The Pathys

I actually have an excuse for not posting anything new for the past month.  I’ve been doing weekly elder updates for my church website since we’ve been unable to meet together due to covid19. Ok, it’s a weak excuse.

For a long time I’ve been thinking of the words that we use that end in, or start with, ”pathy”. Some of them are very common and some of them are not.

As the world is reeling from the current pandemic, it seems a good time to flesh it out. As I think and write it’s interesting to note how connotations may have changes from original definitions. The first pathy is a good example of that.

Sympathy. The online oxford dictionary gave me two definitions of this word.  The first was in line with how it’s generally understood – synonymous with pity, potentially condescending. The second would be more in line with the word origin – a common feeling or understanding. The first is what I learned in school.

Empathy.  The definition of this is more in line with the second definition above with a slight difference.  It includes “the ability to” understand.  Again this is what I learned in school, that empathy was something good while sympathy was not so much. Empathy is much harder to achieve.  I have great difficulty empathizing with someone in a situation that I have not directly and personally experienced. I feel that many others are in the same position, just aren’t necessarily aware of it.

It is a good frame of reference as we watch the news from around the world.  We sympathize with many who are sick or have lost loved ones, but we struggle to empathize unless we’ve also had to suffer.  We also struggle to empathize while we suffer since we are expending our energies dealing with our own crises. Unless we let the words of Jesus wash over us to love our neighbour and love our enemies, and to weep with those who weep, it’s likely we even struggle with sympathy.

Apathy.  This is a lack of caring or an absence of feeling.  It’s often considered the opposite of empathy. This is a much easier position to take. We can bury our heads in the sand and ignore the crisis until it’s in our faces.

Then there is orthopathy.  This is a rarely used word that means correct feeling.  What is correct feeling?  Biblically it connects to orthodoxy (correct beliefs) and orthopraxy (correct actions) and involves aligning our feelings to God’s.  It’s also being used now for alternative medicine practices.  There is some unpacking that could be done here to align those two images. That’s for another time.

Suffering and feeling seem to be synonymous in some of these definitions. Pathology for instance is study of suffering, while Pathological means without feeling and is usually used to describe harmful actions. Perhaps that is a good antonym of empathetical.

Just some thoughts.

Us and Them

Does our language match our hearts?  There is a lot of talk of us vs them, and that, in itself is a negative thing, but sometimes, do we get us and them confused?  Perhaps I am being cynical but how often when we say “us” do we actually mean “us”, particularly in prayer?  When we are confessing corporate sin how often do we really mean “them”?  When we are asking for blessings how often do we really mean “me”?  When we are asking for wisdom, how often do we really mean for “them so they agree with me”?

When I do this, either consciously or subconsciously, does this enable me to abdicate individual responsibility?

When we identify with a particular cultural group we must own its sins as well as its glories. Justice demands that we apply it to ourselves as thoroughly as we apply it to others. The relativism, of saying ‘I’m not that bad’ is quite dangerous. Those who are close to the truth often think they have the truth and therefore can’t learn from those who may be a bit further, either further along or further away but coming from a different direction. Be open to God speaking through others when your ears are closed to hearing from Him directly. Jesus reminded us to remove the logs from our own eyes before we concern ourselves with the specs in anyone else’s.

I heard a quote from Shane Claiborne recently; “throughout history, those who have committed the most evil are those who don’t see evil within themselves, but only ‘out there’”.

I think we all like to feel special. Do we exaggerate and emphasize otherness because we are afraid that the other is like us and we would be compelled to treat them as equals and would lose our sense of superiority and specialness.  Do we swing the pendulum all the way across and try to emphasize our similarities so that we can say “since I can’t be special, you can’t either”?

The great theologian and philosopher Paul Hewson sang “There is no them, there is only us.”

But there is them.  And there is us.  We are not all the same, while we are all the same. It’s sad to me how the term ‘equal but different’ has been used to limit what some people are allowed to attempt.  We need to acknowledge differences, in groups, and in individuals and that those differences do not equate to inequality. I am a (slightly under) six foot tall, (slightly over) 200 lb, white male living in North America. I am no more special, nor any less special than any one else living anywhere else.

I worry sometimes. Our ability to see the world on our screens at the touch of a button provides us with opportunities to see other people for who they are, but it is limited to what the person holding the camera wants us to see. We can see what ties us together and we can see what separates us. We need discernment so that we don’t exaggerate the negatives and suppress the positives. Somehow we need to be able to acknowledge the differences without failing to acknowledge the humanity. We are all humans, children of God, and unique (see my post from long ago).

