The Foolishness of Compassion

When many of us hear the word compassion we are filled with good feelings and thoughts of love and joy by the mention of it. We like to think of ourselves as compassionate people, after all who wouldn’t have compassion on a “poor” old man whose body has broken down, a malnourished child, a woman who has been sold into sex slavery, or a family on the streets.

The problem we have here is a semantic one. What Western Christianity understands compassion to be and what it has always truly meant are worlds apart. Compassion isn’t the same as having sad feelings for someone’s situation, or thoughts of pity for those who are poor or oppressed. Those thoughts are just that; thoughts of pity. This is not compassion. For many of us, when real opportunities of com-passion present themselves, we are too gripped by fear of loss and pain, or frozen by feelings of not being able to do anything about the situation, so we often never enter into compassion.

At the root of the word compassion are two Latin words, pati (with) and cum (to suffer); meaning “to suffer with.” Compassion happens when love intentionally moves you into the suffering and brokenness of others; it is to allow your love to meet someone’s worst moment. “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts… to be weak with those who are weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless.” Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, Nouwen, McNeill, and Morrison, 3-4.

Feelings and thoughts of sadness and pity is not compassion, however, they can be the beginnings of us moving into compassion.

This is fully seen and realized in the New Testament account of Jesus’ final week before he was crucified. Many people call the week before the crucifixion, “Passion Week.” We learn in the gospel narratives that Jesus turned his face towards Jerusalem, the very place where he would suffer intentionally, where he would move into our place of sin and brokenness, so that we would receive the fruits of his compassion; light shining out “of the darkness”, offering a divine presence in the midst of our brokenness. Maybe we should call the Holy week, “Compassion Week,” since his suffered was for our sake.

Thus, compassion is not a natural human virtue as is sometimes understood to be. If compassion were to be seen as a front and center virtue of the Christ follower’s life, we might begin to question the fruitfulness of compassion because of the cost it would place on our lives. A society governed by compassion may very well be seen as a foolish and weak society, and indeed, Christ was seen as foolish and weak. Nationalistic movements among Christianity have historically not cared for the weak or foolish within their societies, and view the call “to suffer with” as a death wish that destroys healthy progress in society.

Many people may even say or think to themselves, “Our world will not survive if compassion is a chief virtue.” This thinking would be especially true in a society like ours today, where our greatest ideals are to maximize our satisfaction and limit the amount of loss and pain we experience. We see this is in our business ventures, in start-up ministries/churches, in the way we pick neighborhoods to live in, how we choose to raise our children, in the laws we legislate, etc.

This is not all bad. In fact, much good comes out of limiting loss and pain, but in the process of longing for a better society, we forget that there is still suffering, and those who are on the margins of society likely do not have the ability to choose differently. In our pursuit of our own “right” to happiness, we have lost sight of those who have been robbed of theirs. Thus, on this side of redemption, compassion is a necessary and central virtue among God’s people.

We would do well to turn our ears on to the moment Jesus calls us to compassion: “You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate” Luke 6:36. This, in the context of real compassion, is a daunting call to sacrifice. This is a call to renewal within a “Christian” system that seeks to protect number oneself or one’s nation as “first” priority. This is a call that we ought not take too lightly.

As Jesus has first died to offer us life within these decaying bodies, he is now our example and leader in sacrificial living. Salvation for the Christ follower is not merely a cognitive belief that places them in the security of the heavenly realms with no earthly commitment to good. Salvation is a call to a whole new way of being human; a call to living out the upside down economy of God’s kingdom on earth; a call to be willing to lose it all for the sake of God’s kingdom being realized and embraced by those who are in darkness; a call to be the liturgy of the church and not merely partaking in liturgical acts.

To the Christ follower, Jesus’ life is not the exception, but the norm. My prayer is that Christ followers would begin to take seriously the implications of the life of Jesus and allow God’s Spirit, who lives in his people, to move them into compassion, not for approval’s sake, but for obedience’s sake. After all, Christ, our savior and leader, learned obedience through what he suffered (Hebrews 5:8), and we are not exempt from this learning method. The renewal of the Western Church is dependent on the compassion of Christ followers. No compassion, no true renewal.

