Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: compassion

Hillbilly connection?

I wrote my last blog post shortly after reading Hillbilly Elegy* by J.D. Vance. The book is a very personal memoir which incorporates sociological insights into the roots of poverty among the Scots-Irish people of the Appalachian region, the hillbillies.

As J.D. Vance writes, the poverty of a large swath of black people in the USA is due to pretty much the same factors. I have observed the same attitudes at work in many people in Canada, of various ethnic origins. Poverty is due more to the furniture of one’s mind than to outward circumstances.

The book was doubly interesting because my wife is a Vance. Her people came directly from Scotland to Canada, therefore any relationship would be distant. Yet her family was much like the one described by J.D. My wife was the product of two dysfunctional families; she was raised by her aunt and uncle because they feared she would not survive in the ongoing trauma of her parental home. Her five siblings did survive that home, some successfully, some not so much. One of them is her brother, Jim Vance.

The book struck pretty close to home. And it reinforced a conclusion I had already come to: the only way that a person can escape poverty is to believe that he or she can do it. Without that, all the good advice, all the money, all the government support programs, will never do much good. When a person has such an attitude, they can overcome every obstacle that life places in their way.

Some people will not like this book because of the way the people in it talk. Conversations are liberally laced with four letter words. That’s OK. Be forewarned and don’t try to read the book. But don’t condemn the people described for the way they talk. I don’t know if the book could have been as effective if J.D. had tried to sanitize people’s speech.

I didn’t hear words like that in my parental home, or in my extended family. But I heard a lot of it at school, at work and in other places. I still hear it, and I don’t condemn people for the way they talk. I wish they wouldn’t, yet some of them are better people, more caring people, than others whose speech is perfectly sanitized.

Faith in Jesus Christ can provide the mental furnishings that enable a person to climb out of poverty. Unfortunately, the kind of Christianity that many poor people have been exposed to is of the pharisaical, holier-than-thou, variety. People living in poverty are more apt to catch a glimpse of hope when they meet genuine followers of Jesus Christ, people who are kind, humble, compassionate, patient and not afraid or ashamed to spend time with them.

*Hillbilly Elegy copyright 2016 by J.D. Vance, published by HarperCollins publishers

Recipe for poverty

A home with a revolving set of parents

A home where parents scream at each other and at the children

A home where parents throw things at each other and at the children

A home where parents have no interest in what children are learning in school, or whether they are learning anything at all

A home with no books

A home where relatives, neighbours and friends all have that kind of home.

Such a home is a breeding ground for emotional, spiritual, intellectual and economic poverty. Government programs that provide economic help offer only palliative care.

Saving faith in Jesus Christ offers hope that things can be different, peace in the midst of turmoil, joy in a relationship with a loving heavenly Father, patience when things go wrong, perseverance to keep trying, compassion and love for those near and dear who are still trapped in poverty. This is the escape route from poverty in all its forms.

The living Word of God

When Aaron made a golden calf for the people to worship, he was not intending it as idolatry. The people could not grasp the concept of an un seen God and wanted something they could see. It is called a calf in the Bible, but it was a bull, represented in the prime of his strength. This was the best symbol they could imagine for a god who was the all-powerful source of life.

Yet it was idolatry, for a bull comes far short of representing the reality of a God who spoke and the universe, the world and everything in it appeared. Well not quite everything. He created the first man and woman with his own hands.

But even if we can stretch our minds to comprehend God as omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, yet unseen, our understanding of who He is remains superficial. That is why He came into this world and walked among us, as one of us, yet much more than one of us.

Jesus, the living Word, calmed the storm with a word, healed the eyes of Bartimaeus with a word, cast out devils with a word, healed the sick with a word, restored Lazarus to life with a word. “What manner of man is this?” The reality of who Jesus is goes beyond the physical form. It was revealed in his love for children, for sinners, for outcasts, his rebukes to the self-righteous, his compassion for those in distress, his words of forgiveness from the cross.

