Renewing Compassion, Recovering from Fatigue

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

Many of you are familiar with the organization called Episcopal Relief and Development, known as ERD, for short. It offers financial and human support for people and communities who have been hit by disaster of some kind, or whose basic living conditions create a scenario of ongoing disaster. The interesting thing about ERD is that its programs and resources are only activated once a local bishop asks.  This means that resources go to people on the ground, in their community, who know what the needs are.

After the August 14 earthquake hit Haiti, we included links to ERD on our church website and in our parish newsletters a link to a way to help Haiti.

But then came Tropical Storm Henri, so we adjusted the link to simply refer to ERD’s site for donations. 

We’ve been praying for, watching, and reading about fires in the western part of the United States.

We’ve been praying for the people of Afghanistan and all the people who have served and tried to help that country through the years.

Over the last few days, we’ve been drying out after the rains and storms from and Hurricane Ida, but also mourning and trying to process the deaths and damage done by flooding.

And this week, whether we’re ready or not, many are reminding us that it has been 20 years since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

The theologian Karl Barth is credited with suggesting that a faithful person should begin every day with a newspaper in one hand and a Bible in the other. But Barth died in 1968. Newspapers and the news cycle were very different back then. He was not bombarded with nightmare and tragedy, with violence, and heartache every waking hour. If we put down the newspaper, it didn’t jump up at him on his phone or computer, or in a doctor’s lobby, an airport terminal, or a taxicab.

If we’re feeling a little tired, if perhaps we would like nothing more than a weekend free of worries, it would be understandable. 

The term, “compassion fatigue” came into use in the 1990s to try to name the kind of burnout that can be experienced by caregivers– not only professional ones, but also volunteers, and those who sometimes feel overwhelmed by their own sense of compassion.  What happens, is that as emotional energy pours out of a person for others, or even for animals, one eventually is empty.  And so one can begin to be angry, or depressed, to want to isolate, to question the usefulness of one’s work, and even to develop physical ailments that basically take on the stress of others. Perhaps we hear those words from Isaiah, “Be strong, do not fear!,” but we hear them only faintly, as from a long, disinterested place far away.

Though I’m on risky ground applying 20th century psychological concepts to Jesus, I can’t help but notice a little compassion fatigue on the part of Jesus in the first part of today’s Gospel.

Jesus is in Tyre, a long way from home.  He’s moved beyond the familiar, out of those towns where people remember his mother and his father. He is in a northern area that today, would be in a part of Lebanon.  Though Jesus seems to be trying to get away for a little while, no sooner does he get to this out-of-the-way place, that he meets a woman who asks for his help. 

Mark the Evangelist goes out of his way to show that this woman is foreign to Jesus. Different language. Different religious background, different people. She begs Jesus to cast out a demon from her little girl. But Jesus shrugs her off, repeating what must have been an expression of his day, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It probably sounded as rude to her as it does to us. Jesus here implies that the “children” are the children of Israel, God’s chosen people. Jesus understands his own mission (to the extent that he understands it) as being for Israel, for the Jews—not for others. And so, this woman’s problems are simply outside his purview, beyond his job description. He’s tired. He’s already healed and taught and been faithful, and just doesn’t have any more to give.

But the woman snaps back, “It may not be fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs— but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.”

And then something shifts for Jesus.  It’s as though he’s awakened and given a second wind of the Spirit. I wonder if Jesus didn’t laugh at the women’s sharpness. But through this interaction and the power of God, the little girl who is at home, is healed. And Jesus is suddenly present in a new way.

By the time of the second part of the Gospel, Jesus has had time to think about this encounter with the Syrophoenician woman and the healing of her daughter, and Jesus is more careful. He’s what many would call in our day, “more mindful.”

What can we do, if we’re feeling a little bit of compassion fatigue?  There are lots of things, and a number of them have to do with taking care of oneself and practicing appropriate boundaries. Now, I realize this can sound a bit like the “wellness” column from the Times, but it’s also deeply biblical and deeply faithful to make sure that oneself is grounded, connected to God, and as full of God’s Spirit as possible, before being of any real use to God and the world. The Quaker writer Parker Palmer notes well, “Self-care is never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.” (Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation)

Jesus returns to more familiar territory in Galilee, and some people bring him a man who has a speech impediment. But notice the sorts of things Jesus does.  

First, Jesus sets boundaries.  He takes the man away from the crowd, so there’s a quiet place. They can talk. They can relate. They can be present with each other and God without the pressure of the crowd.

Next, Jesus gets grounds himself and gets physical and particular. He embodies his faith and healing energy by using touch: He puts his fingers in the man’s ears, he spits and touches the man’s tongue.  No social distancing here–but that’s not the point. The point is that Jesus is grounded, right there with the man, as human as the other is, and yet, both, available and open to the healing power of God.

Then, Jesus strengthens his connection with God. He prays. Jesus prays, “Ephphatha,” be opened. In so doing, Jesus is connecting with God, the source of healing and strength and love. Jesus is acknowledging his own limitations, and being clear that if healing comes, it comes from God and God alone. Some have named the idea that we can do it all ourselves, that we MUST do it all ourselves, that we have all the responsibility and things won’t happen if we don’t do them—this is a kind of “functional atheism.” We live and work and stress out as though God were NOT.  But here, Jesus remembers that it is God who can do all things. And guess what– the man speaks and begins to hear.

So let’s review.  If you’re feeling tired of all the pain in the world—close by and far away, if you’re noticing that you’re getting impatient with other people’s needs,

Check your boundaries.
Get grounded.
Connect with God.
Be renewed.

There are a number of stories and sayings about the 18th century Polish Rabbi Zusya.  My favorite is from a story Zusya told his congregation.

One day Rabbi Zusya stood before his congregation and he said,  When I die and have to present myself before the celestial tribunal, they will not ask me,  ‘Zusya why were you not Moses?’ because I would say ‘Moses was prophet and I am not.’

They will not say ‘Zusya, why were you not Jeremiah?’ for  I  would say ‘Jeremiah was a writer, and I am not.’

And they will not say ‘Why were you not Rabbi Akiba?’ for I would tell them, ‘Rabbi Akiba was a great teacher and scholar and I am not.’

But then they will say ‘Zusya why were you not  Zusya?’ and to this I will have no answer.

Karl Barth is probably right to imagine a faithful person with the news in one hand and the Bible in the other, but sometimes, out of faith, we need to put down one or the other, and breathe. Check boundaries. Get grounded. Connect with God, and be renewed.

Especially when our hearts are heavy, may the Spirit remind us of Jesus who says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matthew 11: 28-29.

 

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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