It’s not my dog, I don’t have to take it for a walk.
Just before I went on leave recently, a colleague shared this saying with me. I am quite sure this colleague did not realise the impact it would have on me, and how often I would repeat it as a kind of mantra. I certainly didn’t expect that to be so when I frantically wrote it down “just in case I forgot it later.”
Over the last week I have had numerous pastoral conversations with people of varying ages, different faith perspectives, different cultural backgrounds, and across three states. Each has repeated, almost word for word, the sense of hopelessness, fear, anxiety and despair about the many crises in the world. The pandemic. What is happening in Afghanistan. Climate change. Ferocious fires in Greece. And the list goes on and on… I have spoken before of what I call “compassion overload.” The burdens keep piling on, the call for our care keeps rolling in, and gradually (sometimes not so gradually) we become depleted. A scene from Jesus Christ Superstar, in which Jesus is surrounded by people reaching out to him begging for healing, pleading for a miracle, flashes into my mind regularly at the moment. Whilst not biblically accurate, the constant bombardment of needs from individuals, communities, countries, and the world makes me want to shout out alongside the character in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production: “Heal yourselves!”
A long time ago we used to get various charity groups knocking on our front door asking for donations. At the time, we had to count every cent we had, and scraping together enough for a charity was sacrificial giving. For a while it seemed like we were getting requests several times a week, and so we made a decision about which charities we would support. We chose two charities because they supported people whom we loved — Breast Cancer Research and Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Every other charity that came to our door was a worthwhile cause, every one raised money for vital research and support for people affected by whatever it was, yet we could not support them all. The two we chose became the “dogs” we would take for a walk — the others needed to be someone else’s responsibility.
All these thoughts come flashing back as I hear the “compassion overload” through pastoral conversations. People are simply overwhelmed by the enormity of need we are accosted with through the 24/7 news cycle. Every day, and often multiple times each day, something new, another crisis, another desperate need arises, and we feel (or I feel) the compelling demand to care, to do something — anything that might help. Media of all types readily share how we might respond and we could spend all of our time writing to political leaders, signing petitions, protesting… and every cause is worthwhile.
There is a nagging feeling deep within me, though, that this is not our purpose. In a reflection with someone this week we talked about how Jesus would take time out from the constant demands for his attention. He would find a quiet place to pray. He would emerge from these times, setting his face toward Jerusalem. It was not that the “distractions” were unworthy of his time, or that other sick people in Galilee didn’t deserve healing, Jesus knew that he had a particular purpose as the Son of God, and that he had to remain focused on that.
I feel that there is truth in this: as one person I cannot do all things. I cannot hold all the cares of the world on my own. A colleague shared this quote from Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran Pastor in Denver: “I just do not think our psyches were developed to hold, feel and respond to everything coming at them right now; every tragedy, injustice, sorrow and natural disaster happening to every human across the entire planet, in real time every minute of every day. The human heart and spirit were developed to be able to hold, feel and respond to any tragedy, injustice, sorrow or natural disaster that was happening IN OUR VILLAGE.”
So, I come back to where I started. I think my task, and the reason why I need to imitate Jesus and take time out regularly with God, is that I need to identify ‘my dog.’ That is, I need to connect and focus on what it is that God entrusts to my care and gives to me as my responsibility. When I know that, I can faithfully take ‘my dog’ for a walk around my village. All other things are worthwhile. But they are someone else’s ‘dog,’ in someone else’s village.
This week I encourage each of us to connect and re-connect with God, to find our own, unique purpose and responsibility, and to take care of it faithfully in God’s grace and mercy. I — we — need to trust that God is calling someone else to take care of those things outside our own responsibility and calling.
Blessings and peace,