Sunday, January 6, 2013

Learning Compassion

This month's Synchroblog topic: New Year’s Resolutions are usually somewhat self-serving. But is there a way you can serve others in 2013? . .  Where, when, how, and to whom will you be the hands and feet of Jesus? 

My son asked a few years ago, almost casually: “How do you teach compassion?”
The question caught me a bit off guard. We exchanged some ideas, moved on to other things, but I found myself returning to the question: not just “how do you teach compassion,” but “how do you learn compassion?”

The more I thought, the more I saw that my idea of compassion, of teaching it, of learning it, was very small: an occasional activity. A box on a check-list. Something picked up and set down. A weekend, even week long project, not the ambition of a lifetime.

I've been praying God would give me a deeper view of the compassion lived out by Christ, when he came to be one of us, aligning himself with us so deeply that our grief became his, our sin became his.

That prayer has been answered in ways I couldn't have imagined. As I dig through "what matters," and consider this month’s Synchroblog topic, "Serving others in the New Year," this word, compassion, asserts itself: compassion shows me what matters, and teaches me to serve.

Just over a year ago, a mom I’d come to know through my years in youth ministry called to ask if I'd talk with her son. He was struggling, needed someone to talk with, and had mentioned he might be willing to talk to me.

A few days later, we met over hot wings and soda, and he poured out his story.

His family was in trouble, for a host of reasons, some that made him angry, some that made him sad. He couldn't change anything, couldn't fix anything.

He was exactly the age I was when my own family fell apart, when we lost our home, separated to different households, changed schools. I had felt very alone, and fearful. I heard that aloneness in his voice, that fear.

Somehow, in the course of that diner meal, and the following conversation with his mom, his challenges became mine. His family became my own.

And God sketched out his curriculum for compassion. It means “suffering with.” Or – more broadly – “feeling with.”

I agreed to spend an afternoon and evening a week, helping with whatever needed to be done. And I agreed to align myself with the challenges the family was facing, to do what I could to help with practical, emotional, spiritual obstacles that had become almost overwhelming.

That first evening I experienced the frustration of a single mom with teens who don’t listen, mountains of dishes, laundry everywhere.

I experienced the anxiety of too much noise, too little space, the frantic search for school papers lost in a mountain of debris, schedule out of control, all priorities lost in the jumble of what comes next.

And I caught a taste of a long-forgotten refrain: not enough money, and no way to make more, with the endless juggling of bills, gas, postponed repairs, school trip permission papers set aside, requests for clubs and teams answered, again, with "we don’t have the money."

Compassion means seeing it all from a different point of view. From inside, rather than outside. From the place of pain, and weakness, and poverty, rather than the place of sheltered comfort.

Compassion ate several weeks of last winter, as God opened a door for the family to move to a house that offered more room.

And compassion led me back to thrift stores and yard sales, looking for furniture, bicycles, a lawn mower for the new yard. I discovered freecycle, and also discovered that there are people who will “give away” things that are far past any hint of usefulness.

Compassion invited me to explore local Laundromats: I can tell you where people are friendliest, where the washers are biggest, which stays open latest.

And recently, compassion led me to sit in our church's food closet waiting line, thankful in an entirely new way for the gracious hospitality of the food closet volunteers, and the generous contributions of our local grocery stores.

I have learned, again, how much I don’t know, and how much I do:

I don’t know why some people are given resources beyond measure, and others start life with far less than enough.

I don’t know why those with much find it so easy to judge those with less.  

I do know that prayer is most real in situations where my own wisdom, strength, and patience fail.

I know that God’s love is not dependent on performance, appearance, contribution, compliance. And I know I feel that love more deeply as I learn to love those others he loves, as his children become mine.

I know, too, in a much more tangible way, that our own feeble attempts to share God’s love are surrounded, energized, and blessed by riches far beyond our own.

When I left youth ministry, I grieved the loss of contact with kids, of random outings with strange mixes of teens, the incessant questions, the rowdy card games, the conversation and prayer with parents.

All that has been given back in new formats, in a freer, more organic way. No permission slips needed. No planning months ahead.

This past year included trips to several local farms, a fishing expedition, a paddleboat outing, multiple picnics, my first ever go-kart ride. Car conversations, long and short. Doubts shared over dinner dishes. Card games. Projects.

Yes, I have kids of my own. But they’re all grown and doing well. I’m thankful beyond words for who they are, the good work they’re doing, and for the fact that they grew up in a stable home, with two parents who loved them, money for school outings, lessons, camps, clubs.

And yes, I have grandkids of my own. I have fun outings with them as well. Some the same, some different. They have two parents of their own, four very attentive grandparents, aunts and uncles happy to teach them to fish, take them to parks, make sure they have wonderful vacations.

I find myself aware, far more than ever, of all the families who have no back up, or not enough, or contingent in destructive ways. Single moms whose extended families have few resources, little experience of success. Immigrant families with no community support, struggling to understand the complexities of life in a new country. Families with special needs kids with no safety net of available grandparents nearby. Families struggling with mental illness, addiction, long histories of multiple dysfunction.

How many of those families can I walk beside, “suffer with,” consider part of my own family? More than I would have expected.

And what would our churches look like, what would our communities look like, if every family with resources to spare walked alongside an individual or family needing support? If every beleaguered parent had the phone number of a compassionate friend willing to share inconvenience, anxiety, frustration, joy?

I’m not sure what the year ahead will hold. I do know my life is richer as the walls of my household extend toward others, as the boundaries of my heart melt with compassion for families not my own. I expect challenges I’m not prepared for. Questions I can’t answer. Setbacks and successes.

I pray God will draw me deeper into living his word, until compassion shapes each thought, and writes its agenda on each day. 
Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.  Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor,serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.  Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. . . .  Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another.  Romans 12

This post is part of the January 2013 Synchroblog. Here are posts from other participants:
This is also the second of a series for the new year: "What Matters"
Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome.
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