Dr. Nancy Ellett Allison
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
July 8, 2001
The Circle of Compassion
In Zimbabwe the African women sing a song about a "shamwari," which is a
Shona word for friend. While singing they dance around a circle but with bodies painfully
arched or bent forward, as if they carry a burden of stone on their backs. As they sing,
they sing about the shamwari who is Jesus, and with great care they lift the burdenís
from each otherís back and drop them to the floor - now rejoicing with their sisters in
the freedom they find in their friend, Jesus. (From "Standing on the Promises"
by Colleen W. Burroughs at Baptist Women In Ministry Worship, Louisville, KY, June 1997)
Oh that we could so easily reach out and lift the stones from one anotherís hearts,
the weight off each otherís shoulders, the burdens off our heavy-laden backs and dance
with freedom into a pain-free world. But helping others deal with the difficulties of
their lives is anything but simple. Sometimes the difficulty is in us - we donít want to
touch that tar baby Ďcause we know it will never let us go; sometimes the barrier is
erected by the one who suffers.
But if we are to fulfill the law of Christ, our guide and teacher Paul says we must
find a way to bear one anotherís burdens. Now our minds quickly shape the kinds of
burdens we think appropriate to discuss in church: the death of someone we love; acute and
chronic illnesses such as broken legs, cancer or Alzheimer; a recent job loss or layoffs;
the legal misbehavior of a child. Less comfortable and only marginally acceptable is the
suicide of a family member, the mental illness of an individual, the loneliness and
isolation that comes from ending a partnership or a marriage, conflicts at work which lead
to a firing; or the illegal misbehavior of a child seeking trouble.
Paul has all of these burdens in mind - and more.
Listen again to verse one: "My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression,
you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take
care that you yourselves are not tempted."
When we read "detected in transgression" we think "caught sinning"
and most of us are not interested in keeping score on otherís sins. But if you will put
aside that ever-so-religious a word and think about the experience of transgression, you
know: it is a burden for your sister to be living a life thatís cut off from God. It is
a transgression for your brother to be shaping life in a way that leads to conflict and
hostility with others. Your own body shouts messages of truth about isolation and
separation. When you are angry with another where does the knot tighten in your body? Is
it that your eyes narrow? Your face draws in? Your stomach churns?
When you are working so hard to prove your worth to those around, does the tension
mount in your temples or in the back of your neck and shoulders? When you have neglected
your personal Sabbath and the fatigue escalates and the temper shortens, do you strike out
physically, verbally expressing your irritation with all?
Is it a sinking feeling in your stomach that alerts you to the reality that you have
just wronged another? Paul knows that direct confrontation can also be a burden bearing
How can we serve one another, be "shamwari," or burden-bearers for those
within our family of faith who are tempted to despair as well as those who have
surrendered to the temptation to deceive or divorce or deny reality?
Surely the most precious guidance any of us have received in this arena has been from
those who have lightened our loads along the way. We are blessed if there are several we
could name. Perhaps the most astute counsel Iíve received in this discipline is from a
book first published in 1983. Compassion is the bookís simple title and it is by Henri
Nouwen, Donald McNeill and Douglas Morrison all professors of pastoral care at prestigious
seminaries when they wrote the book. (Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, NY:
Image books, Doubleday, 1983)
They start as all good professors do - with definitions. Compassion has itís
linguistic roots in Latin. Cum is the word for "with", pati - is the phrase
"to suffer." Compassion: to suffer with. If you have walked beside young parents
who are burying two infants and fearful for the life of their third, you will suffer with
them. If you work with someone who is emotionally unstable you will know uncertainty -
some days you will wonder which of you is really the one with the diagnosis. If you
support a friend in the midst of a full blown aids crisis or chemotherapy treatments you
will know weakness and powerlessness. If you visit a person in prison you will know
choking, controlling claustrophobia.
And none of these - suffering, uncertainty, weakness, powerlessness, control from
others - are experiences we are eager to embrace. Yet if we are to be burden-bearers, the
good professors say we must go "directly to those people and places where suffering
is most acute and build a home there." (Compassion, p.27) We must know it is not a
matter of reaching down to the underprivileged or the less fortunate, it is instead the
epitome of privilege to be invited into the intimate space of anotherís life and pain.
It is Eugene OíNeill who once identified all humanity as broken and said we live by
mending. And "the grace of God is the glue." (Quoted in Anne Lamott, Traveling
Mercies, NY: Anchor Books, 1999, p. 112)
What an honor - to be the vehicle of Godís grace in the world, to be a shamwari, a
burden-bearer who frees another from their transgression, their suffering, their loss.
If you have ever seen the movie or musical - or read the book - Les Miserables - by
Victor Hugo, you will remember that vivid scene at the beginning of the story. Jean
Valjean is a young man, a common crook and vagrant. Heís looking for food and he comes
to the home of a bishop. The housekeeper judges him a scoundrel who will repay their
kindness with evil and begs the bishop to send him on his way. The bishop is listening to
another voice. He feeds the man and offers him shelter for the night. Sure enough, Valjean
wakens in the night, takes as much silver as he can put in a bag and sneaks off down the
He attracts the attention of the police who drag from him a lie about the bishop giving
him all this silver to go and sell and use as he needs. They march him to the bishopís
home where the housekeeper has just discovered the theft and is in a stew. She is about to
condemn Valjean to the prisons when the bishop sweeps her aside and in his nightshirt
peers into the heart of a man and says to him - not the police - "yes, I meant for
him to have all this - and even more. Why I meant for him to take the candlesticks as
Such grace/ mercy/ kindness/challenge (?) was absolutely unnerving for the young thief,
it was an unknown experience in his life to that point. Whatever his former
transgressions, his burdens, they have been lifted from his back like a bag of stolen
We are so often like the housekeeper -protecting our silver, dispensing needed justice,
and so little like the bishop, risking all for the sake of a broken beings salvation.
