December 3, 2014

On Compassion and Christmas and Those People on the Other Side of the Net

My internal thought when I first saw her? “She is probably a lesbian.”

She was dressed like a boy, wearing big baggy shorts over her knees and a huge-brimmed hat on backwards over her downed hair. She had piercings under her lips and tons of tattoos that added extra drama to her already “tough girl” look.

She was on the other side of the volleyball net at a rec league game. As we played and crossed each other in the front row, I was able to actually read one of the tattoos on her arm: “I am not what was done to me; I am who I choose to become.”

Upon returning home and jumping in the shower, I lost it.

As the hot water washed away my sweat, the steaming tears carried out my grief.

I cried for whatever pain she or someone she knew had gone through to want to get such a tattoo. I cried at the shame I felt for being so quick to judge and label, but so slow to recognize her humanity – her pain and her desperate need for Christ’s love.

I cried because I feel like that stupid volleyball net symbolizes my Christian life more than I would like to admit.

It’s “us” on this side of the net in our nice churches and nice friends and nice houses and nice lives – and it’s “them” on the other side. It’s them on the outside: Full of pain. Wandering like lost sheep. Ripe to experience Christ’s love if one of His Followers would just cut down the net and share it.

It was all so ironic as earlier that day my friend shared her beautiful article called “Just Hang On,” describing the tears she had shed for someone she didn’t know – someone who only God could have placed on her heart.

Fast forward three weeks and I’m close to downtown Chicago with a church group hosting a worship service for ex-cons and other “lost sheep” looking for new life.

We are given a brief orientation, the main points being this:

1. These men and women need a positive church body surrounding them as they strive to leave their old ways behind. However, most ex-cons and people trying to escape street life don’t usually feel like they will fit into our typical churches. #shocker #sarcasm

2. Your job is to show these men and women that they have value – something they haven’t heard in a long time, if ever in their lives. Show them that they would be welcome in church. Be conscious of your body language, smile a lot, and let them know that you are happy they came.

3. Small talk is completely appropriate conversation. Talk about the Chicago Bulls or da Bears. Just don’t insult Beyonce.

We play our part well: We give firm handshakes and big smiles. We say out loud, “We are so happy you came here!” We avoid crossing our arms and letting our “resting face” look scary. Even as my awkward and introverted self tries to play the part of welcoming and extroverted host, I genuinely feel happy to be there. I genuinely feel happy they came.

But as I look around the room, and as I am more careful this time with my quick judgments, I still can’t help but think: I have nothing in common with the people here.

I am a white woman. Most of them are black men.

I am from the South side. Most of them are West Siders.

I am from wealth and privilege and a Christian upbringing. Most of them – well – I have no idea where they came from. But I get the feeling their upbringing is different from my own.

I am wearing Bath and Body Works “Exotic Coconut” body spray. One man claims he hasn’t washed his clothes in three months, and his “body spray” makes that fact quite obvious.

I am nervous about coming across as an uppity racist white girl who thinks she can romantically barge into their lives and try to “fix” them. One man leans over to me, mouth drooling at the meal we are about to share together and says, “You know what they say about black people and fried chicken? Well, it’s true.”

How do I show compassion in places like this? How do I even begin to connect to people with whom I appear to have nothing in common?

In the book Geography of Grace: Doing Theology from Below, the authors highlight the literal meaning of compassion, “to suffer with.” Paraphrased from the book:

Understand compassion as far more than simply feeling sorry for {others}…or even helping them. Philippians 2 portrays Christ emptying and offering himself from a position of weakness. We should share our own fears, shame, doubts, versus coming in as “super-Christians” who have everything together: Jesus is the only super one, and he himself became weak and shamed for us. Can we have this attitude with each other?

I don’t know. What does that even look like?

Thankfully, we have a Shepherd – moreover a Savior – who did just that. He perfectly demonstrated compassion. He didn’t just feel sorry for us. He didn’t just take away our pain so that we wouldn’t have any hardships in life. Rather, He demonstrated true love by feeling our pain, our joy, our anger, our temptation with us.

And that, my friends, is Christmas.

Don’t buy into the complete bullcrap that the mountain of traditions we have come up with over the years to stress ourselves out are what define “Christmas.” (I’m talking to you, expensive trees and tacky tinsel and vogue-style Christmas cards and perfectly frosted cookies and competitive Pinterest crafting and huge feasts and outrageous gift spending and millions of parties and that obnoxious blow-up Santa Clause in our neighbor’s front yard.)

What defines Christmas, is the birth of our Savior. What defines Christmas, is the compassion of God becoming a man in its most fragile form. It is Christ giving up everything to embrace humanity and all of its pain, its servanthood, its humility, its obedience, and its death – even death on a cross!

During the service downtown I sat next to a man named Randy. Afterward, he stood up and said to me, “You know, just like the pastor read, my thoughts have been transformed. First, when I looked at you, I thought, ‘Dang, she is a really tall girl.’ Now, when I look at you, I think, ‘No, she is Kendra.’”

I laugh and reply, “Well, thank you. I am still really tall, but I’m glad you know my name now too.”

“Seriously,” Randy continues, “my thoughts are transformed. I came here feeling really down about everything going on in my life, but I know now that God is taking care of me. I know that I need to think with my mind, and not my feelings.”

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – His good, pleasing and perfect will.

How do I show compassion this Christmas season? Honestly, I have a lot more questions than answers. Because sometimes it doesn’t feel all that compassionate – like I’m suffering “with” – when I get to drive downtown to the hood from our cozy apartment in the suburbs, and then actually have the choice to leave again.

But maybe, with Randy, it starts with “transforming my thoughts.”

Maybe, at Christmas and every other time of year, it means listening to people who are different from me. Maybe it means praying my eyes and my heart will be opened to see the world and its many lost sheep through God’s eyes. Maybe it means cutting down the “stupid volleyball net” and letting God guide me into compassion, even if it means having to cry real tears for real people feeling real pain.

Maybe, with Randy and everyone else on “the other side of the net,” I need to recognize the few things we do have in common: Our humanity. And our need for a compassionate Savior.

Grace and Peace,

PS. Please don't get me wrong in all of this. While we have a lot of nonsense surrounding these holidays, I shamelessly enjoy the pretty lights, sipping hot cocoa, and singing songs about Santa Clause at the top of my lungs. But Christmas this year also has me wrestling. It has me thinking about compassion and people and pain and how to handle it all. It has me thinking that I am eternally grateful for a Savior who did not just save us from our pain, but suffered in our pain with us.