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God's Story, Your Story and Our Story Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers:

Empathy Today and It's Significance for Being the Best Neighbors With Those in Your Neighborhood--The Place God Calls You: a Reflection on Isaiah 55:1-5 and Matthew 14:13-21

God is for you, not against you. Can you say Amen to that? Often the place God has called you is difficult to embrace and engage. Yet, what I’ve learned over the time of my walking with Jesus, those difficult people and circumstances are exactly where I need to be.

One of my mentors, Brennan Manning, gave me a great gift and life lesson. Be aware of the impostor self; the self that I, along with many others, work so hard to nurture, love, redeem and protect. It is the imposter self that is obsessed with image management, always looking good and never admitting brokenness and yes, inability. The imposter self avoids being the best Jesus others see when life’s circumstances are tough, demanding and not easy. I am so grateful for Brennan’s words to stop loving the impostor self more than the real Steve, the Steve God so wondrously and marvelously made.

God calls us to engage difficult people and circumstances. The imposter self resists the call. We should not avoid people and circumstances that are difficult, as if something was wrong with our faith or that we’re not equipped. Conflict and turmoil, for such a time as this, is important to evaluate. Affirming the challenges that the Pandemic and Protests cause are good for the soul. Self-awareness and trusting God to sort things out is fundamental to our development as Christians. Engaging difficult people and circumstances will take you deeper in your love for God and others. The imposter self is exposed. Self-awareness beckons you to a deeper and more trusting walk with God.

The texts in Isaiah 55:1-5 and Matthew 14:13-21 remind us that God’s goodness and trustworthiness provide the bedrock for our ability to face difficult people and circumstances with confidence and empathy.

Isaiah 55:1-5 asserts that the “thirst” of our soul, our being can only be satisfied by God. So, when desolation, loneliness, shame and forsakenness are front and center in our life experience, we’re pretty thirsty. Go to God. God brings about fullness from emptiness and peace out of distress when we engage the tough stuff and believe God in obedience. Sometimes God’s call is loud and at other times the soft still voice in our soul. However, the call comes from God who has big plans for each one of us.

Matthew 14:13-21 announces that compassion, the fruit of empathy, is the foundation for taking seriously the “difficulty” that God is calling us to address. Jesus had compassion on the 5,000. That situation of feeding so many with so few loaves of bread and fish was a difficult situation. And the disciples were bewildered. Jesus took the few fish and loaves of bread he was given and multiplied them. Jesus loved and fed the people. God provides regardless the scarcity of needed resources. The picture and experience of the feeding of the 5,000 shows us the world as God intends it to be. Followers of Jesus are situated in the world for such a time as this to demonstrate how God provides even in scarcity. For God is the God of abundance.[1]

Listening connects to empathy. Empathy leads to actions of compassion. Compassion builds warm relationships. People thrive when in a transformational partnership with God and others, particularly in difficult circumstances. The COVID-19 Pandemic, once again raging out of control and the Protests taking on a new expression of violence with federal law enforcement officers are difficult circumstances. Each begs for communal conversion, particularly in the church. In this regard, Krin Van Tatenhove and Rob Mueller in Neighborhood Church write, “…the gifts of our members, our physical buildings are the greatest assets at our disposal. The critical question to answer is, ‘How can we integrate our buildings not only to serve God’s purposes now, but as a way of positioning our church for generations to come.’”[2] Having missional partners on our campus, maximizing good stewardship of the partnerships and creating a more vigorous online presence for campus worship and activities is the way of the future. But the imposter self says missional engagement with people different than us and in new ways of “giving back” in this time of Pandemic and Protest is not empathetic relational compassion. Yet, as you listen to God, not the imposter self, and partner with God in God’s mission, the thirst of the world is met by your passion for loving God and others. Then, you advance the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

You are the hands and feet of Jesus, bringing hope into despair, peace into discord, joy into sadness and love into hate. God’s promise and inheritance is yours. You are adopted into God’s family. You are recipients of great treasure and it’s valuable, because of the One who gives it. God will not abandon you. God has entrusted amazing gifts to you. God has called you to a life filled with purpose. And you will have enough, because God is One of abundance not scarcity.[3]

Each one of us finds ourselves engaging difficult people and circumstances. Have courage and confidence. God has called you for such a time as this. On this Ninth Sunday after Pentecost affirm that you are in the place God has called you to be.Confront the imposter self. Love the you who is wondrously and marvelously made by God. Be empathetic. Act with compassion. Experience warm relationships. Do all of this in the new online normal.

[1]In the three paragraphs of textual analysis above, I have benefited from the thinking of Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty, Jana Childers, F. Scott Spencer and Michael Pasquarello III in Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery, Cynthia L. Rigby and Carolyn J. Sharp, editors, Connections, Year A, Volume 3 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 192-194, 194-196, 205-207 and 207-208. [2]Krin Van Tatenhove & Rob Mueller, Neighborhood Church (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 76. [3]Some ideas in this paragraph were gleaned from Mary Beth Anton in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 305 and 307.

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