Sympathy vs. Empathy

Sympathy vs. Empathy

By Paul Riddle


The metaphor that forms the core of our approach to spiritual care at Lifeline is the image of coming alongside. Coming alongside is about practicing empathy. It’s about being willing to sit with another person and share their pain for awhile. In order to do that, we have to be able to tap into our own experiences of pain, not so we can tell the other person our story to make ourselves feel better, but so we can relate to the pain the other person is feeling and lean into it with them.


Brené Brown, a counseling professor at the University of Houston, produced a brilliant, short video that depicts the empathic response as well as any I’ve ever seen. You can find the video here:


In the video, Brown draws a distinction between sympathy, the typical response of the well-meaning person, and empathy, the response of a person willing to come alongside the hurting person and lean into their pain with them. Give it a view, and think of a time when you’ve experienced empathy when you’re hurting. Didn’t it feel good to have another person leaning in to the pain with you, rather than just standing on the sidelines shouting encouragement?


Good to remember the next time you encounter a friend, co-worker, or family member who’s going through a tough time.



Meet Our Summer Interns 2016


By Dr. Paul Riddle, Director of Spiritual Care

Lifeline Chaplaincy Houston

As I write, we are in Week 2 of the 2016 summer internship, which began on May 13 and ends August 5.

According to Lifeline’s mission statement, we are:


“Dedicated to providing compassionate support to the seriously ill, their families and caregivers, and to being an educational resource for crisis ministry.”


One of the ways we fulfill our teaching mission is through our summer intern program. This summer, three students have come to Houston to gain first-hand experience providing pastoral care in the Texas Medical Center Hospitals. Additionally, we have four interns in Fort Worth, working in hospitals in that city under the supervision of Dr. David Martin, Director of Spiritual Care for Lifeline Tarrant County, and two interns in Central Texas, working in hospitals in Austin and Temple under the supervision of Dr. Tom Nuckels, Director of Spiritual Care for Lifeline Central Texas.


Our interns learn by doing, and then by reflecting on what they have done. Each is assigned to a particular hospital and gets to know that hospital intimately through daily visitation with patients and caregivers, and through regular contact with hospital staff members and Lifeline volunteers assigned to that hospital.


Interns spend half their day in classroom instruction and the other half visiting patients in their assigned hospitals. Classroom sessions include case studies, discussions of books and articles pertaining to spiritual care, and other activities.


Weekly reflection essays and periodic case studies drawn from interns’ visits provide opportunities for them to integrate what they learn in the classroom with their ministry practice and their personal spiritual growth. In addition to these activities, the interns spend a week at Camp Star Trails, a camp for children with cancer sponsored by M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.


Even though our interns are with us for only twelve weeks, they enrich the permanent Lifeline community – staff and volunteers alike – immeasurably. We trust that their experience with us will enrich them as well.

Houston Internshouston.png

Left to right: Matt Gastineau – North Platte, NE – Pre-Med – York College; Laura Ellis — Abilene, TX – Christian Studies – University of Mary Hardin Baylor; Bradlee Carls – Bakersfield, CA — Biology & Chemistry – York College

Fort Worth InternsFTW.png

Left to right: Rita Rodriguez – San Antonio, TX – Bible & Pre-Med – ACU; Zach Douma – Indiahoma, OK – Preaching / Youth & Family Ministry – Oklahoma Christian; Benjamin McCoy – Catoosa, OK – Bible – Oklahoma Christian; Luke Schumann – Sugar Land, TX – Biblical Text & Missions — ACU


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Left to right: Nicole Gates – Centennial, CO – Psychology – York College; Tanner Robbins – Greenwood, AR – Psychology & Vocational Ministry – Oklahoma Christian






Articulating Your Personal Theology of Suffering and Loss

Articulating Your Personal Theology of Suffering and Loss

By Paul Riddle

This exercise is drawn from Lifeline’s training course, “Ministry in Times of Illness and Loss, Part 2.” It’s an exercise in “working” theology, not academic theology. While academic theology is valuable and has its place, most of us don’t carry the collected works of Karl Barth some other noted theologian around in our heads.