“In a poem entitled ‘The Good Samaritan,’ Mark Littleton captures the essence of compassion”:

Compassion.
The stoop of a listening father.
The touch and wink of a passing nurse.
The gnarled fingers of a grandmother steadying a swing.
The clench of a surgeons teeth as he begins his cut.
The open hand and pocketbook of a traveling Samaritan.
The dew of heaven on dry lips.
Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement, Prediger and Walsh, 221.

The call to compassion, to suffer with others, is not a call to induce suffering in your life, but a call to courageously stand, sit, walk, or crawl with those whose lives are fragile, broken, in tragedy, emotionally distraught, hopeless, diseased… you get the point. Christ came to us in our death moment, we are called to presence ourselves to others in their death moments.

Advent: The Hope of a Voice

Today marks the first day of Advent, the season of anticipation, longing, waiting, before the celebration of Christmas begins. Advent, it refers to “the arrival of a notable person.” In the Christian tradition, the first Sunday of Advent focuses on “hope.” Hope is one of the big three that Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 13, “faith, hope and love.” It’s an essential element to the life of those who don’t have all that they long for in this life. Hope keeps us feeling when we want to go numb. Hope offers us another day of breath when the walls of our lungs are caving in. Hope compels us to not give up, but to carry on to keep heading towards that which you believe in.

I want to speak of what hope could look like through the eyes of a Medieval peasant who has been told by the Lords, the Freemen, the Knights, the Church leaders, and the King, that they actually have it good in life. The peasants were the lowest on the totem pole. For those who aren’t familiar, “feudal system” or “feudalism” essentially describes the social and political order that originated in Europe during Medieval times (roughly 800-1400 CE). In it’s simplest form, the system consisted of unarmed peasants who mostly remained moderately poor to very poor by the dominant power’s design. These peasants would have also been subservient to noblemen (lords) and soldiers (knights) who worked for the king in some way. The lords were the ones who held ownership, ‘lording’ their power over the peasants by essentially refusing them the right to provide for themselves. In other words, they created co-dependent relationships with the peasants. The feudal system worked as lords grew in power and prestige. The chief way lords grew more powerful was by acquiring more peasants and making those peasants work the land so they could pay more taxes, and possibly “rent” more land. For a visual, Les Miserables gives sad imagery to this type of system.

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Lords competed in this economic system to get more peasants to rent their land, to gain more profit, to tithe more than their neighbor so they can be recognized by the church leaders, and hopefully to King would find favor with them. This corrupt system kept people in their place, and allowed the powerful to become more powerful. Oppressive living was celebrated, and hope for a peasant was not a desirable topic for lords and kings. They liked it when no talk of hope for the future was going on. But every now and then, a voice of hope would arise among the peasants, or for the peasants, and a stirring of hope would arise. This voice of hope, this prophet/prophetess would see the abuse and injustice and could not be silent anymore. That’s the beginning of hope, when their is a voice for the once voiceless.

The voice of these prophets would call lords, kings and other peasants alike, to wake up and open their eyes to see the grief of the land and to begin to lament the lostness of the nation and it’s rulers. Kings would be called to lament the fact that their rule has marginalized many, and left the oppressed majority in sickness and poverty, that has become a hatred for the king and for all that he stands for. This prophetic voice will loudly declare that the reign of the king will not last forever. The prophetess will call all who have ears to hear to begin mourning their pain and turmoil, and will call kings to mourn the end of their reign.

Many times, the only way kings can begin to see their own end is through the critique of the prophet, but do not be fooled by this critique. This critique serves a purpose, because as the critique is broadcast and spread throughout the land, the wrestling of those who once lived in apathy begins to mix together something very strong and unstoppable in some ways. Critique soon moves on to hope. A sad reality in many cultures is that the one who begins to critique the dominant culture is almost always seen as (or made to look like) a trouble-maker, a law-breaker, untrustworthy, a liar, or a lunatic. It’s funny how the voice of hope is always attacked by those who fear to lose most from hope arising.

