Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Suffering with Patience: The Community


I pastor a church of a few dozen people.  It's with wonder and amazement that I think of pastors who can truly pastor with compassion a flock just a little bit bigger that the one I get to oversee.  For within the five or six dozen or so people that I pastor, the list of suffering runs the gamut of societal problems: homelessness, addiction, suicide, grief, divorce, poverty, mental disorder, gluttony, and sexual abuse...not to mention the general evangelical who can't seem to identify in the least with all of the above, regardless of good intentions.  

It seems like this group would be fertile ground for eucharistic fellowship and community.    But it's been very difficult.  Many of the hurting and suffering trust me (I guess they are supposed to, I am their pastor).  But they don't trust one another very well.  They have sympathy for one another, but they don't really seek empathy.  Perhaps they feel sorry for one another, but they are without true compassion, in the sense of "suffering with" one another.

Someone recently taught me about the deep-rooted relationship between compassion and patience.  The Latin grandfather of both words is pati, meaning "suffering, feeling; enduring".  From pati come both passion ("suffering") and patiens ("I am suffering").  So our English word compassion is "to suffer with" while patience of course means "bearing with". 

This has a profound impact on how I look at those who are in need.  I confess that sometimes I want to shake individuals and tell them to snap out of whatever situation they are in, particularly if it is due to their own doing.  My impatience with the lack of change in a given person's situation could be excused as human.  But it is surely not compassionate.  

This connection between compassion and patience has a lot to say about the Body of Christ.  We may never actually see the change for good we seek, at least not for a long, long time.  If we view the world from God's perspective however...that's nothing new.  God is used to it and apparently has the patience not to shake us in frustration.

And God has certainly demonstrated the compassion.  This is what incarnation is all about and suffering is why it's so closely connected to the cross.  We see in God in Christ our role for and to the world.  In life, there are lots of things that seek our attention, but only when it's of benefit.  Lots of people want to help those in need.  Few would suffer with them.

On a number of occasions, I have heard someone mention compassionate ministry as a great way to "grow the church" (perhaps the majority of these occasions were within my own head!). Well it's true, the church grows out of true compassionate ministry.  But the fruit of compassionate ministry grows in the qualitative ways that Paul writes of at the end of Galatians 5, not the quantity of fruit in the basket.

Compassionate ministry does not increase numbers in any shape or form.  In fact, if it is true compassion (again, "suffering with"), what it does is empty us of so many things: money, energy, resources, and chaff-like individuals who weren't around for Christ-like ministry in the first place.  So while we may not grow in size, we for sure grow in the likeness of Christ.  Remember, the crowds left him when the going got tough, too.

Most weeks, our church community is sent out with the same benediction.  It speaks to this notion of identifying with those who are hurting.  In his song Take to the World, lyricist Derek Webb's benedictory words challenge in this way: "Like the three-in-one, know that you must become who you want to save, because that's still the way he takes to the world."

We're headed to Lent, which culminates with the passion week.  We who follow him are to especially seek to suffer with Christ in this time.   While we for sure use this season as a remembrance of Christ's once-and-for-all death on the cross, we're told in scripture time and again that the cross is our own: our way, model, and pattern (Phil. 2:5, Mark 8:34-35, etc.).

Lent is a wonder-full time for the local church community to re-member this together.  While we're called to Christlike suffering with "the least of these," we're called to it together.  What we find when we come together to suffer with those in need is that we are connected in ways we cannot understand.  Perhaps you have noticed this in part during a short-term missions trip or even a week at youth camp when life-as-we-know-it is turned upside down and you have nothing more to rely upon than the people around you.  You're left with an indelible mark and connection with those people.  For the Body of Christ, this is the norm, not the exceptional week every year or two.

This is the way of the Church: suffering together.  As Paul tells us in I Corinthians 12, "when one [member] suffers, all suffer together with it."  When the members suffer together, we look more like the Body of Christ.

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This is the second installment of an article I wrote in 2009.  Here is the first.

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