The Danger of Broken Hearts

“Our hearts break at this week’s continued violence, which has touched the Kids4Peace community in direct and personal ways. Kids4Peace was born in a time of pain and fear, when all hope seemed to be gone. It is my prayer that we will face this moment together, in honesty and faith. May God strengthen us in the days ahead.” – Fr. Josh Thomas

Our hearts break.  Those were the only words I could find this week, as a cascade of tragedy swept across the Holy Land.  Children dead.  Families mourning.  Streets ablaze.  Bloodthirsty cries for revenge.  Friends afraid to leave their homes.  The city of peace divided even more than before, with no sense of what the next day — or hour — would bring.

Our hearts break.  Those words opened dozens of statements by NGO’s and political leaders, including one I wrote for Kids4Peace.  Our hearts were — and still are — broken and crushed by the weight of human suffering.  Pierced by tears of loss.  Shattered by fear at the brutality we human beings can unleash on one another.  For me, far away in the United States, my heart was torn by distance; cut off from those people and places who have become so dear to me.

But broken hearts are dangerous, too.  Our spirits become fragile and our emotions raw.  We are quick to cast blame on the ones who hurt us.  We feel compelled to take sides.  We are vulnerable to the power of long-suppressed rage.  We discover fears deeper than we had imagined.  We feel the seductive lure of vengeance and the paralyzing temptation to withdraw.  Up close, it comes in bullets and stones, chants and blows.  At a distance, it comes through vicious words and festering silences.

In these days of broken hearts, we can be changed in another way.   Christian spiritual teachers have long said that penthos, the tears of a broken heart, are the gateway to change. One scholar describes it as “a grief that leads to a determination to act.”  When our defenses are stripped away, when we confront with honesty the reality of our lives (and of our world), we can discover a new compassion for others and a flood of new energy, welling up from the very life of God.

This kind of broken heart is dangerous, too.  It will change us.  We can no longer be (willfully) blind to suffering.  We can no longer hide behind the protective shell of the status quo.  We will need to confront our own complicity in evil, the excuses we make for ourselves and others.  We will need to speak honestly, to listen deeply, and to feel the weight of pain.

And there is so much pain.  I fear that more tears will flow in the coming weeks, and that many more hearts will break before they are healed.    I only pray that some of us will allow our hearts to break with compassion.

Cпокойной Josh (284 days later)

“In our monasticism, we have been content to find our way to a kind of peace, a simple undisturbed thoughtful life.  And this is certainly good, but it it good enough?  I, for one, realize that now I need more. …” (Thomas Merton. Woods, Shore, Desert: A Notebook)

Cпокойной Josh

When I was a sophomore at Dartmouth, I spent the fall term in St. Petersburg, Russia.  For a frigid 12 weeks, I studied diction with appropriately fierce instructors, enjoyed the museums and opera ($3.50 on my student discount), and daily climbed 12 flights of stairs to get to my dorm room, since the elevator was usually broken: не работает” (not working) signs were everywhere in 1997 Russia.

Before our concert at the Bolshoi Zal of the St. Petersbury Philarmonia
Before our concert at the Bolshoi Zal of the St. Petersbury Philarmonia

In those days, my Christian faith came alive, as I prayed in restored Orthodox churches, confronted widespread poverty for the first time, and leaned on the Holy One for strength in a land far from home.  Not one for drinking tons of vodka, I needed an extracurricular activity.  So as a proud member of the Dartmouth Glee Club,  I signed up for the St. Petersburg State University Choir.

It was ill-fated from the beginning.  I took the bus in the wrong direction on the night of my audition. Thirty minutes late, I stumbled to find an available seat in yet another frigid room, only to discover that we were not singing great Russian choral works, but an Italian composer’s mass setting in Latin.  Gloria in excelsis Deo.

A few weeks later at rehearsal, a fellow baritone came up and asked me (in English) why I wasn’t mingling with more people.  Other exchange students (so I was told) jumped right in, made tons of friends, and learned fluent Russian right away.  “Cпокойной Josh” they called me.

Cпокойной (spokoyny) – calm, quiet, reserved, peaceful.  It’s how you say Good Night in Russian: Спокойной ночи.  “Why are you like that?” My fellow baritone wanted to know.  “Это просто Я” (It’s just me) was as much as I could manage.

