Planting Compassion; Growing a Soul
Bible Text: Mark 8:34-37 | Preacher: Rev. Lawrence Bergstresser | What is your soul? Where does it reside inside of you? How much does it weigh? Exactly what does it mean “to save your soul”?
I was having a conversation with a new friend at Newbury Court, a man whose career was as a chemical engineer and a leader in developing chemical solutions to contemporary industrial problems. At age 92 he has far-ranging interests and a great sense of humor. And he likes to ask probing questions about all kinds of subjects, including religion.
So one night as we were getting ready to go to dinner Jay asked me, “What does it mean “to save your soul”? Now I have to confess I was caught off guard. Here I am, a pastor for close to sixty years, and I was fumbling for an answer. So I said something like this: “My more conservative Christian brothers and sisters think that if you subscribe to a certain set of beliefs then God will save your soul and you will be given eternal life in heaven. Specifically they say you need to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, believe that God can save you from your sins and confess your sins to God and ask for forgiveness, and your soul will be saved.”
I told Jay that this is the message I heard in church when I was a child, but that I thought of the question a little differently these days. I think of the soul as the core part of my being, as the essence of who I am. And then he asked, “Where is your soul? How much does it weigh?” So I may have said something like this, “It is not so much a thing as an idea that comes from the Bible, mostly New Testament I think, and the Bible does not define the idea of soul but describes what the soul does.”
Boy, I was really fumbling now, trying to sound half intelligent, and my answer was at least half wrong. I couldn’t think of any passages in the Old Testament that spoke of soul, including this one you may have heard of: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.”
Have you ever been in a situation where your mind went almost totally blank on what you thought you knew, and you felt embarrassed? That is how I felt at that moment. But the questions led me to search for some answers, and that was good. Perhaps I could even say it was good for my soul.
The next day I did a search of Bible passages about soul. There are not a whole lot. The word soul or souls is mentioned only 42 times in the whole Bible, and far more of these references are in the Old Testament than in the New. Here are some samples:
From Deuteronomy 6:5 – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” A similar verse appears twice more in that Old Testament book, and it is clearly a passage that Jesus knew, because he quoted this verse and called it the greatest of all the commandments.
Here are verses from the Psalms that are like a spiritual poem or a prayer:
From Psalm 16:8-9 – “I keep the Lord always before me … therefore my heart is glad and my soul rejoices.”
Psalm 42:1-2, 5 – “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”
Psalm 62:1 – “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from God comes my salvation.”
In the New Testament, here are several passages. First, Mary’s song of praise from Luke 1:46-49 – “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
From Matthew 10:28 these words of Jesus: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
In Matthew 11:28-29 these are words from a prayer that Jesus’ disciples remembered: “Come to me, all you that are weary … and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Almost all of these verses are poetic spiritual expressions, but they don’t tell us what a soul is. They assume that we know. So what do you think? If someone asked you, what is your soul, what would you say?
I clearly needed some more research on the meaning of soul. So I went to a Bible Dictionary, and here is what I learned. In the original Hebrew language Old Testament, the word that we translate as “soul” is nephesh, which could be translated as soul, life, or self. Nephesh is not separate from your body; it is an essential part of you, like your blood. What is more, your body expresses the life of your soul. A person does not have a soul; a person is a soul.
When we go to the New Testament, which was originally written in Greek, the word we translate as soul comes from the Greek word, psyche, which can also be translated as life. It is the center where your most important choices are made. It is the core of your emotional life. Your psyche is what gives you the will to serve others, or only to accumulate things for yourself. So Jesus asked, “What will it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your soul?”
Here is one way that I think about soul. [Show nesting boxes.] Imagine that you are like an interesting box. When someone looks at you, they see how tall you are, what you are wearing, whether you are quiet or energetic, whether you are smiling or serious – all the things that we show the world, or post on Facebook or Snapchat.
But if I am given the privilege of knowing you better, I learn about your family, your parents and where you have lived. I learn about all the experiences that you had as a child, as a youth and as an adult, your first work experiences, the many relationships that shaped your life, the people that you loved or feared, the skills that you developed, your successes and failures, your feeling of closeness or distance from God: all the things that you talk about or think about only when talking with family or close friends.
