Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision, famously wrote on the flyleaf of his personal Bible, “Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God.” This petition has been the organization’s prayer and touchstone ever since.
Yet how difficult it is to let our hearts be broken. I met with a faithful supporter this month, one who willingly gives generous donations year after year, yet who seems unwilling to discuss for more than a brief moment the human tragedies and sometimes evil realities facing the marginalized. To this donor’s credit (and plenty of others with similar characteristics), this unwillingness does not inhibit their financial gifts…though perhaps it does deprive the world of the benefits of adding their time, talents and influence to make an impact on behalf of the poor.
Granted, there is some limit to how much we can give our hearts to every need, whether to our families and local neighbors, or to our global neighbors we’ve never personally met. But mostly this limit is self-imposed, and I believe it’s largely based on fear: our fear of becoming overwhelmed, being emotionally shattered, drowning in grief.
Here is where we all need a new concept of what it means to have our hearts “broken.” A powerful image comes from David Brook’s recent book The Second Mountain. He quotes an Australian man who wrote to David about how he found his life’s purpose:
“Four years ago, my wife of 21 years passed away as the result of a brain tumor. Her passage from diagnosis to death was less than 6 months. As shocking as that time was, almost as shocking was the sense of personal growth and awakened understanding that has come from the experience for me through reflection and inner work – – to a point that I feel almost guilty about how significant my own growth has been as a result of my wife’s death. In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer writes about the two ways in which our hearts can be broken: the first, imagining the heart as shattered and scattered; the second, imagining the heart broken open into new capacity, holding more of both our own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope. The image of the heart broken open has become the driving force of my life in the years since my wife’s death. It has become the purpose to my life.” [underline added]
Can you grasp the contrast between those two kinds of heart-breaks: being smashed into a million pieces from the outside, versus being broken open from the inside out? I imagine this second kind of breaking like an egg which has a live baby chick inside. The chick hatches through the egg as the chick grows ever larger. The egg shell is breaking because the fleshy, alive thing inside it is ENLARGING.
Think of “breaking” as “enlarging,” and now re-imagine Bob Pierce’s prayer as, “Let my heart be enlarged with the things that break the heart of God.” That’s a great prayer for our hearts–that they would be enlarged with empathy, that they would increase their capacity for compassion.
In the two weeks since I first read the quote above, I have already comforted myself several times with the idea that my heart is enlarging, not shattering. My fear of being shattered is subsiding and I am embracing the “growing pains” of expanded empathy. Growing pains hurt, like exercise hurts–but it’s a healthy hurt.
Like that eggshell and that growing chick, our hearts break from the inside as they get larger and are able to embrace more… more of the pain, more of the joy, the despair and the hope, of the world.
Having a few months off from my daily work during my medical leave gave me the perspective of ‘distance’. This distance, combined with the personal gift of artwork I received from 200 children born in the brothel slums of Calcutta, overwhelmed me with the holy realization that you and I somehow are able to make a tangible difference in the lives of children and ‘neighbors’ half a world away …many we will never meet, living in places that we may never visit.
And yet it doesn’t matter if we don’t get to personally see the impact of our involvement in others, because our own hearts are hatching in the process; the hard shell is breaking, allowing the fleshy part to grow larger. Yes, our hearts are hatching, and that’s reward enough.
Still, it’s up to us to allow our hearts to grow larger and not turn away. Like most people, I can be stifled by fear, protecting my heart… becoming a Humpty Dumpty, afraid that my heart will break into a million irreparable pieces, instead of hatching open to provide it more room to grow.
And so, I now pray: Lord, let my heart by expanded by the things that break Your heart.
PS: This week I re-read Dicken’s original A Christmas Carol; I was initially puzzled by the Spirit of Christmas Present, who appeared as a gigantic man covered in a large robe, his huge chest oddly bare and fully exposed. As we subsequently see him going from person to person sprinkling goodwill and compassion to all on Christmas Day, it becomes clear that his chest is so massive because his heart is so large, large enough to encompass every person and every need. Perhaps Dickens understood this same metaphor and shows us its happy end—the capacity to spread goodwill and compassion to all.
Personal note: Tomorrow (Monday, Dec. 30) I’ll get a CT scan to see if any cancer cells can be detected following my chemo treatments. Your prayers and thoughts are much appreciated… first, for accurate results and second, for negative readings.