Distressingly desensitised

lung_cancer_awarenessI headed to the chemo ward last week, much the same as any other week. But there was a difference—it wasn’t my week for treatment. I was visiting a friend who was having chemo for the first time and I figured he’d like some support.

As I drove to the hospital I became distressed. Not because I was heading to my least favourite place in the universe. Not because my friend had cancer. Not because he was only 17 years of age.

I was upset that the whole experience seemed normal. It seemed okay to be visiting a boy with cancer. I wasn’t shocked or horrified that this should be happening to someone so young and fit, who had their whole life ahead of them. There were no cries or tears or anger. I realised that cancer had become normalised for me. And I hated that fact.

There is nothing normal or acceptable about cancer. It’s a blight. It’s a parasite. It feeds on life. It steals life. It destroys life.

Dear God, please fix my blurred vision to see things for what they truly are. May I not grow desensitised to disease and suffering and death. May I not grow blasé to the horrors of cancer. Enable me to weep with those who weep. Fill my heart with compassion and kindness. Strengthen my hope in your saving grace and lead me to share this with others.

Not my problem

burdenI’ve noticed this phrase has made its way into our vernacular… Not My Problem. We can even send it as a text… NMP. It’s pretty callous and cold. It highlights our preoccupation with ourselves and our overall lack of responsibility. We watch the news and see terrorism and tsumanis, fires and famines, earthquakes and economic collapses, and maybe we think to ourselves… Not My Problem. Some of us have been inoculated against being contaminated by the plight of others. How easy is it for us to drive past the car that’s broken down, or make excuses why we can’t give to that appeal, or simply avoid the people whom we find awkward or demanding?

I don’t use the phrase much myself, except perhaps when the kids have left their homework until the night before it’s due! But I’m saddened that I regularly see evidence of it in my attitude. It’s so easy to ignore the plight of others, or simply feel too overwhelmed to be able to offer anything. As a Christian, I believe that relationship with God is the most important need people can have. I believe that we will all stand before God one day and give an account for how we’ve responded to him. And I’m persuaded that people desperately need to hear the outstanding news that peace with God is made possible by trusting in Jesus. I believe all that, and yet so often fail to do anything about it. I wouldn’t articulate it like this, but I think and speak and act as though it’s Not My Problem.

Let me tell you, I’m so glad that Jesus wasn’t like me. He engaged with people who were in desperate need. They were abused by their religious leaders and oppressed by their political leaders. They struggled with sickness, both physical and spiritual. They faced death in fear and without hope. Underlying all of their obvious problems, they were guilty of turning their backs on the God who’d given them everything. It would have been so easy for Jesus simply to have turned away and said Not My Problem. But he didn’t! In Matthew’s Gospel we read this about Jesus:

35 And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.”  (Matthew 9:35-38)

Jesus showed extraordinary compassion for people. He connected with complete outcasts. He risked being contaminated by others. He sided with the powerless and vulnerable. He took on the pretence of the proud and powerful. He offered hope to the hopeless and life to the dead. Jesus was serious about the needs of his people. So serious that he went willingly to his death upon a cross, so as to offer the way to peace with God.

Whether I have compassion or not, there is genuine hope for people because of Jesus’ compassion. I thank him for this compassion, and how I wish there were more people like Jesus. How I wish I was more like Jesus! Jesus encouraged his followers to pray earnestly that God would raise up more people who were like him. I’ve been encouraged to pray the same thing. And I will ask God to transform my attitude and those of others so that we too will show compassion and concern, bear others burdens, and share the great news of Jesus, that he has taken their problems and made them his own.

Retail therapy – a first world sin?

retail_therapyI don’t remember when I first came across the idea of ‘retail therapy’, but the idea has disturbed me for some time. For those who haven’t heard of it before, ‘retail therapy’ is a term to describe shopping when you need cheering up. If you’re feeling a bit down or depressed, then you go to the mall and make some ‘comfort buys’ to improve your mood.

According to Wikipedia, retail therapy was first used as a term in the 1980s with the first reference being this sentence in the Chicago Tribune of Christmas Eve 1986: “We’ve become a nation measuring out our lives in shopping bags and nursing our psychic ills through retail therapy.”

