COMPASSION FATIGUE

Then he went on alone into the wilderness, traveling all day. He sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.” [1 Kings 19:4 (NLT)]

hibiscusMost of us think of sloth as laziness: a dislike of work or any physical exertion. Having watched the local zoo’s sloth in action (or, rather, inaction), I think the sluggish animal is appropriately named. Spiritual sloth, however, is far different than being a couch potato. Originally, the sin of sloth was two sins: sadness and acedia. Compiled by Evagrius of Pontius, 4th century monk, these two “capitals sins” were part of a list of eight he believed to the greatest threats to devout monasticism.

We know what sadness is and it’s important to remember that the sadness which Evagrius found problematic for his monks was not clinical depression; it was that despondency or gloom that easily came upon a monk living an ascetic life of prayer, fasting and labor in the middle of the Egyptian desert in the 4th century. It was unhappiness with one’s present situation and the melancholy that comes from longing for something different. It was distress at one’s circumstances and the inability to give thanks in all things. In this troubled world, we certainly don’t have to be monks to suffer that kind of sadness.

Acedia comes from the Greek and means without care or concern. Rather than laziness, it is apathy or a fatigue of mind and soul. A spiritual boredom or weariness, acedia results in listless prayers, study or service. In the midday heat, the monks were tempted to let their minds wander during study and prayers and then fall asleep causing Evagrius to call acedia the “noonday demon.” Seeing the correlation between sadness and acedia, in the late 6th century, Pope Gregory combined the two sins into sloth .

A few mornings ago, I fell victim to compassion fatigue and began to understand spiritual sloth. The previous night’s discussion in Bible study had been disheartening. We’d talked of the recent hurricanes (with yet another one on the horizon), Mexico’s earthquakes, Puerto Rico’s devastation, Korea’s threat, the horrendous carnage in Las Vegas, a polarized nation, and the unrest in the Middle East. As I added that night’s heartbreaking prayer requests to my already burgeoning and depressing list, I grew numb with grief. “What’s the point? I wondered as I listed a two-year old just diagnosed with metastasized stomach cancer, a woman who may lose her feet because of nursing home neglect, and a friend’s suicidal son. “What difference can I make? Why bother?” I cried. At that point, my heart was so weary with grief that I no longer wanted to care or pray. I probably felt as Elijah did when, while fleeing Jezebel, he sat down under that broom tree and said he wanted to die. That’s spiritual sloth and it’s not just monks and Old Testament prophets that can be afflicted with it. The enemy wants us all to become so downhearted and world-weary that we fall into spiritual inactivity or sloth.

Elijah was cured of his spiritual sloth by food, rest, and a talk with the Lord. Although I didn’t eat, I was nourished by Scripture. I didn’t sleep but I rested in the words I read and then, like Elijah, I had a prayerful chat with God. God whispered to Elijah and gave him new strength. He whispered to me and refreshed me with his words of love, comfort, reassurance and hope.

I cried out, “I am slipping!” but your unfailing love, O Lord, supported me. When doubts filled my mind, your comfort gave me renewed hope and cheer. [Psalm 94:18-19 (NLT)]

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. [Philippians 4:8 (NLT)]

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MYOB

If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. [1 Peter 4:14-15 (ESV)]

standard poodleThe store was called “Ms. Bossy Boots” and the sign in the window said, “I’m not bossy, I’m just helpful.” Having just had an encounter with a precocious youngster who’d been wearing some very bossy boots, I laughed. After advising me that I needed to put televisions in all my bedrooms, she informed me we couldn’t sell our house because she didn’t want new neighbors! She announced her disapproval of the appetizers, questioned the dinner menu, told me jam should be served with the bread, and criticized the vegetables. Following dinner, I was advised that any remaining cookies should be packed up for her. In a younger child, her behavior might have been slightly excusable. At her age, however, it was demanding and ill-mannered. Over-indulged by her mother and grandparents, she has not learned that it is the meek who will inherit the earth.

