Last year, I decided that I was going to read the Bible. The whole thing. I don’t know why. Just as I’ve decided that I am going to run a full marathon and teach myself a whole new language, over the last year or so I seem to have shunned the idea of small goals that were challenging but achievable.
Reading an excerpt from the Bible each day should have been the easiest of these goals, yet I’ve made far more progress toward my goal of running a full marathon despite starting 2012 in the worst shape of my life and learning a new language despite trying to do so several times before and failing miserably.
I own a copy of the Bible, as does pretty much anyone. I’ve read many portions of it before and of course have heard the stories again and again. Yet somehow I couldn’t maintain the discipline to stick to my reading schedule and often lost interest for lengthy periods of time before giving up altogether.
In January of this year I tried again. I lasted about a week. I tried several different reading plans and none were working for me. Thankfully, a dear friend stepped in with a sensible and almost too obvious strategy. Read one psalm, or half it it’s long, and a chapter of one of the Gospels each day. This approach allows me to take on small portions at a time, provides continuity in reading, and sets no target dates for finishing, which I had been doing previously. This is my new starting point.
Currently, other than the Psalms, I am working my way through Mark. This, I hope, will be the first of many reflections that I offer readers.
Five years ago, I began volunteering at the Scarborough Shelter of the Homes First Society and continue to do so now, having joined my parents who had been regular volunteers for some time. My duties were simple and still haven’t changed much. Help make the lasagna, mix the ingredients of the salad, wash fruits, help serve dinner, dish out dessert, and finally help clean up afterward.
For many different reasons, the people that I continue to serve on Sundays are thought by many to be a menace, lunatics who are potentially dangerous, unclean, and unwilling to make any contribution to society. When we were growing up, walking alongside our parents, we were pulled away or told not to talk to that filthy man or woman who was begging for change. They are thought by many to be a drain on society, persons of little or no value.
I’m generalizing, but I’m fairly confident that each of us can remember instances where we took a few steps back, got off a car on a subway train to move to another, or simply bowed our heads and pretended not to notice a clearly homeless and mentally ill individual in a public space.
Naturally, we fear for our own safety and I admit that I was nervous when I first began serving at the shelter and have at times found my safety compromised. Not being a medical professional or trained social worker social worker, I also still remain unsure of how to interact with those who might be mentally ill, afflicted with trauma, or on the losing end of a battle with substance abuse.
In the beginning, I saw the residents strictly through the prism of their homelessness and various afflictions. They had no names, no stories, and out of nervousness I barely looked up or spoke a single word to a single resident who walked past me in the serving line to collect the garlic bread I was serving.
I can remember the most frequent phrase that I heard that evening, however. It was “thank you.” It still took weeks before I was lifting my head fully and saying “you’re welcome” in a manner that was audible. Dessert is usually not shared at the serving counter, but by one of the volunteers carrying the servings on a tray as dinner draws to a close and offering it to each diner. It would take even more time that it took me to say “you’re welcome” to ask “would you like chocolate or vanilla iced-cream?”
Yet more time would pass before I could learn the names of residents, hear their stories, and converse with them.
Shyness is something with which I’ve always struggled, and perhaps it contributes somewhat to my slow and ongoing journey toward comfort within my surroundings at the shelter. I know truthfully, however, that I was battling against my own prejudices, prejudices that I know are shared by many. Shared by those who see the most disadvantaged among us as pariahs with no redeeming qualities. Shared by those who find the mere presence of someone homeless or mentally ill discomforting.
Do I still battle this prejudice? Absolutely. I acknowledge the fact that while I am proud of and committed to the work I do at the shelter and my willingness to engage those different than I, I am not and will never be a Jesus or St. Francis-like saint who so easily communes with and shows compassion toward anyone.
I am a product of our modern world, and cannot give all that I have to those less fortunate. I’m hardly high on the scale of fortune myself as it is and I’m willing to admit that hypocrisy and self-centredness are inevitable and maybe even sometimes necessary components of the human condition.
Nonetheless, given that ours is a culture predicated on fear and suspicion, on a relentless desire to shut off reality for the sake of our own comfort, I still consider it something of a small miracle that I’ve been able to find a way to exercise true compassion.
Yes, I used the term miracle in describing my experience serving at the shelter. I say this because I believe the experience mirrors the miracles related in the early chapters of Mark.
I should make clear that I don’t believe in miracles, events that are the result of divine intervention or defy the laws of nature. In fact, along with the aforementioned difficulty in picking a reading strategy that worked, my constant frustration with what I felt to be far-fetched stories that I couldn’t possibly take to be truthful made these readings a chore. Taking these miracles not as literal truth, however, but as stories meant to communicate principles or lessons allowed them to resonate powerfully with me.
In the early chapters of Mark, the miracles that Jesus performs and the actions that precede are shocking in their simplicity. There is nothing grand or earth-shattering about them. Primarily, these chapters are a succession of stories of Jesus travelling and casting out demons or curing lepers one by one. The skeptic in me wanted to ask why he didn’t just cast out everyone’s demons and cure all cases of leprosy in one shot. If this was the case, however, I think an important teachable moment would be lost.
In each of his early miracles, Jesus defies the prevailing cultural notion, one that remains with us today, that the sick and the poor are to be feared and avoided. In simply approaching a leper in the temple who offers his withered hand, Jesus is doing something that would have appeared reckless and dangerous to those around him.
When the scribes are shocked that he keeps company with “publicans and sinners,” he replies with one of the most famous lines of the Gospels: “…they that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Mark, 2:17).”
I could easily be accused of reading my own political biases onto these stories, but I believe the principle behind these miracles was that we cannot foster real change, real justice, or real healing by remaining confined to our own comfort zones and avoiding those who have been deemed outcasts. If the welfare of others is truly our concern, then we must often risk our own safety in reaching out to them. To heal the sick or feed the hungry, you have to be among them. Healing can’t be done from a distance.
I believe that the reason these miracles are small in scope is to teach us that lifting up our brothers and sisters and in turn lifting up our community and society begins with small actions that bring to light the inherent worthiness and humanity of others.
This is what I, an atheist, learned from the first chapters of Mark. We’re not going to cure illnesses or injustice in one brush, but we have to begin by loving the downtrodden if we hope to get there one day. This love can be the miracle that each of us performs.