This month: 189 - Freedom in Christ
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

Remember Me    Register ›

Archives for October, 2016

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the First Colony Church of Christ.

Have you ever been a person who just doesn’t get it? I have. For instance, I have sought the counsel of many middle school students over the years in order to understand the game Minecraft, and I must admit that even after many explanations, I still don’t get it.  What is the goal again? I ask them over and over again to a host of sighs and eye-rolls.

I have also tried in vain to become interested in various TV shows and movies that people tell me are popular. Yet I don’t understand, for example, how murdering other teenagers in a giant game of hide and seek called “The Hunger Games” can be entertaining.

As a parent, there are things I will not ever understand about my children. As a wife, there are things I will never understand about my husband.

Mark’s portrayal of the disciples is right in line with those of us who just don’t get it, no matter how hard we may try. The disciples give blank stares, scratch their heads, and feel confused.  Consider the following example.

14 The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. 15 “Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”

16 They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.”

17 Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”

“Twelve,” they replied.

20 “And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”

They answered, “Seven.”

21 He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”

Did they still not understand? No. They didn’t. Did they see who Jesus was or what Jesus was up to? No. They didn’t. Were they confident that Jesus could handle their next meal since he just finished feeding 4,000 from seven loaves and 5,000 from five loaves? No. They weren’t.

Can you blame them? I can’t.

How are mere fishermen supposed to see and to understand the infinite greatness of the Kingdom of God?

And how are we, mere mortals, supposed to see and understand the infinite greatness of the Kingdom of God?

The words of Jesus speak fresh to us today. “You have eyes but don’t see, ears but don’t hear.” We just don’t get it.

Kevin Diller sums up what he calls “theology’s epistemological dilemma” like this: the problem for Christian theology is a seemingly unavoidable tension between a high view of theological knowledge and yet a low view of the independent capacities of humans to receive this knowledge.[1]

Christians have a high view of who God is. We believe that God is a self-revealing God. God is independent of us, and yet God makes God’s own self known to us.

And on the other side of the dilemma is the human reality. God reveals God’s self to us, but we have a low and mortal capacity to receive, accept, and understand this knowledge from God.

Even in the presence of the incarnate God, the disciples were confused and could not see. So how then can we possibly see?

Look at what miracle Mark describes right after the disciples failed to understand who Jesus was:

22 They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. 23 He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”

24 He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”

25 Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 26 Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into the village.”

Mark is saying loud and clear, “It is only through the touch of Jesus that we are given eyes to see.”

Diller says it like this: “Knowledge of God is only possible by means of the transforming gift of faith.”[2]

The disciples are the blind man.

We are the blind man.

So, let us follow in his footsteps. Drag ourselves to Jesus and beg Jesus to touch our eyes. It is only through this touch that we will get it. It is only through this touch that we will be able to see the world with the eyes of faith. It is only through this touch that we will be able to love our enemies. It is only through this touch that we will receive healing, wholeness, and redemption.

So follow me. I am going to be led by Jesus outside the village to get some spit on my eyes.

——————–

[1] Kevin Diller, Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma: How Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga Provide a Unified Response, Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2014)

[2] Ibid.

After a decade spent ministering to students and families in domestic and international contexts, Kelly Edmiston has developed a passion to equip the church for works of ministry. Kelly, originally from Abilene, Texas, is currently the Student and Family Minister at the First Colony Church of Christ in Sugar Land, TX. She will complete a Master of Divinity from Abilene Christian University in 2017. Her areas of interest are liberation theology, spiritual formation and practical theology. She enjoys “suburban life” with her husband Ben and two sons.

pulse 1

 

 

I was trying to get the attention of one of the kids at school the other day but the student wasn’t responding. At first, I thought he was in his own little world. Then as I said his name a bit louder, I decided he was flat out ignoring me. As I got even closer I wondered if something was wrong. Maybe he wasn’t ignoring me. Maybe his hearing needed checking. I was growing concerned. After all, this kid was one of the sweetest in the class. As I repeated his name, another teacher asked who I was calling. She laughed when I told her and then offered his correct name. It wasn’t that he hadn’t been listening. I had been calling the wrong name the entire time.

