Sunday, June 5, 2011

Compassion as Living Theology


I began my seminary studies at Southern Seminary in Louisville in the hot summer of 1978. One of the first books assigned in a course called “Contemporary Preaching” was written by Frederick Buechner. Buechner, noted American writer and preacher, had delivered the prestigious Lyman Beecher lectures on Preaching at Yale a couple of years earlier and published his lectures under the title, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. I devoured the book, loved every word, and mistakenly assumed that every book I’d be asked to read for the next three years would be so fascinating and so stirring. Mercy! Was I ever wrong about that! Buechner, though, was brilliant, engaging, entertaining, and indescribably insightful. I still have that book on one of my shelves, and I know exactly where it sits, precisely where I can put my hands on it when I want it or need it, which I can’t say about every book I own.

Here is a Buechner quote related to our topic for today: compassion. I don’t know in which of his many books it originated, but it is “on point,” as my younger son likes to say.

Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.

So, for Buechner, compassion is a two-pronged reality or emotion: one) the sometimes fatal capacity to be empathetic and two) the acceptance of the fact that I can’t rejoice while someone else is suffering.

Jesus was the embodiment of compassion. There is no way, seriously, to be a Christian or a follower of Jesus or a church that tosses around Jesus’ teachings without being compassionate people. A surprising level of condemnation, brow-beating, and threat go on in Jesus’ name by individuals and churches that would have us believe they are Jesus’ best buddies, always on the inside track with him and able to garner favors from him for them and plagues for their enemies. Thinking of God in such terms is beyond ridiculous.

The great American preacher--maybe the greatest in the second half of the 19th century, Henry Ward Beecher, son of highly regarded preacher, Lyman Beecher (for whom the aforementioned lecture series was named), and brother of courages author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, said, and I agree with him whole-heartedly, “Compassion will cure more sins than condemnation.” There are some of us, but very few of us, who miss the affirmation displayed in acts of compassion done on our behalf and on behalf of our loved ones. Aesop, of fable fame, said, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”

I grew up in a home where compassion for strugglers was a way of life. Both of my parents had grown up dirt poor and knew what it was not to have two nickels to rub together. My mother’s parents, during much of Mom’s growing up life, were sharecroppers on a farm in Kokomo, Indiana. Later, on the best of terms with the Shinn family for whom they had worked, they came back to my grandmother’s place of birth; Gilmer County, Georgia; in search of a better life for themselves and their children--their daughter who would become my Mother and their son who would become my Uncle Bob.

Life was still hard there for them so they eventually settled in Knox County--specifically, the city of Knoxville. My Grandfather became a laborer on the project to build the massive Norris Dam, and my Grandmother became a nursing assistant and studied to pass her exam and become a Licensed Practical Nurse. They weren’t wealthy by any means, but they were doing substantially better than they had done as sharecroppers.

Mom ended up with an essentially inbred compassion for the poor, and she has shared money that she really didn’t have to share across the years with people whom she believed needed the money more than she did--including, but not limited to, the sales personalities on QVC. For a while, the QVC on-screen salespersons were mother’s favored charities, and they still have her believing from time to time that if she doesn’t support them they might go hungry.

Some of you remember that right in the midst of last Christmas season, the conscience of our nation, Bill O’Reilly, said that giving to help the less fortunate is fine, but that God didn’t mean for us to give so much that it becomes self destructive to us. Really? If that’s not what God means, how did that word miss getting to Jesus? I don’t think my Mother ever understood that; she figures if she parts with the money she thought she absolutely had to have, she will just tighten her belt in some other area so things will all smooth out in the end.

My Dad was one of seven children born in a little cabin on Lone Mountain, Tennessee. He was the baby. One brother died in infancy. Another brother took his own life while he was young, and that left four brothers and one sister. My Dad’s Father was an alcoholic who sort of came and went from the family home way up in Claiborne County, Tennessee, and was dead by the time Dad was 11 years old. This left my paternal Grandmother to raise four sons and a daughter by herself.

As luck or fate would have it (Mom and Dad would eventually meet and fall in love there!), his family also moved into the city of Knoxville for better job opportunities, and my grandmother, with little formal education and little work experience off a farm, got a job as custodian in Knoxville General Hospital. Each of the four boys joined military service as soon as they could; they didn’t wait to be drafted. Economically, being in military service made great sense for them and their family too.

