Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Suffering with Patience: The Individual


"Is that it?"

As I let go of her hand and lifted my head, I noticed again her leather-like face.  It was now crunched in a grimace of gentle disappointment, and with a somewhat polite pity she said, "Let me do it."

And as she proceeded to pray for me, I immediately knew that Christ was somehow present.  Her words surely would have failed the Systematic Theology classes I've taken, but her belief that God was listening was as palpable as the smell of alcohol on her breath.  

This was about eight years ago.  I've not forgotten the moment, and I often still try to exegete it.  In that moment when I was to be Christ, I instead met him.  And I didn't expect it.  

The short prayer I offered as a means to encourage this homeless woman, though offered sincerely and hopefully, was nothing more than an incantational attempt to make her feel better, to show her that I believed in a God that I believed could help her.  And I did (and do!) believe that.  

Since then however, I've read Matthew 25:31-46 (the separation of the sheep and goats) seemingly countless times.  And I've had other similar encounters as the one with this homeless woman, encounters in which I've been surprised by the presence of Christ...when I was supposed to be the one "presenting" him to others.

While I was growing up, this passage in Matthew was a warning to me that if I didn't help people in need, I was bound for eternal damnation.  But when I began to consider all the personal pronouns in that last sentence, I had to conclude that I was missing the point of Christ in this account.

The passage is about incarnation, and more specifically, compassion.  But it's not your KJV-have-pity compassion.  It's the literal "suffering with"-compassion.  Generally, our society understands compassion as that charitable thing we have for people in need.  But a biblical Christlike notion of compassion is the one that steps down from above to suffer alongside the ones in need.  While fulfilling the need (hunger, nakedness, loneliness) may happen, it is but a bi-product of identifying with the need.

To have compassion is to take the place of the seat next to the one who is suffering, not the seat above him.  

We can see this in the incarnation of God.  We've recently come through Advent & Christmas.  Advent - the coming of the Lord to be present with and dwelling amongst humanity in Christ.  But what we know as those who follow him today is that our lives chase after his own footprints  - we are to be today the presence of Christ in the world.

...which makes Matthew 25 so difficult for me.  If I am the presence of Christ to others, then how on earth could he say that when we do to "the least of these," we unknowingly do to him?  The problem with seeking to help those in need to fulfill a "call," a "mission," or even responsibility is that...well...it should be more than just ful-filling.  In fact, what we find in identifying with need is that it's so often requires quite the opposite - emptying.

Indeed, we are to be today the presence of Christ in the world...as he was in the world: he, who was God, but emptied himself of all that (Phil. 2).

But the wonder of it all is that it ends in new life...in life coming out of that which was dead.  This is the hope of compassion - that when we descend from our lofty places and positions to take up residence with "the least of these," we all together might be raised up to new life.  It's what Christ did.

So while compassion leads to change and improvement in the world, it is not in and of itself change.  If my compassion is meant to change or fix the world around me, it is not compassion.  It might be charity.  But it is not compassion. In fact, if anything changes because of seeking to go and suffer alongside those who are in need, we'll find that the change happens in us.  Compassion does indeed change the world...but it begins by changing me.

Again, we see it in the life of Christ.  For sure, God came into the world to "solve a problem."  But the first thirty years or so were spent living amongst and identifying with those who were in need.  This was the first part of his incarnational and compassionate ministry.  And it's an endeavor that requires a lot patience.  

And isn't that the way the Body of Christ is to work anyway: each part crucial to resonating with the leading of the head, that is Christ himself?  Paul tells us in I Corinthians 12 that we clothe "the least" of these with greater honor.  We might suppose that it's because what we do to the least of all, we do to Christ himself.

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This was the first installment of a submission for an article on compassion that I wrote in 2009.  Here is the second part.

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