As part of a roundtable discussion group, I met with a dozen or so other ministry leaders on Wednesday to discuss a recent New York Times best-seller: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. It is a wonderful memoir of Vance’s upbringing in a dysfunctional extended family in Appalachia. At first, without going into the details, let me tell you that I resonated with the narrative Vance weaved around households riddled with abuse, addiction and hopelessness. It brought me back in time to my childhood and I immediately thought that I alone saw parallels between the author’s life and my own. It turns out that a degree of dysfunction is universal.
Few homes house perfect families. Parents argue – some quite loudly – and even use foul language. Drug and alcohol addiction cannot be restricted to particular regions of the United States. Serial divorce and remarriage is not limited to one social stratum. Nearly every family tree contains a branch (or several branches) that were established through unwed or teenage mothers. There are few families who have not been effected by mental illness, whether it is an immediate family member battling depression or a suicidal extended relation. To some degree, we all carry similar baggage, given to us in childhood and carried into adulthood.
In reading and reacting to this book, I realized that the homes in my neighborhood – as well as the pew in the churches in our community – are filled with people with baggage from their upbringing. As the saying goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know”; because almost no one shares all the challenges they are attempting to overcome, we rarely know the whole story. This requires us to treat one another with compassion, what the Greek bible writers call “splanchnizomai”. Those who have a medical education might be aware that the root ‘splanchno-’ relates to the visceral organs (the guts). So we, as human beings and as God’s people, ought to get a knot in our stomachs, an intestinal distress, as we interact with those navigating rough waters in a leaky rowboat.
Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Ephesians 4:31–32 (NIV)
Before we dismiss those who buy bottles of soda with food stamps as unfit, perhaps we ought to feel compassion for their situation, recognizing that milk and juice are often options too expensive for their budget and perhaps then offer to pick up a gallon of milk for them. Before we roll our eyes at the hopeless and jobless as we utter the words, “Get a job,” perhaps we ought to feel compassion for their situation, recognizing that education is not the same as intelligence and access to opportunity is not equally available to all classes and cultures and perhaps offer to share some social capital with those without any of their own. There are already enough people in the world willing to judge others; we could empathize instead and bring help and hope to those who need it.
We have the privilege of sharing – with those who feel unloved, those who title themselves worthless and those who have heard that they would never amount to anything – the fact that they are loved, they have worth and they can accomplish great things. We have the privilege to bring grace – unmerited favor – to those who know little more than heartache. We can share our struggles and listen to theirs, knowing that God cares for us and will comfort us in our times of need. We are all broken, at least a little. But praise God: He makes us whole.