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Related Bible reading(s): 1 Thessalonians 2.1-8; Matthew 22.34-46

PostScript: Called to radical empathy

 The power of connected, sacrificial and life changing love (1 Thessalonians 2.5).

 

Context

There is a fundamental disconnection at the heart of things, and the impact of this disconnection is all around us.

Systems and structures reflect this disconnection. Covid-19 has exposed the outsourcing of some of the most basic responsibilities of caring and the systematic underfunding of public services that are now dictated by free-market enterprise, rather than values centred on people.

In a divided political landscape globally, Jacinda Ardern won a landslide re-election in New Zealand. While leaders flounder and flannel elsewhere, what are the defining characteristics of her leadership? Recently, she has commented that ‘In the quest to be seen as strong, leaders can lose the capacity for kindness and empathy.' What lessons can we learn about honesty, authenticity and vulnerability?

 

Reflection

It is into this context of a world where we are sometimes overwhelmed by our worries, and where our compassion often fails, that Paul’s words to the Thessalonians about a depth of connection speak with urgency and power. It is in this context that the reminder to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ resonates. However, it is easy for us to miss the structural nature of these words.

They are a call to radical empathy – and it is sacrificial in nature. It requires giving of ourselves because we recognise the pain of others as if it were our own, and understanding that the consequences of feeling this pain urges us to act. Radical empathy asks us to challenge the situations, structures and contexts that contribute to injustice and cause pain to others. Radical empathy ensures that lessons are learned, that the conditions that gave rise to the pain are removed and divisions healed. Radical empathy ensures that the effects of pain can be addressed because the resources, expertise and commitment are there, embedded deep within the fabric of society, prioritised funded and resourced.

Rishi Sunak is on record for commenting that ‘we will be judged by our capacity for compassion and individual acts of kindness’. Some reports suggest that the consequences of a decade of austerity combined with the impact of coronavirus have left Generation Z ‘scarred for life’. In our church communities, are we nurturing the dreams of young people as if they are as precious as our own dreams? Read some reflections from young people on their experiences during the pandemic.  Meanwhile the mental health of children and young people should worry and challenge us all.

Communities often take their cue from their leaders, so we need more than ever a leadership that is based on deep connection to others and an empathetic response to the circumstances in which people find themselves. If we were able to consider the pain that others experience as if it were our own, we would surely want policy to change and the impact of desperately challenging living standards to be ameliorated. If politicians could imagine the lived experience of others, perhaps policies and priorities would shift. If we could imagine the desperation of those who flee from war-torn and dangerous situations, perhaps we would not condemn so easily the risky channel crossings in less-than-watertight vessels, and the hunger for a safer and a better life would simply be a dream that all humanity holds in common.

The clocks change this week. Daylight hours are shorter. There is much to concern us. We need church communities to hold the light for us, reminding us to love one another, to treat each other with gentleness and to work together for our ‘bright hope for tomorrow’ to become reality.

 

Prayer

We love because he first loved us.

Here are some lines from a well-known hymn that you could use for reflection or meditation.

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father,
there is no shadow of turning with thee;
thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not,
as thou hast been thou forever wilt be. 

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!

 

You could use this prayer on your own or with others.

God of compassion,
you love us with an everlasting love.
Your love is all around us –
it circles us where we stand,
it blesses our days with peace,
it touches our lives with gentleness. 

Your love is behind us,
holding past regrets and broken dreams,
wrapping our missed chances and mistakes
in healing hands.

Your love is ahead of us,
brightening our pathway and making our footsteps secure,
disturbing our complacency and shining on our path
as guide and a comforter. 

Your love is with us,
tender and true,
gentle and strong,
filling our days with hope. 

Though the way ahead seems hard,
may we learn to walk with you
and to trust that your love will never let us go.
Amen.

 

Questions

  • How challenging is it to show compassion in a world that so often prizes power and strength?
  • What should leadership look like in our church communities?

 

 All-age activity

Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow…

  • What do we need to support us in the difficult journey through the next few months?
  • Who might we need to help us?
  • What is your ‘bright hope for tomorrow’?

If you are gathering in church, these questions could be asked of the whole congregation and you could gather the responses together as part of the intercessions, perhaps by reading out your ‘bright hopes’, lighting a candle for each group of responses.

 

Young people

  • Who has inspired you in the past month?
  • How can church help you to hold on to your dreams for the future?

 

Diane Craven is a freelance education and spirituality consultant and is also a Reader in the Church of England.

 

KEY:  icon indicates ways to connect faith with everyday life

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