Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Extravagance of Compassion

I was thinking about compassion yesterday. I remember reading somewhere that the word compassion literally means com (with) passion (suffering). So compassion really isn't about sentimental feelings or pity, but rather it is sharing in the pain. It is suffering with someone. How many of us really want to sign up for that? I struggle with it, wrestle with it even, like with a big alligator that I think might eat me if I let my guard down.

I used to visit a nursing home every Sunday morning for about a year and a half...maybe two years. During that time I got to know some of the men and women who lived there, many of whom had no family, and my heart would just nearly break every time I walked in the place. Every single time. I would sit with some and ask about their children and grandchildren and their deceased spouses. Most were quite philosophical about being near the end of their lives and I was often struck by their quiet acceptance of it. Sometimes the ones who were the most overlooked and neglected by their own relatives were the sweetest and kindest, and they made me feel as if I had given them the world when all I had done was sit with them, look into their eyes and enter into their reality for just a few minutes. And I always thought that, with each visit, it would grow easier to have communion with such deep pain , but it never did.

As a pastor I was accustomed to seeing the hurts of others. It was my job and my great privilege to listen, to roll up my sleeves and get down into the dirt and disappointments of others, to help them when I could and hold them close when I could not. But for me this was a stark, raw suffering that I could scarcely look upon and there was not a single Sunday that I didn't want to turn and run back out to my car and drive away and pretend that no such pain existed. I am not proud of that, but I won't lie about it either. The deep suffering of others is often blinding, suffocating and repelling and it is only when we are in vital union with the One who was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief that we can look upon it, reach out and touch it, and even enter in. To suffer with another is the most extravagant of gifts and not one we can give in and of ourselves.

And then, when my own mother became terminally ill and I could visibly see the life being stripped from her by the ravages of cancer, I stopped going to the nursing home. I had overwhelming suffering now living with me under my own roof and it was more than I could bear to go and watch the dozen or more little ladies and gentlemen that I had grown to love slip away. The loss was too much. And I knew that it was okay. My beautiful friend, Palma, would continue to go and love them up close while I wrapped my arms around the deepest suffering of my very own mother. Such times give us the tiniest glimpse through the eyes of God. We truly could not bear more than the slightest sliver of what He sees. What about you? When have you glimpsed suffering? How did you enter in and how did it change you? I would love to hear your story...