When your heart is heavy

October 13, 2017

This has been a season when my heart has been heavy. I know where it comes from. I have a niece who is dealing with a life-threatening disease at too young an age. I have friends and colleagues who are walking in the muck of their own illnesses, trauma, and challenging situations. I feel the weight of what they are going through, and my heart is heavy with sorrow for what they are experiencing.

And then there is the daily news, and the unrelenting wave upon wave of human suffering: hurricanes that have left communities devastated and, on Oct. 2, a mass shooting where a simple concert outing became 10 minutes of terror and a life-and-death event. How does one hold the pain of the world without either becoming callous to it or being overwhelmed by it?

And if that were not enough, all this is occurring in the context of the free-floating anxiety that is our country and denomination right now. What will become of us? In the midst of division and debate and dueling blogs and tweets, it is easy to be caught up in the drama. We don’t know what the future will bring, and it is hard to plan and prepare when the ground is so uncertain and unpredictable.

So let me take a brief detour. One of the things I have noticed in my own life is that when I am sleep-deprived, I am more emotional, more impatient, and have less capacity to deal with challenging situations. It has occurred to me that our current times cause me to feel like I am living in a constant sleep-deprived state. How much can we bear? And without rest and respite, our resilience is depleted. And therefore, when I am dealing with the things that come along in life, like loss and illness and grief, my heavy heart is even heavier. And my cry becomes: How long, O Lord, how long?

Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me…Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives.. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.  –John 14 (NIV)

These words are familiar—often read at funerals. They sound nice, don’t they? But is Jesus really suggesting that we never have a heavy heart? I believe there is a fundamental difference between a heavy heart and a troubled heart. Sadness is a normal part of human existence. When we open our heart to people and the world, we make our heart vulnerable. It can get broken. It will feel the weight of grief. It will also experience the leaps of joy, and burst with love. This is what makes us human and connected and caring. It is how we find our way forward together, when we are willing to open our hearts to one another. A heavy heart is one that is willing to go to the depths and trust that God will be there in the midst of it.

A troubled heart is one that can’t ever seem to find joy or hope and is stuck in despair. It leads us to a place of fear where we are unwilling to open ourselves to the messy emotions of life, to reach out to another person, or to take risks. A troubled heart is one that no longer has any sense that God is present and can no longer see that things will ever be different than they are right now.

So what do I do when my heart is heavy and I feel like it is moving to that place where it is becoming troubled and I desperately need to connect to the peace that Jesus promises? I take a walk, preferably in the woods or by water. When I walk, I can breathe. I open my eyes to the beauty that is around me. I get connected to the long arc of God’s creation, and I remember that this—whatever this I am experiencing—is momentary and not all of the story. There is more. Way more.

Mary Oliver’s poem “When I Am Among the Trees has become my poem. Listen to it here.

It speaks to my life. We have come into the world to do this: to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine. So, my friends, in this season of heavy hearts, go easy. Be kind to yourself and one another. Go for a walk where you can be filled with the fundamental goodness of creation and life. And in the midst of incomprehensible tragedy, do not give into the darkness. Dare to shine.

Recently, when I could not bear to listen to the news anymore, felt my heart becoming overwhelmed, and felt helpless not knowing what to do that would make a difference, I packed up a blanket knitted by some faithful United Methodists who believe in God and the power of prayer and mailed it off to my niece. One small, simple thing. It may not be much, but I needed to do something. And this was the one thing I could do in that moment.

I believe this is how we shine—when we don’t give up or give in, when we do what we can do however big or small. And in so doing, our heart gets a little bit lighter, and perhaps, just perhaps, we lighten the heart of another person along the way. And we taste once again the kind peace that we know comes from God. May it be so.

Rev. Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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