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What is compassion like when you haven't experienced what the other person is experiencing?

Thursday October 23 2014

What is compassion like when you haven't experienced what the other person is experiencing?

A friend of mine, who I’ll call Jane, had a rough year. Just over a year ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and the past 12 months were filled from beginning to end with surgery, chemo and radiation. She felt horrible most of the year, the degree of horribleness rising and falling with the treatments, but week in and week out she was dealing with very low energy and discouragement.

I felt a lot of compassion for her and was able to give her fairly consistent support because I know what it’s like to feel awful for long periods of time. I’ve had four major diseases, two of them lasting for many months. I’ve never had cancer, so I haven’t experienced chemo or radiation, but I do know that discouraging state of feeling awful for a seemingly endless period of time.

Jane’s husband, who I’ll call John, told me this week that he is aware that he didn’t do a good job supporting Jane last year. I’m not sure if he’s right about that, but he said he just doesn’t know what it’s like to feel bad for very long, so he had trouble entering into her state of mind. John is energetic, enthusiastic and physically fit. He told me that when he occasionally wakes up with a headache, he takes a painkiller and feels fine within an hour. He gets colds and flu, but they seldom last longer than a day or two. The longest illness he can remember is mononucleosis, which he contracted in high school, and he was sick for a week!

My conversation with John got me thinking about compassion. Jesus models it in a great number of his encounters with individuals: the leper, the woman at the well, and the woman caught in adultery, to name only a few. Paul also models compassion and endorses it as characteristic of relationships that build healthy communal life (Philippians 1:8, 2:1, Colossians 3:12). Compassion seems to be a component of the kind of love that is commended for Christians throughout the New Testament, and compassion plays a role in the kind of justice advocated in the Hebrew Scriptures. 

The roots of the word “compassion,” from the Latin, are “with” and “emotion.” In Jane’s case, compassion came easily to me because I could easily remember feeling in similar ways to what Jane was experiencing.

Have I ever experienced or expressed compassion for someone who was feeling something I haven’t experienced or imagined experiencing? I’m not sure. I am sure that carefully listening plays an important role in compassion in any circumstance. Attentive listening enables us to hear the specifics of the other person’s situation, which may not be as similar to our own as we imagine it to be or which may be totally different from anything we’ve ever imagined.

My question for the day: what helps you listen to others in a way that nurtures compassion, especially when you've never experienced anything similar to what the other person is experiencing?

(This post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering Voices. If you’d like to get an email alert when I post something on this blog, you can sign up in the right hand column under “subscribe.”)

Two little coins: the God of very small things

Tuesday October 14 2014

Two little coins: the God of very small things

On one memorable night in high school, I watched a world record being set for the 100 yard backstroke. The swimmer, Kaye Hall, went on to be an Olympic gold medalist. When I saw her on TV during the Olympics, it was fun to remember that night that I watched her swim in person.

The event took place in a high school swimming pool in Tacoma, Washington, in the context of a high school boys swim meet. The warm-up was my first clue that something amazing was about to happen. Most of the high school boys were swimming freestyle laps to warm up for their events. Kaye Hall was on her back, warming up her backstroke kick, and she was moving through the water about half again as fast as the boys.

I’ll never forget that sight. Using only her legs, she was powering her body through the water much, much faster than the boys, sliding past everyone in the surrounding lanes. Backstroke with arms is generally not as fast as freestyle, yet she was so strong and so well trained that she could do a backstroke kick, passing freestylers using their arms and legs.

We sat through some of the typical events of a high school swim meet, and then it was Kaye’s turn. She swam 100 yards of backstroke all alone in the pool, and when she finished, the announcer said that a new world record had been set.

Recently, I've been thinking about that night. To see such excellence was a privilege. But I wonder how those boys in the lanes next to hers felt as they warmed up. I also wonder how they felt when they swam their races that night. Did think their races were silly and meaningless, because they weren’t Olympic class? Because they weren’t setting world records?

I believe that one of the most significant spiritual practices in daily life is to offer to God what we are, what we have and what we can do. Sometimes we are reluctant to act because we feel what we have to contribute is so small. Not Olympic class. Not remarkable. Just ordinary.

In an odd little incident in Mark 12:41-44, Jesus pointed out a woman to his disciples. She was putting two small coins into the treasury at the temple. Jesus knew she was giving a lot; her gift represented more than the sums the wealthy people gave. She gave “everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Perhaps, on that night in a high school swimming pool in Tacoma, one of those high school boys performed even more heroically than Kaye Hall. Perhaps one of those boys was even more courageous than Kaye as he swam his race. I’ll never know. But I do know that my job each day is to offer what I have to God, even if it feels pitifully small and insignificant.

