So What is Compassion Anyway?

I’ve spent this week focused on one word from the Gospel lesson appointed for Sunday, compassion.  Compassion is, however, one of those words that gets a lot of use in the church and even in the wider culture, but like love, charity, hope, and narthex, I’m not sure we really know what it means.  Ask the average Joe and Sally on the street to define compassion, and you’ll probably hear something like, “caring for people” or perhaps more pointedly, “responding to someone’s hurt.”  This are both good definitions, but as my friend Evan Garner noted in his blog post on Tuesday, this word has much deeper meanings (pun intended).

“The Greek word for ‘have compassion on’ (in the case of Sunday’s gospel lesson it’s “ἐσπλαγχνίσθη”) and its various forms literally mean ‘disturbed in one’s guts.’ It shares the same root as the word ‘spleen’ because people believed that emotion came from one’s bowels… The word ‘compassion’ in its Latin roots means ‘to suffer with.’ Suffer, in that sense, has to do with feeling something or to be affected by something—not just to endure the pain and trial of a situation. If I suffer with you, it means I am touched by your circumstance. I cry when you cry. I rejoice when you rejoice.”

It seems as though having compassion means more than just responding to someone else’s hurts, but actually to enter into them, to feel them in your being, to take their pain upon yourself in order to more fully understand and be able to minister to the other.  My friend Candyce found a Fredrick Buechner quote that sums this idea up rather well and shared it on my Facebook wall.

Curiously, the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms doesn’t define “compassion.”  It seems that this emotion that is so closely associated with one of Jesus’ most recognizable miracles would find its way into that go-to resource.  Instead, they saved it for the Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics, which has a definition that takes up nearly a quarter of the page.  In it, James Childress quotes Lawrence Blum, Professor of Philosophy at UMass-Boston.  “‘Compassion is not a simple feeling-state but a complex emotional attitude toward another, characteristically involving imaginative dwelling on the condition of the other person, an active regard for his good, a view of him as a fellow human being, and emotional responses of a certain degree of intensity’ and duration” (109, emphasis mine).

All of this to say that after the Haiti Earthquake, when you sent a text message to the Red Cross to donate $10, you may having been doing a good thing, but you weren’t really feeling compassion.  Compassion is hard.  It requires us to give of ourselves beyond our normal capacity, and encourages us to act in ways that are self-sacrificial.  Compassion is the by-product of agape love, which Jesus was able to offer to the whole world, but which I have to work hard to give to even my closest loved-ones some days, but compassion is a hallmark of Kingdom Living.  When Paul attempts to describe new life in Jesus Christ to the Church in Colossae, he invites them them “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, [to] clothe [them]selves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (NRSV).  Or, more to the point of today’s post from Young’s Literal Translation, “Put on, therefore, as choice ones of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies [compassion], kindness, humble-mindedness, meekness, long-suffering…”

Perhaps this would be a good prayer for this weekend, from Proper 6, “Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”

Compassion Overflows

Are you sensing a theme in this week’s blog posts?  I’m not sure I’ve ever spent a whole week on one word in a lesson, but it seems as though we’re 3/4 of the way there already.  It seems to be striking a cord with y’all as well.  Due to to some technical difficulties over at the Text this Week, I’ve fallen out of the usual rotation.  This doesn’t mean much, really, except my daily readership dropped by about 2/3rds from 150 a day to roughly 60 over the past few weeks.  Thanks to my readers who are keen to share these posts, however, my first two posts on compassion have spike my stats this week with 111 views on Monday and a whopping 240 yesterday!  It seems that compassion, or at least blog posts about compassion, have a way of overflowing.

Of course, we see that vividly in Sunday’s Gospel lesson, the Feeding of the 5,000.  As I noted yesterday, Jesus is having a pretty crummy day when, as the hour grew late, his disciples realized that there were way too many people and way too little food.  “Send them to the villages to grab a bite,” they say to Jesus, but he’ll hear nothing of it.  “You give them something to eat,” he responds.  That verb “to give” is in imperative aorist, which somebody much smarter than me tells me means “it is the urgent aorist of instant action.”  “Do it, and do it now,” Jesus says to his worried disciples.  He takes the small offering that they have – five loaves and two fish – and according to the Jewish table custom, blesses the meal and breaks the bread, and 5,000 men plus women and children eat until they are full up.

The story could end there and be sufficient as one of Jesus’ greatest miracles, but it doesn’t.  Matthew goes on to tell us that the disciples went back around to collect up the leftovers, not the crumbs, but the broken pieces handed out to be shared, and they filled up 12 baskets!  What started as compassion for a hurting people turned into an event in which the sick were healed, thousands upon thousands were fed, and a dozen baskets of leftovers were collected!  Compassion certainly has a way of overflowing.

