Becoming Free to be Compassionate

Ten years ago, the 35W bridge collapsed and fell into the Mississippi river during rush hour traffic on August 1, 2007. I rarely drove across the 35W Bridge into Minneapolis, but a wrong turn had sent me over the bridge a few days earlier. Thirteen people died. Many were critically injured. More than one hundred forty people were transported to hospitals by pickup truck, cars and ambulances. What I remember most were the number of people who immediately jumped into action. Before First Responders could get there, bystanders were diving into the river,  rescuing people trapped in their cars. They were just ordinary folks who happened to be there and knew they needed to help. That evening, no one worried about the political, ethnic or religious background of the injured or the rescuers.  All of that was immaterial.

Henri Nouwen said, “To die to our neighbors means to stop judging them, to stop evaluating them, and thus to become free to be compassionate. Compassion can never coexist with judgment because judgment creates the distance, the distinction, which prevents us from really being with the other. Often quite unconsciously we classify people as very good, good, neutral, bad, and very bad. These judgements influence deeply the thoughts, words, and actions. These self-created limits prevent us from being available to people and shrivel up our compassion.” Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers

I often get discouraged about  the enmity between  people  in today’s society over  race,  religious faith or  immigration status.  Ten years ago,  in that life or death moment after the bridge collapse, all  judgements were suspended.   What mattered was searching for survivors, breaking windows of submerged vehicles and pulling people from the river. What mattered was getting children on a school bus about to erupt in flames or tip into the river to safety.  What mattered was stabilizing an injury  and offering comfort. It was one of our finer moments as we collectively worked together in the midst of a tragic event – evidence that if we choose to, we can be that again.

Love Draws the Circle Wide

Westboro Baptist Church planned some picketing in my community today. If you have somehow missed Westboro’s hate-filled speech, consider yourself fortunate. Fred Phelps, who started the church, found fame when he and his people started to picket the funerals of soldiers around the country. They held up signs with hate messages aimed at people who were gay or lesbian, using derogatory terms.   The targeting of soldiers was a warped logic which tied the war against terror to what the Westboro people believe, is the country’s willingness to have gay and lesbian members in the armed services. In their arrogance, they cheered the deaths of those who gave their lives for our nation.    Choosing to intrude on the heartbreak of  parents, spouse and children, they  brought their hateful agenda  and picketed funerals.  Westboro’s goal in Minnesota today, was to protest decisions by the University of Minnesota Hospital as well as a local high school related to transgender youth.

What has always stunned me about the Westboro Baptist church are actions which are antithetical to Christian Love and compassion. As a pastor I find it hard to reconcile the Jesus of the gospels with the arrogance and self-righteous attitude of the Westboro church.  I found myself  praying that our young people were protected from the hate speech and that the Westboro people had changed hearts. Ironically, at the very end of his life, Fred Phelps was excommunicated from the church he founded, because he came to see the world more compassionately than his followers. He pushed for reconciliation with two of his granddaughters who had been shunned by the church. The church he grew became even narrower in their ability to love and accept people than he had been. There was no longer room for Fred Phelps in his own church.

Edward Markham’s poem, “Outwitted”  is a favorite of mine, for its insistence that God loves all of the world’s people and wants us to do the same.

“He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!”

God is the one that keeps drawing us into the larger circle. God pulls us from the isolation of judgmentalism, arrogance and self-righteousness into the greater truths of love, compassion, mercy, kindness, gentleness and humility.

I’ve heard no news coverage of Westboro Baptist Church today. The community made a decision not to confront or encourage a counter-protest in the places Westboro chose to picket, so the group would be denied the publicity they wanted. I don’t know if they came and picketed or not. I do know that the community decided to work together and silence their message of hate, by simply ignoring it. It was a teachable moment to remember that the greatest commandment,  after loving God with all our heart, minds’ soul and strength,  is to love our neighbor as ourself.

Finding Unity – Can We Listen to our Neighbor’s Story?

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Every four years the United Methodist Church holds a General Conference with delegates from around the world. Because we are a global church, concerns which one part of the church sees as vital and needing immediate action, the other part resists. With viewpoints and ideologies entrenched, progress on resolving differences became impossible this year. A rule that would have set aside time for people to simply have table discussion around controversial issues was voted down. Eventually, a day or so later, our bishops called a halt to proceedings and set aside a two-hour period of prayer instead of doing battle over divisive legislation.

In many ways the arguments have mirrored the division in the US. One group is so certain they have the truth, they are unwilling to listen and even begin to understand the other. Neither is willing to view the issues from the other’s world view. We have been so convinced of our truth, we have no room to hear of another’s experience, even of God. We have stopped talking to each other, instead we talk about each other.

