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Beware Lest the Cock Crows for You

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Posted: 7/21/15 at 11:38am. Column by Reggie Warren.

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.

Sadly, cynicism is not uncommon among many in the helping vocations or volunteers. I hope my efforts to help others are not motivated by my hopes of receiving substantial appreciation or accolades, but just once in a while, it would be nice.

Not long ago, I was approached by a young man outside a local McDonalds. 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 be happy to buy him a meal. I invited him to join me in the McDonalds where I would buy him all he could eat. He said, “I don’t like McDonalds,” so I told him that I wished him luck in finding his food and smokes.  I felt a little guilty, but not so much so that I changed my mind.

I do think that many of us may have misread Jesus’ instructions to his disciples to be “as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16a). It seems to me that one group of America’s religious and political folks 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 coming 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 wanted to help folks in need, I was hesitant to let strangers in the house 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 occasionally had to purchase new fuel containers.

I internally rolled my eyes and whispered a silent “goodbye” to my half-filled container and its contents.

At one point, there had been a string of unreturned containers and the doorbell rang in the middle of the night just before Easter. Responding to the request, I got the fuel and container, again asking that he return the container to the porch once he got on his way. 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, I had the audacity to remove the container’s cap and sniff its contents to make sure it wasn’t water.  It wasn’t.

With the 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.

Dr. Reggie Warren is the pastor of Union Hill Baptist Church outside Brookneal, VA.