#struggles - Week 4: "Compassion" http://draft.blogger.com/home
Today we are continuing the sermon series that is taking us all the way through the month of August--a series entitled #struggles: Following Jesus In A Selfie-Centered World.
Each of the last several weeks we have been exploring how technology and social media have been shaping our culture and our understanding of what it means to be content, to be in relationship with one another, to be fully authentic... And the overriding question we've been asking is simply this: "As Christians, how do we navigate through this rapidly changing culture--a culture that is decidedly "selfie-centered."
This week we are going to be talking about Compassion--and more specifically how the rise of social media and our increasing reliance on technology have shaped our ability to show it in some not very helpful ways.
First, let's turn in our Bibles to Mark chapter 1 verses 40-41.
40 A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
41 Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!”
So there's a lot going on in this short little passage of Scripture. First, there is a man who has leprosy. When leprosy is mentioned in the Bible, it's not always referring to leprosy as we know it today, which is a neurological disorder that often results in hideous disfigurement. In the Bible this refers to pretty much any skin disorder--those that may have been harmless, as well as those that weren't.
Ancient people believed that the skin was one of the openings in the body through which harmful bodily substances could flow out of, just as they would from other parts of the body. Consequently, anyone who had a serious skin disorder with secretions was often subject to isolation.
One ancient Roman physician recommended that if a stranger came into your village with these kinds of illnesses revealed through the skin, that they could be put to death. A villager, or citizen should be banished to a great distance away, and only brought back when they were healed.
In ancient Hebrew culture, these kinds of things were taken very seriously. A person affected with leprosy would not be able to live near anyone from their village, and they would have to shout "Unclean!" every time they were near unaffected people, even people they knew. They were excluded from all aspects of communal life--including religious life.
So when this guy comes to kneel in front of Jesus everyone around him would have recoiled and probably tried to run away for fear of becoming unclean, or worse yet--infected.
But Jesus doesn't run. In fact it says in the text that Jesus became indignant. That's a poor translation, honestly. Which just goes to show you that there are a lot of moments in the Bible where translators decided to use a word that doesn't exactly explain to the fullest what is going on.
We're going to talk a bit more about this, but let's just say for now that Jesus was ticked off that the man was so afflicted. It affected him deeply in a gut-wrenching way. And so he healed him.
Which brings us to an important question: Do these kinds of things tick us off, too? Do we get angry when we see injustice, disease, poverty and evil in the world? Do we feel for people in gut-wrenching ways when we see them lost, lonely, miserable, sick and afraid?
Or are we too engrossed in our own lives, our own junk to notice the pain and suffering in the world around us? Or to put it in the terms of our current culture: Are we so obsessive over what's happening in our Facebook feed that we can't even see the people who are posting on it?
It's so easy to hold people at arm's length and to "like" their posts, their status updates on Facebook without really engaging with them. It's so easy to allow social media to become an amorphous barrier between us and real people, with real issues. It's so easy in our social media driven world to allow superficial interactions to take the place of genuine compassion.
It's such a thing now on social media to "raise awareness" for issues that we think matter to us. We love telling stories about crises in the world, injustices in our society, disasters and tragedies... And we love reading them, too. Sometimes these stories can become international phenomenons on social media and the internet.
A couple of years ago, a Christian activist group with missions in Uganda, decided to start a campaign to raise awareness of Joseph Kony, a warlord who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, and most notoriously for forcibly recruiting young children into his army. Within a matter of days millions of people around the world were posting a video the group created for that purpose--buying posters to hang up and bracelets to wear.
Did it accomplish anything? Not really. One communications expert from London described it like this:
"What are they going to do with all this energy and interest? It's going to dissipate. ... I think this will crash and die, I don't think they will catch Kony. People will say they bought the bracelet and stuck posters on lamppost but that could have negative effects when it doesn't actually lead anywhere."Consider the social media campaign recently in response to the 200 Nigerian girls that were kidnapped by the Muslim extremist group Boko Haram. Millions of people, including First Lady Michelle Obama, posted photos on social media accompanied by the hashtag #bringbackourgirls. A website was created, a Facebook page, Twitter account... but it didn't take long for the story to wane, and the frenzy to subside. We moved on.
