Friday, December 27, 2013

The reason behind Christian compassion

My mother-in-law’s memory loss continues to deteriorate.  When we converse we seem to spin in ever a smaller circles.  Our conversations used to contain several topics that popped up again and again.  Now the conversation tends to orbit around one topic, often our current location.   

The other day our conversation went like this:

Dorris: Where do I live?

Me: You live at the Arbors.

Dorris: Where are we?

Me: We are in Lincoln.

Dorris: Do you live in Lincoln?

Me: Yes, we all live in Lincoln.
Dorris: Where do I live?

Me: You live in Lincoln.

Dorris: Oh, Kim, this scares me.

Me: It scares me too, but I know you are safe.  

Showing compassion sounds like an easy thing, but may in fact, be more complicated than we think.  There are several ways to respond to Dorris.  I could recognize her fear, and fight it:

“Oh, Dorris, don’t worry.  I know where we are.  Leave it up to me.”

Or, I could flee from it:

“Dorris what do you have to worry about?  Your life is easy.  Someone is always there to tell you what to do.”

Perhaps, I could try to experience her fear for her:

“ I know what you mean.  I’ve felt lost before, too.”

The worst response would be to lose patience with her or to ignore her.  This would give her the message that she doesn’t deserve compassion.  I must admit that around about the tenth time in an hour when we have this conversation, this type of response is all too tempting.

The best response of compassion requires empathy.  It is a challenge to empathize with a person who is losing her memory.  How can I know what it feels like to lose words within seconds of hearing them?  How can I know what it feels like to have nothing be familiar?  Or what it feels like to be unsure of everything?  How can I know what to say that will bring comfort?  Even if I find that comfort, it will last for only seconds.  My response to Dorris is never quite right, it is never enough. I must trust the love of God to cover my feeble responses with His perfect compassion.

If it is a challenge for me to be patient with someone I love, imagine how hard it is to show compassion to someone I don’t know.  To show compassion to someone who is different from me.  To show compassion to someone who does not inspire compassion because perhaps, he has not earned it.

Lately, among political pundits and in social media, I had seen increasing evidence of this kind of conditional compassion.  When we begin to think compassion is only for those who are suffering due to circumstances beyond their control, we give ourselves permission to ignore the sufferings of those who bear some responsibility for their condition.  Perhaps those who spent their money unwisely, did not pursue education that would give them a high paying job, chose to live in a dangerous area, or haven’t managed to find a job that gives them health insurance.  It is easy to tell ourselves that such compassion is not only undeserved, but is potentially harmful. 

Since when do any of us earn compassion?  I may earn my own money for food, although just barely at the moment, but I have never earned the compassion of my Savior.  If God waited for us to earn compassion, then once we did earn it, we would no longer need it.  In fact, if we could earn compassion through righteousness and careful decision-making, we would not even need God. Our faith is built on the truth that we cannot earn compassion, but never-the-less it is given freely.

Compassion is never earned, it is always given out of unconditional love.  Compassion does not mean there is no punishment for wrongdoing, no consequence for poor decisions, and it doesn’t guarantee rescue.  In our relationship with God compassion is always present.  Compassion must be present or there would be no relationship, there would be no life.

We are expected to forgive each other because God forgives us.  We are expected to love each other because God loves us.  Likewise, we are expected to show compassion, unconditionally, because we receive such compassion from Him.  While compassion sometimes involves rescue, it is separate from that act.  Compassion is empathy.  Compassion is love.  Compassion is making ourselves equal with others because we recognize we also do not deserve the compassion we receive.   

We do not have to all endorsed the same political solutions in order to show compassion.  We just need to remember where compassion originates and practice it.

In my own life, when I have been confronted with my lack of compassion, I have been forced to wonder if compassion was replaced by my fear.  Sometimes I don’t want to get involved.  Sometimes I want to convince myself that what I have done has earned me my life.  This fear too easily replaces compassion with contempt.  If I want to give others only what they have earned then contempt is where I want to be.  However, I most certainly do not want the contempt I deserve from my fellow man or my Heavenly Father. There is no love, or life, found in contempt.

Just as God is the only one who can show true compassion, He is the only one who can give us the courage to be compassionate.  He can, and does, take away our fear and our contempt.  He mercifully replaces that fear and contempt with a desire and ability to show compassion.  We are blessed when we show compassion.  We are blessed with empathy and understanding and we are blessed to use our faith.  Most importantly, we are blessed by God’s compassion for us.

