Practice having empathy

By Bill Clements' email='

As many people on Mercer Island know, I serve two days a week as a chaplain in the King County Jail System and Harborview Trauma Center. I am also pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church on Mercer Island. What a privilege God has afforded me. In my work at the jail and hospital I am guided by the Bible. One of my favorite readings is from Hosea. The Prophet Hosea speaks words of comfort to the lowest segment of society. "His appearing is as sure as the dawn; he will come to us like showers." But to the privileged he said: "I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice." (Hosea 6:3) Jesus also teaches by word and example about who needs God's presence and healing.

Our community on the Island always has struggled to understand how this works. Who really needs God? The tradition of the prophets, culminating in Jesus, has been to speak for those who really need God the most: the "sick" who need healing.

This makes me think of a controversy in Butte, Mont., that I read about recently. It concerns whether the sad lives of thousands of prostitutes active during the town's mining boom of the past should be remembered. Some apparently would rather forget about the misery of these unfortunate women. Apparently those who consider themselves "righteous" and "godly" have no empathy for the plight of the prostitutes. So why are the "righteous" so righteous? Perhaps it's because they cling to the apparent contradiction between humans' common sinfulness and our dignity and blessedness. It is not either/or but both/and as my friends remind me regularly. We get into weird kinds of thinking when we do not embrace the "both/and." We can all be "prostitutes" in our own secret lives and attitudes.

It's interesting, too, how easy is would be to breed this moral superiority into their children -- and how important it is not to. I remember as a teenager having friends who, when I allowed it, could get me into bad situations. So as a parent I try to teach my children to stay away from those influences. But I understand that while I want my kids to maintain high moral values -- and therefore caution them against hanging out with "friends" who might lead them astray -- I have empathy for those "friends." Nowhere do we hear that Jesus condoned destructive attitudes and behavior. Neither do we hear that he gave up on or left anyone behind, even those who apparently weren't interested in doing anything about allowing their lives to be changed.

Jesus was quite clear about avoiding any sense of moral superiority. I wonder if we don't all sometimes forget this, and let ourselves imagine that we are somehow better than others. True humility is accepting ourselves as we are with all of our strengths and weaknesses, mistakes and successes. This is a lifelong project. From the perspective of humility we all need the divine physician. As the prophet Hosea says, those who acknowledge their own need, and identify with the social outcast, will be the ones who receive the soaking rain of divine mercy and presence.

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