Erring on the side of compassion

Today the moment we all dread happened to me. In the semi-sketchy parking lot of the downtown library, steps away from the bus station, I got hit up for money. I was in the middle of trying to get both kids and all their accouterments out of the car while making sure that Malachi didn’t run into the middle of the street. A skinny, young, shy, black kid with the absolute quietest voice I have ever listened to approached me and I knew what was coming. “Excuse me, ma’am?  I’m not trying to bother you or nothin’ but I just got out of jail and I’m trying to get somethin’ to eat.”

I used to always say no. I’d shake my head and say “I’m sorry, I don’t have anything,” which 90% of the time was not true. Not once has anyone asked me twice – they just thanked me and walked away. My heart would kick a bit and I’d drive away feeling awkward and a little guilty and mostly just unsure of myself and ready to move on with my day. And I would.

Growing up my Pop would drive people to restaurants and buy them meals and I always really admired that. He didn’t want to feed a drug or alcohol habit but he also didn’t want to leave a hungry person without food in their stomach, so he met the need. Men would thank him, eat a hot meal, and hear the truth about a Jesus who loves them. I’ve known of people who carry McDonald’s gift certificates with them to give to beggars.

Once I heard a story about a man who bought value meals for an entire family of visibly hungry people. The father was so angry he wasn’t given money that he threw it all in the trash while his children cried and asked if that was their dinner and why they couldn’t eat it.

There’s always a risk.

I’ve heard so many Christians talk about “being good stewards.” About how we need to be generous but we also need to be responsible with our money and take care of our families.  About how they didn’t work hard for their money to give it to someone who might “waste” it. I agree we should care for our families, but I disagree that generosity and responsibility are on separate ends of the pendulum.

Where in the Bible does it say to care for the poor as long as we know they aren’t drunk? Where does it say to give food to the hungry as long as we’re sure they have really tried to get a job first? When did God make us responsible for what happens to our money after we let it go? When, in fact, did God ever tell us it is “our” money?

I live in a small town, so it’s easier for me. I don’t walk home from work and pass countless dirty, shoe-less people asking for spare change.  I might get asked for money 3 or 4 times a yearI live in a bubble, and I know it. When Jeremy and I were in Seattle we walked down the “wrong” street and passed about 10 beggars in a block. If I had given something to all of them I wouldn’t have had anything left. I don’t have an answer for the bigger problem.

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But the inability to help everyone does not exonerate us from the responsibility to help someone.  Have you ever read the story of the man throwing star fish back into the sea? The beach was covered with them and left in the sun they would surely die. Someone told him to stop because there were thousands of them and he wasn’t making a difference. “It made a difference to that one,” he said.

At the end of my life, I think it’s far more likely that God would honor any generosity I managed to show than to reprimand me for it. “Well done, my good and faithful servant, except I wish you wouldn’t have given so much money away.” No, just…no.

I do believe in responsibility. I believe that long-term solutions are preferable to short-term ones. I think dependency and the white-savior complex are dangerous and I believe in sustainability and interdependence. I also believe in compassion. And when faced with a difficult choice, one in which there may not even be a right or wrong response, I want to err on the side of grace. I want to err on the side of hope. I want them to see Christ in me, and I have a feeling he wouldn’t tell them he didn’t have any change and then drive away to meet his friends at Starbucks. I’d rather give and hope than hold back and wonder.

I couldn’t very well take the young man to McDonald’s with both my kids and buy him a meal. I didn’t have any gift cards on me. So I gave the young man, who looked the age of my oldest brother, the last 2 dollars of my clothing budget for the month. I smiled at him and said “You’re welcome.” I wish I had said Jesus loved him, that he could be free in his soul like he now was in his body, that I cared about him, but I didn’t say any of that. After I got my kids out of the car I turned to see if he really had walked to the McDonald’s or not.  I saw the choice he made. And you know what?

It really doesn’t matter.