Most of us don’t behave like impertinent children but that doesn’t mean we aren’t meddlesome or bossy; we’re just more subtle than that cheeky little girl. When we put on our bossy boots, we excuse ourselves by saying we’re being helpful, interested, or supportive. If anyone had the right to interfere, it was Jesus but He refused to intervene when asked to settle a dispute about an inheritance. Because rabbis often resolved disagreements, it wasn’t such an odd request. Nevertheless, our Lord, knowing what constituted His business and what didn’t, refused to get involved. He did, however, take that opportunity to teach about greed.

We were told, “Mind your own business,” when we tattled in school and, “Keep your eyes on your own paper!” when taking tests. Keeping our mouths shut and our eyes on our own business remains good advice today. Far too often, our “helpfulness” is really just an excuse to be bossy or stick our noses into somebody else’s affairs. Soon we’re just a word away from engaging in gossip and self-righteousness while telling others how much we are doing, solving or repairing and how well we are doing it. The Apostle Peter lumps meddlers in with thieves, murderers and other criminals and Proverbs likens meddling to grabbing a dog by the ears. Whether we call it helping, tweaking, or enlightening, it’s wise to remember that just a few inches away from a dog’s ears are some pretty sharp teeth. Eventually, meddling will turn around and bite us!

Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears. [Proverbs 26:17 (ESV)]

And to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, [1 Thessalonians 4:11 (ESV)]

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FAITH AND BELIEF

And it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him. [Hebrews 11:6 (NLT)]

blue birdI recently read an article about creeds that asked, “Do Christians have to believe all that stuff?” The author asserted that Christians don’t have to “assent intellectually” to the facts of traditional Christian teaching or agree with the Christian creeds. According to her, following the teachings of Jesus is more important than believing certain things about him. Faith is simply placing one’s confidence in “Spirit” (not the Holy Spirit). For the author, Christianity is a way of life rather than a belief. Merely a wisdom tradition, it has nothing to do with dogma or creeds.

The author discounts creeds because they were man-made in the fourth century when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. The first creed actually predates Constantine by more than a thousand years and was given us by God. It was the Hebrew Shema, which is found in Deuteronomy where the fundamental belief of Judaism is declared:Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”[6:4] This declaration of belief was (and remains) the cornerstone of the Jewish faith. Moreover, we should be cautious about discounting creeds because they are man-made. Maps are man-made and yet they can give a pretty accurate picture of the land! Like a map, our creeds provide an accurate summary of Christianity’s basic teachings. While no substitute for Scripture, they condense the basics of our belief in a nutshell.

The author contends that belief and faith are two different things and that belief is not essential for faith. I disagree (and so does the Apostle Paul). Belief and faith seem to be two sides of the same coin. Belief is conviction that something is true and faith is trusting in the promise of that belief. I can believe the airplane is flight-worthy and the pilot fully capable of piloting it but it is faith in the plane’s mechanics and pilot that makes me trust them enough to board the plane and take that flight. On the other hand, I’m not going to have faith in them if I don’t believe they have been properly schooled and possess the skills necessary to do their jobs! Belief without faith or faith without belief will keep me stranded on the ground.

We have to know and believe the promises of God if we are to have faith enough to trust them. Our creeds are the bedrock of Christianity and help us know exactly what it is in which we have faith!

Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse because it is built on bedrock. But anyone who hears my teaching and doesn’t obey it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will collapse with a mighty crash. [Matthew 7:24-27 (NLT)]

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GOD’S BANKERS

wild geraniumThere are always going to be poor and needy people among you. So I command you: Always be generous, open purse and hands, give to your neighbors in trouble, your poor and hurting neighbors. [Deuteronomy 15:11 (MSG)]

The Hebrew word for what we call “charity” is tzedakah; its nature, however, is far different than acts of benevolence or generosity. Rather than being a magnanimous act by someone more fortunate, tzedakah is considered an act of justice and righteousness. It is remedying a wrong, doing what is right and just, and fulfilling a duty; in short, it is giving the poor what they deserve.

In writing about charity, Rabbi Yanki Tauber tells of a wealthy man who often supported his rabbi’s charitable activities. One day a letter requesting a large sum for a good cause arrived. At the time, money was a little tight and making a donation was inconvenient so the rich man ignored the request. Shortly after that, his businesses began to fail and the wealthy entrepreneur lost his entire fortune.