In my mind, a person’s working theology is the beliefs and resources he or she draws upon in time of need to make sense of or to cope with a particular situation. A working theology answers the question, “How does my faith inform the way I…”


Ready? Here goes…


The following questions are designed to help you identify some key elements of your theology of suffering and loss – i.e., certain specific beliefs that you hold about God that help you make sense of and deal effectively with suffering and loss in your life.



  1. Think of a time when you personally have experienced significant suffering or a major loss.





  1. Name specific resources from your religious/spiritual tradition that you turned to for comfort or assurance, or that otherwise helped you cope. (Examples: Passages of scripture; biblical images or stories; biblical exemplars like Joseph, Job, or Jesus; Psalms; songs or hymns; prayers; religious or spiritual art)


– How were these resources helpful to you? Be as specific as you can.




  1. Name specific spiritual practices that were helpful to you. (Examples: Prayer – individual or corporate or both; meditation; listening to religious/spiritual music; contemplative practices such as lectio divina; worship; special worship services such as healing services)


– How were these practices helpful to you? Be as specific as you can.




  1. Name specific people who nurtured your spirit. (Examples: A trusted friend; a prayer group; your church; a loved one or significant other)


– How were these people or groups helpful to you? Be as specific as you can.




  1. Reflecting upon your responses to questions 1-4, how might you express your theology of suffering and loss in a brief paragraph?










Dear God,

Bless the world

Heal the sick and

Give peace.


The hearts

Of violent men

Oh, Lord

Bring comfort

To the hurting

To those suffering

Mental storms

Of confusion

And doubt.

Let fear

Fade away

Replaced with hope

Allow confidence instead

To rule the day

And bring calm to the night.

By: David Martin



As Long as Our Hope Beats

As Long as Our Hope Beats

By: Luke Schumann
Submitted by: David martin

What do you do when you have lost all hope? Is hope what keeps us alive? Would we be able to even take a breath if we lacked every concept of hope?

Hope for ourselves.
Hope for our loved ones.
Hope for humanity.
Would we still be fighting for each new day if we did not have hope?

What if we were the last source of hope for a loved one? For our sister. For our mother. For our spiritual kin. Would that be enough?

What could we do to show our loved ones that we care? How can we convince them that there is more to life than our present suffering—that though the end may be near, there is more that lies beyond it?

To where do we direct their hope (or lack thereof)? In a God they can’t see? In a future that’s dwindling as quickly as they are? In a paradise that seems all but uncertain? In themselves? In their loved ones, if they have any? In those who have been tasked with providing their healing and care?

I had never been able to imagine a life without hope until I encountered it head-on. I had felt hopeless in my task as a pastor, as a shepherd for the sheep that I loved so dearly.

And yet there was a present strength found in this woman’s sister. Peace that had exceeded all comprehension. Hope that was blind to the reality that reigned supreme in her sister’s heart. Love that grabbed ahold of [Elizabeth] and refused to let go. This love told her that her life had meaning. This hope that ever peaked its way into the blinds of her shuttered eyes told her that love had not left her. Faith was still there. Hope had not departed.

Perhaps that which keeps us going today is something more than a beating heart, be it real or artificial. This thing is invisible, yet its impact is obvious and astronomical. It affects each and every one of us, and because of that it is a universal unifier. Hope builds a wall around fear, doubt, and uncertainty, and, when placed on a firm foundation, remains strong in the midst of adversity.

So may we remain firm in hope. May we surround our loved ones who may have forgotten hope and help their shuttered eyes to see light again. May we, like the psalmist, never cease to sing,

“We wait in hope for the Lord;
he is our help and shield.
In him our hearts rejoice,
for we trust his holy name.
May your unfailing love be with us, Lord,
even as we put our hope in you.”
(Psalm 33:20-22)

May we continue to fight for love, faith, and peace for as long as our hope beats.



Thought Exercise: Delores Alvarez

Thought Exercise: Delores Alvarez

By Paul Riddle


This thought exercise is based on a role play scenario used in Lifeline’s pastoral care training.

