Compassion

Jesus Said, “Love.”

There, but by the grace of God, go I.

I don’t know a lot about world news. Let’s be honest, I don’t know much about national or local news either. Ever since I switched to Outlook as my e-mail platform, and no longer regularly see the Yahoo! News postings, I’m pretty much in the dark. And yet, it didn’t escape my attention that last Friday, Paris fell victim to multiple terrorist attacks. I knew because the media coverage of events was nonstop. I knew because Facebook friends near and far changed their profile pictures in solidarity, and posted prayer requests and sympathy notes. My first inkling that something had happened was actually a status update from a friend in Paris, letting us all know that she and her family were safe. Praise God!

But then, a bit later, I saw a post that convicted me (https://newmatilda.com/2015/11/14/paris-attacks-highlight-western-vulnerability-and-our-selective-grief-and-outrage/). In this post, Chris Graham accused the Western world of selective outrage, stating that, “Meanwhile, in a brown part of the world, as the attacks began in Paris, Lebanon was just emerging from a National Day of Mourning, after 43 people were killed and 200 more were injured during a series of coordinated suicide bombings in Beirut.” He also highlighted an attack 11 months ago, in which “Boko Haram razed the town of Baja in Nigeria, killing more than 2,000 people.” He went on to tell about several other heinous crimes against humanity that received very little popular or media attention. And then he asked a poignant question: “How do we explain our indifference to the suffering of people we perceive as different, Lebanese, African, Hazara, Muslim…. Brown people?”

The sober answer is, “I don’t know.” But I know it’s wrong. Sure, France is an ally—a friend. Sure some of us have visited there, or have friends who live there. But are we justified in dismissing suffering just because it happens in a place we’ve never been before? Or in a war-torn country where it “happens every day”? You know, many of the people killed in these terrorist attacks in the non-Western world are innocent civilians, casualties of war. But even those who are not, even those whose hearts and actions are bent on malice, even those are among the fallen humanity that Jesus died to save. We should pray for redemption and salvation for ALL. And we should see and be heartbroken over ALL suffering. Period.

After all, “God so loved the WORLD, that He gave his only begotten son, that WHOSOEVER believes in Him shall not parish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

The Danger of “Every”

Always. Never. Every. These are dangerous words. First of all, they’re almost never correct. Our world and this life are full of exceptions, for better or worse. Just this week, I read an article about abortion, wherein the author argued that “every” abortion is a failure of community. I have to disagree. Sometimes, the decision may be one of compassion and even selflessness. I’ve always been one to say that I would never have an abortion, but then I heard a story that gave me pause.

You see, there’s this condition called osteogenesis imperfecta (A.K.A. brittle bone disease). This disease can cause babies to suffer multiple and repeated broken bones in utero and after birth. In many of these severe cases, the babies don’t live through the gestation period. Of those that do, many die shortly after being born. I read an article about one little girl who had 30 broken bones at birth. I’ve personally never broken a bone, but I have no doubt that it is quite painful and traumatic—to break even ONE, I mean. I cannot fathom 30 broken bones at once or the pain that this poor girl must have been experiencing constantly. In her case, the parents decided not to terminate the pregnancy, and she has survived thus far. They report that she has a huge personality and a strong will to live. Still, she uses a wheelchair because her feet would break under the weight of her legs. She once broke a bone by sitting down on a waterbed. The slightest touch can cause fractures, so even holding or hugging her presents that danger.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not, by any means, saying that those parents made the wrong decision. But what I am saying is that I would have understood their motives, had they made the other choice. I believe that life begins at conception, but my understanding is also that babies can feel pain in the womb, somewhere around 20 weeks’ gestation. That leaves 20 weeks of severe pain in this case. If you or I were to suffer that kind of pain for 20 weeks, we would call it torture. The very thought of it brings to mind advanced interrogation techniques, which represent the antithesis of compassion.

