"With everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you," says the Lord your Redeemer.
Photo by Emmy Jo Johnson
I smiled at the homeless man sitting on the corner by the street in front of the 7/11 and made a halfhearted attempt to scrounge up some change. I mean, I was driving, and I knew I had a wad of cash and random change in my wallet, but that was way in the backseat, I couldn’t reach it safely, etc….It was a lukewarm halfhearted attempt on my part, and I knew it. If I had really wanted to find something, I could have, but it wasn’t convenient for me so I let it go. Matt saw my attempt and smiled.
“Besides, 10 to 1 it wouldn’t have mattered anyway,” he said. “I saw a guy the other day in Reno at the gas station- I don’t know if he was homeless but he definitely looked the part- and he was trading in his last 4 quarters so he could have a go at the slot machine. Seriously! I was like come on, man, that’s just a stupid waste of money. Why do people keep making dumb choices?”
I agreed with him, but what he said also stirred up a memory I hadn’t thought of in a long time. I remember back in college being so broke that I drove to work and was so thankful I worked as a server in a restaurant because I didn’t have enough money to fill up my gas tank to get back to my dorm room. But I knew that I only had to have one table tip me $5 and I’d be able to fill up enough to make it back to campus and then back again for my next shift. I was so broke I couldn’t afford to work a job with a paycheck, I needed money now.
And I remember looking at things like lottery tickets and Powerball numbers and being so tempted to throw my money at it too. The human heart is so programmed to hope that when everything else seems hopeless you start rationalizing the ludicrous because there, at least, however small, is still a chance. I remember thinking if I could just win one lottery, all of my problems would go away. Everything would be solved. I wouldn’t be caught in this. There was a 1 in 1,000,000,000 chance out.
And yes, it is a stupid risk. It’s a stupid choice to use your last dollar to bet on impossible odds, and a much safer bet that any spare pennies we gave (and we don't have much to spare) would be “wasted” on a lottery ticket in the same gas station parking lot corner the homeless man sat in.
But my heart felt so much empathy because oh brother, dear brother of mine- I have felt that, too.
And who am I to determine who I feel, and show, compassion for? I can’t judge this man- I’ve been there myself. So what if it’s throwing away a few dollars? What may be throwing away from my perspective may be this man’s last dollar needed to get where he needs to go.
“Don't we sometimes practice a selective compassion, differentiating between those we deem deserving of it and those we don’t? But think about Jesus. Did He feel less compassion for those whose own bad choices had brought them to a place of need? Are we not all sinners in need of a Savior? Doesn’t the well-known phrase ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ really apply to all of us? Jesus, the original compassion revolutionary, see those people and their own unique struggles, and He is moved to compassion. They are His creation, His children, objects of His mission.”
-Dave Donaldson, The Compassion Revolution
The problem with the phrase compassion, or imagining Jesus’ compassion on others, is I instantly see a perfectly manicured Jesus in a white shiny robe, smiling down at some simple minded yet happy looking peasants. You all know the picture, you’ve seen it a thousand times in almost every children’s book found in a Sunday School classroom in the 90s (let’s hope my kids fare a more accurate depiction of our savior’s time here on earth).
Because that’s not what compassion truly is. Compassion, how Jesus portrays it, is breaking down and weeping with his friends at the news of Lazarus’ death. Last I checked, it said Jesus wept, not Jesus smiled at Mary, patted Martha on the head and chucked them some spare change and a miracle when it was convenient and went on his way.
Matt and I live in Truckee, probably one of the most affluent, safest, and privileged cities/towns in the entire country. We don’t see as many homeless people on the streets, but we do get plenty of hitchhikers from ski bums, adventurous 20 somethings tackling the Tahoe Basin, and PCT hikers who ventured back into civilization to restock on supplies. I usually always swing by the shoulder of the road and pick up whoever is hoping for a ride somewhere around the basin. My beast of a Yukon gets horrible gas mileage, but is great for picking up backpackers with plenty of gear and a spare dog or two (or in one very memorable case, SIX dogs and one cat).