Jesus said “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.” You cannot draw a picture that shows the love, compassion, grace and power of Jesus, nor make a statue to represent it. Most of those who saw Jesus when he walked on the earth did not see who he was. They wanted the physical representation more than the reality. That is the way our minds work.

Some did see, by faith. As we read the record they left for us, let us pray for faith to see Jesus as they saw him, the living Word, the Almighty God in action, the Saviour of the world..

I want to live until I die

Age segregation begins in schools. As schools get bigger and bigger it is more and more difficult for a child to relate to those outside her own age group. At the other end of life, retirement offers freedom, but it is freedom with no purpose. Retirees associate with other retirees and strive to keep themselves amused. Eventually they go into retirement homes, which isolates them still more from other age groups. Then they go to nursing homes. As more people require nursing home care, those places become larger and more impersonal. I believe this is a recipe for dementia.

I have painted a pretty bleak picture and we all know people who have stepped out of that flow and lived a meaningful life in their older years. The way people cope with the aging process is a personal choice. Many don’t know what else to do but be carried along with the flow. I don’t want to be in that number. I want to live until I die.

I want to feel that there is a purpose to my life, that I am doing something useful to others, even as I withdraw from the workforce. To accomplish that, I will need to maintain a healthy body, a healthy mind and a healthy heart.

To have a healthy body I need to keep physically active. That doesn’t happen naturally any more, it has to be a deliberate choice. Walking is the best way to keep active, it is low impact and stimulates the whole body. But where I live, for about half of the year it is not very inviting to go out for a walk. So I need a treadmill or a rebounder. Regular, vigorous exercise maintains the health of the heart, the lungs, and the brain.

Having a healthy mind also requires making the choice to exercise it. Doing puzzles and word games is one form of mental exercise, but that is not enough. To prevent my mind from becoming fossilized I need interaction with other people, especially people who do not see everything in exactly the way that I see it. That means children, youth, all ages, plus people of different backgrounds and different life experiences. I need to read books that stretch the mind and help me see the world from a new perspective.

Above all, I need a healthy heart, in the spiritual sense. To maintain the peace and joy of being a Christian also requires exercise. That includes reading and meditating on the Word of God, not just an assortment of favourite passages, but the whole thing, in order to get the whole picture of what God has to say. It includes prayer, not just for myself and my family, but for others — friends, acquaintances, those in authority and those who are not so friendly. That is a very healthy exercise, the more we pray for others, the harder it becomes to say nasty things about them.

As I become more serious about writing, I am challenged to convey my thoughts in a way that is provocative, informative, and sometimes humorous. I need to exercise myself to recognize and avoid trite statements, pat phrases and slogans that no one outside of my bubble will understand. Above all, I need to speak the truth in love, with compassion and without biting criticism.

As a writer, there are times when I need to be alone in my cave in order to get words onto paper. But in order to have words to write, to know what to write and how to write in a way that will interest somebody else, I need to get out of that cave and be with people, all kinds of people. I need to talk to people, listen to people, observe people. The best anti-aging treatment that I know of is people. People who jar my thinking out of its customary rut and help me see things and understand things I would not think of on my own.

The beauty of Jesus – Part One

Jesus and his disciples had been in Jerusalem and were returning to Galilee. The road took them through Samaria and when they came near the town of Sychar Jesus sent the disciples into town to buy food. He stayed by Jacob’s well, because he had an appointment there. The woman who was coming to the well didn’t know she had a divine appointment, but Jesus did.

Jews considered Samaritans to be an unclean people and believed they would defile themselves if they touched anything that had been touched by a Samaritan. When the Samaritan woman came to the well, she recognized Jesus as being a Jew and expected he would ignore her.

Jesus asked her for a drink. That was unheard of, for a Jew to speak to a Samaritan woman, let alone ask for a drink from something she had touched. Jesus spoke to her of living water and revealed to her that he knew she had been married and divorced five times.