That story came to mind while I stood in the parking lot of the Pulse nightclub in downtown Orlando recently. The scene where 49 people were killed is our country’s deadliest mass shooting. Surrounded by the memorials left by friends and family, I fought the feeling that kept rising in the pit of my stomach. A feeling of despair and heartache; a feeling that, although evil’s days are numbered, it had won a battle that night. I thought of the mothers who had buried their precious children. The kids who would never again hear the sound of their parent’s voice. The siblings who would tearfully stare at the empty chair this holiday season. The loved ones who, with broken hearts, would never forget. I read the notes pinned to the fence that had been put up around the gray building. I stared at the pictures and the smiling faces now gone and it dawned on me that as a church we haven’t always done a good job of loving our neighbor. We do alright with the neighbor who looks, votes and lives pretty much the way we do. However, some neighbors don’t always fit the mold we have created. They love, live and sin differently. We aren’t nearly as brave as the expert of the law in Luke 10 when he asked Jesus point blankly who his neighbor was. Maybe we’re too afraid of what Jesus would say.

pulse 2

Empathy begins when we agree to meet others in their darkness. It flourishes when we refuse to cast stones and instead listen and care even when we don’t understand. It changes lives when we share our hope in Jesus as we call people by the name God bestowed on them. A name of love. A name of worth. A name God gave to the world long before the world had the inclination to rebel. A name spelled out in John 3:16. One given to all creation but especially to those created in his image. It was echoed again in Mark 12:30-31 when Jesus instructed those who were listening and those who would someday read. How often we forget that loving God and neighbor are also acts of salvation.

Jesus never said we would be known by where we stand on issues, how well we debate, boycott, vote, quote Scripture or lambaste those who live differently. As the bride of Christ, he instructed us to love so powerful and purposefully that it will become the very definition of who we are and why we’re here. We will be known by how well we love or by how well we don’t.

God wasn’t in our empty church building that Saturday night twiddling his thumbs waiting for our decent and orderly worship service the next day. No, he was in a Florida nightclub comforting those he had watched take their first breath. He loved them, wept for them and held them as they took their last.

If we want to change the world for Christ, then we need to be telling the world who they are. They are loved. They matter. They were made for a purpose. The one who is calling them is bigger than the lies and brokenness of this world. They were made in his image and he gave his only son so that they may have life. He will never leave nor forsake them. He will never disappoint or discourage.

People will never listen to us if we continue calling them by the wrong name. They know where we stand on issues. Church, let’s show our neighbors how well we love.

 

6 or 9Various version of this cartoon have floated around for some time. It is a great illustration of point of view and ultimately empathy. If we would each take a moment to walk around to the other side and look at something from a new angle we might not only come to a better understanding of an issue but we might also come to be a better understanding of and relationship with another person. What is true, right and wrong matter. So does loving and being considerate of others, even those we don’t see eye to eye with. Proving our point doesn’t have to come at the expense of another and destroying another person doesn’t make your position more appealing.

For some of us sensitive, analytical types confusion can lead to frustration and frustration is often taken out on the source. It is important that we slow ourselves down enough not only to try to understand if it truly is a 6 or a 9…both or neither…and make sure that in the way we handle the situation we don’t toss the fruit of the Spirit or the other person out the window in an effort to defend our rightness. We might just have something to learn that we hadn’t considered that we won’t learn until we walk around to the other side and give it a look. It actually strengthens our position if we have taken the time to consider alternatives and still come out holding to our original belief or a modified version of it. The truth has nothing to fear and neither should our relationships.

Let us consider things with someone rather than against them and that doesn’t mean you have to end up agreeing. We will all be better for it.

The same day my son earned a big academic achievement his senior year of high school, he had a wreck that was his fault. All in the accident were fine, but Jacob was understandably upset.

After the police and insurance information was exchanged and there was nothing else to do but handle the emotions of this accident, I spoke to my son.

“Remember how this feels.”

“Why?”

“Empathy.”

“Remember when your cousin had a wreck? Until this moment, could you really feel empathy for his wreck?”

Jacob shook his head and took a deep breath.

It wasn’t the time for preaching but for empathy. I told Jacob about the two wrecks I had that were my fault. I told him it’s just steel and plastic, and we thank God no one is hurt.

After school that day I checked in with Jacob’s emotions.

