Compassion

Privilege

Matthew 20: 9-12

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’”

On this, the eve of my grandmother’s funeral, as many who knew her pray that she accepted God’s gift of salvation in her last days and moments here, it is not lost on me that there may be others who bear a certain resentment toward “deathbed conversions.” Like the workers hired first, we feel we have “borne the burden of the work…” Or, like the bitter other brother of the prodigal son, we might refuse to welcome him home because, ‘Look, all these years I have served you and never disobeyed a commandment of yours. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours returns from squandering your wealth with prostitutes, you kill the fattened calf for him!’” (Luke 15: 29-30). So we look to the thief on the cross with resentment and indignance, rather than with compassion and generosity.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize one reason for this. We are too busy seeing the sacrifices we’ve made for the Kingdom to recognize the many blessings that are ours in Christ. Think about it—the workers hired first thing in the morning and the responsible brother had one of the greatest privileges: security. They didn’t have to wonder if they would find work that day, or have food to eat, or a place to sleep. They were free from fear and uncertainty. Sure, they had to put in an honest day’s work, but even that is a privilege, is it not? Having faced unemployment and underemployment in my life, I can say that it is quite stressful, even if it’s just for a short time. And during that time, I worked as a day laborer, showing up at the temp agency as early as possible each morning, to try to beat the others to the line, so that I would have the best possible chance of being hired. I remember once when a one-day job turned into a week-long position, and I remember how relieved I was to know that I had work lined up for the rest of the week.

We have so many blessings as followers of Christ and as people who trust and rely on the One we know to be a good God. I couldn’t possibly list them all here, but as examples, consider the peace that passes understanding (Philippians 4:7), grace that is sufficient for every challenge and trial we face (2 Corinthians 12:9), mercies that are new every morning (Lamentations 3:23)…and on and on. Indeed, as the prodigal’s father stated, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15: 31). Following Him, and doing the work of the Kingdom, is not a burden, but a privilege. So when I think of the alternate reality in which I would have to fend for myself—rely on my own strength to save me, my own ability to provide for myself, and all the other burdens that accompany a life lived far from Him, I’m left with compassion and generosity for those who live that way. And the parable of the generous landowner tells us that God’s generosity knows no bounds—their blessing doesn’t diminish mine. Micah 7:18 tells us that God “delights to show mercy.” So let us go and do likewise (Luke 10:37).

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Hope

1 Thessalonians 4:13-14

“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”

In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul reminded the believers in Thessalonica that we don’t mourn like those who have no hope, because we have the hope of heaven. Most funerals I attend do happen to be for believers, and I LOVE celebrating their lives, but even more so their “home-going.” So many happy tears, even in the midst of sorrow.

This celebratory feel is much more salient when we are (relatively) assured of our loved one’s salvation. But we don’t always have that luxury. Such is the case with my grandmother, who passed away on Friday, at the age of 88. Her quality of life had declined severely, due to complications of COPD and congestive heart failure. We all wanted to see her at rest and in peace, but saw her continued suffering as a gift from God, in his patience, mercy, and compassion. After all, He is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9). Perhaps He was just giving her more time.

You see, Grandma was never much into Jesus. She spent her life in the pursuit of self-reliance. She was strong, independent, fiercely opinionated, and proud—and all of the other things that help a person to survive here on earth, but that make it hard to surrender to God, or to admit to needing Him. Nevertheless, her friends and family poured into her the truths of the gospel. She knew the “answers,” even though she staunchly resisted them.

To the best of our knowledge, she never confessed out loud the lordship of Christ, she never verbally acknowledged her sins, her need for forgiveness, or her acceptance of Christ as her savior. BUT…as Grandma’s days grew short—in fact, on the eve of her passing—her daughter sat with her, and prayed a sinner’s prayer over her in intercession. She closed, saying “Amen.” And Grandma, quite surprisingly, echoed a hearty, “Amen!” Could she have finally accepted? We won’t know until we get to heaven, but this moment gives us what we are promised—hope that we may see her again one day.

