Good Friday: Compassion and Tenderness

April 19th, 2019

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To listen to the sermon click here.

I have a very dear friend, who is also a spiritual mentor of mine. He recently wrote a book called Oblivion, and in it he describes the first time he was incarcerated. He was 18 years old and the jail was in Twin Falls, Idaho. 

One day he was doing what they did every day in the jail dorm, playing cards and talking a bunch of crap (those are his words). There was one older guy there who was really a mess.  He had put on some hard miles in his life, and alcohol and drugs had clearly taken their toll. One of his arms had been amputated just below the elbow and he had a flap of skin that hung down about four inches below the stump. He walked around without a shirt on all the time, and you could see his ribs covered with a thin sheet of pale skin. His face was sunk, and his eyes looked like caves.

On this particular day the man was more agitated than usual. He was pacing back and forth the length of the dorm like a caged animal, and with each lap he seemed more intense, talking to himself, louder, and louder, as anger spewed forth with increased rancor. 

A few guys tried to calm him with words, sort of, but he just got more and more wound up…then suddenly, he ran the length of the dorm full speed, and as he approached the wall he lowered his head like a battering ram and threw himself headlong into the concrete wall. The sound shocked everyone into silence for an infinite second, and then all pandemonium broke loose; some men ran to him; others turned away in disgust. My friend Dennis froze. 

It was a moment he’ll never forget; it unlocked something deep down inside of him. Even as he was frozen with panic and fear, compassion stirred…it was a new feeling, warm and loving. This man in the horror of his own suffering, unlocked for Dennis a part of himself so buried by addiction, violence, and shame that he had never really known it. Compassion, in that moment, introduced Dennis to his own soul. (Oblivion, Dennis Gibbs, p. 39-40).   

When we strip everything away, and get to the core of ourselves, we meet our soul.  It is that part of us that is inextricably linked to God, and then, somehow, inextricably linked to other people and all of creation, as well.

The soul and the spirit are not the same thing. The spirit is about our decisions; it is about our freedom. The soul is about God; inextricable connection to our eternal nature. If we were computers, our spirit would be the cursor, and our soul would be the operating system. We don’t control our soul, but we long to fully experience it.

There is a German word for this, Sehnsucht…it means a thirst for the absolute, divine satiation of ourselves within our souls toward full immersion in God; which is also full immersion into love.

Compassion is a feeling that opens us to this satiating love of God; which is odd, because compassion means to “suffer with.” So why would suffering connect us to the love of God?

On that tragic day in the Twin Falls jail some men’s souls were stirred; in that instant of horror they suffered with that suffering man.  And their instinct, or maybe the training of their hearts, let their souls mingle with his, as they rushed hands outstretched to tenderly care for him.

Tenderness is the outward expression of compassion. Compassion moves within our souls as a kind of love that has no boundaries; a type of love so strong that it runs from nothing and holds everything it encounters… tenderly.

Tenderness is the outward express of compassion. The opposite of tenderness is disgust. Some men in that Twin Falls jail turned away in disgust.

When Jesus was nailed to the cross, most of the disciples slithered away and hid. He was already a bloody mess, broken, a horror to see. Mary and the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved stood at the foot of the cross; Soul to soul to soul with Jesus in his suffering; compassion stirring from the deepest part of themselves. 

And when Jesus finally died, leaving a stench in the air, and all that gore on the ground around him, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus lifted Jesus to the ground, tenderly. They washed his corpse, tenderly. They carried him to the tomb, tenderly.  They wrapped his body in a shroud, tenderly. And, with what strength they had left, they rolled the stone over the tomb entrance. It fell into place, tenderly. 

Mary, the Beloved Disciple, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus saw through the revulsion and disgust, and let compassion stir in their souls, so they could act tenderly. The Apostle John in his first letter tells us why: “We love, because he loved us first” (1 John 4:19).

Jesus’s own words come to mind; words that he shared with Nicodemus early in the Gospel of John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”  Jesus came to connect us to our souls.

Jesus came so that we might have life and have it abundantly. Jesus came to teach us how to love our neighbor, stirred by compassion, to act tenderly.

We call today Good Friday for one reason-Jesus had compassion on humanity; and acted tenderly. After seeing what he saw, and experiencing what he experienced, he could have been disgusted. He could have rejected us, as we rejected him. Revulsion is a word that easily comes to mind when considering humanity, and how we live, and how we act, and how we treat one another – disgusting; but, Jesus nor did he turn away, nor did he reprimand, nor did he command us to follow him. He treated us tenderly; suffering with us. And he died…

It was love and nothing else that kept Jesus on the cross, compassion for us, hope for us, love for us; because we are connected to God in the depths of our souls. All of us. God made us that way.

Jesus came to call our attention to this reality and to teach us how to live as eternal souls: soul to God; soul to neighbor; soul to creation.

On Good Friday, as we witness the horror and sadness of the crucifixion, I pray somewhere deep down inside something stirs in you for Jesus on the cross. And your response is compassion, and that compassion spills out in tenderness for God, and for yourself, and for your neighbor, and for all creation.

Gaze with horror upon the cross, the suffering… and linger there. Then see through the superficial to the deeper connection with the tenderness of Jesus as Mary and the Beloved Disciple did; soul to soul to soul. And let that form and transform you as it did Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, to act tenderly toward the body of a broken man. 

Those thirty days spent in the Twin Falls jail were just the beginning for Dennis. He spent the next thirty years or so in and out of jail, and on the street, wrestling with addition…but his soul was never the same. A knot of compassion had been tied around it that day and it has been held firmly in place ever since. This is the day we reach into the depths of our souls, and find our knot of compassion that tethers us to the love of God, and gives us power to act tenderly in the world.