“How are you feeling, Jake?” He shrugged as high school boys often do.

“Could this be a way God allows humility on a day you could get the big head with your academic achievements?”

“You’ve been talking to Mom. That’s what she said.”

“We do talk, yes, and occasionally agree. Son, empathy is the difference between a self-serving person and one who serves others.”

He looked at me as he often does and his eyes asked for more explanation. Well, I think that’s what it was.

“If you don’t have empathy, you can’t imagine the pain of others, then you cannot rightly and effectively serve and lead others.”

OK, I think my son had enough learning from a fender bender! Empathy is huge for church leaders. But, how do we develop empathy?

How do we develop empathy?

You can’t choose all the events of your life. Many of the events you do not choose such as illness, accidents, and emotional pain are the very events that have great potential for developing empathy in you. You may not choose these events, but you can choose to develop empathy out of these events.

How do we deal with compassion fatigue or empathy drain?

The events surrounding the 2016 election, videoed police shootings, Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter movements have led us to many roadblocks in relationships. People in churches, businesses, neighbors, Facebook friends have hardened their positions and desire to hear only from people who think like they do. The more we merely listen and experience the lives of those who are like us, think like us, the less we will have empathy for others unlike us.

The gospel is bound up in empathy. God empathized with us in Christ, the incarnate One, Immanuel, God with us. “He who had no sin became sin for us that we might be the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

How do we get empathy back?

I’ve experienced compassion fatigue and empathy drain. Have you? When this happens, I find ways to recharge empathy. There are two ways you can recharge empathy. Listen. Do something.

In the church in which I preach, The Journey (www.thejourneychurch.faith), I went and listened at racial reconciliation rallies and also participated in an all-day “Policy Boot Camp” where I learned about state laws, budgets, expenditures, prisons, education, and health. The principle I followed is the empathy principle. I did two basic things we can all do: Listen. Do something. These two activities breed not dyspathy–the lack of empathy–but empathy.

Empathy is the coin of the realm of the Kingdom of God.

A smart person with no empathy breeds elitism.

A rich person with no empathy costs his family and neighbors more than his net worth. A rich person with empathy freely gives because she knows she is not a self made person.

A powerful person lacking empathy threatens peace. But a smart person with empathy promotes justice. A powerful person who speaks out for the power-stripped is following the example of the empathizing Christ.

Greg Taylor is preaching minister for The Journey: A New Generation Church of Christ in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Greg is author of several books including “Lay Down Your Guns: One Doctor’s Battle for Hope and Healing in Honduras” and “High Places: A Novel,” and has co-authored several books.

I grew up just outside of Saint Louis in a small town called Union. It was and I am sure still is a pretty blue collar town. We grew up with plenty of land to run around on and local restaurants to eat at. It wasn’t until we moved from there to North Alabama in 1992 that Union finally got a McDonalds. It was that small.

One of my memories of growing up there were the racial jokes. I won’t go into all the varieties these jokes existed in but they were numerous. What was not numerous was the number of racial minorities in the town. To the best of my memory there was one Black family in our entire school system.

Turns out, it is easy to joke about people you don’t know.

Stereotypes are abundant when exposure to diversity is scarce.

When we moved to North Alabama in 1992 I thought I was moving to a hotbed of racial prejudice. What I found was quite the opposite. What I found was that the more integrated things were the less racially insensitive jokes one heard. Turns out, it is harder to joke about people you know because you know deep down inside that the stereotypes are just not true.

I have found the same to be true in a number of other areas in my life. I grew up in a strongly Republican household. I didn’t really know that I knew any Democrats. I remember when I was 12 that someone said their dad was a Democrat and I said, “Eww!” Turns out there were a lot more Democrats out there, people I loved, that I just didn’t know their political affiliations.

This also turns out to be true of people outside Churches of Christ. It is easy to say they are all going to hell until you spend time with them. The insulation of my childhood made such exclusive soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) easy. What didn’t make that view easy was getting to know people from other “groups” who loved Jesus more than I did…who knew scripture better than I did…and whose fruit of the Spirit was more abundant than my own.

Empathy is impossible toward people you don’t spend time with. Stereotypes and harsh judgment come easy in the absence of information via real life experiences and relationships.