New, regenerated life comes only after death, but a king must first have ears to hear this. “For a seed to give birth to life, first it must die.” For the peasant, the call is to lament the reality that they’ve been duped, taken advantage of. There’s been grave injustices done at their expense and that needs to be acknowledged so they can properly lament. The hope of this message comes when their eyes are open to a new reality of a life of freedom, when new songs and dirges break forth in the streets of the commoner.

These prophetic messages are not desirable to the ears of the dominant culture, because this message has unavoidably upset a status quo that lends itself to the benefit of the powerful. There’s no place in the “royal” public domain where failure can be faced. Kings don’t want imaginations of the peasants to run wild and begin imagining the good life, that would be the roots of hope, of a revolution. This is why oppression occurs and people are silenced. When prophetesses arise among peasants, lords and king come down on the peasants even more harshly than before, and “hope” that the peasants themselves will turn on the prophet, and even blame them for their suffering. Even if it’s done passive aggressively with a tone of “love,” to mask a hidden motive of control, corrupt leaders will silence talks of systemic change. Kings and lords have a lot to lose.

The feudal lords promote numbness to the problems of the state; the prophets promoted a renewed imagination through critique. These critiques ultimately acted as the birth of a new reality of hope for the oppressed. When the systems of power are critiqued, those on the margins almost always see it as “good news,” because the ability to imagine an alternative community can soon become a reality. Critique and grief combat numbness. Hope and imagination combat despair.

Not much has changed today, except the amount of wealth there is to go around of people. The system says it’s more free than before, but there’s still a pecking order. The rich and powerful can use their money and power to get out from under the law, thus proving that there really is no law, order, or justice, at least for them. The law and order is still for the commoner, the peasant, the ones who are lower on the totem pole. Nelson Mandela once said that “in prison, illusions can offer comfort,” but if you’re not in a literal prison, these illusions become the prison.

All around us, if you’re paying attention, are illusion. The dominant culture wants those on the bottom to see life a certain way, through numb-filled-glasses. So many of the concerns of the peasants arise from planted impulses to become someone or something that we are not. We have been indoctrinated into this authoritarian-political-consumer culture that dominates the weak. We are told in many different ways by many different people that certain realities of our culture/nation are untouchable truths, and that particular ways of being and behaving are not only preferred, but expected.

The prophetic hope-builder in the 21st century has the difficult task of evoking and displaying a new way to be human, to nurture alternative forms of living, and to expose the dominant powers of the day as fraudulent. It is at this point, where kings and rulers die (metaphorically and literally), where new life and new eyes emerge. After all, wasn’t it the prophet Isaiah who received new life and new eyes in the year the king had died (Isaiah 6:1)? When false kings die, the true King can be seen. This is what prophets/prophetesses long to see happen.

There’s much more that can be said here, but for now, the prophetic language of grief is meant to critique the numbness of the kingdom so that lament can happen and imaginations can be birthed again; HOPE. For without voicing the pains of oppression, lament and grief will never truly happen, and if lament and grief never happen, true healing and HOPE will never be realized. A false reality will prevail and the “royal consciousness” will continue to silence. We need prophetic imaginations to have the freedom to spread throughout the land. This is the way of the true kingdom where alternative communities reside, where the status quo is flipped on it’s head, where forgiveness comes from confession; power from weakness; life from death; glory from humility; beauty from ashes; sanctification from suffering; joy from obedience; healing from grief; fullness from being emptied.

At the point of re-gained imaginations, hope can rise and the true King can be seen and known, and the peasants (marginalized and traumatized) can realize their true destiny. The language of hope from the prophet cuts through the despairing, dead imaginations of the peasants, and allows the feudal system to be exposed for what it is. At this point, once again, the peasants can sing and dance and celebrate the hope of the good life. The Not My People of Babylon can be a part of a homecoming where the poor, the grieving, the humble, and the hungry receive their freedom in midst of the celebration. This is precisely where and when the freedom of God is realized.

This is what Jesus not only offered, but made happen. His life for ours, the kings and the peasants alike. Jesus is the great equalizer. He brought the valleys up and the mountains low. He was not a respecter of man. He displayed true power, sacrificial love, and the willingness to die so that all could live, even lords and kings. This Advent, today, we long for Jesus to not just be known cognitively, but to be experienced and embraced intimately. Facts about Jesus can only take us so long, until we need Jesus among us, tangibly, prophetesses who stand with the weak so that the powerful (kings) and the weak (peasants) both have an opportunity to live.