The distraught fellow went to the synagogue and berated the holy man for not warning him that he’d suffer if he ignored the rabbi’s plea. “I would have given you the money had I known what punishment I would suffer!” he said. The rabbi calmly responded that the loss of money wasn’t a punishment. “Nothing that was yours has been taken from you,” he explained, adding that God had allotted a certain amount of resources to the rabbi in his work. Since the time he spent in prayer, studying, teaching, counseling and helping others left him no time to manage finances or property, the rabbi’s resources had been placed in the trust of several people who acted as “bankers” for that wealth. In turn, those bankers recognized the value of the rabbi’s work and supported it. When the once rich man failed to carry out his banking duty, the money was simply transferred to another, more responsible, “banker.”

God loves all of His children but that does not mean that He allots equal portions of blessings or sorrows to each of them. Some are healthier, wealthier, smarter, more talented or more attractive than others. Some people seem to escape misfortune while others seem to encounter storms at every turn. Because of an accident of birth, we may live comfortable lives in a wealthy nation or suffer in poverty in a corrupt or war-torn land. Some people have power and are easily heard while others are powerless and often ignored. That we are not given equal portions, however, does not mean that we are not equally deserving. If we have been blessed with wealth, education, influence or opportunities, we should think of ourselves as God’s bankers. We’re just holding on to other people’s resources and it is our job to distribute those resources to their rightful owners. Like our Jewish brothers and sisters, Christians should be dispensers of tzedakah. Unlike them, however, we don’t do it to buy our way into heaven (which it won’t). We do it because God tells us it is the right thing to do!

God does not need your good works, but our neighbor does. [Martin Luther]

This is how we’ve come to understand and experience love: Christ sacrificed his life for us. This is why we ought to live sacrificially for our fellow believers, and not just be out for ourselves. If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear. [1 John 3:16-17 (MSG)]

Then the King will say, “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.” [Matthew 25:40 (MSG)]

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ROOTS

And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him. Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness. [Colossians 2:6-7 (NLT)]

sea oatsIt’s not just light poles that were destroyed by Hurricane Irma’s winds; many trees also met their end at her hands. As I looked at the upended roots of a once mighty oak, I thought of one of Aesop’s fables about an oak in a storm. A proud oak stood by a stream, and like this one, had survived several storms in its many years. One day, a hurricane the likes of Irma arrived and the great oak fell with a thunderous crash. As the water rose, it was carried down to the sea. When the oak eventually came to rest along the shore, it looked up at the sea oats that were waving in the now gentle sea breeze, “How did you manage to weather such a terrible storm?” it asked. “I’m a great oak and even I didn’t have strength enough to battle the wind.”

The sea oats replied, “That was your problem. You were too proud to bend and yield a little and so the wind knocked you over. I’m just an insubstantial sea oats plant but, knowing my weakness, I didn’t resist as the wind gusted. The harder it blew, the more I humbled myself and the lower I bent. So, here I am, still enjoying the beach. Aesop’s moral is that it is better to bend than to break. “Perhaps there a message here,” I thought and, yet, I wasn’t sure it was just about pride and humility.

The Apostle Paul was very clear about standing firm in the face of trials and temptation. He told the early church to stand firm and not to waver; he wanted them to be oaks and not sea oats. When facing one of life’s hurricanes, however, it’s pretty hard not to wobble, quiver and quake wildly. If we stand firm, will we be knocked down and end up a piece of drift wood or ground up into mulch? If that mighty oak couldn’t weather the storm, how can we?

The Apostle also said that growing roots in Jesus is what will keep us strong. That fallen oak’s upended roots were taller than me and yet they didn’t do the oak much good when Irma arrived. The roots of which Paul speaks are deep roots that grown down into our Lord. It is strong deep roots that will serve to anchor a tree in the ground. I’m not an arborist, but I could easily see that there was nothing deep about that oak’s roots (or the roots of the many other uprooted oaks throughout our community).

