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Helping Others Must Balance Wisdom, Compassion

I only heard the phrase “compassion fatigue” a few years ago, but I knew what it meant even before I heard it defined.
I know I am not as good a Christian as some, but fairly often, I feel burned by someone I am trying to help in some material way.

Sadly, a measure of cynicism is not uncommon among many in the helping vocations or among those who help as volunteers, at least, the ones that I know.

I hope my efforts to help others are not motivated by my hopes to get any substantial appreciation or accolades, but just once in a while …

Not long ago, I was approached by a young man outside a local McDonald’s located among a strip of eateries. Although it was only mid-morning and he reeked of alcohol, he asked me if I could spare money for a meal and a pack of cigarettes.

Rightly or wrongly, I told him I would do both and to join me in the McDonald’s where I would buy him all he could eat and the cigarettes would follow.

He said, “I don’t like McDonald’s,” so I told him that I wished him luck in finding his food and smokes.

I think many of us may have misread Jesus’ instructions to his disciples to be “as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves” as he sent them out on an early missionary journey (Matthew 10:16).

It seems to me that one group in America’s body politic embodies the wisdom of serpents and the other group embodies the innocence of doves.

The wisdom of serpents alone can be heartless and shameless. The innocence of doves alone can be spineless and brainless.

With 2,000 years of a tradition of Christians trying to find the narrow way of combining wisdom and innocence behind me, I still struggle in trying to find that narrow way.

Embarrassed, I share an experience of some years ago along with a bit of background.

For 17 years, I served an open country church in Virginia and lived in a church parsonage some distance from the church building.

That home was situated on a fairly uninhabited road between the local town and a poorer community a few miles down the way.

Everyone in the area knew where the pastor lived, and it was common for those who ran out of gasoline or who had automobile breakdowns to stop and ask for a bit of fuel or to use a telephone. The ringing of the doorbell was subject to come at any hour.

I was grateful that portable telephones had been invented. I certainly didn’t mind the wayfarers using the telephone.

However, while I don’t place a lot of stock in the value of my own life, with my wife and four innocents in the house, I was hesitant to let strangers inside on my family’s account.

The issue of compassion fatigue came with the regular request for fuel.

I normally didn’t go out at night with complete strangers to put fuel in their vehicles.

Rather, I would just hand them the fuel and container I kept for the lawnmower in the garage, asking them to simply return the empty container to my front porch when they were through with it.

They would all promise to do so, but I regularly had to purchase new fuel containers. At one point, there had been a string of unreturned containers when the doorbell rang in the middle of a Saturday night just before Easter.

Responding to the unfortunate’s request, I got the fuel and container, again asking that he return the container to the porch once he got his automobile started.

Gushing in appreciation, he assured me that he would return the container later that night and that it would be filled with gasoline. I internally rolled my eyes and whispered a silent goodbye to my half-filled container and its contents.

When I arose the next morning, I stepped out to get the newspaper and to drink in the early signs of spring. I had no expectation of seeing my container, and yet, there it was. I was surprised and a little ashamed at my cynicism.

I reached for the presumably empty container, and was doubly shocked that it was filled. Ouch! The filled container meant my prejudice had been challenged twice by someone I had never seen and would probably never see again.

Still unconvinced that my good fortune could be that good, I had the naked and suspicious audacity to remove the container’s cap and sniff its contents to make sure it wasn’t water. It wasn’t.

With the uneasy mixed feelings of relief, gratefulness and shame, I heard the telltale sound of a rooster crowing from my neighbor’s chicken yard. I didn’t go out and weep bitterly, but I probably should have.

Reggie Warren is interim pastor of Union Hill Baptist Church in Brookneal, Va., and is a former member of the board of directors of the Baptist Center for Ethics.