Here’s to hopeful, active waiting. Your voice matters!

CCDA and the Ethos of Love


CCDA. It stands for Christian Community Development Association. It’s a one-of-a-kind association, at least from what I’m aware of. It’s odd how you can be one member among thousands and yet feel a sense of being at home, a sense of belonging. It’s an association birthed from pain, struggle, injustice, and a desire for Jesus to show up in the midst of it all, which is Jesus’ specialty. 

Maybe the feeling of being at home and belonging is real because there is solidarity in the struggle, or at least for those willing to be honest with the struggle. It’s like folks who are in war together, taking cover in the trenches, knowing that they are radically different in many ways, yet family, willing to take the next bullet if it means protecting them as they run across the battlefield to tend to a dying sister. When you’re in the trenches, you don’t have time to ask your comrade whether or not they see the Bible as inerrant, inspired, authoritative, or not. It’s in the trenches where you don’t have time to make sure your convictions line up exactly so that you can be sure your tribe would approve of your partnership. No. When there’s war, we partner with everyone who’s pointing towards the end goal.  

I’ve been a part of other associations where partners would be in the trenches together and would start arguing about the gifts of the spirit: “I can’t cover you bro if you believe in speaking in tongues,” or “Get out of my trench with your Arminianism!” Believe me, I understand the importance of right belief and how that can shape a culture or a people group. But I also believe that there is a higher law within the Christian doctrine, that supersedes all other laws, and it’s the law of love. The command to love one another is soaked with messages of acceptance and patience and long-suffering. The command of love is saturated with an ethos of belonging that precedes right belief or acceptable behavior. 

It’s precisely this higher law of love that has permeated the CCDA culture, which creates an ethos of radical love, that looks to many within various Christian tribes like a move away from the gospel and “good doctrine.” I believe it is the willingness to associate with the margins that makes one become labeled by another tribe as “on the slippery slope” or “walking the line of orthodoxy,” but are we called to make our tribe feel at ease with our doctrine, or to love without abandon? Love trumps all (no pun intended), and I don’t believe this is a cop out answer, even as I know the understanding of love has been watered down and chopped up as something that is overly sentimental or an acceptance of anything regardless the consequence. I’ll camp out in the “Love trumps all” camp and let the power and culture of love defend itself. 

I say all this because it’s been three years since I’ve been to a CCDA conference and joining my friends from Phoenix and from around the nation was a homecoming again, a homecoming of radical love and acceptance of a diverse people who have given their lives to presence themselves among brokenness. Even though many were strangers and new friends to me, I still felt at home. I was encouraged, I wept with others who wept, and wept for the pain of my family and others. I felt completely full in some ways, and completely poured out in other ways, and it was still good.

Isn’t this what we are all longing for, to go home, maybe for some of us to find home for the first time, ever! But once we’re home, we are received and valued and honored and loved for who we are. Men and women and children working and partnering together, sharing gifts, not holding title or rank over another, and when it does happen, there is confession and tears and forgiveness. This is a picture of a healthy family. It’s what Jesus offers us when we were far from home and lost. He comes to us, as homeless strangers, and says, ” You belong with me… this is your home. I see you. I see your pain and loss. I understand you sense of homelessness. I know your longing and see your shortcomings, and I want to be with you.” 

Belonging! Belonging precedes right belief or behavior. This is Our God, and this is our call to love one another as well. It’s diversity not for diversity’s sake, but for loves sake. It’s a messy call that will make you a heretic to many, but a saint in God’s eyes. This is what family is like at CCDA. This ethos will be part of the change we truly are longing for, which also means it’s the ethos that will birth in its people a divine patience for others who would disagree with this way of life. We truly all need each other, more than we’ll ever fully know. 

