A Bleeding Heart

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Love your neighbor as yourself is part of the great commandment.

The other way to say it is, ‘Love yourself as your neighbor.’ Love yourself not in some egocentric, self-serving sense but love yourself the way you would love your friend in the sense of taking care of yourself, nourishing yourself, trying to understand, comfort, strengthen yourself.

Ministers in particular, people in the caring professions in general, are famous for neglecting their selves with the result that they are apt to become in their own way as helpless and crippled as the people they are trying to care for and thus no longer selves who can be of much use to anybody. 

It means pay mind to your own life, your own health and wholeness, both for your own sake and ultimately for the sake of those you love too. Take care of yourself so you can take care of them.

A bleeding heart is of no help to anybody if it bleeds to death.
~Frederick Buechner from Telling Secrets

 

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We are reminded every time we hear safety instructions on an airplane before a flight takes off: “in the event of a sudden pressure change in the cabin, oxygen masks will appear – remember to put your own on before helping others with their masks.”   

If we aren’t able to breathe ourselves, we won’t last long enough to be of assistance to anyone around us.  Too often,  sacrificing self-care threatens others’ well-being.

A headline appeared in my email from the American Psychiatric Association this morning: “Physicians Experience the Highest Suicide Rate of Any Profession” – there is rampant depression and burn-out among those who should know best how to recognize and respond to the danger signs — for women physicians, nearly 1 out of 5 are afflicted.   Yet the work load only seems to increase, not diminish, the legal and moral responsibility weighs more heavily, and the hours available for sleep and respite shrink.  In forty years of practicing medicine (my father liked to remind me “when are you going to stop ‘practicing’ and actually ‘do’ it?”),  the work has never gotten easier, only harder and heavier.

I see suicidal patients all day and am immensely grateful I’ve never been suicidal, thank God, but anxiety is embedded deep in my DNA from my non-physician fretful farmer ancestors.  Anxiety becomes the fuel and driver of the relentless physician journey on long lonely roads, spurring us to stay awake too many hours and travel too far when we should be closing our eyes and taking a break to breathe, just breathe.

However, we are trained to respond to anxiety from the first day in anatomy class:
“and while you, Miss Polis, are trying to think of the name of that blood vessel, your patient is exsanguinating in front of you– drip, drip, drip….”

Terror-stricken at the thought I was inadequate to the task of saving a life, it took years for me to realize the name of the vessel didn’t bloody matter as long as I knew instinctively to clamp it, compress it, or by the love of the Living God, transfuse my own blood from my bleeding heart into my patient’s.

I learned well those many years ago:

To save a life, I must preserve my own.

 

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Brokenness Under the Blessing

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The great mystery of God’s love is that we are not asked to live as if we are not hurting, as if we are not broken. In fact, we are invited to recognize our brokenness as a brokenness in which we can come in touch with the unique way that God loves us. The great invitation is to live your brokenness under the blessing. I cannot take people’s brokenness away and people cannot take my brokenness away.  But how do you live in your brokenness? Do you live your brokenness under the blessing or under the curse? The great call of Jesus is to put your brokenness under the blessing.
~Henri Nouwen from a Lecture at Scarritt-Bennett Center

 

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For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

16 Therefore we do not lose heart.
2 Corinthinians: 6-12, 16

 

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It is a ceramic pot meant specially for our kitchen table — handmade by a friend using the abstract artistry of mane hairs from our farm’s Haflinger horses burnt onto the sides.  But it hit the floor and broke into many pieces, looking completely beyond repair.

It is back on our table, repaired with love and care by another friend, using nothing more than copious amounts of Elmer’s Glue.  This is the glue of every child’s school desk, the glue of every mother’s junk drawer, the glue of every heart that needs mending.  Elmer’s is not the gold of the Japanese art of kintsugiwhere broken vessels are repaired with precious metals, creating an object even more valuable and beautiful than before, with streaks and tracks of gold highlighting their shattered history.

Yet it is now even more precious to me. Someone we love cared deeply enough to make it in the first place, and another we love cared deeply to repair it, making it even more beautiful and blessed in its brokenness, highlighting ragged pieces made whole again.

Someone made us.
Someone repairs us when we fall apart.
Someone blesses our brokenness with a glued-together beauty that makes us whole.

Therefore do not lose heart.

