The Messiness of Compassion || Karen Butler

In anticipation of Cru’s focus on homelessness and poverty, I am reflecting upon my own narrative before entering into the stories of those I encounter on the streets of Berkeley.

My relationship with God initiated with His tender, compassionate grace. On a hot, sultry Arizona night, after wrestling in the mud with randy fraternity guys and drinking Everclear laden with chocolate, I found myself curled beside my toilet. In the midst of this drunken milieu, Marcia, the sorority’s resident Christian popped into the room.

I positively adored Marcia, but in my present state I felt shame. So I told her to get the ‘f’ out of my room. She conceded and left only to return a few moments later with her hairbrush in hand. Without asking, she gently began to brush the mud from my hair, helped me to my bed and lovingly held my hand until the room stopped spinning and I could fall asleep.

When the fog wore off, I found myself touched to the very core of my being. Never in all my life had I been loved with such unconditional love! Shortly thereafter, alone in the house kitchen, with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, I invited Jesus to come inhabit my smoke-filled, intoxicated body. Shockingly, He responded and graciously made His home in my sin-filled heart.

Marcia, a Jew, raised in the law of Moses, rebelled against her parents and chose to embrace Jesus who embodies both truth and grace (John 1:17). After my coming to Christ, Marcia continued to help me grow in unwavering, unconditional love despite my destructive decisions, always with this glorious concoction of truth and grace. In Marcia’s presence I felt accepted and forgiven, which fostered an immense measure of vulnerability and freedom to present my true self which included all my indiscretions, lawlessness, trespasses, and sins.

Through Marcia, I truly have experienced a God full of truth and grace. Through her life, I have been given such depth of intimacy with God because He fully knows me and yet shockingly still loves and accepts me.

Marcia’s model of ministry, of being willing to wrestle within the swamplands of my soul, has led me to adopt St. Augustine’s aspiration for life as my own:

“My life shall be a real life, being wholly full of Thee. And as that real life, that interior union with God begins to grow, so does the saint’s self-identification with humanity grow.

They do not stand aside wrapped in delightful prayers and feeling pure and agreeable to God.

They go right down into the mess; they are able to radiate God because they possess Him.

And that above all else, is the priestly work that wins and heals souls.”

God has honored the desire of my heart, or perhaps I have chosen to honor the heart He has formed, regardless, in the decades of our mutual abiding, He has asked me to follow in Marcia’s footsteps by going right down into the mess in order to win and heal souls.

Heni Nouwen writes in The Wounded Healer, “ one can help anyone without becoming involved, without entering his whole person into the painful situation, without taking risk of becoming hurt, wounded…In short:  ‘Who can take away suffering without entering it?’”

Following Jesus into the mess has given me the privilege of being grace and truth in some excruciatingly dark situations: insisting to a Bosnian student that she is most beautiful and still a woman even though half her breast was blown off during the Yugoslavian Civil War; listening and sitting day after day, year by year while one of my Croatian staff laments her dad’s eternal state after he suddenly dropped dead from a heart attack;  these are specific situations, but whether at Arizona State, Stanford, Cal, Croatia, or Bosnia there have been numerous situations of sexual abuse, sexual abuser, pornography, loneliness, doubt, suicidal thoughts, mental illness, death that I have felt honored to go deep into the mess and radiate God because I possesses Him.

So this week as we focus on the homeless in Berkeley, I am excited about the stories God may ask me to enter. And it could very well be messy. Just this week, walking home at night from our AIA meeting, I encountered a young woman yelling hysterically at a man scurrying away. Typically, I walk past this drama, but without thinking, I found myself asking, “Are you ok?”

She immediately walked briskly toward me. Shaking, she exclaims how she was parked in her car when the man now scurrying away began using her as an object of lust (yes, language has been modified!). When she yelled her protest, he said he was just urinating.  When I asked her to describe what she saw (truth), I encouraged her to call 911. After the call, Jesus prompted me to initiate something quite foreign: hug a stranger (grace). In our embrace, tears began to flow. I don’t know how long our arms lingered around each other; all I know is that God once again allowed me the honor of being His voice, hands, heart in the messiness of life.

Let us pray as we enter this week:

God, make our lives to be real, to be wholly full of You. And as that real life, that interior union with You begins to grow, may our saint’s self-identification with humanity also grow.

We do not want to stand aside wrapped in delightful prayers and feeling pure and agreeable to You.

No, we want to go right down into the mess because we radiate You, because we possess You.

Above all else, use us this week to do the priestly work that wins and heals souls.