Will Miller is a friend of mine, though we’ve never met in person. When the tornadoes hit the South, Will was at his home in Tuscaloosa, AL. He writes:
Within the last 24 hours, Tuscaloosa was hit with one of the most devastating storms we’ve ever seen. The night it happened, I sat huddled in our downstairs closet with my parents and our three dogs as we awaited the worst. We were watching the tornado rip through a few miles away from us on the television coverage when our biggest fear happen. The screen froze, then the entire house went pitch black. All we could hear was the tornado siren a few blocks away and the torrential downpour. We waited. Then about fifteen minutes later, the storm calmed and we left our safe place. While our house still stood untouched, we had no idea what was just down the street. (source)
What I found most intriguing was Will’s description about the divide between those who remained basically unaffected and those who were wiped out. Since it’s been a week now, for most people business has resumed as normal:
…there’s no real “middle of the road” here anymore. Either we’re back to life as normal with power and no damage, or we’re still staring at the pile that used to be a home…
Will describes the dilemma this is causing for folks across the city:
Do we go back to work to get the paycheck to provide for our needs and family, or do we abandon it to help people out around us? It’s a hard decision to make. While unemployment may be declining in areas, a good job is still a hot commodity, and as stewards, we need to be able to provide for ourselves and our family. On the other hand, we’re called to help out those around us sacrificially. So what does that look like? (source)
In the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Rich Man wasn’t condemned because he didn’t show compassion to those far away; he was condemned because he didn’t show compassion to those nearby, at his doorstep.
There is something powerful about needs in our physical space. In our sphere of influence.
Here in the American suburbs we don’t have the destitute on our doorstep. There isn’t a struggling orphanage on each street corner. There aren’t beggars staring at us with pain filled eyes everytime we open our garage doors. No, here we are insulated. But we tell ourselves that if there was a need, we would respond. And indeed, we often prove those sentiments true.
For instance, I have seen many instances of friends rallying around someone in need. The Broomes family comes to mind. They are friends of ours who were involved a serious auto accident several years back. The son Adam sustained massive brain trauma, and Mr. Broomes had a number of bones crushed (watch this picture slideshow of Adam here). The outpouring of help for the Broome’s family during this crisis was touching.
But what if there was an overwhelming local crisis? Then what would I do? Would I tend to ignore the problems and focus on taking care of myself and my own? Or would I be moved with compassion and help self-sacrificially?
In Haiti there was incredible need everywhere. I can’t imagine living normally in the midst of such problems.
If I try imagining I was born Haitian instead of American, and that I somehow landed a good job in Haiti, I wonder, "How would I then live with the desperate need in every direction? Would I leverage all my resources into helping those less fortunate around me? Or would I simply be thankful for my own positive situation and try carving out a cosy niche for myself in the sea of misery?"
I’m afraid I would be very tempted to do the latter. I’m afraid I would become callous to the need. Like the Rich Man, I too would be tempted to think, "The poor we will always have among us."
Why do I think that of myself? Because it is largely how I act now, knowing full well the needs many are facing around the globe. What’s more alarming is how easily I rationalize my turning a deaf ear to the cries of the powerless, to rationalize away my decision to stay uninvolved with the suffering.
In light of my current behavior, I can only extrapolate that if the need were overwhelming, and in my immediate vicinity, I would find it only too easy to rationalize away helping them as well.
A certain expert in the law tried justifying himself regarding the second greatest commandment (“love your neighbor as yourself”) by asking Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?"
Jesus told him the story of a man who was robbed by bandits and left bleeding on the side of the road. A priest came by and, disgusted, ignored the need, passing by on the other side of the road. So too did a Levite.
Then a common man of a different religion and even hostile culture had "pity on him." And helped him. At personal cost. In fact, the Good Samaritan did seven positive things for this stranger:
- went to him
- bandaged his wounds
- poured oil and wine on his wounds
- put the man on his donkey
- brought him to an inn
- took care of him
- gave two denarii to the innkeeper with a promise to reimburse more when he returned.
Jesus brings the story home with this piercing question:
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10)
There is something powerful about physical space. About meeting needs within our physical sphere of influence. We are finite creatures, we can’t be everywhere at once. We can’t even be in two places at once, as much as I’d personally like that to be an option.
Thinking about the Good Samaritan reminds me of something that happened recently that makes me feel bad… yesterday I saw a bird that had a broken wing and I passed by – didn’t stop to help. I was driving, and saw it awkwardly flopping along on the ground, critically injured. The poor thing couldn’t fly and was – I’m sure – in a lot of pain. And did I stop to bandage up its’ wounds? No. Or take it to the vet? No. With a callous heart I drove on by. If I can do that to a bird, could I do that to a human?
Indeed, while in Haiti I was accosted by a beggar, a quite scary looking one. He was missing at least one significant limb. Grizzly and disgusting, I ignored his appeal for money. As did several I was with; we turned around and left. Yet one of our group went over and talked to him, had compassion. But not me.
This morning I woke up thinking about the kids that will die today of preventable causes, and suffer today because of injustices. Kids that aren’t given the chances I’ve been given. Kids that are hurting, are hungry. Laying there in bed I thought about how a new day rises for me full of hope and promise. Yet I know for many a new day rises full of gloom and despair. I think of the lady in Haiti who asked me to pray for her, "in her misery."
So, I see this blog post has turned into a very un-encouraging and depressing one.
I guess the power of, "seeing needs close-up in our personal space" is not that it makes us more compassionate. Rather, like a mirror, it reveals a lot about the level of compassion we already have.
Over and over in the New Testament Jesus is recorded as, "having compassion." I wonder, do I?
2) For more thoughts on our responsibility with the material blessings we’ve been given, next time you’re at a local Christian bookstore you might want to read chapter 6 of David Platt’s book, Radical. That chapter is titled, "American wealth in a world of poverty," and is hard hitting. Maybe over the top, but totally made me think.