One day my family was in town, and in between driving them around from tourist trap to scenic vista, I spotted a guy walking along 89 with his thumb stuck out. I slowed down and offered him a ride, which he happily accepted. Thanks to the giant SUV of the privileged soccer mom, we had plenty of room for him along with my extended family members. We chatted about where he worked (a restaurant in downtown Truckee), where he lived (he was homeless; currently he pitched a tent in the middle of the national forest about a mile off a trail head), and where he came from (all over the Western United States; he had been job hopping in hopes of catching a break but couldn’t seem to keep a job for that long). He hopped out of the car, thanked me for the ride, and took off to work.
As soon as he was out of the car, my beloved family members started chortling about the smell and how they hoped it would leave the seats. One of them brushed away at the seat in efforts to clean it and laughingly joked about how he wasn’t sure if he trusted sitting back on that seat.
“No, but in all seriousness, it was a good thing to stop. You are such a good person,” they gushed.
I felt sick, and it wasn’t from the smell he left in the car. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but later that night I realized it was an unspoken us versus them mentality that tainted everything they said after that man left my car. I had given this man a ride because I hope someone gives me a ride when I need one. I’ve been that guy and I might be him again. We are the same level, I am with him, I just happen to have a sick ass ride because my hubby works his butt off 60 hours a week and really likes to take care of his wife.
But the attitude that they used was talking about him as if he was lower than them. I’m sure it was unintentional; they are some of the most supportive and loving people in the world. But if even they can be so subconsciously condescending, they are probably not alone.
And before I go examining in the speck in their eye, I need to take a wide, deep look at the plank in my own.
In the Compassion Revolution, Donaldson continues:
“The principle of with can change the way we see social problems and view the poor. The labels we use to describe them are often well-meaning and probably sometimes unavoidable, but they fail to adequately express how God sees people with needs. When I hear the phrase ‘the less fortunate,’ I always am brought up short by the implication “My fate is better than your fate.” Or the differentiation between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’ This kind of language seems to draw a distinction and create a separation between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ That kind of distinction just isn’t helpful, and it’s not the way Jesus sees all of us.”...Whether literally or metaphorically, we need to build a home among the needy, to be among them, to be with them.”
The beautiful thing is that we ALL of us are needy. None of us are perfected, except in Christ alone. My family needs as much with presence and side by side (not vertical) compassion as the man we gave a ride to, or the homeless man in the parking lot. Not only that, but the definition of family includes all of these people.
“In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. Also, since you are Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s famous “descendant,” heirs according to the covenant promises.”
When in Isaiah 58, God talks about his desire for true fasting, he talks about us sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless into our homes, clothing those in need, and “being available to your own families.”
I know better by now to limit my family to those related by blood. That man in need of my change is my family, and I am to be available to him.
I looked back across the front seat of the car at Matt, talking and discussing this as we drove to our foster baby’s paternity test. I don’t remember who said the quote (Eleanor Roosevelt, maybe?) or where I read it (I think in a book?) but it said something about remembering to be compassionate to those closest to you, because it is often easy to become immune to those right in front of us.
Too often I don’t even bother to be compassionate or even kind to my own hubby, who is my best friend. Too often I find myself become bothered by my 3 year old, rather than being kind. Being kind is one of the easiest and best ways to be with someone, to be compassionate from the side, in the trenches, we’re in this together kind of ways.
In today’s culture, it is so easy to offend, to not be aware or accidentally infer something offensive. Just being kind is a beautifully simple way to be with everyone you meet, those close to you and those who you’ve only just met. I’ve tried to intentionally be more kind in my daily interactions, and I’ve started to catch our own immediate family unit being unkind to each other in day to day activities. Something as simple as stopping what I’m doing and really answering my toddler’s never ending questions, or saying “I’m sorry- what can I do to help?” to my hubby rather than ignoring a string of complaints after a long day at work. Or something as simple as stopping to really try to give a man some change, or ask him how he is doing.
Being kind takes so little effort, and it is the first step in being more like the compassion Jesus lived out.
"...with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you," says the Lord your Redeemer.