October 23, 2016

For relaxation I like to watch authors share portions of their new book and then take questions from the audience, a bookstore found somewhere across the United States. Usually I just type “Politics and Prose”, the name of my all-time favorite bookstore (Washington, DC), into the youtube search engine. Many authors and book titles appear and then I scroll down till I find a topic or author that holds my interest. Last Sunday I did this and felt immediately drawn to Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It by Roman Krznaric.

Krznaric was drawn to this topic from life experience, his mother died of breast cancer when he was 10 years old. The shock and numbness he experienced caused Krznaric to emotionally shut down and he was unable to feel empathy for many years. As a writer he set out to understand two things, 1) can someone who does not know how to empathize learn empathy and 2) what are the most effective ways we can empathize with each other? In the presentation Krznaric shared that he did learn empathy and that the research conclusively shows that empathy is best understood and experienced when we learn to put ourselves in another’s shoes. The “technique” of empathy is to find ways to understand the other, to feel and think about how the other person thinks and feels. Getting to a place where you can appreciate what the other is going through so you can respond accordingly.

What I learned from the author is that the tone and kindness of the listener is less important than act of seeking conversation with those around us, particularly those who are different than us. I had thought, from my years of experience in pastoral support, that how we sit, the tone of our voice, the specific kind of questions we ask, the gentle manner we would conduct ourselves, these would make for a sensitive and empathetic approach. But the author had other ideas. It’s not that these qualities don’t matter. Of course they do! It is rather that the act of conversation with others, trying to understand them, is the real work of empathy. And deeper empathy is often found when we stretch ourselves beyond our social network, having conversation with people who we would not normally meet.

Which brings me to humility. Humility and empathy meet in our lectionary text for the day, Luke 18:9-14. Listen to this conversation: Jesus told this story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people: Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this taxman. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’ Meanwhile the taxman, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’ Jesus commented, this taxman, not the other, went homemade right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself. If we treat others as less than ourselves, if we treat others as holding nothing of value to ourselves other than people we can compare ourselves with, if there is a fundamental separation between “us and them” we cannot possibly have empathy and we are most assuredly not humble.

I know our tendency is to look at these matters at ground level, to think how we would react if such a conversation happened to us. I can just hear my late mother hearing this text in church leaning over and whispering in my ear, “How dare that big mucky-muck be so stuck up and Lord it over that poor little man, if I was there I’d have a mind to give him a puck in the mouth!” That is a ground level reaction. That is how we process things when we only think “what would I do if that happened to me.” Let’s look at this with some dispassionate distance and ask why this conversation is important to the Christian journey.

From the beginning of Creation God makes it clear that “We are not alone”, that Creation is a form of companionship for the Creator. Relationship is in our DNA since we are made in the image of our Creator and our Creator does not wish to be alone. Likewise we are not meant to live alone, we are made to live in relationship, as partners, as family, as neighbours, as sisters and brothers in Christ. To go through life as if we are separate, divorced from the other, where the other is a rival, a competitor, a threat, someone who is less than or more than us, is to be at odds with the very ethos of how and why we were made.

To dig deeper into this text I read the section in Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus by scholar Klyne R. Snodgrass that addresses this story. Snodgrass draws a straight line between this story and the story of the Prodigal Son. There is the taxman who is humble and broken and a younger brother who has lost his father’s inheritance on immoral living. On the other end of the story are the righteous Pharisee and the elder brother who never left his father’s side. Time and again in Luke’s gospel the one who thinks he has it all together is one the author describes as lacking. Meanwhile the contrite one who is honest about his weakness and shortcomings is the one who receives grace and new life. Humility is a quality born of honest reflection and social need. The lack of humility seems to come from an arrogant assumption that successful people don’t need each other, begging the question “Does the successful one need God?”

Snodgrass makes it clear that if we were to meet this Pharisee today we would be looking up to him. In their time Pharisees were “highly respected, considered righteous, scrupulous in every way.” Pharisees went beyond the law; they gave more, shared more, worked harder, worshipper more often and carried themselves in the most dignified manner. If one of them came to Bethany today we would be falling all over ourselves to recruit her/him to serve as an Elder, a Board member, a Trustee! And we would not like the tax collector. Leave aside your personal feelings about paying taxes. What we need to understand is that these tax collectors were Jews collecting tax from other Jews and giving it to the Roman Empire who used the funds to employ the army and police state necessary to maintain order. Jews hated these taxes and that made the tax collectors traitors! Worse, tax collectors not only collected the Roman tax they also collected a sum over and above the tax for themselves.

But the tax collector needs God and he needs others. Having made mistakes the tax collector is more apt to see why and how others make mistakes and fall short of the mark. The Pharisee on the other hand is less apt to take account of how others fail, how others need help, how others struggle to get by. The tax collector is throwing up his arms and asking God for help. The Pharisee does not need God, or anyone else for that matter.

It’s interesting that in our church culture we see most people being very careful not to brag or draw attention to her/himself. In church culture persons are far more humble in receiving praise or blowing their own horn than in the culture at large. But digging a little deeper, many of us have a hard time admitting we need help, that we don’t know something, and that we have something to gain from the wisdom of others. If that is a mark of humility we have work to do!

To admit like the tax collector that we make mistakes and need God, that we need each other, this is a huge step for those of us in the church. While we may not look down our noses at others like the Pharisee we would share a common feeling that the other likely has little to offer us. For that matter what does God have to offer us?

Being kind to others is a function of a gentle and caring spirit. And in the world of church we have this. But what is hard for us is trying to be kind to those who are different than us and that is because we spend so little time with others who are different. If we had conversation with others, heard other’s stories, and really tried to put ourselves in their shoes, imagine what that would do for our empathy? But to do that requires us to be humble, humble that we don’t know all that we need to know and that the other has something to teach us.

This week I was made aware that Tragically Hip leader singer Gord Downie has a new project. In the midst of his battle with terminal cancer Downie has been having conversations with First Nations people and one story in particular has touched his heart. It’s the story of 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack who years ago tried to find a secret path out of his residential school back to his own people. Charlie died on the journey, trying to get home. Downie couldn’t get that story out of his head.

What I took away from that story is how empathy led to humility and how humility led to empathy. As Downie reached out to hear a story from another place he learned something deep inside himself, his journey to find home. Downie feels healing from this empathy but he would never have found this teaching if it were not for the understanding that others have something to teach him. Hearing other’s stories is part of life’s journey.

May we be blessed with the spirit of humility, the need of others, and may we also be blessed with the spirit of empathy, knowing the experiences and perspectives of others, so that together we may love each other, understand one another and heal one another. Amen.