Compassion: desire to relieve the distress of another

We are in the deep freezer again, with quite a few days of frigid temperatures predicted. Like I mentioned before, I am grateful for every piping hot drink, for my coat with omni-heat technology in the lining, for the radiating warmth in the leather seats in our vehicle, for the down comforter on the bed instead of a sleeping bag on the concrete.  After googling “how to live in your car” out of curiosity, I scrolled through the tips with rather horrified fascination.

Coincidentally, or maybe not, I just read a book by John Grisham titled The Street Lawyer. The story follows the ruthless climb of a brilliant young lawyer, Michael Brock, who has lost touch with his conscience in the pursuit of money and partnership in his firm. He is rudely jolted to reality in a violent encounter with a homeless man who had been evicted without notice by the firm’s real estate division. Mr. Brock starts to research homelessness, volunteering time at soup kitchens and shelters. In a short time he decides to ditch the high-power job to be a voice for the homeless community in Washington, D.C. His work gives him the satisfaction of seeing a shred of dignity restored to the least of the people. This book has less intrigue and more heart than any of the other legal thrillers I have read by Grisham. I can’t shake the story.

I think about my life, about the two sets of parents, the seven siblings or in-laws who would open their homes to stand between us and destitution, the whole community at church who would share with us until there was nothing left. It seems so far removed from us, like it could never happen. It seems so unfair; I can’t not care.

Without a Net is the personal story of Michelle Kennedy, raised in a middle class home, college educated, who finds herself where she never thought she would be: without a home, living in a car with three little children. When I read this a few years ago, the impossible suddenly seemed plausible. Homelessness is not just for junkies in the cities. It happens on all levels. I don’t know why these stories grip me so strongly. I wish I could just feel pity and forget about them.

What, you may ask, are you suggesting that we do? For starters, I am calling us all to gratitude. True thankfulness demands a response, a sharing with others in any way we can instead of merely pitying them. Long ago crowds of people asked John the Baptist what they should do to live rightly. The first thing he said was, “If anyone has more than one coat, he should give the extra away.” I think the point is sacrifice of stuff, time, money, effort.

Today the ladies at our church got together to make colorful comforters out of fabric scraps. I stayed home to school my crew, but I have confidence that those blankets will keep shivering people warm, and that it counts just as if they were Jesus. Pity would say, “I am sorry your teeth are chattering and your nose is running.” Compassion hands over a blanket and says, “Here, come in out of the cold. You can have my handkerchief.”

Years ago a group from our church went to Pittsburg for street ministry. One of the men met Homeless John and offered him a place to live. The rest of us thought he was a bit crazy. To our utter disbelief, John rode along home with us, out to the country where everything was strange and scary. As far as I recall, he was honest and respectful, happy for a chance to have a roof over his head. I am sure that the man who took him under his wing will have rewards in heaven the same as if he had sheltered Jesus.

Most times when we see someone with a sign asking for help, it is only change they expect. What if we put in the 20 dollars of grocery money that would have bought cheese and ice cream? What if we didn’t look away in embarrassment from the eyes that are already downcast and the lives already downtrodden, but instead asked them sincerely how they are doing and what they need? What if we actually saw them as deserving so much more than shame and condescension?

I just heard about a condition called “compassion fatigue”.  Apparently it affects those who work constantly with victims of tragedy. I do believe that the vast majority of us are more likely to have compassion deficit. Maybe if we are aware, if we read their stories, if we see through the eyes of a most Compassionate Savior, then when the opportunity comes to change the space someone lives in we will do it instead of simply feeling pity and walking on.

5 thoughts on “Compassion: desire to relieve the distress of another

  1. Are you talking about “the” black John and Papa? I think that’s the reason my dad is still “papa” to those of us who were still at home at the time. We see lots of these kinds of people at street corners every time we go to Austin. I always forget to take extra food along for them but this is a good reminder for the next time!

  2. I have always been a fan of Grishams work, but I do not believe I have read The Street Lawyer. I heard this guy on the radio yesterday who was talking about sponsoring a child from a another country. He said how when he calls Dominos Pizza, he gives his order and pays for it without any hesitation. But he said when it comes time to give money to a cause he gets very nervous and begins to sweat and pray “Oh God, is this truly your will?” It made such an impression on me.

  3. Oh, I liked reading The Street Lawyer, and I’m putting Without a Net on my list of books to read. This post is so much reality for me since homelessness is all around us, our ministry, and what we think and talk about a lot! It is so true that homelessness can affect a much broader demographic than what we think, and the people on the street corners are not all junkies. Have you read Under the Overpass? You’d probably enjoy it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s