Reconciliation, vulnerability and compassion

Today’s readings tie together nicely. In the first, St Paul describes the familiar situation of not doing the thing that one wants to do, but instead doing that which one does not wish to. All of us have experiences of acting in ways that are not loving, sometimes even at the very moment that we are most trying to be loving or helpful to another person. The Gospel reading emphasizes that Jesus always wants for us to seek reconciliation when there is an unresolved conflict with another person. Yet we know that this does not always happen, even though Jesus’ words about it are direct and clear.

According to a Christian Trinitarian world view, we are made to be in community and relationship with one another. We are not simply created to be autonomous individuals, nor are we created only to be in a single meaningful relationship (like a marriage or motherhood), or even only in relationship with God. God is to be our primary, but not our sole, relationship. We are made to be in a community with many other people, and whenever those community relationships are broken or wounded, Jesus instructs us to repair them. His words are urgent: make up with the other person directly, lest we arrive at the end of our lives and face judgment from a God who asks: “when I asked you to reconcile, why did you not do so while you still had the time?”

Reconciliation is such a difficult process because, first, the freedom of both parties must be respected. Maybe I want to reconcile with a person, but she does not wish to reconcile with me for her own reasons. I can only be accountable for my own actions and not for what others do or don’t do.

Reconciliation also often requires sorting through a lot of complex emotions. Perhaps if another has hurt us, we can feel defensively angry or shelter ourselves by shutting down. Depending on how deeply the wounds go, we can even shut ourselves off from any feelings of care or positive regard for another person for a long time—even if the relationship turns out to have been more complex. Nearly all human relationships are a mixture of good and bad, where we can identify gifts and hurts. Close relationships are messy because everyone who enters into them is broken, and sometimes our own brokenness coincides with another person’s in exactly a way that he or she “pushes” our buttons. So genuine reconciliation cannot be a matter of just putting on a false face, and gritting our teeth while trying to smile. Instead, it requires sorting through understanding relational dynamics in a realistic way where we can accept and name the sore spots, but also recover and name the gifts. Depending on the relationship, we may not want to resume it in the same way as before, but we can still reconcile— in the sense of bringing compassion and care to bear on how we look at the other person, ourselves, and the relationship as a whole.

The Psalm for today points us to core ways of being in relationship with God that can help us out in this regard: kindness and compassion. God is always kind and compassionate to us, understanding our own dynamics and how our histories inform how we are in relationship with one another. We can spend time in prayer resting in and soaking in God’s loving compassion for who we are in all of our own brokenness and giftedness. When we know and trust in God’s kindness and compassion, then we can draw on that compassion as resource in order to share it with others, including those who have hurt us.

Anger, fear, disappointment, and the like are not fundamentally “who” we are. We are made in the image of God, so fundamentally the “stuff” of which we are made is love and compassion. There is a beautiful and poignant statue by a Ukranian artist (click highlighted words for link to a photo) that captures this idea. In the statue, two seated figures are turned away from one another, back to back, in anger, shame, or sorrow. They are unable to connect. But inside of each one, there is a smaller, more vulnerable being who is seeking to connect. We can see that the reality of the human person is that aspect of each one of us that desires to connect in love to others.

We are made in the image of God, who became incarnate as a baby and small child before he grew up into a man who was willing to be interdependent both in childhood and adulthood. Jesus was a vulnerable being who sought to love and to be love even through many difficult circumstances. Jesus did not stick only to certain people with whom he was willing to relate, but connected both with those who stood faithfully at the foot of the cross with him, and also with those like Peter who betrayed and abandoned him. His love was consistent for all these different people, I think, because he was able to act out of that loving and strong, yet vulnerable interior self. When our most core self is grounded in the vast love of God, we are already on the way to reconciliation.

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