I’m reminded of the old Liberty Mutual “Do the Right Thing” ad campaign, were one act of concern acted as a butterfly effect to change the course of an entire city in a day, and I can’t help but wonder, are my eyes open to opportunities to share compassion, or am I just focused on my own stuff?

Compassion isn’t reserved for the good days

I had lunch with an Anglican Ordinariate Roman Catholic Priest last week.  In our conversation, we talked some about the differences he has seen between his time in The Episcopal Church and Roman Catholicism.  One point that I found particularly interesting was the rubric within Roman rites that the priest, at his discretion, can shorten a scripture reading appointed for any given day.  Episcopalians can’t do that.  Instead, the rubric on page 888 reads “Any reading may be lengthened at discretion.”  While there are plenty of Sunday’s that I’d like the hack and slash the RCL reading, this week, I’m in total agreement with my Rector, who is preaching, that the Gospel lesson should be extended to include all of verse 13.  The opening should read something like, “After Jesus had heard this, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”

The “this” which lacks a direct antecedent and would drive my homiletics professor crazy, is actually an ideal point of entry into this text.  What Jesus heard was that his cousin, John the Baptist, had been beheaded by a drunk and horny King Herod.  As Keith noted, “That’s how Jesus’ day started.”  This detail seems pretty important.  It explains the whole “going off by himself” bit.  And it opens the feeding of the [2]5,000 and more importantly, Jesus’ overflowing compassion up to a much deeper interpretation.

This miraculous event didn’t occur on the day Jesus got back from sabbatical.  He wasn’t well rested, full of energy, and feeling good.  No, he was having one of the worst days of his life.  And it was on that day, as he dealt with the emotions surrounding the death of his cousin and he came to grips with the reality that it would soon be his head Herod would be after, that he, out of an overwhelming sense of compassion, healed the sick and helped his disciples feed the crowd of more than 5,000.  Jesus was open to sharing his Father’s love, even on the worst day of his life.

There are days that I wish I could just get in a boat and go off to a deserted place by myself.  There are days that I feel zapped of all compassion.  There are days that I don’t really want to care about somebody else.  And as it happens, those are often the days that my phone rings the most, that the need is greatest, and that I end up being blessed by being a conduit of God’s steadfast love and compassion.  Compassion, it seems, isn’t just for the good days, but maybe especially for the bad ones.

What motivates you?

SHW and I have become runners.  Or perhaps, “runners”.  It is about the only exercise we have time for with two small children in the house, so we do our best to run three times a week.  Of course, we can’t run together because Child Protective Services wouldn’t like it much if we lift the children alone, so she runs on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, while I get Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.  It all sounds very good on paper, but when my alarm goes off at 5 am on Tuesdays and Thursdays, running seems like the worst idea ever conceived.  This week, I’ve laid in bed and shouted in my head, “Get up!  Get out of bed!  You can do this!” for 5 minutes until my body was convinced to roll over and start the process of falling out the door to run.  Some days, it is even harder to get motivated, but in the end I run because I want to be healthy, I want to be able to play with my girls, and I want to feel good, which I always do when I run with regularity.

Finding motivation to do most of the things in life is fairly easy.  I’m motivated to work because I have bills to pay.  I’m motivated to work as a priest because I feel called to serve God and the Church in that capacity.  I’m motivated to study for a DMin because I enjoy the challenge and three weeks with friends in Sewanee, TN isn’t too shabby either.  There are other things, like running, that take some extra effort to get up and moving for.  I’m an introvert, so motivating myself to attend a cocktail party can be difficult.  I’m terrible at small talk, so getting up the gumption to make pastoral visits is really hard for me.  I’m afraid of heights, so cleaning the pecan limbs off my roof isn’t a top priority.  Still, most of my day-to-day activities in this vocation find a motivation in compassion – “the sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”

In the Gospel lesson for Sunday, we find Jesus moved by compassion for the Widow at Nain.  I had a hunch that this wasn’t the only story that included compassion, so I did a quick BibleWorks search of the crazy long Greek word that is translated as “compassion” and found two other instances in Luke’s Gospel.  In chapter 10, the Good Samaritan is motivated by compassion to help the wounded traveler, and in chapter 15, the Prodigal Father is motivated by compassion to take off running and embrace his long-lost son.  All three instances of compassion in Luke include violating long held traditional values: touching the dead, the Hebrew/Samaritan divide, and basically everything about the Prodigal Father’s reaction to his son’s return.  As I reflect back on almost six years of ordained ministry here at Saint Paul’s, I can see times where compassion has pulled us out of our comfort zone in love and service, and I am grateful.  I’m proud to be part of a community that seeks to emulate Christ and is motivated by compassion to serve its community.