So, even though I would like to say that I would never choose abortion, and though I will say that I would always seek out EVERY other possible option before pursuing that one, I can also say that I don’t envy the position of being forced to make that choice. I can also say that I would choose to grieve with someone who had made that choice, rather than judging them. After all, Romans 12:15 instructs us to “weep with hose who weep.” That is community. That is the Body of Christ. That is the Gospel.

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Signs

Judges 6: 39-40

“Then Gideon said to God, ‘Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request.
Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.’ That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about Gideon this week. If you spent any time at all in Sunday school as a kid, you’re probably familiar with his story. You may recall how God once commanded him to deliver the Israelites from the oppression of the Midianites. What’s more, this deliverance came after God had whittled Gideon’s army from 32,000 men to a mere 300. It was a pretty impressive victory, by all accounts.

But I, for one, have never given Gideon all that much credit. While he was technically a man of faith, consistency wasn’t exactly his strong suit. Besides that, he always seemed to need an inordinate amount of hand holding from God in order to follow through with His commands. I mean, after all, before the call to deliver Israel from the Midianites, God commanded Gideon to destroy Israel’s altars to false gods. At that time, Gideon had asked for a sign—and God had obliged—before obeying. God had also instructed Gideon, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you? …. I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites, leaving none alive.” And yet, when the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon, making him believe that it was time to deliver the Israelites, he asked for another sign: “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised—look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said” (Judges 6: 37). Again, God honored his request. When Gideon arose the next morning, verse 38 tells us, “he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water.”

Time to round up the troops, right? Wrong. Instead, Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.” If we ever needed more proof that His mercies are new every morning, it comes to us in verse 40: “That night God did so.” Finally, Gideon believed and trusted and set out to conquer Midian. He obeyed, seemingly without question, as God reduced his fighting force from 32,000 to 10,000, and then from 10,000 to 300. But in God’s faithfulness, He offered even more assurance: “During that night the Lord said to Gideon, “Get up, go down against the camp, because I am going to give it into your hands. If you are afraid to attack, go down to the camp with your servant Purah and listen to what they are saying. Afterward, you will be encouraged to attack the camp” (Judges 7:9-11). And so they did, and so they were. And God delivered Israel, as promised.

But I’ve never thought of Gideon as the hero in this story. Instead, he seems like the vessel that God had to drag kicking and screaming onto the pages of history. He was the epitome of one who had greatness thrust upon him. As such, I have never been surprised at the lack of popularity with which people have bestowed this name ever since 1880 when the Social Security Administration began keeping these kinds of records. My apologies to the 928 of you who chose that name for your sons in 2014 alone. But maybe you realized a few things that I only just considered this last week:

  • Gideon only thought that he was hearing from God. He truly wasn’t sure. It isn’t as though God actually showed up in a burning bush. There were a few signs, to be sure, but how definitive were they really?
  • Gideon probably knew about the unreliability of dew. They probably didn’t understand dew points back then, and beyond that, there are a lot of other variables that play into the phenomenon that is the morning dew. How else would you explain why the presence or absence of dew on any given morning is just as likely to depend on the type of surface or the side of the house on which an object is placed?
  • Gideon was charged with the wellbeing of 32,000 troops as well as the rest of the Israeli population. That is a huge responsibility and a matter of stewardship that Gideon obviously didn’t take lightly. And finally,
  • Gideon, like all of us, was flesh and blood and dust. He was a finite human, without the eternal perspective that God had (and still has) to see the ultimate big picture.

Just as this story tells us a little bit about a man named Gideon, I think it’s a good reflection of us. Not many of us hear from prophets or angels, and even fewer hear the audible voice of God. So when we’re faced with big and important decisions, our natural tendency is to ask for signs, for confirmation. We don’t want to proceed without assurance that God will go with us.

Thankfully, this story also tells us a lot about God. He understands us, He sees our hearts, He knows our weaknesses. And in spite of all of that, He remains faithful, just as He did to Gideon. And so, when we wish we could just step out in faith, but when God’s voice is so difficult to discern from the voices of others and even our own desires, we have this assurance: God is willing and able to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20), even if that sometimes means sending a supernatural, undeniable sign from heaven.