 

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Choosing Up Sides

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The issue is now clear. It is between light and darkness and everyone must choose his side.
~G. K. Chesterton

 

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…our hands have always been able to heal as much as harm. 
…since the dawn of humanity, each of us contains three people—
the angel, the demon, and the one who decides which we will obey.
~Billy Coffey

 

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It shouldn’t take plunging into a profound darkness,
swallowed in a pit of sadness and sorrow
to experience God’s immense capacity for love and compassion,
but that is when our need for light and forgiveness is greatest.

It should not take sin and suffering to remind us
life is precious and worthy of our protection,
no matter how tempted we are to choose otherwise.

We are created,
from the beginning,
in the beginning,
with the capacity to choose sides between darkness and light
and we choose too often to be cloaked in darkness.

Our God chooses to shine the light of His Creation,
to conquer our darkness through illuminating grace,
dispersing our shadows,
suffering the deepest darkness on our behalf
to guarantee we are eternally worthy of His loving protection.

How then shall we choose when He so clearly chooses us?

 

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Prescribing Good Medicine

 

A good night sleep, or a ten minute bawl, or a pint of chocolate ice cream, or all three together, is good medicine.
~Ray Bradbury

 

 

 

If there is anything I’ve learned in over 40 years of practicing medicine, it’s that I still must “practice” my art every day.  As much as we physicians emphasize the science of what we do, utilizing “evidence based” decisions, there are still days when a fair amount of educated guessing and a gut feeling is based on past experience, along with my best hunch.  Many patients don’t arrive with classic cook book symptoms that fit the standardized diagnostic and treatment algorithms so the nuances of their stories require interpretation, discernment and flexibility.    I appreciate a surprise once in awhile that makes me look at a patient in a new or unexpected way and teaches me something I didn’t know before.   It keeps me coming back for more, to figure out the mystery and dig a little deeper.

I’ve also learned that not all medicine comes in pills or injections.  This isn’t really news to anyone, but our modern society is determined to seek better living through chemistry, the more expensive and newer the better, whether prescribed or not.  Chemicals have their place, but they also can cause havoc.  It is startling to see medication lists topping a dozen different daily pills.  Some are life-saving.  Many are just plain unnecessary.

How many people sleep without the aid of pill or weed or alcohol?  Fewer and fewer.  Poor sleep is one of the sad consequences of our modern age of too much artificial light, too much entertainment and screen time keeping us up late, and not enough physical work to exhaust our bodies enough to match our frazzled and fatigued brains.

How many of us allow ourselves a good cry when we feel it welling up?  It could be a sentimental moment–a song that brings back bittersweet memories, a commercial that touches just the right chord of feeling and connection.  It may be a moment of frustration and anger when nothing seems to go right.  It could be the pain of physical illness or injury or the stress of emotional turmoil.  Or just maybe there is weeping when everything is absolutely perfect and there cannot be another moment just like it, so it is tough to let it go unchristened by tears of joy.

And without a doubt, the healing qualities of chocolate are unquestioned by this doctor, however it may be consumed.  It can fix most everything that ails a person,  at least for an hour or two.

No, it doesn’t take an M.D. degree to know the best medicine.

Just remember: sleep, weep, reap (chocolate!)

 

The Darkness is Wisdom’s Way to Light

 

By these three days all the world is called to attention.
Everything that is and ever was and ever will be,
the macro and the micro,
the galaxies beyond number and the microbes beyond notice –
everything is mysteriously entangled with what happened,
with what happens, in these days.…
Every human life,
conceived from eternity and destined to eternity,
here finds its story truly told.
In this killing that some call senseless
we are brought to our senses.
Here we find out who we most truly are because
here is the One who is what we are called to be.
The derelict cries, “Come, follow me.”
Follow him there?
We recoil.
We close our ears.
We hurry on to Easter.
But we will not know what to do with Easter’s light
if we shun the friendship of the darkness that is wisdom’s way to light.
~Richard Neuhaus from Death on a Friday Afternoon

 

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So many recent killings of innocents — needless, heartbreaking death at the hands of others — people abruptly wrenched from their routine lives, their families left with empty arms and eyes filling, spilling endlessly with tears.

Such senseless tragedies, we say, recoiling and withdrawing as if we can close our ears to more bad news.  Some take to the streets to march in protest.

How to make sense of deaths that arise from the darkness found in every soul?

This is the day in between when nothing makes sensewe are lost, hopeless, grieving.

Yet we are brought to our senses by this one Death, this premeditated killing, this senseless act that darkened the skies, shook the earth and tore down the curtained barriers to the Living Eternal God.

The worst has already happened, no matter how horrific the events that fill our headlines.

