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The Burden of Empathy

By August 1, 2009 No Comments

The scripture says that Christians
should bear one another’s burdens.
Why? I realize that may be a heretical
thought to have while sitting in church,
but still, it is a good question.

I have enough stuff in my life. Bearing
another’s burden is extra stuff in this era
of efficiencies, cut backs, and downsizing.
Everyone should take care of their own
is the adopted philosophy. Don’t political
parties expect to win votes
with that argument?

The next time I hear the
statement from someone
with a haughty, disdainful
attitude about attending
church–someone who says
that he or she is “spiritual,
but not religious,” that they
don’t “do” church–I am going
to look at them through narrowed eyes.
I am going to give that same look to the
person who says that they find God on the
golf course on Sunday morning, or that “it
is the only day of the week to sleep in,” or
all the other excuses that people use to
suggest that they are somehow superior to
those who attend church. Often, their attitudinal
subtext is that they are more authentic
and elevated spiritually.

I think I understand what is really
going on in their lives. I wonder if many
people do not attend church in an effort to
avoid the burden of empathy.

I attended my home church recently
and was struck with how much time was
taken up with the announcements. One
person had recent heart bypass surgery.
Another person is undergoing chemotherapy.
There was one who was released from
the hospital thanking people for their concerns,
but testing continues and doctors
are unsure what is wrong.

From my perch in the balcony, I could
see recent widows. A family walked down
the aisle for communion who had lost a
child to suicide and another family lost
both a son and grandson
in a tragic accident. It goes
on and on. The person who
is losing a house due to
foreclosure was there that
morning. The person sitting
several pews over lost a job,
and there were many people
who have had hours reduced
at work and now struggle to
make ends meet. I saw people who were
helped with heating bills this past winter.

The anxiety of all this is a bit overwhelming
for me. Since I know these people,
the empathy for their struggle, their
pain, their loss was like heaping one more
straw on the back of my proverbial camel.
The whole experience was ratcheted up
even further when I found out the sermon
that morning focused on a recent mission
trip to Haiti.

Intellectually, we know that many
places in the world have hardships that we
do not experience in this country. Many
church goers and non church goers give
maybe a dollar a day, like those commercials
on TV suggest we do. But it is different
when local adults and teenagers report
about the poverty, the lack of shoes,
the hopes that a bag of rice might bring to a family, or the cup of cold water that
was given. And then, when those who are
reporting on their experience in Haiti feel
such deep empathy that they break down
in front of the congregation–the anxiety
is raised even higher. I hate it when adult
males cry in front of people! Jeepers! Why
am I even in church?

I am thinking that those who are not
in church are cowards. Why do we do this?
I haven’t yet mentioned the pastoral prayer
where the pastor prays for the whole world.
Oh crap! We take a tour in the prayer of the
all the hot spots on earth, the Middle East,
Africa, people in poverty across the globe,
the pain of suffering of people that I don’t
know. The mental illness that abounds in
folks. People in depression and despair.
We prayed for other churches in this country
and across earth. People, who because
of their sense of calling, are separated
from loved ones. All who struggle were remembered.
The point is that I could have
watched a sunrise somewhere that morning.
Or walked all morning in a park, or
played a round of golf. I could have avoided
all of this by just sleeping in that day.

Call it an epiphany. Call it whatever
you want. But it takes courage to open
oneself up emotionally to the pain of others.
It takes courage to consider what can
be done, to remember and deal with the
burdens that others bear in this world. I
know that I saw lots of people that Sunday
morning from the balcony, different ages,
different abilities, different gifts, but the
common element was that they were there.
And it showed courage.

So I want to congratulate the churchgoers.
I want to thank them for their concerns
and for their prayers. Whatever is
done about the problems in this world starts
with empathy and concern that is eventually
translated into action. To open oneself
up to the all these people, to begin to feel
what they feel, even in a little way–Wow!
That is courage! People who attend church
don’t have to do this, but they go willingly,
to care for others, to bear their burdens. I
think it is amazing that anyone is there at
all on Sunday morning.

I admit that one of the main reasons that I attend church is to lift my heart
and spirit a little. The choir can do it if
they sing a song that has some depth to
it. Hymns can do it, if we don’t sing the
same words for twenty minutes at a time.
The scripture and the sermon can do it if
they open a window to the Spirit, even if
it is just a crack. I don’t have to be moved
very far–just enough to have an intellectual
or emotive shift from where I was when I
walked into the church that morning. The
prayers can help if the Spirit is tapped for
our collected frustration and concerns.

But now, as I look around the church
to see all the faces and variations of people,
I am going to be impressed by the courage
I see. They don’t have to be there. They
don’t have to open themselves up to bear
the burdens of others. This is something
totally extra in a busy world where all of us
are taking on too much and going too fast.
Now, I have a new appreciation. They are
doing all this because they want to fulfill
the law of Christ. Wow!

Jim Hibma is a specialized minister of the Reformed
Church in America, serving as the director of Crossroads,
a social service agency in Pella, Iowa.