At a debrief conference I was at recently, we did an exercise where we looked a parts of New Testament scripture, and looked at Jesus’ emotional life. We looked at each example and thought about what Jesus was feeling in each instance. It’s an interesting exercise. Something I’d never thought to do before. Naturally, we have no way of knowing exactly what sort of emotions Jesus felt, but I think it’s important to remember that he was a person with fully human emotions and feelings. We know he got angry, he experienced loss and grief, and we know he felt compassion. These things were as much a part of his human experience as they are ours.

One of the scriptures we looked at was the first part of Mark 8—where he feeds the 4,000. This was one of the instances we have recorded where Jesus felt compassion. In verse 2 he says, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat.” He then observes that if he sends them away hungry, they will faint on the way.

He had been with the people for three days. His nearness to them allowed him to recognize their needs. It led him to compassion. The text doesn’t state it explicitly, but because of his compassion on them, I think it could be said that he felt a responsibility to feed them. Nearness, led to compassion, led to him feeling responsible for meeting the need—because he could.

This is a thing I keep coming back to. The importance of being near to people. It is so difficult to feel compassion for people (especially for people much different than you) from afar. Space and isolation is easier. But it does not lead to compassion. If we want to be people of compassion, and I think we should because of Jesus’ example, I think nearness is inescapable. Near to those around you, and also near to the stories of those who are suffering around the world.

I no longer live in South Sudan, (Or my desert home or Egypt), but I try to keep up with the news from there. I try to stay near to the needs, the stories. So my heart does not forget. So I can still be moved to compassion. So I can remember my responsibility to those who have endured war, and now, famine.

I have a habit of sitting on my feet. Maybe because I’m short? I don’t know. But I do it all the time. And every time, without fail, when I go to stand up, I realize my feet have gone numb after sitting in a silly position for so long. Inevitably, the pins and needles kick in, regaining feeling in my feet and toes.

I don’t even notice the numbing. It happens so easily. Comfortably. Without a thought. Regaining the feeling hurts. It’s prickly and a little jarring at times. But it’s necessary to get up and go anywhere.

It is very easy to become numb. To sit on our feet, to stay away from those near to us who are different, or the human stories from those afar, whose lives we struggle to relate to. But the pins and needles are necessary. The prickling from the pain of moving is necessary. Our brothers and sisters all around and far away are a part of the Body of which we are a part. We can’t cut ourselves off from them. We can’t become numb to them. We must seek nearness. We must risk the hurt of being near, to be led to compassion, so we can face our responsibility of meeting the needs of those who are hurting.

For the last eight years I’ve been the Head of Communications for the UN Refugee Agency. My job is to make people care about the sixty million displaced people in the world. I wish I could tell every single one of their stories. Because if people knew their stories, I don’t think there would be so many walls. And there wouldn’t be so many people drowning in the seas. But I don’t think I anticipated how difficult it would be to make people care. It’s not that people are selfish. I jus think that people have a hard time caring when they feel insecure. When the world is unstable, people feel vulnerable. And vulnerable people focus on protecting what they have. They focus on their own families. They focus on their own communities. It can be very hard to welcome strangers when you’re made to feel threatened. Even if those strangers are more vulnerable than you.” Melissa Fleming

Too Small; Acrylic, 2009.

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