We’re still making our way through Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life by Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison. Read last week’s posts. This week, we’re in Part Two: The Compassionate Life. This is my Part 2 on their Part Two, so be sure to read Part 1 here.
We left off Monday talking about Christ Transforming Culture and the redeeming power of voluntary displacement.
More on The Compassionate Life
The authors stress that voluntary displacement is not a method or formula for creating community. We can’t arbitrarily decide to move somewhere, set up “voluntary displaced community” and somehow magically become compassionate:
[V]oluntary displacement can only be an expression of discipleship when it is a response to a call — or, to say the same thing, when it is an act of obedience…the climax of many years of inner struggle to discover God’s will…Those who practice voluntary displacement as a method or technique to form new community, and thus to become compassionate, will soon find themselves entangled in their own complex motivations and involved in many conflicts and much confusion. (69)
Living compassionate lives within the community of God through voluntary displacement is something that God has to ignite and maintain. It is our role to listen for the loving voice of God, watch for the action of God in the world, and go join in what God is already doing in which we are called to participate.
What we hear, what we see, and what we are called to join into will not be the same for everyone. In fact, what we are called to may not look like anything we were expecting at all:
God calls every human being in a unique way and each of us ought to be attentive to God’ voice in our own unique lives…[We must] begin [not] by displacing ourselves…[but by identifying] in our own lives where displacement is already occurring. We may be dreaming of great acts of displacement while failing to notice in the displacements of our own lives the first indications of God’s presence. (70)
Displacement begins with the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and it is that movement that we must be sensitive to if we are going to identify and join in the calling of God on our lives.
Here I always think of one of my aunts who underwent renovations in her home over several years. As a homemaker, my aunt found herself enduring the brunt of the daily coordination with the workers, making sure she was always home when the workers were there to answer questions and give them access to different parts of the house. She was getting tired of all the interruptions and lack of privacy as working men tramped in and out of her house day after week after month, making loud construction noises and leaving the mess of in-progress projects everywhere she went.
She told me last Christmas, as the last of the renovations was finally completed and the workers moved on to another project, that she was surprised to realize how much she had learned about the lives of the men working on her house, how she had had many unexpected opportunities to listen to their stories and problems, offer advice and a new perspective, and even represent a Christian witness in their lives. What had seemed to her an ongoing frustration and imposition while they were working in her home now seemed more like a rare and precious opportunity to be a compassionate presence in the lives of these men who perhaps will never set food inside a church building.
Nouwen says it best:
Displacement is not primarily something to do or to accomplish, but something to recognize. (71)
Careful attention to God’s actions in our lives thus leads us to an even greater sensitivity to God’s call…But no one will be able to hear or understand these very blessed calls if he or she has not recognized the smaller calls hidden in the hours of a regular day. (72)
Voluntary displacement, then, is a lot less about doing and a lot more about developing an attitude and posture of listening for the voice of love in our daily lives. And we are able to listen best when encouraged and supported by the community of God:
[V]oluntary displacement is not a goal in itself; it is meaningful only when it gathers us together in a new way…[and] leads us to understand each other as women and men with similar needs and struggles and to meet each other with an awareness of a common vulnerability. (75)
The Christian community, gathered in common discipleship, is the place where individual gifts can be called forth and put into service for all. It belongs to the essence of this new togetherness that our unique talents are no longer objects of competition but elements of community, no longer qualities that divide but gifts that unite. (77)
If we cannot give and receive compassion among one another within the community of God, how can we hope to live a life compassionate toward everyone else? If we are struggling for power and control in our own communities, how can we release and share that power with the poor and marginalized all around us?
This is why body theology — specifically the emphasis on equality within the community of God — is so important. We cannot hear the voice of love for our communities if we are busy fighting among ourselves, worrying about who’s right, who’s biblical, and who’s allowed to do what in the pulpit or in the the pews.
Sharing power and control does not mean we lose everything. It does not mean we give up or quit or run away. It does not mean we make ourselves less than we are, deny ourselves, or put on false humility. It’s about a choice, a paradigm shift from me-first to preferring-the-other:
Self-emptying does not ask of us to engage ourselves in some form of self-castigation or self-scrutiny, but to pay attention to others in such a way that they begin to recognize their own value…To pay attention to others with the desire to make them the center and to make their interests our own is a real form of self-emptying, since to be able to receive others into our intimate inner space we must be empty. That is why listening is so difficult. It means our moving away from the center of attention and inviting others into that space…The simple experience of being valuable and important to someone else has tremendous recreative power. (79-80)
When we listen to God’s loving voice as well as the voices of our communities, especially those who are marginalized, we are invited into the perspective of another, and we create space for God’s healing and restoration to begin. This is also body theology — recognizing ourselves in others and allowing the different perspectives of others to inform our own understanding of what it means to be the image of God and the body of Christ:
When we form a Christian community, we come together not because of similar experiences, knowledge, problems, color, or sex, but because we have been called together by the same God. (81)
Without a diverse and unified community of God around us, we cannot hope to become the compassionate beings God has called us to be. But when we listen to the voice of God and the wisdom and experience of those around us, we are finally able to recognize the displacement happening in our lives and join in, together, as the BODY of Christ:
God calls everyone who is listening; there is no individual or group for whom God’s call is reserved. But to be effective, a call must be heard, and to hear it we must continually discern our vocation amidst the escalating demands of our career. Thus, we see how voluntary displacement leads to a new togetherness in which we can recognize our sameness in common vulnerability, discover our unique talents as gifts for the upbuilding of the community, and listen to God’s call, which continually summons us to a vocation far beyond the aspirations of our career. (84)
Living the compassionate life is possible, but only with a listening posture, a community of God, and a willingness to choose the unique voluntary displacement to which God calls each of us.
Next week, we’ll look at Part Three and the Conclusion. Get excited!