Compassion

Out of curiosity I went one night to a Racists Anonymous meeting.  We were a small group of many colors who had arrived there from different routes.  One had been sensitized to racism by connections with LGBT people and issues; another by discovering his unconscious prejudice against the South and southern people only after he happened to move there.  Being aware of what prejudice feels like and does to one group that is discriminated against can tender one’s heart to how other groups are treated and to one’s own participation in that system of discrimination.

I think attending such a group could help me live a more compassionate life, a call to which is a clear part of Jesus’ message.  He spent time with, touched, and told stories of persons who were outsiders in his day—lepers, tax collectors, Samaritans, women.  Our tendency is to see a particular person and make judgments about that person based on assumptions and fixed ideas about a whole group of people.  Sometimes such notions protect us from foolish mistakes, but other times they close us off from presence and compassion: just what Jesus wants us to know.

True compassion isn’t comfortable.  Jesus teaches that we should first take the wooden beam out of our own eye before we take the splinter out of our neighbor’s eye.  To have compassion is to uncover things in ourselves that we would rather not see, to look within rather than to criticize or blame others.  A lot of unraveling of defenses has to take place in order to be present to others and to care about them.

At the Racists Anonymous meeting I felt the vulnerability, self-giving, deep caring, and humility that go with compassion.  We weren’t taking care of anybody or fixing anyone.  We were trying to listen, learn, and respect.   And we were calling on the only One who can gift us with true compassion.

Queries:

What is my responsibility to my neighbor?  And who is my neighbor?

Where are there hard edges in me?  If I look at them in God’s light, what will I see and hear?

Prayer:

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19: 14).

For further reflection:

“Now I know that you [Elijah] are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth” (See I Kings 17: 8-24, the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath).

“Was none of them [the ten lepers] found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”  (See Luke 17: 11-19).

Weakness

As a country we do not like to be weak.  The appeal of Donald Trump’s tough-talking rhetoric and “Make America Great Again” slogan reflects a will for power and disdain for weakness.  Personally we don’t like weakness either.  For example, it’s hard to make plans for the last years of our lives because we don’t want to imagine ourselves as able to do anything less or have anything less than is so right now.

And yet it is often the case that it is in weakness we can find life.  This is the story of Bill Wilson and Alcoholics Anonymous.  Only when alcoholics admit that they are unable to control their use of alcohol, when they recognize this “weakness” and surrender themselves to a higher power whom they trust more than themselves, do they begin to know life again.  When life is good and comfortable, we can assume we are deservedly blessed by God or simply forget God altogether.  But they say there are no atheists in foxholes.  In weakness we know where our true strength lies.

The temptation is to hold onto a false sense of power and a false god.  The man who talks with Jesus about how to inherit eternal life illustrates this tendency.  He has been following the outward commandments from childhood, but something yet seems missing.  Jesus hears his concern and loves him.  Recognizing what blocks the man from life, Jesus tells him to sell all his possessions, give them to the poor, and follow him.  But the man can’t do that and goes away sad.  He has wealth and power, and there is where his trust lies. Wealth and power are his gods.  But they do not give life.

This story is challenging because we have many false gods.  If we can avoid appearing weak in the world’s eyes, we often choose a life-less god.  How wonderful that we have the story of Jesus.  He taught with authority, but his disciples didn’t quite get his message.  He died on a cross as a criminal.  Plenty of weakness.  But through his resurrection, his weakness became strength.  The disciples got the message, and we have a chance at the good news.  God’s grace is sufficient.  No worldly weakness has to have the final word.

Queries:

Where in your life have you experienced weakness?  How have you handled it?

In what or whom do you trust?

Prayer:

God, you choose the weak and lowly to proclaim your strength and glory. Empower us to trust in you and live in your love.

For further reflection:

“Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”  (See 2 Corinthians 11:16 – 12:10.)

