February 2024

SERMON: Valentines and Broken Hearts

We can deal with our strong feelings or we can run. We need other people to deal with feelings. These moments require us to get over ourselves long enough to acknowledge and honor those around us as a first step.

My first love was Jon White, and he set a high bar in the romance department.  Jon would stand under my second story bedroom window and recite from memory from the Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam.  To refresh your memory, Khayyam is the poet who penned the words, “Here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough, a flask of wine, a book of verse and thou beside me singing in the wilderness—and wilderness is paradise enow.”  At the time of our romance, it was the custom for boys to give their girlfriends silver ID bracelets with their names engraved in the metal.  Jon was cash poor, and could not afford an ID bracelet.  On Valentine’s day, he handed me a small paper box he had made in the shape of a heart.  Inside the box was a paper ID bracelet with the words:  “Sterling is my love for thee.”  At Jon’s funeral, his widow placed a picture of us when we were young and in love.  None of us forgot his expressions of love.  Friends, I believe it is essential that we give each other valentines.  I do not join the cynical attitude that Valentine’s Day is a Hallmark commercialized day.  I view it as a reminder of how important it is for us to express our love directly to one another.  Sometimes these gestures of kindness and consideration bring with them a lifelong feeling of warmth and love.  There is never a Valentine’s Day when I don’t think of Jon.

Fast forward ten years, and I was doing a clinical residency at Hazelden Betty Ford.  When I finished my residency, the men on the unit where I was working presented me with a wrapped box containing a silver charm bracelet.  There was one charm engraved with the name of the unit and the year and another charm of these men found a way to contact a jeweler to make this personal and thoughtful gift.  As I was writing this sermon, I dug out my charm bracelet, and am wearing it today.  I keep very few material possessions, but have kept my bracelet for fifty years.  These gifts required deep thought and consideration and a real understanding of who I am, and I indeed felt that sterling was their love for me.

The heart has many experiences and many seasons.  In addition to feeling endearing love, the heart can sometimes break.  All of us will face broken-heartedness in our lives, and the healthiest way to heal a broken heart is to express the emotions involved.  In our current world, my heart breaks over visions of warfare, mothers and children drowning in rivers as they seek freedom, an inmate being suffocated to death by a righteous system of so-called justice, watching a beloved friend succumb to ALS, and many other circumstances in day to day life.  It requires trusted relationships to deal with the spiritual challenges of our current world.

My closest friend in Canada has the name of Dorcas, so I am especially fond of this Scripture reading.  In the story we find that the artistic Dorcas is laying dead on the floor, and people are expressing extreme emotion around her as they wail out their grief and broken heartedness.  Peter enters the scene and asks the grieving women to leave.  He kneels down, and brings Dorcas back to life.  There are some important elements to the story.  First of all, there is an environment where it is acceptable to express strong emotion following a heartbreaking event.  When Peter enters the room, he does something extraordinary.  This is a wonderful example of how our love is expressed not so much by our words, but by our actions.  He raises Dorcas from the dead.  While we are not able to offer such an extreme act, we are always capable of offering acts of love, and we can allow our behavior, rather than empty words, to express the love we feel.  

Courage is required to face our emotions, because sometimes real emotional expression means having to face pain.  Last week I attended  a seminar where a clergyperson from Minnesota commented that churches are tempted to think that everything is going well if people are nice to each other.  That sets a pretty low bar, because we are called to be people of strong emotion and people of justice.  In recovery, it is called having the “Alanon smile.”  That’s the smile that immediately emerges even as addiction demolishes family systems and relationships.  Politely sharing doughnuts is not the same as being people committed to justice.

God has created us to be feeling people.  This means that we dare to face our fears and challenges with the complete spectrum of feeling.  That’s what real courage requires.

