The Desert of Compassion

The 40 days of Lent are desert times.  The season, which extends from February 22nd to April 8th this year, reminds us of the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the Judean wilderness (Matthew 4:1-2).  It recalls the 40 years that the children of ancient Israel traveled through the Sinai desert (Numbers 14:33).  Lent is an invitation to venture into dry and wild places.  In the wilderness, the Bible proclaims, God’s people are repeatedly met and molded by God.

In his book Entering the Silence: Becoming a Monk and Writer, Thomas Merton considered this question: if the Lord calls people to desert places, what was his new desert?  Here was his answer: “The name of it is compassion.  There is no wilderness so terrible, so beautiful, so arid, and so fruitful as the wilderness of compassion.  It is the only desert that shall truly flourish like the lily.”

I sense a desperate need for compassion today.  Years of social isolation and political polarization have led to a broad sense of loneliness and disconnection.  A decline in religious observance in the United States has only exacerbated the problem, cutting people off from ancient and time-tested rituals for connecting with God and neighbor in life-giving relationships.  People feel profoundly alone in facing the world.  And yet so many social issues we face today call for collective understanding and engagement: poverty, racism, and the environmental crisis, to name just a few.  How can we live together, work together, and dream together when we feel so isolated from one another?

Compassion is the desert for our day.  It is the lesson God’s people learn in the wilderness.  Compassion is what Christ lived and taught – and what he poured out for us first in his ministry, then in his death and resurrection.  It teaches us a great truth: we are not alone.

This Lent, we are looking each Sunday at times in Matthew’s gospel when Jesus demonstrates compassion.  Many of us at Knox are reading the book by desert dweller and Presbyterian pastor Rachel Srubas, The Desert of  Compassion: Devotions for the  Lenten Journey. Communal gatherings like Dinners for Eight, small groups, and our Ash Wednesday dinner foster compassion for one another in the journey over Lent.   And our work with immigrants, orphans, and the homeless can build compassion toward our neighbor.

Compassion gets right at the heart of things – for it speaks to the heart of God (Exodus 34:6, Psalm 145:8) and of God’s Son, our Lord (Matthew 9:36).  May our hearts be ever shaped by God’s compassion shown to us in Christ – especially in desert days of Lent.

~Pastor Matt