I went to church last night for the first time in a few weeks and was introduced to Pastor Cole NeSmith’s definition of brave compassion. During service, NeSmith outlined this concept as what can be described as a major inconvenience that holds the power to be transformational within our lives and the communities we serve, if chosen into.
According to his notes, brave compassion is a willingness to enter the stories and brokenness of others with the intention to connect authentically with God and those He has placed within our social networks and our communities. In order for brave compassion to be demonstrated in pure service of the other, it has to withhold any agenda.
NeSmith plainly presented the costs embracing this concept requires and they are not few. Stepping into other people’s stories disturbs one’s emotions, comforts, encroaches on boundaries, diminishes energy, and pulls from one’s reserves emotionally or otherwise. Anyone who has sat at Thanksgiving dinner with their extended family in recent years might attest.
Yet, the alternative to brave compassion is one of atrophy. NeSmith identified this choice as one that sweeps conflict under the rug, permits infighting, and maintains the status quo, denying connection or light to exist in the very places that pain and constrain.
My own acquaintance with this path stirs up regret I have towards an event several years ago when my youth was more closely mirrored by my foolishness than it is now. A few friends made choices that could summarily be defined as messy. Instead of meeting them with the love they had grown to know within our relationship, I met them with judgement because I was scared. I was scared by what their actions meant in the context of my own relationships with them as individuals which was selfish, I resented the lack of control over my life (which their actions highlighted) and instead of responding to the situation with a modicum of compassion, I was scathing.
A lot of context within the Christian community lends itself to the idea of compassion until we are scared.
We see this at a macro-level when the LGBTQ+ community is consistently left out of conversations regarding their own agency and acceptance within church community. We see it when the topic of refugees and immigrants is brought up among American Evangelicals. And the Church experiences this gap between what we profess and the compassion we actively withhold at a micro-level among relationships that fester and rot.
I find that when I am most disappointed in a relationship or in the behavior of another person that I regard as a brother or sister, I am met by the tremendous challenge of swallowing my resentment, my pride, my victimhood, and removing the self-serving barriers that keep me justified in my upset.
Brave compassion challenges us to forego every form of hostility, from subtle pricks of pettiness to greater injury, and professing Christ means accepting the responsibility of loving others in the face of their mistakes, as well as our own. If brave compassion is to work as it is designed, we have to hold ourselves accountable to growth, relinquishing our personal brand of hot mess by pursuing health and transparency, while (and this is the kicker) remaining committed to the hope for such in others. None of this is easy, but it’s especially difficult when the harm is measurable. So, where do we begin?
Maya Angelou is quoted to have said that the very essence of being human is understanding “I am capable of what every other human is capable of. This is one of the great lessons of war and life.” I’ve lived enough stories to know such is true. We are capable of healing and we are capable of burning. We are capable of loving and we are capable of murder in our hearts when we allow them to become homes for hate. Brave compassion requires us to belong to one another, accountability allows us to do so faithfully.
At a time when I was walking through quite a bit of confusion in my life, I had an olive branch tattooed on my arm to remind me that grace and growth are always worth surrendering to. It also served to cover a shittier tattoo which you can still see the outline of underneath. I had the first one done in haste and the result was never what I imagined conceptually. Isn’t life that way? We go in expecting one thing and years later, it still hasn’t matched the picture we drew in our imaginations. It’s become a useful metaphor to remember that when things are ugly, we have everything we need to write a new story. The process hurts, time will slow, we bleed but when we demonstrate brave compassion to ourselves and others, we are left with hope extended.