Interestingly, the next day, as the end drew nearer still, Grandma rolled onto her side, and seemed to be talking to herself—albeit unintelligibly. Could it be, though, that just as the thief on the cross did so long ago, she was looking to Jesus, asking Him to remember and forgive her? If so, His answer would have certainly been the same—“Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Again, the gift of hope. Thank you Jesus!

In Memory  of Dolores E. Winget

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Worse Things

Psalm 34:18

“The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

Today I decided it was time to wash the delicate clothes that had been piling up in my closet for months. In particular, I decided it was time to wash Laredo’s tights and leotard, in which she dresses up like a ballerina almost daily. But as I went to transfer the laundry from the washer to the dryer, I noticed that something blue in the load had bled on the pale pink leotard. I said to myself, “Thank God I didn’t put her fancy white Easter dress in this load.”

But then I stopped myself. I realized the fault in my perspective. You see, as Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath continues to cause destruction not two hours from here, I understand that there are worse things that I could have to worry about. There are far worse things that many people are facing at this very moment—even some people I know. And I don’t want to be the kind of person who dwells on silly and inconsequential things, when there are people out there in need of compassion, and prayer, and tangible help.

Please don’t misunderstand me. There are most certainly times in life when those worse things will happen TO YOU. I wouldn’t tell those who have lost everything and even loved ones to tell themselves that there are worse things. At some point, you need to recognize that you’ve just lived through the worst day of your life. When you’ve been evacuated from your home by boat in the middle of the night, and been shuttled around from one shelter to another in search of one that will allow your pets to stay with you… Or when you’ve faced some other tragedy, emergency, betrayal…some of you may know this feeling firsthand. You know what it’s like to feel helpless, hopeless, and lost. Be honest about it—let your family, friends, and community come alongside to help you.

But for those of us who aren’t suffering greatly right now, I would encourage us all to take a posture of gratitude, humility, and compassion. Let’s recognize that those little things that frustrate or disappoint us are exactly that—little things. Let’s remember that there are (unfortunately) worse things than what we are facing. And let’s pray that God will give us HIS heart for the brokenhearted. As is so often said, let’s ask Him to break our hearts for what breaks HIS. And I can just about guarantee that what breaks His heart is not a stained leotard, or even a ruined Easter dress.

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Ice, Mice, and the Lessons They Teach Us

About nine months ago, we moved into a new house and inherited an ice machine. That was exciting in itself, but even more exciting is the kind of ice the machine produces. It’s soft and porous, a little crunchy but not too much so. You can actually bite a cube in half with your front teeth! It does wonders for my oral fixation, but it is much less suited to my TMJ. While this condition has laid dormant for some time, this newfound ice-chewing habit of mine has caused my symptoms to flare up. They extend beyond jaw pain at this point, causing horrible earaches as well as sharp headaches throughout the left side of my head (I’ve even begun to wonder if they aren’t migraines). And yet, I sit here munching away. I’ve even been known to delay my bedtime routine some nights just so that I can eat a few more pieces of this marvelous confection. All of this, even though I am likely driving myself to one day need a titanium jaw replacement—and that is not a good thing to have to have replaced!

The whole thing reminds me of a research study I once read about, involving a bunch of lab rats (or mice, I don’t recall). These rats were placed in cages containing buttons that, when pushed, would allow them to directly stimulate the pleasure centers in their brains. What the researchers found was that the mice would literally pleasure themselves TO DEATH! They wouldn’t eat, or sleep, or do anything else. It seemed so sad and pitiful.

But my ice fetish got me thinking, aren’t we all a bit like those lab rats? It seems that many of us could identify something that might compel us to pleasure ourselves to death—literally or figuratively. It might be something that in itself is relatively benign, or it might be something highly destructive. It might be something that affects only ourselves, or it might affect our friends, families, colleagues, and communities. It might not reach MOAS (Mother of All Sins) proportions, but it might.

In any event, recognizing our own weaknesses, temptations, and vulnerabilities should awaken us from our delusions of self-righteousness. It should give us a frame of reference from which to reach out to one another in our shared humanity. And from this place, we can reach out in grace, and compassion—and yes, in accountability, but first and foremost, in LOVE…because after all, didn’t God first love us? (1 John 4:19).

