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FAITHFUL LIVING: Do not discriminate when showing compassion

“Looks a lot like ‘That 70s Show!’ “ my teenagers commented this week as they thumbed through volume 16 of the “Conquisador,” my treasured high school yearbook. They pointed out our polyester bell-bottomed pants and the way we parted our long, straight hair in the middle, the enormous collars on the guys‚ shirts and the girls’ platform shoes. When I mentioned that I wore shoes made by Candies — an extremely popular shoemaker at the time- — they exhibited that great look of teen amazement. That very same shoemaker is still around, making fashionable shoes for young women in their teens and 20s that commonly feature sandals with wooden soles.

Some things never change.

It is during the first couple of weeks each May when I get a sudden urge to peruse the pages of my high school yearbook and look back on my eventful senior year. Prompted by graduation merchandise featured in stores and the eagerness of graduating seniors to see their own yearbook, I anticipate watching seniors hunch over their yearbooks, writing with intensity as they look back on their final high school year.

And while even I can giggle about our dorky looking clothes, I must at some point take my book and head to a quiet corner to read the messages.

“I never want to end our talks about growing up and all,” a dear friend wrote in the back on my yearbook, on a page I reserved just for him. As I gaze at his senior portrait and read over his message to me, I recall the shared adventures that taught me about true friendship. While we never once dated, we studied together on a regular basis and palled around together. We drank straight shots of espresso when it was not yet popular, dissected the lyrics of Joan Baez, and learned that trust brings out the best in people.

And it is with no small amount of tears and deep sadness that I now, 25 years later, mourn the death of this precious man, whose life was cut way too short by AIDS.

It has been 22 years since American researchers first identified the disease. The impact on most all of us, both personally and as members of a global community, is astounding. Since the epidemic began, more than 60 million people have been infected with the virus. HIV/AIDS is now the leading cause of death in sub-Saharan Africa. Worldwide, it is the fourth biggest killer.

It is estimated that 40 million people are living with HIV worldwide. In many parts of the developing world, the majority of new infections occur in young adults, with young women especially vulnerable. About one-third of those currently living with HIV/AIDS are ages 15 to 24. Most of them do not know they carry the virus. Many millions more know nothing or too little about HIV to protect themselves against it.

The face of AIDS has changed for me. It is no longer a big city disease or the other guy’s disease. It has preempted the lives of people who made my childhood wonderful.

I wish I could have told my friend how much I treasure the respectful way he approached our friendship. I wish I could have offered my adult compassion for his situation. But he died before I learned he had AIDS.

So it is out of respect for his memory and the people who live with AIDS, who work and worship beside us here in Western Washington, that I re-examine my perspective on compassion this week.

The concordance of my Bible lists 75 references that involve compassion. One of my favorites is found in Mark 1:40 where it says that when Christ came upon a man with a skin disease, he touched him and healed him because he was filled with compassion. Christ’s compassion for this leper at this time in human history was quite revolutionary and certainly unqualified. Regardless of this man’s deformity, he was no less valuable to God and was given equal access.

"For as long as I live in this world, I want to say, ‘Thank you!’,” my dear friend says at the close of his letter, penned on the inside cover of my 1977 yearbook. They are his final words to me and will serve as a constant reminder as I measure my personal, compassionate responses to people around me.

Is my compassion ever flowing because God’s love ever flows to me? Do my words and actions reflect a compassionate heart?

I truly hope so.

Joan Bay Klope is a freelance writer and a former editor of Christian books. Contact her at jbklope@hotmail.com

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