1 Peter 3: 8 Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9 Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.
I was watching a Ted Talk on empathy, and the speaker talked about being on an airplane where there was a baby crying very loudly. Some passengers smiled encouragingly at the parents, some winced and tried to read their in-flight magazine, and some searched for seats they could occupy away from the noise. Suddenly, she noticed a three year old who toddled over to the baby and offered her his own pacifier. This, she says, is empathy. Seeing and hearing someone, really seeing them, and putting yourself in their shoes.
This is hard to do, because it requires vulnerability, vulnerability to bridge the distance between us, and as the epistle puts it, "brotherly love, a tender heart and a humble mind." It requires a heart for "the other" - a willingness to suspend the never-ending noise of our own inner dialogue to listen and to take time and be patient. It reminds me of all those frustrating pastoral care classes from seminary - the ones where we were taught to listen deeply without thinking of what we are going to say next. The ones where we learned to WAIT (ask yourself, "Why Am I Talking? (WAIT)). It's hard to do because it requires relationship - it is the seedbed of love.
It'll come as no surprise for me to tell you that empathy is not valued very much in the culture these days. Everywhere I turn there is polarization, division, Us vs. Them. And it is nearly impossible to pastor through it, because I have to keep my heart tender and my mind humble. Good luck, right? It is exhausting work. It requires taking another person's perspective, listening to and telling stories, and listening over and over again.
In a way, it reminds me of the patterns of "being with" that I see in the New Testament. Jesus, seeing people that society did not see, from the rich young ruler (Jesus, seeing him, loved him) to beggars and lepers and women and Gentiles. Jesus, speaking in stories, and listening to the stories of others. Jesus, taking perspectives, like when the Woman at the Well says "He told me everything I have ever done." Church, when it is being church, should be a storehouse of empathy (tender hearts, and humble minds).
It's not an efficient way to be. It doesn't reward "being right" as much as "being together" or "being with and for your neighbor." But maybe the church can model a new way. Perhaps the determination of a band of Jesus Freaks who call each other brother and sister can show a new way of being together. A sort of vaccine for the malaise that has broken so many ties and so many hearts. Empathy. A seedbed for love.