“You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.” (Luke 6:36)
Classics come in all forms! Timeless works of art. A symphony or a song, for me say Elgar’s Nimrod and George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun. A painting, for me say Van Gogh”s The Starry Night and Grant Wood’s American Gothic. And books, for me say Homer’s Odyssey and London’s The Call of the Wild. Let me add one more, Now 50 years old, it remains my most marked up book outside of the Bible: Compassion: A Reflection on The Christian Life by McNeill, Morrison, and Nouwen. Get it, and mark it up your own way!
Here’s the cliff-notes: 1) The Great news we have received is that God is a compassionate God. 2) The great call we have heard is to live a compassionate life. 3) The great task we have been given is to walk the compassionate way. 4) The means by which we do this is by disciplines of prayer and action.
Rooted in the central text of Philippians 2, the call is to what the authors call “The downward pull” that we first see in Jesus and learn as we follow him to embrace as our own way of life. Reflecting on the words of Karl Barth, who says “Jesus moves from the heights to the depth, from victory to defeat, from riches to poverty, from triumph to suffering, and from life to death”, the authors posit that “Jesus’ whole life and mission involve accepting in this powerlessness the limitlessness of God’s love...compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there.“
The call is to a constant reflection on the love of God we see embodied in Jesus and his imitation: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” This is our work for the season of Lent, just ahead — to wonder in all that Jesus sets aside of his glory and power to serve, for love’s sake, and to contemplate the journey we have before us. The lingering question the author’s leave us with is a haunting one: “Can we be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, powerless with the powerless?” Our life of faith is incarnational, like the Christ of Christmas. Others will know and experience the near presence and love of God through us — through the Christ who is at work in us and through us.
The problem is this, that compassion — “To suffer with” — is challenging because we deceive ourselves into thinking it’s natural response to human suffering. And it is not! We are pain and suffering avoidant. Compassion is not our central concern as much as making it, getting ahead, winning, avoiding pain and being successful. Isn’t it true, really?
we must look outside of ourselves in a radically different direction. We must be filled with a new Holy Spirit, we must encounter the God of all compassion, we must learn and follow Jesus Christ into the world. It is here, here, in our new life in Christ that the tables turn, that instead of upward mobility, we embrace the downward pull and become servants of the Holy One. We become a community of displacement. We lay down our rights and privileges. Our hearts beat for what is just and right, and our hands and feet find us laying down our lives for others. What is unnatural and distant in our human experience becomes as natural as breath when the Spirit of God has had its way with us.
We become living manifestations of God’s presence in this world.
Have mercy on us, O God, and lead us to this place!