I know how easily a Christian leader drifts in the direction of burn-out. By the time I turned 37, I was dangerously close.
Overcome the two most common barriers to expressing empathy...
Okay...so you already know that being able to express empathy is a big deal. But it's not so easy to learn how to give empathy. There are strange, hidden barriers on the inside of you, whole little mountain ranges you have to cross in order to get empathetic words out of your mouth.
Sometimes I fear that my longing for empathy is closer to a craving.
Do you know what I mean? I want someone who leans over and (kind of) pats me on the leg and says, “It’s okay, honey.”
You’ll be okay.
You’ve done enough.
I understand how hard this is.
Really, my question is how can something so ridiculously simple, in its essence, often feel like cold water in a desert? How does it surpass chocolate?
Like how can you drive through McDonald’s on a frazzled day, in search of cheap tea, knowing you should make your own, and the woman hands your iced tea out the window into the blazing heat and says, “There you go, darlin” …and little tears sting the corner of your eyes?
Maybe this only happens in the south, I don’t know. Maybe we are just bigger empathy cravers down here.
But as I move around life, I’ve come to believe that all of us, in a world gone crazy. we are all a bit starved for the kind word, the stroke of empathy.
The last time I spoke at a pro-life pregnancy center fundraiser I discovered that there are now four pregnancy centers for every abortion clinic. And would you believe the number one reason women say they return to a pregnancy center rather than an abortion clinic?
It’s not the ultrasound or the baby clothes or the free pregnancy test.
It’s the kindness with which they are treated. Kindness.
The acceptance and warmth of another human being who meets you--not with judgment--but with kindness in the traumatic experience of being pregnant when you never intended to get pregnant. It’s life-changing.
Oddly enough, recent brain research underscores the power of empathy. When we feel that someone understands, the left side and the right side of our brains come together into more of an integrated whole. Empathy is the precursor to what we might call “healing.” We can hear on a deeper level. It’s a little more possible to let go of whatever we are grasping so tightly. Empathy soothes our soul just enough to allow our will to change.
There you go, darlin’.
When you think about this life you have with Christ, I would suggest that “empathy” is roughly what you’d call the miracle element of your faith.
Isn’t it true that in your worst moments, the only true comfort that sinks in deep is that this high and holy God who created all that is…THIS God suffered. He knew the betrayal of this closest friends. He felt the humiliation of hanging naked before a crowd of haters. Even in glory, he still has nail prints in His hands. He has been there.
That this beautiful God comes along side and speaks a word of kindness when I deserve anything but—yes, this makes the corners of my eyes sting. It’s always a surprise.
We have never been loved like that.
In all our afflictions, He is afflicted, Isaiah reminds us. He is the ultimate source of empathy. We are not alone.
So in this life that can be brutal and nasty, and maybe quite long, let us be the empathy of Jesus—to each other. Underneath our double-wear mascara, we are all desperate for a gesture of kindness, a personal note, and compassion that looks someone in the eye just a few seconds longer than required.
Empathy. It can rock someone’s world.
An endless list of details stares me in the face every morning now. The hope is that, somehow, when we gather around this table in a few weeks, all that is wrong with the world–and all that’s wrong with us–will be tied up in the stable out back.
I want a holiday dinner good enough to banish the anguish of our son and his wife, their seemingly-endless wait for a baby to adopt. How strange, really, that the laughter of my grandchildren makes me miss my mother’s presence at Christmas more? I can’t make her rolls, or fill her shoes. Her little elderly habits that could (at times) annoy Mother Teresa–even those I miss. Or better said, I’ve almost forgotten them and now, I just miss her.
Isn’t it amazing that the merry in Christmas can so trigger the sad?
What’s actually more surprising is how hard we work to have the Hallmark Christmas, when the original one was anything but.
Maybe that’s why I find the verse before the famous verse in Isaiah so compelling. So reassuring. You know the familiar words: “For unto us a Child is born.” Truly, He is a everlasting father, the Prince of Peace. But the verse we scarcely speak comes directly before:
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment soaked in blood and used as kindling for the fire….
Here’s the scene: it’s a battlefield after the battle’s done, the landscape strewn with dead bodies. It’s cold and desolate and there’s no tree standing to use for a fire. Only one option remains. Strip the garments from dead soldiers and use them as kindling for a fire. In this cameo verse, one of the worst moments of human experience is captured. And this is exactly Isaiah’s point.
Into this devastation, the Child comes. And His coming changes everything.
So, please God, let me try less hard to keep all the mess at bay. Let me give up the craziness of thinking my beautiful Christmas creation can make everything right, even for a few hours. Let me celebrate the merry in the middle of the sad.
Its there, the Savior is born.
Every year I manage to be out of town when my peonies bloom. I wait all year for their appearance and then, I’m gone. It pains me to no end. My peonies burst forth without me, glory unseen.
So this year I call my friend. “Hey, my peonies are going to be blooming like crazy. Go gather a vase for yourself and enjoy them for me.”
My friend politely declines. There are just so many doggone ants that come off those peonies, she says.
Do you not have a thumb on your hand to squash them? I reply, and we both laugh. Yes, thumb-and-all, she is turning down peonies because they come laden with ants.
I get off the phone and it hits me: I do this ant-and-peony thing with my life. With my life.
It’s the strangest sort of temptation, really, to let the cost eclipse the reward. You forget the glory of the flower blooming. What you remember is the irritation of chasing down those crazy black ants.
Have we not all been there?
I find it a constant inner exercise to choose how I’m going to “frame” something. If I travel to speak at a women’s conference, will I let the airport delays and lost luggage overshadow the sheer joy of seeing God at work in a different part of His body?
