October 8, 2017 / COMPASSION: THE COURAGE TO FEEL / Sara Wolbrecht / Luke 7:11-17 (The Message)
WATCH THE VIDEO HERE: http://subsplash.com/salthouse/v/cbt267m
As we savor these glorious sunny days of fall here in Seattle (I love fall in the northwest!), we are embracing this season of change in our Chunk of Change sermon series. Exploring how we listen for God nudging us not only though the external changes around us, over those thresholds we stand at, but exploring, too, how God steadily invites us to BE changed. Mind, heart, soul change.
Let’s recap where we began last week. Last week we kicked off October as a month where our focus is on being changed into people with greater capacity for compassion. October is compassion month. And after the week we’ve had, how timely it is for us to walk the path of compassion together.
How did we define compassion last week? = “being with suffering.” Or “to suffer with” or to stand in someone else’s shoes. And what is the image, the physical object we named as capturing this definition? A compass. The mathematical compass shares the same etymological root as compassion. The word, compassion, then, like a compass, is about honoring the relationship between two points – between two people or between one group and another. For October, we’re living into this image, a compass connection, one to hold alongside what the Jesus-story tells us about compassion, about being with suffering.
And although compassion is not a linear process, there is a way of compassion named by many, such as John Philip Newell, that is threefold. It is a way of courage. The Compassionate Way is: The Courage to See. The Courage to Feel. The Courage to Act. See, Feel, Act.
Last week we explored what it means to see with compassion. The courage to see. And we named how if we’re going to have courage to suffer with, we have to get close enough to actually see – the person, the group, the suffering. We named how: Compassion happens in close proximity. And we received the invitation to step closer in some way to the suffering of families who are experiencing homelessness at the New Bethlehem Day Center, here in our building, a place that is already in close proximity, and as we quoted Dan, what is happening as we move forward with selling land to house a 24-hour shelter – we’re kind of big deal. So we continue to hold all of that from last week, as we move from seeing, to feeling. Y’all with me?
So let’s dive in. Jesus, throughout the gospels, is described as moving through this path of compassion, he sees, he feels, he acts. And we could turn to any number of them as an example, but we’re turning back to the one we listened to prayerfully two weeks ago, and again last week in Luke 7.
Luke 7:11-17 (The Message): Not long after that, Jesus went to the village Nain. His disciples were with him, along with quite a large crowd. As they approached the village gate, they met a funeral procession—a woman’s only son was being carried out for burial. And the mother was a widow. When Jesus saw her, his heart broke. He said to her, “Don’t cry.” Then he went over and touched the coffin. The pallbearers stopped. He said, “Young man, I tell you: Get up.” The dead son sat up and began talking. Jesus presented him to his mother.
They all realized they were in a place of holy mystery, that God was at work among them. They were quietly worshipful—and then noisily grateful, calling out among themselves, “God is back, looking to the needs of his people!” The news of Jesus spread all through the country.
We’re intentionally coming back to the same text for a few weeks, savoring it. Let’s looks again and Jesus’ response, more closely now. “…When Jesus saw her, his heart broke…” Specifically let’s look at the Greek word that is translated here as: heart broke. It is translated in other places as: felt deeply, and as compassion. The Greek word here is the word for compassion. When Jesus saw her he was moved with compassion.
The Greek word here, you may know, is based on the Greek noun splagchna (SPLANK-nah). Can you say Splagchna? Splagchna is a fascinating word. It is the word we translate as compassion. And it actually sounds very much like what it actually means. Do you know what splangchna means? = Guts! It means guts! Literally: “internal organs” or “entrails.” Awesome, right?
So jump with me to first-century middle-eastern culture. Among speakers of first-century Greek, for those folks, human emotions were thought to exist in the gut. Whereas, in English, where do we speak of the home of our feelings? The heart! I wouldn’t recommend you tell your beloved: “I love you with all of my intestines.” But that would actually work if you know anyone whose first language is Koine Greek. Pro tip.
Splagncha is used eight times in the New Testament to describe Jesus’ emotions, as he moves through seeing, feeling, acting – this describes how he feels. Like here, in Luke 7:13, when Jesus sees a woman, a widow, who mourns over her dead son, the text says: “his heart overflowed with compassion.” His heart broke. Or in that cultural setting: he felt it in his gut.