My Lord’s Ten

“I lost her and all my friends
Broke all but one of my Lord’s ten
But Jesus died for all my sins
That’s how I know I’m gettin’ in”

 –Love & Theft

Have you heard Love & Theft’s new song, “Whiskey on My Breath”? If not, you ought to check it out. It’s a soulful and poignant tale of a guy who wakes up realizing his need for grace—after all, he’s broken “all but one of my Lord’s ten.” Hmm. And here I was, thinking I’d coined that confession. And frankly, given the band’s inception date and the year of this song’s release, it’s entirely possible that I did. I just never had the foresight to copyright it. But really, if we want to get technical, the guys from the band and I are all equally guilty of plagiarism…call it the Lord’s eleventh, if you will.

Because, as I recall, there once was this jerk who wound up blinded on the road to Damascus—circa 33 A.D. or so—when Christ himself confronted the accused of his many sins. And while the Apostle Paul’s resume may have included a different set of nine sins than yours or mine, he’d been there and done that before any of us. And why? Why did he—or you, or I, or any of us—have to screw up so royally? Well, if Paul ever asked that question, he must have found his answer, because he shares it with us in 1 Timothy 1:14-16:

“and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus….Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life…”

So basically, the point was for us to ‘get’ grace. We were meant to understand it and to receive it, in large part so that we could also give it to others. When I come to grips and to terms with my own depravity, the depth of my own sins (plural), I find myself a lot better equipped to extend grace to those around me…that is, until I forget.

Then I start strapping on my phylacteries and allowing myself to feel superior to (or at least less inferior than) others. I reason that my sins hurt fewer innocent bystanders, or that they’re justified by my circumstances. I start filling my satchel with rocks I can use to stone the harlot. But then Jesus kneels down and writes something in the sand. I don’t know what He wrote to the Pharisees that day in John 8, but to me, He recites the Lord’s Prayer—“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

God,
Grant us the strength and mercy to show grace and compassion toward our fellow transgressors. Help us to forgive those who trespass against us, just as you have forgiven us. Amen.

The Hearts of ALL Men

Luke 23:42-43
“And he was saying, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom!’
And He said to him, ‘Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise.’”

Ecclesiastes 3:11 is one of my favorite verses because it declares that God has set eternity in the hearts of men. It gives me comfort to know that my own longing for heaven and for home is a God-given desire, and one that need never be stifled for the sake of fitting in or smoothing over. But, as we spend this season reflecting on the significance of Easter and of Christ’s suffering on our behalf, I’m more moved to focus not on the fact that God has set eternity in my heart personally, but on the fact that He has set that same sense of the eternal within the hearts of ALL men—all humankind.

Luke 23:42-43 illustrates this perfectly. It’s the account of the thief on the cross who confesses to Jesus and places his trust in Him. A hardened criminal, if you will, and his last thoughts were of heaven. I can’t imagine he’d spent much of his life considering his eternal condition. And yet, at the one moment that counted most, that was the only thing on his mind. You know what I love even more? That Jesus honored this man’s dying request. God didn’t set eternity in our hearts to be stingy with it, or to snatch it away. He longs that each of us would accept His gift of eternal life. 2 Peter 3:9 (NASB) assures us, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”

I have to confess that sometimes I do feel like God has been slow to keep His promise to me. Like Moses, I long to see His Glory face to face, pleading, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come.” But, if I shift my focus off of myself and on to all men, I’m led to pray instead for His continued patience and dedication to widespread repentance: “Give them one more day, Father, and forgive them—for they know not what they do.”

Through Eyes of Compassion: Leah

The story of Jacob’s family represents the epitome of dysfunction. You almost have to read it for yourself (Genesis 29:31 – 30:24), but the gist of it is that Jacob’s wives—Leah and Rachel—along with the servants of each woman, are for years engaged in a fertility contest of sorts. They try to one up each other by any means possible or necessary. Why?

