It was 1974. I was waiting for my A-level results and did a stint as a temporary teacher for a few months. They assigned me to the toughest standard/primary three class. One day, we had a meet-the-parents session. There was a student doing very poorly in class. His dad came and I recognised him. He was one of the foremost Shaolin kung fu exponents in Penang. I had seen him do his thing in various martial arts demonstrations. I am sure he could have killed me with one punch if he wanted to.
When it was his turn, he sat down across from me and, in tears, pleaded with me to help his son do better in school. I was shocked and felt completely helpless. There were so many things that had to happen to give his child a fighting chance. And I was only teaching the class for two months. I mumbled something about trying my best. But the encounter traumatised me. I remember it clearly to this day. I cared for my class. I cared for this boy. And I realised there was little I could do for him. I champion the cause of bringing Christ into our work. I have stopped romanticising it for a long time now. Bringing Christ into our work will open us up to pain.
There was once I had to conduct a funeral for a two-year-old child. The child was to be buried in the Cheras (KL) Christian cemetery. I was ok till they lowered the small white coffin into the ground. I lost it at that point. I cried uncontrollably. The child’s parents had to comfort me. The thought of this young life taken so early and the loss the parents suffered just overwhelmed me. To care is to open ourselves to pain.
I think of my friends in Malaysia fighting for justice for the weak and the voiceless in society. I think of my friends throughout the world who are fighting for the last, the least and the lost. I think of the crosses they carry. How do they carry on? Often they face the two extremes of compassion fatigue and the choice to stop caring. How do we keep on caring in the face of constant pain?
Good theology helps; a robust eschatology that assures us that in the final chapter of life there will be justice, love, and life. I really wish we preached on Revelation chapters 20, 21 and 22 more often. Whatever pain and disappointment we suffer in this life as we seek to follow Christ is, finally, transient. When God’s kingdom comes in its fullness it will be complete and eternal. So we press on undeterred till that day though there will be days when we cry out “How long O Lord?”.
I also think that there are things we can do as we journey on the road of caring. Three things come to mind. First, we must take our work-sabbath rhythm seriously. One day in seven we are to down tools and cease from our work to rest and to worship. Fatigue opens us to all sorts of emotional and spiritual damage. The observance of a sabbath rhythm is also a crucial practice to fight against the idolatry of work. The irony is that the more important our work and the more that we care, the more likely we are to worship our work. We do what we do for the Lord and we end up making the work itself, lord.
Next, we need to intentionally nurture our faith. There is nothing new here. The simple spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible reading, journalling, retreats, etc. open up space in our hearts for life-giving encounters with the Lord. Again, the irony is that those who are most serious in their service of the Lord are the ones too busy and tired to spend time with Him. Soon they become spiritually hollow, vulnerable to all sorts of temptations and/or burnout. Discipleship is a long-distance race and we need to do what is necessary to end well.
Third, we must follow Christ in the company of friends. There are numerous reports about the destructive effects of loneliness. All these reports only confirm God’s comment in Genesis 2:18 that it is not good for us to be alone. And Ecclesiastes 4:9 reinforces this truth by reminding us that two are better than one. Ironically, the most committed servants of the Lord are often the loneliest. Because they are so committed to their work, they don’t have the time or the energy to nurture meaningful relationships. Loneliness, like fatigue, will open the door for all sorts of serious physical, emotional, and spiritual damage.
The need for God’s people to be salt and light in the world has never been greater. There is a supernatural joy in living lives of obedience and service. But to care is to open ourselves to pain. The earlier we recognise this the earlier we will take the steps we need to last the distance.