The collated responses of a discussion group, presented as an interview:
- In what ways have you been able to share love and mercy with others?
I suppose the most obvious way is with people I come into contact with most often – family and people at work, because they’re the ones we see ‘warts and all’. I suppose, as a parent, there are plenty of opportunities to exercise love and mercy – when children are very young and can’t ‘pay back’, and when they are teenagers (and older!) ‘finding themselves’, going their own way, and all the arguments that go with that, (being taken for granted etc).
Having elderly relatives who are no longer able to communicate or look after themselves is another opportunity.
Work is where love and mercy is also possible, this time with people you don’t have to show it to. Teachers can ‘go the extra mile’, as can nurses, carers, police officers – anyone who comes into contact with people in all their glory! The more ‘difficult’ or broken a person is, the greater the opportunity to show mercy and love.
I try to support charities like CAFOD, SVP and other non-church charities and I suppose this shares love on a broader scale. So does supporting campaigns for Justice and for a better world. I can’t always do much, but it might be signing a petition, sending one of the cards to the Holy Land and other parts of the world at Christmas and Easter, or donating to the foodbank.
I don’t want to make it seem like I’m a saint, but I think if I’m thinking of other people before myself, it’s an act of love. It’s not that I think ‘Oh, I’d better do something loving’, so much as it being part of what I do as a Christian: God’s love for people becomes part of what you do almost without thinking about it, (when I’m at my best!).
Loving is part of living, so mainly it’s the small gestures which are the way of sharing the love of God. One person I know spoke of how she often ‘just sits’ with someone in the evening and has a cup of tea and watches TV: this means the person has someone to talk to about what she enjoys watching. This same person ‘just’ gives lifts to hospital, ‘just’ spends time reassuring people and ‘just’ spends time talking to people coming out of church – she recently discovered how lonely a parishioner was by doing this. She ‘just loves’!
So, if I know I’m loved by God, I may not be perfect, but loving other people becomes part of who I am, part of how I live my life. Obviously, this includes saying ‘yes’ to helping people in need, but a big one for me is letting people into the traffic! It’s also making sure I keep in touch with people when I know they’re in need of a listening ear or an offer of support. These are what any loving person would do, (you don’t have to be Christian to be loving!), but something ‘extra’ I feel I have would be, for instance, in helping the homeless – knowing that they are loved by God as much as I am hopefully stops me being patronising or being condescending and more ‘make me a channel of your peace’. I think people who work with the very sick, those with severe learning or physical needs, people who are struggling under the weight of mental health problems, or people who are / have made mistakes (I should use the word: have fallen foul of the law) learn to go past ‘being nice’ or ‘charitable’ to appreciating the dignity of every person. To love is not to judge or to pity, but to accompany, to spend time with and to offer companionship and support. Knowing that the person is loved by God might allow you to offer a different perspective, especially where the person has been rejected or neglected by society or people around them. Knowing God’s love also helps me to keep a happy demeanour (more or less) in daily life and when I meet people.
All of these occasions to share, for me, come from my Faith. This means that when people ask me directly about God’s love and mercy, I feel I can tell them. Being a reader at Mass is a direct way!
I know I am sharing God’s love when I am able to draw out the goodness in a person, whether it’s a family member, a stranger or someone I may never meet but support through a charity.
- That all sounds good, but what difficulties or opposition have you met in trying to share that love?
It would be easy to go straight to blame other people – and I will! – but I suppose I should start with difficulties that are my own making. For a start I need to be appreciated! Sometimes, if the person needs love and mercy over a long time, (it might be family!), there might be no progress or results. There are times when I feel indignant and annoyed – a ‘why does it have to be me that does all the sharing?’
Another thing: I’m not an expert. When people have huge problems and I try to help, I worry that I might actually be doing more harm than good if I say the wrong thing, not to mention the fact that I might ‘get it in the neck’ if I do or say the wrong thing. And when I’m sort of finding my way, people might ridicule me or advise me to ‘leave it to the experts’, and then I feel undermined. Being a parent is good training for being mocked and ridiculed for what I believe!
Often, when it comes to sharing the love and mercy of God, a big opposition comes from my own doubts and uncertainties. I have a lot of questions – there are areas of my faith, and about God, that I don’t know enough to be able to share with others.
But it isn’t all me and my failings!
Sometimes, if I try to suggest people might deserve a second chance or if I try to show some understanding to people who have done wrong, a common reaction is for people to say, ‘They don’t deserve it!’ or ‘They should have thought about that when they were doing it’, and the standby, ‘if you let them off, they’ll think they can always get away with it. They’ll walk all over you.’