Most of us would like to believe that God will provide a quick fix.  We like the story of Simon Peter raising Dorcas from the dead.  It was quick. It was fixed.  No one had to feel any more pain.  It’s easy to believe these miraculous situations.  It’s harder to believe in real life, because in real life we have many dangers, hardships, losses, and feelings.  When we are feeling people, we open ourselves to pain, to heartache or even to broken-heartedness.  Why in the world would we want to do that?  There are several reasons why.  From a psychological point of view, if we don’t feel our feelings, they come out in different ways, whether it be be depression, bad moods, violence or even physical illness.  The feelings are there whether we acknowledge them or not.  From a spiritual point of view, we deny our full creation when we deny our feelings.  God created us as feeling people. In order to be fully human and fully alive, we must become vulnerable to our feelings.  To do this requires real faith.  To do this requires real courage, not the dime store novel kind of a soldier in battle, but the blood and guts kind of Jesus crying out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

Most of you have faced danger.  Most of you have faced hardship.  All of you have experienced great loss just by the fact that you continue to exist.  We are living in worldwide times of fear, danger and vitriol.  This can create a state of broken heartedness.  We can deal with our strong feelings or we can run.  If we are a people of faith, we will face our fears for our world, face our feelings, and face our God.  When we are hurting, we can share honestly with God and ourselves honestly about our state of broken heartedness.

And what does broken heartedness look like?  What are the characteristics of a wounded heart that we will all encounter in life?

I would like to suggest a few:

   •  We miss what we once had.  We feel that a part of us has died.  This can be the loss of a meaningful job, an empty nest, death in all forms, changes in our neighborhood or changes in our daily routine

   • We might feel emptiness, loneliness, a sense of being incomplete.

   • Words cannot express our pain.

   • We might feel cheated as if our hopes, dreams and plans have been crushed.

   • We feel haunted by memories.

   • We feel the pain of being betrayed by those we expected to support us.

   • We feel abandoned by those we love.

   • We feel we are no longer viewed as useful.

   • We feel panic.

   • We are afraid of change.

Not a pretty picture.  Not an easy task to show real courage under these circumstances.  But believers are able to show real courage, knowing that the presence of God will never change.

When we muster up the courage to face our feelings, to face our whole and real selves, it doesn’t work to keep those feelings bottled up inside or to share them with God only.  One little girl summed it up beautifully as her mother suggested that she approach God with her fear and pain.  As she sat sobbing, she declared, “But I need someone with skin on.”  We all need places where we can share our true feelings, and we need people with whom we can be our real selves.  I have a clergy support group who tell me that I can call them any time when I feel I am going to lose my temper, feel grief or need to process new ideas.  I hope each of you have similar safe places.

I would like to go back to Valentine’s Day.  Because we live in such divided and seemingly harsh times, we need to embrace every possible opportunity to demonstrate in very real and concrete ways our love and affection for one another.  We can start by showing good manners:  being on time, sending thank you notes, remembering to mail birthday cards, sending flowers for no reason, thanking someone who has made a difference in our lives.  Good manners are not a rigid code of behavior, they are ways in which we demonstrate respect and affection for the people around us.  Good manners require us to get over ourselves long enough to acknowledge and honor those around us.

Please indulge me as I share a Valentine poem with you.  You will recognize the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of being and ideal grace.

I love thee to the level of every day’s

Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.

I love thee freely, as we strive for right;

I love thee purely, as we turn from praise.

I love thee with the passion put to use

In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.

I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

With my lost saints—I love thee with the breath,

Smiles, tears of all my life!—and, if God choose,

I shall but love thee better after death.

When I attended Greenwood Elementary School in Des Moines, we would decorate shoe boxes with paper doilies, hearts, and glitter, and these works of art would be placed on our desks to receive valentines.  The beautiful thing about it was that EVERYONE received a valentine from each student in the class, and the compassionate and savvy teacher made sure that each student had a supply of valentines to dispense.  That’s how broken hearts are healed, and that’s what the love of God is like….plenty to go around and all are included.  Amen.

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