Cultivating compassion

January 2nd, 2019

The following is an excerpt from Here, Now, With You by Gregg Louis Taylor. Copyright © 2019 Abingdon Press. 

What’s past is prologue, wrote Shakespeare.

I suppose he’s on to something. Not in the sense that past conditions or choices set us on a predetermined course toward inescapable outcomes, but more in the way a story unfolds new meaning with each telling. There are moments in the past which somehow transcend the passage of time to mold the present and create momentum for the future. They leave a mark. Imprinted in the soul, such moments are anchor and sail — holding us in being, releasing us to catch the wind of becoming. At least that’s my experience.

Not even close to ripe, I was green. More like raw in the role of "pastor" when I walked into a hospital room to meet a forty-eight-year-old woman named Alma. She had been involved in a traffic accident, hit by a drunk driver. That’s all the information I had been given. A light tap on the door, I cracked it open to make sure the way was clear. She sat in a recliner next to the bed wearing a halo brace, a medieval-looking contraption of metal rods extending upward out of a stiff, plastic vest strapped around her torso, bolted to a metal ring screwed into her skull. Bruises, slashes, and wounds covered her arms, legs, and face, her bottom lip puffed up like she’d gone a few rounds in the ring. Introducing myself, she welcomed me in, motioned to an empty chair, and extended an invitation to join her. As soon as I sat down, Alma took my right hand, held it gently, and began talking, squeezing my palm and fingers almost rhythmically to the beat of her story. She spoke about the usual stuff: family, work, where she was from, plans for the future, and whatever details she could remember about the collision which had landed her in this room with a broken neck and a barely broken-in pastor.

A little while later, I suggested we pray. After the Amen part, I began my exit strategy. I had just opened the door and turned back to wish her well when she caught my eyes and said something which penetrated the professional distance and detachment they say pastors are supposed to carry in these kinds of situations. “I knew you’d come,” she said and then waited for silence to soak the space between us. “God always makes his presence known.”

I didn’t know if it was what she said or the love or light or something else which seemed to pour through her to fill the room as she said it (probably a combo), but immediately I became unsettled. Within me, in a place I don’t remember ever having gained access to, something stirred, even shifted. My face flushed. Seemingly well-hidden, adult-son-of-an-alcoholic insecurity, self-doubt, and baked-in shame flared up. I stood frozen, dumbfounded, no idea how to respond as the moment took on more and more … what? Weightiness? Thickness? I felt awkward. She did not. To extricate myself, the only words I could think to stutter were “Thank you,” but they came out sounding more like a question — “thank you?”

Order here:

I rushed out of Alma’s room extremely uncomfortable in my own skin, hurried down long sanitized hallways, passing nurses’ stations, medical carts, gurneys, men and women in white coats and stethoscopes. With each step her words banged around inside my head, over and over again like they were knocking on the door to my heart: I knew you’d come. God always makes his presence known. I knew you’d come. God always makes his presence known. How do you make sense of such encounters where something divine stirs the deep waters of your human-ness to reveal what you do not or cannot yet see, and invites you to a wholeness of life you have not yet known?[i] I couldn’t get her words out of my head. What does that mean? Like happening upon a burning bush unconsumed by the fire, I was sure that something of God’s presence was happening in her. For her to suggest that God’s presence was made known in me, well, that was jarring.

Spotting a chair in the lobby behind a column, I sat down and sweated. I began thinking or praying or contemplating or something. Somewhere in the moments which followed, Alma’s words to me transitioned to a restless prayer within me. What does that mean, Lord? You mean that You make your presence known in me? Building a case for why this could not be true, all I heard was the rambling litany of self-diminishing, automatic negative thoughts which, for as long as I could remember, played like an auto-repeat soundtrack in my head: Insecure, afraid of failing, anxious about succeeding, not up to the task, not faithful enough, committed enough, smart enough, loving enough, Christian enough, obedient enough, holy enough, never measuring up, colossal disappointment … oh, and let’s not forget … vertically challenged, me! Gregg Taylor? You make your presence known in me?

And then something happened. I didn’t hear it with my ears. It didn’t seem to come from my brain. It wasn’t outside me; it wasn’t a thought in me. I’m not exactly sure from where the whisper came, but reverberating through me, thoroughly, I felt the sound: Yes! I make my presence known in you.

It’s been over 30 years since unplanned providence thought it a good idea to introduce me to Alma and through her, conscious contact with something divine. Her words still sound in my soul. I suspect always will. She gave me a theological education worth more than all the years and money spent on a Masters of Divinity degree (a credential which, it seems to me, overreaches a bit). I’m still a pastor, mainly due to her I think. But more than a pastor, a person still trying to make meaning of words of God spoken through the fractured body of a beautiful African-American woman with a broken neck and a halo bolted to her head. …

…..The pages ahead are about something as common to being human as the heart beating inside your chest. You come ready made with it direct from the Manufacturer. You know what it is to experience it; you know what it is to resist it.