In Jesus’ parable about soil, he told of seed scattered on good soil that grew, seed strewn on a path that was eaten by the birds, seed that was crowded out by the thorns, and seed that fell on rocky soil. Those plants in rockyy soil grew quickly but, since their roots weren’t deep, they withered in the hot sun. If He’d been in a tropical climate like Florida’s, Jesus could have used sand and hurricanes instead of rocks and sun in His analogy. Good nutritious soil is necessary for a plant’s success and Florida’s soil is shallow and mostly sand. The many fallen oaks’ roots, while wide, were shallow and certainly not the kind of roots of which Jesus and Paul spoke.

Aesop’s fable was about pride and humility but the many uprooted oaks in town tell me something more. Granted, there may be times we need to bend a little, as do the sea oats, but we must never bend if that means compromising our faith. I think of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Their roots were so deep that they were willing to die before they bent down to worship a false god or failed to worship the true one. While a miracle saved them, there was no miracle for Stephen, a man whose deep roots in Christ gave him strength enough to stand and testify before the Jewish high council knowing he’d die because of it. These men were willing to be sacrificed and broken before bending to the prevailing wind.

Given a choice, I would rather stand strong, like an oak with deep roots, than fall because of the wind. Nevertheless, if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, like Stephen and other Christian martyrs, I would rather be broken and fall than bend and survive as do the sea oats.

I pray from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. [Ephesians 3:16-17 (NLT]

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DOWN BUT NOT OUT

No one lights a lamp and then hides it or puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where its light can be seen by all who enter the house. Your eye is like a lamp that provides light for your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is filled with light. But when it is unhealthy, your body is filled with darkness. Make sure that the light you think you have is not actually darkness. If you are filled with light, with no dark corners, then your whole life will be radiant, as though a floodlight were filling you with light. [Luke 11:34-36 (NLT)]

broken lightTo avoid the southwest Florida heat, I waited until dusk to take my walk. Thanks to Hurricane Irma, most of the street lamps in my neighborhood don’t work. For a light to function, electrical energy has to be converted into light energy and both a source of electricity and a working connection are needed. For many of the lights, the connection was broken when blowing debris shattered their bulbs. For others, Irma’s 150 mph winds broke the connection when it blew off their tops, wrapped their poles around trees, or knocked them to the ground. Without a connection to their source of power, those street lights are useless—they’re just a tangle of wires and a pile of glass, plastic and metal. Even though they don’t work, people have been cautioned to remember that their exposed wires are live. It’s not the electricity that is missing; it’s the connection that is inoperative. Two poles, however, were down but not out. Even though they’d been flattened by the storm, neither wires nor bulb had broken. In spite of the storm’s violence, they remained connected and were beacons in the night’s darkness.

When the storms of life batter us and knock us down, like those street lamps, we can lose our connection, not to electricity, but to God. Our minds may get so caught up in anger, worry, fear, depression, or self-pity that we become separated from our true source of power—Jesus. He told us to let our lights shine but we can’t shine if we’re not connected to Him. When our lives go dark, we should remember that God hasn’t gone anywhere—like the electricity, He’s still there. We’re the ones who are broken. Unfortunately, no Florida Power & Light truck is going to arrive and reconnect us to God.

Reconnecting is a choice we have to make. Reconnecting is trusting God and ceding to His will. It is prayer and reading the Bible; it is praise, thanksgiving and worship. Reconnecting is turning to God and choosing joy over misery, light over darkness, love over hate, forgiveness over rancor, peace over anger and service over selfishness. Fortunately, we’re not alone in this. We may not have FP&L but we have something more powerful (and far more dependable)—the Holy Spirit! If we allow Him, He will reconnect us to the light of the world. We may be down, but we don’t ever have to go out! By His power, our lights can continue to shine.

Remember this. When people choose to withdraw far from a fire, the fire continues to give warmth, but they grow cold. When people choose to withdraw far from light, the light continues to be bright in itself but they are in darkness. This is also the case when people withdraw from God. [Augustine]

And now I will send the Holy Spirit, just as my Father promised. But stay here in the city until the Holy Spirit comes and fills you with power from heaven. [Luke 24:49 (NLT)]

Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” [John 8:12 (NLT)]

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