If I then try to talk about being forgiving / understanding because that is what God is like, then many people just switch off or ridicule religious beliefs as not being practical, or ‘pie in the sky’ thinking. Often, people just don’t want to even discuss religion, so I don’t get the chance to explain.
Sometimes, this opposition can come from groups in the parish who have a different understanding of religion / God – people who have a more rule-based approach to religion.
Another problem I and other people find is in work situations. So many of us find that work is driven by targets and there isn’t room or time to accommodate people who get in the way or who have difficulties.
And, of course, it might be the person’s own attitude: either they don’t think they need to be forgiven, or they believe they are beyond being forgiven, that nobody could love them, so they just give up. Another way they might react is that people who try to help might become an outlet for the person’s anger and frustrations.
Q What helps you overcome these difficulties and opposition?
One immediate help, and one easy to call on for a ‘quick fix’ is remembering how many good things have happened to me, how blessed I’ve been in so many ways. When I bring this to mind, it seems natural to share.
Understanding good relationships and good things as blessings helps me to be more trusting in God, knowing that he is always present, even when I (or the person in need of help / forgiveness) can’t ‘feel’ his presence. I can then hand over to Him, in prayer, (and sometimes, singing a favourite hymn helps, one with uplifting or reassuring reminders of God’s love), trusting that he knows what he’s doing, and that the Holy Spirit is active. Being able to call on the Gospel and other bible passages also helps, because Jesus and the early Christians went through really tough times and all experienced doubt and periods of darkness.
On a more basic level, it helps to be stubborn! ‘Holy cussedness’, as one person described it, means you just keep going. That and growing a skin like a rhino – parents will understand. This isn’t just ‘nobody will make ME back down’: if I’m in for the long haul, it allows me to take a longer perspective, occasionally even to be patient to work on God’s timetable not my own. It also allows me to see the situation through the other person’s eyes, rather than being judgemental. This also allows time for hurts to heal, and for me to move forward without being blocked by my pride being hurt or the pain of insults and rejection.
As I get older, I hope I’m also becoming a little wiser and able to draw on past experiences – learning from ‘failure’ and drawing strength from ‘successes’, whether this is from my own experience or from other people I’ve known or read about. The Bible and our Church history is very human in this respect – full of people who failed but kept going, people who discovered ‘gold’ (the good in people’) is often buried beneath a load of muck!
- What different ways of sharing the joy of the Gospel have you seen in your parish, or other parishes / other Christian denominations? What would you like to see offered in your parish that might help you share the Gospel with others?
Looking at the noticeboard and newsletters in our parishes is a regular reminder of just how much good work, how much love and concern there is for people in our own community and further afield: the sick list, the work of SVP, CAFOD, SPUC, Justice and Peace, as well as the spirit I notice when groups like the brownies, cubs and scouts organise fundraising events. In many of the parishes in our area, there are lunches for elderly people, and dementia friendly groups. I admire St. Luke’s shared projects which give people the opportunity to work together, to make a difference and to get to know each other. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have community days when people muck in to renovate, decorate and contribute to the upkeep of the Kingdom Hall.
I would like to see our parishes further develop these initiatives that not only provide practical help, but also raise our own awareness of the problems and difficulties other people face. This would help us to be more active in sharing God’s love. I could probably come up with a long list, like anyone else could, but I think it should be based on people’s needs, recognising the different problems facing different age groups and then responding. It may be that I can contribute more in some areas than in others, but if I knew more about the range of needs in the parish area, I could then be in a position to offer whatever time or skills I have.
It would help to have an updated parish directory, with, for example, a ‘good grub’ guide to local churches (of all denominations) so that people know where there is a war and friendly lunch available for older people or other groups.
It would also be good to further develop groups for the bereaved (with care and support continuing after the funeral, as some local parishes do), for divorced and separated – in fact, for any group who need to know that people care and want to help.
Some people suggest we need to bring back clearer teachings, e.g. the catechism, but I think understanding Jesus’ insistence two rules: love God and love neighbour, (or is that one rule, said in two ways?) should be the first port of call.
Thinking particularly of the need to share (and experience) God’s mercy, I and many people I speak to would like to have reconciliation services with general absolution. If that isn’t allowed, we could have a prayerful reconciliation service with a number of priests to give individual absolution. We used to have this and it was taken away, without any explanation.