Practice of Christian Compassion

In the first article of this series, I presented an overview of a framework that I am calling the Five Circles of Christian Compassion. In this article, I want to start digging deeper into the structure, beginning with the first circle of personal compassion.  Many reading this article already practice compassion in their everyday walk of faith. If this is you, I encourage you to leave your story in the comments section below. Faith comes alive as we tell our stories. For others reading this article, your commitment to the practice of compassion may be episodic or not explicitly integrated into your life of faith.  Still others, the idea of living a life of Christian compassion might be a new idea. Wherever you on the spectrum of practicing compassion, I hope you will read, learn and share because together, we are building a community of service.

When I studied education theory, many years ago, I came to realize that people learn when three things collide, gaining knowledge, acting on that knowledge, and reflecting on the outcomes.   Helping people construct knowledge is how Christ worked with his followers. He taught them, engaged them in action, and took the time to reflect with them. I believe that is the pattern to build a practice of compassion.  Let’s briefly walk through each stage.

Learn:  Christian compassion starts with a response from the heart, but compassionate action must also be informed to be most effective. The issues of homelessness, poverty, racism and health disparities are but a few of the social problems demanding our compassion today. At the same time, these social issues are complex. Sometimes it is daunting to understand what our compassionate actions should be.  Knowledge is the first step in helping us navigate this complexity. Learning requires digging into three areas:

•  Biblical Foundations:  First we must understand what scriptures say about compassion.  While one could start their exploration of compassion with any book of the Bible, I would encourage you to read the books of Luke and Acts straight through. These two books, penned by the same author, are the training manuals for Christian compassion (if you read four chapters a day you can finish this task in 2 weeks).  If you would like to augment your study with a couple of books, I would recommend Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and from the Seventh-day Adventist perspective, Pursuing the Passion of Jesus. I also recommend subscribing to Sojourners Magazine as a way to deepen your connection to the Biblical basis of compassion.

•  Understanding Poverty: The second dimension of learning is to become familiar with the research and challenges of those in poverty.   While there are hundreds of online resources, a few that I visit often are the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, The Urban Institute’s Low-Income Working Families research, The Pew Research Center, and Feeding America.  I also maintain a Twitter feed @PACS_Director where I routinely post links to relevant resources I am reading.

•  Know our Local Community:  I encourage you to learn about one nonprofit organization each week that works with those in poverty.  A great starting place is to visit the website of 211Info, which is Oregon’s social services clearinghouse.  Another way to learn about the community is to purchase a copy of Street Roots newspaper every week. Street Roots provides local reporting on local issues of poverty and social justice and provides income to those who are homeless or living in poverty. If you do not live in an area served by Street Roots vendors you can find Streets Roots online here.

Act: The second component of building your understanding of compassion is to get involved. I believe involvement has five parts, engaging, praying, donating, volunteering, and voting. As we are active in helping others, then we learn in ways reading books, articles, and blog posts can’t teach.  Compassion is not a theoretical discipline; it is an action verb.

•  Engage: Acting with compassion starts with listening and responding to those in need. As I mentioned in my last post, your response must have boundaries that are deliberate. As you interact with those in need, you will inevitably learn about the challenges and struggles of poverty.     

•  Pray: Sometimes the most important than that we can do is to pray. Prayer opens our hearts and minds to ways that we can work to reflect the character and love of Christ.  It also allows us to support others working to improve their own lives and the lives of others. Prayer matters.

•  Donate: No, this is not an appeal for donations to PACS (although here is the link if you are interested).  The encouragement here is to think of how you donate. One way to think about personal giving is to focus your philanthropy on a single (or small group) of organizations. Concentrating your donations provides consistent support that helps organizations thrive.  Your donation strategy could also provide less support to a broader array of agencies that are making a difference. Concentrating or spreading your giving are both options that meet community needs. The point is that being intentional about your compassionate giving allows you to connect with causes either broadly or deeply.  

•  Volunteer: Practicing compassion is at the heart of volunteer service.  Volunteering with a program is a great way to learn compassion for others. Again, this is not an ask for you to volunteer with PACS (although there is more information about volunteering with us here).  When you build volunteering into your life, it places you in a place where you can grow and experience the practice of compassion firsthand.

•  Vote:  I will be unambiguous here, Christians have the responsibility to engage in public policy.  It is not partisan to say that we live in a participatory democracy that requires us to evaluate and act in the direction of public policies that align with the Biblical principles of equity, justice, and care for the poor and oppressed.  A written letter to your elected official, a call to lawmakers in support of public policies aligned with Christian values, and your vote in primaries and general elections, are all acts of compassion.

Reflect: The final stage of learning compassion is to reflect on your experiences. I believe that reflection strengthens our empathy, and helps us to grow.  As we grow, our practice of compassion deepens. Reflection helps us clarify our intentions, helps us confront our limitations, and inspires us to continue on the journey. Here are some ideas to support reflection.

•  Join or start a study group:  Dialogue with others is a powerful reflection tool.  By sharing, listening and testing our ideas in a group setting we build clarity in our thinking.  There is wisdom the community.

•  Practice Self Care: There is also a part of reflection that is about self-care.  Indeed, the practice of compassion can tax our emotions and at times even be disorienting. Grounding ourselves through self-care frees our minds and allows reflective thoughts to emerge. For me, morning walks and more ambitious weekend hikes in nature are my way to reflect on the practice of compassion.  

•  Journal: The practice of writing is also an exercise in reflection.  Notes in a journal books, a public or private blog, even using social media tools like Twitter or Instagram can foster reflection.  Indeed, this blog is one of my reflection tools.

While not a complete list, this article tries to provide some initial guidance on how to build a commitment to the practice of compassion.  I believe that as we walk with God, He empowers us with compassion that cannot be contained. Certainly, random acts of kindness, as captured in the popular book from over two decades ago, do matter. At the same time, I would argue that God’s compassion is systematic and more than a series of random acts. Compassion is an intentional, faith-based discipline wired to our daily actions.  Learn. Act. Reflect. This is the cycle that builds a practice of compassion.

As always, your thoughts are welcome.

~Mark

Photo by Alexander Andrews

PACS Creative Commons

About the author: Mark Fulop
Mark Fulop, MA, MPH is the Executive Director of PACS and has spent his career working for social, health, and economic justice.

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