Well it all goes back to the fact that Leah was Jacob’s first wife, but not his first choice. And while Leah was fertile, she was not loved by her husband. She spent years trying to earn his favor and his love by bearing him one son after another—six sons in all. We might, at first glance, be tempted to judge Leah for attempting to manipulate Jacob into loving her. We might condemn her for foolishly attempting to secure Jacob’s affections through childbearing. But recently, God gave me fresh eyes to see this woman.

Interestingly, Leah means tired, or weary. What a fitting name for someone who has tried so hard and so long to be enough for her husband—to be good enough, beautiful enough, fruitful enough. Leah would never earn Jacob’s love. But truly, one must consider whether love that is “earned” is really love at all. Isn’t that what makes God’s love so profound, after all—that we could never earn it ourselves?

So now, when I see Leah, I see her heart—a heart that, very simply, is ever longing for love. Sadly, she kept looking for it in the wrong place. And I wondered, if I had been Leah’s friend, how would I have prayed for her? Seeing her in this new light, I think I would have prayed something like this:

Lord God,

Only you know the depth of your love for Leah.
Only you know how priceless she is to you—
so priceless that you would sacrifice your beloved son to ransom and redeem her soul.
She’s been looking for love in all the wrong places,
looking for significance outside of your will,
and trying so hard to be enough apart from you.
Help her to see that you are enough for her…and that, in you, she is enough.
No matter what the world tells her, she is loved by you.
Bring her peace and contentment in the knowledge of this
profound and inexplicable love.

In Christ’s name and for His sake,

Amen.

 If you recognize Leah in someone you know, feel free to pray these words over her (or him, as the case may be). If you recognize her in yourself, please accept them as my prayer for you. And be blessed.

Redeemed unto Reconciliation

That we as Christians have been given the ministry of reconciliation isn’t exactly news. After all, Paul stated in 2 Corinthians 5:18 that God “reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” He also said that, as far as it depends on us, we are to “be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18). But, if you’re anything like me, this is one of those things that falls squarely into the ‘easier said than done’ category. So I welcomed the recent sermon series that our pastor preached on this subject. While I learned a lot from the entire four-week series, I can also say that there were several “tweetable” tidbits (c/o @bradyherbert) that really spoke to me. I hope they will speak to all of you as well.

  1. When we look for God’s goodness in someone, it’s impossible to make them our enemy. And I would add that when we look for the good that God might be working both in and through that person, we are better able to move toward reconciliation. This concept reminds me of a strategy you’ve probably heard about before. When we pray for others (and more specifically, our enemies), we are drawn to them and God gives us a greater level of compassion for them. Of course, that means that we pray for God’s blessings in their lives. We pray that He would comfort, guide, and—yes—convict. But we don’t pray that they would ‘get what’s coming to them.’ We don’t pray that God would ‘smite’ them. We pray for God’s best for them. And in the process, we are changed.
  2. I can forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in me. This logic requires that we identify and acknowledge what I like to call our ‘Mother of All Sins’ (M.O.A.S). If you can’t admit that you’ve ever done anything inexcusable, if you can’t understand why Jesus had to die for your sins, this will be VERY hard—if not impossible—to do. Now, I know what some of you are saying: “No, that’s not right—all sin is the same to God.” And you’re right. But all sin is NOT the same to US. If you steal a pen from work, there is no way you’re going to feel a sense of grief over your sin. If you were to kill someone—and I’m not suggesting that you should—you would feel a much greater sense of remorse. So we, as finite humans, tend to rank sins from least to most egregious. Then we set a threshold beyond which sins are ‘worth’ Christ’s sacrifice. And each of us needs to identify and OWN whatever sin or sins we feel are worth that punishment. This can be especially hard if you’ve grown up in the church. Many ‘lifelong’ believers lament that they “don’t have a testimony” because they never joined a gang or got into drugs or what have you. But you MUST find your testimony. I believe that the best way to do this is to pray, humbly asking God to reveal to you your areas of weakness and sin, so that you can repent.
  3. If someone refuses to repent, “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18: 17). Our pastor, Brady, rightly pointed out how many of us use this verse as a license to wash our hands of another and throw them out of the church. I have to confess, that’s how I’ve always read that verse. But if you think about it, that’s not at all how Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors. He pursued them, he loved them, he sought reconciliation with them, and—lest we forget—he DIED for them. I find that I often judge nonbelievers less harshly than I do other Christians. I mean, Christians should know better, right? But if a believer is caught in sin, or is unwilling to reconcile, then we must conclude that something is keeping them from embracing the salvation that they claim. Thinking of it that way, I feel led to respond with compassion and sympathy, and to pray that they would be reconciled first with God, and then with the Church. And one more thing: we can never give up. I’ve heard of believing parents with children who have gone astray. They pray constantly for many years and they NEVER give up on their kids’ souls. That is the essence of the parables of the prodigal son, the lost sheep, and the missing coin. And our love and compassion should be as relentless as God’s.
  4. We must awaken the desire for reconciliation. The final message in this series offered a lot of practical tips to help us move from a place of knowing that we should reconcile, or believing that we can reconcile, to a place where we can honestly say that we want to reconcile. Here are some of the biggies:
  • We need to develop empathy and compassion for those with whom we seek to reconcile.
  • We need to avoid the temptation to morally ‘separate ourselves’ from the other person—essentially viewing them as inferior to ourselves. Instead, we need to find a common ground from which we can reach out in love, grace, and mercy.
  • We need to remember that we are all created in the image of God and are worth of being treated with human dignity. And finally,
  • We need to remember that we ourselves are finite beings and that God may be working an angle that we can’t see—or possibly even imagine.