By the time I was on the scene, I saw that Granny Farmer had gotten to the age where she couldn’t do physical labor any longer, and Dad’s oldest Brother, Uncle Jim, who had a large family, was out of a job more than he was with one. I finally realized that Dad dropped by to see Granny and Uncle Jim about every week not just to visit, but to pass along as much money as he could afford to share that particular week, which was usually enough to leave Mom and Dad short on cash.

It wasn’t just happenstance that when Dad became a deacon in the Beaver Dam Baptist Church, and there were people in the church and community who needed financial help, he would frequently be the one or one of the ones sent to assess the situation. His compassion because of his rough growing up experiences was unbounded. He would report back to the Board of Deacons nearly every time that a request was legitimate and that the church should help all it could.

We--my sister, brother, and I--grew up observing compassion for the poor and many other kinds of strugglers as a central concern in how our parents lived and how they modeled living for us. It took with each of us.

When I first began working as pastor, I told my church leadership not to send people in need to me because I’d say, “Yes,” nearly every time.

Someone asked, “But what if someone asking is lying?”

I answered, “I’m sure that happens, but I’d rather err on the side of compassion every time.” I tell you that not to pat myself on the back in any way, but to let you know I was raised on compassion.


Arthur Schopenhauer wrote: “Compassion is the basis of all morality.” Indeed. True, but not prevalent.

The Apostle Paul was once writing to the Christians in Corinth, and he was miffed! Worse, they didn’t care that he was miffed, which only made him more angry.

Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!

So, if, when you come together as a faith or seekers’ community, things get worse instead of better, Paul wants to know why you’d come together at all, and I think he raises a significant issue. Thankfully, we don’t have to deal with that matter here at Silverside, but I have been a part of churches in the past who did have the problem. There were so many factions in those churches that when the whole body came together for worship or fellowship, supposed fellowship, the competition for which group was more holy or more faithful or more suited for leadership was thick. It was rare to leave any kind of get-together there with a feeling of having been uplifted, encouraged, or inspired. Those churches would have been better off never to meet; that’s a harsh word, but I believed it; and Paul certainly believed it of the Corinthians. Because some of you Corinthian church members just try to stir up conflicts and problems every time you gather, Paul said, it would be better not even to bother. Ouch!

One of the places where the problems of disunity really reared their ugly heads was at, of all places, the Lord’s Supper. How in the world could celebrating the Lord’s Supper together be a prime focal point for church problems? Shameful, but true. Whatever else that meal is supposed to be, it is intended to unify; not to tear down or factionalize. If there are problems with congregational unity, though, they will glow like Rudolph’s nose when the people who sing, “Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love,” realize they’re standing next to someone whose aunt once offended their grandparents, when someone who hates the pastor realizes that by some grand miscalculation she is standing right beside someone who loves the pastor; and in a very few minutes they will have to share the bread and the wine with each other, the appearance of love disappears completely. Oh, it can get bad, and I’ve seen it and don’t ever want to or plan to see it again.

In Paul’s day, in the Church at Corinth, and likely in all the churches he’d had a part in founding, thankfully, they didn’t know any better than to mix classes of people: the rich and the poor sitting on the same pews, the well read having theological discussions with those didn’t read and who weren’t well educated, those who’d been Christians longer than several newbies getting no special recognition for their seniority and experience. The Lord’s Supper became a ritual intended to recall Jesus’ last earthly supper with his closest followers and friends. That supper had been initiated at a Jewish Passover feast so after the feast, Jesus did the brief bread and wine thing as a little add on, but the feast was first; and evidently in some of the earliest traditions the feast was retained as a prelude, if you will, to the partaking of the symbols of bread and wine.

In Corinth, the feast part of the Lord’s Supper took the form of a good old BYOW (bring your own wineskin) covered dish dinner. Everyone who could cook brought her or his favorite dish and each family brought its own wine for family sipping, not for sharing with the crowd. If you had wine at all or to share, you weren’t destitute. If you had food and a place to cook it, you were one of the better off members of the Corinthian Church, even if you didn’t consider yourself rich. Otherwise, you were at least poor and maybe destitute, but remember that those contentious Corinthians had put in their bylaws that members were received without consideration of financial standing, and while many members of that Church grew to despise those bylaws they knew the beggar who always positioned himself just outside the church house or house church could rightly be a member as could a high ranking and well to do tax collector. Fine. Well, fine theoretically. Practically, not so much.

