Church · faith

the work of empathy

So very many things fall under the category of “until you walk a mile in those shoes” – including that. Empathy is hard. It’s hard work to think of others and feel the range of experience that others have felt. It’s challenging to be gracious and kind and sensitive. It’s heartbreaking and exhausting. And then when you need it from others, a light bulb goes off and you realize that any person who has ever showed you a kindness deserves so much more credit than you may have given. And those who have not been so kind need that much more grace to make up for it.

I recently was thinking of the character of Jean Grey in the X-men. She is an empath, meaning she can feel the thoughts of others and can use her brain to control things. Like Doctor Xavier, the X in X-men, empaths are extremely powerful for obvious reasons; if you can make someone else do something, well, why not? We witness Jean Grey’s power and her empathic abilities in the end of X-men 2 (spoilers I guess if you haven’t seen it… ) where she holds back raging waters from crushing the plane that holds all the kids and lifts the plane up into the air.

There’s an extreme pain in being an empath, too. Imagine feeling every emotion that someone else feels? Imagine hearing every thought of every person in every room you’re in. It would be mentally, physically exhausting, not to mention becoming an emotional basket case.

At the end of Jean Grey’s heroic act of saving the X-men from drowning, she finally gives in. She makes the ultimate sacrifice. She puts down her hands and she is overcome by the rushing river. It makes me think of the times when I just can’t take any more. I’ve tried so hard to understand the “other side.” I’ve put aside my self, gave a wide open welcome to thoughts that aren’t my own in order to understand more fully – maybe I missed something. Maybe I wasn’t listening well enough. Maybe I haven’t thought of a certain angle or viewpoint that changes everything.

It is exhausting. And that’s why we don’t do it.

I recently had the thought of Jesus walking on this earth. Jesus, as you know, is the ultimate empath. He’s like the original empath, the OE. He knew every heart and mind of all those around him. Good LORD that would be trying! And he IS a good LORD. He is caring for every lost lamb. He does seek out and save. He is binding the wounds. He is holding back raging waters that threaten to consume us.

And he takes up his cross. He feels the weight of the cross and not just the wooden posts. Not just the thorny crown. Not just the blood and sweat. He feels the weight of every heart. The raging emotions of humankind. The heat of anger and resentment. The crushing of sorrow and fear. The brick of despair and hopelessness. All while knowing he could stop it all. He could have put it all down. He could have been like This is hard work, yo. What up with that? I’m out.

We must be like Jesus. More of Jesus, Holy Spirit. More of grace IN suffering. More of peace IN chaos. More of kindness IN the face of resentment. More hope IN disaster.

Church! Take up your cross. Put down your swords and shields. Well, the ones we use against each other. Our enemy is not flesh and blood. It is not. No matter how you slice it, we are NOT fighting people. Not this time. We are fighting the sins of pride, arrogance, unkindness, haughty eyes. We are fighting a total lack of empathy. Sometimes we’re too busy fighting other people’s sins – insert something about planks and specks here.

I think the most pressing issue for my Christian sisters and brothers right now is not who gets into the Supreme Court. The most pressing issue is how you, and we corporately, are earning the right to speak into other people’s lives. From where I’m sitting we aren’t. We aren’t listening to people and we aren’t gathering people to us in order to be heard. In some ways, we’re putting carts before horses by sitting here being “righteously” angry and yelling at people from the sidelines that they’re doing everything wrong.

When people yell at the TV during a football game, you get a glimpse of how the American Church has largely failed to be the light and salt in this culture. Everyone’s an armchair QB. Everyone wants to be the expert. I’ve played flag football with hilarious results. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I do know it’s really a lot harder than it looks. And that’s just a silly example. It’s not rape. It’s not domestic abuse. it’s not gun control. It’s not freedom of speech. It’s not abortion. It’s not fill in the blank with your hot button issue.

It would be great if people could stop yelling and even just quietly thinking in their own heads what they’re going to say next. It would be great if people who have opinions about everything, would just drop even just one of those opinions and take up the other side. It’s like high school debate team. You can’t really know an argument – or win one for that matter – without knowing the other side of the argument too. You can’t win over a crowd if you can’t understand what they’re really after. Win the crowd. Win your freedom. Something like that.

It’s no wonder the gate is narrow. It’s no wonder Jesus said that weird thing about camels and needles. The hard work – of being kind AND truthful, angry AND not sinning, powerful AND gentle, reasonable AND persistent, wise as serpents AND innocent as doves – is the Gospel at work in us. His call is to LOVE. What good is it to love those who love you? What good is it to understand only those who think like you? what good is it to surround yourself with your tribe? What good is it to burn bridges to those you think most desperately need what you have? True believers who have tasted grace, who are enlightened, who cling to the word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit, must be the most GRACE-filled ones on the face of this planet. We MUST be better at caring for the wounded. We MUST not turn blind eyes and deaf ears to the cries of the lost. We have no choice, if we have taken up our crosses and are learning the selfless walk of life. It is our call to be empaths. It is our call to stand in the gap and make bridges. It is our hearts and minds and souls and bodies. Nothing less than all. You cannot follow Jesus any other way.

Come Holy Spirit, do your work. First in me. Amen.

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