Our world is a complicated confusing place.  Scripture does not give us political solutions, it does not give us simple answers, but it does give us direction, and hope, and faith. God shows me compassion day after day. He shows me compassion even when I cannot comprehend the world as He does. He shows me compassion even when I forget it seconds after I have been blessed. His love always holds me as His precious child.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. Lamentations 3: 22-26 ESV

We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. Romans 15:1-2 ESV

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Galatians 6: 1-3 ESV

Friday, December 6, 2013

Faith in a cast

For four weeks I have been in protection mode.   I have cradled my broken limb in a splint, in a sling, and in my mind, as I carefully walk through my day.  I have done this as if convinced I could bring about healing.  I even winced my way off of four planes assuming a false hope that flinching could prevent overhead bin luggage from smacking into my arm.

Now, we are five weeks after the injury and four weeks after the surgery.  The bone is healed and held firmly in its place by a plate and screws.   The arm, however, is another story.  I lovingly refer to it as Frankenarm.  I can feel it, move it some, and it is connected to my shoulder, but I barely recognize it as mine.   The arm is thin with weak muscles.  The hand and wrist unrecognizable due to swelling.  Thick layers of skin, denied the natural privilege of shedding, now buckle and flake creating little piles of foreign matter every place my arm occupies.

The results of five weeks of protection, five weeks of inactivity, are stunning.  I apply heat treatment to the wrist to loosen things up for stretching and then follow that with a cold pack to reduce swelling in my fingers.  My blood doesn’t know if it should run hot or cold.

My day is still left-handed because the fingers on my right hand are useless, but, I have to continually remind myself to move that arm, as if it works, so I can exercise muscles that no longer pay attention to automatic messages from the brain. 
For four weeks I have been in protection mode.  Now I need to change from protect to push.

Yesterday was day one for Frankenarm.  I spent the day extending the arm at the elbow so that my fingers no longer yearn for the comfortable spot over my abdomen.   Today, I press against the wall to straighten my fingers and practice turning my hand palms up.  I need to accomplish this before I can complete the exercises and stretches that will return my arm to a useful state.

The road to being able to type my dissertation looks so long I have taken to hiding chocolate so as to ensure an ample supply.  Desperate situations call for desperate measures. 

Now I wonder if I perform similar protection rituals with my faith? Have I wrapped it in my Bible and held it close to my chest?  When I am faithful in Scripture, Sacraments, and Worship, my faith is fed, much like my arm.  But, what happens to a faith that goes unused? What happens to a faith that doesn’t see work?

It risks dying.

For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.   James 2:26

For weeks my arm has had everything it needs except for work.  When not exposed to the air it could not shed old skin.  While held still in one position the bones were allowed to heal but the muscles began to die.  Lack of activity allowed fluids to gather in my fingers which only proved to encourage less activity.   Now my previously busy arm is pretty much useless.

When I protect my faith by refusing to expose it to different life perspectives, I risk my faith by replacing it with nothing but my own thoughts and feelings.  I need to read and listen to other perspectives and compare them, along with my own, to the truth offered by scripture.

When I protect my faith by refusing to expose it to new people who yearn for the promise of God’s Word I risk losing that faith as it dies layer by layer.  Judging others for their lack of faith and for their life circumstances is as harmful as neglecting to use my muscles.  Soon, I will find I cannot access a faith that is wrapped in useless tissue.

I broke my arm and was blessed by surgery, and the talented work of the medical staff.  I was further blessed by the care of family and friends.  I have my arm back and this reminds me that God is good.  I have much work to do before my arm is useful and that reminds me that God is good all the time.  

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.  James 1:2-3

May God send a measure of His spirit to remind us good works can never save us, that the Word and Sacraments give our faith life, that worship reminds us of our standing with God, and that He designed our faith to be used; to be pushed and not protected.

and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good  is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.  But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.  James 2: 16-18

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A God with no limits

Nothing is automatic.
A couple of weeks ago I fell and broke my right arm near the wrist.   A week ago, I had surgery, after which, my highly accomplished surgeon declared my break to be a tough fracture.  Then he looked me in the eye and repeated, slowly, “tough fracture.”  I think that was his polite way of telling me to take it easy and allow my poor old bones to heal.  Or, it may have had something to do with my brief notion that I would be good to fly to Chicago two days after surgery
I have spent entirely too much time in bed, my arm on a stack of pillows and my attention focused on vintage television shows with commercials geared toward senior citizens.   A Life Alert subscription is starting to sound like a good idea. 
My life the last few weeks has taxed my brain almost as much as taking a 900 level stats class.  I am managing my daily routine using only my non-dominant hand.  This means that nothing is automatic; I have to pre-think every little action.  Anything one might do in the bathroom, for instance, is just one sweet little adventure after another.
It took me a week and a half to attempt driving because I could not pre-think every step.   After much practice, I can now write semi-legibly, but it still requires me to think through each stroke.   I have a tendency to run out of room on the line because I am not good at thinking ahead.  I have re-learned dressing and undressing skills and by the end of the week I need to conquer showers and hair washing.   By Sunday I fly to California to present at a conference.   It would be best for me to be clean and respectable.

