The Compassion of Jesus

Jesus healing - 13th century
Jesus and his ministry of healing, from a 13th century church mosaic.

Compassion is a concern for the well-being of others. It is the basis for altruism and the most virtuous motive one can possess. Compassion is activated within the human heart when witnessing another person’s suffering. Compassion spurs us to help. It is through compassion that people feel seen and known. Compassion brings care, empathy, and sympathy together as a bridge to connect with another person or group of people in need. Without compassion, there is no life.

While on this earth, I believe Jesus was the very embodiment of compassion. To reflect on Christ’s compassion helps us to raise our own compassion quotient and avoid succumbing to the whims of indifference to human need.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36)

The compassion of Jesus responds to human need. In his earthly ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing, Jesus went through all the towns and villages. He neither waited for people to come to him nor wanted anyone to fall through the cracks. During this work, Jesus was moved by the depth of people’s needs. The word for “compassion” in the Bible means “to be moved in the pit of your gut.” It is to be filled with pity and heart-broken over the unmet needs of people.

What moves and stirs compassion deep down in your gut? Jesus went about the towns and was brokenhearted over people who were harassed and helpless, locked into patterns of life that were harmful and damaging.  Jesus came to this earth to seek and save people, offering forgiveness of sins and a new life. Jesus willingly offered compassion – his motivation was neither from duty nor guilt. Compassion is the proper motivation for all things.

Jesus went out and ministered, then was moved by what he saw.  Compassion comes upon us as we go out and enter people’s lives, seeing first-hand the depth of need represented.  Show me a person with compassion, and I will show you a person who takes the time and effort to know another.

“Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest,” implored Jesus. (Matthew 9:38)

The compassion of Jesus issues in a call to pray. Christ saw the masses of people and told his disciples to ask God to send workers because the harvest is plentiful.  Jesus knows there are large numbers of people waiting to hear the good news of the kingdom of God. So, he said to pray earnestly and compassionately.

Compassion is the motive which brings us to prayer. Compassion impels us to pray that workers be sent to people who are ripe for hearing good news. We must not listen to the hellish lie: That certain people don’t really want the good news of the kingdom of God; that my neighbor, or co-worker, or family member is not spiritual and doesn’t care about forgiveness of sins, or grace – that there is nothing within them to respond to compassion. The devil does not want us to have merciful compassion for them, to be moved to intercede for them in prayer, nor to become a harvester in the field of people.  Jesus said the harvest is plentiful, and it is through compassionate prayer that the work will be done.

Jesus called his twelve followers together and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every kind of disease and sickness. (Matthew 10:1)

Ethiopian Jesus the Healer
Ethiopian Orthodox depiction of Jesus the Healer

The compassion of Jesus caused him to send out his disciples. The call to prayer is central; it is also not everything. As faith without works is dead, so prayer without mission is empty. The people Jesus authorized for ministry were the twelve, and they were a motley crew, indeed!  For example, having Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot on the same team together would be like sending Joe Biden and Donald Trump as a pair out for ministry. Yet, the compassion of Jesus changes lives and brings people together from diverse backgrounds and viewpoints.

The disciples were told, in their initial mission as followers of Jesus, to go only to the house of Israel – Israel’s house needed to be put in order first before they could ever think of going to Gentiles. There were Jews all around them, and Jesus goes after them first.  Remember Christ’s final instructions: You will be my witnesses first in Jerusalem, then Judea, and Samaria, and the rest of the world (Acts 1:8). We begin by reaching out to people in our own backyard.

Jesus told the disciples to do exactly what he had been doing: preaching and healing, proclaiming the message that “the kingdom of God is near.”  The kingdom is not only something in the future; the kingdom of God has already broken into the present time, and the evidence of it is the transformation of people’s lives now. The blessings and promises of kingdom life are presently available.

Jesus sent the disciples out and told them not to take anything with them.  They were to leave all their baggage behind. The disciples were to be stripped of everything so that they had the ability to see people and their needs and be moved with compassion as Jesus was. The kingdom of God was near to them, so they did not need to add anything for the mission (Matthew 10:1-15). Jesus did not want his disciples assuming they already knew what people needed. Instead, they must be present to people and discover their needs without bias. As compassion is freely received, it is to be freely given.

