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Compassion: Gentle Rain from a Cloudless Sky

  • Sharon McMahon Moffitt
  • Published Dec 09, 2002
Compassion: Gentle Rain from a Cloudless Sky

Author Sharon McMahon Moffitt uses the Beatitudes at a springboard to reflect on what it means to live the Christian life in her book, The Blessed: A Sinner Reflects on Living the Christian Life. Following is a short excerpt:

It all began last summer when we called a landscape artist to estimate what it would cost to save our lawn, which, due to our neglect and the handiwork of some sort of insect, looked like a vacant slum lot. After surveying the damage, he turned to my husband and said the lawn could not possibly be saved. For somewhere between one and two thousand dollars, he continued, he would bring his crew in to strip everything bare and reseed the area, as long as we understood there were no guarantees of success unless we did our part. I didn’t say it, but I wondered why we had to have a part if we were going to pay him two grand.

Goaded by shame for my neglect, coupled with a hefty dose of Irish pride, I decided he was mistaken and began a campaign to restore the lawn and garden. For the remainder of the summer I labored, mostly with a small hand tool, to loosen and aerate the soil under and around patches of still-living grass, strip up yards of dead sod, and finally reseed and water. In late August, I escorted my husband outside to witness the fruits of my labor. "We’re not there yet, but it’s coming back," I announced, "and I will succeed."

The blessed rains of fall and winter saturated the thirsty soil, and in March, I learned about Tagro. My friend Carla attended the annual home and garden show at the Tacoma Dome and called to tell me I could have all the free Tagro I could haul away from the waste treatment plant out on Portland Avenue. It took a bit of cajoling to get my son Michael’s assistance. The idea of loading his truck with fertilizer made up largely of stuff filtered out of the city’s sewage system, including what he chose to call human fecal matter, did not appeal to him at first. I told him to pretend it was steer manure, but being the suburban boy that he is, that didn’t serve him the same way it did the latent farm girl in me. To tell the truth, it didn’t serve me all that well either, but I was determined to save that lawn, and a truckload of free fertilizer was nothing to turn your nose up at. So we tossed shovels into the truckbed, donned grubby clothes and surgical masks, which would prove to be absolutely useless, and were off.

Spending time with Michael is almost always a blessing. He’s smart and fun and funny, finding humor in virtually every circumstance. After graduating from Southern Methodist University, where he studied acting at the Meadows School of the Arts, he decided to come home for a time to reflect, save up a bit of money, and lay plans for his future. When he left for college, neither his father nor I ever expected to get him back for more than a holiday, so we were thrilled to welcome him home, knowing it wouldn’t be long before he’d be off on his next adventure, which, as it turned out, was a year in Belfast on a mission team working with the city’s youth in a movement toward peace and reconciliation there.

But on this day in March, he was all mine, and we were on our way to load up his truck with the miracle product that would put us, once again, in good favor with our neighbors -- at least the ones who lived upwind. As we came upon the Portland Avenue exit ramp, we filled the truck cab with pained laughter over our weak attempts at puerile puns. There is seldom a lingering silence in any space occupied by the two of us, though for some reason we grew quiet as we pulled up to the light at the bottom of the off-ramp, where I saw a woman sitting on a box holding a piece of tattered cardboard. On it was scrawled "Homeless Woman Needs Food for Family." She sat under a billboard advertising the Emerald Queen, a floating casino docked in Commencement Bay.

Homeless people are not an uncommon sight in Tacoma, and though I have tried to ignore my fair share of them in my rush to get here or there, they are never invisible to me. Like so many middle-class Americans, I am flooded with ambivalence whenever I see one of them at the side of the road. Part of me wants to help, and part of me wants them to put down their signs and go get jobs washing dishes or scrubbing floors — any form of honest labor. I usually resolve the problem by averting my eyes till the light changes and gunning past them as quickly as I can, although I have been known to hand off a five-dollar bill from time to time, despite cynical admonitions about how they’ll probably just go buy wine or cigarettes with my hard-earned cash. One year I drove around with a bag of canned goods in my back seat so I could hand out food, but usually I just hightail it and ask God to forgive me.

For some reason, probably because Mike was driving and we were held up at the light, I looked long at this woman, whom I decided was probably a Puyallup Indian — a small stout woman, her straight black hair pulled back and held with rubber bands. She wore a tattered parka and worn out Nikes. Suddenly, I realized I had made the fatal mistake of actually seeing her, and as we pulled away from the light, I asked Mike if he had been aware of her, though I was certain he had.

More than once while he was away at college, I had gasped in disbelief to learn that Mike had given aid to some stranger or another, and though I loved him for responding to this compunction to reach out to people in need, I was always terrified he would reach out to someone with evil intentions and I would never see or hear from him again. Of course, he said, he had noticed this woman, and he readily agreed when I suggested that we stop on our way back to the highway later and buy a bag of groceries to give to her. I’m not sure why I was inclined to reach out to this particular person more than some of the others I had seen holding similar signs. Was it something in her bearing, her posture, or was it, I wondered, because she was a woman and I was experiencing empathy? It occurred to me that some of the homeless men I had seen on the roadside frightened me, that I harbored a sort of chronic mistrust of men who couldn’t hold down a job.
Strange how we discover our prejudices in unexpected circumstances....

Excerpted from The Blessed: A Sinner Reflects on Living the Christian Life, (c) 2002, Sharon D. Moffitt, Zondervan Publishing, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 49530. For more information, visit www.zondervan.com

 Click here to read an interview with the author.