Hope: The Beginning of Advent

Hope: a feeling of anxious expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen. Webster’s definition of hope is: a wish… Now I “hope” your definition of hope is not just a wish. I “hope” your understanding of hope actually moves you to be hopeful in all circumstances. I “hope” that today, at the advent of Advent, you will be able to taste a freshness of hope like never before, the kind of hope that moves you towards greater love and compassion.

The Apostle Paul says this about hope: but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, (Rom. 5:3-5) 

The author of Hebrews says this: Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, (Heb. 10:23)

The Apostle Peter says that we have been “born again to a living hope.” (1 Peter 1:3c)

But what is this hope? What are you hoping for? What do you put your hope in? What kind of hope will never disappoint you? These are questions worth answering, and answer we must if we desire to get to the root of our hopelessness here on earth, as humans.

In the book of Lamentations in the Old Testament, we hear from the prophet Jeremiah, who is seemingly hopeless, as Israel has completely disobeyed God, they have forgotten who/what there hope is, and have placed their hope in things that have been created by the God, but have lost their hope in the one who created those things. and in the midst of that, have lost so much, and great suffering has come upon them.

It you pick up reading in Lamentations 3, you will pick up at the point where God is giving Israel what He said He would give them, if indeed they turn to themselves or other false gods for their hope:

Lamentations 3:1-20: 1 I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; 2 he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; 3 surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long. 4 He has made my flesh and my skin waste away; he has broken my bones; 5 he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; 6 he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago. 7 He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has made my chains heavy; 8 though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; 9 he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones; he has made my paths crooked. 10 He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding; 11 he turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate; 12 he bent his bow and set me as a target for his arrow. 13 He drove into my kidneys the arrows of his quiver; 14 I have become the laughingstock of all peoples, the object of their taunts all day long. 15 He has filled me with bitterness; he has sated me with wormwood. 16 He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; 17 my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; 18 so I say, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord.” 19 Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! 20 My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me.

Now if you are a human, you can relate to Jeremiah on one level or at many levels. Some of you this morning told yourself, or you told God, “You keep jacking with me” or “You are tormenting me and won’t let me out of the fog” or “I’ve been crying for help and you are not answering” or “You are blocking all that I want to do” or “You just want to destroy me and find joy in doing it” or “I have forgotten what happiness is”. Whatever it is, we have all been there and have all felt the pressure of life choking us out, causing us grief, caving in on us, and our hopelessness is relentless at times.

We know what it feels like to have our desire and expectation shattered, left with no hope. For this reason, we are in great need of a rescuer. This is the very reason why the Israelites of that day were anticipating the advent (the coming) of the Messiah, their rescuer. The cry of the Israelites and the cry of Israel is no different than the cry of the rich, the discontented, the over-indulgent, the selfish, the greedy, and the consuming, materialistic culture we live in today.

We, if we’re honest with ourselves, have all been led at different times, to eat in fields that are making us sick, and we are in desperate need of a great rescuer, for we all have experienced to some degree, the result of God neglect. This is why when we speak of the advent (coming) of the Messiah (the anointed one), it is good news. The condition we are in is deadly, and left to our own devices, we are without hope, and will not make it. All the scientific advances in medicine, technology and our understanding of human development/behavior has not made us more loving, compassionate people. We have not cared for the needy better, nor have we learned the secret of contentment and true happiness. Rather we have become more powerful and full of ourselves and our ideas. We have made our pursuit of happiness our main goal and have become disillusioned by greed and lust. We have learned to self-protect better and to numb ourselves from realities that make us sick when we think about them, but this does not mean those realities are not true this morning.

Awww, the advent of a rescuer! That is good news! Just who is this rescuer though. What is he going to do? What will he offer? The hope of mankind kind rests in who the rescuer is and what he is going to do. Jeremiah doesn’t stop where we left off in Lamentations, he keeps going. He is about to share with us the hope he is holding on to because God has told him of himself, and what he (God) is going to do based on his own goodness. Listen to the words of Jeremiah:

Lamentations 3:21-26: 21 But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: 22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; 23 they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. 24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” 25 The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. 26 It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.

