A compassionate culture

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by Erin Wikle, Soldier –

It seems that our society has found a new obsession. Does the phrase, “Go Green” mean much to you? I’ll admit I’m a huge fan of those reusable grocery bags that cost less than a dollar in most stores. (I tend to forget them, though, whenever I head out, thereby defeating the purpose.) Besides trendy totes, you can buy certified “green” clothing, energy efficient homes and fuel efficient cars, not to mention 100 percent completely compostable coffee cups. (It’s true; I’ve got one sitting on my desk.) We’ve come a long way, haven’t we?

Alongside efforts to become more environmentally aware, society is again finding itself compelled by compassion. At least that’s the idea.

This past week Tibet’s 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, visited Seattle for a five-day gathering on becoming a more compassionate people. Seattleites flocked to hear him speak; many received the opportunity to ask the leader of the Buddhist faith just one question. It was all anyone could talk about: the Dalai Lama had come to encourage compassionate living. I was quite amazed by the impression the Dalai Lama left on Seattle, rumored to be the number one unchurched city in the U.S.

Does it surprise you? I often find myself skeptical of societal trends. I don’t write about “Going Green” or the compassion movement to mock them, or allege that they simply won’t last, but to ask why. Why is secular society making such a strong impression? Why isn’t the church making as strong an impression? Why do people turn to the leader of another faith for wisdom and understanding, asking questions, eager to hear how they too can become a culture compelled by compassion, when our Christian witness should be proclaiming, living, and being that same message? Why do our neighbors, year after year, ignore our invitation to church, youth group, to meet Jesus, yet flock to hear the Dalai Lama speak? Why?

Here’s where the trends collide, and I found a few answers to the question of “why.” This morning I stopped off at Tully’s, a local coffee shop gone “green.” I often choose Tully’s over the ever-convenient Starbucks because of my favorite barista, Liz. Liz has a way with the customers. She knows them. Doesn’t matter who comes in, she knows what they want and exactly how they want it. She has a bright and welcoming personality and really makes the experience of buying an overpriced cup of java more like spending five minutes with someone who’s known you all along and wants to make sure your day gets off to a good start.

Before leaving, I asked Liz her opinion on the buzz word “compassion.” She shared: “Compassion means going out of your way to help someone else. It means empathizing with someone in need even though you’ve never gone through what they’re going through; it means being sympathetic to their situation. You feel for them. You should feel for them.”

Liz continued to talk about the difficulty of really being compelled by compassion. She discussed how she felt Seattle was too compassionate—having created one of the best systems for “dealing” with homelessness and displaced persons.

“That’s the problem, I guess. We just don’t want to deal with the problems the world often throws at us…so we do something about it. Maybe with the wrong motivation. I guess that’s not compassion.”

When I asked Liz if she thought the church “did compassion” well, she laughed and said, “Not always. Not well. Ironic, isn’t it?” There you have it, the musings of a barista.

It is ironic.

I’m not going to wrap this up nicely so that we, God’s people, can feel good about ourselves. I’m also not going to condemn, judge, or insist that we simply aren’t doing enough. But I will say this: we are surrounded by people who want to be loved relentlessly and unconditionally, to be shown compassion and show compassion; who desire justice to prevail where it doesn’t, want to live aware of their surroundings and aware of others, but are desperate to avoid finding all of these riches in the name of Jesus Christ. We’ve got to figure out why. And figure out what God, our God, wants us to do about it.

“For those who may not find happiness to exercise religious faith, it’s okay to remain a radical atheist, it’s absolutely an individual right, but the important thing is with a compassionate heart—then no problem” (Dalai Lama).

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jesus).

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3).



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