Meanwhile, the Nigerian military ended up freeing over 300 hostages over time, mostly by beating back Boko Haram and decimating it's forces. Those stories didn't really make the news.
Last year the big internet sensation was the ALS Icebucket Challenge to raise awareness and funds for fighting the dread disease ALS, commonly known as Lou Gherig's Disease. Millions of people around the world participated by donating money, then shooting video of themselves having ice water poured on their head, before challenging friends and family to do the same.
I read somewhere that because of the millions of dollars that were raised by this challenge, the same amount was essentially reduced from other charities, non profits and churches.
In other words, people didn't find it in their hearts to be more generous--they simply took money they would have given to charity and gave it instead to ALS---because the ice bucket challenge was so novel, new and it was happening on social media.
Listen, it's not wrong to raise awareness. And if your nonprofit tells a better story or finds a novel way to compete for charitable giving, then go for it. But what this speaks to is the way our culture has developed a very short attention span, and seems to be more in love with the idea of compassion than the reality.
The University of Michigan conducted a comprehensive study on empathy from the years 1979-2009. They noted a sharp decline in the early part of the 2000's in the way people felt empathy for others. It was fairly dramatic, in fact.
What the study uncovered is that we care 40% less about other people than people did in the 1980's. And some of you don't really care about that last fact, if you are being honest.
Some of the statements that were presented by the study for people to respond to went like this: "I try to understand my friends better by looking at their perspective..." or "I often have tender, concerned feelings about the less fortunate..."
This 40% drop in compassion coincides with something that was happening in our culture around the same time: the rise of social media.
What it revealed was pretty startling. The culture within which we live is shaping the way we actually feel about other people, the problems in our world, tragedies, evil, poverty, you name it.
As a result of the ever-presence of social media we are more obsessed with ourselves than any other time in human history. In some ways this has been positive--because we now have more information and feedback than ever before to become better people, to show compassion in real and tangible ways.
The problem is that we are ignoring all of this information and feedback, and typically choose the paths of least resistance, which keep us from being open, empathetic and caring.
Add to this the fact that we now have overwhelming exposure to suffering that essentially has desensitized us to it. Our attention spans are short, even for the most horrible things that happen in the world. I remember the first time I saw the ASPCA video showing images of abused and abandoned pets with Sarah Mclachlan's song "In The Arms of An Angel" playing in the background. I got choked up, man.
But after the hundredth time of seeing that video and hearing that song--I basically yawn in the face of suffering. I can't help it.
Our social media-driven culture has also made it possible for us to avoid personal interaction with people in need. If all we need to do is like their status on Facebook, we don't really need to get involved. Social media has given us a resource for awareness like no other in history, but because of our increasing self-obsession, and desensitization to suffering, we tend to use it to hold suffering at arms length.
We might say that we feel compassion, we might think that we are empathetic, but if we are just liking posts, sharing posts, giving people virtual pats on the back and promising to pray for them without getting our hands dirty... is it really compassion?
Which brings me to this: True Compassion Demands Action
Take the story from the Gospel of Mark that we just read. I promised that we would explore why the translators used the word "indignant" rather than something that was better connected to the actual meaning of the Greek word it represents.
It says in the text that when Jesus looked at the man with leprosy he felt splachnizomai for him. This word basically means, he felt compassion "in the bowels," for the man. It was gut-wrenching, in other words. It made him sad, sorry, angry that the man was suffering so much. So it moved him to act. He healed the man in dramatic fashion, restoring him to the community and to life.
Here's what I've learned about myself regarding social media:
The more I obsess over social media, the more I care about me and the less I care about others.
On the other hand, here's what I've learned about myself regarding my relationship with Jesus:
The closer I get to Jesus, the less I care about me, and the more I care about others. And, as it turns out, the more I feel that gut-wrenching feeling inside that makes me want to do something about the things that are wrong in the world. Actually do something about them, not retweet them.
