Journey of Compassion

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
– Hebrews 13:2, NRSV

I waited to board my flight from Seattle to Nashville. I was looking forward to four hours of solitude, the kind I love in an airplane seat on a long flight.

As I neared my row, I saw a woman already seated in the middle seat. A beautiful scarf draped her head and body; her hands were busy with prayer beads. I realized that she had little English and was not familiar with the ways of airplane travel. My irritation quickly turned to compassion as I noticed her discomfort at being stuck on a plane in the middle seat between two strangers.

The young woman in the seat by the window helped plug in our friend’s cell phone to charge and explained that the phone would not work in the air. We showed her how to find and secure her seatbelt. When she needed to go to the restroom, I walked her to the back of the plane, opened the door for her, and held her scarf.

We learned through little bits of words and gestures that she was traveling to Tennessee from a Sudanese refugee camp in Kenya. She was going to be with her daughter who was in Tennessee … or maybe Kentucky.

About halfway through the flight, I pulled up the flight tracker application that showed where we were on our flight. We “talked” about how much longer we would be flying (two hours). How far we still had to travel (1000 miles or 1600 kilometers). I dragged the screen to show Africa and, between us, we found Sudan and Kenya on the map.

She told me, “In English you say, ‘Good morning.’ [In my language] ‘Salam Alaikum.'” I said to her, “Salam Alaikum.” And she smiled.

I saw her later at the baggage claim. She was in a wheelchair pushed by an airport employee who spoke her language. She told him that I had been helpful on the airplane. I said that I enjoyed traveling with her.

Later, I realized that I never learned her name. But I hold her in my memory, my heart, and my prayers. May God bless her journey to this new place so far from her home. May God bless her healing from whatever traumas she has endured. May God bless her life, her family, her journey. Salam Alaikum.

You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
– Deuteronomy 10:19, NRSV

Feast of the Holy Innocents

A few days ago I held a baby in my arms. I felt my heart shaped and molded into a vessel of love and compassion. I imagined the birth of the Holy Child, the softening of hardened hearts, the world transformed by Christ’s coming.

And then … I remembered the world in which we live: the homeless, the poor, the sick, the vulnerable ones who barely have enough to survive. I remembered those with power, whose hearts never seem to soften.

And today we observe The Feast of the Holy Innocents. When King Herod ordered the murder of all the children in Bethlehem so that he could hold on to his power.

When Herod knew the magi had fooled him, he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi. This fulfilled the word spoken through Jeremiah the prophet:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much grieving.
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she did not want to be comforted,
because they were no more.
Matthew 2:16–18

I don’t know what to do with this story, with this world, with the situation in which we find ourselves. I seek wisdom and hope in the midst of it all; and I turn wise ones in various traditions (see the readings below). Where do you turn? What do you pray for? What are you reading?

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of [their] own heart?
– Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The Gulag Archipelago

Rather than original sin, there’s original soft spot. The messy stuff that we see in ourselves and that we perceive in the world as violence and cruelty and fear is not the result of some basic badness but of the fact that we have such a tender, vulnerable, warm heart of bodhichitta [a felt need to replace others’ suffering with bliss], which we instinctively protect so that nothing will touch it.
– Pema Chödrön
Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living

“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.”
-Jesus, Matthew 5:38-41, CEB

I would not look upon anger as something foreign to me that I have to fight… I have to deal with my anger with care, with love, with tenderness, with nonviolence.
– Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace

Holy Eve

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

– Luke 2:8-11, NRSV

Blessings and love to all on this Holy Eve.

Baby Watching

I sit on the floor watching a sleeping child. Three months old, she is a miracle of breath, of tiny hands and feet and eyes and mouth.

How can hearts not be softened by the sight and sound and touch? Perhaps this intent was part of the divine gift. …

That a child would come into the mess of this world. That we who stopped to watch would be forever changed by the sight and touch and sounds of an infant babe.

Come, all you with hearts of stone. Come, all you with spirits of cynicism. Come and see this miracle of breath, of tiny hands and feet and eyes and mouth.

To us, this child is born.

Resilient

I sit down to write
And no words come.

I am tired,
Discouraged,
Overwhelmed by the never-ending
Reports of disasters and tragedies.
Weighed down
By too-much bad news.

Make me resilient
Like the grass whose seeds
Sprout and put down roots
In ancient stones.

Take heart.
Take root.
Love.
Live.
Trust.


I took this photo in Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, Ireland. This grass grew in the ruins of St. Mary’s Church. Built in the 10th century, this was the place of worship for the nuns of the monastic settlement which grew up around Kevin of Glendalough.

A Blessing of the Empty Space

I pulled this blessing out of my book. I’m needing it today on this anniversary of my dad’s death. Bless all who mourn today.

You sit in the empty place that is left,
After the death, the arrangements, the service,
The cards and calls and e-mails,
The departure of family,
The thank-yous and acknowledgments.

Left with the emptiness,
The space that can never be filled
In quite the same way.

You see a shadow, hear a sound,
Taste a food they used to love,
Start to tell them something about your day,
Smell a blanket or sweater,
And your eyes and heart fill with tears.

The first week, the first month, the first birthday,
The first holiday, the first anniversary,
These bring you to the place of remembering,
The place of exquisite, lonely sorrow.
Bless you and your memories.
Bless the tender heart that beats within you.
Bless the empty space that can never be filled.

The shadows, the smells, the tastes, the thoughts,
Transform their pain into blessings,
Signs that though you live in that desperately empty place,
Your loved ones accompany you,
Laugh in the shelter of your heart.

The empty place
That can never be filled
In quite the same way
Is filled
With love.

From Christ Beside Me, Christ Within Me: Celtic Blessings by Beth A. Richardson. Copyright © 2015 by the author. Published by Upper Room Books. The picture is of my parents and me.