Writing about how I have intentionally sought to integrate contemplation, compassion, and the struggle for justice into my life is rather daunting. I feel a little like Gandhi must have felt when a troubled mother brought her daughter to see him about her addiction to sweets. He supposedly asked the mother to come back in three weeks. She did so. This time the spiritual master took the young girl aside and explained to her in a few simple words the harmful effects of eating too many sweets. Thanking Gandhi for giving her daughter such good advice, the mother asked him, “Still I would like to know why you did not say those words to my daughter three weeks ago when I first brought her to you?” He explained, “Three weeks ago I was still addicted to eating sweet foods myself!”I first came across this illustration in Donald Nicholl, Holiness (London: DLT, 1981), 3.
Even though I have been a Christ-follower for over four decades, my struggle to integrate the personal and social dimensions of discipleship continues. There are several reasons for this. To begin with, I live within a social context of immense suffering and injustice in the Republic of South Africa. Even though, as a nation, we have witnessed the birth of democracy, human misery abounds. The tragic gap between the haves and have-nots remains one of the widest in the world. Corruption and violent crime permeate all levels of society. Rape statistics involving women and children reveal a country that is in danger of losing its soul. Within this context I am constantly searching for ways in which my life can contribute towards the common good. Often I feel quite overwhelmed by the challenges that lie all around.
01. The Gift of Ongoing Transformation
I also write tentatively about this subject for personal reasons. The struggle to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God is not just an external one that happens only “out there” on the streets. It also takes place in the human heart and within closest relationships. Here lies the rub for me. There continue to be deep levels within me that resist letting God be the God of compassion and justice in and through me. Furthermore, those closest to me do not always find me compassionate and loving. Sometimes I sabotage my dearest relationships with ingrained selfish behaviors. My journey towards becoming a genuinely caring and compassionate man seems to have a long way to go.
Thankfully the conversion of our lives continues over time. When we turn toward Christ and entrust ourselves to him, he comes to live within us in the power of his Spirit. As we remain open and yielded to the Spirit, especially in our moments of stillness and the silence, the ongoing process of inner change takes place slowly. Through Christ’s loving power we are gradually transformed into our true selves, fashioned into instruments of compassionate justice, and nourished in our relationship with God. Transformation is always an inside, unfolding work of the Spirit. Paul makes this beautifully clear when he writes: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18, NRSV).Scripture quotations marked (NRSVUE) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition, copyright © 1989, 2021 The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Yet this liberating insight does not mean that there is nothing we can do to become a more loving, compassionate and just person. Transformation does not just happen. There are some things we can and must do. Our relationship with God requires our determined and planned cooperation. The author to the Hebrews stresses this human side of our conversion when he encourages his readers to “make every effort . . . to be holy” (Heb. 12:14, NIV).Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Used by permission.
But what are we to do if we want to intentionally integrate contemplation, compassion and justice within our lives? Let me suggest one overlooked and neglected activity that makes greater space for God’s transforming Spirit. We learn this from the life of Jesus in the Gospels: to expose our lives intentionally to those who suffer. Jesus did this and promises to meet us in his crucified and risen presence wherever people are in need: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matt. 25:40, NIV).
02. The Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope
I can remember the exact moment the idea of a Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope came to me. I was driving home from Soweto with three overseas friends in August 1982. For almost three hours we had listened to the life stories of ordinary men and women who lived amidst crushing injustice and oppression. As I steered my car back to the suburb where I pastored a largely middle-class congregation, their words and faces kept coming to my mind. Suddenly a thought came to me with surprising forcefulness and clarity: Take members of your congregation with you to where their brothers and sisters are suffering.
So the concept of the Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope was born.I have written more about the ”Pilgrimage of Pain & Hope” in A Mile in My Shoes (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 2005). Throughout the traumatized 1980s and early 1990s of apartheid in South Africa, these pilgrimages acted as a vital part of our congregational life. Over one hundred young and not-so-young adults participated. The eight-day event became an instrument of lasting personal transformation, for these pilgrims experienced profound changes in attitude and outlook. Repeatedly their lives bore clear evidence of a deepening commitment to the Way of Christ. Some of us were led into a deeper participation for a more just and compassionate society.
These pilgrimages had three essential ingredients: Encounter, Reflection, and Transformation. I suggest that if we build these ingredients into our intentional encounters with those who suffer, we will begin the challenging journey of integrating our relationship with God with the human struggles for justice and dignity taking place all around us. They help make holy our interactions with our suffering neighbors where we are.