Though we define compassion as being with suffering – a piece of that being with is feeling it in our guts. Or in our current vernacular: to be heart broken. Letting that compassion connection activate our heart.
But my friends, to get close enough to see suffering, and then splangchna, letting ourselves feel it, uh, I wonder: how easy is that for you? How are you at splagchna-ing? For me, I think this is hard, hard work.
And that’s what we’re going to dig into. Let’s unpack two of the many reasons why splangchna is hard. Compassion, is hard. Then press into what the Jesus-story speaks about that, including what the Jesus-story speaks into this week we’ve lived through.
The first reason Why splangchna is hard:
The first reason, is that frankly, honestly, 1. We often don’t actually feel our feelings. Let me unpack what I mean by that, by sharing a bit about my own journey this last year. I have been in a leadership development program for a year. Based in cognitive development and psychology and psychoanalytics. It’s a cohort of other leaders (from Microsoft, Gates Foundation, local startups, Boeing) and we meet monthly for three hours, each session covers another essential, another key teaching that we learn about and practice together. All of it rooted in the practice of being present – to ourselves, to the relational dynamics in our lives. It’s rooted in scientific research, that informs the way we function in relationships, including as a leader.
In the spring we had a session on our personality types, using some of Freud’s original types. And of the seven we look at – none of them do you go, oh man, I hope I’m that one – because it’s Freud. And as we read through the descriptions of the seven types, I see the one that I clearly am, as I sat in my session, at the table with 8 other leaders – I’m looking at my type, and I turn to our facilitator, and I say something like, “Huh, this doesn’t make sense, though, that this is my type. This type is very heady, manages anxiety through thinking about things and keeping busy, and avoids feelings. And that can’t be me, because I’m a pastor. I am a feeling person.”
And the conversation that followed, and the reflecting and gnashing of teeth that happened over the next week – which happened to be Holy Week, by the way (which was a lot to deal with), here’s what realized about myself (heads up – this is huge Kairos for me):
I am a pastor, and I spend a lot of time in other people’s feelings. Before we started Salt House I served a church in the San Francisco Bay Area for seven years, and I was head of Congregational Care for a church of about 1500 people. So I was all up in people’s feelings, all the time. And I love it. I love creating safe space for people to hear God, and feel what they feel. I am all in other people’s feelings. But here’s what I realized: I spend little time actually feeling what I AM feeling. My own feelings. It’s not that I don’t feel anything, but especially when it comes to challenging feelings like sadness, fear, anger, disappointment (the kinds of feelings that I often don’t think I “should” be feeling) – I will often (not all the time) just get cranky as those things simmer under the surface, without being named or expressed. I often don’t feel my feelings – I’m actually not as much of a feeling person as I thought. As you might guess, this was a huge AHA for me – huge Kairos. It messes with my sense of identity, and continues to be a great place of learning and breakthrough for me. Huge, on-going Kairos.
And here’s the additional thing (and why I mention it for y’all): the other personality types I learned about, most of them, in different ways and for different reasons than me, most also do not default to expressing feelings in a consistent, healthy way. There is a lot of denial, of intellectualizing, avoiding, stuffing, keeping busy to keep from having to stop and be honest and present in what we feel. This holds true for a lot of people in this world.
And that includes a lot of us here in this room, in our families, in our circle of friends. There are also personality types who are super feeling, all the time, dramatic, emotional. So there is that, too. And no matter what type someone is, there are healthy ways to function with the awareness of knowing who you are and the growth edges you have.
And so I share all this with you, because I wonder if you, like me, might benefit from an AHA, a Kairos, a reorienting to recognize that maybe you spend time in other people’s feelings – your friends, your parents, your kids, your coworkers, the actors on the show This Is Us. But how much do you let yourself feel what YOU actually feel? Without filtering or judging what you feel?
So the first reason splangchna, compassion is hard, is that we are not so great about feeling many of the things we feel. That holds true for positive, awesome feelings, too. We’re often out of touch with ourselves in the busyness of our lives. We often don’t feel our feelings. …We’ll come back to what we can do in light of this, in a moment. Let’s move onto the second reason why splangcha is hard.
