Category Archives: Paul Riddle

Sympathy vs. Empathy

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.empathy_sympathy

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.



A Long Road


By Paul Riddle


The call came late one weekday afternoon. On the other end of the line was a colleague, a staff chaplain in one of the hospitals in the Texas Medical Center. A patient had just been admitted for a major organ transplant, a tricky, high-risk procedure, and wanted a Church of Christ chaplain to come pray with him. Twenty minutes later I walked onto the Surgical Intensive Care Unit (SICU) and was met by my colleague, who introduced me to the patient, Marvin, and his wife, Jackie. (Names and certain details have been changed to protect patient privacy and confidentiality.)


Marvin, who was in his mid-50’s, had been sick for a long time, and this transplant was his last chance for survival. He and Jackie had temporarily relocated to Houston from another state and were staying in an apartment near the Medical Center while he waited for his transplant – an involuntary exile experienced by many patients who travel to Houston for treatment of serious medical conditions. I had never met them before.


My colleague introduced me to Marvin and Jackie, then left the room, closing the door gently behind her. Marvin told me about his illness, the many limitations it had increasingly imposed on him, and his hopes that this transplant would, as he put it, “give me my life back.” Jackie chimed in from time to time, adding a detail or affirming something Marvin had said. They had been married over thirty years, and their love for one another was evident in their body language, their tone of voice when speaking with one another, and in the loving looks they exchanged. Both were anxious, fully aware of the risks, yet ready for the transplant to take place. They talked, I listened, we prayed, they talked some more, I listened some more, and then I left, promising to stop by the next day, after the surgery had taken place.


When I stopped by the next day, Marvin was intubated and heavily sedated, normal for patients who had just had his type of surgery. Jackie was there, sitting quietly by his side. We talked for a few moments. The surgery had gone well, but the doctors had made it clear that Marvin’s recovery would be a long road. Jackie and I prayed together over Marvin, and I left.


The doctors’ prediction that Marvin’s road would be long was accurate. He remained in SICU for several weeks, receiving around-the-clock intensive care. Jackie spend a good bit of each day by his side. I visited them frequently. Sometimes Marvin was awake, many times he was sleeping. When he was awake, he was always glad to see me and always reached out for my hand. Many prayers were said in that room during Marvin’s stay.


At last the day came for Marvin to be discharged. Though he had made much progress, he still faced a long road. Arrangements had been made to transfer him to a rehabilitation center near his home. He and Jackie were both looking forward to being reunited with the family and friends from whom they had been separated for so long. I visited Marvin and Jackie one last time, we shared one final prayer together, and as I stood up to leave, Marvin took my hand. “You have no idea how much your visits have meant to us,” he said. “God bless you.” “Thank you. You all have touched my life as well. God be with you,” I replied, a tear coursing down my cheek.


Marvin’s journey of healing continues, now in a place closer to his home, closer to the company of those closest to him. I feel honored to have shared a part of his and Jackie’s journey during their sojourn in Houston. A part of him and Jackie remains with me, and I am thankful.


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A Diversity of Gifts

A Diversity of Gifts

By Paul Riddle


Some time ago I had an uplifting phone conversation with one of our volunteers who had just completed her first round of hospital visits after being on leave for awhile due to illness. She said her rounds had gone well and that she’d had several in-depth conversations with patients and family members. The energy and enthusiasm in her voice reinforced her report that it had been a good day. I had visited several of the same patients earlier in the week, and we compared notes.


As the volunteer talked, I felt a sense of joy for her that her medical issues were behind her and that she was well enough to resume visiting. I also felt a sense of camaraderie with her – the kind of fellowship one feels teammates or long-time work associates with whom one has built up a lot of trust. It was good to have her back – good for the patients, good for her, and good for me.


These thoughts led me to reflect on our model of ministry here at Lifeline — a model in which each of our patients in the hospitals we serve is visited by me and by several volunteers over the course of the week. This model provides some structure, but more importantly it takes advantage of the fact that God has equipped each of our visitors with a unique set of gifts – a unique expression of the Holy Spirit. As a result, a diversity and multiplicity of gifts are brought to bear in ministering to each patient and family member. The result is a multiplication of blessings and better care.

It is a pleasure to be associated with people in whom the Spirit of God is so clearly at work.




In Sickness and in Health

“In Sickness and in Health…”

By Paul Riddle



Not long ago I visited a woman who had been battling cancer for a long time.  This was not a good day.  The combined effects of her disease and the drugs being used to fight it had left her restless and delirious, as though trapped in a bad dream that wouldn’t end.  Her family was gathered around her.  Her husband of 50+ years sat by her side, holding her hand and wiping her forehead with a cool, damp cloth.  Their three adult daughters were also in the room.  One was on the phone handling some business related to her mother’s care.  One was across from her father, stroking her mother’s head.  The other was at the foot of the bed, massaging her feet.  We prayed together, and as I sat with this family I realized that I was seeing the fulfillment of the couple’s wedding vow, “…in sickness and in health.”  The daughters’ presence and their loving care bore witness to the fact that the faithfulness that had bound this couple for decades had been successfully passed on to their children.  Despite the difficulty of the moment — or perhaps because of it — I felt I was standing on holy ground.In-sickness-and-in-health.jpg

Saying Goodbye


By Paul Riddle


Some time ago I ministered to a Vietnamese-American man in his mid-40’s who was dying of cancer. I’ll call him Binh, though that’s not his real name. As Binh’s illness progressed, he lapsed into a coma, and my ministry focus turned to his wife, Anh (also not her real name), who was constantly at his side. One afternoon during my visitation rounds I walked onto the intensive care unit where Binh had been for nearly a month. The nurse told me Anh wanted to see me. When I entered the room, Anh, their two teen-aged children, and several other family members were present.