Compassion is the appropriate response to human need.  Yet, we do not always react with compassion. The following are a few approaches which prevent us from becoming compassionate, and some ways of cultivating a compassionate life:

  1. A defeating and discouraging environment. Contempt breeds contempt. Anger produces more anger. Hatred feeds hatred. Abuse drives out compassion. The environment around us makes a difference. If we find we must check our hearts at the door and avoid compassion to just make it, then we need a change of environment. Life is too short and the world too compassion-starved to maintain a situation that drags us down and hinders the kingdom of God within us.
  2. An unhealthy pace of life. A person cannot have a compassionate heart if they are running too fast to see other people’s needs. When spare moments are used to try and figure out how to keep all the balls in the air and all the plates spinning, there is no way to dole out compassion to others. Slow down. No one comes to the end of life and wishes they had logged more hours of work at their job. Develop a plan on how to slow down enough to tune into the needs of others and have emotional energy for them.
  3. Excessive caregiving. Compassion fatigue is a real thing. Resentment can build toward the very people we care for because of constant giving without receiving. When the emotional gas tank is empty, it is possible to become cold-hearted. Yet, some keep going anyway – and ruin their engine. Caring for others must be meticulously balanced with caring for self. There is a time for everything, including rest and recuperation.  Jesus regularly practiced the disciplines of solitude and silence. If he needed those restorative practices, so do we.
  4. Objectifying people. Whenever we put adjectives in front of people, it is a clue that compassion is lacking. Referring to “those” people; “lesbian” neighbors; “black” folks at work; my “obnoxious” relative; or, the “poor” family down the street; are all examples of objectifying people and putting them at a distance from ourselves. Your neighbors are your neighbors, your family is your family, and the people in your life are just people, period. Compassion arises as we look for what is common among us, not different. Compassion brings solidarity with others, not separation and division.

May you allow God the time to form a compassionate heart within through being with Jesus. May compassion toward others be the defining characteristic of your life.

Tractor Time with Pastor Tim

Steel Mule tractor

A tractor is an engineering vehicle specifically designed to deliver at a high tractive effort (torque) at slow speeds for the purposes of hauling mechanized implements used in agriculture.  The word “tractor” comes from a Latin word, trahere, which means “to pull.”  Tractors, like people, come in all sizes, shapes, and colors – exuding both resilience and strength in their existence.

The Bates Steel Mule tractor was one of the most unique and oddest-looking farm machines ever built.  First built in 1913, it was like a cross between a steam boiler, a garden tractor and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.  Bates Machine Company had the following advertisement for their Steel Mule tractor: “The only machine in the world which you can hitch up to any horse-drawn implement you now have and operate it from the same position you would your horses.”  In other words, you could operate the tractor by sitting in the implement seat, not the tractor seat.  The Steel Mule survived until they became one of the many victims of the Great Depression in 1937.

My grandfather (whom I never knew – he died when I was a year old) owned and operated a Steel Mule tractor (not the particular model shown above).  There was once a picture of him in the local paper using his tractor (I have it packed away somewhere and am still looking for it).  Grandpa was known for being the guy who would try new things and buy unique machinery – all in the quest for better farming methods.

The Steel Mule seems to represent my current state of ministry.  Like Grandpa, I have a drive and a desire for improving my pastoral craft.  I am open to trying new things and entering into a new way of being with the hospital patients I serve as a chaplain, as well as my peers, other staff, and really everyone I encounter throughout a day.  Yet, at the same time, I stubbornly hold to the past – sitting on the implement and not quite ready to fully embrace the new era of machinery instead of horses.  Which brings me to the whole point of this circuitous rambling of Tim’s Tractor Time:  What holds me back?  And, in so asking this question of myself, I also as it of you: What holds you back?

Yes, what does hold you and I back from taking the initiative to be vulnerable and open with our lives, instead of fearful, anxious, and hesitant?  What holds us back from collaborating with others?  Consulting before acting?  Consulting after acting?  Divulging our emotions and not just our thoughts? Speaking without always measuring and analyzing each word before we say it (or write it)?  As a seasoned minister, I can plow deep furrows with my Steel Mule into others’ lives – so, why not let others do the same in my field?  What is it I’m really pulling in that field?

Perhaps it is fear.  When Charlie Brown came to Lucy for a bit of practical psychosocial help, Lucy spouted a litany of various fears which she wondered Charlie Brown might possess.  Finally, she expressed that maybe he has “pantophobia.”  “What is ‘pantophobia’?” Charlie Brown asks.  Lucy responds, “The fear of everything.”  To which Charlie Brown demonstratively pronounces, “That’s it!”

