Posted tagged ‘Religion’

On Empathy

February 8, 2017

Empathy, any chaplain will tell you, is one of the greatest tools of providing spiritual care. And it is a tricky tool to master. The Merriam-Webster dictionary has two definitions for empathy, but the one I am looking at reads, “The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” In other words, empathy is the attempt to walk a mile in another’s shoes.

Perhaps you know this, but part of my job is teaching empathy. With my position at Prayers Of the People, I go to churches and train people who want to be Lay Ministers and Spiritual Care Volunteers in Houston-area hospitals. These training sessions are two-fold, which you can read about on our website. But to save you that trip, let me explain that the first training is a 9-hour didactic session held in the church. During this first session, my boss and I do our best to go over the basic rules of a spiritual care visit as well as some of the tips. Empathy is the most difficult thing to understand without experience.

Just a couple of weeks ago, we trained thirty new volunteers to start this ministry. As we went through our manual, I covered the topic of empathy vs. sympathy. In our manual, there is a picture of a girl who is covered in mud, with a an upset expression on her face holding a puppy, also covered in mud. When we approach this picture, the trainees are asked, “What do you want to do with this girl?”

Over time, my boss – the President and Executive Director of POP – and her predecessors have found the most natural answer to be, “Clean her off!” in some form or another. And we acknowledge it and say, “Of course. She is very dirty. It does look like she could need a bath. But what if she does not want a bath? What if she is upset because her mother just told her to come inside and clean off and she is not ready to do so?”

This changes the conversation every time. Because if the girl does not want to get clean, then why should we want her to be clean? What about her feelings and desires? What about her intentions for the rest of the day? Why should they be ignored?

And this is a basic way to explain empathy. Empathy starts with listening to the other person in the conversation. What do they want? What does that person need? What are they feeling in this moment? How can we validate those feelings without dictating what we think they need?

When I did my unite of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) – a training course for chaplaincy in hospitals – here in Houston, I had a hard time grasping what empathy meant. For whatever reason, I needed a definition, but could not come up with it. It was not until the end of that 11-week unit that I grasped what empathy meant. For me, it was finding a situation in which I could relate to the other person, without verbalizing it. If the patient was experiencing incredible pain, I tried to remember a time I felt incredible pain. If the patient was missing their animal, I thought about how much I wanted to be on the couch with my cat snuggling on me. If the person was experiencing the loss of a loved one, I remembered when someone dear to me died. The key is to never verbalize the remembered experience, but simply to sit in those emotions with the person in the room. I just remembered how complicated my emotions were at those times and let them sit in theirs.

Perhaps the best example of empathy in the Bible comes from the Gospel of John, chapter 11, verse 8: “Jesus began to weep,” (NRSV).

Jesus arrives after Lazarus’s death. And he is approached by Mary and the people who had come with her weeping, causing him to weep. To be clear, Lazarus was Jesus’ friend, but it was not Lazarus’s death that caused Christ to weep. It was the weeping of others. He related to the crowds around him, causing him to be in their shoes. Jesus wept because he felt the pain of others.

Empathy helps a chaplain sit with people in all sorts of incredible positions. It allows the chaplain to walk with the person through the fog of it all – without guiding. Empathy helps to understand what the person really needs and how they could get to where they are going. Empathy helps chaplains care for the other person the way Christ cared for those he loved. Empathy is one of the greatest bridges for all human interaction.


Remember the New Covenant

April 26, 2012

Jeremiah 31:31 – 34


There are several things we know about the prophet Jeremiah. For instance, we know that Jeremiah was not a bullfrog. If I were to look out at you all and guess your average age, I could safely assume that none of you are several thousands of years old and therefore Jeremiah was not a good friend of yours. Jeremiah used a loot of language that was in eloquent and long prose, listing doomsday scenarios, condemnatory language, and lists of things Israel has done wrong. This often makes it to where we don’t understand a single word Jeremiah said. Because of this, I like to assume Jeremiah did have some pretty fine wine.

            Here, though, we have a pretty clear message coming to us. God wants to make a new covenant with her people. God wants to make it known that despite the fact that the people of Israel have broken previous covenants time and time again he still wants them to feel secure in knowing that they have God’s love. God will write a new covenant on their hearts so that the people of Israel will know – without pause – that they belong to God

            God is also throwing out the covenants of the past!

My friend and improv instructor had a move that he would use when we had the need to remove something from the story we were involved in at the time. He would take that “object” and drop kick it out of our space, like so:

::Drop kick an object::

The more dear to us that object might be, the better effect it had when it was dropkicked. For example, we’d have a puppy in the sketch, a puppy I always imagined as a cute golden lab with floppy ears, stubby legs, and its tongue always hanging out as it chased after me. But suddenly, wouldn’t need that puppy anymore.

