It was the day after Christmas 2004 and I was home visiting my family for the holidays just having finished my first semester of graduate work. That morning I came downstairs still savoring the Christmas atmosphere that filled my parents house. Outside it was cold and snowy but inside, the tree was still decorated and lit; the living room was filled with all of our presents we had yet to put away and the warmth of the fire in the wood burning stove that heated the living room was calling my name. I poured myself a cup of coffee and found my usual spot in the corner of the couch that was closest to the fire.
Setting down my coffee I picked up the remote and flipped on the tv. Much to my disappointment the only thing that was on was the news. I was hoping to find stations still running Christmas programming, re-runs of old sitcoms or at the very least some morning talk show. Disappointed that my expectations were not met and in no mood to watch the news I shut off the tv and found something else to occupy my time.
At first glance this brief recollection of that day-after-Christmas morning may seem quite mundane and ordinary, but deep in my heart something extremely disturbing was happening. If you recall, on the day after Christmas in 2004 there was an incredible undersea earthquake in the Indian Ocean that created a tsunami that devastated the countries of India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Somali, Sri Lanka, and Thailand and took the lives of over 230,000 people. So, when I say that on that morning there was nothing on tv except the news, it wasn’t just news as usual, it was breaking news, coverage of that horrific natural disaster. And the disturbing part about it was, that as casually as I flipped the tv on looking for some sort of mild amusement I casually flipped it off with a heart that was numb and calloused toward the grandiose destruction and loss of life.
A few months later, while back at grad school, the film Hotel Rwanda was released. I had heard a lot of buzz about the movie mostly from my classmates. There was talk about how this was going to be an amazing movie and we should definitely gather a group of people to go see it. Originally I thought that would be great, I’m always up for a group outing. But when I heard the movie was about genocide and Rwandan refugees I thought to myself, “That sounds kinda boring. Why pay $10 to go watch something so depressing. I don’t even know anything about Rwanda or their people.” Obviously, I had no interest in learning about them either. In the end I decided to go see the movie Hitch instead.
I am not proud of these two stories, and when God began to pull back the veil of my heart to show me what lay within, I was actually quite troubled by my stark lack of compassion. And the way that God revealed to me what was in my heart was through the life of Jesus and believe it or not, the film Hotel Rwanda. Around the time the film was released on video I was reading through the gospels, and in my daily readings I encountered story after story where an individual or a group of people would come to Jesus to ask something of him. Instead of being annoyed or irritated with people, the gospel writers continually describe Jesus as looking at a group or individual and being
Noticing this trend in Jesus’ reaction to people and remembering how God describes himself in the Old Testament (“The LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” Ex. 34v6), I made a mental note that this character trait might be important to develop. However, at that time, I did not realize just how much help I needed in that area.
Eventually, I sat down and watched the film Hotel Rwanda. When I did, the penny dropped. The night I watched the movie, it was not on my own initiative. It was one of those situations where I was with a group of friends and they all wanted to watch it, but I did not. It would have been socially awkward for me to make a fuss or leave. So I sat down to endure the movie. About a third of the way through the movie there was one scene that really got me. It was subtle but impactful. It made me realized that I was so inundated with my own comfort that my heart had grown hard to people living in circumstance less ideal than mine.
Two of the main characters in the movie are a journalist from the US named Jack (Joaquin Phoenix) and a Rwandan hotel manager named Paul (Don Cheadle). The two men are having a conversation about some footage Jack captured showing the atrocity facing Paul’s country and his people. Paul says to Jack, “I am glad that you got this footage. It is important for the world to see and it’s the only way we might have a chance for the world to intervene.” Jack replies, “And if no one intervenes is it still a good thing to show?” Paul, with consternation on his face says, “How can they not intervene when they witness such atrocities?” Jack softly replies, “If people see this footage they will say, ‘Oh my God that’s horrible.’ and then they will go back to eating their dinner.”
When I saw this scene it was like for the first time there was a pulse in my heart. I instantly was taken back to that day-after-Christmas morning and realized that I did the very thing Jack was describing in the movie. On that morning at my parents house with my cup of coffee in hand, sitting by the fire, watching footage of the tsunami I said, “Oh my God that’s awful.” but then flipped the tv off and went about my day.
Since that evening watching Hotel Rwanda and encountering the compassion of Jesus in the gospels, God has sent me on a journey of discovering and re-discovering what it means to be a person of compassion. And what I’m coming to find is that being a person of compassion is to be the type of person who allows their heart to break for the things that break God’s heart, to be the type of person who is able to see the situation of another and be emotionally moved by their situation, and to even be the type of person who is able to take on their pain, whether it be emotionally, spiritually, psychologically or even physically.
Over the next few weeks I going to explore the topic of compassion and ask the questions,
Where does compassion develop?
What blocks compassion?
How do we become people of compassion?
Through out these next few posts my prayer is that:
1. You will be willing to honestly examine your heart.
2. God will open your heart to his heart.
3. You will allow your heart to break for the things that break God’s heart.