When I was a young father, I heard a parenting expert say that “being a parent is having your heart walk around outside of your body for the rest of your life.” I have shared this quote a few times over the years and people know what I mean. When our children hurt, we hurt with them. When our children celebrate, we celebrate with them. Their emotional well-being has a lot to do with how we, the parents, feel. Though we need to claim our own emotional space independent of our children, we know that we always feel a certain level of vulnerability simply because what happens to our children will always have some kind of impact on us. Such is the nature of parental love.
I had an interesting expansion of this idea recently when I was talking to an older and wiser Christian mentor. When I was lamenting that I felt like being a pastor had become emotionally MORE difficult than it used to be, rather than LESS difficult – my heart seemed to be more easily broken by the pains and sufferings of people in the church – by the things they inflicted upon themselves, by the things they inflicted on one another, by the things they inflicted upon me. I thought that over the years these things would bother me less and less – that I would get tougher and not be as bothered by the sins and failings and losses of the people in the church. It dawned on me that parents are not the only ones with their hearts walking around outside their bodies – that this is also true of the life of a pastor. The only way to be a decent pastor is to care about the people of your congregation – and to care for them means opening yourself to their pain. Yet even this idea was in need of some expansion. This leads me to the words of a beautiful song from many years ago….
Many years ago, when I was preparing to enter the ministry, we used to frequently sing a song at camps and in worship – “Here I am Lord – is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me… I will hold your people in my heart.”
This song, from a Roman Catholic songwriter, eventually made it into our big blue Presbyterian hymnal, though we don’t sing it much anymore at my particular church. Yet the words stay with me. It’s a hymn for the whole church really. Not just for pastors. Do you hold God’s people in your heart? If you do, you will experience a certain amount of joy and pain as well. St. Paul writes to tell us to bear one another’s burdens so that we will fulfill the law of Christ. In Romans 12:15 he tells the church: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
So rather than saying “to be a parent is to have your heart walk around outside your body for the rest of your life” – or “to be a pastor is to have your heart walk around outside your body for the rest of your life” – we might more accurately say that “to be a part of the Body of Christ means that your heart will walk around outside your body for the rest of your life.” Yet the idea doesn’t even end there….
Anyone who cares deeply about another human being, will suffer. To be a brother or a sister or a son or a daughter or a friend – to care at all about any other human being is, in a sense, to have our hearts vulnerable to the sufferings of others – the suffering they inflict on themselves and the suffering they inflict on others and on us.
This should have all been obvious to me since I read about this in my second year of college when I read C.S. Lewis on this topic:
“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and disturbances of love is Hell.” — C.S. Lewis (The Four Loves)
Lewis’s words are quite strong here – he refers to Hell and damnation as the result of closing our hearts off from love. Yet there is deep truth in what he is saying.
In Luke’s gospel the idea of “suffering with” others plays prominently in two of the best known and best loved parables: The Good Samaritan and The Prodigal Son. In each of these parables a key word that occurs in both is compassion. The father felt compassion for his son so he ran to him. The Samaritan showed compassion for the man lying on the side of the road so he helped him. We can infer from Luke’s grammar that the core value of compassion is deeply bound up in both God’s love for his children AND deeply bound up in our love for our fellow human beings. The word “compassion” results from the joining of a prefix and a root “com” = with, “passion” = suffer/feel. Compassion could certainly be translated as “having your heart walking around outside your body.”
So, it would seem to me at this stage of life, that my growth as a follower of Jesus, as a pastor, and as a human being, will mean that I will likely feel more pain over the sorrows of others rather than less pain. I think I was always hoping that life would get easier and easier the longer I live, but I’m seeing now that growth in love, which is the great commandment, may mean more pain rather than less pain as the years go by.
Yet by God’s grace, this increased capacity for suffering also carries with it the increased capacitity for other feelings as well – feelings like joy, gratitude, peace, beauty, reverence, and wonder. The vulnerability of the heart is not a bad thing – it is simply a necessary thing for those who are called to hold God’s people in our hearts.