 ::Punt noise and action::


            So it helps to imagine God, through Jeremiah, doing this to the covenant that had already been established, by God, with the Israelites. This covenant was something that had been dear to their hearts for thousands of years. They had tried and tried, most of the time unsuccessfully, to uphold this covenant. Their whole way of life was built around this idea. It was perhaps the most important thing to them in their lives. Now when my improv teacher would drop kick a puppy, at least it wasn’t a real puppy. To the Israelites, this established covenant, this way of life, was as real as it gets! And now God’s just punting it away.

::Punt noise and action::

            But this isn’t the end of the story. God doesn’t end the ballgame with this punt. It’s not like he is just taking away the most important part of Israel’s life, punting it away, and saying, “You’re on your own, bud. Tough cookies.” There’s a bright side to this, because shortly after kicking out the old covenant, she’s bringing in a new one! A better one! This new covenant isn’t a way of hierarchy and temple sacrifices that turned into a system of oppression and corruption. This is a new promise that will help people love and understand God more completely. Humankind will have no trouble understanding this new covenant or why it is replacing the old one, because God is going to write it on each and every person’s heart! It’s with us from the beginning! We don’t have to learn anything new! When someone asks us, “Hey man, you learn about that new covenant yet?” we can reply, “Please, sister, I already know it!”

            Not only is God taking that old covenant and punting it away, destroying all the previous, oppressing values of hierarchy and corruption, God is going to do two more things here. First, God is going to forgive Israel of all their iniquities. That’s right. God’s going to take out the naughty list and take every name off of it. She’s going to pull out that long list – and believe me, it’s a doozie – and cross out every name.  Every thing anyone has ever done wrong is going to be forgiven. “You worked on the Sabbath, you say? It’s cool, you’re good.” “What’s that? You just punted a Golden Lab puppy out of the room? I’ll forgive you of that.” “You beat up someone at school and took their lunch money?! Dude, uncool. But forgiven.”

            Here’s the thing, the “catch.” This text doesn’t define big or small iniquities. God doesn’t say, “I’ll let the little things go, but I’m going to hold that big stuff over your head.” No. It’s all forgiven. We’re starting anew. Israel is getting the chance to start a new covenant that brings in a new understanding of how to live and they will want to live that way, because it will be their desire.

            Now, not only is God going to forgive  our sins, but he’s going to forget them as well! Not only is God going to pull out that long list of bad things you’ve done and cross your name off of it, but also she’s going to throw that list in the already lit fire that is in her living room fireplace. That list won’t exist anymore! It is gone! Your sins were not only forgiven, there is no recollection of them ever taking place. The important thing about this is that God wants to forget them. This is all God’s idea. The author of this text didn’t come up with it, and neither did I. This is God speaking through Jeremiah to us. No one suggested this to God. There isn’t a “What didn’t you like about the previous covenant?” section on some evaluation form. God has seen that people don’t want to hold dear the covenant as previously listed. God is changing the rules. God is forgetting that any previous covenant existed, that people broke that covenant, and that there is any shred of evidence that we might not be able to uphold a new covenant.

             This new covenant is our Golden Lab puppy. But this time, it’s not going to be punted away. This puppy is here for us at all times. It’s there when we come home from school. It’s there after a long day of work. The puppy is there after we’ve had a huge fight with someone and need something warm and cuddly. Yeah, when we look back, we might wish it had worked out with that original puppy, but that original puppy had a heart condition. That puppy had grown as much as it could, become as strong as it could have become, but it just couldn’t make it any more. There was a time when the Israelites wanted that puppy to be the best puppy it could be, but it just didn’t work out. It needed to leave the scene in a way that had clear definition. So – it got punted.

            But this new puppy is in our hearts. And its heart is as healthy as can be. It’s continually growing, becoming stronger every day and is just as cute as ever. It is turning into a dog that never loses its puppyhood. And best of all, this puppy can actually go everywhere with you!  It’s there all the time, because it is a puppy with nothing but love and joy in its heart! That’s what this new covenant is! It is so great, so wonderful and so full of heart, it’s puppy time all of the time!

So when you’re going through the book of Jeremiah and get a little confused about where the message is going, make sure you remember this passage. It’s possibly the highest point of Jeremiah’s theology. This is everything that Jeremiah is pushing towards with the eloquent and long prose, the continuous message of Israel not honoring God properly, and the doomsday-esque language. You might have to go back and read and re-read sections of the text, but remember that part on the new covenant. You might get really depressed with the transgressions that Jeremiah is listing, because they sound so much like what is taking place in your life, but remember the new covenant. There’s going to be times of ups and downs, twists and turns, light and dark, but remember the new covenant. This is the continual message throughout the Hebrew Bible. Ezekiel says it, Deuteronomy says it, Isaiah says it, and eventually, Jesus will say it. God wants to be our God and God wants us to be her people. That much is clear.