According to an article provided by the Cleveland Clinic on their website, tears are an essential part of a healthy life. Dr. Michael Roizen, a wellness expert at the clinic, reminds us that tears help us see clearly, wash away debris, and alert others to our emotional feelings.
While physiologically, tears are not a direct result of activity within our heart, metaphorically, we connect heart conditions to emotional tears.
One of the causes behind emotional tears is feeling empathy, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. We see others suffering, and even though we aren’t experiencing what they’re experiencing, we are moved by their plight. We form an affinity with them by sharing some of the feelings they may be feeling. And we’re moved to tears.
The other day, our nation crossed another horrible threshold as more than 400 thousand people have died due to COVID infections. It is difficult to feel empathy towards a number — even a huge number. Feeling compassion towards a family member, a friend, or even a stranger, when we recognize the pain they’re feeling from their loss, comes with being human. And most of us show a strong alliance with pain through tears unless there is some other physiological problem preventing what is otherwise a sign of normality.
Our world is full of suffering and reasons for tears. And the pandemic is unique only in its global effect. In Rwanda, hundreds of thousands were murdered within weeks by soldiers and militias from a rival ethnic group in 1994. Instead of stopping the slaughter, the United States, along with much of the world, stood by. A psychologist named Paul Slovic decided to investigate the apparent apathy of so many. And his conclusion was troubling. 2
For example, when his researchers showed people a picture of a 7-year-old girl dying of starvation, they responded positively. He repeated the experiment with larger and larger groups of children. While it seems logical that the more children pictured, the greater the response, Dr. Slovic discovered that this wasn’t the case. In some cases, the response was less empathetic.
“In fact, the more who die, sometimes the less we care,” Slovic said in an interview. As the numbers increase, it seems that death becomes impersonal, causing increased hopelessness that our actions can have any effect.
Dr. Slovic offered this worrisome observation — “Statistics are human beings with tears dried off. And that’s dangerous because we need tears to motivate us.” We need tears to motivate us, but numbers, as they increase, become a drying agent for tears. How do we maintain a balance of empathy and sanity as we unite to overcome the deadly forces that threaten us?
I often think about a claim that I found buried in the preface of one of the many books I used for research several years ago. In his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, the late Dr. Dallas Willard argued that the church has, in our possession, the only solution to what underlies most of the world’s problems. If this is true, and I believe that it is true, how do we distribute this potent vaccine to a hurting world? How do we convince people that this vaccine is safe and effective without the rigor that usually accompanies new vaccines?
Asking people to simply trust God isn’t working so well. Retired chaplain, David Fetterman, asks the question that complicates acceptance. “Why should we trust God when we see so much hatred, violence, and anxiety daily? How can we be expected to believe in good news when we’re barraged daily with bad news?”
Fetterman reminds us that Jesus doesn’t really answer these questions directly. Instead, Jesus offers us the hope of faith. 3
This past week most of us witnessed the celebration of a transfer of power of the U.S. presidency. Among the numerous guests offering words through music, statements, and poetry was a young, African American woman — the daughter of a single mother living in Los Angelos. Her poem, inspired by the magnitude of the tragic events she has witnessed over the past few years, moved from naming our human condition to claiming hope.
Amanda Gorman begins her poem with this question — “Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?” But she ends her poem with this challenge — “The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
As the virus violates millions of bodies, racism violates justice, and greed violates our planet. The mounting numbers dry our tears and leave us numb. Empathy is erased, and hope hides in the shadows unless we look beyond the numbers and see the tears on the faces of front-line workers and grieving families.
This logistical problem cannot be solved by simply finding more efficient ways of putting a vaccine in the arms of larger numbers of people. Yet, the solution is incredibly simple while frustratingly evasive.
We must dare to repeat and live into Jeremiah’s prophecy as he shared the Word of God with a people hungry for words of hope. God said, “This is the new covenant I will make with the people …I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33).
The vaccines promise to eradicate the threat of the COVID virus. However, the issues that divide us remain. The new normal must not be a repetition of failed attempts to ignore our neighbors’ grievances or our planet. What remains is a heart condition.
And the church has the proven antidote that can move us from complacency to profound courage. But this heart condition is both physiological and spiritual. Our human condition leans toward self-preservation and self-promotion. We simply, cannot on our own, eradicate the virus that degrades the human heart and reduces our empathies to statistics.
The solution begins with humbly accepting our own incompetence. We confess that we’re incapable, by our own power, to cure the disease infecting our metaphorical heart. We acknowledge that we’re ready to accept God’s cure for our apathy. And we invest our time and resources in a new way that puts God ahead of all else.
This is the new covenant I will make with the people …I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.
I pray that you will join us each Sunday at 10:30 am as we learn together from the successes and mistakes of Jeremiah’s community. Invite your friends to join us online or in-person.
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1 Some of the content for our series comes from Melissa Spoelstra. Jeremiah: Daring to Hope in an Unstable World. © 2014. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
2 William Wan and Brittany Shammas, “Why Americans are numb to the staggering coronavirus death toll.” © Washington Post, December 21, 2020.
3 David Fetterman. “Hope Beyond Today.” The Upper Room Disciplines 2021: A Book of Daily Devotions. © Upper Room Books, 2020, pp. 37).