Compassion in Everyday Life
I caught a big work project this week and haven’t had the time I planned to get out the last post in our series on Nouwen’s Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life. It’s coming soon, I promise!
In the meantime, my husband has graciously provided below — for your reading pleasure — his unique perspective on what it looks like to live out the Compassionate Way in our daily lives. Enjoy!
Laura has been talking about compassion this week. I’m going to show compassion…by doing her compassion blog for her today.
I work retail. Retail is interesting. By the nature of this job, I run across people of all different flavors. A lot of people are cool – actually most are – but there are also those people who are sarcastic-awesome (in other words, they’re a bit difficult).
I am the type of employee who makes sure every customer who enters my store is welcomed and receives great service. Honestly, I treat my store like my home and I love it when my employees catch onto this and emulate the example I set in their own way.
Anywho, there was an instance at one point in time where I saw a guy looking at men’s casual pants on the wall.
I approached him and said, “Good morning! Are you looking for a certain type of pant or is there anything else I can help you find today?”
He replied angrily, “I don’t need your help, I can read the tags!”
Despite his reply, I still let him know I’d be around if anything came up that I could help with.
There’s a MeWithoutYou song where the lead singer, Aaron Weiss, sings “If your old man did you wrong, maybe his old man did him wrong…” In other words, every reaction is birthed by an action. Chances are that grumpy customer was grumpy because of something that happened before he was in our store and it had nothing to do with me.
And so I preach compassion and understanding.
Maybe that dude was just having a crappy day. Maybe he’d been diagnosed with cancer (as one customer in the last year told me about when they were angry). Maybe he’d just gotten into a car accident. Maybe his cell phone fell into the toilet. Who knows.
But there is one thing I do know: as a Christian, my reaction is called to be grace, understanding, and compassion, demonstrating the love Christ showed to us on the cross… and to let that love do the work.
Whatcha think? Does this resound with you?
The Compassionate Way (Part 1)
We’re coming to the end of Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life by Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison.
Last week we looked at what it means to live a Compassionate Life through voluntary displacement. We established that displacement is not something to be achieved but to be recognized and that we can only recognize displacement within the community of God and when attentive to the loving voice of God in our daily lives.
But what does it look like to live a life of compassion through voluntary displacement?
Part Three: The Compassionate Way
Now the authors take their argument into the practical action of our daily lives. What does a compassionate life look like? In a word: discipline.
In the Christian life, discipline is the human effort to unveil what has been covered, to bring to the foreground what has remained hidden, and to put on the lamp stand what has been kept under a basket. It is like raking away the leaves that cover the pathways in the garden of our soul. Discipline enables the revelation of God’s divine Spirit in us. (88)
Learning to listen to the loving voice of God — and heed God’s unique call on our individual lives — is a practice that requires the discipline of patience.
Discipline is the effort to avoid deafness and to become sensitive to the sound of the voice that calls us by a new name and invites us to a new life in discipleship…The compassionate way is the patient way. Patience is the discipline of compassion. (89)
This is what Eugene Peterson would call A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Compassion isn’t something we can obtain through an easy three-step formula or a crash course. Compassion is a lifestyle choice, one that takes our entire lives to learn to live out effectively. In a world of quick fixes and instant gratification, the last thing we are drawn to is the discipline of patience. God’s call to the compassionate life is radically counter-cultural. Before we can hope to act compassionately toward those who are hurt by competition, we have to learn to live a life marked by patience.
But this patience practice is not one of passive existence but passionate action:
Patience means to enter actively into the thick of life and to fully bear the suffering within and around us….In short, patience is a willingness to be influenced even when this requires giving up control and entering into unknown territory. (91)
[T]he New Testament presents the discipline of patience as the way to a life of discipleship which makes us living signs of God’s compassionate presence in the world. (93)
We aren’t, by nature or by culture, very patient people. Especially Americans who are used to keeping careful track of time and valuing punctuality and efficiency above all — we are trained to push and rush and make deadlines and fill every moment of our time with busy productivity to earn and to accomplish and to succeed and to finish first. But as Christians, we are invited into a very different experience of time with a paradoxical definition of productivity and accomplishment:
The discipline of patience is the concentrated effort to let the new time into which we are led by Christ determine our perceptions and decisions. (93)
In God’s management of time, patience is productive:
[Patience] is the experience of the moment as full, rich, and pregnant. (96)
As long as we are the slaves of the clock and the calendar, our time remains empty and nothing really happens. Thus, we miss the moment of grace and salvation…. [T]hrough patience we can live in the fullness of time and invite others to share in it. (98)
[W]e are constantly preoccupied with our free evening, free weekend, or free month and lose the capacity to enjoy the people we live and work with day in and day out. (99)
The Compassionate Way calls us to learn to pay attention to life around us. When our lives are defined by the discipline of patience, we find more opportunities to hear God in the daily movements and activities of our lives and answer our unique call to voluntary displacement we might have missed in our rush from one busy productivity to another.
