by Rev. Doug Gray
All this Lent, we are spending time thinking about our frontlines. What’s a frontline? Our frontline is the edge of our lives where we are meeting people who need grace—where we work, where we play, at the store, at school, with our family, at the doctor’s office, hanging out while our kids are in an activity, going for a walk in the neighborhood—wherever we spend time with people can be a frontline. Our frontline is where we are stretched, and where we have a chance to make a difference. All this Lent, we are exploring ways to be fruitful on our frontlines.It’s one of those phrases that drives a parent nuts. When I was a kid, my parents would ask me to take out the garbage…they asked me to take out the garbage, so I said, “No.” Then they told me to take out the garbage, and I used the phrase, “Do I have to?” When my parents asked me to spend part of a beautiful, sunny Saturday mowing the lawn, I would ask, “Do I have to?” When they would ask me if I would go with them to party where I didn’t have any friends, I would ask, “Do I have to?” Now I don’t know—maybe you have said that phrase yourself, or maybe you have heard it from your kids—but in our passages for today, we find God has answers to the question, “Do I have to?”
First, the short answer is always “No!” A poor widow comes to the prophet Elisha and pleads her case. A woman of substance invites the prophet Elisha to stop by for a meal. In the second story, Jesus reminds us that there are people who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, without clothes, sick and in prison. In the face of their need, we may ask, “Do I have to?” And the answer is always, “No!” We don’t have to.
Second, need calls us to action. We don’t have to, but we could. The poor widow’s financial need activates Elisha’s compassion. Perhaps the woman of substance is lonely, or just wants a chance to be a blessing. Whatever it is, Elisha comes by her house for dinner whenever he is in the neighborhood. Or is it that this great woman sees Elisha’s need for some good home-cooking and a quiet space? Jesus makes it clear that those who see need and do something about it—those are the people who know Jesus best. Jesus says, “…just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The needs are really simple and straightforward, aren’t they? Financial need, loneliness, hunger, thirst, sickness…We don’t have to, but we choose to. Need calls us to action.
Third, God wants to rewire us for compassion. We don’t have to, but we want to. Whether it’s Elisha or the woman of substance or Jesus, the compassion leads us. In fact, Jesus talks about people who are so wired to show compassion, that they didn’t even know they were doing it. Breathtakingly, they discover from Jesus, that they were taking care of Him, not just caring for the hungry, thirsty, sick and lonely. They were just doing it, but there was something more going on. When we show compassion, God rewires us to be more compassionate.
In his book, Fruitfulness on the Frontlines: Making a Difference Where You Are, Mark Greene tells the story of David that seems to catch all of these ideas..
David’s frontline was his office….One Monday, one of his colleagues, James, failed to turn up to work.
No one thought much about it—probably just had a spectacular weekend—but when [James] didn’t turn up the following day, David called him, even though he wasn’t a particular friend of his.
‘Are you ok?’
‘No, I’m feeling terrible. I haven’t been able to get out of bed for three days.’
‘Is anyone looking after you?’
No, I live alone and my family are miles away.’
‘Have you got the right medicine?’
‘I haven’t even got any food.’
… David went…to see James that evening, got him into the shower, changed his [bedding], took him to the doctor, got the medicine, bought food and went to see him every evening for a week. During that week, James never asked David a single question about why he was doing all he was doing for him.
However, within a week of James’ return to work, David found…[he had lots of opportunities to explain]. James had told everyone what David had done. And people stopped [David] on the [elevator], in the halls, in the cafeteria; his colleagues simply couldn’t understand why he’d done it. As [David’s pastor] put it, ‘David replied carefully and humbly to all who asked, “It is nothing I did… I think what I did is the kind of thing [Jesus] would have done. I don’t do it very well, but I do my best.”’
What I love about this story, is that in one sense David’s loving choices are completely unexpected—when we ask ourselves what would Jesus do, we don’t expect to be taking care of one of our co-workers in a very personal, dedicated way. James’ needs awakened David to action, and he did a beautifully compassionate thing. In another sense, David’s loving choices are totally expected—it’s how we would want the story to go if we were James, and perhaps we know that’s the kind of radical compassion that Jesus lived and taught and died to show us.
When we are kids, often we are self-focused. As I got older, I began to realize that when I asked my parents “Do I have to?” it was like telling them that I didn’t want to. So I started taking out the garbage when I saw it was full. I started making space in my weekend to mow the lawn and found that mowing the lawn was very meditative. I even began to think of my parents’ parties as a way of being with them and giving them joy. I was learning to think with grace. Mark Greene writes, “Grace and love go beyond the acceptable minimum or the way things are usually done—the homeless person is not just given a meal, but a really great meal. Indeed, there is more to ministering grace and love than kindness. Love is about wanting and seeking the best for someone else.” Isn’t it what we want for our children? In a sense, that’s what we hope to grow into, isn’t it? That we would have more grace and love, that we would become people who show love not because they have to, but because they want to. But in another sense, what we hope for most, is that God would rewire us, so that we not only want to, it’s the only way we are.
Mark Greene, Fruitfulness on the Frontline: Making a difference where you are (Nottingham, UK: Inter-Varsity Press, 2014), pp. 109–111.