By Contributor Rev. Marj Johnston
Compassion is something I just expected I would learn and practice all my life. It falls under the “do unto others” category, right after “love God and love your neighbors” — both more and more often discerning pieces in choosing what to say and what to do in response to Jesus’ words and building relationships with others.
Compassion seems to be about acting toward, and on behalf of, others out of empathy and sympathy. In all my professional elements I’ve learned to be a “non-anxious presence” when I need to be, staving emotions and feelings for more “appropriate” moments with God or another who can process with me.
Compassion has been something exercised on behalf of others. “Others,” as designated by all that separates us in our human conditions: the haves and the have-nots; those who believe and those who don’t; the homeless, the jobless and the uninsured and those who have everything because they played by the rules, or at least didn’t break most of them. Those “others” who love people of the same gender or who know they are not the gender the world perceives them being; those “others” who are questioning just who it is who will love them for all of who they are instead of who they aren’t. Those “others” who are held at arm’s length, literally and figuratively, from gathering in places of worship and from the table where sustenance is offered in grain and grape, reminders of brokenness, healing and the new covenant.
For me, it seems that in order to be compassionate with others, one also must allow for compassion for oneself, tending one’s own soul in order to be attentive to the Holy within who is calling us to live out our life and faith in and with compassion for those we meet. In the recent fray of moving from what has been home for 17 years to another parish and community, it’s possible that I packed my compassion in an unmarked moving box.
So Lent and these remaining days until Easter offer opportunities for me to come before the holy one who has created me in God’s own image. It offers me a time to be gentle with my soul, to find healing of things I know I’ve stashed in the back of my mind and my heart, and clear space so I can be as present as possible to the people I meet in this place and in this time.
Music is an exercise in compassion for my soul, evoking images and touching my spirit in unique ways. In anticipation of meeting God in new ways during Lent, I created a playlist for my MP3 player and determined to sit in the quiet of the sanctuary for at least 30 minutes each work day. The first three pieces are chants from Taizé, selected to set a tone through “Veni Sancte Spiritus” (Come, Holy Spirit), “My Soul is at Rest” and “Wait for the Lord.”
The next is a favorite, Jane Siberry and KD Lang singing “Calling All Angels;” An odd shift yet deeply provoking. I’ve listened to the piece often and in various settings, generally singing along while doing any number of things. Today, the song began with the familiar hushed recitation of names of saints. Unfamiliar was that while sitting alone in a new (to me) sanctuary, something shifted. Not a literal something, but the air, a presence — the blessed presence.
“A man is placed upon the steps, a baby cries, and high above the church bells start to ring…” Images from a noon worship experience at St. Matthew’s in Washington, D.C. in 1983 rushed into my mind. “And as the heaviness, the body, oh the heaviness settles in somewhere you can hear a mother sing….” Visuals of mothers and elderly men and women sitting on stoops in the August heat in the Adams Morgan neighborhood in D.C. popped up as I remembered counting blocks of row houses as I rode the Metro from downtown to Silver Spring. “Then it’s one foot then the other as you step out onto the road … how much weight? How much weight? Then it’s how long? And how far? And many times before it’s too late?” Mental snapshots of people I met on the streets in Bellingham while they waited for a hitched ride to Vancouver or Seattle, people in Chicago’s southside neighborhood of Kenwood-Oakwood and Humboldt Park, a man in my childhood hometown whom we called “Raincoat” whose home was a rundown motel room, a mother and young son who routinely came for breakfast at the soup kitchen, a woman whose bruises moved around her face and her arms throughout the month, the sunken staring eyes of one so addicted to street drugs — the broken relationships of my past.
At the first “calling all angels” my mind was flooded with images of people who have lost their lives to physical, emotional and mental battles, some at the hands of others, and then the faces of those who have been verbally, emotionally and spiritually wrestled away from church because of any number of things lodged against them. “Calling all angels, walk me through this one … don’t leave me alone …” Thirty years of life and ministry I had steeled away in my head and my heart came undone. “Calling all angels, calling all angels, we’re cryin’ and we’re hurtin’ and we’re not sure why…”
Oh, I knew why. Jesus was the model of compassion in a way I can only hope to be. And “Jesus wept” writes John (11:35). Veni sancte spiritus indeed. God-with-us. God-with-me. To some I am an “other.” To God I am beloved, created in the image of the Holy One, reconciled by the incarnate and sustained by the spirit. Called to serve, given tools and examples to go and do likewise, holding compassion for others, including myself, sharing hope from the one who is himself Compassion.