July 8, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
One of the first psalms I memorized as a child, Psalm 100, proclaimed that we should, “Serve the Lord with gladness!” and Isaiah echoes this sentiment, promising that the faithful will not faint or grow tired but will be borne aloft on eagle’s wings. Jesus said, “My yoke is easy, my burden light,” and Paul proclaims with a mighty trumpet charge, “Let us not grow weary while doing good!” We hear these scriptures and others like them, and the picture many of us have in our minds of the perfect Christian is a tireless enthusiastic champion, a person who is always ready with a helping hand, who is on the front lines of every battle for justice, who gives generously to every cause, and does it all with unflagging energy and a joyful spirit.
And we want to know, “Where do we get some of that 5 Hour Energy Faith?” because most of us are nothing like that tireless crusader who never doubts, never wavers, and never needs a break. Most of us honestly get plumb tuckered out being a Christian because frankly, it takes a lot of energy to love your enemies when they are doing their best to annoy you. It is a lot of work to constantly push back against evil and bring healing to the wounded of the world, and if that’s not enough, we have our own personal temptations to battle — tempers to control, addictions to conquer, tongues to curb — and at the end of the day, even if you have a deep satisfaction about your life because you know that doing all of those things has filled your life with meaning and purpose and shaped it for heaven, you can still feel absolutely worn out and in need of a twenty year nap. “Let us not grow weary of doing good?” Really? Frankly, these days, most of us get plumb tuckered out just being a human being, let alone a person trying to do good, because anyone with a moderate amount of sympathy for others has got to get heart-sore from all of the sadness around us. We are soul weary with trying to believe in the enduring presence of goodness and the possibility of hope when the world seems to be unraveling before our eyes. How many of you must confess that you feel less like you are soaring on the wings of an eagle and more like you are sloughing through mud carrying the weight of the world’s grief on your shoulders. You are worried about little boys trapped in an underground cavern in Thailand, shaken by the tears of immigrant toddlers separated from their parents, heart-sick at the news of the death of Trooper Nick Clark, one of Alfred University’s own, fearful of the outbreak of war and violence, weary of the persistence of racism,, sickened by the degrading insults hurled at one another across the internet?
The odd thing is that with the exception of Nick Clark, we probably don’t know any of those people for whom we are grieving and worrying about today and so some people might dismiss such distance sympathy as “imagined emotions.” The reality is, however, that unless you are a robot or psychopath, you are not imagining anything: you actually do feel the griefs and sorrows of other people as if they are your own because it’s how we are made as human beings. Social scientists call this “emotional contagion,” and it is hardwired into us. Scientists have found that if a baby in a nursery begins to cry, other babies in the room will become anxious and more apt also to cry, and conversely, one baby’s laughter will spread to the other babies near them. Babies’ brains aren’t developed enough for them to be imagining the feelings of another infant in the room, and yet they are able to respond to the ebb and flow of the group’s emotions because at a fundamental biological level, we are born with a sort of antennae that tunes in to other people’s feelings and affects our own. While some of us admittedly have better antennae than others, all of us are affected by the emotions of the people around us because if we weren’t, we wouldn’t have the ability to communicate and form societies. And so as human beings we are all subject to the exhaustion of emotional contagion. Some of you may be more sensitive than others, more acutely attuned and thus more acutely afflicted, but in the 21st century where the whole world literally invades our living room or worse, is carried in our pocket by our social media and news apps, we are all at risk to the ravages of feeling the world’s suffering as if it is our own. If you find yourself exhausted by the news; if you have become obsessed with the plight of the children trapped underground in Thailand, or distressed about those suffering from hunger in Yemen; if you can’t sleep because you are thinking of the children torn from their families at the border, and you wonder why you should feel so exhausted by problems that are not really your own, it’s because what you are feeling is actually real. You hear of the grief and worry of other people, and your own grief and worry nerve endings start to vibrate: you “catch” their emotion as surely as you catch a cold from others. Certainly, your experience is not as acute as their’s but it is not imaginary: when you hear of another person’s tragedy, the chemicals in your own body are triggered, preparing you to do battle with that crisis in case it should come to you. Normally, those chemicals would fade away quickly when we realize that we are not in harm’s way, but when the news of suffering in so many places and in so many forms comes at us in an unceasing flood, our bodies remain on constant alert, and the emotional contagion of the grief of the world exhausts us.