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His Glory Revealed

I don’t cry very often, thanks to some well-dosed antidepressants, but every now and then I still have my moments. What landed me in that place the other night might surprise you. I had been waiting for some medical test results, and I received them earlier in the day. “Nothing out of the ordinary,” is what the nurse said. This might be a relief to many patients, but to me it represented one more failed attempt at an answer—and with no answers looming on the horizon that I could see.

Chronic pain and illness—some treatable, some not; some diagnosable, some not—has been my plight for years, and it’s one I try to endure with some semblance of grace. But sometimes one more symptom to add to the bray just feels like more than I can handle. You know?

Well, I’ve allowed the Spirit to comfort me in the past through verses like these.

James 1:2-4:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

2 Corinthians 12:7b-10:

“…I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Romans 8:18:

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

But the other night, the passage that came and kept coming to my mind was John 9:1-3:

“As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’

‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.’”

I guess the reason I’ve never connected this story with my own is that Jesus chose to heal this blind man. And if we look at God’s glory as healing, strictly speaking, then I guess it might never apply to me. But even when our paths and journeys differ, God’s glory can still be seen, can it not? Regardless of what we face, God can use our circumstances to reveal His heart.

  • It may look like renewed compassion and empathy for others who suffer.
  • It may look like the encouragement you share with and receive from others.
  • It may look like a strengthened faith in God’s sufficient grace.
  • It may look like God walking alongside you—carrying you when the road becomes too long.
  • It may look like you walking alongside a fellow sojourner—helping them to bear a burden that is too heavy for them to carry on their own.
  • It may look like peace that passes understanding, in spite of swirling turmoil.

I could go on, I’m sure, but I hope you get my point. Chronic pain and illness are my cross to bear (and that of many others), but your struggles (or your friend’s, or your neighbor’s, or your colleague’s, or your sister’s) may be very different. They may include losses, addictions, hurts, sins, you name it. But they are no less usable by God, for the display of His glory—if we will allow Him to use them.

Look for God in your circumstances—chances are, you’ll find Him.

Lenten Blossoms

Burning Coals

Romans 12:18-20:

“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’”

I have to be honest, I’ve never liked this passage. I’ve always thought to myself, first of all, that we as believers shouldn’t be wishing God’s wrath or vengeance upon anyone, no matter their offense. We should hope, pray, and work for repentance, redemption, restoration, and reconciliation. So revenge has never been my M.O. And I’ve never really seen it as God’s, either.

The second reason why I’ve always disliked this passage is the idea of doing good to your enemy in order to “heap burning coals on his head.” That has always struck me as incredibly spiteful. And God doesn’t call us to spite our enemies. No, He calls us to love and bless them. So in my cognitive dissonance, I’ve just glossed over the verses, vowing to ask God about it one day. Well, it turns out that now I don’t have to—thank you Jon Green!

You see, Jon taught from this passage in his Sunday sermon this week, and he shed SO much light on the context of this passage for me. Specifically, he pointed out that this refers to a common-ish practice of the day, and one undertaken when an enemy was attacking. From the top of the city’s wall, soldiers would heap burning coals on the heads of their attackers in order to keep them at bay. And Jon rightly described this as a defensive action, a response from a position of strength, but one respecting appropriate boundaries. So rather than going on the offensive, or being spiteful, this heaping of coals was simply a strategy for protection. And for me, that changes everything.

So then, what about God’s wrath and His vengeance? Well, when Jon suggested that we are to leave revenge to God, I got to thinking that one reason for this is that we do not know how to properly wield vengeance. But God does. And do you know how we know that? John 8. You remember, don’t you, when a woman was brought before Jesus after being caught in adultery? And the teachers of the law wanted to stone her, but Jesus quietly called each one out in his sin, and said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7b). “At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:9-11).

So when we turn our enemies over to God—who is righteous, just, AND merciful—we can trust that He will do the right thing. We can certainly have no such faith in ourselves. What a relief, then, to let go and give it to God—not asking Him to avenge us, but pleading with Him for mercy and forgiveness, on behalf of our enemy. Jesus Himself did no less as He hung on the cross to die for our sins. Let us live by His example, saying “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

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Vantage Point

Romans 12:15-16a

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another…”

The other night, I re-watched the movie, “Vantage Point.” The movie portrays a terrorist attack, but from about nine different points of view. There’s a Secret Service member, a local police officer, a spectator, members of the media, and even a couple of terrorists. What’s interesting is that we, as the audience, had no real idea what was going on until the end—after all of the vantage points had been pieced together. Granted, by the end of the film, there were still a couple of questions remaining, but for the most part, the plot was resolved.

