Miracles Begin with Compassion

When Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. –Matthew 14:14

While listening to Pastor Kevin Olson’s sermon at Easter Lutheran Church this past Sunday, one sentence he said particularly struck me: “Every miracle begins with compassion.”

How different Jesus is from many public figures of our time–he did not work miracles merely to show his great spiritual power, create “special effects,” or convince others he was the Messiah. Jesus was not a politician trying to drive up his approval ratings or a celebrity seeking more media exposure.

Jesus was motivated by compassion. In Matthew 14, the passage read on Sunday, Jesus has just heard about the death of his cousin John the Baptist. He responds by going off to a deserted spot to pray, and, I imagine, have a little downtime to grieve.

But people want to see Jesus so much that they go out of their way to find him. When his prayer time is interrupted, Jesus doesn’t rebuke them or send them away. Out of love, he sets aside his own agenda and calmly responds to their needs.

This is one way that Jesus and I differ. When I am interrupted in my work or prayer, I don’t always respond that well. Pastor Kevin reminded us that spiritual writer Henri Nouwen pointed out that our true mission is sometimes found in the interruptions themselves. Our real ministry is not only in the “work” we do, but in the midst of people who come our way and “interrupt” us.

Jesus’ compassion doesn’t end at the end of the work shift, either. After a long day of interacting with the crowd, which has now grown to 5,000 (not counting the women and children), the disciples remind Jesus it’s getting late and no one has eaten. They suggest Jesus punch out for the day by telling the people to go to the nearby village to get something to eat.

But Jesus’ compassion for others is so great that he doesn’t want to risk people not getting fed due to lack of money or lack of resources (would a village really have enough food for thousands of people without advance notice?). So he tells the disciples:

You give them something to eat.

The disciples, of course, objected to this impractical—no, make that completely unreasonable—idea. They have some concern for the crowd’s needs, but this idea of feeding the crowd themselves seems ridiculous.

Nevertheless, Jesus asks the disciples to bring him what they have, the now-famous five loaves and two fish. Jesus blesses it and the disciples begin to offer it to others, and, as you know, the food in some miraculous way multiplies to feed them all.

I know I am like those disciples. I sometimes see other people’s needs and feel compassion but stop short of doing anything. I want to help them, but like the disciples, part of me wants to send the suffering away to get help someplace else.

There are many people suffering in our world today who need our compassion. There are those who are unemployed or under-employed, the sick and starving, the battered and war-torn, and the list goes on and on. Each of us, by ourselves, cannot undo all the problems of the world, nor does God expect us to do so.

However, too often we use the vastness of the problems to keep us from doing anything at all. Like Jesus’ disciples who wanted to send the hungry crowd away to fend for themselves, we want to send the suffering away—let someone else deal with the problem.

But Jesus didn’t send people away empty. He filled their lives with healing, love, meaning, and yes, food for their bodies. Through the words of Scripture, Jesus tells us again today:

You give them something to eat.

 Until next time, Amen!

Spiritual Aerobics

The word “compassion” comes from roots that mean to stand with someone in their suffering. The compassionate person is willing to journey with another who is experiencing pain, agony, confusion, or other trials. Who do you know that is suffering these days? How would Jesus express compassion for this person? Is there something you could do for him or her?

Holy Week: Meditating on Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion

White Crucifixion–1938 oil painting by Marc Chagall (click on picture to enlarge)   (more details at end of post) 

 

 As you probably know, this week is the celebration of Jewish Passover and Christian Holy Week. Because of this, I wanted to do something special, so I hunted online for a work of art to use for visio divina (meditating with art, see Feb. 24, 2011 post). As a Christian, I was looking for an image of Christ on the cross, and ended up being drawn to a 20th century painting called White Crucifixion by the famous Russian and Jewish artist Marc Chagall.

People have highly individualized reactions to art and I want to state up front that this post is not a historic analysis, an art critic’s review, or even a theological examination of the White Crucifixion. This post is simply my own personal feelings, thoughts, and prayer reactions after spending several days pondering the work. I respect that there are many ways to view the White Crucifixion, and I believe the artist himself would be the first to acknowledge that.

Many of Chagall’s paintings could be described as lively, romantic, humorous, imaginative, and filled with brilliant colors, but the White Crucifixion is largely drained of color. Chagall painted it in 1938 while living in Paris, in response to the horrifying events of Kristallnacht,  the “Night of Broken Glass,” when Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues throughout Germany were systematically vandalized or destroyed, and thousands of Jewish men were carted off to concentration camps.

In White Crucifixion, Chagall arranges various scenes of this Jewish suffering around the crucifix, much like an altar screen adorned with biblical scenes around the perimeter. In the upper left, Russian soldiers turn Jewish homes upside down and set them ablaze. In the upper right, Nazi soldiers throw sacred objects from a burning synagogue out into the streets.