Last, consider these words from scripture and spend a few moments considering if there is anything you need to change in your attitude toward people who either are not like you or people you don’t really even know at all,

19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.” – James 1:19-21

10 You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11 It is written:

“‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
    every tongue will acknowledge God.’”

12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.

13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister...Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” – Romans 14:10-13, 19

the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” – Galatians 5:22-26

Like anything, empathy can be a healthy part of life or an unhealthy one depending on how it is being used. Edwin Friedman wasn’t a big fan of empathy because empathy can be a tool used to keep stuck systems stuck and dysfunctional systems dysfunctional. Empathy can hijack a relationship or a system and keep people from moving forward because in hurting with those who hurt it can make it more difficult to move forward in a way that is actually good for the people in the system.

I agree with his analysis but I don’t think that discounts our need for healthy empathy that comes from a well defined sense of self. In fact, I believe that healthy empathy can actually reinforce our own sense of identity rather than hijack it as we begin to understand how our feelings and the feelings of others are not always the same, even when experiencing the same things.

Today in churches just as much as in corporations or even politics, we see empathy used as a coercive force. This is not true empathy because empathy cannot be forced. If I can force you to hurt with those who hurt then I can keep you from fixing the actual problems that might actually alleviate some of the hurt. I have seen arguments in churches boil down to one party claiming to be the “weaker brother” in order to get their way! Talk about coercion via empathy and a twisting of the scriptures to win the day! That is a demand more than anything else and, again, you cannot force someone else to have empathy for you. In other words, that is a demand to put yourself in my shoes in order to allow my position to win the discussion, regardless of what is truly best or right.

Empathy can be skewed. It can be abused.

Instead of being coerced into empathy, we should be welcome it and experience it as people who are people of compassion and mercy.

Empathy still has a place in the lives of Christ-followers. Paul tells us as much in 1 Corinthians 12 where the all the parts of the church body both suffer and rejoice together. That is not supposed to be unhealthy enmeshment in the church where the whole body shuts down because the finger got a hangnail or the eye got a stye. Instead, it is supposed to be a process of mutual support and encouragement that doesn’t drag the body down, rather it lifts the body up.

So be empathetic and learn how to spot forced, manipulated empathy for what it is.

“God just needed another angel,” said more than a few people after learning that our son had died.

“No, he doesn’t,” my wife and I would silently scream. “God, doesn’t need any more angels!”

That was fourteen years ago. My wife and I began keeping a list of things people would say, always with good intentions, which were neither helpful nor encouraging. You know, sayings like the one I just mentioned or a saying like “God never gives us more than we can handle” with the implication that God will get us through this. Or saying like… Well, you understand what I’m getting at. These responses might sound good on a Hallmark card and sometimes they are even evoke scripture but like trying to heal a shotgun wound with a mere bandaid, these responses do little, if anything, for the deep grief and pain of losing a child.

In The Wilderness of Grief and Pain

            In the fourteen years since losing Kenny, I have talked with many other parents who have journeyed down this long road of suffering. From those whose children were born silently, to those who lost their children as babies, and those whose children died later in life from illness, injury, etc… The grief and pain is a new season in life more akin to wandering in a wilderness rather than just a bad week or two. Though over time people can learn to live with such suffering, the loss doesn’t disappear and there isn’t any “getting over it.”

While faith in Christ along with the love of God revealed in Christ is the basis for hope, it makes the suffering more difficult in some aspects. After all, where was this loving God and why has he allowed this child to die? This pilgrimage for such suffers, through months and even years of gray skies, carries a burden that often seems almost unbearable.

And sometimes the burden is unbearable!

In my journey down this darkened path, I learned to pray with the words from what has become my favorite hymn, “Be still, my soul, the Lord is on thy side. Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.” But sometimes the journey seemed so difficult and left me without words. My only thought was that echoed by the Psalmist who says, “I was too troubled to speak” (Ps 77:4).

Fortunately though, one of God’s many blessings was expressed by the presence of some caring Christians who journeyed with my wife and I. They didn’t try to theologize for God about why our son died and they didn’t try to heal the pain with quick antidotes. Instead they listened to our pain, our struggles, our big faith questions. They wept with us and mourned the loss of our child with us. And over time, as they walked with us in grief, listening and grieving with us, they were able to empathize. That empathy, which came from enduring this pain with us, gave them the ability to help us navigate the troubling seas we were in. That is, by enduring with us, my wife and I were open to their guidance which they were able to offer because they were with us listening, grieving, and learning to empathize.

