\ ˈem-pə-thē \

If you were to look up the word, empathy, in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, you’d find the following:

The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also :the capacity for this”

From time to time I make the mistake of going to comment sections of articles and posts that I happen to be reading.  It doesn’t take long for me to realize that I’ve made a mistake by doing it and yet I do it anyway.  Maybe there’s a part of me that hopes it has changed, that somehow since the last time I made this mistake that the world got a little better and more understanding.  Needless to say it didn’t go so well and was reminiscent of times past.

The one thing I could never quite understand is how people can lash out at others that they don’t even know, complete strangers going after one another because of opposing viewpoints but never making any effort to get to the heart of their own anger and why this is all coming up inside themselves. When I can’t be sensitive to another’s feelings, thoughts, and experience, I simply then project it all onto them, making them the embodiment of the demon that lies within myself, becoming enemies rather than seeking understanding of a person’s view; and that’s all it is, a view.  I’ve been the victim of it myself and I’m sure the projector at times in my life.  It’s a sign of just how unaware we are as a culture and society when we don’t take responsibility for our own baggage and prefer to share the wealth with others.

When it comes to pain and suffering we are often the worst.  We have to look tough, stoic, to others and the world.  It can explain a great deal of the opioid epidemic that has arisen in this country and our constant need to be medicated and numbed.  That pain has been taken advantage of by advertisers, politicians, and drug manufacturers alike, all of whom have benefited from our inability to deal with pain.  Dealing with our own pain, rather than numbing it, is the only answer to the epidemic but also our inability to empathize with others and to understand another person’s experience which is often different from my own.  Pain has a way of sucking us in and yet projecting outward, seemingly that we stand at the center of the world and carry the measuring stick of judgment of all life’s challenges, experiences, and pains, even if I’ve never actually experienced it myself, all in the name of defense of some one or some thing.

As a culture and society we have distanced ourselves from pain and suffering (the cross) so much that we no longer know how to handle it, embrace it, enter into it, feel it.  It’s as if we walk into the ICU of a dying patient or into a funeral home to mourn with a family and we become so uncomfortable that all we know how to do is make trite statements, hollow at best, because of the fear of going to where we hurt and in those very moments, to realize that that person is also me.  The pain of sitting with the uncomfortableness is too overwhelming in those moments that we have to do something with it.  We just can’t bring ourselves to do it and so we project it all outward, onto each other, onto the country, other countries, and to the world.  Heck, for that matter, there are plenty of examples of it in Scripture that, more often than not, we do it to God as well.  It has given us distorted images of each other and the Creator and there are examples of it everywhere, often including our own lives.  Again, if we’re willing to take a step back, become self-aware, and see what I too am doing to the other and this world.  There’s no wiping our hands entirely clean if we’re willing to take responsibility for our own undealt with pain.

It’s probably the easiest way to understand the gospels and Jesus’ own encounter with the Pharisees and other leaders of that time.  They had such venom towards him, mainly because he challenged their way of thinking and understanding of the other.  All they could do is try to divide and conquer, and in the end, they believe they won. They believe, in the short term, they have won the battle with Jesus once he is crucified, a projection of their own disdain for God and human life and the suffering one endures.  It was and is inevitable in the case of Jesus that hatred would appear to be his demise.  Hate, anger, unfinished hurt, always thinks short term in order to protect itself from deeper pain but always fails to see the big picture, avoiding it at all cost.

We see it in war, violence, resentment, hatred, bigotry, racism, disdain, blame, all rooted in this deep fear of our own pain, separating us from the other in isolating fashion.  Little do we know that when we make decisions and choices from such destructive tension, life becomes much more about survival that living life fully.  It’s as if we’re drowning in our own pain and all we can do is cling rather than to take the hand of someone who may look different, live differently, have a different experience of my own, simply because I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I may have been wrong.  When life is about winning and losing we, without a doubt, always lose even if it feels like a short-term win, protecting myself once more while gasping for air until the next attack, the next exposure of my short-coming, my imperfection, my shadow, my own pain that has taken hold of my life.

We have a lot to do in our society, a lot of work in dealing with the deep-seated pain that we continue to hold onto, clouding all our decisions and choices for the future, while at the same time blaming the future for all our problems.  We’re leaving that very future one hell of a mess to clean up if we soon don’t learn to stop, quiet ourselves, and sit in that ICU, sitting with the dying patient, and learn to die with them.  Pain and suffering has so much to teach us and is often the key to living a fuller life when we no longer dance around it but rather jump in, head first, rather than sharing it with the world.  In times when we retreat, isolate, and believe it’s about us first, we can only begin to understand such action when we’ve been there ourselves, wallowing in our own pain and suffering, feeling it’s the only way for us to survive.  I can empathize with that because I’ve been there myself.  It feels like it’s the only answer to the loneliness experienced when we suffer.  The capacity to empathize with the other, the nation, all suffering everywhere, the world, can only come when we’ve done our own work and continue to do our work in life, creating the necessary space in our lives for someone and something more than ourselves.  It’s the task at hand if we are to move forward for the way forward is through.

