Time, Understanding Lead to Compassion

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Not long ago a pastor made a comment in a sermon concerning one of the true tests of Christianity.

He said (and we are paraphrasing a bit here), that it is in the nature of a Christian not to hold bitterness or animosity in his or her heart for anyone.

Obviously, we don't think that means one should condone or agree with all the actions of our fellow men, but instead there still can be understanding or compassion in our hearts for any individual as a child of God.

Naturally, that attitude is quite difficult to attain as we go through our day to day lives and we have conflicts or disagreements with those around us.

But we believe the pastor is indeed right when he points out that a Christ-like approach should indeed lead us to harbor no lasting animosity toward any human being.

When he spoke those words it reminded us of the closing passage of a favorite book -- "Lanterns on the Levee," an autobiography by Mississippi writer William Alexander Percy.

The author notes that, in his time, he often served as a pallbearer for family and friends and took them to their final resting place, the Greenville cemetery on Rattlesnake Bayou near the Mississippi River.

"I come here not infrequently," Percy writes, "because it is restful and comforting. I am with my own people. With them around me I can seem to read the finished manuscripts of their lives, forever unchangeable, and beautiful in the dim way manuscripts have...

"While people are still alive we judge them as good or bad, condemn them as failures or praise them as successes, love them or despise them. Only when they are dead do we see them, not with charity, but with understanding. Alive they are remote, even hostile; dead, they join our circle and you see the family likeness.

"As I loiter among our graves reading the names on the headstones, names that when they identified live men I sometimes hated or scorned as enemies of me and mine and all that we held good, I find myself smiling. How unreal and accidental seem their defects! I know their stories: this one was a whore and this a thief, here lies the town hypocrite and there one should have died before he was born. I know their stories, but not their hearts.

"With a little shifting of qualities, with a setting more to their needs, with merely more luck, this woman could have borne children who were proud of her, and this thief might have become the father of the poor. Now death has made them only home-folks and I like the sound of their familiar names.

"They lie there under the grass in the evening light so helplessly, my townsmen, a tiny outpost of the lost tribe of our star. Understanding breaks over my heart and I know that the wickedness and the failures of men are nothing and their valor and pathos and effort everything. Circumscribed and unendowed, ailing in body, derided and beguiled, how well they have done!

"They have sipped happiness and gulped pain, they have sought God and never found Him, they have found love and never kept him -- yet they kept on, they never gave up, they rarely complained. Among these handfuls of misguided dust I am proud to be a man and assuaged for my own defects.

"I muse on this one small life that is all I have to show for, the sum of it, the wrong turnings, the weakness of will, the feebleness of spirit, one tiny life with darkness before and after, and it at best a riddle and a wonder...

"Of the good life I have learned what it is not and I have loved a few who lived it end to end. I have seen the goodness of men and the beauty of things. I have no regrets. I am not contrite. I am grateful."