Three opportunities for empathy and humility

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Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience…..Colossians 3:12 ESV

Being an effective teacher requires exercising compassionate patience with one’s students. It’s easy to forget what it is like to be unskilled at something, to be a beginner.  What comes easily or naturally to us may not feel that way to our learners.

When I started teaching French to kids, I caught myself far too often using an irritated or impatient tone of voice. I’m afraid that my body language communicated: ‘I’ve already explained that numerous times.  You must not be paying attention!’

God did not leave me too long in that ‘superior-to-inferior’ posture, but creatively started teaching me empathy.

It happened like this.  One year, Mike asked me what I wanted for my birthday.  Wes and I had been batting a tennis ball over a neighborhood net during the spring.  So, I mentioned to Mike: “I’d love some tennis lessons for my birthday!” 

I anticipated that with three lessons, I would have developed basic tennis skills. Instead, these classes simply humbled me.

The tennis pro at our neighborhood club could not have been more gentle, thorough and patient. The problem was me. I could understand his instructions.  His words made sense in the abstract.  But my brain could NOT make sense of his verbal directions in a way to make my body move to match what he was describing.  I felt completely stupid, mentally deficient.

How hard can beginning tennis be?’ I thought. ‘And what is wrong with me, that I can’t connect body movements to his words?’

All of a sudden, I made the connection to my classroom.  ‘So, THIS is how some of my French students must feel.  It’s clear to me, but not to them. They feel stupid.

That aha moment changed my teaching approach and I rapidly grew more compassionate.  But I still fell into being impatient with their slow progress. ‘If only they would pay more attention!’

Humility lesson # 2 arrived in June 2018. For the first time since studying Russian back in the ‘70s, I started learning a new language. What was different this time was that I was still teaching French to middle-schoolers.  All of a sudden, I FELT how slowly I needed a Spanish speaker to go.  I FELT how much repetition I needed before something in Spanish wired itself into my brain.  Nor could not control the process.  My brain directed my acquisition.  All I could do was try to understand the sense of spoken and written Spanish.

When school picked up again in August, I greeted my students with far more patience. I also eliminated some of my methods.  Now, I knew first hand that correcting their written or spoken French was no help. Someone has to be ready to receive any correction.  I waited until someone asked a question about a word or way to say something. I also started sharing with them my daily experiences learning Spanish.  They seemed to warm to my being a student just like them.

I applauded their progress more often with real warmth. I stopped forcing anyone to say something in French until they wanted to.  Madame Cochrane was much more human and humbler as a language learner herself. With Spanish, I felt the same frustration they did when they would mix up two French words that sounded similar.  This was a regular occurrence for me.

Often I lamented the previous 26 years of teaching French without myself learning a different language.  What a waste!

God be praised that today as I teach ESL to local Hispanics and French to two of my grandkids, I am a humbler and more empathetic teacher.

Since January 1, 2022, the Lord has now added an extra course in humility. Inspired by my daughter-in-law Anne who teaches 4–6-year-old children how to draw, I have set for myself the goal of drawing in a way that someone can identify the object! For years, teaching French and using a white board I just excused my poor stick figure illustrations, resorting to ‘Je ne suis pas artiste!’

But this past November, hearing how Anne teaches little ones to draw and seeing our youngest granddaughter’s work, I decided that maybe I could learn to draw.  So, I resolved to spend 15-20 minutes several times a week practicing. I figured that I would have to be at least better at the end of 2022 than when I started.

This new motor skill is once again feeding my empathy and patience muscles. I have not been quick to pick up this new way of moving my hand and seeing. Although we are more than half way through February, I am committed to sticking with my goal.

I know that for Anne, drawing comes easily.  She also is a natural encourager. When I’ve sent her a photo of something I’ve attempted and feel almost embarrassed, she applauds my efforts. Baby steps ARE progress.

Maybe our Father wants us to appreciate the many different gifts distributed among us.  Until I ventured out into something new, I took credit for my skills and thought that there was something wrong with others who weren’t like me. Until I tried those tennis lessons, something totally foreign to me, I had no sense of how difficult something might seem to someone not endowed with the same ability.

Do we expect everyone to think like us, to view situations the same way as we do or even do things in like manner?  Apparently so, for how often do we find other people frustrating!

In his wise providence, as John Piper has written, our God ’plans to permit’ all these circumstances with frustrating people. Why?  I think it’s to shape us into the men and women who not only bear with each other with loving patience, but also can praise Him for his perfect design and creativity shown in the variety of people.

Truth ‘trumps’ fear

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No, I don’t mean Donald.

Truth, God’s truth, is the only remedy against fear and foreboding.

Truth by TK

2 Cor 5:7    For we live by believing and not by seeing

Hebrews 11:13  All these people died having faith

A dear friend in his late 50s struggles with the reality of sharing life with an aging church family, many of whom daily face diminishing health and abilities.  Yes, he IS a believer and he DOES rely on the FACT of his salvation. He DOES depend on the GRACE of God throughout the day and he most definitely DOES exercise faith by asking God for what he and others need. Yet, he is afraid of his own physical and mental decline and eventual death.  He views his life here on earth as DECLINE.  And ‘heaven’ is nebulous.

I have NOT responded well.  Nearing 60 myself, I lack skill in showing empathy.

At one end of my response spectrum, I shine at’ arguing logically’ WHY people should not think or feel a certain way. I am practiced at exhorting friends and family to view X situation in the light of T, that is God’s Truth.

And I do know how to offer sympathy – sort of.

But empathy?  What’s that?

Thanks to our guidance counselor at my secular middle school (God’s common grace!), I’m learning this different response that actually spreads balm.  EMPATHY offers this to a hurting soul:

  • That must feel frightening (frustrating, draining….) or THAT must be a relief (a welcome response, a comfort…).

Empathy does nothing more; it simply holds out a non-judgmental and safe space for someone to communicate just how they feel.  And often, THAT is the best gift you can give to a friend.

And if the friend WANTS or ASKS for help, only then should you offer a suggestion.

But….next time if my dear friend asks me, as a Christian,  how I handle the prospect of physical and perhaps cognitive decline followed by death,  here is what I might say:

Me: You believe God saved you, right?  How do you know?

Friend: I know because I believe the Bible passages that lay out the requirements for salvation, specifically Ephesians 2:8 – For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.

Me: Good!  And how do you handle the daily challenges and needs of life?

Friend:  I pray and ask God for His help.

Me: And well you should.  How about applying that same act to THIS situation, THIS fear. Exercise the faith that God has given you and turn to Him for His help.  For here is the TRUTH about God:

Psalm 68:19 –  Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears our burdens.

Since that is true, then we should…..

Psalm 55:22 – Cast on the LORD whatever he sends your way, and he will sustain you.

And since we know THAT fact, we then can turn to another promise….

Isaiah 46:4a – Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you

Therefore, we can confidently obey God when He commands:

Isaiah 41:10 – Do not fear [anything], for I am with youDo not be afraid, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you, be assured I will help you; I will certainly take hold of you with My righteous right hand [a hand of justice, of power, of victory, of salvation]. (Amplified)

So, if we go back to the 2 promises at the start of this post about how we live and how we die, we are told and shown that ALL of life, breath to breath is by faith.

I know you would agree that we DON’T live by seeing the provision and direction ahead of time, but we trust by faith that the God of the Bible WILL come through and do what He promises to do.  That has GOT to be enough.

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