The five seconds of profound life change in between ordering a soda and restraining a child on a plane

Ever since my kids were born I have no longer been able to watch crime shows.  I used to love CSI, Cold Case, and a couple others but I just can’t do it anymore.  There are no disclaimers that say “this story will involve a murdered baby” or “this episode including child trauma” and therefore when it takes me by surprise it always takes my breath away and brings me to tears.  And I don’t mean just normal TV-show tears.  I mean crying on the couch, Jeremy asking if I’m ok, go look at my sleeping kids kind of tears.  I just can’t handle it anymore.

I guess part of being an empathetic person (which I never thought I was before having kids) is that when someone else feels pain, even fictional pain, I feel it with them.  Maybe I don’t know what it’s like to walk in their shoes but it’s not from lack of trying.  News stories about abuse and infanticide, personal friends who have lost children, and TV episodes someone made up to entertain us (which, honestly, we might need to talk about this later) all hit really, really, really close to home for me.  Is this a phase?  Do all new moms go through this and eventually learn to live with it?  Do I have an unhealthy protective instinct?  I don’t know.

Before Malachi was born one night I was lying in bed thinking about how afraid I was that XYZ would happen while I was pregnant and what could I even do to stop it?  How could I protect him?  And then I realized, I couldn’t.  I knew at some point I would have to surrender him to the Lord but I realized I had to do it then, before he was in my arms, because otherwise I probably never could.  It wasn’t a long prayer or even a profound one, but it ended in a lot more peace than I had before I started.  I have prayed and re-prayed that prayer over both my children many times since.

My heart breaks and aches over some of the things going on in our world.  Abortion, infanticide, gendercide, and poverty that results in the death of unwanted children.  There are warehouses in southeast Asia where infant girls are left to die simply because they are girls.  The mother might stop by to feed them – maybe not.  I imagine what I would do if I lived there and found one of these warehouses.  Would I rush in and rescue as many babies as I could, like this woman did?  Would I walk in the door, break down, and pound my fists in anger?  Would I avoid it because the problem is too big?  When I think about how to be active in the pro-life movement, I know the biggest difference I could make would be through sidewalk counseling.  But how, HOW, could I talk to a woman about the unborn life inside her, watch her walk into the clinic pregnant and walk out….not.  Ever since I’ve had my own children I’ve been afraid God would ask me to do ministry in one of those situations and it makes me shake.  I can’t.  How can you ask me to do this?  My heart would break and it would never mend.

Whenever we go on plane trips I bring 7 or 8 magazines from the magazine stack that I never have time to get to.  I usually put off reading the missions magazines because they take the longest.  On the way to Seattle I was working my way through a World Vision magazine when I came to this story.  Go read it.  Did you go?  Go.

When I got to the end I imagined sitting beside that woman while her baby died.  Holding her hand, praying for her, and just being with her while she went through the most profound loss I imagine a mother could ever experience.  I’ve suspected for a few months now that God is preparing me to minister in some way to orphans/grieving mothers/pregnant women considering abortion and I just….I don’t even know.  So as I sat there, casually sipping my soda and eating my Delta snack mix, internally I finally snapped and said, “God, how can you ask me, as a mother, to minister to people like this?  It’s so painful!  It’s too close to home!  How can you ask me to go through that?”  And then in the still, small, earth-shaking, deafening Voice I have come to know and love, He said, “Because that is how I feel about my children.”

And I got it.  I finally got it.  Rescuing unwanted babies is not an end in itself – if it were it would be all-too exhausting.  Saving a few babies from abortion while thousands more die is not an end in itself – if it were it would be a stupid undertaking.  Ministering to grieving mothers is not an end in itself – if it were it would be pointless.  All of these hard, heartbreaking, passionate ministries exist because through them He is glorified.  It’s not just about rescuing unwanted babies – it’s about rescuing lost and lonely people who are wanted by God.  It’s not just about saving a few babies from abortion – it’s about saving souls from damnation.  And it’s not just about comforting grieving mothers – it’s about wiping every tear from their eyes.

