Tag Archives: Empathy

“That Story Is My Story”

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Come and hear, all you who fear God;
    let me tell you what he has done for me.

Psalm 66:16 (NIV)

It’s been a number of years since I’ve been on stage. Other than a bit part in a friends movie short in which I played a creepy figure in some guys sub-conscious, I have to tax my memory to recall the last part I played that required me to do the work of character analysis. The process of character analysis is, for me, where all the fun is.

Character analysis is a process of peeling back the character you are embodying layer by layer. The playwright gave you the words and the story. Now you begin to dig into who this person really is. This character may have been played a thousand times by the best actors in the world, but not by me. I don’t want to mimic what other actors have done. I want to understand the character myself. What does he look like? How does he walk? How does his voice sound? What is it he wants, and that is it that drives him? How does he feel about every other character in the play?

In the process of character development, I find connections of both sympathy and empathy with my character. The character is going through a divorce. Oh yeah, I sympathize with that because I’ve been through it. It’s not going to be hard for me to feel those feelings on stage. I’ve been there. I’ve never murdered another person, however, so I have no clue what that kind of remorse feels like. So, maybe I need to read different stories or confessions of actual murderers so that I can begin to empathize and cognitively identify with those feelings.

As I read through and identify with the Great Story, one of the things I’ve learned is that God uses story because we find a connection to ourselves, our lives, and our stories in the story. A couple of years ago I gave a message during the season of Lent predicated on the James Bond movie, Skyfall. I know. It was a bold choice. I wasn’t sure I would ever be asked back! The message was really about where we find ourselves in the story of Jesus’ final week on earth. I asked people to make a connection between our life and a character in the story. Am I…

the betrayer?
the denier?
the grieving mother?
the religious rule-keeper?
the crowd member shouting “Crucify him!”?
the fearful follower running for cover?
the doubter demanding evidence?

One of the most important things in reading and studying the Great Story is finding the personal connections to my story.

In today’s chapter, Psalm 66, the songwriter does something very interesting in the lyrics. At the beginning of the song he writes, “Come and see what God has done” and then references the Hebrew story of God leading them out of slavery, through the trials of the wilderness, and into the Promise Land. In the last stanza, the songwriter then says, “Come and hear what God has done for me.” He then describes God hearing his prayer and answering it, ending with words of praise. He found a connection between what God had done for him and what God had done for the Hebrews in the exodus.

Been there. Done that. That story is my story.

In the quiet this morning, this song of thanksgiving for answered prayer, guidance, and provision is connecting with me as my heart and mind prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday coming up. In a year filled with so many trials, I have so much with which I can be thankful; there’s so much, in faith, I have to look forward to.

That’s a good thought for a Monday morning heading into the workweek. I find myself mindful of God’s goodness to me on the road I’ve traveled, thankful for where God has me on this day, and hopeful of where God is leading me in the journey ahead.

Want to Read More?

Click on the image, or click here, to be taken to a simple, visual index of all the posts in this series from the book of Psalms.

There is also a list of recent chapter-a-day series indexed by book.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Side-Note to the Lowly Scribe

Should you then seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them. For I will bring disaster on all people, declares the Lord, but wherever you go I will let you escape with your life.
Jeremiah 45:5 (NIV)

History records the words and lives of those who were “great” in their time. Little is said, however, about those who surrounded these individuals, walked the journey with them, served them, and witnessed the events of that person’s life and times.

In today’s very brief chapter (only five verses!), we have a fascinating historical side note given to Jeremiah’s servant and scribe, Baruch. Baruch was the son of a man named Neriah. Baruch took Jeremiah’s dictation and wrote Jeremiah’s prophetic messages down on scrolls. Jeremiah’s never-ending stream of doomsday prophecies certainly took its toll on Baruch. I’m sure he would have appreciated an open prescription of Zoloft had it been available in the day.

The other interesting thing we learn from the anthology of Jeremiah’s life and work is that Baruch had a brother named Seraiah who was a servant of King Zedekiah and who ultimately accompanied Zed when he was taken captive to Babylon. So in the back story of today’s chapter we have a tale of two brothers.

Seraiah served the King and was afforded all the worldly power, comfort, and privilege of being in the royal entourage. Baruch, on the other hand, was the lowly scribe of the unpopular Jeremiah. Jeremiah was reviled by the king and those in power. He faced continual death threats. He was belittled, insulted, laughed at, and eventually imprisoned. Baruch was right there by Jeremiah’s side, enduring it all right along with him. Seraiah got to serve Cabernet to the King while Baruch followed a naked Jeremiah through the streets of Jerusalem listening to the insults of passersby and wanting to slink under the nearest rock. Baruch felt the weight of Jeremiah’s gloomy predictions, and he seems to have felt fraternal frustration of not measuring up to the success his brother found.

Today’s chapter is a short but very specific prophetic word from God through Jeremiah, to the scribe Baruch. Yes, God tells him, there are bad times coming. Don’t worry about greatness and success (FYI: your successful brother is going to end up a captive in Babylon). There’s a lot of bad stuff coming, but no matter what happens and where you end up, you’ll escape with your life.

This morning I’m thinking about a conversation Wendy and I had just last night on our patio. Our life journeys lead us to places where we walk along side events that are really happening to others. We witness them. We feel for those involved, but the truth is that we are not intimately a part of the event itself. I’ve learned that this is an important distinction to see and to make. My ego likes to make everything about me, so I take on other peoples events and circumstances and make them about me, my feelings, and my life.