Jesus himself warns us about protecting our self-interest and laying burdens on others
(Mt 23:4) Yet we fall into the trap time and again. We bundle requirements on others so
that we can create distance and not allow pain into our hearts.
What are the burdens we bind on others in Charlotte? at Myers Park Baptist Church? They
are seldom intentional - our burden bundling - we have honorable goals and desires: to
create beauty, to experience Godís holiness - yet in our reach for these goods we often
inadvertently drop loads on those around.
Let me run through a quick list - you tell me later where I have missed the mark.
Unless youíre a guest with Room in the Inn, to find shelter in our lovely home you must
first accept the burdens of being politically correct, properly dressed, spiritually
elite, financially endowed, intellectually gifted, linguistically articulate, artistically
precocious, biblically erudite, hermeneutically liberal, theologically educated,
culturally refined, emotionally contained, yet sexually liberated, physically fit,
gastronomically sophisticated, and well manicured.
We create standards to build our self-esteem. We say to ourselves and to the world
"You are the difference you make." Yet Nouwen and his colleagues assert that
building up our self-esteem based upon any kind of distinction makes competition rather
than compassion our primary goal in life. "As long as our primary interest in life is
to be interesting and thus worthy of special attention, compassion cannot manifest
itself." (Compassion, p. 67) Let me say that again."As long as our primary
interest in life is to be interesting and thus worthy of special attention, compassion
cannot manifest itself."
Thomas Merton, a witty articulate Catholic, knew well the temptation to be a person of
special attention. He was such a popular speaker and writer it was difficult for him to
withdraw. Yet he wrote in the preface to The Seven Story Mountain- "My monastery...is
a place in which I disappear from the world as an object of interest in order to be
everywhere [in the world] by hiddenness and compassion" (Compassion, p. 66)
Have we yet given up the immediate pleasure of being an object of interest, so that we
might become as Christ, as Merton, one who willingly walks alongside the suffering of
others? Can we give up our competitive differences, our isolating uniqueness, the burden
of correctness and gather in common vulnerability to dance in a circle and lift the loads
from one anotherís backs?
Only as we nurture a vital and living relationship with Christ as Lord. It is life in
Christ which lifts us from selfish competition into the realm of compassion. If we can
allow our identity to come from Christ who blesses us as Godís beloved - then we need
not compete - and so we are free to enter into all of lifeís experiences, even when that
includes the sufferings of others.
Hear this passage from the fifth chapter of Galatians, it immediately precedes our
reading for today: Galatians 5:22-26
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness,
generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such
things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions
and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not
become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.
Life in Christ is a life of the Spirit- where we produce the fruits of the spirit and
so fulfill the law of Christ. Compassion, bearing burdens is a God-given fruit of the
Spirit. Now the good news of this truth for some of you will be the realization that
compassion canít be taught! No matter how good the Stephen Ministry instructor or the
Deacon Family Ministry plan, "compassion is not conquered." (Compassion, p.90)
It is a gift of God which flows from a life lived connected to God.
More important for those of us seeking to be burden bearers than reading a book on
improving our listening skills - is to enter into our prayer closets. Prayer is
indispensable in developing a life of compassion. It is in prayer that we are centered in
Christ, it is in prayer that we worship God, it is in prayer that the Spirit remakes us
from within, filling our lives so abundantly that we cannot help but enter into the
service of others. Prayer is given flesh in our service to others. Nouwen writes, "In
prayer we meet Christ, and in him all human suffering. In service we meet people, and in
them the suffering Christ." (Compassion, p.116-117)
Another Christian writer who has learned much about burden bearing and is just a tad
more flippant in her style than the typical professor of pastoral care is Anne Lamott. As
she sits whining about her ice pick headache and her nasal congestion, her neighbor, Rick,
with stage four metastatic lung cancer comes by and she cajoles him into giving her son a
ride to school. As she reflects on the reciprocity of life she wonders if perhaps that
morning Rick might have asked God for extra energy - a gift a young boy is certain to
bestow - while she was asking God for help and relief.
"I tell God I need help, and God says ĎWell isnít that fabulous? Because I
need help too. So you go get that woman over there some water, and Iíll figure out what
weíre going to do about your stuff.í" (Traveling Mercies, p. 120) A life of
prayer, a life connected to God.
Can we give up our competitive differences, our isolating uniqueness, the burden of
correctness and gather in common vulnerability to dance in a circle and lift the loads
from one anotherís backs? It happens every time we create community. It happens as we
enter into prayer. It happens when we hear and absorb the word of God which says to us
"You are my beloved, in you I am well pleased." It happens every time we offer
Godís glue of grace to mend anotherís life. Our shamwari, our friend Jesus seeks to
lift the burden from your back, the weight from your shoulders, the stone from your heart
today. Will you join that circle of compassion?