He recalls to mind the stedfast love of God that never relents. He remembers that the mercies of this great and glorious God will never be exhausted. They are new every morning. He is faithful and he himself, the Lord, is his portion….Since God himself is his portion, and God has steadfast (passionate and unending) love (‘hesed’) towards him, and he never lies and he is all powerful, then it is clear to Jeremiah that the only reasonable hope that he has been given is to hope in God. Why? Because God’s steadfast love will bring what he promised to bring; hope of relief, of peace, of love and joy that will not disappoint.

This is what I’ve been longing for this past season of life. Coming off of a dark season where life and God seemed fuzzy, clouded, and distant, I am ready for this advent season like never before, full of expectation, not of life becoming perfect, but of God becoming more real in the midst of reality. The hope that I can experience God’s glory regardless of the circumstances of life. The hope that there could be a recovery of the supernatural in the everyday natural life. The hope that I could actually interact with heavenly stimuli Monday through Friday, and not have to wait for a service to help me enter into divine places with God.

This is the hope of advent, the longing and waiting and anticipating of the coming of God. In the biblical story, the God of the universe came in the form of a man who was fully divine, the God-man many scholars call Jesus. But what’s unique about God’s coming to humanity in the form of Jesus, was that when Jesus left, he came again in the presence of his spirit, to be with man, to never leave us, to convict us of misguided living and thinking, and to bring us into the fullness of who we were created to be.

And yet, as God is with us, indeed he is living in us, we still await for his final return when there will no longer be the hungry and thirsty among us. When faith will be by sight, and the children will no longer be fatherless, the homeless will have homes, the farmers will eat the harvest of their own labor and not lose it to the more powerful, and mothers will no longer grieve over their lost children, and on and on I could go. To speak of what is to come brings great hope, indeed a hope that motivates right living today, a corrective hope that confronts our way of living that has numbed us from what ought to be done among those who have been given so much, living in the midst of others who have been given so little, or have had much taken.

The life of God’s people on this side of redemption was always meant to be a foretaste of what it’s going to be like when God comes to make things right, knowing that it’s not our labors that will bring the fullness to come, but it will be our labor that allows others to catch a glimpse of the heart of God and his plans for the future. A future that has partially come into the present with the advent of Christ, and the offer of forgiveness that he gives to all who can be honest with their desperate need for renewal, for a new mind, for new desires to care for others more than self-protection, for a new hope that doesn’t give up when life is caving in and the world is wrapping tightly around your neck. This is the hope of advent. Hold on, rescue is coming.

Artwork by Matt Seymour for a sermon series at Kineo Church (Advent 2012)

Design by Matt Seymour for a sermon series at Kineo Church (Advent 2012)

Deaths and Resurrections

The narratives of life are many and messy most of the time and they follow certain story lines. Two of the most dominant parts of any narrative are the deaths that take place and then the resurrections that happen thereafter. This is what we pay for when we go see movies, these plot lines that ultimately take us to the point of death or near death, and then we get to see the story turn and a type of resurrection happens. Deaths and resurrections.

From a Christian worldview (at least ‘Christian’ in the sense of those who actually follow Jesus) we know that this theme is birthed from within us, that is, we all have this longing to be resurrected from a death, a loss, from pain. And within this same worldview we know that this longing is actualized in what Christ Jesus did for all of us, when we were still his enemies. Jesus’ death and resurrection secure reconciliation for those who trust in Christ, but it also gives purpose and meaning to various forms a sufferings, deaths, as the ultimate purpose in life isn’t to dodge pain, but to be resurrected and reconciled to the truest source of life out of our pain, the life of life, Jesus.

But on this side of redemption, it seems that there too few resurrections and too many deaths. Yes, I can hear the cliche Christianese response say, “But death where is your victory, death where is your sting!” And to that I’d say, that phrase isn’t completely true until the final days when Christ returns and the final resurrection of the dead takes place. This Christianese response has pervaded Christian religious mumbo jumbo so much that we live in a culture that has numbed ourselves from truly dying (or feeling the sting of death, or at least giving acknowledgement to it) that our resurrections are weak and fabrcarted with emotions and words, false lights, void of power and transformation that comes from the life of life.