The Samaritans held strictly to the Mosaic law, as did the Jews. There is no provision in that law for a woman to divorce her husband, but a man could divorce his wife for any frivolous reason. Perhaps he didn’t like the shape of her nose, perhaps she had burned his toast once too often (or whatever the equivalent might have been in that day). This woman had been married and dumped by five men. Jesus mentioned another man, to whom she was not married. Perhaps she was betrothed but not yet married, or perhaps some kindly man had offered her a place to stay with no intention to take her as his wife.

Then the woman challenged him on the differences in the beliefs of the Jews and the Samaritans. Jesus refused to be drawn in, simply saying that Jerusalem and Mount Gérizim didn’t matter any more, but it was time for true believers to worship God in spirit and in truth.

The woman then said that she knew that all things would be made clear when Messiah came. Jesus told her “I am the Messiah,” something that he had never previously said to anyone. The woman believed him and ran to tell the people of her town.

The disciples returned with food and pressed Jesus to eat. He was not ready yet to eat but spoke to them of the harvest, telling them to lift up their eyes and see the fields that were ripe for the harvest. What did they see when they looked up? A stream of the despised Samaritans coming out of the town to the well to meet the Messiah.

Evidence of roots that go deep

Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay 

We can read the Bible in a superficial way, looking for heart-warming stories or good moral guidelines, but if our roots are shallow a storm or drought might be enough to topple our faith. When we go deeper, seeking to know God through His Word and through prayer, our roots will grow strong and deep. Others do not see the roots, but our attitudes and actions will show strength and endurance that are beyond self help or self discipline.

There will be:

  1. A greater appreciation of God’s love for weak and fallible humans. God does not love people in proportion to their obedience to a set of rules. The Bible reveals just how weak we humans are. Men of old talked to God, tried to do what He asked of them and often blundered. God still loved them and blessed them. We must discern between a mistake and deliberate disobedience. Let’s beware of the thought that, “I made a couple of mistakes, but you were disobedient.” The reality may be just the opposite. Nevertheless, whether we made a mistake or disobeyed, God is merciful if we are willing to try again. Deep and strong roots in the love of God enable us to have the same compassionate attitude toward others.
  2. Submission to God, trusting that He knows what is ahead of us and will guide us in the way He wants us to go. Such trust is known as humility and meekness. When God and His ways are mocked or attacked, I don’t need to be defensive, it’s not my job to set these people straight. The battle is God’s and He will deal with His enemies in His own way and His own time.
  3. Boldness in speaking of God’s love and righteousness. Yes, it is possible to be humble, meek and bold, all at the same time, as long as there is no combativeness mixed with my boldness “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11). The oracles of God are not my opinions, and not for me to enforce, but I must not be fearful or apologetic about speaking them.

Unmoved by empathy

Empathy was foisted upon us 60 years ago as a more egalitarian substitute for sympathy. I suppose I’ve always had an analytical mind, sometimes that’s just an excuse for inaction. But I never believed this new word offered anything useful.

I have been part of a small minority. The majority has come to believe that what the world needs is more empathy. In recent years this has even crept into Christian thinking and Christian literature.

Empathy is the idea that we need to feel the pain and pleasure of others. But how does it help someone to tell him “I feel your pain”? How does it help me to be able to make myself feel the pain that others are going through?

Paul Bloom, a New York psychologist and researcher at Yale University, believes that empathy is a self-centred emotion and does more harm than good. In 2016 he published Against Empathy*, in which he argues that compassion is a far healthier and more useful response to the pain and suffering of others.

To put it as simply as possible, Bloom argues that when I feel empathy for your suffering it makes me feel very bad, but does not move me to do anything to help you. Compassion, on the other hand, causes me to do something to help you, rather than trying to analyse my own feelings. Bloom says that empathy can cause us to become overloaded with painful feelings and separate us from the ones who are suffering.