“The heart is normally opened through a necessary hole in the soul, a sacred wound. Our wound is the only way, it seems, for us to get out of ourselves and for grace to get in.” –Richard Rohr

Vulnerability

When Moses was born, the Israelite people were getting more numerous and powerful than the Egyptians, so the Pharoah declared that all newborn Israelite boys were to be killed. At first his mother hid him. When that became impossible, she came up with a risky scheme to keep him alive. She prepared a basket so that it would float in the water, and placed Moses in the basket in the river among the reeds. His sister stood close enough to watch what was happening to him, so when the daughter of Pharoah found Moses crying and had compassion on him, his sister emerged and offered to find a Hebrew woman to nurse him.

Every aspect of this story involves vulnerability. Suppose Moses’s mother had just kept him with her until he was found by the authorities. Suppose the Pharoah’s daughter hadn’t risked violating her father’s order. Suppose the sister had been too afraid to step forward to speak to someone so powerful. What follows from this story is that Moses becomes the leader of the Hebrew people and brings them out of slavery in Egypt.

If you look at stories of good things that have happened, you can’t help noticing the important role of vulnerability—something we tend, however, to avoid.

Even with friends or family members, co-workers, or one’s community, the vulnerability of speaking truth without being overly guarded or belligerent can make a difference. It requires being what I would call grounded in God, knowing one’s own truth, worth, and inner strength.

I live in a small town in which blacks traditionally have lived on the west side of the railroad tracks and whites on the east. In a panel presentation on growing up in the town in the 1950’s and 60’s, the one black person on the panel spoke clearly of the differences in what was possible and not allowed for her in contrast to what the white members of the panel had known. Exposed and vulnerable, she spoke without anger and with courage. Her truthfulness turned what could have been mere nostalgia into healing and community-building.

I believe that vulnerability leaves space for God to be at work.

Queries:

What is the difference between being vulnerable and being foolishly risk-taking?

What gives you the courage to be vulnerable and take risks?

Prayer:

Breathe in God’s deep and abiding love for you. Let that love wash away the negative and hurtful in you, letting yourself know that you are a beloved child of God and that what you have to offer matters, regardless of what others think.

For further reflection:

“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering. . .” (Matthew 16:21)

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (See Luke 9: 23-25.)

Welcoming the Stranger

Waiting for whoever might come for our new Bible study at the Friends’ meetinghouse, I was surprised when a homeless white woman opened the door and asked if we were having a Bible study or prayer meeting. I said we were and, not knowing what else to say, invited her to join us.

She went to the bathroom. A man I was expecting arrived. She came back out and joined us. She pulled out her toothbrush and toothpaste and brushed a little, then sprayed toward her underarms with something that smelled good. No one else came, but we decided to go ahead with our study. She said she preferred the King James Bible, but we didn’t have one.

We launched into a conversation about Genesis 1. It soon was obvious that she didn’t need a copy of the Bible because she knew vast portions of it by heart. She entered right into our conversation with helpful comments. Her clear blue eyes were twinkling, she was smiling, and her face glowed with light. I listened intently, trying to take in the good she was offering us, yet also warily, not knowing what to make of this homeless stranger. The Benedictines teach that we should greet everyone as Christ. “Who is she,” I wondered, “and what I am to learn?” It was, for me, an extraordinary experience.

Before telling a group of friends about this, I asked them to tell stories about encountering a stranger or visiting with a friend. All the stories were about unexpected gifts that had come from taking the time to be present with another person. So often, maybe wisely, we set up barriers to keep us in control or to avoid being vulnerable. But what might we be missing?

Queries:

What story about encountering a stranger or visiting with a friend can you tell?

When is it valuable to be vulnerable and when is it inappropriate? Do you need more safety or more willingness to be vulnerable?

Prayer:

God of steadfast love and mercy, bless us with understanding hearts and peaceful spirits.

For further reflection:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. . . . And who is my neighbor?” (See Luke 10:25-37).

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13: 2)