Drawing the Circle Wide

December 28, 2021

A strange thing about large-scale, global suffering, is that, at our worst, it can paradoxically make our circles of concern smaller. It goes like this:

We experience those first thousands of deaths in Wuhan not as tragedies in themselves, but merely as warnings for our own nation….

When the virus does hit closer to home, we see the opposing political party as the reason for all the suffering, and so its members become the villains….

Panic sets in, and with it comes the impulse to buy out the grocery store without a second thought for our neighbor….

...Until finally, only a tiny circle of concern remains. And we find ourselves at its center.

One evening when I was at my parents’ home earlier this summer, I went on a quarantine walk. We are all familiar with what that is by now: a walk fueled by anxiety and the mind numbing need to move. As I was zooming around my neighborhood, fretting intensely about the world and my life and mostly my life, I rounded a corner to see my mother walking our aging collie slowly down the street, the sweetest smile on her face. When she noticed me, immediately she exclaimed, “Jeannie! I’ve been thinking about how blessed we are.” “Really?” I asked in disbelief. “Yes,” she said, “look at our home! Look at the sky!”

For the first time that evening, I looked up. It was stunning.

Covid 19 is far more dangerous to my mother’s demographic than to mine. This year she made the bittersweet decision to retire after a lifetime of teaching philosophy. She is facing years where the work that has defined so much of her purpose will do so no longer. She had every reason to be on the anxiety fueled quarantine walk that I was on. But she did not place herself at the center, and so she saw what I did not: goodness and grace abound.

You have probably encountered many times the idea that suffering ought to challenge, even erase, our belief in a good and loving God. From this perspective, we must think that people who continue to place their hope in such a God are people whose hearts have been untouched and unbroken by suffering.

When we get to know people of deep faith, however, we often find something remarkable. Not only are they profoundly awake to the suffering of others, often they are suffering themselves. It is not that their hearts are unbroken, but that their broken hearts remain attuned to a reality far bigger than their own life and a Love far greater than any they alone could hold.

We are living in a time of shrinking circles. And so it is a time that Christians must remember that we have committed to resisting the impulse to put “me and mine” at the center. Now, as always, we are called to live in such a way that we place at the center of our lives the loving God of all.

During this time of conflict and suffering, may our circles of concern only widen. I do not believe we will be met by the despair we fear in allowing our hearts to be moved and to break. I do believe that instead we will be met by the God whose circle of compassion always has been and always will be magnificently more expansive than our own.

Friends, look up.

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