#37: White Paint, Red Clay

#37: White Paint, Red Clay

Last time, I told you about the birth of my heart for cross-cultural missions.  If you missed it, you can catch up here.

That first trip to Russia in 1997 opened a new world to me and ignited something in me that has never died down. I suddenly saw far beyond the boundaries of my comfortable home, the tri-state area, and indeed, my own homeland. I realized my God was much bigger than I was painting Him to be and cared about things and people of which I was totally unaware. And I realized I was no longer content not knowing and not seeing for myself.

It’s that need to see for myself that I have difficulty expressing sometimes. Maybe it’s curiosity; maybe it’s something more. Maybe it’s my desire to analyze and evaluate for myself. Or perhaps I’m just too aware of how desensitized I’ve become after years of having images flash across a screen in my living room without really affecting me any longer than it takes to change the channel.

There’s a song by Seth Condrey that says, “We sit at home and soak up information through the screen, but we don’t go… no, we don’t hear them where they scream…”

I don’t like that. I’m not okay with that. For me, to live with compassion, which literally means “with suffering”, means I have to experience the “with” to some degree. I don’t know if this is good or right. But I think God’s just made me a fairly practical girl and has put a desire in me to touch things and feel their realness.

When I was a little girl, maybe three or four years old, my mother painted two little child-sized chairs for my room and sat them in the den to dry. That was where I found them and placed my hand smack-down in the middle of the seat of one of them, forever preserving my small handprint on the fresh, white paint. Not just one little finger, mind you. The entire hand.

I was too young at the time for me to remember now the conversation that followed, but I imagine my mom asking me why I did it and I imagine telling her something along the lines of, “I just wanted to see if it was really wet”. Because that’s the way children think, isn’t it? Simple and concrete.

And perhaps that’s the way I still think. Perhaps that’s what I was trying to express a few years ago to a friend when I felt God calling me to Africa for the first time. Africa had never been on my radar before, but here I was saying things like, “I think I need to just go and see for myself”. I need to experience the reality. I need to smell the smells and hear the sounds and look into the eyes of someone who is looking back and seeing me, not the other end of a news camera.

And here’s the kicker. If they look back and see me, then that same me is now responsible to do something. Once I know something, I’m held accountable for that knowledge. I can never again use the excuse that I don’t know, because I do.

This summer I returned to Uganda, a country I had visited for three days back in the fall of 2008 on a trip to Kenya. Uganda was hard for me on that first trip. It felt dark and filled with sights and sounds that were more than I could bear at times. So when I found myself preparing to return a few months ago, I was the first person to ask myself why. And the answer? Because I know.

I’ve seen it. I’ve touched it. I know it’s real. I can never again say I don’t know that abject poverty is real. I can never again say I don’t know that children are starving. It’s no less real than the red clay that covered my shoes and luggage. I know, and I am now accountable for what I do with that knowledge.

This is what separates compassion from pity. Pity stays at a distance. Compassion gets close enough to hurt. Pity assumes someone else will help. Compassion takes on the responsibility of doing.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not always the most compassionate person. In truth, I probably feel pity much more often than I feel compassion. There are things that others have great passion for to which I might appear practically indifferent. I’ve learned that God places burdens in each of our hearts, and if we spend our efforts tilling in another man’s vineyard, the crops He’s given us to care for will die.

The challenge is to be open to move close enough to something or someone to hurt. To ask God to break our hearts for what breaks His. And when He does — and He will — we will gladly take on the responsibility to act out of compassion. It will be the most natural thing in the world for us to do.

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