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More Than A Sibling Rivalry

Genesis 18: 1-10; Col 1: 24-28; Luke 10: 38-42

When we hear the story about Martha and Mary, knowing that it too has been beat to death over the years, we must be mindful of the fact that it immediately follows the story of the Good Samaritan that we heard last week. If we don’t, we have a tendency to otherwise project a lot of our own stuff on these two sisters and create a sibling rivalry which most likely was never the intention of the gospel writer Luke. That’s us and not necessarily them in this story we hear.

So the context of the story falls with the good samaritan. Be mindful of the priest and the levite in that story who cross the road when the guy is dying whom they can’t touch. It doesn’t make them bad people. They aren’t even necessarily wrong, according to the law. The same can be said about Martha. She’s not bad nor is she wrong. All of them have a particular role that they play that they have taken on as their entire identity. There’s a lack of authenticity to them because they don’t know themselves deeper than their role in society. The priest and levite had a role that prevented them from seeing the human being on the side or the road and even Martha, a woman who’s responsibility at that time is to be hospitable to the guest, Jesus, can’t see beyond it as she watches her sister Mary sit at the feet of Jesus. None of them are bad. They just can’t see beyond it. They can’t necessarily see people as people.

It is the consistent problem we have as human beings. It’s one of the consistent problems we have in our city, country, and world. We see what we want to see, hear what we want to hear, and claim to love who we want to love. We see color. We see sexuality. We see authority figures. We see all these things but not the person behind it all. All of this is what Jesus is trying to break through and lead to conversion in people’s lives. It truly is the suffering that Paul speaks of in today’s second reading and maybe the hardest thing we go through as human beings when we’re called to let go of all our roles and sit naked at the feet of Jesus and still loved. It’s the story of the good Samaritan! It has nothing to do with being a Samaritan and nothing to do with the role that Martha is upset about. And why? Because she’s looking for something more in life as well. Deep down she’s got to know that there’s more to her as well.

Then there’s Abraham and Sarah in the first reading today from Genesis. What happens when the visitors come in sight of Abraham? He immediate falls into his role as host. He goes in and makes sure Sarah does the same. There’s work to be done. But all along these visitors weren’t there for a cooked meal or anything else. They were messengers from God. They were here to deliver the news that Abraham and Sarah had waited years to hear. But in that moment, they weren’t ready. They were caught up in their appropriate roles and it isn’t until they begin to let their guard down on caring for the visitors that they could hear the news of the annunciation of their son Isaac.

When we begin to believe that all we are is the role we have been chosen for and can’t see life beyond it, and for that matter, other people for who they are, we will begin to find ourselves crossing the street and getting all worked up like Martha in today’s gospel. Yet, we often choose to live our lives this way and fail, over and over again, to see people as people. Heck, for that matter, to even see ourselves in that way. The world doesn’t need more people in roles and believing all that.That’s the suffering Paul speaks of even likens it to labor pains later in this reading because it’s so hard to let it go and see beyond it all.  The world, this city and country, needs people who see people and can empathize with them. That’s the Mary part of ourselves and the good Samaritan part of ourselves. But that requires us to make space in our lives for the Lord and to sit at his feet so that he may transform our hearts, our eyes, and our ears to be like him.

We have a tendency to react to everything and reacting often comes from the roles we have played and our learned response, like Abraham, rather than seeing it as an invitation to go deeper in our own lives and to see people as people. It’s what the world needs more than anything in the face of so much violence, hatred, judgment, and all the rest. We pray today, that like Mary, we may find the time to sit at the feet of Jesus and be moved by his voice leading us to deeper places within that gives us life to hear and see as Jesus, to emphasize as Jesus, but most especially, to love as Jesus loved and continues to love us. It makes us more authentic and allows us to meet people where they are at and to love them as brother and sister.

Crucify Him!

Our reference point today, as we begin this holy week, is “the crowd”. “Let him be crucified” the crowd yells; the same crowd that yelled “Hosanna” as he entered Jerusalem. Yet, why is it even in our own lives that we encounter something, or for that matter, someone, that we don’t like, our immediate reaction is to destroy and tear them down? So often when we have such encounters when we feel anxious, afraid, being challenged, unsettled, threatened in some way, we react in such a way that destroys, crucifies as is the case with Jesus. Yet, it’s what we hear in this passion reading today. All of this stuff that the crowd, the religious leaders, the political leaders, and all that have gathered is then projected onto this guy Jesus, nailed to a cross, and crucified, quite honestly, for nothing he had said or done. But he doesn’t run from it and hide from the suffering that is being cast upon him, rather he walks through it. He walks through the leaders gathered, not reacting to their violence, “for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” He walks through the crowd gathered as they abuse and jeer, humiliate. He even walks through the disciples that have gathered and dispersed, out of their own fear and feeling threatened. He walks through knowing it’s the only way. When he tells the disciples early on, “follow me,” he meant even to this point. As we enter into this holy week celebration, where am I quick to crucify? Where do I react to people and things I don’t like, that challenge me, when I feel anxious and threatened inside, and very quick to nail them to the cross? What seems like utter humiliation and violence, and it is in it’s own way, God shows it’s a point of transformation. When I find myself ready to crucify others this week because of my own stuff within, see it for what it really is, a reference point of transformation…that what we nail to that cross this day and throughout this week can and will be transformed into the life that Easter promises.