A-Charlie-Brown-Christmas-image

Could be.  Could also be anger.  After all, anger often lurks in the shadows our hearts with a combination of it getting expressed in an unhealthy way or becoming twisted into depression.  There’s plenty of anger under the surface of the topsoil ready to get turned over and exposed.  Too much of it turned inward.  Certainly, it needs some plowing and cultivating, that is, processing outwardly with others… maybe… if we’re brave enough.

Then there’s this thing called liminal space – the space in-between where we can’t go back to the way things were ever again, yet, we aren’t quite where we want/need to be. It’s awkward being caught in the nexus between the past and the future.  Does this hold us back?  Or maybe it’s the fear of imperfection, of not doing something with utmost excellence?  Are we apprehensive about opening up because we don’t understand ourselves fully, so, therefore, I won’t (like a stubborn old Steel Mule) utter half-baked ideas or fragments of thoughts or, God forbid, emotional musings?  Like the Steel Mule, perhaps we are crossing over into a new era with the past very much there with it.

So, perhaps the greater question is: What are you and I really feeling, in this moment?  Figures it would take me all this thinking type verbiage to get to the emotional universe of feelings.  If we’re honest, we all are a diverse jumble of emotions – presently feeling overwhelmed; sad; happy; angry; hopeful; confident; scared; hungry; tired….  Oh, well, let’s just say we’re feeling everything.

Like the interlocutor in the book of Ecclesiastes, the conclusion of the matter is this: “Fear God and keep his commandments; for that is whole duty of everyone.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).  I hold back because of me.  You are hesitant because of you.  Nobody is twisting my arm.  That old enemy of our souls, the Adversary, would like nothing more than to keep us feeling weak and insecure so that he can keep us under his evil thumb.

No one is forcing you to use the Steel Mule tractor.  Quite the opposite.  In truth, there is nothing holding us back.  Nothing is stopping us from pulling our emotions out and discovering new ways to express them with confidence in healthy redemptive ways.  Nothing outside of our power to act is preventing us from the courage to do what we already know deep in our hearts we need to do…. Nothing.  So, then, I’ll look for you in the next tractor advertisement doing your unique, wonderful, and amazing work which comes from the depths of your love for God and others.

One Man’s Take on Marijuana

 
           My grandson is four years old, and he has epilepsy.  When hooked up to an EEG last year the data showed that my little buddy at times experiences as many as three seizures per minute.  Granted, they are not the grand mal, big-daddy-of-them-all kind of seizures.  Nevertheless, they are still seizures.  The doctors at the best pediatric facility in the Midwest for this kind of thing tell us that, well, they are stumped.  Kolten has experienced up to seven different kinds of seizures, and he has defied any kind of solid diagnosis as to the nature of the epilepsy, let alone even thinking about a prognosis.  Yes, he is on medication – lots of it.  Without it he would be having literally hundreds of seizures in any given day.  Yet, even on a good day Kolten will have dozens.  And even though most of his seizures last only a few seconds, each and every seizure damages the brain, if only a little bit.  Add up the thousands of seizures over the span of a four year old life, and factor the tens of thousands of them he will yet have in the next several years and it, in my puny limited understanding, doesn’t look promising no matter how you examine it.
 
            So, why in the world am I talking about this in a blog about church ministry?  Because when well-meaning Christians and churches rant about the ethics and morality of ungodly “potheads” having a legal avenue for their recreational smoking, what gets lost in the mix is a little boy who could potentially be helped by legalizing marijuana – not by taking a toke of a reefer, but by a carefully genetically engineered strain administered medically and safely.  In this grandfather’s mind, the greater risk is to keep doing what we’ve always done and hope that all will work out okay someday.  When it pertains to a small boy’s life – that kind of thinking doesn’t cut it for me. 
 