Number two is simply what I (and many others) call 2. Compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is when we’re exhausted from being with suffering. Here’s what I mean: we have the potential to see so much suffering. Everyday. The last few weeks – hurricanes, earthquakes, and now the shooting in Las Vegas. Let’s be clear that we are removed from much of the suffering we see – we’re not in Syria right now, or Puerto Rico, we were not at the Mandalay Bay hotel on Sunday night. But we see suffering. And we do absolutely experience suffering close up, too. I think of those in our community who are 24-7 caregivers for their loved ones – they live on the brink of compassion fatigue most days. Or those of us who work in medical and helping professions – we have counselors, CPS workers, public health nurses, teachers – so many of us see suffering in our everyday, close up lives, too. Not to mention what we ourselves are facing, or our friends and family.
And in light of that – how easy is it to just glaze over – grow numb. It’s compassion fatigue: exhausted from being with suffering. We’re exhausted by it. And within the fatigue is fear that keeps us from actually entering into feeling. Afraid that we won’t know what to do, or afraid that what we’re thinking we should do will cost us too much. Or even worse: afraid that there is nothing we can do. Or that if we start to feel, to be broken hearted, that our broken heart won’t stop.
I think I experienced all of these fears this week. Jason and I kept commenting on how exhausted we were. Worn down. And we came to recognize that so much of it was the weight of Las Vegas. On Wednesday, I was asked, so what are you thinking about Las Vegas? And I just said: I just can’t. For me it was: Oh look, another mass shooting. I don’t have the bandwidth to feel this right now. I can’t, when it sure feels like nothing is going to change in our country, and if I do feel it, will the sadness and hopelessness and anger and fear – will it stop? Denial, avoidance feels like a way better choice than actually feeling it.
Friends, have you felt this way this week? At other times? Compassion fatigue, exhausted from being with suffering.
Looking at these two barriers for why compassion is hard – notice with me what we’re saying: that it’s hard to really feel what we feel and be present in it (that’s the larger picture of ALL of our feelings, not just compassion). And then how there is so much suffering out there, that we can grow numb, have compassion fatigue. An interesting two challenges, that could almost be seen as contradictory. Yet we hold them both in tension.
Well with all of this, here’s what we need to name and remind each other of; it’s what the Jesus story brings to bear on this week, on our hesitancy to get close to suffering, on compassion fatigue. First, we name that we follow a suffering savior. Not a God who wins all the time. But a God who suffers. This is our God. In Jesus who chose to be with those who suffered – those who hardly existed because they were so far out on the fringes of society, because of their gender, their illness, their age, their track record of messing up, their poverty, their nonconformity. Jesus grabbed hold of those who suffered – and he suffered with them. And yes, he suffered to the point of receiving the most humiliating form of public execution. Being mocked and whipped and hung on a cross which made the process of dying long and drawn out and physically excruciating. Our God chose to see the suffering in our world, to feel it, and to act. Our God is the God of suffering. Man, I need to remember this this week.
My friends, this matters, because guess what: we’ll keep getting pushed over the threshold of compassion fatigue – it’s the way this world is. So much suffering. And: our capacity for compassion is limited, our capacity for compassion is limited. This could give us cause to despair, to stay numb, to not care. To not put ourselves on the line emotionally and vulnerably. But that’s not the Jesus-story. God’s story is one where have access to an unlimited resource of compassion. We place our lives in the grace and power of this God who chooses the path of suffering. And it is the power and grace and mystery of God that carries us over and through those threshold times, when we need more compassion than we can muster on our own.
And this same source is there in our own challenge to feel what we actually feel. The Jesus-story is not a story that tells us we should feel sunshine, lollipops and rainbows all the time. The Jesus-story invites us to feel all the things. And to know that there is light, compassion beyond what we have to feel and sustain on our own. That’s why thePsalms are there, smack in the middle of the Bible. One hundred and fifty chapters that give us words to express our feelings when we need words. The Psalms are a rich collection of songs that span the breadth of human emotion and expression. Anger, joy, sadness, betrayal, hopelessness, ecstasy, hilarity, fear, anxiety, disappointment, confusion – it’s all there, and all a part of God’s story, our story. Because as we’ve named before, God invites us not to be put-together people, but wholehearted people who feel all the things. Who take courage to feel.
