Thursday, October 1, 2009

Seeing the Faces of those We Love in the Dispossessed

A few weeks ago, when we served dinner to the outcast at First Lutheran, I had a disconcerting experience. I can't decide whether to attribute it to early-onset Alzheimer's or something more spiritual.

The dinner guests lined up patiently, waiting to go through the serving line. I stood across the fellowship hall by the kitchen door, waiting to replenish the food. I looked up and thought I recognized one of the women in line. I thought she was my work colleague, but then I remembered where I was and remembered that I had just seen her the other day at work--she wouldn't have fallen down on her luck that quickly.

So I chalked it off to that momentary mind blip that happens some times. But then it happened again. I looked off into the distance, and in the face of a homeless man, I thought I saw an old college friend.

Soon, the pace of the evening picked up, and I stopped having these strange transferences. But I have thought about the experience several times. Was my brain reminding me that it's only dumb luck that separates the fortunate from the less fortunate? Did my brain think that it needed to transform the faces of the destitute to faces that I recognized so that I would feel compassion? Was it a symptom of impending neurological doom? Was my brain bored and amusing itself?

I thought about Jesus, feeling that deep and abiding compassion for everyone, even the worst of the outcasts. I often wonder how he managed that feat. How did he keep the compassion from draining his last drop of energy? The Gospels don't spend much time telling us that. We get some hints: Jesus prays and periodically he retreats. I wonder if he had some other spiritual disciplines that have been lost to us.

I had a similar compassion moment at my husband's family reunion in Indiana on Sunday. One young woman came to the reunion dressed--well, let's just say that she was wearing revealing clothing. And she was loud and vulgar and likely chemically altered. My judgmental self kicked into high gear.

But later, when I saw her up close, I thought, my word, she's just a child. And I wondered what had happened to her to make her act out in the ways she was.

I thought of my recent visit with my tiny nephew, and I thought about this woman, who was somebody's cute toddler once. I felt an aching compassion for this woman, who I found out had been in prison (for what I do not know) when her mother died. And she was only 18, she told me, when she asked for one of our beers, and I asked if she was of legal drinking age.

I wanted to take her home, enroll her in school, and get her into some grief counseling. But I've read literature. I know what kind of crucifixions await people like me, people with their middle-class messiah complexes. Besides, she doesn't know me from Adam's housecat.

Still, I can follow the example of Jesus and let my stony heart be moved. I can pray for her and for the outcast citizens that I meet at First Lutheran and for the homeless people who wander the streets with their clouded eyes. I can pray for the corrupt politicians who ignore the outcast and take bribes. I can pray for myself, that my stores of compassion not dry up.

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