(This post originally appears on the Thoughtful Christian's Gathering Voices blog. If you'd like to receive an email update when I post something on this blog, sign up in the right hand column where it says "subscribe.")

Two options for what to do when the news overwhelms you

Thursday October 9 2014

Two options for what to do when the news overwhelms you

I've decided to fast for a while from national and international news. I don't view this as a long-term plan, because I'm committed to knowing what's going on in the world so I can pray. But for right now, I'm going to see what 1-2 months without news feels like. In the past few months I've been feeling increasingly overwhelmed and demoralized by the news: Syria, Iraq, Hong Kong, Ebola, the abducted girls in Nigeria and on and on.

The last time I felt this way, I took a different path, and I wrote about it in a blog post right after the tsunami in Japan in 2011. I'm going to re-post what I wrote, even though some of the specifics are out of date, because my response in 2011 is another good option. Re-reading this post is a bit of a time tunnel, and it shows how the deeply disturbing events at one stage get a bit lost with the passing of time.

Here's what I wrote in March 2011: A LOT is going on in the world these days. The earthquake in Christchurch and the earthquake and tsunami in Japan with the attendant nuclear fears. The brand new war – or is it just “air strikes”? – in Libya. Agitation for democracy in numerous other countries. Elections, wars, unrest, flooding and environmental disasters elsewhere. 

How can we summon up the enthusiasm to pray for yet one more huge and pressing need? How can we pray wisely?

I got some advice 25 years ago that I think I need to resurrect now. In the mid 1980s I was engaged in a steep learning curve about Christian relief and development ministries around the world. Someone told me to learn as much as I could, but with respect to financial contributions and prayer, to narrow my focus. Many times, I have passed that same advice onto others: Pick one country or part of a country to pray for and contribute to. Or pick one kind of ministry – wells, microcredit, education, medical, etc. – on which to focus your contributions and prayers. Don’t feel you have to care passionately about everything, because you simply can’t. Trying to care about too much results in compassion fatigue, which leads to caring about nothing.

I wonder if that isn’t good advice right now. I was praying frequently and passionately for the people of Christchurch until the events in Japan and Libya came along. Now I find I’m not praying for any of them very often because I am frankly overwhelmed at the needs.

This morning I learned about a colleague in Christchurch, the minister of an inner city congregation. I had spoken to her some months ago, and she told me that after the earthquake six months ago, her building was so severely damaged that the congregation was facing difficult decisions about the future of that building. She described how stressful it was.

This morning I found out that she can’t get into her office at the church, because the building is in the zone of the city that is still not accessible after the recent quake. In addition, her home was so severely damaged by the recent quake that she can’t live there. Mercifully, she has access to her home, so she can get stuff out. However, the things she need in her church office continue to be completely inaccessible.

Maybe I need to pray for her and her congregation, and trust that God is raising up other people to pray for Japan and Libya and all the other hot spots that are in the news. It would be better for me to pray for her and her congregation than not to pray at all, and I am humbled to realize how frozen I’ve been in the past couple of weeks as I’ve tried to pray and then stopped right away. I’ve been so overwhelmed I haven’t known where to start.

If you've been feeling overwhelmed or frozen like I have, what one situation might God be calling you to pray for?

(This post originally appeared on the Gathering Voices blog, sponsored by the Thoughtful Christian. If you'd like to get email alerts when I post something here on my blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column.)

Hearing God speak communally

Thursday October 2 2014

Imagine you’re in a committee or church board meeting, and you’re discussing a possible new direction for mission. You long to experience God’s guidance in the decision. What can you do as a group to hear God speak to you?

In my most recentt blog post, I addressed the question of how Christians hear God speak. In this post I want to narrow down to consider how we hear God speak to us communally. A few years ago I interviewed 63 ministers and congregational leaders in the United States and the United Kingdom about listening, and one of my interview questions related to communal listening to God’s guidance. I’ll summarize two of the issues the interviews raised in my mind.

1. I heard a lot of stories about listening to God communally through the Bible. Many congregations have small group Bible studies where participants wrestle with God’s voice to them in scripture. I heard about congregations where people gather during the week to talk about the sermon scripture for the next Sunday. Some congregations have feedback times during or after the Sunday service for reflection on how God spoke through the sermon. Some congregations are experimenting with reflective ways of engaging with the Bible, such as lectio divina.

The stories powerfully illustrated numerous communal settings focused on the Bible in congregations. The outcome of all this reflection and discussion of the Bible seemed to be guidance for individuals. What seemed missing was communal engagement with the Bible for the sake of hearing God’s guidance for a community. I’ve participated in many Bible studies and lectio divina sessions at church board meetings and elder retreats, and we’ve had great conversations about God’s voice to us individually through a Bible passage. What would it look like to begin there, but to continue on to consider how God might be speaking to us communally through the passage about directions for our congregation’s mission? No one in my interviews talked about doing that.