I’m reminded by today’s little side-note of a chapter that God not only sees and knows the heart and circumstances of the great prophets, but also the lowly scribe who his quietly playing his own little role in the Great Story. I sometimes feel that I’m in a culture where I’m expected to react to every news story, empathize with every victim, and take on every cause. Silly. Baruch’s journey was not his brother’s journey nor was it really his boss’. His journey was his own.

God knows, I’ve got my own journey to walk. I don’t need to take on another’s.

Once Upon a Time…

Once upon a time
Once upon a time (Photo credit: steveczajka)

Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story—
Psalm 107:2a (NIV)

This past Friday night a group of friends gathered at our house to read that latest draft of a play I wrote, which is entitled Ham Buns and Potato Salad. The play is slated to be produced by our local community theatre in April and I’ve been scrambling to make a couple of major revisions to the script. Friday night was an opportunity to hear the script, and my changes, read by other voices and to get a feel for what is working, and what is not.

The play is about the stories of a small group of people in a small Iowa town. It is rooted in my experiences of living for three years in a very small town along with bits and pieces of many real stories people have shared with me over the years. In particular, the play revolves around one young woman’s story, which she herself has refused to share with anyone in the town for over a decade. Her refusal to tell her story has become a legendary piece of town gossip and the source of endless speculation. The play deals with the unforeseen circumstances which bring the young woman to share her story and her secret.

I find it interesting that the psalmist didn’t write “Let the redeemed of the Lord:”

  • …tell others what to do.”
  • …make a lot of rules.”
  • …appear perfect.”
  • …act like they’ve got it all together.”
  • …hide their faults.”
  • …judge others.”

I love that the are encouraged to share our stories. We all have stories, and I love to hear other people’s stories. I find them fascinating. Once I have heard a person’s story I understand them better, appreciate them more, and have a greater capacity to love them. The world would be a better place if we all took the time to share and listen to one another’s stories. I love the fact that Jesus wrapped His teaching in stories, and I enjoy being a storyteller, which is why I wrote Ham Buns and Potato Salad.

This week we will all gather with family and friends to share meals, open gifts, worship, play games, and watch football. Today, I am challenging myself and all who read this blogpost to intentionally take the time to ask for, and listen to, another person’s story:

  • Grandma, how did you and grandpa meet? Tell me about falling in love with him.
  • Dad, what was your favorite toy when you were a kid?
  • Tell me mom, what was a typical Christmas when you were young?
  • Tell me, nephew, what is it you are passionate about?
  • What was the high point and low point of this past year for you?
  • What was the naughtiest thing you did as a kid?
  • How did you end up in your career? Are you glad? What did you want to do?
  • Nobody talks about Uncle Sid. What’s his story?
  • Where’s the most exotic place you’ve traveled? What was it like?
  • What is your biggest regret in life thus far?

Trust me, the holidays will be much more enjoyable if people share their stories.

Chapter-a-Day Proverbs 25

Better Off Dead
Better Off Dead (Image via RottenTomatoes.com)

Singing cheerful songs to a person with a heavy heart 
      is like taking someone’s coat in cold weather 
      or pouring vinegar in a wound.
Proverbs 25:20 (NLT) 

I grew up with John Cusack‘s teen angst comedy Better Off Dead. It was a cult classic back in the day. The film is about the travails of Cusack’s character, Lane, whose girlfriend dumps him for the captain of the Ski team. Lane goes into a deep depression and the results are extremely comical.

There’s one great scene that flashed in my head this morning when I read the proverb above from today’s chapter. The day after getting dumped, Lane gets in his parent’s station wagon to drive to school. Of course, on the radio he immediately hears Neil Sedaka singing the chipper tune Breaking Up is Hard to Do. He switches the station again and again, but every song is a frustratingly inappropriate reminder of getting dumped. The scene cuts to an exterior shot of the car as Lane chucks the car’s radio, which has clearly been ripped from the dashboard, out the window.

Comedies tickle our funny bone by creating situations to which we can all relate. No one wants to hear Neal Sedaka’s eternally cheery voice, with doo-wop girls behind him, reminding you that you just got dumped. You want to hear a Lead Belly or B.B. King wailing out the blues. You want to hear a good angry thrashing song to scream out your pain and frustration.

To King Solomon’s point, a friend is someone who is going to empathize with you in your time of need. When you’re walking through a deep, dark valley in life, a friend will recognize where you are and will join you there so they can be your companion as you make your way out of it.

Today, I’m thankful for great friends who knew not to play cheerful songs when my heart was heavy. I hope I have, and will be, an empathetic friend to my companions in their own times of need.

Chapter-a-Day Matthew 9

tear
Image via Wikipedia

When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke. So confused and aimless they were, like sheep with no shepherd. Matthew 9:36 (MSG)

The prophet Ezekiel said that God would take away our heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh. I thought about that as I read the verse above this morning. The further I get in the journey I find my heart getting softer. My family will tell you that I’ve always been a softy, but sometimes I think it gets a bit ridiculous. Thankfully, I have a wife who doesn’t seem to mind that her husband cries right along with her in movies, who rarely gets through a worship service without shedding a tear, and who feels things with increasing depth.

I’ve never forgotten my friend, Mike, who said he had to give up being an EMT after he started following Jesus. When God took away his heart of stone and gave him a heart of flesh, he suddenly began to feel the pain of the broken people he was called on to serve in emergencies. “I couldn’t do the work through my tears,” he said.

And yet, what is it to feel empathy and compassion if it doesn’t motivate me to act? And what should that action be? How interesting that Jesus didn’t say, “Look at the confused and aimless crowd, like sheep without a shepherd. I MUST SHEPHERD THEM ALL!” He said, “Listen up boys, we need to pray for reinforcements.”

Today, I’m praying for depth of discernment to accompany my depth of feeling. I want my emotions to motivate appropriate actions.

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