Some days, I confess I do. And that disturbs me. You can miss the life God is giving you by making “no” a habit.
When you try your hand at something new and it turns out less than you hoped for…are you going to frame that as “failure”? Or will you see it as a learning curve?
The Bible claims that how we think about a matter is what actually shapes the experience. And so we learn, if we are wise, the gentle art of reframing. You decide, consciously or unconsciously, whether you will frame the relationship or experience or memory around the peony–or the ants.
The world that God has made, even in its present faded-glory state, is a great smorgasbord of possibility. I love Paul’s words that all the promises of God are “Yes” in Christ. It all comes to a great, glorious Yes! But in the now, there is no peony to be had that doesn’t come with ants hidden in the petals. There’s no experience, no relationship that does not exact a price.
One of the hidden laws of the universe, it seems, is that the more possibilities you can’t let yourself enjoy because, potentially, there’s a problem, a drawback, a price to pay–the less possibilities in life you will actually see. The eyes of your soul get cataracts.
You become, then, a woman who lives by her “no’s.” Though you stand knee deep in a river of water, you are dying of thirst. Life–glorious, peony- filled life–is happening all around you. But you are blind to everything except closed doors and the people who disappoint and where you failed. All those ants.
“To them that have shall more be given.” Jesus’s mysterious words, they haunt me sometimes. I know my own tendency to overlook what I have…in a futile search for what I eludes me.
I’ll share a little secret with you about this gentle art of “reframing.” When you are reeling from disappointment and the thing you don’t want to happen has happened and you know, because you do know, that God is somehow in this, even this–then pay special attention to falling asleep and waking up.
As you drift off to sleep and as you come awake, your brain is in its most molten, changeable state. In those moments, pray. Ask God to help you see the possibilities hidden in the problem. Thank Him for the good unseen. Good He has promised to bring. Make some simple choices about how you are going to “frame” this thing that threatens to undo you.
You can actually make choices that stick about how you will let this thing register in your soul. Is it going to be peonies–or ants?
I’m voting for peonies.
What helps you most in this gentle art of reframing?
Can you remember an event in which “faith in Jesus Christ” has been more clearly credited with the power to overcome evil than what you’ve seen from Christians living through the Charleston murders?
I know I can’t.
The kind of evil that shoots people in cold blood after you’ve sat with them in a prayer meeting…how on earth can that evil be met with love and forgiveness? It’s impossible by human effort.
For once, we know we are watching something where the only explanation is faith in Jesus Christ. The relatives of the slain looked into the face of their loved one’s killer ….and voiced forgiveness that came from the power of the cross of Christ.
Perhaps Michael Wear, who headed Obama’s faith outreach efforts, said it best:
The confounding forgiveness given voice at the bail hearing, the radical love contained in the statements, was not cultural, sociological or political, it was theological. It was about Jesus Christ. They did not forgive to express the values of their race or to represent the character of their country, but to be faithful to their God.
Their example has set me to thinking.
I suspect that there are one or two examples in your life–as there are in mine–where if push came to shove, you’d admit that only God has been enough.
Enough to make you apologize even when it hurt your pride.
Enough to deliver you from an addiction.
Enough to let you love someone who doesn’t love you.
Enough to show up day after day in a job you don’t like.
Enough to carry you through grief to a new chapter in your life.
When I think of following my mother through the last five years of alcoholism I know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that I could not have done that in my own strength. I just don’t have it in me.
Perhaps these little victories (little by comparison) are more important than we think. I am taking notes from these amazing Christians in Charleston. Maybe it’s time to put words and voices to the “only by the grace of God” places in our lives.
As the old hymn says,
May the word of God dwell richly in my heart from hour to hour
So that all may see I triumph only by His power.
What do you do that you know you could not do … Except by the power of Christ in you?
I am sitting here shaking my head at the strange experience of being a grandmother. All the things I have forgotten. All I have to learn a second time.
Babysitting a two year old for a few days in Atlanta while her parents escape for their anniversary should be a walk in the park. How hard can this be, right?
Pretty hard, actually, if you are fool enough to take said two year old into Pottery Barn on the pretext of shopping. Only a grandmother with amnesia could be that crazy. And this two year old has missed her nap.
Cold stares of skeptical clerks tell me that I am not the first grandmother visiting Atlanta who thinks she can combine babysitting and shopping.
“How’s your day going?” the lady in Talbot’s asks as I turn over a small rack trying to take a picture.
“Not terribly well.” I shove the stroller out the front door with all that gusto I gained lifting weights to keep my bones intact.
Can someone tell me exactly how one keeps a two year old from climbing out of these new hip strollers?
As I think of it, where did I miss the memo on…yogurt in a tube, which (trust me) can be sprayed in five directions? Or “sacks” for toddlers to sleep in? Or vegetables that can be squeezed from a pouch?
I keep body and soul together (mine and Sydney’s) with the help of a small bear that has come to the rescue of mother’s and grandmother’s for a long time. I lost count how many I fed this child.
What a mercy of God that when your grandchildren appear, all your memories of motherhood are suffused in a golden haze, the meltdowns in the grocery store long forgotten. Your children live on in a sweet afterglow. Grandchildren come along to remind you of challenges you once rose to moment by moment, every single day, with scarcely a thought. It’s just the stuff mothers do.
But I see it differently now, as I sit recovering from a grandmother’s bout of insanity, my feet propped on my son’s coffee table. With my ice tea in hand, I raise a glass to mothers of toddlers everywhere.
Heroes, every one.