Imagine yourself in the place of this patient: Delores Alvarez, age 31.

You have been receiving treatment for cervical cancer for several years. You have gone through multiple hospitalizations involving surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Despite all this, the disease has spread to other organs. Your doctors have told you that the best they can offer you is comfort care. You are growing progressively weaker, and you are aware that death is approaching. You are at peace with this, but you have concerns for your husband, Jose, to whom you have been married for 6 years. You are afraid that when you are no longer able to speak for yourself he might knuckle under to pressure from your family (who were not supportive of your marriage in the first place) to continue life-sustaining treatment rather than let nature take its course.  

If you were in Delores’ shoes, what would you need from a spiritual caregiver? Advice? I doubt it. Assurance that “everything will be ok?” I doubt it. I knew Delores. (Her name and some details have been changed to protect her privacy.)

What Delores needed was to be heard. Specifically, she needed her fears and concerns to be taken seriously and respected. She needed a person willing to sit with her and hear her out, and perhaps ask a sensitive question or two that might help her think through what she might be able to do to address them.   Fortunately, she received what she needed from a person from Lifeline who was able to listen with empathy, resist the impulse to fix or comfort, and to stick with her as she talked through her situation gained insight into what she could do.

While she was still able to do so, Delores called several of her family members together and made sure her husband was also present.   She told them directly that it was her desire that no extreme measures be taken to extend her life once it was clear there was no reasonable hope for improvement. She also told them that she had entrusted her husband, Jose, with making treatment decisions when she was no longer able to speak for herself, and that she had executed a Living Will and Medical Power of Attorney to formally empower him to carry out her wishes.

The Lifeline visitor played a crucial role in empowering Delores to take constructive action to address her concerns – not by giving advice, but by listening with empathy and sitting with her while she worked things out for herself. In other words, the visitor empowered her to act for herself. Delores fell into a coma shortly after her meeting with her family, and she died peacefully a few days later.






By David Martin

People are funny.  Funny as in weird.  And by weird, I mean different from me.  That’s the trouble with this old world.  Not that everyone has to be like me, mind you.  Just the ones I deal with on a daily basis. If others could simply perceive the universe as I do.

Here’s the rub, of course.  (This is where I remove my tongue from my cheek and start the serious stuff)!  Not everybody is like me.  I know this will disappoint you.  For those who do know me, there will be a collective sigh of relief.  You see, I’m a mass of swirling pathologies, swinging emotions, and, I might add, more than a little odd at times, especially in the humor department.  Like, “people wince at my jokes” odd.

Everyone in my daily sphere is different from me, and for that, I am eternally grateful.  Viva la difference they say in France.  And truly, this presents a host of problems.  I must “lean in,” to borrow a currently popular term.  Communicating to others to accomplish our work takes effort, and doggone it, I’m more than lazy at the core of my being.

(This is where I move to the spiritual stuff…faith and all that).  Christians, are called to a higher standard than sloth and self interest.  Jesus asks us to give up our lives for other people.  Recently, no one has held a large knife over my head, demanding I recant my beliefs.  I hope it never comes to that.  If It does, I pray I will remain steadfast.

In the meantime, I can practice loving that guy in the parking garage that sped up, going the wrong way no less, and cut me off.  Then he stops in the middle of the lane, rolls down the window and tells me to go around.  I measure my truck and the narrow wedge he has left me to get by, and he waves again.  So I creep around him, sweating bullets for fear of scratching the paint on my nice Toyota. It was all I could do to say thank you when I really wanted to tell him he lacked large areas of grey matter.

See what I mean.  People are hard to love, and so I wonder about that martyrdom scenario.  If I can’t love my brother whom I have seen…you get my drift.  Its no use fantasizing about a glorious death for Jesus when I can’t even forgive the guy in the hospital parking garage, who’s probably never been there before, and has his wife fighting some horrible illness up in room 402, bed B.

Now for the coup de gras.  Would you join me in loving the funny, weird people in your life…the ones different from you?  Maybe we could forgive the guy in the garage…and even visit his wife up in 402, bed B.

David Martin