Compassion is a word that we often encounter in the Bible. Jesus demonstrated compassion for all those in sorrow and distress. In the parable of the good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite may well have felt empathy for the poor man lying by the side of the road. But contact with blood, or with someone who was possibly dead, would have rendered them unclean for service in the temple. So they avoided looking too closely at the injured man. The Samaritan was moved by compassion and went ahead and did what he was able to do to help the man. Jesus closed the parable by telling the Pharisee “Go and do thou likewise.”

That message is meant for all of us. Let’s discard this newfangled empathy which leads to a preoccupation with our own feelings. May we rather allow ourselves to be moved to action by compassion.

Against Empathy: The case for rational compassion, by Paul Bloom, © 2016, published by The Bodley Head, London

The kingdom of God

In the Old Testament God selected the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to create a model of His kingdom. This kingdom attained the height of its glory, and the fulfilment of all the prophecies pertaining to the earthly kingdom, in the reign of Solomon. Yet as we look at the how that kingdom degenerated, we see that the seeds of destruction were there from the beginning. Most of the people descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were earthly minded.

The New Testament tells of the founding of a new kingdom. The king is Jesus, like Solomon a descendant of David. The citizens are the spiritual descendants of Abraham. This kingdom is not limited to any territory, has no political presence in any country, has no military force to avenge itself on its enemies. This is the true kingdom, of which the kingdom of Solomon was merely a representation. We need look for no other kingdom but the present kingdom of God.

Jesus likened the kingdom of God to leaven that was placed in a lump of dough, permeating and growing in the lump. The kingdom of God grows in a hidden way, in the hearts of those who repent and surrender their lives to the lordship of Jesus. Christian people cannot grow the kingdom. We must sow the seed, add the leaven – or better said, be the leaven, but it is God who gives the increase.

Jesus did not just talk about the kingdom, He demonstrated it. His miracles, the healing of the sick and handicapped, the casting out of demons, raising the dead to life, were evidence that a new power had entered this world and was undoing the work of the powers of darkness. Christians today do not have the power to perform miracles. God does, and He still does work miracles. But there are other ways in which Christians can defeat the powers of darkness.

The miracles of Jesus were real and they had a purpose. But let’s look beyond the miracles to the kind of person Jesus was. He demonstrated the perfect unity of truth and righteousness, love and compassion.

He forgave the woman taken in adultery and reproved her self-righteous accusers. The only time the Bible tells us that Jesus was angry was when the Pharisees were ready to condemn Him for healing on the Sabbath. The hardness of their hearts, their lack of compassion, was the opposite of true righteousness.

Jews despised Samaritans, considered them to be an unclean people, would not touch anything that had been handled by a Samaritan for fear of defilement. Jesus asked a Samaritan woman to give Him a drink of water, then talked to her about true worship, about her life, told her that He was the Messiah. She believed, ran back into the city to call others to meet Him. As they were coming out to the well, Jesus told His disciples to lift up their eyes and see the fields ripe for harvest.

He ate with publicans, took time for little children, depended on women for material support in His ministry, inspired faith in a Roman soldier and a Syro-Phoenician woman. He told the self-righteous Pharisees that other people who knew they were sinners, people like publicans and prostitutes, would find it easier to enter the kingdom than they would.

Blaise Pascal said “We make an idol of the truth itself; for truth without love is not God, but His image. Still less should we love its opposite, the untruth.” We are poor witnesses of the kingdom of God if we hold firmly to the truth, yet cannot find it in ourselves to show love, mercy and compassion to those ensnared by the deceptions and depravities of the kingdom of darkness.

We need to also heed the last part of Pascal’s thought. In our day there are many who want to include Jesus with all the religious teachers and prophets of all faiths and say that the true hope of mankind is in enlightenment that reveals the divinity within oneself. That is the untruth that offers no hope, no salvation, not even compassion.

