It breaks my heart . . .


I have spent the afternoon in my study with my heart breaking. I really can't explain why. There is a book God leads me to re-read every year or so, call "Forty Acres and A Goat." It's written by one of my heroes, Will Campbell, a Baptist preacher of the South. I think it ought to be required reading for everyone born in the South (or the North for that matter).

I'm not sure why my heart breaks when I read this book. I think God uses it to open up closed spaces of my soul, to remind me there are things worth crying over when I slow down long enough to think about them.

It breaks my heart when I see folks hating on each other. I've seen the hate on the streets, in the aisles at Walmart, at church business meetings, even on the tongues of people I love when they talk about the new people who moved in next door. I don't know why we have to hate people who are different than us. But I've seen people sing "They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love," turn and cuss about people who have different skin tones, different orientations, different religions. One of the clearest things Jesus said was "Love your enemies." I'm pretty sure that means loving people who are different than us. You don't have to compromise truth to love. You just have to love. Sometimes, I don't know what breaks my heart more: seeing the hurt of the people being hated on, or seeing the shriveled soul of the people doing the hating.

It breaks my heart when I talk to soldiers and airmen who weep in my arms and ask, "How can God forgive me? I've done terrible things." I've known some good men who obeyed orders and were never told about the pain they would have to live with. War is complicated. But trying to explain all the complications to a man who thinks God can't forgive him isn't easy. I try to tell the story of David, the man after God's own heart. The blood of battle had spattered on his soul too. God forgave him. I want so badly for these men to know God's love is greater than war.

When I think about people dying alone it breaks my heart. It's an old country notion, but I think you ought to have folks with you when you die. It still hurts me that my mother was alone when she died. I was holding the hand of my mother-in-law at 2:15 a.m. when the line on the monitor went flat. It was one of the most sacred moments of my life. I wonder sometimes why churches (including my own) don't have ministries that involve holding hands with the dying.

I am ashamed to admit it, but I've cried over dead dogs. I come from ranch people; dying animals is a part of life. The first thing you learn growing up on a ranch is never name the cows. They will be your supper one day. But still, I've grown attached to dogs. I cried when I was 5 and my first dog, Mo, was run over by a car. I cried when I dug the grave of the first dog Gina and I got. I've cried over most of our dogs since. It seems like all a good dog wants to do is rest his head on your knee and wag his tail when you come home. I've never had a mean dog, not one. I know some dogs are mean, but it seems those are the ones owned by mean people.

Sometimes, I go up to one of the tallest buildings in our town and look out the windows. I think about all the people in the houses I see, so many of whom who don't know Jesus. It breaks my heart. I think about how much different their lives would be if they could have even a taste of God's grace, God's power and God's hope. I think about marriages that would heal. I think about children who wouldn't have to hide when their parents get mean to each other. I think about people who tried church and instead got a big dose of religion. In case you don't know the difference, church is supposed to be a place of grace. Religion is a list of rules. My heart hurts for people who don't know Jesus.

Whenever I do a funeral for a parent who left behind young children, it's all I can do not to cry. My soul weeps for those children. Their pain, their bewilderment, their lost looks brush against my own wounds of being the child of a father who died too young. You would think that decades would have healed that wound, but it's still tender. I so badly want to stop the service, pull those children aside and tell them, "This is going to hurt for a long time. Whenever it hurts, take your pain to your Heavenly Father." But most of the time, they are too disoriented to hear anything, simply nodding at the repeated phrase "I'm so sorry " I hurt for them.

Sometimes, when it's quiet in the evening sitting on my porch, I think about how I try to insulate my soul. I don't come from a family of feelers. We're of the tribe that says if life gets too painful, fry something. You'll feel better. Unfortunately, you'll also get fatter and feel worse about yourself. When I think about how much effort I put into not feeling, it breaks my heart that my heart doesn't break more often. I think that if I was any kind of Jesus follower at all, my heart would break over the same things that break God's heart. But that can feel like too much. It's so much easier to zone out or check out. And that breaks my heart too.

I think it's a good thing to take time to weep, even if you don't know why you are weeping. Tears are God's way of reminding you that you have feelings. There is deep sadness in this world, and some of it will fall on you. It's also a reminder that there is some hurt that words can't fix. You just have to feel.

Maybe it is in those moments, when we finally let ourselves feel the sadness, the hurt, the grief, the unfairness, the loneliness, we can finally be open enough to feel something else. Maybe tears are God's pry bar, so he can pour some grace — some amazing, life-giving, life-changing grace — over your soul. Before the peace can come, there has to be grace.

Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.