A wise woman once told of asking God to help her cope with a difficult person in her life. In a vision she was given to see that person’s soul as made of a beautiful crystal. When she began to look at the person, not as her great enemy, but through the lens God had given her to see him, the bitterness she had harbored fell away. Seeing the people we vehemently disagree with and have said harsh words about, through the eyes of God’s love can change a heart. I think that is why the writer of scripture told us “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. ” I John 4:20-21

The great issues of our day, both within Christianity and the world, will not be resolved by one group of people shouting at the other. We will not find common ground with others, until we allow ourselves to hear the stories of our neighbors. Only when we understand the painful realities of those we oppose, will we be able to look for solutions that meet the universal need for acceptance, love and compassion. I am by nature an optimist. I believe in the world of possibilities. I’m convinced that God is working in our world and in our lives, moving the mountains of resentment and perhaps greatest of all – distrust. I know this, because God continues to work in my life, urging me to listen and to hear the stories of my neighbors . . . Then to open my heart, just a little wider.

The Power to Push Back the Darkness

CandleFlameOn Sunday’s when I’m home sick, I like to check out the online worship service at Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City (www.cor.org). Adam Hamilton has been the lead pastor since the church began in 1990 around the idea that the church would be designed for “thinking people.” It was planned for people who are not shy about asking the questions of faith and willing to admit their doubts . . . People who sense that faith is more complex than the easy answers some would give us. A while back I was struck by Adam Hamilton’s comment, “You are God’s strategic plan to push back the darkness.” I have to admit, that I have never thought of myself in those terms. Yet, hearing the words and being reminded that we are the hands and feet of Jesus in this world, got me to thinking – Just what does a Christian do, to push back the darkness in our world?

The present political climate in the United States is cause for many of us to search for a way to push back the darkness. Our inner demons have been set loose. The past year of campaign rhetoric has fueled attitudes of arrogance, racism, and fear. All of which lack the compassion of a Jesus. I find it hard to comprehend the attitude of people who claim the name of Christian and then proceed to do hate speech on social media. Christians are seeped in foundational stories which ground us. We remember Jesus telling us that whatever we do for the least of our brothers and sisters , it is as if we are doing it for him. (Matthew 25:31-46) I’m troubled by Christian friends who have missed this compelling message of Jesus.

We live in a world of deep challenges, in a nation so divided that we find it hard to even talk to each other about the issues that divide us, but matter to all of us. Likewise, we live in a time of immense possibilities in need of people who will direct those possibilities for good. It comes to me that each of us, does have the power to push back the darkness. Each of us has the power of words, where we live and work, in our families and in our homes. We have the power to influence through our own attitudes and actions. Especially, we can use our words on behalf of people who are targets of bigotry, injustice and callousness.

We have been born into this time and this era for a purpose. We are followers of Jesus who need to act in love and be God’s strategic plan to push back the darkness, We do that by being agents of God’s love and grace. Our part may seem very small. It may seem insignificant, but daily we have the power to use the influence we have to build bridges of understanding. We can influence through our generosity. We can give support and encouragement to people who need to know the gift of friendship and the power of God’s loving care through us. Today we can make another person’s life better, because of who we are and what we do and say. We really can be people who push against the darkness.

Jesus said it another way, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16 New Revised Standard Version, Anglicized (NRSVA)

Standing in the Need of Grace

One day I observed a squirrel climbing all over somebody’s lunch box. It was obvious that this squirrel was looking for a free lunch. I was disappointed! I thought squirrels had more ambition. Where was the thrifty, industrious nut-carrier? As I continued to watch, I realized that this particular squirrel walked with a limp. There was a reason for its lack of industry.

Many among us limp. Oh, not with an obvious limp. The limp I’m speaking of may be far more internal than external. All of us are shaped by forces including, the family we are born into, our life experiences, along with advantages or disadvantages which are ours. One person has a voice that causes hearers to glimpse heaven, while another can barely squeak out a tune. For one person, life just seems to come together, while another struggles with basic issues of housing, job, and supporting a family. One person has a strong support system to turn to when in need, another has no one. Societies’ expectations may be something that “those who limp” will always struggle to attain.

Judging people comes easy. Judging takes no leap of the intellect, asks no compassion from us, requires no putting ourselves in another’s shoes. Anyone can judge another human being, not, knowing what burdens that person has to carry, what battles have yet to be fought, or obstacles which stand in their way. Anyone can judge, while remaining ignorant of the internal limp which keeps a person from fulfilling our expectations.