Perhaps, then, in silence, in prayer or in holy conversation, you may decide to look even deeper at your own life, your own self, your own soul. In this mysterious place that it takes a long time to get to know, you may discover your core values and motivations, the essence of who you are.
When I think of my own deepest values, I would include these three: courage, compassion and community. And love for God and love for people, core values that I share with you as members of this congregation.
I believe that compassion was one of Jesus’ deepest values; in our scripture today he invites his disciples to enter into the suffering of the world. That is what “take up your cross” means. If you want to be one of Jesus’ followers, you must identify with all who suffer, so that the suffering of others becomes at least as important for you as getting lots of luxuries for yourself. You deny yourself when you give up the things that are not really important so that you can bring comfort, healing, encouragement and strength to those who need it the most.
How do we gain compassion? And how do we teach compassion to our children? Recently I read a wonderful old novel, the story of two fathers and their two sons, and it gave me a new way of thinking about the urgency of this question. The novel is called The Chosen, and it is written by Chaim Potok, a Jewish author. He writes about the sons of a professor and a rabbi who live in Brooklyn, NY, in the 1940’s, during the time of World War II.
These two families live in an orthodox Jewish community, quite strict in their religious practices. Each of the boys is very bright – they are excellent students in high school and then in college. Each of the fathers spends quality time studying the Hebrew Bible, the books that we call the Old Testament, with their sons. They also study the various interpretations of the scripture with their sons. The boys become close friends and visit in each other’s homes.
But there is one key difference between them. Although the professor and his son, Reuven, talk about many topics, the rabbi does not talk at all with his son, Danny, except when they are studying the Torah, the scriptures and their interpretation. There is a profound silence between them, and it gives Danny immense pain. The silence between Danny and his father began when Danny was a youngster and lasted until he finished college.
Danny came home from elementary school exceedingly proud of how well he had done in his school assignment. He did not even need to study hard to get good grades. He began to feel that he was better than others who had to work hard. It was soon after this that the silence began, and it continued for many years.
One day, soon after Reuven and Danny had graduated, Reuven went to visit Danny and his father. The Rabbi took them to his book-lined study and talked with them now as one adult to other adults. And the wise rabbi said:
“A man is born into this world with only a tiny spark of goodness in him. The spark is God, it is the soul; the rest is ugliness and evil, a shell. The spark must be guarded like a treasure; it must be nurtured; it must be fanned into flame. It must learn to seek out others sparks, it must dominate the shell. Anything can be a shell … Anything. Indifference, laziness, brutality, and genius. Yes, even a great mind can be a shell and choke the spark.”
“A heart I need for a son, a soul I need for a son, compassion I want from my son, righteousness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain, that I want from my son, not a mind without a soul!”
“My father… never talked to me, except when we studied together. He taught me with silence. He taught me to look into myself, to find my own strength, to walk around inside myself in company with my soul … when his people would ask him why he was so silent with his son, he would say to them that he did not like to talk, words are cruel, words play tricks, they distort what is in the heart, they conceal the heart, the heart speaks through silence. One learns of the pain of others by suffering one’s own pain, he would say, by turning inside oneself, by finding one’s own soul. And it is important to know of pain, he said. It destroys our self-pride, our arrogance, our indifference toward others. It makes us aware of how frail and tiny we are and of how much we must depend upon the Master of the Universe.”
“A heart I need for a son, a soul I need for a son, compassion I want from my son…”
I am not recommending that you give your children the silent treatment. But I do recommend that we all consider the value of silence as a way to get in touch with our deepest values. Practice sitting quietly in the presence of the Holy. Put away the phones and other electronic gadgets and take a walk to just listen. Ask yourself if you have a shell that needs to be broken. Encourage times of silence for your children and grandchildren and your friends and for yourself.
I believe it is important for all of us to enter into the suffering of others, to really listen to the human beings behind the statistics, those who are suffering from emotional poverty, those who live with broken relationships, those whose hopes are dashed, those who wait — at the border, or in the welfare line, or at the hospital bedside.
So weep with those who weep, take up your own cross, let go of the things that are not important; listen to your own pain, the pain of all human beings. Build compassion in order to gain life, to find your deepest self, to save your soul.