My friends, frankly, we should be exhausted today. We should be worn down and weary with all the suffering in our world we’ve seen and many of us have experienced this week. And how hopeless it feels that anything will change and tomorrow will be a new day. And so we should come here in our fatigue, to gather in the name of the God of love and suffering and compassion, knowing that we can be refueled. We can tap into a source beyond ourselves. We don’t have to have the right words, the energy to deal with it, the wisdom and perspective. Because: our God is the God of suffering. The God who suffered, our God who continues to be present in our places of pain, crying out with us. We never shoulder it alone. And we don’t.
We let ourselves splangchna, knowing that there is grace to hold us in our sadness and hopelessness, that lets us stay with the suffering for as long as we need to – and pulls us out of the pit when it’s time. And yes, there will be times to continue down the path of compassion, and our splangchna will lead to action. But that’s a conversation for next week – for today we stay in the feeling.
The other piece of compassion fatigue, and feeling all the things, is that it is ok to have boundaries around what we do move toward and see and feel, and what we do not. Again – we see so much suffering. We don’t have to “be with” ALL the suffering we see. It’s not possible. And so we can with intention, carve out boundaries, and as we choose to not move toward a particular suffering, we can lift those people and places in prayer knowing that if we are not the ones to suffer with them – God has the capacity to bring others alongside to be those compassionate ones, even when it’s not us.
To close our time, and in light of all of this, I offer us a way to respond in the next few minutes, and beyond.
We’ve set up space to feel during the song we will now sing. First, we’ve set out 59 candles. A candle for every person who died in Las Vegas at the hands of the shooter. Including the shooter. We light a candle for him and for all, because that is what compassion stirs in us: the fierce choice to see the humanity in every person, and to not get pulled into black and white thinking, that some are good and some are not. Once we label people that way, compassion is shut down. We light a candle in sadness, in memory for all. We need each of us to light a candle until they are all lit.
Lighting a candle won’t “DO” much, in the sense that it won’t change our nation’s policies on gun control. It won’t provide funds for those children who lost a parent. Those are things that we can do, too. But we light candles to name what we come back to again and again. We know there is a light in this world – the Light of Jesus who shines even and especially in places of suffering. And we know that this Jesus is at work, bringing resurrection, hope, blessing on the other side of these deaths. We light candles to say yes to this – that there is a God at work beyond ourselves, beyond what we can do on our own. For which we are so grateful. Please light a candle at any time during this song, during communion, or after worship. As a sign, too, of your own prayer this day.
And the second way I invite you into the song of response, is to feel your feelings. In light of my Kairos about feeling my feelings, I now, throughout my week, make time to feel. Sometimes it just happens in the flow of my day, but I will take time to light a candle, to breathe, to go for a run, to become curious and aware about what is happening in my splangchna and to open myself up to my body feeling the sensations of those emotions. I know it sounds kind of mechanical – now, I will feel. But it has been truly life-giving, and a game-changer, and still desperately hard in a week like this one. I commend this practice to you – as one to keep in your own practice. Make time to feel.
Let’s finish our time by making that space to feel, together. In addition to taking time to light candles at any point during this song or during communion, I invite you to also feel what you feel. We do it together, yet holding space to honor, in confidence, the experience of our neighbors in this room. I invite you to close your eyes. Feel your feet on the floor. Roll your shoulders back. And let your attention move to your guts. To your belly, to your heart. What sensations are there when you breathe deeply? Is there a tightness in your chest? A heaviness in your gut? Or a lightness? A deep feeling of peace and gratitude? A knot of grief or anger? When I do this, I find that things have been hiding out that I didn’t know were there. What feelings have you carried this week? What is in your body this morning?
It is helpful to name the feelings as they come up. But naming them is different than letting your body actually feel it. If anything, let your body lead you into feeling first. Worry about the naming and understanding it, later.
Let’s pray, using the words from Psalm 139.
You have searched us, God,
and you know us.
You know when we sit and when we rise;
you perceive our thoughts from afar.
You discern our going out and our lying down;
you are familiar with all our ways.
Before a word is on our tongue
you, God, know it completely.
You hem us in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon us.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for us,
too lofty for us to attain.
Search us, God, and know our heart;
That we, too may know our own heart.
test us and know our anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in us,
and lead us in the way everlasting,
the way of compassion.