There’s now a website called ‘Retail Therapy’ hosting fashionable clothes for all shapes and sizes. Our local civic mall invites shoppers with these words: For those yearning for some retail therapy, Canberra’s City Centre offers an innovative retail experience at the Canberra Centre. It’s even a selling point for real estate near our city: The centre of Canberra is also a few minutes walk offering fabulous retail therapy , award winning dining experiences, vibrant funky cafes and…  The lists could go on, throughout our nation and in many wealthy countries around the world.

There’s something profoundly disturbing about thinking that buying more and more stuff will cheer us up. Are we really happier for having the latest, fastest, shiniest, brightest, hippest. Of course not. It’s out of fashion before it’s out of warranty! I came back from camping and got disturbed about all the clutter. I’d lived just fine without so many things in the tent, so why do I need more and more now! I got a little depressed about it, so what did I do? I bought another tarp and another tent! (Actually there are good reasons for this, but the point still stands.) More stuff does not equal more satisfaction.

I worry too that I can be quick to spend on myself, buying things that I don’t really need, to the neglect of those in great need. We support a number of families in Kenya and in India. They’re all living well below what we’d call the poverty line. For the most part I think they know genuine contentment, but I’m sure it wouldn’t cross their minds to earn money simply to spend it on trivia when they’re feeling down. Food, clothes, school – if they can cover these things then they’re doing well.

Yesterday I received an invitation from the Oaktree Foundation to Live Below the Lineliving on $2 a day, to tackle extreme poverty. I reckon if you’re feeling a little aimless, need a little cheering up, then living below the line will do a whole lot more for you and others, than some self-indulgent retail therapy. Or perhaps when the department stores are seducing you to part with your cash or go deeper into credit card debt, you could consider contacting TEAR or Compassion or World Vision or Médecins Sans Frontières or a similar group, and get into some generosity therapy instead.

Food for thought!

What comfort?

I didn’t make it to church this morning. The toxic effects of chemo were still knocking me around and I didn’t feel up to leaving the house. I’d been bed-ridden most of the past few days and was feeling rather miserable, so I thought I’d stay at home and read a bit of the Bible. I’m glad I did because it helped me get my eyes off my misery and onto the source of comfort and compassion. These verses stuck out for me…

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.
(2 Corinthians 1:3-5)

Sometimes God can seem so remote, disinterested, uncaring, even cruel. Suffering, injustice, oppression, sickness, pain, disaster, corruption – they all seem to testify against God. But the trouble is we’re only looking at part of the evidence. If we look closer we’ll see that God cares deeply about all this misery and he promises to support us in our suffering. This doesn’t mean he’ll take the pain away or remove the suffering, but he promises to comfort us in our struggles.

Last week we listened to a friend explaining the message of Psalm 23. We were reminded that while these words are often read at funerals, they have great comfort and significance for the living. Verse 4 speaks of God being with us in the darkest times…

Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

Notice that it doesn’t promise that we’ll avoid walking through very difficult places. Nor does it say that God will come in a helicopter and lift us above the dark valley. This is not a promise that suffering will be taken away, but that God will be with us every step of the way. He’ll be our guide and protector. He offers us comfort even in our darkest hour.

But in what sense is God the Father of compassion or the God of all comfort? Is it just rhetoric? Is this just religious pep talk to help us cope with our misery? Is it no better than a cliché in the centre of a sympathy card? Friends, I’m confident that there’s substance behind these words that means they’re powerful and true. The Apostle Paul bases his convictions about God on the evidence that Jesus died for our sins and that God has raised Jesus from the dead. God’s promise is to do the same for all who call on him. A few verses later in 2 Corinthians he writes…

Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.
(2 Corinthians 1:9)

The resurrection of Jesus gives grounds for relying on God. If God has done this for Jesus, then we can trust him to do the same for us. And it’s not just pie in the sky when you die. The promise is that God will comfort us in our troubles now. He’s with us when we’re sick. He understands when we’re conflicted and confused. He cares when we fearful. He will not leave our side even when we’re dying. And the comfort he brings is that he’s fully guaranteed our future in Jesus Christ.

The challenge to me in these verses is to pass on the comfort that I’ve received from God. This comfort isn’t for my sake alone – it’s for all who groan and struggle and grieve. It’s for all who’s souls are restless and troubled. I don’t need to despair. I have no reason to spiral in self-pity. No, God has comforted me that I might bring his comfort to others. He calls me to be a blessing to those around me, by pointing people to the compassion and comfort that comes from him alone.

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