            Unfortunately, this kind of ignorant proclamation is nothing new for many “believers” in Jesus.  Just this week I attended a local denominational meeting in which a man stood up and rather angrily proclaimed as unquestioned fact that our current U.S. President is trampling our Constitution and that we are being judged as a nation for killing babies.  Without me even attempting to deal with any rightness or wrongness to that statement, the only kind of good that that kind of proclamation did was personal to the proclaimer – he just got something off his chest, and maybe he felt better for it.  But I was left wondering:  What about the supporters of the President in the room?  Instantly demonizing others and polarizing on a position only shuts down what they really think and feel about our country.  What about women who have had an abortion?  I cannot even begin to imagine that if there was a woman in the room who had an abortion in the past having to sit and listen to a guy put a label on her as a murderer.  There is enough cutting regret and grief in many a woman’s own heart without having someone twist the knife for her.
 
            There is a reason why many people in many churches often do not want others to know what they really think about certain issues, and why they want to keep all their skeletons in the closet.  They do not want to be judged and condemned, and they have every reason to think that they will be when they hear the raving of fellow Christians who believe they are doing God a favor by effecting holiness through noise.  It behooves us as the church of Jesus to do the best we possibly can to create and sustain a culture of compassion and care through continual monitoring of what actually comes out of our mouths.  When there are oft mentions of the sin of homosexuality peppered with defaming names; when there is a stream of hateful references to particular politicians; when there is anger about certain persons and people groups; and, when there is a blanket denunciation of marijuana as always being linked with persons getting high; then there is not an atmosphere of grace that leads to life, but a culture of fear that leads to death.
 
            Where some see the “issue” of gays and lesbians, I see people created in the image of God who have the same need of a Savior that I do.  Where some see governmental “issues,” I see persons in need of God’s justice and peace and basic human rights and decency.  Where some see the “issues” of poor lower class people versus upper class wealthy people; Hispanic concerns versus Black concerns; blue collar people’s agenda versus white collar people’s agenda; plain Americans versus hyphenated Americans; instead, I see people, just people – people in need of Jesus Christ and His continuing presence on earth:  the church.
 

 

            My daughter needs support with her special needs son who happens to have epilepsy.  I am glad I can be there for her and for him.  I am glad I am a pastor of a church who cares about them.  This old sinful world has enough sin and pain in it without adding to the pile through ignorance and strife.  Before we use our tongues, let’s have some working knowledge and some basic education about what we are talking about.  Most of all, let’s have some basic decorum and some working knowledge of God’s grace.  “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly” is a statement that applies to us all.  So, roll that one together and smoke it daily.

Simplicity

 

          For most churches the unofficial start of the year has begun with Fall ministries in full gear.  After a few weeks of programming it is a good thing to evaluate and reflect on how it all is going.  It seems to me that we must always come back to what is important to God and not make ministry such a complex beast that overwhelms us.

Jesus told us to seek first the kingdom of God, and when we pray to ask that God’s kingdom would come and be manifested on this earth. That is, since the fall of humanity, this world has been under the realm of Satan. God, however, is in the business of restoring his rule and reign. So, all church ministries must have this controlling agenda.

The kingdom of God is established and expanded through proclamation of the gospel in Word and sacrament. In other words, the means of God’s grace to us is through communication of the Bible and its central message of the redeeming work of Christ. There is now reconciliation between God and humans through the death of Jesus. God has united us to himself in order that we would enjoy him, and he us. As Teresa of Avila has said, “the soul is God’s paradise, being made by God and for God.” Intimacy with the divine is the purpose of our existence. Prayer, then, is the primary means by which to commune with God and is not optional equipment for the Christian.  Prayer is vital to seeing the kingdom grow and expand not only in our own hearts but in others, as well.

We must come back to the simplicity of this ministry. It is easy to become sidetracked and be content with erecting massive ministry structures, programs, and events that may please other people and feed our egos, but do little toward accomplishing what was important to Jesus and is necessary to seeing the kingdom of God realized in our communities.

So, then, maybe we need to ask ourselves such questions as these:
1. Is the kingdom of God a controlling goal for my ministry, and do I even understand what it is and how it works?
2. Do our ministries truly develop intimacy with God?
3. Is prayer necessary and central to everything we do?
4. Are our ministry structures simple and contribute toward the kingdom of God, or cumbersome and divert congregants away from this focus?

Just as football teams must never forget the fundamentals of the game in order to win, so we need to come back to what is important as defined by Jesus, and let this be the evaluative grid through which we look at all of ministry. Ministry may require hard work and sacrifice, but it need not be complex. Simplicity toward doing what is essential is required. May you experience joy in ministry as you see the kingdom of God come in all its power and grace.