This Holy Saturday we are in between, stumbling in the darkness but aware of hints of light, of buds, of life, of promised fruit to come.

The best has already happened. Happening now even when we are oblivious to its impossibility.

We move through this Saturday, doing what is possible even when it feels senseless.

Tomorrow it will all make sense: our hope brings us face to face with our God who does the impossible.

 

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The Holy Saturday of our life must be the preparation for Easter,
the persistent hope for the final glory of God. 

The virtue of our daily life is the hope which does what is possible
and expects God to do the impossible. 

To express it somewhat paradoxically, but nevertheless seriously: 
the worst has actually already happened; 
we exist,
and even death cannot deprive us of this. 

Now is the Holy Saturday of our ordinary life, 
but there will also be Easter, our true and eternal life. 
~Karl Rahner “Holy Saturday” in The Great Church Year

 

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God Scraped and Torn

 

God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. … It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is splendor. … Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.

How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song–all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself.

We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.
~Nicholas Wolterstorff  in Lament for a Son

 

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“My God, My God,” goes the Psalm 22, “hear me, why have you forsaken me?”  This is the anguish all we of Godforsaken heart know well. But hear the revelation to which Christ directs us, further in the same psalm:

For He has not despised nor scorned the beggar’s supplication,
Nor has He turned away His face from me;
And when I cried out to Him, He heard me.

He hears us, and he knows, because he has suffered as one Godforsaken. Which means that you and I, even in our darkest hours, are not forsaken. Though we may hear nothing, feel nothing, believe nothing, we are not forsaken, and so we need not despair. And that is everything. That is Good Friday and it is hope, it is life in this darkened age, and it is the life of the world to come.
~Tony Woodlief from “We are Not Forsaken”

 

 

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Scratch the surface of a human being and the demons of hate and revenge … and sheer destructiveness break forth.

    The cross stands before us to remind us of this depth of ourselves so that we can never forget. These forces continue to break forth in many parts of the world now, and many of us would like to forget how in some places in the United States we treat a person whose skin is black.

    Again and again we read the stories of violence in our daily papers, of the mass murders and ethnic wars still occurring in numerous parts of our world. But how often do we say to ourselves: “What seizes people like that, even young people, to make them forget family and friends, and suddenly kill other human beings?” We don’t always ask the question in that manner. Sometimes we are likely to think, almost smugly: “How different those horrible creatures are from the rest of us. How fortunate I am that I could never kill or hurt other people like they did.”

    I do not like to stop and, in the silence, look within, but when I do I hear a pounding on the floor of my soul. When I open the trap door into the deep darkness I see the monsters emerge for me to deal with. How painful it is to bear all this, but it is there to bear in all of us. Freud called it the death wish, Jung the demonic darkness. If I do not deal with it, it deals with me. The cross reminds me of all this.

    This inhumanity of human to human is tamed most of the time by law and order in most of our communities, but there are not laws strong enough to make men and women simply cease their cruelty and bitterness. This destructiveness within us can seldom be transformed until we squarely face it in ourselves. This confrontation often leads us into the pit. The empty cross is planted there to remind us that suffering is real but not the end, that victory still is possible…
~Morton Kelsey from “The Cross and the Cellar”

 

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In a daring and beautiful creative reversal, 
God takes the worse we can do to Him
and turns it into the very best He can do for us.
~Malcolm Guite from The Word in the Wilderness

 

 

May we remember today, of all days, the worst that can happen becomes the best that can happen.
We tussle and haggle over the price of what this will cost us, but realizing it has been paid for us makes an impossible loss possible.

We are paid in full, no longer debtors.  From now on, we are freed from worry: the worst became the best.

 

 

The Unstilled World Still Whirled

 

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If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.
~T.S. Eliot from “Ash Wednesday”

 

In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope.
~T.S. Eliot from “East Coker”

 

 

On Maundy Thursday, I arrive back to the beginning,  six weeks later returning to Eliot:
“the unstilled world whirled/About the centre of the silent Word.”

This day:

a day of disquiet and silence,
of Christ taking towel and water to disciples’ dirty feet,
of bread broken and fruit crushed and consumed,
of anguished prayer and the kiss of betrayal,
of stilling the sword,
of watching those He loved run off in fear
and deny they ever knew Him.

In my beginning is my end.
And now the light falls and the darkness begins.
We wait, sorrow-filled, our unstilled souls stilled
by our betrayal, our denial, our hopelessness without Him.