Judging comes easy. Compassion forces us to care. As I read the words of Jesus, it is clear that his primary concern was that we love God and we love each other. Over and over Jesus hammered away at that message, hoping that we could get it through our heads and into our hearts. Outward success has never been the measure that God measures us by. What matters is our love for God and how we love and care for each other.

For isn’t it true that all of us stumble at some point in our lives. Each of us has stood in the need of grace. We’ve needed a person to care, to respond to our needs. We’ve needed people who let go of judging and instead chose to care. The old African-American spiritual speaks to our human condition, “It’s me O Lord, It’s me O Lord, standing in the need of prayer, not my brother, nor my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” May you live in the world loving God and loving, especially, those whose limp may not be so obvious. May you live remembering the compassion you’ve been given, as you’ve traveled along the way.

Jonah and God’s Too Persistent Call

The prophet Jonah has a tough time dealing with God’s love for his enemies. The book of Jonah takes everything that a good Israelite knew to be true and turns it upside down. Jonah hated the Ninevites. If he had his way, the city would be destroyed and Israel would be the better for it. But, God is God, and sometimes God asks us to do what we really don’t want to do. For Jonah, the call came to go to Nineveh, to cry out against it and to warn the residents of impending destruction. They would be overthrown and their way of life radically changed, should they survive.

Jonah fled, as those whom God calls are prone to do. He fled as far as he could away from God’s voice. He left thinking that if he went far enough away, God would find someone else to go to Nineveh. At first it looked like Jonah may have succeeded. He was able to head in the opposite direction, finding a boat that was setting sail to Tarshish. He reckoned however, without the persistent call of God. A storm rises up. It is a deadly storm. All the sailors cry out to their collective and independent gods. But the storm continues. They throw cargo overboard. By now they have nothing else they can do, so the crew casts lots in hopes of finding out who has brought the evil upon them. When the lot lands on Jonah, he doesn’t hesitate to take responsibility. He knows whom he is fleeing. It is his first discovery that one cannot run away from God or God’s call. Believing himself to blame, he tells the crew to toss him into the sea. Much to his surprise he finds himself in an unlikely rescue. Swallowed by a large fish, he lives in its belly, fervently praying. Rescued once more when the fish spews him onto dry land, again he hears the call of God to go to Nineveh. Fresh from being rescued, Jonah reluctantly goes. To his dismay, the people take to heart his words. The king even issues a decree that all must fast and pray, wearing sackcloth as a sign of repentance.

Still Jonah hopes to see the destruction of the city. He waits for God to act. When God doesn’t overthrow the city, Jonah gets upset. One of Jonah’s problems with God is the he thinks God is too compassionate. He complains to God, that he fled in the first place, because he just knew that God would show mercy and he does not want mercy shown. “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (Jonah 4:2-3) Jonah has a hard time with compassion. He has a difficult time with love for people who are not like him. He reeks of prejudice. God chooses mercy. Jonah chooses hate. God chooses compassion, Jonah waits for destruction.

As we inhibit this planet called earth, we have choices in how we respond to each other. We can let our hearts harden into hate, or we can learn how our differences enrich us. We already know where God is. God is on the side of mercy. God is on the side of compassion. God is also on the side of those whom God calls, reaching out and pulling us back into God’s compassionate love, even or especially when we run away.

Let Justice Roll Down

When my children were young we faced some difficult medical challenges. I don’t know what we would have done when my youngest and most expensive child was born, if we had not had excellent insurance. Because how do you pay off bills that are many times over your annual income?
My daughter works with a population that is just learning their health care coverage is being cut off. She tells me it is the people who cry that get to her the most. Living in a state that recently reduced eligibility of their state run health care program from 133 percent of poverty down to 100 percent, while also rejecting the Medicaid expansion of the Affordable Health Care has left many uninsured. What could have been an easy transition for these families of the working poor, has become a nightmare instead while they find themselves in the middle of our public debate about health care. Worse still is the gap created when a portion of the Affordable Health Care law was struck down by the Supreme Court. No longer able to qualify for one type of health care coverage, they are unable to even apply for the health exchanges which were written with the expectation they would be covered by Medicaid.
Today people are trapped in that gap in half of our states. Fixing the disparity across our nation ought to be a priority we could all agree on. Basic human kindness and human decency, to say nothing of a God who insists we are to care for those who live on the underside of wealth, demands a compassionate response. I think the prophet Amos would have a word for us even as he cautioned his nation to, “ Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (Amos 5:24) I wonder when we will have courage enough to let go of our political talking points and being to work together for justice. I pray that it comes soon.