So, when we think about all of these pieces in the puzzle of reconciliation, I hope that we are each prompted to take a step or two in that direction. And in that way, one small step after another, we will hopefully end up a lot closer to the peace that we are called to pursue.

Test Me in This

Malachi 3:10

“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,”
says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven
and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.”

Isn’t it intriguing how God can speak to different people in so many different ways through a single message? Our pastor, Brady, just finished a sermon series on stewardship, entitled, “For the Love of Money.” Malachi 3:10 states that there is exactly one realm of our lives wherein we are invited, and even encouraged, to TEST the Lord our God. That one realm is stewardship. And throughout my life, I’ve taken God at His word, and have given Him the first fruits of my efforts. And no matter what I’ve faced, God has delivered. I have never had an expense, expected or otherwise, that I haven’t been able to pay. I can’t say that there has always been anything leftover afterward, but there has always been enough.

So needless to say, I didn’t expect this series to speak very loudly to me. But, on the last Sunday of the series, God spoke to me. And actually, it was the benediction that first caught my attention. Our missions pastor mentioned how help was still needed in setting up for and tearing down after the Compassion Mobile Experience over the weekend (http://www.compassion.com/change/default.htm?referer=134089). “Maybe you have some extra time that you could give,” is what he said. But in my mind I thought, Well, I don’t have extra time. I don’t have enough time to do all of the things that are on my plate as it is. But that thought triggered another. During the sermon, Bracdy had challenged college students to give to the church, addressing the common ‘moral’ objection that many of them have to giving their parents’ money—money that isn’t technically theirs. But Brady suggested that the same moral conviction doesn’t come into play when it’s a matter of buying a case of Red Bull, or a coffee, or a sorority t-shirt (#Lawyered). So I reflected for a moment on all of the things that I would make time for: exercise, coffee with a friend, Dancing with the Stars, and on and on.

And I heard a still small voice saying, “Test me in this.” And I did. I signed up to help with both the setup and tear down. And God rewarded me. I got to meet a great group of people on the Compassion event staff, and I got to serve in a way that was uniquely suited to my gifts and passions (and those opportunities are hard to come by). For me, that would have been enough. But now I can also say that I am almost caught up with my other obligations. In fact, I’m probably closer to caught up than I’ve been in months. Granted, I had to skip my workout for a couple of days, and I had to work all weekend (I caught most of the highlights of the Baylor game on instant replay while multitasking). But, as is always the case, God was faithful. He passed the test with flying colors—and was there really any doubt that He would?

So, how about you? When you hear that still small voice, will you listen?