September 14, 2013

The Rev. Patricia M. Grace: The tender compassion of God

“In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” — Luke 1:78-79

Antoinette Tuff. I can’t get her out of my mind. She’s the clerk/bookkeeper who managed to “talk down” Michael Brandon Hill, a 20-year old would-be gunman, when he walked into her elementary school in Decatur with a loaded AK-47 several weeks ago.

Although she was terrified, she kept her cool. What’s even more amazing, she maintained her compassion. She listened kindly to this troubled young man and let him know she understood his pain and suffering. By doing so, she averted a tragedy that could have affected as many as 800 kids under the age of fifth grade.

I can’t get her out of my mind. Antoinette was not supposed to be at work that day; an unexpected shift change placed her in the front office that morning. She’s convinced that God put her there and that God was responsible for her success in encouraging Michael to lay his weapon and his burdens down. “I’m no hero,” she claims. “I give it all to God.”  

Compassion for this man was her first response. That he is young and she is not did not matter to her. That he is white and she is black was of no consequence. Somehow, Antoinette was able to see past his threatening countenance to the distressed and vulnerable child of God in front of her. Empathy saved his life and the lives of countless others.

Antoinette was able to remember, in the intense heat of an absolutely horrifying moment, that both of them were created in the image of God, created in fundamental goodness. Because of that, she could reach out to him as a sister and a friend, with the “tender compassion” of the God who created them both. Because of that, she found for them both a pathway to peace.  

Being compassionate did not come just naturally to Antoinette. I believe she was schooled in that way of life by virtue of her Christian faith. You can just see it, listening and looking at her. She knows Jesus, deeply, down to her very soul.

Through faithfulness to that relationship, she has developed in herself his same habit of compassion: the ability to suffer with someone, to take someone else at face value and to heart. And so, the life-changing resources of listening, loving and calm serenity were right there, ready for the taking and the using.  

I can’t get her out of my mind. But what I really want is to have her spirit within me, within all of us. What I want is for all of us to be so immersed in the love of God whom we know in the person of Jesus Christ that reaching out with mercy and holy friendship is always our first response.

“In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

The Rev. Patricia Grace is the rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Dalton. Her column runs on the second Saturday of the month.

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