Reconnecting with Compassion
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RECONNECTING WITH COMPASSION
A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on April 2, 2017 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)
John 11:1-45 (Jesus raises Lazarus from death)
Many people in this congregation expressed a desire several months ago to deepen their spiritual lives. So during this season of Lent that leads up to Easter, we have been using as a guide for learning and reflection a book by John Philip Newell, called “The Rebirthing of God.” Some of us have been reading and discussing the book as we have followed it in worship. It notes some of the big changes that are happening in the Christian faith right now – the institution of the Christian Church has been declining in Western Europe and America, and the authority of the church has been challenged. Actually, God isn’t dead; but Newell invites us to reconnect with God in order to bring new life to our faith and our lives. And he suggests various ways or places we might do that reconnecting – as in spiritual practice, love, the journey, and the light. Today, we consider “reconnecting with compassion.”
Compassion is a word that means “to feel with.” It is to feel what others feel, and to respond appropriately and supportively.
Newell writes that one of the great modern prophets of compassion is Aung San Suu Kyi — Leader of the nonviolent movement for democracy in Myanmar (formerly Burma). Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her resistance to the oppressive dictatorship in Burma – resistance that got her confined to house arrest for 15 years.
Suu Kyi is Buddhist, and her resistance is rooted in compassion for her people, but also for those who confined her and who oppress the people of her nation – compassion that she learned and developed from her Buddhist practice. But compassion is taught by other great world religions as well. In fact, compassion might be one of the values that all great religions teach.
The sacred writings of our Jewish ancestors teach compassion, as in this passage from the biblical book of Leviticus (we might actually learn to like Leviticus!):
The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:34)
The text commands compassion for aliens – foreigners in the land of Israel – because the people of Israel were once aliens themselves in Egypt. The immigration laws of this country are not necessarily based on religious teachings, but all citizens of this country who claim to be Jewish or Christian should consider how they treat immigrants and aliens. If our legal system does not treat them with love and compassion, then we should be doing something personally to show them love and compassion.
The New Testament book of Hebrews counsels:
Let mutual love continue. 2Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 3Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. (Hebrews 13:1-3)
We are to remember those who suffer as if we were suffering with them. That is compassion.
Our gospel lesson this morning – the story of Jesus raising Lazarus – is curious. At the beginning of the story, Jesus does not seem to be very concerned for his friend Lazarus and his sisters. But when he finally goes to see them, he is moved to tears by their grief. He models compassion.
John Philip Newell writes that Aung San Suu Kyi follows a three-fold path of compassion related to her Buddhist practice – a path that can help us as well. The three parts of the path all involve courage: the courage to see; the courage to feel; and the courage to act.
The courage to see. Seeing suffering is hard. It takes courage. One of the most difficult things I have experienced in ministry is to be with those who are suffering – especially when I feel like there is nothing I can do to ease their suffering. Visiting those who are dealing with serious health issues, facing the end of their life, or experiencing terrible grief – I feel like I have to work up my courage to visit people in those situations.
I know I am not alone. Many people who get diagnosed with cancer or other serious illnesses find that some of their friends are unable to visit them. It isn’t that they don’t care – it is just hard to see suffering and to feel helpless.
I don’t know how people who work in refugee camps do it. But the courage to see is the first step towards compassion.
The second step on the compassion path is the courage to feel. In those times when we are reluctant to see suffering because we feel powerless, perhaps the best, most helpful thing we can do is to just feel what those who suffer feel – with them. When Jesus came to see Mary and Martha in their grief, and the many mourners with them, the story says that he wept. He shared their grief – even though he knew he would soon raise Lazarus from death.
One of the powerful films I remember seeing many years ago is a film titled “Resurrection.” (1980) Ellen Burstyn plays Edna Mae Macaulay — a woman who survives a terrible car crash that kills her husband. She has a near-death experience herself, but she returns to life and eventually heals. But she discovers that afterwards she has a gift for healing – which causes a lot of suspicion and disbelief and even hostility towards her from others. In one scene, she attempts to heal a woman whose body has been rigid in a fetal position for a long time, with doctors unable to help. And she tries to do this while being observed by many doctors and scientists. In her attempt to heal the suffering woman, Edna Mae climbs into bed with the woman and just holds her – and in the process begins to take on the same muscle paralysis that afflicts the woman. But then, she is slowly able to relax both her body and the body of the suffering woman, and healing results.
The courage to feel is the courage to share in suffering, and it is very powerful – very healing.
I might add to this part of the compassion path – although Aung San Suu Kyi does not specifically mention it – is the courage to understand. In this time of political division, it takes courage to turn from just hurling anger and insults at those with whom we disagree, and instead try to understand the fears and anxiety and grief that drive their beliefs. And then it takes courage to share our feeling and beliefs. We may not change their minds, but we may build relationships based on compassion.
And then, there is the courage to act. John Philip Newell points to the biblical story of the Good Samaritan as a story of someone who had the courage to see, and to feel, and to act – by going out of his way to take an injured man to a place where he could heal and recover, and even to pay for it.
I wonder if it took courage for Jesus to heal Lazarus. I would never try that stunt, because I would be thinking, “What happens if I try this and fail? How foolish would I look?”
We may feel very small – very insignificant compared to the great conflicts and tragedies that afflict our world. It is easy to say, “Why bother?” Aung San Suu Kyi says instead, “Don’t just stand there despairing… Do something.” “Just continue to do what you believe is right… Later on the fruits of what you do will become apparent on their own.”
Newell concludes this chapter with these words: “We may not all be called onto the world stage of political action. But each one of us has a critical role to play in our families, our personal relationships, our religious communities. No one else can play that role of compassion for us. Do we know this, that each one of us is essential?”
Do you want to deepen your spiritual life? Do you long for the rebirth of God in our world? Reconnect with compassion: the courage to see, the courage to feel, the courage to act.
Robert J. von Trebra