Empathy says: You and I are made of the same lovely, heartbroken, and screwed-up stuff. You are not an object to me right now. (Maybe I’m not, either! Let me get back to you on this.) Empathy, a moment’s compassion, seeing that everyone has equal value, even people who have behaved badly, is as magnetic a force as gratitude. It draws people to us, thus giving us the capacity to practice receiving love, the scariest thing of all, and to experience the curiosity of a child.
In Luke 15 Jesus tells three parables of repentant sinners, and at the end of each we’re invited to rejoice. The shepherd announces, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep” (verse 6); the woman exclaims, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin” (verse 9); the father of the prodigal crows, “Let’s have a feast and celebrate” (verse 23). At the heart of the kingdom of heaven, a celebration is going on. What’s the occasion? It’s not that all wars are over, or all suffering ended, or all the world converted. No, the occasion is that one lost sheep has come home. Joy, overlooking all the good reasons for pessimism, throws a big party over one lovely flower, one bird call, one child’s smile, one earth-shattering change in a human heart. How about leaving our somber studies to join the revelry of angels?
We always seem to be faced with this choice: to save the world or savor it. I want to propose that savoring is better, and that when we seek to “save” and “contribute” and “give back” and “rescue” folks and EVEN “make a difference,” then it is all about you . . . and the world stays stuck. The homies are not waiting to be saved. They already are. The same is true for service providers and those in any ministry. The good news, of course, is that when we choose to “savor” the world, it gets saved. Don’t set out to change the world. Set out to wonder how people are doing.
The act of redeeming is motivated by divine mercy or compassion (rahamim). If we knew Hebrew, we would realize that compassion is a cognate of the word for womb (rehem). When the people of Israel heard, “With everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says YHWH your Redeemer” (Isa 54:8), they understood that the redeeming God was pouring out on them the kind of love a mother has for the child of her womb. In Phyllis Trible’s careful analysis, this journey of a metaphor from the wombs of women to the compassion of God is a powerful clue to the divine being, unfolding as it does unsuspected female dimensions of the image of God whose mercy is greater than we can imagine….
From its original financial meaning the verb “redeem” expanded and came to refer to rescue from physical, political, and spiritual bondage; from slavery, exile, and other kinds of oppression; from persecution, troubles, and enemies; from sin and from death. Individuals as well as the community as a whole were the beneficiaries of God’s redeeming care.
This rich tradition flows into Second Isaiah who used it to awaken hope of redemption in people being held captive, based on the endearing goel relationship between YHWH and Israel: “But now thus says YHWH who created you, O Jacob, who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (43:1).
There is no one perfect way to construct a positive intention. I have provided guidelines I know will work. What is critical is how you change your story to center on a larger goal and not on the grievance. You do this by reminding yourself that your small goals are not the same as your big goals. You take the hurt off center stage in your life and put your healing there instead. When you start to tell yourself and other people your positive intention story, you facilitate healing that you may not have thought possible.
If we choose to stand in the right place, God, through us, creates a community of resistance without our even realizing it. To embrace the strategy of Jesus is to be engaged in what Dean Brackley calls “downward mobility.” Our locating ourselves with those who have been endlessly excluded becomes an act of visible protest. For no amount of our screaming at the people in charge to change things can change them. The margins don’t get erased by simply insisting that the powers-that-be erase them. The trickle-down theory doesn’t really work here. The powers bent on waging war against the poor and the young and the “other” will only be moved to kinship when they observe it. Only when we can see a community where the outcast is valued and appreciated will we abandon the values that seek to exclude.
Jesus knows that we need him to help us deal with our shame and guilt. Shame does not need forgiveness, because it involves what others have done to us. We don’t need to be forgiven for being hurt, but we do need to heal. Treating shame takes honesty rather than confession. We don’t need to repent so much as we need to rediscover God’s beauty within us. God’s image is embossed on our souls. It is hard to see, under that grimy film others left behind, but shame can be cleansed. It has to be removed carefully, kindly, and often slowly. It takes time and patience and often the demonstrated love of close friends or wise counselors, but restoration is possible. Our hearts can grow this way and give us room for friendship and love to share with others.