Got Compassion?

I grew up in an Army town with a Mom who practiced hospitality. She welcomed my drill sergeant brother-in-law and his Fort Benning friends. They ate, played cards, smoked Kools and sipped Budweiser and Heineken under the trees in the backyard.

She was a church-going Methodist, but she knew a thing or two about relating to people that I had yet to learn.

When I married, I forbid my father from visiting my home if he had to smoke indoors. (He chain-smoked unfiltered Camels; and nobody smokes in my house.) Result?

I was married nearly 20 years by the time he succumbed to lung cancer, and he hadn’t visited once. By valuing my rule over the relationship, I’d say I flunked the “show and tell” test of Christianity.

Jesus, on the other hand, ate and drank with sinners. His demonstrated love, and people opened their lives to Him. They gave Him what my friend calls “a front row seat” to the drama of their lives, an  insider perspective.  They were not disappointed.

Jesus “had compassion.” He embraced people, and their lives were never the same. Never underestimate the power of relationship… or the impotence of lacking one.

A church acquaintance contacted me the other day, wanting to have a heart-to-heart talk.  While I appreciated their “concern,” frankly, we don’t know each other well enough for that kind of conversation.

Oh, we’ve smiled politely at one another in church hallways over the years and shared the quick hellos and obligatory half-hugs that pass for Christian fellowship. But we know nothing about each other’s real lives. We have zero relationship.

Concern is good, but compassion has the idea of “co-suffering.” Stronger than empathy, it’s an intimate understanding that makes you want to do something to alleviate a person’s pain. Jesus lived this. Modern-day saints, on the other hand, are more likely to offer a plastic smile and a platitude than genuine compassion.

It may be easier to phone-in Scriptural cures for people’s ills than to soil ourselves with the messy details, but why would anyone want to bare their soul to someone who has no idea who they are? Christians may have “The Answer,” but we often are unwilling to invest the time to develop the kind of relationships that prompt a question. I regret having made this mistake with my father.

We have to earn the privilege of speaking into people’s lives. It all starts with establishing a loving connection. Such things require time, patience and sacrifice. Like anything worthwhile, it takes effort. Jesus is our model.

So I’ve committed to be more available to people, more open to the quick phone call, the drop-by visit, the inconvenient conversation over coffee. It’s not always easy. I’m still learning what my Mom wordlessly expressed in entertaining those Vietnam vets:  Love covers a multitude of sins, and mercy triumphs over judgment.

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