God heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds. Psalm 147:3
Even in laughter the heart is sad, and the end of joy is grief. Proverbs 14:13
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life. Proverbs 13:12
Hope deferred makes the heart sick. How true. How true. I confess, I struggled with the misery of hopelessness this past Summer. In this pulpit last August, after yet another set of public shootings and horrible violence at home and abroad, I confessed my melancholy. As I look at the world today, it just seems too much: Too much violence, too much fear; too much of demands and problems; too much of broken dreams and broken lives; too much of wars and slums and dying; too much of greed and squishy fatness and the sounds of people devouring each other and the earth; too much of stale routines and quarrels, unpaid bills and dead ends; too much of cruelty and selfishness and indifference. Yes, I want something different for my community, for my family, for my church, for my sisters and brothers who suffer. I identify with those words from Proverbs: Hope deferred makes the heart sick.
I resonate with a minister who in a sermon said, "There are times when I am ready to give up on America." Sounds terrible, doesn’t it. I love America, my country, my home. I love democracy. I love the American spirit – it speaks to the excellent parts of who we have become as a nation. I love our country so much, I feel discouraged when I sense that we are not our best. I have awfully high expectations of us; both our leaders and the diverse, stubborn, civic-minded American people. I sense that there is a disconnect between my expectations and the current American experience. Who can articulate our common values? Where is the concern for the common good? The truth is, there are some people, including some of our elected leaders, who are not interested in finding solutions to foster the common good. There are a few so-called “public” legislators on all levels of government who not only do NOT care how people are doing, they are averse to serving them. Our own modern-day prophet Jeremiah, Bill Moyers, once observed, “Democracy in America is a series of narrow escapes, and we may be running out of luck . . . We have fallen under the spell of money, faction, and fear, and the great American experience in creating a different future together has been subjugated to individual cunning in the pursuit of wealth and power.” I’m getting the impression that the American experience is one of unregulated greed, calculated cruelty, and the arrogance of power. Can it be different? Can we have political civilization, and spiritual culture, that nurtures obligation, reciprocity, and trust? I hope we can. I need to believe we can. Lately, a number of books have come out talking about the intersections of faith and public life. Yale theologian Miroslav Volf published A Public Faith. A pastor colleague, Disciples minister Bob Cornwall recently came out with his book, Faith in the Public Square. The Archbishop of Canterbury just released a book with the same title. And then there is the sensitive Quaker, Parker Palmer, who wrote Healing the Heart of Democracy. I want to take Palmer’s lead today and think about how our journey of healing and hope begins by connecting with the power of heartbreak.
Palmer takes us back to September 11, 2001 – the date when America received a massive blow to its collective heart. Not just the heart of our economy, as symbolized by the World Trade Center towers. Not just the heart of our military might, as symbolized by the Pentagon. Those attacks were a strike at America’s deepest sensibilities about who we are and who we want to be as a nation. Here in this congregation, we saw our member’s and friend’s hearts break apart and bleed. The rest of the world saw America’s heart broken apart and bleeding. Even as friends at CCC held one another in grief, much of the rest of the world responded to the USA as friends of a family that had suffered a great loss. People in far-off lands, a lot of them more oppressed and victimized than we, offered their deep empathy. They delivered the equivalent of flowers or casseroles or visits -- those small but meaningful acts of kindness that can help a grieving family make it through. The American heart broke apart and many of us were touched to hear people around the world saying, “Today, I am an American, too.” We had a moment of national vulnerability and a significant opportunity to keep our heart open. We had a chance to return the gifts of care we had received, even as we explored ways to bring our attackers to justice.
Americans tend not to linger in heartbreak for too long. We are people of action. People of decision. I have to wonder . . . if our leaders had the capacity to hold our national heartbreak longer, might we have begun to understand that the terror we felt on September 11 is daily life for many people around the world and here at home? Did we miss an opportunity to make the world a safer place for everyone, including us? Might we have learned to become a more compassionate member of the international community? Might our pain and grief, might this very personal attack, have increased our capacity to hold the pain of the world?
Americans, as a people, are by and large uneasy with holding our heartbreak for too long. In the weeks following the attacks, the American heart clenched like a fist and struck back. We were unable to let the tension between compassion and justice open us to more life-giving responses. We did what nations tend to do when their hearts are broken: we declared war on those who injured us. Don’t get me wrong; we don’t want to ignore crimes committed against us. I actually don’t think it’s in the public interest to turn the other cheek to terrorist attacks. Peace does not just happen by wishing for it. We have to fight for it, to suffer for it. We need to demand it from ourselves and the world’s governments as if peace were God’s most cherished hope for humanity.
I’m just wondering . . . can still be a healthier country, a more whole people, if we are willing to understand the dynamics of the broken heart?
