I’ve never been to Fort McMurray. Some of my relatives have lived there and worked there, but I’ve never seen the place. I’ve heard lots of stories. Do you see the shovel on this machine? Well, in Fort McMurray you could drive a city bus onto the shovel of some of those giant earth-movers. EVERYTHING was bigger – and usually better – in Fort Mac. The myth – not always the reality – was of a land of golden opportunity and huge trucks and six-foot flat screen TVs and drinking and gambling and appetites. A bust and boom, fortunes-won and fortunes-lost place. Our own version of Texas. And now so much of it is gone. Burnt out vehicles, homes turned to cinders. Playgrounds that look like bomb sites. There’s no question it’s a disaster. All those families who only had time to load up the car and run, all those brave emergency workers. But what’s ALSO telling, at least for me, is the reaction of the rest of us. I’m ashamed to say it took me, for one, a little while to develop my empathy. Maybe that’s in part because I hadn’t really realized the scope of the disaster. But it’s also more. It was, quite wrongly, a holdover reaction to Fort McMurray the BOOM town. Is it right to feel that? Not for a second. What does such a reaction tell us about the Gospel and about ourselves? What it tells us is we don’t yet understand how love is supposed to work. Luther once said that we need to hear the Gospel every day. Why? Because, he said, we FORGET the gospel every day.
The problem is not Fort McMurray the boom town. Just like the problem is not the nature of the Syrian refugees or the North African boat people. Compassion is not out there somewhere, dependent on whatever biases we have about the recipients of our kindnesses and whatever fads of the day motivate us. Compassion is supposed to be HERE, in US, unmoveable and constant. For the people of Jesus it’s supposed to be the one defining characteristic. They will know you by your love, said Jesus. Which also means, I guess, that without love they will NOT know Christians, nor whom Christians serve. In this latest disaster, the followers of the crucified one are challenged, again, as always happens, to reach out in care and compassion. They need us. But the truth is that WE also need THEM, and also need, again and again, to remember ourselves: to be our best, the ones we were created to be, reaching out and helping, doing our part and more, in love.