Desperately wicked

Try to put yourself in the position of a slave owner in the antebellum south. a slave owner whose livelihood and position in society hinged on your ability to get the maximum amount of work out of your slaves at a minimum cost. You considered yourself to be a Christian, but, like everyone around you, you believed that these black-skinned creatures who worked in your fields were more like domestic livestock than human beings. Some even said that they had no souls. Therefore you were justified in driving them to work harder, whipping them if they could not or would not work, killing them if they rebelled or tried to escape. Could you be that person?

Or could you be a guard in a Nazi death camp? For years you have been bombarded with information in the media, in movies, in schools, books and pamphlets that revealed how Jews were the cause of all that had ever gone wrong in Germany. The future of Germany depended on ridding itself of such degraded people. Could you order them to do meaningless, repetitive tasks, beat them when they stumbled under the load, herd them into the gas ovens?

Maybe you could have been a member of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. The future of Cambodia depended on it becoming an egalitarian agricultural society. Could you have herded people out of the cities, young and old, men and women, healthy or sick, and forced them to march for days into the jungle, caring nothing for those who perished along the way?

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9). Do we know the depravity of our heart? The people I have described were no different than you and me. Under the same circumstances we would have been capable of doing the same things, with never a twinge of conscience.

We would like to think otherwise, to think that we are better than that. We are not. Those were intelligent, civilized people, capable of showing much kindness in other areas of their life. But their hearts deceived them into believing that some people were not worthy of kindness, respect or compassion.

We are all good people until we are put to the test. The only thing that will make the outcome different when we are tested is to listen to the gentle prompts of the Holy Spirit of God.

A place to stand

Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity. 2 Timothy 2:19

The foundation of God: In the beginning of time, the second day of Creation, God separated the dry land from the waters. The people He was about to create needed something solid to stand on, upon which to build their lives. Later He promised Israel that He would give them a land of their own. That was a picture of how God wanted to give His people a solid foundation, a place to stand. Israel squandered that heritage by disobedience, by seeking prosperity in other gods.

All the time, God was pointing people to the real heritage, the solid rock, that He had for them–Jesus Christ. That foundation was fully revealed in the New Testament. Jesus is our rock, the only thing in this world that is unchangeable, that cannot be taken from us.

The Lord knoweth them that are his: How do we know that the Lord knows us? Because He talks to us. He is always there in the life of His children to guide our lives. He speaks softly, gently, we can miss His voice if we’re not paying attention.

When Elijah was in the mountain, he didn’t pay much attention to the earthquake, the fire and the wind. He knew God did not speak like that. But then he heard a still small voice. French Bible translations say a soft gentle sound, or murmur. That makes me think that Elijah could not discern any words, but he knew that voice. Then he began to pay attention.

We don’t need to figure out what God is saying to us in this COVID crisis. This is not the voice of God. Yet perhaps this quiet time is our opportunity to listen for what God does want to say to us. Perhaps He wants to tell me that the thing that I had so much planned and hoped for is not really so important after all. But there are little things that I have neglected, things that have to do with my relationships with others, these things are important to God and He wants them to be important to me.

Depart from iniquity: When we hear what God is saying, and do what He asks us to do, we are departing from iniquity. “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).

For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? 1 Peter 4:17

Even those of us who are Christians may find that we have been building our lives partly on the Lord Jesus Christ and partly on something else. Whatever that something else may have been, it will not stand in the judgment. Why not abandon it right now?

Some people have placed much hope on a future earthly reign of Jesus, but may have neglected to make sure of the foundation for building their life in the here and now. It will be the way we lived our lives in the here and now which counts in the day of judgment. Is our personal life solidly anchored to the rock? Are we building our family on that rock? Our congregations?

Many around us have no hope in Jesus, but have built their lives on foundations that appeared to be rock solid. Those foundations may feel shaky right now. We probably don’t need to point that out to them.

May we be compassionate in our conversations with those who are in distress. Telling them where they have gone wrong doesn’t give them hope. Tell them how trusting in Jesus gives us hope and they might grasp it and find a place to stand.

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