Today, I feel death all around me and I’m grateful for friends who know how to face the reality of death and grieve properly so when the resurrection actually comes, it’s real and tangible, and Jesus’ life and presence are more beautiful than they were before. Life sucks at times and brings you to the point of death, indeed it will even kill us in more ways that just physical death. But when the life of life shows up, the life that didn’t just shine light into our darkness, but the life that shined light out from the darkness our darkness. It’s then that we realized that Jesus sits with us in our pain and loss and deaths, and offers a life that life is really all about.

The life of life, shining the light of all lights out of dark backgrounds so that we can actually see him, because when fabricated lights are always around us, we lose the dark backdrop that allows us to see Jesus on this side of redemtpion. Deaths are many today, and resurrections are few and far between, but I live in the hope of the true resurrection that it will not always be that way. That good will win, evil will be destroyed forever, Satan and all those who prey on the weak will reap their pay in full, and that all that has been lost will be recovered through the resurrection. This narrative I so utterly believe in and long for when it’s complete.

A Path Towards Urban Renewal: Compassion

As we have seen throughout theses posts, no virtue stands on it’s own. Peaceableness and justice are necessary, and even foundational for glimpses of shalom to be seen on this side of redemption, but they imply many unspoken virtues to be seen and lived out. Compassion is one of those virtues that seeps through the cracks of a peaceable and just life, but compassion just might be one of the least desired virtues once it is fully realized.

Most of us hear the word compassion and we are filled with good feelings and thoughts of love and joy by the mention of it. We like to think of ourselves as compassionate people, after all who wouldn’t have compassion on a poor old man who’s body has broken down, a malnourished child, a women who has been sold into sex slavery, or a family on the streets.

The problem we have here is that compassion isn’t the same as having sad feelings for someone’s situation, or thoughts of pity for those who are poor or oppressed. Those thoughts are just that; thoughts of pity. This is not compassion. For many of us, when real opportunities of compassion present themselves, we are too gripped by fear of loss and pain to enter into compassion.

To have compassion means to allow your love to meet someone’s suffering, brokenness. At the root of the word compassion, are two Latin words, pati (with) and cum (to suffer); meaning “to suffer with.” Compassion is when love intentionally moves you into the suffering and brokenness of others. “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts… to be weak with those who are weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless.” Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, Nouwen, McNeill, and Morrison, 3-4.

Feelings and thoughts of sadness and pity is not compassion, but they can be the beginnings of us moving into compassion.

This is fully seen and realized in the New Testament account of Jesus’ last week before he was crucified. Many people call the week before the crucifixion, “Passion Week.” We learn in the narrative that Jesus turned his face towards Jerusalem, the very place where he would suffer intentionally, where he would move into our place of sin and brokenness, so that we would receive the fruits of his compassion; forgiveness and reconciliation. Maybe we should call that week, “Compassion Week,” since he suffered for our sake.

Thus, compassion is not a natural human virtue as is sometimes understood to be. If compassion were to be seen as a front and center virtue of the Christ followers life, we might begin to question the fruitfulness of compassion because of the cost it would place on our lives. A society governed by compassion may very well be seen as a foolish and weak society, and indeed, Christ was seen as foolish and weak.

Many people may even say or think to themselves, “Our world will not survive if compassion is a chief virtue.” This thinking would be especially true in a society like ours today, where our greatest ideals are to maximize our satisfaction and limit the amount of loss and pain we experience. We see this is in our business ventures, in start up ministries/churches, in the way we raise our children, and in the laws we legislate.

This is not all bad. In fact, much good comes out of limiting loss and pain, but in the process of longing for a better society, we forget that there is stilling suffering and those who are on the margins that do not have the ability to “regulate” their pain and loss. In our pursuit of our own “right” to happiness, we lost sight of those who have been robbed of theirs. Thus, on this side of redemption, compassion is a necessary and central virtue among God’s people.

We would do well to turn our ears on to the moment Jesus calls us to compassion: You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate. Luke 6:36, NLT. This, in the context of real compassion, is a daunting call to sacrifice. This is a call to renewal in a society that seeks to protect number one as first priority. This is a call that we ought not to take lightly.