I think this film actually provides a relevant comparison for some of the major discussions and events going on in our country and our world today. I think we are experiencing a lot of uncertainty, confusion, separation, division, self-righteousness, anger, resentment, disparity—and the list goes on.

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But I believe that much of it stems from (or is at least aggravated by) our limited vantage points, our myopic perspectives, and our self-righteous agendas. We have refused to acknowledge and empathize with the positions and perspectives of others around us, in particular those who are not like us. We have elevated our own needs, desires, and comforts above those of others. We have denied or ignored disparities and injustices. And Romans (among other passages in the Bible) makes it clear that this should not be.

Instead, we should rejoice with those who rejoice AND mourn with those who mourn. A huge step in that direction is for us to actively and intentionally adopt—even momentarily—the perspectives and the vantage points of those with whom we are at odds. It may be that we would find ourselves in greater awareness, understanding, and even agreement with one another. This might well allow us to feel greater empathy, express greater compassion, and extend greater assistance to our fellow human beings. In short, we would be that much closer to living in the harmony that Paul calls us to in Romans. What do you say? Shall we give it a try?

 

Jesus…DOES

James 2:15-17

“Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food.
If one of you tells him, ‘Go in peace; stay warm and well fed,’
but does not provide for his physical needs,
what good is that? So too, faith by itself,
if it is not complemented by action, is dead.”

I have a brother in need. He’s not my brother because we share the same parents, or the same last name, or the same political ideology, or the same faith. He’s my brother because the same God who created and loves me created and loves him. Now his name could be Tim, or Bob, or Joe, and his need could be for a place to sleep, a job, a car, or a hot meal. But today, his name is Steve, and he happens to need a kidney transplant.

His story found me through social media, but one thing that stood out to me most was the outpouring of sentiment that his story elicited. In response to his need, his friends sent him good thoughts, positive energy, prayers, and cyber-hugs. But no offers to actually help him, or to tangibly meet his need. Now, to be fair, I don’t know these people. Perhaps they’ve been disqualified from donation. Maybe they are kidney recipients themselves, or are also waiting on transplants of their own. But these comments reflect a common occurrence in our society, namely, that many of us would rather send someone a heartfelt emoji than take action on another’s behalf.

This tendency is not limited to our day and age. Even back in the Bible times, people were keen to offer well wishes to those suffering, rather than to recognize their own ability to help and to accept that responsibility. Think about the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). While a priest and a Levite passed by a man in need, a Samaritan (of no relation whatsoever) stopped to help—even going above and beyond that which common decency would have dictated. Jesus commended this third stranger, and instructed his listeners to do likewise. Also consider James 2:15-17, wherein we see that well wishes are likened to faith without action, and therefore dead.

Please don’t misunderstand me. Prayer is a crucial component in our relationship with God and in our relationships with others. But sometimes—I dare say often—God chooses to answer prayers through the ACTIONS of His people. We will, of course, not always be in a position to meet the needs we observe in the world. But maybe the next time we feel compelled to send someone good vibes, we could at least consider the possibility that God wants us to ACT on those intentions, and to be Jesus’s hands and feet to a world (or a friend or a neighbor or a stranger) in need. And in this particular case, it just so happens that I have a spare kidney—perhaps for just such a time as this.

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Dust

Psalm 103:13-14

“As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.”

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Well, I finally got tattoo #8 yesterday. I’d been thinking about it for some time, but the logistics only just fell into place. Whenever people see a tattoo in another language, the first thing they ask is what it means. Well, in this case, the Korean symbol on the back of my ankle means “dust.” It isn’t the only symbol for dust in the Korean language, but this one means, “soil, earth, clay, dust, ground, terra.” And that seems pretty close to the meaning of dust in the Bible verse above. WE. ARE. DUST.