The ability of the brain to reduce everyday activities to automatic movements  is a wonderful gift of God’s design.  We have thousands of scripts and schemas that routinely click into place as we go about our day.  Complicated actions such as shoe tying and driving become things our bodies can do, seemingly without thought.  This automaticity allows us to get things done while taking in and processing new information.  We are able to realize we are running late while tying shoes, or break to avoid hitting a cat dashing across the street while driving to work.  Automaticity is really an amazing gift.  Trust me, I know.

We have small workbenches in our brain that would easily be overwhelmed if we did not have so much that we can do automatically.  God, however, is omniscient or all-knowing.  He has no limit to what He can do, what He can understand, what He can remember.  Nothing He does is automatic.  Everything He does is deliberate, purposeful, and fitting.  He has no limits. 

I lose my patience so easily when trying to do something new.  God has no limit to His patience.

I lose trust so easily when I cannot see the road ahead.  Yet, there is no limit to God’s power, or to His love and care for me. 

I worry over the dissertation that does not seem to be typing itself.  But, God is, was, and is to come.  He already knows the outcome.  How puny my brain is in comparison to my God.  I am happy this is so.  When faced with my own limitations, it is much better to rest in the hands of a God without limits.

Today, we are in prayer for a bright, beautiful, limitless, six-year-old named Anna.  She is having emergency heart surgery.  We know that her Heavenly Father cares for her and holds her in His hand. 

Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you. Deuteronomy 31:6

 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39

He will tend his flock like a shepherd;  he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. Isaiah 40:10

To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One.  Lift up your eyes on high and see:  who created these? He who brings out their host by number,
calling them all by name,by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing.  Isaiah 40:25-26

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Song and dance routine

Dorris called the other day for someone to come pick her up from her hotel because Marx forgot to get her.

When I got to the Arbors I told her that she was not in a hotel; this was where she was living.

"Here?  Why do I live here?"

"Because this place has many people who can help you and keep you safe."

"I have been calling Marx all day to get him to come pick me up from this hotel."

"Marx is dead.(I used to say he’s gone to heaven, but then she said “I think we can just say he is dead.")

"He’s dead?  How long?"

"He’s been dead for two years now."

"I remember you’ve told me that, but I always seem to forget it.  I think I need to live some place where I can get some help with my memory."

"You do; you live here."

"Here?  All I know is I have been sleeping some place new every night and every place has one of these black couches. "

"Dorris, this is your room and your couch".

"No, I don’t think so."

Sometimes my conversations with Dorris’ memory spin around in such a tight circle that I want to put my head between my knees and brace myself for a crash landing.

Years ago I learned about whale songs.  Apparently, whales sing a song back and forth to each other and each passing of the song changes a small part of it.  After a year of passing the same song, they are singing something completely new. I think this is a good description of conversation with Dorris. So much of it repeats, but usually there is some new twist.  Some things are important enough to stay in the song – things like Marx’s passing -  and others are replaced with new concerns.

The other day she told me she was getting forgetful about her forgetfulness and that worried her. I didn’t know how to respond and waited a bit for her to elaborate. Then she quietly shared that she is struggling to remember names of loved ones who live close by. 

What an interesting way to tell me she senses a change in her memory loss.  What a good reminder to me that her memory loss is not a loss of intelligence, nor is it a complete loss of what makes Dorris so uniquely Dorris.  She walked, for many years, with her parents and her husband as they slipped into the hole that is dementia.  She is losing her memory, not what she learned during those long years. 

I wonder if this little song and dance between Dorris and her loved ones is an example of our song and dance with sin?  God reaches out to us and we respond with the same familiar, but perhaps slightly changed, choreography. God patiently responds with forgiveness and His Spirit reminds us of our need to change and our need for Him.

For me the song usually starts with a few steps of “ lack of trust.” From there I move on to a descant of “depending on myself” which segues nicely into a verse or two of” selfishness and pouting.”  God has watched this song and dance for many years.  I change some of the steps, add in a new refrain, and continue on my merry way, dancing off of the walls of my worry;  leading myself further away from the One who saves me.  The One who can finish my song in the way He intended. Then, ever so smoothly, God spins me back to Him.

Paul and I have found with Dorris that it is best to simply respond and reassure. If we try too hard to counter her insistence, we only create more insecurity. We just answer, and repeat, and repeat, and repeat. Words mean little, but human presence means everything.

And so it is with my relationship with God. His love and understanding are more than I can even begin to comprehend. I spin in my sin and worry. He answers, and repeats, and repeats, and repeats. 

The Lord is my strength and my song,
    and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
    my father's God, and I will exalt him. Exodus 15:2

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. John 10: 27-28

My soul also is greatly troubled.
    But you, O Lord—how long?
Turn, O Lord, deliver my life;
    save me for the sake of your steadfast love. Psalm 6: 3-4