8/5/2018 – Mark 6:30-44

by admin on August 5, 2018

8/5/2018 – Message Audio


Nova’s Core Values 1—Compassion

5 August 2018

Mark 6:30-44                                     [Isaiah 49:8-16]


One day while fighting in the Spanish civil war, George Orwell encountered an enemy Fascist face-to-face.  The solider came running by, panting, half-dressed, stumbling, holding up his pants with clenched hand.  Orwell refused to shoot.  Later he reflected: “I did not shoot partly because of that detail about the trousers.  I had come here to shoot Fascists, but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a Fascist.  He is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting at him.”


What’s up with that?  Might it  be compassion?   Compassion is a feeling deep within ourselves —a “quivering of the heart” — and it is also a way of acting — being affected by the suffering of others and moving on their behalf. 


But compassion has had its detractors:  Kant, Freud, Hitler—all protested that compassion somehow softened the determination to act.  It has been treated with dismissive skepticism or downright derision.  It’s been argued that compassion is an unreliable guise to ethical behavior.  After all, you don’t want too many soldiers not shooting. 


But some new empirical studies have revealed compassion to be biologically based: rooted deep within the mammal brain and shaped by the most potent of selection pressures humans have evolved to adapt to—need to care for the vulnerable.  And who is more vulnerable that a baby?   So then. In order for the species to survive, compassion is necessary. 


The practice of compassion is often likened to opening the heart, which is interesting.  Some of these same studies pinpoint compassion to the vagus nerve in the chest.  This nerve spreads feelings of warmth, but it also innervates the muscle group of the communication system, involved in care giving, e.g. facial features and voice modulation.


 And this nerve also serves as the brake on heart rate, directly connected to the network of oxytocin receptors, those little nerve messengers intimately involved in the experience of trust and love.  So biologically there is an actual heart felt experience with the practice of compassion. 


This is why we say things like: my heart goes out to them, my heart aches for that, it breaks my heart to see this happen.   

There is something about compassion that arises in seeing something and feeling the heart move. 


In one of the most interesting stories in the Gospels—it’s the only miracle story in all four—Mark says that Jesus saw the crowds and had compassion on them because they were lost and aimless.   That’s an interesting word for compassion:   evsplagcni,sqh. It’s onomatopoetic.  Literally meaning: his guts churned.   Can it be that ancient Greek got this biological insight correct:  compassion is about being inwardly moved by seeing the plight of others—being caught with their pants down–and then doing something about it? 


In another interesting move: the NT uses this word only as an attribute of God.  Only God can be ultimately compassionate; in fact, it’s what he does best. 


This story in Mark begins the third section of his gospel: where the success of Jesus ministry—how can feeding 5000 not be successful?—be contrasted with growing conflict with religious bigshots and the misunderstanding of his disciples.


Compassion then is much more than an ephemeral feeling; it is biologically wired, and shows Jesus true colors as God in the flesh. 


WHAT?  Disciples return from their first foray in the world as Jesus apprentices and he invites them to retreat.  Come and relax guys.   With all the scheduling, conference calls, meetings and general press of flesh the boys are tired and exhausted.  Jesus invites them to rest. 


But then the rest gets interrupted when the crowd bests them to the retreat center.  Jesus sees them and feels compassion—then launches off into teaching.   At long last the disciples have to remind him to wrap it up—it’s time for supper.  But when they tell Jesus to dismiss everyone for dinner he tells them to pony up open the take out place. “We don’t have it in us” is their reply.  Jesus asks anyway for what meager resources then have among themselves and goes on to make that do.  Do enough so everyone gets filled with more left over.  Amazing, don’t you think?


SO WHAT?  Compassion is who Jesus is.  It began when the disciples first came home for retreat.  And then his compassion for the crowd superseded that for the disciples.  Mark says Jesus acted like a shepherd to his sheep.  Dumb animals that need direction. 


Perhaps the core to this story isn’t the giant fish fry but the disciples’ shallow thinking—we don’t have it in us to feed this many.  Was Jesus being insensitive, giving an impossible demand?   In the end the boys can only present their only available resources: two little fishies and five loaves of bread. 


Instead of being insensitive, Jesus reveals his confidence in the disciples as his apprentices, his under-shepherds. Undergirded by his power these 12 guys can provide all they need for the task with plenty left over.


Karen Armstrong, first class scholar of world religions noted that the true unification principle of world religions is compassion.   It’s more than just a feeling. 


William James thought that emotions originate in our patterned responses to the autonomic nervous system.  (ANSà innervates involuntary organs: heart, smooth muscles, glands)

He called them “reverberations of the viscera.”  Sounds like gut churning to me.


Emotions shape our deepest beliefs ands core values; our relationships, methods for handling conflict.  In a big way they give us the trajectory of our lives. 


In the largest study ever done on mate selection—who you want to marry—most important criterion for both M/F in search for love:  kindness and compassion.  In a big way that’s the evolutionary process at work:  compassion is directly related to species survival.


So….NOW WHAT?  Studies in neurobiology contend that it’s possible to rewire brain patterns by practicing new behaviors.  There’s truth to the adage: act your way into a new way of thinking.  I find it intriguing that Jesus first word out of the gate in inviting people to enjoy the presence of God right now in life was a simple one word call:  Repent.  Literally: change the way you think; rewire your brain; act in a new way so as to think that way, too.  


What way to act?  Compassion, the very core of his being is ours, too.  Remember, Jesus had great faith in the disciples’ broken ability to act compassionately too.  Two little fishes and five loaves of bread.  Compassion is the birth giver of courageous acts.  This is what caused thousands of Jews being saved in the Holocaust,  it’s the story line of Hotel Rwanda; it’s why people respond with generosity and love in the face of disaster, mayhem and tragedy, as America became a kinder nation in the aftermath of 9/11.   It isn’t just bleeding heart liberalism.  It just might be that we are biologically wired and spiritually attuned to the world’s great needs.


Where to begin?  Right now.

But when you move toward others with compassion, you are likely to bump into some common attitudes, just waiting to close your heart again.

On a personal level, our compassion is sabotaged by feelings of ill will toward others: spite and malice. These feelings, and others arising out of emotional wounds and personal pain, are actually symptoms indicating that you need to have compassion for yourself.


 The first step in cultivating compassion is the putting up with yourself.  It is in discovering that we are like others not in our virtues but in our faults, failings and flaws.  The Desert Fathers called this “paying attention to yourself.”  What we do is important, but who we are is more important. And most important is that we understand the difference. 


Compassion is more than a nice religious idea, more than doing something nice; it’s about allowing the core of our being to be filled with the divine compassion of God.   Paying attention to yourself and allowing others to do the same.   Other people can deal with their own imperfections; they don’t need us to point out their problems.


The practice of compassion increases our capacity to care. It reinforces charity, empathy, and sympathy. It is very good exercise for your heart muscle.  But like all exercise, you need the reinforcement of others to keep at it.  Recent studies identify the kinds of environments that cultivate compassion—largely focused on families.  Our mission here at Nova is to be a cultivating community for your compassion. 



Last evening Karen and I went to dinner in OWE—Lifeline Community Dinner—hosted by Steve North and his wife.  11 years going.  It takes all kinds literally lived out.  Steve told us again out the annual Tent City staged for weekend in October.  Nova can live out compassion literally there. 


In another famous story in the Gospels compassion is made primary in the saying “if you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”   Since we are biologically wired to do so—being made in the image of God himself—then all we need is to see face to face the eyes of another in need and know that it’s more than just a feeling, it’s God.  May you leave here today empowered by Jesus to live this kind of life—his life.   


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