It still breaks my heart.  Getting in the trenches – those kind of trenches – still scares me.  But the truth is, His heart has been broken for us from the foundation of the world.  He has given me beautiful children to love while His children are dying without him every day.

You know how it takes an hour to explain something that only took you half a second to process?  That’s what this is.  My eyes watered, I said a short prayer, and then I rescued Malachi’s cup of juice before it spilled all over the airplane floor.  I helped Jeremy juggle the kids, snacks, and drinks during the turbulence.  We had a conversation about soy nuts.  Life went on.

This is the first that I’ve really revisited that achingly profound, anonymous moment on the airplane.  I’m a little afraid of where all this is going, but I’m more afraid of not going there.

There are two men in my city running from cops, and I’m writing a blog.

Tonight there are two criminals on the loose in Lynchburg.  It was an armed robbery and the cops put an entire section of town on lock down while they searched, escorting restaurant patrons to their cars, kids to school buses, and even cancelling church services.  There was a helicopter flying around and cop cars everywhere.  I know all this because of Facebook – tons of people posted photos and news stories and asked for prayer.  Then someone said this: “What is this world coming to?”

And I let out a frustrated breath and rolled my eyes.  Really?  Come on.  People say that all the time, and it never ceases to bring out the frustration in me.  After Newtown, after Boston, even after the election I heard so many people say things like “What is wrong with our world?” – Christians, believers, leaders in my church and I want to just put my hands on either side of their face and yell, “You’re asking the wrong question!”

I could go through the whole “The world is sinful, it will only get worse, etc. etc.” thing, but the truth is, the world has always been screwed up.  I’m not sure if it’s getting worse or not.  2,000 years ago the depravity was so bad that the disciples thought they were in the last days.  2 thousand years before that God destroyed an entire city of people because of their sinfulness.  And when the world was relatively young God flooded it and only spared one family.  So it seems like we’ve been real messed up for a looooong time, yet in every generation there are some who are simply aghast at this.  But to quote a wise author, I’d like to ask, Why are we surprised when sinners sin?

Why are we surprised when sinners sin?

Why are we appalled when the deceived make decisions based on a lie?

Why are we shocked when radical, committed, religious people blow up buildings because they believe they are obeying a higher calling?

I’m not numb.  I cried for days after the Newton tragedy trying to imagine those parents’ pain.  I struggle with my own convictions about the death penalty when I think about those who would take the life of children.  My heart aches to imagine the joy of finishing a marathon turning to the horror of the smell of smoke and a bloody sidewalk.  I am not numb.  But I’m also not surprised.

I know some would call me cynical.  In the wake of every tragedy there are those who point out that it was just two crazy people, one messed up man, one group of radicals.  But as Christians, we see entire cultures slowly eroding, slowly accepting sin as normal, slowly rejecting truth and embracing lies.  That’s not just one or two people.  That’s millions.

We are all made in the image of God.  I wish I could believe all people were good, but the Word tells us otherwise.  So when people ask “What is this world coming to?”, what I want to say in reply is, “No, what is the church coming to?”  If we are salt and light, why is the world so tasteless and dark?  If we are called to care for the needy, give to the poor, speak truth to the lost, and love the unlovable than why is so much of our world destitute, impoverished, deceived, and rejected?  If we are going to be shocked by something, I think we should probably be shocked by our own ineffectiveness.

And now on the other side of the coin, others would probably call me cynical, and I understand.  The church in its entirety is not dead, lazy, extinguished, scared…  I really do believe that.  But I would venture to say that the church in America, in general, is not what Jesus had in mind.

So the next time something terrible happens, instead of saying “What is wrong with the world?” let’s mourn with the hurting, rebuild with the fallen, and give to the devastated.  Instead of going on Facebook and saying “What is this world coming to?” let’s go out into the world and proclaim “There is hope!”  And then let’s be that hope, that “Christ in me, the hope of glory.”  He is the light of the world, and He lives in us.