Always accessible, it is not readily expressed. Your capacity to access and express it can be diminished by the awful things you have experienced. Yet the terrible things you’ve been through can open your life to it in ways that make you think, maybe this is what it means to be human; maybe this is what it feels like to encounter God.

Your willingness to apply it to yourself takes you to the freeing space of self-awareness and self-acceptance. Learning to love yourself, you find God in yourself and yourself in God amidst the messy mix of your own human-ness.

With it, churches, ministries, and even organizations flourish with a felt, life-giving sense of authenticity, grace, and hope. Without it, they become chilled, stagnant, disconnected, and even downright mean.

With it comes God’s gift of experiencing what is to be loved and to love in the ways Jesus knew his own belovedness and showed others theirs. It centered him, nourishing and birthing his life from within the loving, creative space of the womb of Yahweh. It inspired his imagination to see the world God dreams, to see the world as others see it, and to help others appreciate what God has in mind for them.

It moved Jesus inward toward that sacred, albeit sometimes scary space of touching his own pain and coming to grips with his own identity. With visceral stirring in his gut, it compelled him outward to stand and to suffer with others; fighting for those who could not fight for themselves, embracing with tenderness folks not only trying to survive on the margins of society but struggling to find meaning in the anguishing throes of dehumanizing hopelessness. 

It is something divine. It is something human. It is where the divine and human meet. That something is compassion. 

"Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate,” Jesus echoes Torah, hoping someone might catch wind of who God is and the universal cosmic kindness by which God always shows up.[ii] Audaciously, he takes it a step further, suggesting that God’s compassionating presence loves to make personal appearances, pinpointing that the spirituality of compassion locates itself in the physicality of relationships. In other words, compassion has skin on it and compels us to have skin the game. Your skin. My skin. Our skin … in the game. The presence of God is made known through the presence of women, men, and children. People like you and me — who, because of (not despite) their own pain and brokenness, step out with courage to expand capacity to see and treat others with such loving kind-heartedness, non-judgmental acceptance, and welcoming embrace that it reveals the heart of God. No matter what, no matter where, no matter how life turns or who turns up at the door.

You don’t have to be a social analyst to sense the increasing isolation, tribalism, otherizing, fear rhetoric, enemy making, and unwillingness to merely listen to each other palpable in our culture. Wounds cut deep, and lines draw long to separate and exclude. You could argue that it’s always been like that and maybe you’re right. Even more of a reason to find footing on the one thing which has the power to make whole what has been broken; the one thing which matters most (and always has): Be compassionate just as God is compassionate. “God is compassionate, loving kindness,” writes Gregory Boyle. “All we’re asked to do is to be in the world who God is.”[iii] Compassion is the one thing most needed in any life, in every context. It translates into any language and speaks every dialect. It’s an equal opportunity employer and has a no eject, no reject policy. And there is not one among us who does not need someone else to see us with compassionate eyes and then say, “I knew you’d come. God always makes his presence known.”

So, be compassionate just as God is compassionate is an invitation to a quest, a journey of cultivating compassion-filled lives and leadership. This is not beyond us. Perhaps it’s been a while since we’ve noticed compassion’s presence. Maybe it’s been trampled upon, or a lot of stuff has been piled on top of it, but it’s there. And because it’s there within us and among us, we can choose right where we are to cultivate ways of living and leading with compassion. We can decide to join the God of compassion in compassionating a world which can be cruel, hurtful and divisive; a world aching to know it is loved.

Further, by saying yes to the invitation to cultivate compassion-filled lives, we will find ourselves awakening to conscious contact with God’s compassionating presence in all of life. Being compassionate just as God is compassionate re-locates us to the center of image-of-God personhood where we discover the fullness of our human-ness. It breaches barriers that divide us from one another. And – for the sake of others and ourselves, communities and churches, our lives and leadership — compassionating the world which God so compassion-ates moves us to participate in this surprising (and often disorienting) business of being human which “reveals God and expands God’s being.”[iv]

The degree to which we cultivate compassion as the primary way of living and leading in the world will decide the measure of human flourishing. It will, as well, determine our collective capacity to create redemptive communities with expanding circles of embrace, of authentic divine and human connection, and which alter the trajectory of our life together toward a hope-filled future.

[i]. Stephen Verney, Water into Wine (London: Verney Books, 2015), p. 71.

[ii]. Luke 6:30-36. Cf. Exodus 22:27; Deut. 4:31; Ex. 34:6; Ps. 103:8.

[iii]. Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (New York: Free Press, 2010), p. 62.

[iv]. Meister Eckhart, “Expands His Being” in Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West, trans. Daniel Ladinsky (New York: Penguin Group, 2002), p. 112.

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