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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You Shall Be a Peculiar Treasure

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Imagine yourself in a big city in a crowd of people.  What it would be like to see all the people in the crowd like Jesus does — an anonymous crowd with old ones and young one, fat ones and thin ones, attractive ones and ugly ones—think what it would be like to love them.  If our faith is true, if there is a God, and if God loves, he loves each one of those.  Try to see them as loved.  And then try to see them, these faces, as loved by you.  What would it be like to love these people, to love these faces — the lovable faces, the kind faces, gentle compassionate faces?  That’s not so hard.  But there are lots of other faces — disagreeable faces, frightening faces, frightened faces, cruel faces, closed faces. …they are all peculiar treasures.  In Exodus, God said to Israel, “You shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people.”  God meant it for all of us.
~Frederick Buechner from The Remarkable Ordinary

 

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It doesn’t take long for us to be overwhelmed by humanity when we visit our family in Tokyo.  The airport is a shock of weaving lines of weary people and crying children, the trains are packed with people standing like sardines for an hour or more on their commute, the stations are a sea of bobbing heads flowing out onto the streets where the cross walks become a mass hive of activity whenever the light changes.

Yet we’ve been struck by the effort some locals make to help us foreigners who look lost, or who simply look different.  There is outreach at times that is spontaneous, genuine and completely unexpected.  Those are easy faces to love and we do.  What is much much harder to is love those hundreds of thousands who pass by us on their way to work, to shop, to return home.  How can I even begin to have the capacity?

What greeted Jesus as he entered the city in that final week was not friendly faces.  He loved them all any way, every single one of them peculiar treasures to him, forgiven and redeemed.

I realize I’m not very friendly too much of the time.  Yet he still loves me too, flaws and all, as his redeeming grace is meant for one such as me.  Because of his love, I can become the real thing, not just a reflection of what I think I should be.

 

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God Was Here: Snowbound Snowblind Longing

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What keeps the wild hope of Christmas alive year after year in a world notorious for dashing all hopes is the haunting dream that the child who was born that day may yet be born again even in us and our own snowbound, snowblind longing for him.
~Frederick Buechner

 

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Within this day of early winter
is disappearance of the familiar world,
of all that grows and thrives,
of color and freshness,
of hope in survival.
Then there comes a moment of softness amid the bleak,
a gift of grace and beauty,
a glance of sunlight on a snowy hillside,
a covering of low cloud puffs in the valley,
a moon lit landscape,
and I know the known world is still within my grasp
because you have hold of me.

 

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In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give Him my heart.
~Christina Rossetti 1872

 

The Only Day There Is

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It is a moment of light surrounded on all sides by darkness and oblivion. In the entire history of the universe, let alone in your own history, there has never been another just like it and there will never be another just like it again. It is the point to which all your yesterdays have been leading since the hour of your birth. It is the point from which all your tomorrows will proceed until the hour of your death. If you were aware of how precious it is, you could hardly live through it. Unless you are aware of how precious it is, you can hardly be said to be living at all. 

“This is the day which the Lord has made,” says the 118th Psalm. “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Or weep and be sad in it for that matter. The point is to see it for what it is because it will be gone before you know it. If you waste it, it is your life that you’re wasting. If you look the other way, it may be the moment you’ve been waiting for always that you’re missing. 

All other days have either disappeared into darkness and oblivion or not yet emerged from them. Today is the only day there is.
~Frederick Buechner from Whistling in the Dark

 

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Last night our church held our annual Chapel “talent” show — now renamed “Show and Tell” for those who who don’t feel they have a talent to share.  It was a great evening of infinite variety including a ventriloquism act, hand made quilts, watercolor paintings, a primer on Latin from a 12 year old, a tutorial on Bonsai trees, detailed nautical drawings, embroidery, stories from a kindergarten teacher, a story of a life from the Livestock Journal, kids singing the answers to Heidelberg Catechism questions, a teenager teaching the American Sign Language alphabet, a “don’t quit” testimony from a man who served prison time for homicide and other convictions, wonderful fiddle and guitar music and wrapping up with a bagpipe finale.

It was a delightful sharing of people’s daily lives — how they spend their precious moments and hours and what is important to them.

It reminds me how I “show and tell” each precious day right here, before it disappears into darkness and oblivion. I want to capture and harvest each moment, every moment, and this moment.

You’re welcome.

 

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A Salt Water Cure

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…when he looked at the ocean,
he caught a glimpse of the One he was praying to.

Maybe what made him weep was
how vast and overwhelming it was

and yet at the same time as near
as the breath of it in his nostrils,
as salty as his own tears.

~Frederick Buechner writing about Paul Tillich in Beyond Words

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The cure for anything is salt water–sweat, tears or the sea.
~Isak Dinesen

 

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photo by Nate Gibson

 

I grew up an easy crier.  Actually growing up hasn’t cured it, nor has middle age.  I’m still an easy crier – a hard thing to admit especially when my tears flow at an inopportune time in a public place.