As Jesus has first died to renew our death filled lives, he is now our model and leader (our older brother) in sacrificial living. Salvation for the Christ follower is not merely a cognitive belief that places them in security in the heavenly realms with no earthly commitment to good. Salvation is a call to a whole new way of being human, a call to living out the upside down economy of God’s kingdom on earth, a call to be willing to lose it all for the sake of God’s kingdom being realized and embraced by those who are in darkness.

To the Christ follower, Jesus’ life is not the exception, but the norm. My prayer is that Christ followers would begin to take seriously the implications of the life of Jesus and allow God’s Spirit, who lives in his people, to move them into compassion, not for approval’s sake, but for obedience’s sake. After all, Christ, our savior and leader, learned obedience through what he suffered (Hebrews 5:8), and we are not exempt from this learning method. Renewal of cities is dependent on the compassion of others. No compassion, no true renewal.

“In a poem entitled ‘The Good Samaritan,’ Mark Littleton captures the essence of compassion”:

Compassion.
The stoop of a listening father.
The touch and wink of a passing nurse.
The gnarled fingers of a grandmother steadying a swing.
The clench of a surgeon’s teeth as he begins his cut.
The open hand and pocketbook of a traveling Samaritan.
The dew of heaven on dry lips.
Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement, Prediger and Walsh, 221.

An Invitation to Suffering

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“An Invitation to Suffering” is a short essay by Bob Lupton from his book, Theirs is the Kingdom: Celebrating the Gospel in Urban America. Bob has had a profound impact on my life as he freely shares his woes and joys of inner-city life and ministry for over 40 years in a very challenging and transparent way:

I do not like pain. Not in any form. Loneliness, sickness (my own or another’s), anxiety, frustration, disappointment, hurt–these are not the companions with which I choose to share my life. I actively avoid them. I buy drugs from the pharmacist to shield me from physical pain. I surround myself with people like myself who dispel my loneliness and reassure me that I am OK. I control my contacts with people who take more than they can give. I schedule my days to eliminate disruptions and to accomplish the things I think significant or pleasurable. A theology of abundance,  peace, and health has enormous appeal for me.

Recently, I witnessed a small act in the drama of city live that both moved and troubled me deeply. It was a familiar situation. A family with three small children was evicted again for nonpayment of rent.  Their ritual “put me up for just tonight” had been used too often. With no money for bargaining, the only place they could find to stay was a front porch. The father slept under a bush. Although I was quite unwilling to give them any more, I wondered what would become of them

Then an unbelievable but predictable event occurred. An unemployed brother whose own family was barely surviving took his evicted relatives in. Once again, it was those who could least afford extra mouths to feed and were already crowded to the point of eviction who found it in their hearts to help. Even more disturbing to me was the cost of caring: increased hunger; hot sleepless nights made even more uncomfortable by crying babies and wall-to-wall bodies; the stench of inadequate sanitation; short tempers; constant confusion.

This picture still burns in my mind. It is a haunting reminder of the energy I spend avoiding the cost of loving others. I establish an emergency fund instead of inviting hungry families to eat at my table.  I develop a housing program to avoid the turmoil of displaced families living in my home. I create employment projects that distance me from the aggravation of working with undisciplined people. As a counselor, I maintain detachment with a fifty-minute hour and an emphasis on client self-responsibility. And even as I share the gospel with the needy, I secretly hope that God will handle their problems.

Of course I don’t allow myself to think this way very often. I choose rather to concentrate on the positive things I am doing for people, the helpful things, right things. But when I am honest with myself, I must admit that I cannot fully care for one who is suffering without entering into his pain. The sick must be touched if they are to be healed. The weak myst be nourished, the wounded embraced. Care is the bigger part of the cure.

Yet I fear contagion. I fear my life will get out of control and I will be overshadowed by the urgent affairs of others. I fear for my family. I resist the Christ who beckons His followers to lay down their lives for each other. His talk of a yoke, a cross, of bearing one another’s burdens and giving one’s self away is not attractive to me. The implications of entering the world of suffering as a “Christ-one”, as yeast absorbed into the loaf of human need, are as terrifying as death itself. Yet this is the only way to life. The question is, will I choose life?”