Love is….

Back in the 1970s I think it was, there was a popular set of figurines, cards, and prints called Precious Moments. They featured a pair of childlike figures with moonstruck expressions in various activities and a thought that started with “Love is….”.  From what I remember, I thought that most if not all of them were somewhat sappy. But I’ve been thinking lately and I’d like to express one of my own.  

Love is choosing to enjoy doing what you would rather not be doing.

At first reading, this may not sound like an expression of love at all, more like martyrdom or manipulation, but hear me out. There are some key words here.

First, it’s choosing.  One has the option of participating or not. Otherwise it would be coercion.  That also means that there are other things that one could be doing.

Second, it’s enjoying.  There are a couple aspects to this.  It’s critical that it is not begrudgingly for that is simply obligation. And it is even more critical that it is not pretending – that is lying and can only cause long term strife and distrust.

This is important as a spouse to maintain honesty

This is important as a parent, lest seeds of bitterness are planted in the child.

This is important as a Christian; we are called to rejoice with those who are rejoicing (and to mourn with those who are mourning). 

In all senses, we delight in the pleasure of others. We congratulate and we share in celebration. Mourning can be different. Sometimes words need to be spoken. Sometimes what is required is to sit together in silence and solidarity.

Most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, tend to struggle with both of those actions – sharing in the emotions of others. It’s very easy to rejoice at others misfortunes, especially if they are those we consider rivals, or even enemies.

C.S.Lewis expressed a similar thought when he said that we were not to worry about whether we love our neighbour. Act as if you did and soon enough you will find that you do.

Groundhog Day

Do you know what day it is today? There is a football game later, but that’s not what I was looking for.

Today is Groundhog Day, the day we expect a rodent in Pennsylvania, or Ontario, or New Brunswick to accurately predict our weather for the next six weeks.

Several years ago there was a movie called Groundhog Day.  It started Bill Murray as a very self absorbed TV reporter.  While doing a story about the groundhog in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania something happened and he ended up in a time loop; every morning he woke up and it was still (or again) Groundhog Day.

At first he was very bitter – why me?, make it stop!; but as the days and weeks stretched on he began to take each day as an opportunity to make himself a little bit better, though it was still all with an ultimately selfish goal in mind.  He was doing it for himself and for what he stood to gain.

The time loop and the movie finally ended when he forgot himself and learned to love someone else just for who they were.  Through what was months to him but only 24 hours to those around him he had a complete change of heart.

This change of heart done by the saving work of Jesus in us is what we remember when we share in communion. God didn’t need to change his heart. God is Love. God so loved the world that in Jesus he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death on a cross! He allowed his body to be broken and his blood to be shed, he emptied himself that we could have life to the full. He didn’t need to change his heart but he longs to change ours. He takes our hearts of stone and replaces them with hearts of flesh, changing us completely. Sometimes it’s quickly, and sometimes it takes a long time. Ultimately, others will see him in us.

Unless it dies

Doomsday prophets are never listened to until the disaster happens. Sometimes, depending on the disaster, they aren’t beloved even during or after. Of course we do need to be careful, the cause of the disaster is not always what we think it is. Coincidences do occur (I know that I used to say that nothing is coincidence, but I’ve revised my thinking on that a bit). When the prophets of doom speak, we need to at least ponder their words.

When a disaster is averted people start to disbelieve that it could have happened. When a lumber mill is destroyed by an explosion, we can examine the evidence and make changes to hopefully prevent it from happening again. But as a period of time goes by and nothing else bad happens we start to think that maybe the precautions we took weren’t really necessary. Eventually our attitude and actions reach a point where another accident happens.

There is no way to know what might have been. There is no way to log the disaster that’s been averted. So we quickly begin to ignore the danger and get lazy.

In John‬ ‭12:24‬ Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (NIV). I understand the context. He was speaking of his own upcoming death and the life that would spring from it. But maybe there’s more that we can take from this.

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I wonder if these words might have an even greater applicability to the church of today. We look back at the first century church and it’s conflict with the government of the time. We look back at the radical reformers and how they had conflict with the governments of their time. We watch the news and we see stories of great persecution in different countries around the world. We hear of the community of Christ growing in those situations. We admire the conviction and marvel at the unity in the face of death.

