Empathy is defined as “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing ofthe feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” The word comes from the Greek word empátheia.
We sang in worship this morning a song that included a desire to present to God an inside that was both clean and committed. It reminded me of the words of another song, “Cleanse my heart O God.” I’ve probably sung that song a hundred times without dwelling on the fact that unless my focus is heart-centric cleansing is superficial at best. In any area that I have not surrendered to God from the core of my being, I continue to struggle. For example, I know that when my wife is talking to me I should listen. Yet, because I am intent on getting my work done or enjoying my activity, I do not give her my full attention. Mentally I ought to be able to fix inattentiveness and focus on what Kathleen is saying but without a surrendered heart it is just not so. The problem at the core is I am more concerned with my things than with her things.
Romans 14:19—So then, we must pursue what promotes peace and what builds up one another.
One of the greatest hindrances to the deepening of relationships is our propensity to want to change those around us. While our motives may seem pure, in fact if we are not careful there is an ever subtle danger that our distilled rationale for fixing others is in fact for our own betterment. Much of the time what we want from others or even for ourselves is not necessarily what God wants.
Sergeant Major Cedric Moore shared with me his story as we sat in his car at Fort Monroe, Virginia. Raised in a black community in Huntsville, Alabama, he often attended church and had uncles who were pastors. But what these men preached was not what they lived. Watching “spiritual” men engage in adultery, robbery, lying and other sinful behavior caused Cedric to conclude that God must not be real.
Paul and I were together several times the past month. I discovered he loves billiards so I asked if I could join him when he went out at night to the local pool hall. I am a weak pool player but he is both a great teacher and a patient competitor. While conversing, Paul revealed that he is an agnostic. One evening the topic of death came up and I mentioned the emptiness of dying only to end up as worm food. He countered that life was still valuable if we contributed to the betterment of others—even if they too had nothing more than the grave to anticipate. As our discussion deepened, I asked him if would not be much better to contribute to people’s lives and then have eternal life with God to enjoy. He agreed and at that point, I felt led not to force the conversation further with my fellow officer.
Have you ever wanted to be part of a group but found yourself excluded? Whether it be a school, church, club, team, a political party or affiliation most of us recognize the existence within any organization of an inner ring. Many people spend their whole lives seeking acceptance and entrance into these cliques or groups. No one wants to be left out.
I’ve never had a ministry to the poor. Few of my friends are financially needy and those I work and live around are middle or upper-class families. While my finances have often been sparse, compared to most in the world I am incredibly well off. So, I wondered what it would be like to spend so many hours each week helping those at the center of ever-converging problems from which escape seems bleak and overwhelming.
I love to spend time with people who are searching for meaning in life. I find that often many of them grapple with tough questions. They sincerely yearn to know God. Repeatedly I find that most of these folks will not go to church. They’ve tried. They have attended different fellowships but left in frustration. Three themes regarding their disappointment emerge.
James Hewett, in Illustrations Unlimited, tells the story of an Irish priest, who, newly arrived in New York City, decided to visit the Bowery—a haven of homeless alcoholics and other derelicts. While walking the streets he suddenly felt a gun against his ribs. Then he heard a raspy voice: “All right mister, gimme all your money!” As he quickly reached for his wallet the holdup man noticed his clerical garb. Overcome with shame the thief said, “Forgive me, Father. I didn’t know you were a priest.” The priest replied, “That’s all right, Son. Just repent of your sin. Here, have a cigar.” The robber replied, “Oh, no, thank you, Father, I don’t smoke during Lent.”
In Oregon an evil cloud camps over the Catholic Church as certain priests stand accused of pedophilia. The scandal is not unique to this northwestern state. Perhaps what is lost in this brooding scandal is the misleading charge of the press. First, the real issue is not whether the cause of these problems is the vow of celibacy priests invoke. Second, it is more than abusing boys that is occurring, it is homosexual relationships—something the press will not touch for fear of offending the homosexual community.
I know a man who sees everything black or white. Maybe you know him too. He is zealous for the truth. He is a defender of justice who confidently speaks for God. His critical eye is the first to spot error in others and in himself. He is meticulous in his theology, mastered in the school of answers, mindful of all the rules.