Learning how to care

Welcome_Hands_1Caring for others is a habit to be learned.

One of the hardest classes I took in seminary was not theology or philosophy.  It was not even Hebrew or Greek.  It was pastoral care.

The aim of pastoral care is to teach students how to listen, confront conflict, counsel and give referrals, and have empathy.  In short, the class is a crash-course in cultivating a “pastoral presence.”

You might assume that having a pastoral presence–the ability to reflect compassion and care in every situation–is something that God gives every pastor as a gift.  That assumption is wrong.  It is hard to learn empathy and compassion, and such lessons must be honed over time.

In fact, everyone needs to learn how to care for others.  It is not a trait that we perfect just because we are human.

A recent article in the Washington Post finds that caring for others, being compassionate, and having empathy are critical values and practices that adults must teach children and one another.

Unfortunately, teaching people how to care is not high on the priority list of things to do.  We take it for granted.

The article highlights Harvard psychologist, Richard Weissbourd, whose research shows that nearly 80% of youths said that their parents were more concerned about their achievements than about how they–the youths–cared for others.

“Children are not born simply good or bad and we should never give up on them. They need adults who will help them become caring, respectful, and responsible for their communities at every stage of their childhood,” Weissbourd said.

Teaching people to care for others must be intentional and strategic.  It must also inspire sensitivity and curiosity about other cultures, faiths, and communities.

And if people have to learn how to care for others, then it stands to reason that churches need to learn the same.

Many years ago, Trinity had a meeting to discuss the direction of the church and its ministries.  In the middle of that meeting, a couple who had attended the church for less than a year spoke up:

“We have been here for some time now, but no one has invited us over for dinner or to an outing.  No one has taken the time to get to know us.”

The whole congregation was flabbergasted and left speechless.   It was embarrassing, but it challenged us to improve our care for each other.

The church made an intentional effort to learn how to welcome guests, build a community of care, and establish ministries that helped people connect with God, with one another, and with the larger community.

It was not easy.  We literally had to tell parishioners how to greet guests and what to say when they saw an unfamiliar face.

We also had to teach churchgoers that the chairs in the sanctuary were not theirs–they may be asked to sit in different places if a new family took up residency in their favorite spots.

Over time, the entire culture of Trinity changed.  I went from asking specific people to greet guests to simply watching people greet guests on their own initiative.

Effective follow-up also improved over time: when guests returned to church, people welcomed them back, not approached them as if it was their first time.

Caring for others had to be taught indeed.

Unfortunately, we live in an age in which the individual and the individual’s needs often trumps the needs of others.  Our policies reflect it, our rhetoric perpetuates it, and our economics thrive on it.

Yet, when we bow before our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, whose care for others set an example for how we are to live, practice community, and enlarge our compassionate embrace, we find that caring for others takes precedence over our own needs, wishes, and wants.


Empathy matters in the high court of the heart

Be ready for the next big political showdown. As Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens prepares to resign from the highest court in the nation, politicians, the president and pundits will debate who will replace him. No doubt, in today’s political climate, it will be an arduous road.

Usually justice candidates fall in one of two camps. One camp includes the strict, or conservative, constructionalists. These justices look at the Constitution as something fixed and literal; justices do not seek to define or make policy so much as police the traditions of the American legal system.

The second camp is made up of the loose, or liberal, constructionalists. These justices, Stevens included, see the Constitution as a living, breathing document that contains principles that transcend time. These justices are said to utilize empathy to help enlighten how the Constitution can shape a more perfect union.

The intriguing aspect of this debate, which I have incorporated in my government class a time or two, focuses on to what degree a judge commingles justice with empathy. Justices that lean too heavily on empathy risk having their feelings override legal precedent, whereas justices that have very little empathy seem to already have their minds made up about certain cases even before lawyers deliver opening statements.

Although the media always presents these two camps in absolutist terms, the truth is that many justices fall somewhere in the middle when it comes to empathy. Judges decide cases to the letter of the law, but also seek to understand how human communities shape the laws being applied.

As Christians, we are called to be just and merciful in all situations. We have no choice but to show empathy when we relate to our neighbors, families, and coworkers because empathy is something God gives us in order to understand others.

Empathy is not about, as Sean Hannity once declared, “social engineering.” Empathy is not so mechanical or predictable that it can be applied to “fix” society.

Rather, empathy is a personal commitment to invest in the feelings, disparities, and needs of another. This requires an ability to listen to others and to one’s own feelings, all the while examining our responses to situations. Empathy acknowledges context and ambiguity, compromise and development.

A rich story of empathy can be found in Mark 8, in which Jesus and his disciples fed a crowd of four thousand. In the story, Jesus taught the crowd over the course of several days, and the crowd grew hungry.

The text says that Jesus was moved with compassion. Jesus’ empathy became a catalyst for a miracle, and a mere handful of food fed the multitudes.

The greatest lesson of this story comes at the end. The Pharisees, known for their staunch reading of Old Testament Law, had little use for empathy. If an individual broke the law and any one of its 600-plus commandments, then the individual was punished without hesitation.

Jesus called this line of legalistic thinking — a type of thinking that fails to see the human equation in the midst of law — “yeast” that infects a social community. So, I guess in a way, empathy is social engineering in that it allows God to engineer our motivation in helping others and coming to terms with the precedent that Jesus’ compassion set so long ago in the high court of the human heart.

The debate over empathy and its role in the justice system will go on for decades, but for Christians who follow the compassionate Christ, the debate of how we are to respond to others was settled long ago.