By BIll Mefford
As I was reading Gregg Taylor’s excellent book, Here Now With You, I could not stop thinking of my oldest son, Elisha (though he prefers to go by Eli). Elisha is twenty years old and before he was born, my wife Marti and I were going round and round on names. I kept coming to Elisha, especially since I resonated with the more negative aspects of his predecessor, Elijah (easily depressed when things didn’t go his way and judgmental towards others). And what especially drew me to the name and the prophet Elisha was that, while he took the mantle from Elijah, he was known for being far more compassionate than Elijah.
Our son Elisha is in so many ways a manifestation of the compassionate Elisha in Scripture. Our son Elisha is quick to love and slow to judge. He is so soft and gentle with people that others (including me) tend to disregard. And it was Elisha who pushed me to live out what I privately believed regarding marriage equality for LGBTQ people. For years, while I worked in the upper echelons of the United Methodist Church I maintained the privilege of being known for being progressive by association on issues surrounding LGBTQ people, but it cost me nothing. Privilege without risk. Elisha challenged me to live more boldly in my beliefs; in essence, to be publicly compassionate and to use my privilege to speak out for marriage equality. So, one Sunday morning when I was scheduled to speak at the church we were members of at the time (a moderate to conservative church at that), I spoke out in favor of marriage equality and I have not stopped since.
That was because of my son, who is at once, gentle and at the same time bold.
This is what compassion is and this is what Gregg Taylor shows us in his book. This is a powerful and heart-piercing read and I cannot recommend it strongly enough. I hope you will not only get it for yourself (because I have a feeling you need compassion almost as much as I do), but I also hope your church or Sunday school class or college ministry will devote time to study it. It is most definitely worth it and the book has the best reflection exercises and discussion guides for each chapter that I have ever seen.
Gregg grabbed me in his first paragraph of the introduction and did not let go. I have read a lot of books that start out with with some words that try to reach out to everyone, but then they quickly fade back into their normal churchy language and I feel like I have been left out in the cold. Literally. But Taylor starts out with, “Maybe the church and organized religion have burned you, or you have carried far too long a saved-by-grace-but-live-by-guilt spirituality…Nevertheless, although skepticism remains, something tells you that to entirely shut the door on this God thing would be to close the door on yourself.” (p. xi) Yep, that is me, big time. But he doesn’t stop there for later in the book, to my delight, he has a chapter with “F-Bombs” in the chapter! I had to double check and make sure it really was Abingdon who published it. F-bombs and compassion make for a winning combination.
As a compassionate-challenged Christian, I was hungry to see what Gregg would prescribe. But this is more than a formula-laden list of to-do’s. It is beautifully written and because of it’s depth I could read it only in intervals to ensure that I fully digest what he was sharing. Far more than need to do things, I recognized my deep need compassion - to receive it and to be a better giver of it. In fact, while I have always known my struggle to show compassion for others, I had never really connected it before with my own inability to receive compassion. Gregg links those two powerfully. And he does so by showing it through stories and talking about not just our relationship with God (which is indeed vital), but through our relationships with others, which are no less vital.
As Gregg rightly reminds us, nothing happens outside of relationships so how we relate with others is largely reflective of how we receive and give compassion. My favorite quote in the book is this: “It is something divine. It is something human. It is where the divine and the human meet. That something is compassion.” (p. 7) Man, that is good. Gregg shows us through stories (including the beautiful one about how the title of the book came to be) that compassion is both individually healing and world-transforming. Compassion is not weak. Just as my son Elisha reminds me all the time, being gentle and being bold are not binary, but rather are intricately interconnected.
Gregg repeatedly reminds us that in its innate relationality, compassion continually pulls outward and draws us to the places where marked by isolation and detachment, marginalization and oppression. Compassion is thus inherently missional and calls us to follow Jesus to make our lives among those whom society shows such disregard. Just as Jesus preferred the company of those on the margins of his society, we too must reject what has become the professional and accepted religiosity of our day and head to the fringes. This is where the human and the divine meet; this is compassion.
It is in this process that we discover that compassion destroys oppression by bringing us together. Oppression depends on creating otherness of those we do not know, particularly the vulnerable. We blame the vulnerable for their oppression and the church has largely blessed this form of unbiblical victim-blaming. Oppression breeds on racism, classism, elitism, misogyny, and the rest. In contrast, compassion ultimately obliterates all the isms for it leads us to literally suffer with and alongside those most impacted by injustice. This is not love as mere sentimentality or rhetorical slogans, but rather, it is a calling to a deep, fierce, life and society-transformational love.
Oppression and injustice work as machines, effective at achieving what they are programmed to achieve; completely uncaring for the individuals they crush. Oppression makes people things, mere rubbish, while compassion humanizes. Compassion throws a monkey wrench into the best laid plans of oppressive and unjust plans. Compassion makes messy what oppression makes neat and tidy. Compassion makes people and situations multidimensional while oppression and injustice keeps people and events tightly kept in one-dimensionality.
Compassion is messy. Life is messy. But thanks to Gregg Taylor’s book we are given a beautifully written invitation to dive deeper into receiving God’s compassion and thus transforming the world through our willingness to suffer alongside those the world has crushed and forgotten. I hope you will get this book for yourself and for your faith community and that we transform the world as we live into receiving and giving God’s compassion.