Below, a Jewish man is fleeing with a bag of belongings on his back, while another stands ready to sprint away, the sacred Torah firmly clasped in his arms. A woman holds her child in a protective stance; an old bearded man stands with a sign around his neck, his hands open, as if to ask “Why?”; refugees on an overloaded boat look as if about to die of hunger; a sacred scroll in the lower left corner is rolling on the ground, about to disappear from our sight; and the ghosts of Jewish rabbis and ancestors float above the scene, some covering their eyes or looking away—the sight is too horrendous to behold.

In the middle of all this, a Jewish man hangs on a cross, his only clothes a simple head covering and a tallith, a Jewish prayer shawl, to hide his nakedness. The words above him identify him as “King of the Jews.” With his hands and feet nailed to the cross he cannot move to stop the chaos and suffering all around him. He, too, suffers with all those others suffering. He bows his head in silence, as if in prayer or mourning. A light shines from above, while silent candles (a menorah turned sideways?) hold vigil at the base of the cross.

If the picture makes you feel uncomfortable, as it did me, I suggest you stay with that feeling for awhile. I did. I pondered the many evil things people have done, supposedly in the name of Christianity or other religions. I thought of all the times we think of Jesus as a blue-eyed, blond-haired little baby in a manger and how wrong it is that so often Christians have stripped Jesus of his Jewish heritage—and, much worse, committed heinous crimes against his younger, modern-day nieces and nephews.

The White Crucifixion reminds me that the observance of Good Friday ought not only to be about remembering the sacrifice of Christ, but also of the suffering that is going on all around the world today. Even as you read this, someone somewhere is being tortured, unjustly imprisoned, raped, kidnapped, enslaved, or murdered. Do we pray for these unseen, silent victims?

This Good Friday, let those of us who dare to call ourselves Christians take a good hard look at how we treat people who are seemingly “different.” Let us meditate long on the words Jesus said: “. . . love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. . .” (Luke 6:27) May we respect life in all its forms, treating every human with the same dignity we would treat Christ.  After all, it was Jesus who said [in the words of the song based on Matt. 25:40], “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.”

 

 

Notes:  Image of the painting above was copied from Wikipedia under the creative commons agreement. To view a larger image, visit the Art Institute of Chicago website, http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/59426.

Other resources consulted: Marc Chagall and the Lost Jewish World by Benjamin Harshav (Rizzoli); Chagall by Jacob Baal-Teshuva (Taschen); and Marc Chagall by Jonathon Wilson (Nextbook-Schoken).

No Man Is an Island: Praying for Japan

 

Cherry blossoms
In Japan, cherry blossoms symbolize many things, including beauty and the transitory nature of life. (Click once or twice on the picture to enlarge it.) Photo by Radu Razvan Gheorghe--Dreamstime.com

 

As I write this, Japan is dealing with the aftermath of the recent earthquake/tsunami and experiencing the agonizing wait-and-see regarding damaged nuclear power plants. All the world watches and prays with them.

 As it so happened, just after the disaster hit on the other side of the world, I was reading a book that quoted this famous passage written by English poet John Donne (1572-1631):

 No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; everyman is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine own were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for who the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

 This reflection is but a portion of Meditation XVII, found in Donne’s book called Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, written while John Donne was confined to bed with a long illness. He would listen to the church bells calling people to gather for prayer. Sometimes the bells signaled a funeral–whose funeral might it be? Would the person who lay dying know the bells were calling people for a funeral? John Donne even wonders if perchance the bells are tolling for his own funeral, but is too sick to comprehend that the bells are for him.

 While pondering the meaning of the bells and the human condition, he comes to the awareness that we are all interconnected by the fact of our human nature. When one suffers, we all suffer. The suffering is not identical, of course, but when one suffers, we all feel the effects. When one rejoices, we can rejoice with them. We are not isolated, unfeeling robots, but rather members of the one human family.

 In Donne’s meditation, England is the “island” that appears separate from continental Europe, but is not really alone. When I read the passage the other day, I thought of the islands that form Japan, seemingly separate from the rest of Asia, but now, in our day, an important culture and piece of the bigger global community. Here is a more modern version of the passage:

 No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Today, we remember the people of Japan in our thoughts and prayers: O God, be with all those who suffer pain, grief, confusion, and the exhaustion of natural catastrophes. Guide and strengthen the arms of those who rescue and minister to the needs of others. Give us the courage to do what we can to support and comfort all those in need. Amen.

 

 Note: Reuters News Service has a list of relief agencies serving in the crisis in Japan. To view this list and donate, click here.

 Selected sources consulted for this post:

 Link to the source of cherry blossom photo:

 http://www.dreamstime.com/free-stock-photo-flower-net-rimagefree84837-resi1238037