2. In my interviews, I heard a lot of confusion between consensus and discernment. Consensus decision making is becoming more prominent in many business and church settings, because decisions made by consensus generally have strong buy-in by the parties involved, and often more needs are met by consensus decisions than by other kinds of decisions. Consensus decisions play a role in discernment, but they are not the same. Consensus tries to address as many of the needs and concerns of the people present as is possible, while discernment attempts to figure out how God is guiding. Surely God wants needs to be met, but meeting needs and hearing God’s voice are often not the same thing.

Discernment relies on prayer in many forms, communal wrestling with the Bible, and engagement together in spiritual practices such as fasting, retreat and silence. The people involved in trying to discern God’s direction need to know consensus skills, because they need to listen to what each person is hearing from God and build consensus around it. But discernment begins and ends with trying to hear God’s voice and direction, not trying to meet the maximum number of needs. (I wrote more about the role of spiritual practices in consensus and discernment in an earlier post.)

These two patterns I observed in the interviews worry me. Both patterns indicate the way that individualism, so rampant in the wider culture, has affected Christians. And I myself am not immune to those forces. Engaging in consensus, a good thing to do, nudges me toward considering how I can negotiate to meet the needs I’m concerned about. Looking to the Bible for guidance for my life and doing it communally with others, another good thing to do, can keep me in an individualistic place where I’m listening to God for my sake rather than the sake of my community of faith. O Lord God, give us love for each other and a commitment to your body, so we can listen to you for the sake of our communities as well as for our own sakes.

(If you'd like to get an email every time I post something on this blog, go over to the right column under "subscribe" and sign up. This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

Hearing God's voice

Thursday September 25 2014

Hearing God's voice

I used to have a joke that expressed my longing to hear God’s voice clearly. When I wanted to know what to do in a specific situation, I used to say I wished that God would hire a cute little plane to sky-write guidance for me.

On the one hand, it’s great to long to hear God’s voice. But on the other hand, I now see it as a bit lazy to long for God to sky-write. Here are some thoughts about why:

Throughout the centuries, Christians have heard God’s voice in a variety of ways, and many Christians have written down their experiences and advice about hearing God. On the one hand, they talk about God’s voice or a sense of God’s nudging coming in surprising, unexpected moments during daily life. And on the other hand, they talk about God’s voice or God’s nudging coming in the midst of consistent spiritual practices that make space to hear that voice.

We must always affirm that nothing we can do can make God speak to us; God’s voice to us through the Holy Spirit is wildly free and beautifully unexpected. However we can adopt a posture of listening that makes it more likely we will hear God when God speaks. And that posture of listening requires intentional effort, even discipline. What are some of the spiritual practices people through the ages have talked about in connection with hearing God’s voice?

1. Reading, studying, praying and meditating on the Bible, both alone and in company with others. The Bible is called “God’s Word” for a reason. All engagement with the Bible is good, but many of us come out of traditions that primarily emphasize engaging the mind. Many of us need to grow in engaging the heart and slowing down so we can hear God’s voice through scripture. Two prayer practices that engage both mind and heart are lectio divina and praying the Psalms and other prayers in the Bible.

2. Praying in many different ways, both alone and in company with others. All forms of prayer can help us hear God’s voice. Silence in prayer is indispensible for helping us learn to listen. Prayer practices like walking the labyrinth or praying while walking outdoors can help us engage our bodies as well as our minds and hearts.

3. Fasting, both alone and in company with others. Throughout most of Christian history, and in Africa, Asia and South and Central American today, Christians expect to hear God’s voice when they fast. People who have a history of eating disorders should not fast from food in any form, and today fasting can involve stopping media, electronic devices, music, shopping, and many other aspects of daily life, as well as stopping eating all food or certain food items. I have heard dozens of stories about how God has spoken during a fast.

4. Hospitality. I can remember the first time I heard that Mother Teresa expected to meet Christ as she encountered people in need. I remember being stunned at that idea. Since then I’ve read many times about the ways Christ is present in friend and stranger in hospitality settings, and God can speak to us powerfully there.

5. Spiritual Direction. The purpose of spiritual direction is to take time in the company of a guide, the spiritual director, to examine our lives and discern God’s presence and God’s guidance.

My skywriting wishes, at their worst, reflect a desire not to have to do any patterns of consistent discipline in order to slow down and make space to hear God’s voice. Saints through the ages tell us that we hear God’s voice  unexpectedly as we go about our lives, but that we also grow in ability to hear God’s voice as we make space to listen by engaging in spiritual practices that require consistent effort.

(If you'd like to get an email every time I post something on this blog, go over to the right column under "subscribe" and sign up. This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

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