Finding Sympathy and Empathy

In case you haven't noticed, election years bring out the worst in many of us. 

And because most of our politicians seem to be doing nothing but campaigning instead of governing, election years seem to blur together like a bad dream. 

It would be nice if our nationally elected officials had term limits, but since they are the ones who vote on whether to have term limits, we shouldn't hold our breath while waiting for it to happen. 

What gets lost because of this endless cycle of campaigning and posturing is any sense of common ground, sympathy, and empathy for those who disagree with one another. 

It trickles down, as you might imagine.  All you have to do is gather your family for a holiday celebration, and you'll discover that the divisions we see in our government have extended to our own doorsteps. 

Far too many of us receive our news from carefully curated and highly partisan sources---most of whom we tend to agree with.  We don't make any effort to listen to "the other side," whatever that side might be. 

Civility?  That's out the window, too.  Mostly because people can bravely launch any kind of personal attack on another from the relative safety of their keyboard or smartphone.  

Most of our understanding of people not like us comes from gross stereotypes or the misinformation that flows over the internet like a muddy flood. 

I'm not immune from this, either. My goodwill is often strained to break when it comes to feeling sympathy or empathy for some folks.   Most pastors I know have the same issue, so there you go. 

So what do we do?  How do we learn to feel sympathy and empathy toward people with whom we adamantly disagree?  Is it even possible?  

It is, but it takes some Divine intervention to my thinking.  We need to learn what it means to view the world and others as God does, which is pretty difficult considering none of us are God. 

But Jesus did give us a glimpse into what this could look like. He reached across divisions, even the religious ones imposed by his own religious tradition, and welcomed those who were considered outcasts and enemies.  

He reached down to restore those no one in his culture would touch.  Jesus also offered restoration for those who were considered to be pariahs---tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, for example. 

Jesus saw beyond the stereotypes, both real and imagined.  He showed sympathy and empathy to all and was unafraid to speak the truth in love with a spirit of grace and a heart for healing. 

Fr. Richard Rohr once wrote about this very thing, and his words are both relevant and necessary here: 

Human sympathy is the best and easiest way to open heart space and to make us live inside our own bodies. God never intended most human beings to become philosophers or theologians, but God does want all humans to represent God’s own sympathy and empathy. And it’s okay if it takes a while to get there. 

I am both inspired and challenged by everything Fr. Richard says here.  But I am also comforted by the last line.  "And it's okay if it takes a while to get there." 

Honestly, the way God works on us is seldom a sprint and, more often, a marathon. We experience transformation when we are ready, so it doesn't all come in a rush. 

Over the past twenty years, I have experienced a significant transformation of my beliefs, deeply held convictions, understanding of Scripture, and what it means to follow Jesus. 

Those transformations did not occur overnight.  It took time, experience, and some maturity, but the change did come.  Some of it I longed for, and some of it I dreaded.  But in the end, the revelation necessary for transformation came when I was ready and open to receive it. 

And so, as I struggle with sympathy and empathy for people who rankle me and make my blood boil occasionally, I hope that my desire to discover more sympathy and empathy will be enough to chip away at the walls in my heart. 

This is what we all should pray for in our lives and the lives of others.  We should pray that God will do God's patient and grace-filled work on us to allow us to become the people God longs for us to be. 

May it be so.  And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with us now and always. Amen. 


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