In reality, what was happening was that those with food only wanted to share their food with others who’d brought food, but not with those who had no food to bring. If you think you’re missing the compassion here, you’re exactly right; this was essentially a compassionless congregation in most respects. Those with food wanted those who arrived hungry to go home that way. I want to tell you that if you ever attend any meal planned and overseen by Marie Neal, you eat whether you can afford to pay or not. If anyone ever leaves one of her meals hungry, it’s strictly a matter of that person’s choice.

Oh, let’s not forget the Corinthian winebibbers. Those with wine not only intended to keep the wine in the family, but to make certain the beggars couldn’t talk them into a swig, many of them were gulping their wine and were drunk as could be before the really important part of the Lord’s Supper, the sharing of the symbols of bread and wine--just a bite and just a sip, though.

I had one deacon at one of my congregations in Indiana who was intoxicated most of the time so he likely partook of and served the Lord’s Supper with Pabst Blue Ribbon on his breath a few times, but he was an alcoholic; and that little church would never do anything to make him feel unwelcome at church, even when he came close to spilling the communion juice cups because he was tipsy. Other than that deacon with a drinking problem, I’ve never known of any other of my deacons attending communion or serving it under the influence of alcohol. Not so at Corinth! Lots of the folks who brought wine, gulped up the wine they brought, and by the time the symbols were to be shared in remembrance of Jesus they were too drunk to know what they were eating, drinking, or saying.

Paul really scolds these self-serving, callous church members. You let others go hungry while you eat more than enough at your home each evening. You let those who could really benefit from a few sips of wine do without so that you can be drunk at church and avoid sharing at all costs; even though you could drink your wine at home, and from what I hear you hit the wine pretty hard at home, you make a spectacle of yourself at church because you don’t have even an ounce of compassion in you. You who stuff yourself refusing to share your food and you who guzzle your wine refusing to share even a few sips with those who can’t afford any wine, you are showing contempt for your church and contempt for the memory of Jesus who specifically, unmistakably said showing compassion is not optional for those who would continue his ministry after him.

The Buddha once said: “In separateness lies the world’s great misery; in compassion lies the world’s true strength.”


There’s a Buddhist commentary on meditation called “Stages of Meditation in the Middle Way School” from which we get the following pointed teaching:

Generally, everyone feels compassion, but the compassion is flawed. In what way? We measure it out. For instance, some feel compassion for human beings but not for animals and other types of sentient beings. Others feel compassion for animals and some other types of sentient beings but not for humans. Others, who feel compassion for human beings, feel compassion for the human beings of their own country but not for the human beings of other countries. Then, some feel compassion for their friends but not for anyone else. Thus, it seems that we draw a line somewhere. We feel compassion for those on one side of the line but not for those on the other side of the line. We feel compassion for one group but not for another. That is where our compassion is flawed. What did the Buddha say about that? It is not necessary to draw that line. Nor is it suitable. Everyone wants compassion, and we can extend our compassion to everyone.

The Dalai Lama has said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Have you ever noticed that the only people Jesus condemned were holier-than-thou, compassionless religious people who thought God could be bought by their superficial piety? People caught up in morally compromising situations received from Jesus not criticism, but compassion.

It’s not a bad idea for those who think themselves spiritually superior to the rest of us, those modern-day Pharisees I mean, to keep a DVD of the film, “Schlinder’s List,” around. They should, we should, watch it from time to time and internalize the Schlinder had for those whose lives were on the line.

We have talked about the Charter for Compassion several times in recent months. I’m absolutely intrigued with and committed to the intention of the Charter as you know.

An interfaith panel made up of some really smart people like Karen Armstrong said, with great insight, “If we keep trying to find points of theology on which we all agree, we’re going to get no where because there are fundamental differences between the great religions of the world that can’t be ignored and probably can’t be changed. It is certainly possible to agree to take on some joint tasks together despite our differences, but our differences theologically will continue to exist. Since theological differences do indeed hamper what we could do if there were more bases for agreement, is there a non-theological principle around which we could all gather without reservation, without worrying about stepping on someone’s toes?” What they came up with was the Charter for Compassion. Regardless of theological bias, all the great religions of the world promote compassion in some way so the Charter was born.