So what is the solution to all of this emotional contagion? One option is to turn off your TV and all of your devices, stop reading the paper, leave your neighborhood, your church, your friends, and your family, and hole up somewhere where you can’t hear about other people’s pain. Just like going into voluntary quarantine to avoid the flu, you could choose to create a voluntary quarantine to avoid emotional contagion. And in fact, that’s exactly what what one man did last spring. Tired of the unrest of the country and the turmoil of politics, 53 year old Eric Hagerman quit his job as a corporate executive at Nike and retreated to a pig farm in southeastern Ohio. He doesn’t have a TV or internet and when he goes to get coffee at the local cafe, he wears ear plugs so that he won’t accidentally hear snippets of news in the conversation around him. He has banned his friends and family from telling him anything about what is going on in the world. Charlottesville is still to him simply a city in Virginia, and Parkland a town in Florida; the names don’t cause his heart to fall as they do ours because he has not heard of the grief of those places. And he reports that this self-isolation has made him a happier person so there is an easy cure to emotional contagion: tune-out and drop out, and the only suffering you will ever need to contend with again is your own.
But of course, as Eric’s own sister points out, “He has the privilege of constructing a world in which very little of what he doesn’t have to deal with gets through. 1 That’s a privilege,” and as Christians, we immediately nod our heads and think of those who don’t have the luxury of avoiding the hurts of poverty, racism, violence, hunger, and disease by constructing a wall around their lives. They live its reality every day, and as much as we may not want to “catch” their suffering, as people of faith, we believe Christ calls us to be present with them and work to seek relief for their suffering. To wall off our hearts so that we won’t catch anyone else’s sorrow is un-Christ-like, and we know it, and so we would simply be trading the ravages of emotional contagion with the equally devastating ravages of guilt. If we continue to care, we are ground down by the world’s hurt but if we turn away to save ourselves, we abandon the central calling of our faith and are consumed with guilt.
There’s a story of a man who once entered a bar, bought a glass of beer, and then immediately threw it into the bartender’s face. Quickly grabbing a napkin, the man helped the bartender dry his face while he apologized with great remorse.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I have this compulsion to do this. I fight it, but I don’t know how to stop myself.”
“You had better do something about your problem,” the bartender replied in frustration, “because you can be sure I’ll never serve you another drink until you get help.”
Months later, the man once again showed up in the bar and when asked for a beer, the bartender recognized him and said, “Have you taken care of your problem?”
The man said, “Yes. I saw a psychiatrist for several months and I successfully resolved my problem.”
The bartender relaxed and poured the man a beer, whereupon the man immediately took the glass and splashed the beer into the bartender’s astonished face.
“I thought you said you were cured,” the shocked bartender screamed.
“I am,” said the man. “I still do it, but I don’t feel guilty about it anymore.”
So one way of coping with our soul weariness is to refuse to listen to the world’s sorrow and refuse to feel guilty about our selfish isolation, but I believe the Bible provides us with another way.
Isaiah proclaims, “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” The most important part of that verse are the words, “Those who wait for the Lord,” because it is only when we understand that the work of compassion we are doing is not our own but God’s that we will also understand that the strength we depend on to do this work is not our own, but God’s. We are not called to rush ahead trying to save the world with our own two hands but we are called to bring God’s saving grace to others. We are not called to bear the weight of the world’s grief on our own shoulders but are called to carry that grief to God. We are not called to love the world with our own feeble hearts but are called to allow God’s love to work through us because this is God’s work; not ours. This is God’s battle for justice; not ours. This is God’s act of healing; not ours. Paul says, “Let us not grow weary while doing good…” because compassion is not just a feeling; anyone can feel emotional contagion; but compassion is a choice to open your life to others so that God’s love can flow through you to them; and let me say this again, so that God’s love can flow through you to them: God’s love— not yours; God’s healing — not yours; God’s strength — not yours; God’s justice — not yours; God’s goodness — not yours.
When we understand that God is the one doing the saving, not us, then the weariness will fall away because we will understand that our job is to do what we can, where we can, and when we can, but then leave the rest in the hands of God. Though our antennae may be vibrating with the emotional contagion of the world’s grief, our faith allows us to step back from what we are feeling and focus instead on what we can do, doing it, and then rest for the day knowing that tomorrow we will go up and do the same. Archbishop Romero said, “We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”
So go home and rest, and enjoy the gift of this Sabbath day when God gives you permission to turn off your televisions and phones and revel in the beauty of the world we have been given. And then tomorrow, get up and do what you can, where you can, and however you can to bring God’s love to the suffering and hope to the lost, and when you have done what you can, where you can, and however you can, step back once more and rest trusting that the future is in God’s hand, and you are simply a worker in God’s kingdom.