It might have had something to do with being a middle child, bombarded from both directions by siblings who recognized how little aggravation it took to make me cry, or it may have been my hypersensitive feelings about …. everything.  I felt really alone in my tearful travails until my formidable grandmother, another easy weepy, explained that my strong/tall/tough/nothing-rocks-him former WWII Marine father had been a very weepy little boy.  She despaired that he would ever get past being awash in tears at every turn.  His alcoholic father tormented him about it, wondering if he would ever learn to “man up.”

So this is a congenital condition and that’s my excuse.

A few years ago I read a fascinating article about how different kinds of tears (tears of joy, tears of pain, tears of grief, tears of frustration, tears of irritated eyes, tears of onion cutting) all look different and remarkably apt, when dried and pictured under the microscope.  This is more than mere salt water leaking from our eyes — this is our heart and soul and hormonal barometer streaming down our faces – a visible litmus test of our deepest feelings.

I witness many tears every day in my office, and not tears of joy.  These are tears borne of pain and loss and rejection and failure, of hopelessness and helplessness, loneliness and anguish.  Often my patients will describe having a “break down” by which they mean uncontrollable crying.  It is one of the first-mentioned symptoms they want relief from.

Tears do come less frequently as depression lifts and anxiety lessens but I let my patients know (and remind myself) that tears are a transparent palette for painting the desires and concerns of our heart.  Dry up the tears and one dries up emotions that express who we are and who we strive to be.

When I’m able, I celebrate the salt water squeezing from my eyes, knowing it means I’m so fully human that I leak my humanity everywhere I go.  Even God wept while dwelling among us on earth, and what’s good enough for Him is certainly good enough for me.

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Turn Aside and Look: Eastering Up

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There is a fragrance in the air,
a certain passage of a song,
an old photograph falling out from the pages of a book,
the sound of somebody’s voice in the hall
that makes your heart leap and fills your eyes with tears.

Who can say when or how it will be
that something easters up out of the dimness
to remind us of a time before we were born and after we will die?

God himself does not give answers. He gives himself.
~Frederick Buechner from Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale

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“Let Him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east.”
― Gerard Manley Hopkins

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All changed, changed utterly:   
A terrible beauty is born.
~William Butler Yeats from “Easter, 1916”
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It has been a slow coming of spring this year, seeming in no hurry whatsoever.  Snow remains in the foothills and the greening of the fields has only begun. The flowering plum and cherry trees finally have burst into bloom despite a continued chill.  It feels like winter at night yet the perfumed air of spring now permeates the day. Such extreme variability is disorienting, much like standing blinded in a spotlight in a darkened room.

Yet this is exactly what eastering is like.  It is awakening out of a restless sleep, opening a door to let in fresh air, and the stone that locked us in the dark rolled back.

Overnight all changed, changed utterly.

He is not only risen.  He is given indeed.

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Turn Aside and Look: In the Wilderness Time

 

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This is the wilderness time,
when every path is obscure
and thorns have grown around the words of hope.

This is the time of stone, not bread,
when even the sunrise feels uncertain
and everything tastes of bitterness.

This is the time of ashes and dust,
when darkness clothes our dreams
and no star shines a guiding light.

This is the time of treading life,
waiting for the swells to subside and for the chaos to clear.

Be the wings of our strength, O God,
in this time of wilderness waiting.
– Keri Wehlander from “600 Blessings and Prayers from around the world” compiled by Geoffrey Duncan

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He will cover you with his feathers,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
Psalm 91:4

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To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness , is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken. But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless. Even in the wilderness- especially in the wilderness – you shall love him.   
~Frederick Buechner

The wilderness can be a distant peak far removed from anything or anyone.  The wilderness can also be found in an isolated corner of the human heart kept far away from anything and anyone.   From my window on a clear day, I am fortunate to see the first if the cloud cover moves away.  From my perch on a round stool at work,  I am sometimes given access to the other many times every day.

There are times in one’s life when loving God as commanded seems impossible.  We are too broken, too frightened, too wary to trust God with our love and devotion.  Recognizing a diagnosis of wilderness of the heart is straight forward:  despair, discouragement, disappointment, lack of gratitude, lack of hope.  The treatment is to tame the wilderness with a covenantal obedience that reaches so deep there is no corner left untouched.   We must do as we are asked, even when it seems impossible, when it hurts, and when it means we may become even more profoundly isolated.

To be asked by God to turn aside from our worries and face Him is the invitation we were created for.   To be loved by Him is our rescue from the wilderness of the most distant peak, as well as from the most bitter and broken heart that beats within.

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In the beginning, you hovered over the water
You broke an unbroken silence
You spoke light into darkness
And there was light

In the beginning, we were made in your image
And we were naked without shame
Till we fell for the darkness
And there was night

Chorus: Your mercies are new
Your mercies are new
New every morning
Your mercies are new
Your mercies are new
New every morning

In the beginning, there was the Word and he was God
And the Word was with God
And he dwelt among us
And there was life

Oh, in the beginning, the Lamb of God was broken
And his blood was poured out
For the sins of the world
And there was life

Chorus

At the cross, at the cross
Where I first saw your light
At the cross, at the cross
I received my sight
At the cross, at the cross
Where you laid down your life

Chorus

~Audrey Assad -“New Every Morning”