In summary, “The Charter for Compassion is a document that transcends religious, ideological, and national differences. Supported by leading thinkers from many traditions, the Charter inspires worldwide community-based acts of compassion.” Without a doubt, this is the right way to go.

Some of you may have gone to the website and signed on as supporters of the Charter. I did, and I hope there are other Silverside folks on the list. The Charter’s website shows that they now have nearly 73,000 sign-on-the-dotted-line supporters. When I look at how quickly other movements sprout and grow online, that seems like a measly number of people in the English-speaking world willing to say, “I’m all for compassion, and I’m going to live out my commitment to compassion.”

I believe that all promotion for the Charter is by word of mouth except for the original letter that was mailed around to various probable supporters. This means that any funds that come into the hands of the organization keeping this thing going support acts of compassion. I’d like to see a million supporters, and when I say supporters, I mean supporters in principle. I don’t believe they have asked for dues or membership fees.

Why wouldn’t everyone including those who are anti-religion and who do not believe in God sign on for this? Well, sadly, many of us who are compassionate people practice selective compassion the Buddha has said. “Anybody who really wants a job can get one.” “She was out at night wearing that skimpy clothing; she was asking to be raped.” “AIDS is God’s punishment on homosexuals.” “Why was he driving through that part of town at all, especially at night? He asked for it. He asked to be shot.”

In a book titled, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life by Donald McNeill, Douglas Morrison, and Henri Nouwen, we are stunned at first sight by an analysis of people in general in the modern world, people of faith included: “When we take a critical look at ourselves,” the authors write, “we have to recognize that competition, not compassion, is our main motivation in life.” We modern US Americans reply to that charge by saying our society has forced us to be competitive, or else we lose. Compassion is nice if we can work it into our lives somewhere, but competition gets the bills paid. The authors then come back at us with their unrelenting position: “This all-pervasive competition, which reaches into the smallest corners of our relationships, prevents us from entering into full solidarity with each other, and stands in the way of our being compassionate.”

Another reason not everyone shows compassion or wants it shown to others is that corruption is a painful, persistent reality in our world--at many levels--and compassion offends corruption. Many of the corrupt politicians and their handlers resist showing compassion and shy away from those who are compassionate.

I have always believed Jimmy Carter might well have won a second term in the White House had he been more able to deal with political corruption and if he had been a much less compassionate person than he was, than he is. I’m not saying someone in political office has to be corrupt to survive, but she or he has to be able to tango with those who are corrupt--many of whom are well entrenched--in order to keep a seat.

The number of high-ranking elected officials, media darlings to boot, who show no signs whatsoever of compassion saddens me to the point of overwhelming me. I am not so naive as to believe that one country can solve the problems of every other troubled country, and I don’t think trying to do that or pretending that we can do it is wise. But I do believe every American should have access to some kind of healthcare coverage that allows them to seek medical attention before they are having an emergency situation causing them excruciating pain and/or ushering them quickly toward death.

Ah, but the politicians are too, too easy to pick on these days. Let me bring my concerns and criticisms a little more within reach. For who knows how long, a shocking number of churches have been spending more on the maintenance and beautification of building and grounds than they have invested in compassion, helping to provide basic needs for the destitute.

Prayer for Compassion

(From First Parish Cohasset, adapted)

Spirit of Life, we give thanks for the opportunities to love that present themselves in the turmoil of life.

When the light catches the tears in another’s eyes, where hands are held and there are moments without words, let us be present then, and alive to the possibility of changing. We would seek to make another’s wellbeing the object of our concern. We would be present to another’s pain, to bathe another’s wounds, hear another’s sadness, celebrate another’s success, and allow the other’s story to change our own.

We stand in the morning on damp grass, hear the syllables of bird song, and fill up on sweet air that rolls over oceans and continents. We look up at the stars and the planets that fill the night sky with majesty. We witness the first fresh buds of spring amid the brown sticks of winter. And for all this, we are grateful.

We will not defend ourselves against the discomfort of unruly emotion, nor seek to close down our hearts for fear a new love will come to shake our foundations. We will instead be open to discovering a new way of seeing an old problem, or appreciating the perfection of a seashell, or the possibility of friendship. For in giving ourselves to what we do not understand, we receive life’s blessings, and in taking care of another, we are cared for.


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