Because caring is not liking a post, but loving a person
We need to understand three basic things about compassion.
First, compassion INTERRUPTS. Jesus was always getting interrupted by people in need. He'd be preaching and the next thing you know some dude's friends are lowering the guy through the ceiling to get healed. Or he'd be walking on his way to go heal someone, and then someone else would grab hold of his robe to try to get healed. EVERYWHERE he went, he got interrupted. It was hardly convenient. But it never stopped him from seeing people as they were, loving them, hating what was happening to them, and doing something about it.
That's how it works for us, too. Compassion interrupts us. I met a man recently who retired from his incredible job at a Fortune 500 company. His wife had gone on a mission trip to Romania and came back with incredible stories of an orphanage she wanted to help. Before he knew it, his plans for a calm retired life riding motorcycles, playing golf and fishing got interrupted. He went to Romania and saw first hand the incredible need in the orphanages there, and decided that he and his wife would move there to do something about it.
It's not convenient to truly show compassion, but it's incredibly rewarding.
Second, compassion COSTS us if we do it right. Clicking on someone's blog post, commenting on their Facebook status, favoriting their tweet or photo---all of that is just "drive by compassion." It doesn't cost us anything to hold people and their needs at arms length.
Being compassionate might cost you some time. It might cost you a bit of your comfort. It might cost you some actual money. It might even cost you being present with someone who is in need and who desperately wants to know that someone cares beyond a Facebook "like." Sometimes people disappoint you when you show them compassion. I can't even tell you how many times I have been taken advantage of by people who have asked me for money, for a favor, for my counsel... and then I find out later that they were lying to me, working me to get something, or worse yet--used my kindness as a way to manipulate the people around me.
So you can make blanket rules about that kind of thing--"I'm never helping anyone again!" Or you can do for one what you can't do for all. It's true that you can't help every person in need that crosses your path. But there are moments when you can help the one who is in front of you. So what if it costs you from time to time?
It costs something to truly show compassion, but the return on your investment far exceeds what you could ever imagine.
Finally, compassion CHANGES LIVES and the life that is most often changed is your own. I've led probably 10-12 different mission trips with youth and young adults. I've seen some of the worst poverty that you can imagine--people living in conditions that you would not put an animal. Our teams built houses, schools, outhouses, outdoor fireplaces made from 50 gallon drums... we repaired roofs, dug footers for foundations and so much more. In addition we also held vacation bible school programs for the kids in the neighborhoods we served and a much more. I've had my heart broken a hundred times while on those trips. I thought I was making a difference--and I was. I was responding to a desire to show compassion, and it was incredible.
And it changed me. It was one of the most indelible things that ever happened to me in my faith journey. I'm not the same person that I was ten years ago because of what I've seen and experienced.
It changes lives when we show compassion, not the least of which is our own.
Some of you by now are feeling me. You are starting to get fired up and you want to to know what to do to respond to that gut-wrenching feeling that you've been carrying around. Some of you are starting to realize that there's more to life than just the affirmation on your Facebook feed. Some of you want to do something to make the world a better place.
To quote those great theologians from the blistering hard rock band Rage Against The Machine: "...we have to start somewhere and we have to start somehow, what better place than here--what better time than now?"
We are making available to everyone here today who wants them, some "Random Acts of Kindness" cards. You may not know exactly where God is leading you to show compassion, but having these cards is a way to take those steps. When you are at the drive through at McDonald's offer to pay for the food of the person behind you and then have the cashier give them one of the cards.
Or maybe you might be at Publix like one of our members was recently. A man phoned our church and was flabbergasted because one of our members paid for his groceries and then gave him one of these cards.
Pay for someone's toll at the toll booth, or their coffee at Starbucks. Then give them the card. It's a little thing, but it gets you addicted to showing compassion. Because the secret to all of this is just that: There is no feeling in the world like showing true compassion. No greater high, my friend.
So show true compassion this week. And remember that Caring is not liking a post, but loving a person.