How to Grow our Compassion

In a way, our hearts are like boats in the sea. Boats attract barnacles, without even trying. If you are a boat in the sea, barnacles are looking for you. Can you remove the barnacles from your boat by getting a long pool cleaner brush and rubbing it alongside the hull while it is docked? No, you have to pull the boat out of the water, get out your putty knife, and get to work. article-2161405-13AC92FE000005DC-310_964x558And what happens if you do not clean off the barnacles? Your boat slows down. Lots of drag. It does not perform up to capacity. Boats are built to glide smoothly through the water.

My friend, Paul Gibson, uses this imagery to describe our hearts as well. Often without knowing it, we pick up barnacles on our hearts. Through media, through experiences, through pain, through other people’s stories, we form lots of opinions about other people. We form snap judgements, often having no idea we have even done this.

Paul recently led a group of us on a “compassion exercise” to help us see ourselves and others more clearly. He handed everyone a blank 3×5 card and a pen. He said, “I am about to show you six photos of six different people. On a scale of 1 to 10, write down how much compassion you feel toward this person.”

First he showed us a very malnourished child from Africa, with a sad expression on his face. He followed with a middle eastern man, then a middle eastern woman. Next was George W. Bush. Then MLK Jr. Last came a Latino man with tattoos all over his face and neck. Each time we had about 5 seconds to look at the photo, and write down our reaction.

In small groups, we shared our responses, our grading system. Everyone graded differently. One guy said, “I don’t like people in authority. I have the least compassion for authority figures.” They next person said the opposite, “I trust authority. I felt the most compassion for them.” A third person added, “I based my compassion on choices. Did they choose this situation, or was it chosen for them. The child did not choose to live in a famine, so I had most compassion on him. But the guy with tats did choose that life, so no compassion on him.” Each of us responded differently, but each of us did respond out of a grid, a system of evaluating who deserves our compassion. People saw their bias. They paid attention to the “barnacles” on their hearts, and felt the need to invite Jesus into their barriers to compassion.

Then we prayed, quoting Hebrews 7:25: “…Jesus lives to make intercession for us.” How is Jesus interceding for each of these people? Listen to what he puts on your heart this time. First we saw people through our lenses and grids. Then we tried to see people through Jesus’ eyes.

It reminds me of God’s work in Peter’s life in Acts. In Acts 10, God wanted to help Peter see the “barnacles” on his heart, what held him back from compabarnaclesssion. For Peter, God went to extraordinary lengths to “pull his boat out of the water” and transform him. God called Peter to take a very long walk to Cornelius’ house. As he walked, Peter became much more aware of his fears, his assumptions, and his partiality toward Roman soldiers.

We too need space to “pull our boat” out of the water, examine ourselves in the safety of God’s love, allowing him to transform cold places into warm places of God’s love for everyone.

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