We all know people whose hearts have been broken. We have suffered loss. Family members and friends have died or have been injured or have died in attacks and wars. We live through sadness. People lost homes to a corrupt economy. We live through hardship. People have lost jobs to inhumane corporate decisions. We live through grief. People lose loved ones and ask, “Why? Why her? Why him? Why now?” Every time we feel such bitter loss, people react differently. Some become angry and withdrawn. Some shut their hearts down, retreating into fearful isolation or angrily lashing out. Brokenhearted and heavily armed, some people nourish their pain by making their world an even more dangerous place. For some broken hearts, the words of Proverbs ring true: Even in laughter the heart is sad, and the end of joy is grief.
Others become more compassionate. They treat their despair with tenderness. They realize that anger can lead to false perceptions, and false perceptions can lead to more suffering. So they nurture their heartbreak with tenderness and care. I don’t know why some people respond one way or another. I don’t know all the steps to how a shattered soul becomes whole again. But I do know this . . . The heart breaks a thousand times. We can watch our hearts break apart, or we can watch them break open. Personally, I can’t let myself go down the road of hopelessness. I need to believe it can be better. I want to experience the words of the Psalmist: God heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds. It is possible to step back, and breathe deeply, and allow our anxiety to settle, and sense new possibilities in situations that once seemed unsolvable.
Parker Palmer tells the story of the Quaker mystic John Woolman, a Quaker who lived in colonial New Jersey. A tailor by trade, Woolman lived among Quaker farmers and merchants whose believed all human beings were equal in the eyes of God. The problem was, their spiritual beliefs did not match their wallets. The farmer’s and merchant’s wealth depended on slave labor. John Woolman received “a revelation from God” that slavery was a moral abomination and that Quakers should set their slaves free. For twenty years, at great personal cost, Woolman devoted himself to sharing this revelation with members of his religious community. When he visited a remote farmhouse to speak of his conviction, he would fast rather than eat a meal prepared or served by slaves. When he discovered that he had inadvertently benefited from a slave’s labor, he would insist on paying that person.
Woolman’s message was not well received by his fellow Quakers. Embracing Woolman’s beliefs would have required the comfortable Quaker gentry to make a considerable financial sacrifice. John Woolman held this terrible tension as he traveled from town to town, farm to farm, meeting to meeting, speaking his truth and standing in the gap between the Quaker vision of “God in every person” and the reality of Quaker slaveholding. But he nurtured tension, and the conflict, and the heartbreak for two decades, until the Quaker community finally reached consensus and freed all of its slaves.
It was not just John Woolman who held the tension with tenderness. The Quaker gentry did, too. The community refused to resolve the tension prematurely either by throwing Woolman out or by taking a vote and allowing the slavery-approving majority to have its way. The community allowed the tension between vision and reality to break their individual and collective hearts OPEN: open to justice, open to truth, open to love. It took twenty years for the Quakers to officially condemn the institution of slavery banish it from their lives. But they were the first religious community to condemn slavery, eighty years before the Civil War.
If we want to see healing in the public square, if we want to see wholeness restored to civic life, we must open ourselves to tension and expand our capacity to learn, and adapt and make some sense of this world. Our hearts can break open, not apart. That’s the power of heartbreak. Imagine that small, clenched fist of a heart “broken open” into largeness of life, into greater capacity to hold one’s own aches and the pain of the world. Who among us has not seen witnessed a time when compassion and grace grow out of great suffering, when a broken-open heart can become a source of healing, when sadness extends our ability to reach out? A broken-open heart can enlarge enough to listen to other who has a different heartbreak than our own. A broken-open heart can give voice to its own wisdom and values. And when we practice this open-hearted speaking and listening, holding space for the tensions between us, we strengthen our public life. We can do this in our families, and our congregation, in our schools and offices and in our political life.
Can we acknowledge our heartbreak over the struggles we face in our own times? Can we embrace the contradictions and also hold the common ground we share with all of those in this land?
Our hearts will get broken by loss, failure, defeat, betrayal, or death. What happens next depends on HOW our hearts break. There are many tears to be shed in America today, for reasons ranging from loved ones lost to war and terrorism to dark forebodings about the future facing our children. Many tears have been shed in private, and some have been shed in public, and many more are being suppressed. If our hearts break open into greater capacity to hold the complexities and contradictions of human experience, the result may be a new life.
And in the public square, politics in the hands of those whose hearts have been broken open, not apart, helps us hold our differences creatively and use our power courageously for the sake of a more equitable, a more just, and a more compassionate world.
'Moyers on Democracy' by Bill Moyers http://www.latimes.com/features/la-bk-winslow11-2008may11,0,2392586.story
Parker Palmer, "The Politics of the Brokenhearted," http://www.commonweal.org/new-school/pdf_files/Politics%20of%20the%20Brokenhearted.pdf
Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy (2011)
William Sloane Coffin, Credo (2004)
Tich Nhat Hanh, Anger.