Binding Up the Broken Hearted: Just Keep Breathing

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

I spoke with her a few days back. She gave me permission to share our conversation with all of you.

She had texted me, you see, including a photograph of her exhausted face.

She asked then simply for prayers.

And so I asked if she had a minute to talk.

She said she did and so I called.

When she picked up I could hear that her voice was as flat as it had been the week before when I spoke with her as she drove in to work.

She is working now as a traveling nurse in Southern California.  Last week she told me that the work is like ‘walking into fire every single night.’ For night after night, it seems, she is caring for someone who is critically ill with Covid-19.

And then a few days ago she gave texture and definition to that ‘fire.’

The night before she had a 33 year old in her care.  She said that suddenly he spiked a fever of 104. Alone in the room with him, she immediately began to pack him in ice to bring his fever down.  Only there was not that much ice in the room so she called out for more and while she waited she started soaking paper towels in water and using those instead.

And she shouted to him as she worked, “All you have to do is keep breathing! I’ll do the rest!”

And he did. And his fever came down. And when she ended her shift he was still with us.

Only she was exhausted. Not only from this one, for nurses, of course, do such as this all the time. Rather, it is the constancy, the high intensity of it which is repeated shift after shift, day after day, night after night. And it is this — that with Covid patients, family cannot be at their loved ones’ sides, so those giving such care are carrying not only the physical demands of the work, but the emotional burden of being the ‘only one’ physically present to encourage, to hold, to pray.

I have known, you have known all of this of course. This week it came home to me in the face and in the name of one in my care.

And so it is I have been sitting with Isaiah 61 all week.

I have wondered at the anointing which begins this familiar passage. How that authority comes from God’s own voice, own hand, own heart.

I have remembered, as I am certain you have, too, that this was the text of Jesus’ first recorded sermon in Luke.

And I have marveled at the powerful intimacy of this, not necessarily only to speak good news, which can be shouted from a distance, and not just to proclaim release to the captive, which could possibly be done in writing, I suppose, but especially this — to bind up the broken hearted.  Which, it seems to me is best done up close. Perhaps with our very hands.

Like a nurse in the middle of the night packing a very sick man in ice. And wet paper towels.

And urging him to just ‘keep breathing’ as she will do the rest.

And I wonder now at how she mirrored the image of God doing just this.

For doesn’t God also hurry to the bedsides of our suffering? Doesn’t God also put God’s whole heart into bringing life and healing back to a place where such as this can feel far distant?  Binding up the broken hearted. Promising that he also will ‘do the rest.’

And I wonder at what this calls us to today. All of us within reach of these words.

For generations scholars have wondered at who first heard this call: was it an individual, a community, the whole nation of Israel?

And then, well, of course, Jesus. And we see his life, his ministry, his death, his resurrection, powerfully reflected in and through these ancient words, this powerful, world altering call.

But how does it resound for you and me now today? What is its meaning this time through as we see John the Baptist pointing to the ‘light,’ as we hear him calling us to ‘make straight the way of the Lord’?

For while of course John was pointing to Jesus reflecting these very words of Isaiah, isn’t this also a call for all of us in these Advent days, in this unique time in the history of our life together where suffering abounds in ways I have never seen it in my lifetime? Isn’t this part of ‘making straight the way of the Lord’ in this unique time when you and I have also been given hands and hearts to heal. To literally bind up broken hearts. Isn’t this also for us?

Like the ones who first heard and who first responded to this call.

Like Jesus.

Like a nurse in the middle of the night, urgently grabbing whatever she could to bring down the fever of the one in her care.

And surely, like you. For whatever or for whomever God has called you, wherever God has placed you. Now. You. And me. Surely us as well.

But what a time it is to seek to respond to this call, isn’t it, when it seems that mostly we cannot ‘get close enough’ to those who need us most to bring our actual hands to the important work of ‘binding up’ those broken hearts. When often we have to be content with the sounds of voices over the phone, floating figures in a text, faces and voices often breaking up on a video call.

If there is one thing I have struggled mightily with in this time it is this. How much of the work of our call which follows this powerful anointing has to be done at the sort of distance to which I have never been accustomed and likely never will be fully. Not really.

And so it is, I am finding that this is a time when I am reminded that when I cannot physically be there side by side, the very breath of my prayers placing beloved ones back in God’s tender hands is, after all, actually everything.

Even as, it turns out, it always was everything.

For oh, don’t we pray that this is so that when we cannot be there face to face, that all God calls us to do is breathe our prayers and God will find a way to do the rest?

Now I am not talking about those seemingly ’empty thoughts and prayers’ which have been bandied about, it seems, in the wake of every tragedy in recent memory.  No, I am not speaking of something we simply give lip service to. Rather, I am thinking of it from the perspective of a young man in his hospital bed, burning up with fever:

Where every breath in and out actually burns …

And where one’s very life depends upon it.

I’m talking about the kind of prayer where we press the broken hearts of those we are called to tend against our very own often breaking hearts and lift them into God’s tender care who, in fact, promises to do the rest:

  • Perhaps through other hearts and hands who are able to move in close to those in need. Yes, likely this.
  • But also in the mysterious ways of God which bring an openness to healing and the so deeply yearned for healing itself in ways and by means which you and I cannot begin to imagine or dream of making happen on our own.

Oh, the day will come again, I am sure of it, when we will once again without thinking be able to be physically nearby and hands on as we live out our calls. And when that day comes? Part of the wonder of the anointing we have been given is that it carries the promise that even then it is God doing the work. Sometimes (although not always) through us, yes, and what a wonder that is. But it is always even then only always God’s power at work.

For this is so. The nurse of whom I speak today? She tells me she prays all the time.  As she walks into ‘fire’ every night, she prays all the time.

For while she is there physically packing ice around the suffering (and so much more), she knows in her own breaking heart that God is the one binding up those broken hearts and bringing healing for a new day.

  • It is so that ‘thoughts and prayers’ have become a stand in for doing little or nothing. I am rediscovering that heartfelt prayer is quite different, though.  How have you also known it to be true that if you ‘just keep breathing’ those prayers, God does, in fact do the rest?
  • It has been quite a journey for me to get here. Ask anyone who has been patient enough to listen to me lament my lack of ability to ‘pastor’ as I always used to in these last many months. Where and how has God been at work in your walk of faith over the last year? How is God leading you to new understandings, to new places of wisdom and hope?
  • Even while I cannot be as physically present with and for the broken-hearted ones as I was a year ago, others (think medical personnel on the front lines) are carrying a double and triple burden.  As I hold their breaking, broken hearts against my own in prayer, how might God be answering? It would seem a small thing, wouldn’t it, for me to hear and respond to the call to take this virus even more seriously, staying apart and wearing a mask, so as to slow its spread? Indeed, knowing that we are called to keep breathing (our prayers) and trusting that God ‘will do the rest’ sometimes means that God ‘will do the rest’ through us, even when we need to be physically distant.  And yet, what might that mean in this time?
  • Finally, this. How is God binding up your own broken heart in these heartbreaking days? And how is that the beginning of your being able to hold close the broken hearts of others even now? What does it mean to you to ‘just keep breathing’ and trust God to do the rest?




  1. Sue says:

    Dear Janet,
    Thank you for your heartfelt messages.
    Praying for your good work, and God’s.

    Peace be with you

  2. Allan Wilson says:

    Thank you Janet for your helpful and meaningful insights. I always enjoy reading your blogs every week. I hope you know just how many appreciate your ministry. Every blessing.

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