Guest commentary by Peggy Grant
A beautiful Christmas tradition at North Church is the giving and receiving of “star words.” Star words come on Christmas ornaments distributed to our members during Epiphany — the time when we remember the wise men who followed the star to Bethlehem where they found Jesus. Each ornament carries one word that characterizes the life of a Christian. Two years ago I received my first star. The word: “Compassion.”
I thought, “God wants me to become more compassionate.” I set about praying for compassion with this in mind. I tried to “walk in the other person’s shoes” and often felt that God had expanded my understanding of compassion as a result.
At some point during the year, though, I realized that something else was going on. Primarily, this happened through some tremendous examples of compassion that people demonstrated toward me. One Sunday after worshipping here at North I was overcome with emotion and feelings of intense sorrow, grief and loss. I went to the chapel, closed the door, and wept as I had never wept before. Once or twice the door opened but closed again very quickly.
After a long time, I regained enough composure to open the chapel door. And there was Cheryl, holding the flowers she had purchased for our worship that day, in honor of her mother. She would have taken those blooms home to enjoy, but instead she handed them to me – sensing I needed them more. I had done nothing to earn this gift of pure love. It was given in response to her deep understanding that I was in pain, and her desire to relieve my suffering. Compassion is not just feeling sorry for someone, but feeling another’s sorrow on such a deep level that one is strongly motivated to try to alleviate the other’s suffering. Cheryl gave me compassion along with the flowers that day.
Gradually I began to realize that Jesus was offering me compassion. As important as it was for me to learn compassion toward others, his intention was to burn through the emotional barriers I had erected, over many years, by offering his compassionate love for me in my emotional distress. This was not the gift I had wanted or prayed for. It was terrifying. I feared the churning waters deep inside my soul — deep waters of unresolved emotional distress that threatened to pull me under if I actually faced and acknowledged them. I had feared them to the point that I had simply decided they did not exist.
However, the floodgates had opened in the chapel that morning. I found it difficult to pray because I did not want to start crying like that again. But I kept trying, and I remember one day in my quiet time – a day when things began to turn. I had no particular agenda that day other than being in God’s presence. I found myself opening my hands and visualizing my heart in them. The inevitable tears became my prayers as I allowed Jesus to pour light and love into my heart. It hurt and burned so deeply, and yet afterward felt so incredibly light and clean and joyful – experiencing a joy unlike I had ever known before.
Some say that it is more blessed to give than to receive. That may be true. But I maintain that it is more difficult to receive than to give. In order to receive Jesus’s compassion, we must become vulnerable where we do not want to be vulnerable. We must admit our neediness and face our darkness. For me, to receive Jesus’s love meant coming face to face with emotional turmoil that I feared more than bodily harm, and then trusting Jesus to wash my emotional scars with his miraculous love.
When I picked my star word out of the basket this year, I gasped. What do you think it might have been? Compassion, yet again. Matthew 9:36 tells us that when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because the people were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus’s compassion compelled him to alleviate our suffering for all time through his own suffering, death, and resurrection. And he offers it to us in our lives here and now, if we will receive it.
Jesus admonished his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Will we go and share Jesus’s love because we have received the deep compassion that he has for us? We claim at North that we are “learning to live the love of Christ.” Are we also humbling ourselves to receive his gift of compassion?
Sometimes it is more difficult to receive than to give. Let us receive the love that Jesus has for us so that we can give compassion to those whom Jesus has sent to us in our life journeys. We follow him because he himself is our star, the Word made flesh, poured out for the forgiveness of our sins and the healing of our souls.
There is a wonderful song called “Fill My Cup.” I invite you to cup your heart in your hands as you sing the refrain. Imagine Jesus pouring compassion over your heart, and imagine your heart completely saturated with his healing love. Amen.
Peggy Grant is a member of North Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she is an elder and a member of the worship planning team. Peggy is a professional oboist and enjoys sharing her gift with other congregations as well as with her friends at North. She was the first editorial secretary for Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, published by The Upper Room, where she discovered the riches of contemplative spiritual writers.