Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Compassion: God’s Introduction

Earlier today I saw a bedraggled, obviously down-on-his-luck man in town. Amidst the heat and bustle, he was crouched against a lamp post, the very epitome of a “man brought low.” Beside him was a can of God-knows-what.

My first instinct, to reach into my purse for two dollars, was curtailed when I remembered that I only had a ten dollar bill. If I gave it away, I’d be left with nothing. The thought quickly followed that I was on my way to pick up my mom’s prescription. I could charge that and get cash back. But…give away a whole ten dollars?

As I neared the man, I gritted my teeth and braced myself to make the final decision--to give or not to give? He didn’t look up, nor did he volunteer a word of supplication. As I sidled past him, a slice of Sunday’s sermon came back to me. Pastor had spoken about us (Christians) being the body of Christ, physically representing Him here on earth. I hesitated, until the sensation that my deodorant was about to expire propelled me across the street into the dollar store to rectify the situation. My change came to seven dollars. I figured five for me and two for him. When I came out of the store, there was no sign of him or his can. I looked up and down the street to see if I could catch a glimpse of him, for I’d only been gone five minutes, really.

Flitting through my guilty mind came the conversation where Jesus said that his followers turned Him away when they did not feed the hungry or give to the needy. Convicted by my thoughts, I repented.

Twenty minutes later, after a quick pickup at the pharmacy and twenty dollars cash back, I was off to catch my bus back to town. As it turned out, there was no bus for another forty minutes. I was stuck in the heat. Spotting the unprepossessing Woody’s Pizza across the street, I decided that pizza for dinner, and more importantly, the air that hopefully came with it, was in order.

I gave my order twice before anyone deigned to acknowledge me. (Not a good starting point in my book, but I let it slide and kept my goal of cool air firmly in focus, because a sistah doesn’t glow, she straight up sweats.) I again ordered a slice of pizza (which, had it been a chicken, would have been considered, really dead) and a Pepsi. Warmed, the pizza looked slightly better. Subscribing to the West Indian motto that a little pepper will fix anything, I added some pepper seeds, garlic, and oregano for good measure. But alas, the culinary creation Woody had the nerve to call Hawaiian pizza was beyond saving. I manfully (or is it womanfully?) crunched my way through the pizza while sipping delicately at my Pepsi.

Finally done, I checked my watch. I had twenty more minutes to kill, so I whipped out my pen and rummaged through my bag until I found a scrap of paper and began trying to write my response to “If there is a God…why do bad things happen to good people?"

At the sound of the door opening, I looked up to note two adorable little boys, around ten or eleven, wearing matching basketball outfits. (They’re always adorable when they’re someone else’s, aren’t they?) They sat down and one proceeded to ask the other to buy him a slice and he’d repay him upon receipt of his allowance. My immediate urge was to pull out two dollars to give them, but I bided my time and watched as the first boy pulled a pill bottle out of his bag sack, with what appeared to be quarters only inside. My immediate thought was, “Heck, he doesn’t even have enough for himself, much less for his friend, poor little guy.” The top came off the bottle to unveil two severely folded dollar bills. They began doing the math aloud, figuring out the possible combinations their meager funds would allow. The owner of the pill bottle timidly stated that they didn’t have enough, to which the borrower responded, “Why, what are you having?” “What nerve!” I thought.

I glanced once again at my watch. It was now time to cross the street to get my bus. I reached into my purse, pulled out two dollars, and quietly walked over to the boys' table. Smiling pleasantly in what I hoped was my non-crazy lady face, I asked the borrower if they had enough. He said, "We don’t know yet.” I opened my palm to reveal the two dollar bills I’d placed there and handed it to him.

His face lit up and his eyes opened wide as he said, “God bless you ma’am.” I don’t know when I’d graduated to a ma’am or how I felt about that exactly, but I exited Woody’s Pizza feeling quite a bit better about myself, and resolved to write about it tonight. Then the thought occurred to me--hey, did you give those two dollars just to have something good to write about yourself? Nah…as a former people-pleaser, I’d identified with little Mr. Pill-Bottle. I’d sensed that he was about to cave in to his assertive friend, and I’d given the funds to little Mr. Borrower to spare him the necessity of doing without. Maybe I'd misinterpreted the situation and broken up an opportunity for the little pill-bottle holder to express his selflessness? Somehow, I didn’t think so.

