Learning the unforced rhythms of grace

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Compassion and Antennas

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In high school, our church youth group took a trip to Chicago's inner city to spend a few weeks helping a local church that existed in the midst of gang territory and poverty. We entered the inner city at night and as our bus drove through the neighbourhoods, my 16 year old heart broke. I saw homeless people and prostitutes and people so drunk and so drugged that they couldn't stand up. And not just a few people, but neighbourhoods full.

When we got to the church, I pulled my youth pastor aside and told him, "I can't do this. This is too sad, my heart is broken, how will ever be any help to these people? It's too hard!" And as kind as he was, he also took me by the shoulders and said, "Heather, your compassionate heart will be useless unless you can find a way to stand up. If you really want to help these people, you will have to find a way to tuck those emotions into a safe place in your heart with Jesus so that you can take action to help these people out." 

Now, 28 years later, I can still feel overwhelmed at times, but I'm trying something new. I call it "antennas down". If antennas are designed to pick up frequencies, sound waves, and information, then what I want is for my antennas to not work as well. Instead of straightening them to get a clearer signal, I leave them half-up and kinda crooked. 

For instance, when our kids were babies, it was necessary to listen for them crying, or coughing or waking up in the night so we could attend to their needs. It was crucial for their survival. But now, as young adults, they don't need our response the same way and so it would be inappropriate for us to be fully attentive to all their needs. This doesn't mean that we don't care or notice that they are stressed or anxious or happy or struggling. It just means that we don't have to pick up on all the signals in order for them to survive. If we do, there is something wrong. There is an over-responsibility there that needs to shift. They need to handle some things entirely on their own and they need to build their own network of support and resources beyond their parents. 

Bringing the antennas down means that we can still notice other people's emotional ups and downs or stress or anxiety but it doesn't become the loudest frequencies in our hearts and minds. When we are at work or church or school, we can relate closely with others without their stresses becoming ours. Otherwise, in order to keep stress low, we would have to avoid people, at all costs! And that's not what it is about. 

So how do we do this? What does it look like? 

Paul had a good way of describing this way of living:

"Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him! Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them. Help them see that the Master is about to arrive. He could show up any minute! Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life. Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies." Philipians 4:4-9

From my experience of learning to live with antennas down a little, it not only relieves me of my arrogant-over-responsibility tendencies, but it gives me freedom to rest and in that rest, I'm better able to love others and respond appropriately. Imagine, letting our minds and hearts rest in Jesus' love for us, trusting his Holy Spirit to direct our attention to what is important and realizing that our antennas are not always accurately picking up signals. This means a dependancy on God to really provide and lead as He promises to. I have far more confidence in God's all-knowing ways, His ability to hear and see accurately and with far more perspective and clarity than I ever will. So, in faith, in willingness to follow, in the need for humility, I lower my antennas in order to respond more appropriately and with love.