Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Emotional Opiates: On Empathy

[Thank you to Pastor Jonny Rashid, for taking the time to help us reflect on Lent and giving us a glimpse of what God is teaching you and your congregation this season.]

Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah. So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?”

Then Moses cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became fit to drink.

There the LORD issued a ruling and instruction for them and put them to the test. He said, “If you listen carefully to the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, who heals you.”

Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water.

This passage, when read through a lens of Jesus, powerfully illustrates one concept that is central to Lent, the season of fasting before Christ’s death and resurrection: empathy. During seasons of suffering, when hope is as rare as water for the Israelites, which is like the one we’re embarking on during Lent, when we begin empathizing with ourselves, we can see the hope that Jesus’ resurrection offer us – we can see the hope of life in a season that’s all about death.

Our propensity may be to offer empathy with others during this season and sometimes we do that so poorly that we can’t get passed judging ourselves for it. So before then, let’s try to get to a place where we can empathize with ourselves – empathy typically refers to relating to other people’s pain, but we’ve numbed and desensitized ourselves so much  that sometimes it’s challenging to really see the pain that we are in. We actually need to feel our pain and get self-aware.  In a sense, we need to empathize with ourselves.

Fasting, giving something up for Lent or taking a discipline on, is a good way to get weaker, to experience some suffering so that whatever might be numbing you – whether its substances, TV consumption, sleeping too much, overeating, filling every second of your day with people – can wither away so that you can see what’s really behind it. Getting rid of some of those sedatives, opiates, the antibiotics that numb our pain is a good way to really realize that we are thirsty. 

It took journeying through the desert for three days so that the Israelites could notice that they were indeed thirsty and that the water they were trying to drink was bitter. In their thirst and in the water’s bitterness, they actually saw what was holding them up. 

As they let go of their control and admitted to Moses and to God how thirsty they were, God provided them with wood that made the water drinkable – but through their ability to see their suffering, they could see what was holding them up. They could see that they weren’t following God – that they needed a paradigm shift. And that the paradigm shift led them to a better place, one without suffering.

Getting to a vulnerable place, a place where there is some self-imposed fatigue, hunger, and thirst can help us get out of our normal worlds the ones where we want to remedy all of the suffering that we experience typically in the name of productivity.  

Lent is about slowing down, fasting, going in solitude. Being willing to fast in the desert for 40 days, like Jesus did, and get tempted by the devil – and relying on God through it. It’s about getting freedom from the Egyptians and then signing up for a seemingly aimless trip through the desert and even being tempted to go back to the oppressor. 

We’re reawakening our feeling -- we need to get the stuff out of our system that’s numbing us. The result of fasting and being in suffering isn’t necessarily freedom from pain and suffering – sometimes it will seem like we are experiencing more pain and more suffering – but there’s hope to be had, hope that we can look to. It leads to transformation.

Drinking the bitter water helped the Israelites to see how bitter they were being with themselves and with God, and along with the transformation of the water – there was an internal transformation too. Along with ending up in Elim, an oasis in the desert, they found an oasis in their hearts too. God was with them all along.

And God is with us. Lent is about empathizing with Jesus and his suffering, so that you can more clearly embrace his resurrection. Lent is about suffering so that we know that Jesus suffered too – that Jesus experienced all of the hardships and difficulties that we do and that he was transformed and gave us the same key to transformation. 

As we suffer in the desert this season, we know that Jesus did too, and so we know that we can relate to him and he us. As we fast this season, we’re learning that Jesus is someone that we can relate to, someone that we can have a relationship with. We’re learning too, as we suffer, how He suffered for us. We’re finding hope through our heart through that empathy – empathy for Jesus, for others, and for ourselves.

Jonny Rashid is a pastor at Circle of Hope, a reconciling network of cell congregations in the Philadelphia region called to be a safe place to explore and express God’s love.

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