My calm, peaceful, balanced nature has been one of my greatest strengths.  It’s helped me to lead organizations through times of transition, to be a good pastor through moments of crisis, to offer a bit of steady and steadfast love in this world.

But, like most things, being so cпокойной has its down sides.  I can easily withdraw, put the needs of others before my own, and stay silent when I have much to say.  One wise counselor it’s because I am a “highly sensitive person” — noticing everything, observant of subtleties, easily overwhelmed.

Start Blogging + 284 Days

When I added “Start Blogging” to my trusty ToDoist task list 284 days ago, I had the best of intentions.  I was going to write about my life as a priest and peacemaker — spiritual reflections about my work in Kids4Peace.

I even had the first line of my first post ready “On the eve of negotiations, the hard work of peace continues…”  

I was going to say that whether John Kerry’s efforts succeeded or failed, the true and lasting work of peace would continue to take place between people – in the honest, compassionate, complex communities like Kids4Peace.  (Post-negotiations, I still believe that).

“Start Blogging” never happened.

Other items have come and gone from ToDoist: prepare a budget, fix the car, call my mom, visit volunteers, raise money, do laundry, reduce my inbox to under 50 emails (which I miraculously maintain).  Why has it taken 284 days to push “publish” on this post?

Many mentors have said that I ought to blog, to be a ‘thought leader’ in this field.  Others advised that it’s a spiritual practice and good for my soul to reflect on matters most important to me.

Beyond a Simple Peace

All that is true.  But over and over I struggled about what to say, and even more whether I was ready to say it.

Conversations in public, especially online, can be vicious.  Am I prepared to count myself among the peace leaders who are, every day, attacked by both sides?  Am I ready for my loyalties to be questioned, for friendships to unravel, for my Спокойной calm to be disturbed?

The relationships that Kids4Peace nurtures —  among Muslims, Christians and Jews; among Israelis, Palestinians and North Americans — are delicate and fragile, even as our commitment is strong.

We are just beginning to learn how to live together.  We stumble over cultural misunderstandings, yearn to understand each other’s deep longings (and fears), we laugh and pray and work hard to plan the programs (and raise the money) that peace building requires.

Thomas Merton.  "Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy."
Thomas Merton.
“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.”

In that process, I love to be the listener, the facilitator, the coach and the guide — helping others to speak and be heard, in the midst of all the complexity, joy and pain.

But after 284 days, the time has come to take a next step – to share more openly, risk more fully, teach more boldly (without the protective garb of pulpit and stole).

Thanks to my spiritual buddy Thomas Merton for this new (to me) treasure:

“In our monasticism, we have been content to find our way to a kind of peace, a simple undisturbed thoughtful life.  And this is certainly good, but is it good enough?  I, for one, realize that now I need more.  Not simply to be quiet, somewhat productive, to pray, to read…. There is a need of effort, deepening, change…” (Woods, Shore, Desert: A Notebook).

For me too.  Here we go.

Seek God and Live

Sermon Preached at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal ChurchAtlanta, GA
July 2007

With apologies to Mary and Martha, my sermon today is on the book of Amos.

Only twice a year do we read from this Old Testament prophet, but its 13 brief pages have as much to say to us today as they did to the Northern kingdom of Israel two thousand seven hundred and forty-some-odd years ago.

While Amos is probably my favorite book in the Bible (confirming the suspicion of some of my friends that I ought to be a rabbi), it is not for the faint of heart.  For those who think coming to church should make you feel better, Amos has something else in mind.

You see, Amos delivered his prophecies during one of the rare moments of economic prosperity and political power for the people of ancient Israel.  Normally the underdogs, at this point in history the tables had turned and Israel was on top, with security, money, land, peace, and a lot of confidence in themselves, and in God’s blessing on them.

But Amos saw something else – a country that had grown fat on the backs of the poor, a nation whose religious rituals were a sham, and whose confidence in God’s protection was severely misplaced.  Just when Israel thought God was defending them and giving them glory, Amos comes along to say that a day of doom is around the corner.  For in God’s eyes, injustice cannot go on forever.

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