, when Jesus landed and saw the large crowd that had ran on ahead of him, “he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” At which point his healing work resumed. Notwithstanding his own fatigue, Jesus had profound compassion for people in need. In fact rather than running away, Counterintuitively, he went deeper. And deeper. And deeper.

When common sense would have said, “Don’t touch this; it’s too messy.” Jesus touched, and took hold. When common sense would have said, “Danger. Step away. Pull out. Don’t get your hands so dirty.” Jesus stepped in. He stepped right in, and got his hands dirty. Very dirty.

When common “decency” would have said, “It’s their own fault they got into this mess, so leave them alone! How else are they going to learn from their mistakes if you keep rescuing them all the time?? You’re nothing but an enabler––so step away,” Jesus walked with them all the way from illness to recovery, darkness to light, lostness to salvation.

There’s a very special word in Greek, which describes the compassion of Jesus, its a verb, in fact; that is to say an action word. It’s such a freaky-sounding word that having learned it in New Testament Greek, I have never forgotten it. Are you ready? The word is: splagcnizomai,(splagchnizomai). It’s so freaky that I sometimes use it as a password.

Splagchnizomai is a very physical word which means to be moved in the deepest way possible, i.e. from the deepest parts of one’s own body, that is to say viscerally. . . so much so that your guts begin to churn.

Ordinarily you would think this a recipe for instantaneous burnout; for reckless psychological immolation; but this is how Jesus loved. Yet the heart of Jesus always remained soft, like a mother’s for her children. When needed, Jesus withdrew to pray, in order to go deeper with God his father. In the that deeper, quieter, richer place, Jesus rested, recovered, and recharged.

About a year ago St. Andrew’s began a special prayer meeting, at the behest of Presbytery. Weekly, we draw apart. There are only about six of us, but that’s enough. We go to a very deep place, and come before God. We ask him to deepen and enrich us, and to help those whom we love. It’s extraordinary what happens. Now that the virus has struck, we do this online. But it’s so no less powerful, and no less real.

Recently someone asked me the classic question, “If you could meet anyone, living or dead, who would it be?” He was expecting me to say Jesus, and so I said, “I’ve already met Jesus, so I’m presuming you mean someone else.” “What do you mean you’ve met Jesus?” he asked, and so of course I had to answer that question in an aside. You might laugh at this––which is okay––

But having done that, I did my best to take his question seriously. And so, I answered, “Fred Rogers.”

Fred Rogers? Why would I say that??? Lately I have been obsessed with—get this—Mr. Rogers. He was an amazing person. You may not know this, but he was an ordained Presbyterian minister. And because he was a television personality, people cynically assumed that he probably one sort of man on camera, and another sort of man elsewhere. At home, that is, or in private. But when asked what her husband was like off-camera, Fred Rogers’ wife said, “what you see is what you get. He’s the same person off-camera as he is on camera.” Fred Rogers was tireless in his work for children. In his gentleness; his compassion; his softness of heart; his willingness to touch both children, and advocate for them.

What was his secret? Well, every day Fred Rogers would get up at 5 a.m., and start the day from the deepest of places. He would have a swim; have breakfast; and then pray. He would pray for his family, and friends. He would pray for people he had met. He would pray for children.

In other words, he went deeper. Consequently, he never lost his soft heart. Nor did he ever become cynical.

Whenever I am confronted, as a minister, with illness, with loss, with death, even with disillusion, I find I too have to go to a deeper place. And the people who come to terms with these things have to go to a deeper place as well, if they, and I with them, are ever to experience healing and enrichment, and real spiritual growth; the kind of place you go to when you pray,

And worship, and converse with people both face to face––and heart to heart. Before these things, well, you just have to be real. Faking doesn’t quite cut it. Pretending doesn’t quite cut it.

How will we survive Covid-19? By going deeper. There will be no other way. Hear C. S. Lewis:

“It is as hard to explain how this sunlit land [i.e. going deeper] was different from the old Narnia as it would be to tell you how the fruits of that country taste. Perhaps you will get some idea of it if you think like this. You may have been in a room in which there was a window that looked out on a lovely bay of the sea or a green valley that wound away among mountains. And in the wall of that room opposite to the window there may have been a looking-glass. And as you turned away from the window you suddenly caught sight of that sea or that valley, all over again, in the looking glass. And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones: yet at the same time they were somehow different - deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know. The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more.”

Going deeper in Jesus’ Name. It will change your life.