Empathetic Presence

            As a minister, I have witnessed other examples of horrific suffering. It’s the sort of persistent suffering that Billman and Migliore describe as creating “an abyss of speechlessness for the person in pain” (Rachel’s Cry, p. 105). It might be the sudden death of a child or spouse but it could also be a young husband and father who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. It might be the college freshman who was sexually assaulted on what she thought was supposed to be a friendly date or maybe it’s that man at church whose wife of fifteen years has filed for divorce after confessing to having a long affair with another man. Perhaps such suffering is the plight of a mother whose life long battle with depression is now at a crisis point as she struggles to care for her new born baby. Or perhaps it is that bachelor who struggles with his sexual identity and attraction to other men but is scared of what others, especially his parents and church family, will say if they knew. Maybe its that friend who has just entered into Alcohol Anonymous or maybe it…

My point is that suffering comes in a multitude of ways and just because I may not have experienced a particular form of suffering doesn’t make it any less real. While there are occasions when people will need some sort of professional help, what all suffers need is a friend or friends who walk with them in their sufferings. Really, what sufferers need is a church who will reserve judgments and patiently bear with them in love.

In discussing how to practice sincere love, Paul instructs the church to “mourn with those who mourn” (Rom 12:15) among other things. Our ability to mourn with those who are mourning is a result of our empathy towards others as we spend time listening and suffering together. This is about the presence of God among us, embodying the grace we have received from God by extending grace to those who are hurting as we walk the road of suffering together.

The difficulty stems in part from the messy and complicated challenges faced as we walk with others on the road of suffering. It’s a journey that will challenge our faith to varying degrees and one that defies any easy answers. But that’s ok! We trust in God even when we have more questions than answers.

Sometimes people wonder about what to say when someone is suffering. But worry not, since other than saying “I’m sorry!” there isn’t anything a person can say that will make the grief and pain any better. Words don’t bring back someone who has died, they don’t erase an act of evil committed against another, etc… But presence, being their to listen and hurt with the hurting, to mourn with those who mourn is the ministry of the church to those who suffer. When those who suffer find such a church, what they find is a people and place where God is with them in the wilderness leading them towards his promise of hope.

Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen.” – Psalm 77:19

K. Rex Butts

Chillicothe, MO

EmpathyI don’t understand you and you probably don’t understand me. But we can try. If I am only to care about those who are just like me that isn’t anything more than loving myself…that the closer you are to who I am the easier it is I find myself loving you. The true challenge is in loving someone who is different enough from myself to test whether or not what I am feeling and deciding truly is love.

Jesus said this in Matthew 5,

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

If I could amend this a bit, I would add to verse 46 “For if you love only those who are exact duplicates of yourself, what kind of love is that?”

We are different…we will never be entirely the same and yet our differences don’t need to exclude us from loving each other and even in finding unity. If unity is to be found. Our differences don’t require us to be unloving. Those differences might just be exactly what we need in order to learn what it means to truly be human…to learn and love someone who is not an exact duplicate of myself.

Our world needs empathy and empathy presupposed differences. If we have no differences then empathy would not be necessary. We need to go the extra mile in trying to understand each other. I am afraid social media has conditioned many of us to use gut level, lightning fast reactions rather than consider, well thought out considerations of the other person.

I wish I could say as Christians we were masters at empathy. Jesus modeled it for us in taking on flesh and experiencing every temptation we experience. We should do the same for others.

One caveat. Unhealthy empathy is where empathy destroys our ability to self-differentiate. Unhealthy empathy is enmeshment. This is where I go beyond understanding and enmesh my identity and feelings into what I see in you. I believe we can be empathetic and self-differentiated. In doing so we come to understand self and other in more accurate and helpful terms.

So let us learn from each other. Let us listen in on perspectives that are not our own. Let us learn to love people in spite of the fact they are not clones of ourselves. In doing so, I believe we will draw closer to the heart of God and what it means to be truly human.