Also at the back of my mind were the many occasions as a teenager when I’d found myself in a fix, wishing a benevolent stranger would show up to magically whisk me away, or to find the lost money, watch, earring, bracelet… (I was always losing stuff). Add to that the thought that you reap what you sow. I have a daughter out there in this big scary world, and I figure that her crop could come in in a needy situation because of the seeds I’ve sown.

My euphoria was cut short when I realized how eager I'd been to share my two dollars with two obviously clean, well-cared-for little boys, yet I’d waffled so stubbornly over the bedraggled man in town that the opportunity to make a difference was lost. I’d even told myself that my little two dollars couldn’t, wouldn’t make a difference anyhow.

Why is it that we are still so caught up in externals? That we still have images in our minds of who is deserving of help? Maybe at the back of my mind was the thought that I didn’t know what was in that can. Alcohol maybe, and I’d just be giving my money away to support his habit. So what? Is it really my place to judge? Heck, if I were living on the streets, I’d probably need some form of escapism as well.

How is it that we forget that we yet live in a state of grace? I began to sing a song, and my eyes pooled with tears as I was reminded anew of my own story. Two years ago, I’d exhausted every financial avenue available to me. To call my mental state shaky would just be a kindness on your part. Yet I continued showing up at church, conducting choir rehearsal, and attending Bible School as my world crumbled around me. My standard answer to "how are you" was still a bright smile and a “Blessed…and you?”

Not only was I financially bankrupt, I also existed in a miasma of confusion. I'd been abstinent for over three years, and my formerly obedient hormones were jumping all over the place. My thoughts were chaotic and raced non-stop. It took what felt like a Herculean effort to pull a coherent thought out of the babble, much less a series of organized thoughts. A simple Bible School paper that would have taken three hours the previous month, now took three weeks to complete or went undone. My business was being challenged by a competitor. It seemed that now that I was doing the right thing, God had turned His back on me. How could He allow all of this stuff to assail me? Wasn’t I His chosen vessel, living holy and upright?

I got mad, really mad (in more ways than one). I was angry and about two steps away from being loony like a toony. I was not sleeping. I became addicted to IMing (counseling sad, lonely, crazy folk, and getting my mack on too…ain’t gonna lie). I paid no bills (not that I had anything to pay them with), I did no laundry, I did even less housecleaning than my usual reluctant contribution. My daughter was away at her first year of college at an Ivy League school and I had not a cent to contribute, when I’d promised that her first year of college would be on me. I was suffering from empty nest syndrome and was scared to pieces about my own mother’s medical and emotional state. She too was exhibiting signs of depression, uncertainty, and bewilderment. She was shaky on her feet and eating less and less. She lost weight, I gained weight. She prayed and read her Bible; I ate and chatted and chatted and ate. We were behind a month-and-a-half in the rent, and I was aware of it; but when our precarious position tried to impinge on my consciousness, I simply turned on the computer and dialed up. I think I hit a wall of reality (or else it fell on me) when the phone company finally cut off the phone and my final means of escape was gone. The phone was followed shortly by the lights…

In the midst of the darkness, I was forced to acknowledge the fact that I’d sunken as low as I could go. Instead of taking care of my mother in her advancing years, I was now little better than a leech. I eagerly anticipated the mail which would herald the arrival of her social security and disability checks to pay our rent, and of course, they weren’t enough…

Then one day my pastor asked me to come by the church to assist him with some administrative work. It was a trick. I was in for a heart-to-heart. Thoughts racing, about ready to jump out of my skin, I was forced to sit still and hear that he was concerned about me. I hadn’t been out of the house all week, to work or even to get some fresh air. He wanted to know what was going on with me really. I tried the old blank stare and dead silence which had worked well for me as a child. But wouldn’t you know it…he stared me down. Not in a menacing or judgmental way--his caring just seeped through and my defenses crumbled. Then the durned floodgates opened.