But in North America with our mega churches, aggressive religious rights and lefts and thousands of denominations (not to mention non-denominational churches) we struggle to hold on to our faith. We see our children leave because of our shallowness. We face threats of losing our tax exemptions and special privileges because we won’t accept the changes the world wants us to. Perhaps, just perhaps as each of us individually needs to repent and die to self to live for Jesus, the church as a body needs to repent and die to self to live for Jesus. Only in dying will we truly bear fruit.

Lost in Translation

I heard recently that the Hebrew language spoken and written today is more similar to the Hebrew of 3000 years ago than the English of today is to what was spoken and written 500 years ago. In the same podcast, the speaker commented that no English translation of the bible can fully capture the nuances of the original Hebrew of the Old Testament, that Hebrew doesn’t have past, present and future tenses the way English does.

It brought to mind something I recalled hearing years ago, that the only way to properly understand the Quran was to read it in Arabic. That does make more sense in light of the other.

Perhaps that is why we have so many English translations of the scriptures, both the from the original Old Testament Hebrew and the original New Testament Greek. Only by looking at a few of them can we start to get an understanding.

Even with non-religious writings, there are so many translations of ancient writings, from the Greek of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, to Norse mythology, to the epic of Gilgamesh, and on and on.

The preponderance of translations does nothing though to lessen my respect for translators, not just of ancient texts, but of modern ones. In the past few years I’ve read books that were originally published in German, Russian, and Portuguese. I truly enjoyed them all. In many cases I Have gone on to read multiple books by the same authors. That is a testament not just to the author but to the translator.

We rely on interpreters and translators. If we did not have them, and we wanted to love beyond our tiny cultural spheres, we would each need to learn every language that has ever been spoken and probe into the minds of the speakers to understand their intentions. But what if the interpreters and translators are wrong, whether intentionally or not? Errors get magnified very quickly. If you’ve ever played “password” you can see how quickly.

We need to have people who are willing to continually go back to the source, or at least as close to the source as possible, and look at it with fresh eyes. We need to be willing to give ear to what they discover and subject it to scrutiny, whether to determine the new interpretations are closer to the original intent or further.

We live in an age when we often base our beliefs on our experiences, but it is impossible to experience everything and so we still need translations and interpretations and just like when we are lost in any other way, the best thing to do when lost in translation is retrace your steps until you return to what’s known.

Truth and Consequences

When you believe you have a truth (not necessarily the truth) are you not obligated, or even compelled to share it? Or are there times when a truth learned is best not shared?

Whether this is mathematical, philosophical, or any other -ical.

However, you also must always remain open for discussion and debate. If I don’t share with you my perceived truth, I cannot be corrected if I’m wrong.

Soong Chong Rah in the book ‘Unsettling Truths’ states that there is a radical difference between truth possessed and truth pursued. The difference being, as I see it, the difference between ‘being right’ and for the sake of being right and seeking to know. Perhaps that’s the key to determining when to keep a truth to yourself. What is your reason for sharing that truth? Is it your job as a teacher? Is it in response to a question? Is it to enlarge yourself?

In the same interview Soong Chong Rah also expressed how grandchildren of holocaust survivors are suffering from PTSD. Although the interview aired almost two months ago and was recorded some time before that, it was timely as in the wake of acts of war occurring in Iran, one Democratic congresswoman was told that she could not have PTSD because she hadn’t been a soldier and therefore was belittling the contributions of the US military. I wonder if the military trauma in many (far from all) cases might actually be PITS, but that’s another matter.

As my mind is wont to do it it wandered to the bible, specifically Numbers 14:18 (I did not have it memorized, I had to look it up and I like the message version and it’s not exactly what was on my mind)

“GOD, slow to get angry and huge in loyal love, forgiving iniquity and rebellion and sin; Still, never just whitewashing sin. But extending the fallout of parents’ sins to children into the third, even the fourth generation.”. I also was reminded of the curse in genesis 3, one that’s predictive rather than prescriptive, a “will be” rather than an “are to be”. It’s not just the perpetrator and the victim that experience trauma, but their descendants through several generations.

Stubbornness often provides the seed for rebellion. If I am not being listened to, I will become frustrated and could lash out.

While the expression of truth is perhaps required, the imposition of those truths is rarely acceptable. I would say never, but I think (incontrovertible) truths such as 2+2=4 could qualify.

As Chesterton said, it is the role of progressives to continue to make mistakes and it is the role of conservatives to ensure the mistakes don’t get corrected. The mistakes we make are based on the ‘truths’ we believe and we fail to correct those mistakes when we fail to allow those ‘truths’ to be challenged.