Our culture has done us a genuine disservice in this area, which is why developing cultural discernment is so important to body theology. When we allow culture to dictate our values and assumptions, the lens through which we view the world is skewed toward the value of competition. Even within Christian culture, our lenses could use a good cleaning:
[W]e have accepted the idea that “doing things” is more important than prayer and have come to think of prayer as something for times when there is nothing urgent to do. (101)
Prayer is an expression of the discipline of patience and is the medium through which we hear the loving voice of God and experience intimate relationship with God. Rather than a last resort or a convenient time-filler, prayer
as a discipline that strengthens and deepens discipleship, is the effort to remove everything that might prevent the Spirit of God, given to us by Jesus Christ, from speaking freely to us and in us…we liberate the Spirit of God from entanglement in our impatient impulses…[and] allow God’s Spirit to move freely. (102-3)
[P]rayer as a disciple of patience is the human effort to allow the Holy Spirit to do re-creating work in us…It involves the constant choice not to run from the present moment…the determination to listen carefully to people and events so as to discern the movements of the Spirit…the ongoing struggle to prevent our minds and hearts from becoming cluttered with the many distractions that clamour for our attention…[and] the decision to set aside time every day to be alone with God and listen to the Spirit. (104)
Prayer is hard work, but it is also as simple as sitting (or standing, or dancing, or running) with our bodies, minds, and hearts focused on attending to the Holy Spirit — the loving voice of God. Prayer as the mark of the compassionate life is a truly counter-cultural practice because it requires the most difficult voluntary displacement of all: prayer displaces our own voices, desires, and actions with the voice, desire, and call to action of God:
To listen patiently to the voice of the Spirit in prayer is a radical displacement. (105)
We cannot hope to be effective as the Mother Theresas of the world if we cannot first achieve this inner displacement through patient, disciplined prayer. We cannot act — rightly, timely, compassionately — if we have not first established a lifestyle of prayerful listening to the loving voice of God. Only through prayer are our actions molded to the compassionate way:
[Prayer is] a growing intimacy with God [that] deepens our sense of responsibility for others…requires deep and strong patience…[allows us to] discover a limitless space into which we can welcome all the people of the world…[and] is the very beat of a compassionate heart. (107)
To be concluded on Wednesday!
The Compassionate Life (Part 2)
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!
The Compassionate God
This week, we are reading through Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life by Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison.
Introduction & Part One: The Compassionate God
To be compassionate then means to be kind and gentle to those who get hurt by competition. (6)
But being compassionate toward others, especially the poor and marginalized to whom competition does the most harm, does not come naturally. We do not like to be around others’ pain and suffering, and we certainly do not like to give up anything we consider ours for the benefit of someone else — even in the name of fairness and justice, much less forgiveness and compassion.
Fortunately, we are not governed by our own desires and fears but by the movement of God in our lives:
God’s own compassion constitutes the basis and source of our compassion….[I]t is only in discipleship that we can begin to understand the call to be compassionate as our loving God is compassionate….[I]t is through these disciplines [of prayer and action], which guide our relationships with God and our fellow human beings, that God’s compassion can manifest itself. (8)
Their central argument is that Christians — as human beings who are by our very nature threatened by the idea of showing compassion to others (and thereby losing competition and identity) — are enabled to share in God’s compassion through the new identity we have been given as a result of our experience of the compassion of God in our lives through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This means the compassion that moves us to “be kind and gentle to those who get hurt by competition” does not come from our own nature; it comes from God.
It also comes from the example of a God who would make himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. Because of the humble incarnation of Christ, the example of Jesus’ life, the choice to be obedient to death, and the miracle of the resurrection, we are able to experience the compassion of God for ourselves:
Jesus who is divine lives our broken humanity not as a curse…, but as a blessing. His divine compassion makes it possible for us to face our sinful selves, because it transforms our broken human condition from a cause of despair into a source of hope. (15)
The mystery of God’s love is not that our pain is taken away, but that God first wants to share that pain with us. (16)
Once we have experienced God’s compassion in our own lives, we are transformed by this new-found grace and freedom to live into the new identity we are given as children of God. Then we are able to follow the example of Jesus. Indeed, we are called to do so:
[O]nce we see that Jesus reveals to us, in his radically downward pull, the compassionate nature of God, we begin to understand that to follow Jesus is to participate in the ongoing self-revelation of God. (27)
Personally, this is where I get stuck. I can agree all day that Jesus taught us to be servants and showed us by example how to live radically counter-cultural lives that defy competition in favor of compassion and justice for the poor and marginalized.
But what does that look like in my life? Am I missing out on the will of God by not living in Calcutta or joining Shane Claiborne’s intentional community? What does it mean to be radically counter-cultural?
Radical servanthood is not an enterprise in which we try to surround ourselves with as much misery as possible, but a joyful way of life in which our eyes are opened to the vision of the true God who chose to be revealed in servanthood….[S]ervice is an expression of the search for God. (29)
That’s a beautiful line: a joyful way of life in which our eyes are opened to the vision of the true God who chose to be revealed in servanthood.
It’s not about finding the most misery. We don’t all have to be Mother Theresa to be doing God’s compassionate work in the world. It’s about a radical paradigm shift. It’s about seeing with new eyes, eyes opened to who God is through service.
So how do we know what we are called to do in the world? How do we know if we are Mother Theresas or mothers of three? Our wise authors remind us that it’s much simpler than we imagine:
The obedience of Jesus is hearing God’s loving word and responding to it. (34)
We are poor listeners because we are afraid that there is something other than love in God….[Jesus] came to include us in his divine obedience. He wanted to lead us to God so that we could enjoy the same intimacy he did. (38)
God is all about relationship. God is all about intimacy. When we relate to God intimately, we cannot help but see the world with new eyes. We cannot help but be moved by compassion. We cannot help but pray and act — those disciplines that guide our relationships with God and others.
On Wednesday, we’ll look at Part Two: The Compassionate Life.