I cried and cried, while he hugged and rocked me. He asked me how much was owed in rent, bills, etc. When I’d settled down enough to become coherent, I told him I owed about eleven hundred. Not a huge sum by ordinary standards, but as a street vendor, when you’ve seen your income dwindle slowly from five hundred on a good day and two hundred on a bad day to seventy-five on a good day, eleven hundred becomes as attainable as a million dollars.

He told me that he would bring my situation before the church, anonymously of course, and ask them to contribute. With the money situation out of the way, he again asked me what was going on with me…really?

After listening to me, tears began running down his face as well, and then he asked the question of the day: “Why would you suffer in silence and not tell anyone? You of all people?”

“I dunno? Asking just hadn’t occurred to me.”

My pastor broke it down to me that considering myself to be a mucky-muck, spiritually speaking, was the beginning of my entrapment. Because when I present myself as someone who’s got it together and on top of the world spiritually, when I actually do hit a glitch, as I did, I’ve painted myself into a corner with nowhere to go and no one to turn to--and the devil loved that. He also mentioned that part of the relational make up of a congregation is the fellowship and burden-bearing aspect. But come on now…who in the black community really wants to stand up and say, “My name is Dee S. White and I’m bi-polar, broke, and hormonally challenged?” No takers? Didn’t think so.

I finally wrought up the courage to quietly tell him (as though if I whispered God wouldn’t hear me) that I felt betrayed by God, had in fact become angry with Him when a competitor set up her bookstand in the middle of the same block I occupied and immediately cut my profits in half. I just didn’t understand why He would allow that to happen. Pastor pointed out that my sense of entitlement was my first mistake. To consider that God owes me anything is to put God in the place of servant instead of master. Yes, He is Jehovah Jireh, my provider. That promise is true. Any appearances that seem to contradict His promises do not in any way negate, diminish, or dissolve what He has promised me. The key is to hold fast to His promise, which will be fulfilled in His time, and not in my perceived timing. In Abraham’s situation, all that God promised was contrary to Abraham's circumstances at the time the promise was made, but he wavered not.

I was all too ready to waver. In fact, not only did I waver, I crumbled and fell… for a time. But as the phoenix rising from the ashes, I was a humbled, repentant witness to the grace of God as my brothers and sisters in the congregation rallied around the “anonymous” member and raised fourteen hundred dollars within two weeks. This was a sizable amount for a congregation of thirty on a good day. (I don’t know how anonymous I was sitting in the front row blubbering while Pastor reiterated that we fail as a congregation, and we fail God, when one amongst us is in need and we do nothing to aid her. But who knows, since I blubber easily, they might not have figured it out…'cause ever proud, I pulled out my checkbook too and wrote me a check…yes I did.)

How had I so quickly gotten into such a state of complacency that I struggled with giving up ten dollars to someone who needed it, when others had given up more to assist me when I was not even in such dire circumstances as the man on the street? Maybe I’d begun to take credit for the blessings of God, attributing them somehow to an ability of mine. Maybe in the attempt to put the depths of my slide in my past I’d forgotten to hold fast to the lesson learned from the ordeal.

How could I so easily forget that God is spirit but He exists physically in Christians, in you and I, who make up His arms and legs while He controls the thoughts and actions as the head? This truth means that when we’re in distress we are surrounded by people who are ready, willing, and able to assist us. On the other hand, we who aren't in need at the moment can’t live in an isolated world, blind the needs of others. We can’t forget that we ourselves live in a state of grace; that we were delivered into the same because of the compassion of God, who didn’t wait to be asked but acted on our behalf before we were even conceived.

Compassion is a useless emotion if we don’t move past the feeling of empathy and kick into action. The onus will not always be on the person in need of compassionate assistance to ask. We cannot use the silence of others as an opportunity to avoid acting on their behalf.

Let’s not be forgetful or complacent about the needy among us, whether the need be apparent as in the case of the downtrodden man, or hidden as it was in my own life. Let’s listen to the Spirit of God and be cognizant of the fact that when we feed the hungry, clothe the needy, and house the homeless, we’re introducing them to God.

Peace,
Dee

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