I think we forget that sometimes. We think we are greater than we are, more invincible, more in control of our own destiny. Or maybe we are constantly beating ourselves up because we aren’t as great as we think we should be; we aren’t as kind, honest, or righteous as we are called to be. We fail. We fall. We disappoint ourselves, and those around us, and presumably God. But the verse above suggests that our God is a God of compassion, understanding, and unconditional love.

We also need to remember that, just as we are formed from dust, so are the people around us. They will fail. They will fall—and the higher the pedestal you’ve put them on, the greater the fall will be. They will disappoint. They will betray. And God remembers that they, too, are but dust.

Now, does this mean we should throw in the towel and dispense with all the good we know we should do? Does it mean we should do away with our efforts to promote justice and righteousness? And does it mean we should try to avoid the consequences of our actions, or protect others from suffering the consequences of theirs? No, no, and no. Paul makes that abundantly clear in Romans 6:1-2: “What then shall we say? Shall we continue in sin so that grace may increase? By no means! How can we who died to sin live in it any longer?”

We should do what we know to be right and good. As Micah 6:8 commands, we must seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. And as Jesus stated (Luke 10:27), we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Still, as hard as we try to obey God’s instructions, we will fail at least some of the time. And no matter how hard our fellow believers try to keep those commands, they will fail. And no matter how much trust and loyalty we place in our leaders, they too will fail. And maybe, just maybe, if the God of the universe—holy, righteous, and just—can show compassion toward such dusty creatures as you and me, then perhaps we could too.

Compassion for Humanity

Psalm 103: 13-14

“Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him. For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust.”

I may have mentioned before how I feel like our testimonies should be living, changing, and growing. God should be moving in us each day—what He’s doing in and through us should never be stagnant, it should never be only in the past. I’m thankful that God challenges and convicts me each week, and that I have the privilege of sharing that journey with all 12 of you. Does my testimony include falls and failures? Absolutely. But just as surely, His continued work in my heart is evidence to me that I am not living surrendered to my sins. It gives me faith that God is not through with me yet. And I praise Him for it.

It is against this backdrop that I confess that this week, I lost hope in humanity. I felt disappointed, and to some extent betrayed, by the words and thoughts expressed by some within my circle of friends and family. I felt like we couldn’t find a common ground—and of course, I was in the right. My first instinct was to—well—judge. I quickly convinced myself that these people lacked compassion. To some degree, they were heartless. I mean, doesn’t the Bible say that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45)? So there I was, peering into hearts that looked to me a lot like tar pits. But then I felt the disquiet that often accompanies the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and I heard a still, small, slow voice speaking to my heart, No.

No. Okay, you’re right, it wasn’t my place to judge. I can’t see people’s hearts. But I could see their actions, and I could tell that these people (and frankly most others) were not to be counted upon. I mean, doesn’t the Bible say that GOD will supply all my needs (Philippians 4:19)? God, not people. So the best course of action was clearly just to rely solely on God for every need and to ask for nothing from others, expect nothing from others. But again, there was that still small voice, No.

How about bearing with one another (Colossians 3:13), and accepting those of weaker faith (Romans 14:1)? No. I don’t know about you, but in my flesh, I end up applying these verses from a place of pious self-righteousness, which was never the author’s intent. It wasn’t Paul’s intent, and it wasn’t God’s.

My heart finally started coming around to a right place once I started thinking about what Jesus would do, what Jesus in fact did. I know it sounds trite, but it’s so right. Jesus encountered an adulterous woman at a well, and another in the street, and He forgave both. He chose Peter, knowing full well that this guy’s fear of man and his temper would lead him to sin. Then later, He asked if Peter loved Him with a sacrificial love. Peter’s answer was essentially, “No. I mean, come on Jesus. You know I love you like a brother and you’re one of my closest friends. Isn’t that enough?” The answer was basically, “No. But that’s okay, you’ll get there.” I’m paraphrasing, of course.

But this seems to always be Christ’s sentiment. So even though I may occasionally struggle with my fellow humans, even though I may not be able to reconcile their perspectives with my own, I know what Jesus would do. Or rather, I know what He wouldn’t do: He wouldn’t give up on them. So if I want to be like Him, then I can’t give up either.