Anh welcomed me, introduced me to the group, and brought me up to date on the situation. She and the rest of the family had come to terms with the reality that Binh was not going to get any better and that maintaining him on life support was futile. Anh had decided the time had come to withdraw mechanical life support. All of the family were in agreement, and they had gathered for a final meeting with doctors and nursing staff, and to be present when life support was withdrawn and the patient died.

Binh died within minutes after mechanical support was withdrawn. When he breathed his last, Anh, who despite her exhaustion had maintained her composure up to this point, collapsed in a heap, sobbing and wailing. Family members helped her onto the couch, and then into a wheelchair. We all withdrew to a private family room while the nursing staff cleaned up the body and prepared it for a final viewing – a process that took the better part of an hour.

I spent that hour with the family, and was amazed and humbled at the healthy support they gave one another as they adjusted to the reality of Binh’s death. The first few minutes, everyone was in shock, and there was little conversation, just weeping and hugging. Slowly, the tears dried, and people began to talk. Most of the conversation was in Vietnamese, so mainly what I observed was body language. What struck me was how over that hour the family seemed to come back to life after having been cut down by their loved one’s death.

The progression was very clear: shock, weeping, supportive conversation, discussion of details (funeral arrangements, etc.), reminiscing about the deceased, and finally more relaxed conversation and laughter. Anh, who at the beginning of the hour was curled up in the wheelchair almost in a fetal position, gradually unwound, assumed a normal sitting posture, listened with increasing attention to the conversation, began to participate in the conversation, and, by the end of the hour, was able to actually to laugh at an amusing remark made by a family member.

At long last the body was ready. We returned to the room, Anh now walking under her own power. She caressed her husband’s face and kissed it tenderly, an expression of peace on her face. At her request, I offered a prayer, commending Binh to God’s eternal care.



By Paul Riddle

Lifeline Chaplaincy provides spiritual support to patients and their families through the combined efforts of professional chaplains and trained volunteers. One of the advantages of this team approach is that patients benefit from the ministry of several people rather than just one or two. Since God’s Spirit operates differently in each of us, in accordance with the unique set of gifts God has given us, this approach provides multiple opportunities for God to work. The following vignette serves as an example of how this is lived out at Lifeline. The names of patients and family members have been changed, along with some details, to protect their privacy.

One afternoon I received a call to visit a patient at St. Luke’s Hospital. The patient, whom we’ll call Bob, was dying. He had been in and out of the hospital for two or three years with heart problems. He had undergone several surgeries, including a procedure a couple of days prior to this visit. Despite the best efforts of the surgeons and other medical staff, his heart was failing, his vital systems were shutting down, and death was imminent.

As I entered the room Bob was unconscious, sedated and breathing through an oxygen mask that covered his nose and mouth. His wife, Margaret and his daughter, Terri, were at his side – as they had been almost nonstop for several days. We embraced, and they asked me to offer a prayer commending Bob to God. After the prayer we stood quietly for a few moments, Margaret and Terri both gently stroking Bob’s forehead. Margaret said that a Lifeline volunteer, had visited them the day before. She asked me to tell the volunteer how much the visit had meant to her. Terri mentioned another volunteer who had visited them faithfully during previous hospitalizations over the years.

Bob died later that night. Margaret and Terri were with him, along with several other family members. He died well – at peace with God and in the embrace of a loving family. I am convinced that God prepared Bob and his family for his death, and that among the instruments God used to prepare them were the people from Lifeline who had visited them over the years, up to and including that last day.

The God of New Beginnings

When I pray, I usually begin with the words “Gracious God.” These words provide a clue to how I relate to God. Grace lies at the core of the character of the God I worship and serve.

Grace comes from the Greek word charis, which means favor or gift. In other words, God is a giver of gifts. In the Creation narratives, God gives the gift of order to a chaotic realm. Then God gives the gift of life in all its variety and abundance. Finally, God creates Man and Woman and gives them one another as companions – as well as authority over and responsibility for the earth. God also gives Man and Woman the ability to make choices – an ability God never withdraws, even when they choose to disobey God.

When Man and Woman choose to disobey God, there are consequences. The world is harsher. Life is harder. Yet even as God imposes consequences, God gives Man and Woman a gift: Proper clothes to survive (and even thrive) in the world outside Eden.

Time and again, God gives humankind the gift of new beginnings: The call of Abraham; the Exodus; reconstruction after the Exile; the birth of Jesus; people made whole through his ministry of healing; lives transformed through his ministry of teaching and his personal example; Lazarus raised from the dead; the Passion / Resurrection; the Ascension and Jesus’ promise to return; the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost and the kindling of a flame that has yet to be extinguished.

One of my favorite songs is “The Steadfast Love of the Lord.” It includes these words: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases / His mercies never come to an end / They are new every morning / Great is thy faithfulness / The Lord is my portion, O my soul! / Therefore I will hope in him. Working from memory I have trouble remembering whether that last line should be “hope in him” or “trust in him.” No matter. Both words ring true. Steadfast love and faithfulness also lie at the core of the character of the God I worship and serve, and they form the basis for my trust in God and my generally hopeful outlook on life.

The themes of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness, and the hope those elements of God’s character evoke, run through many of my favorite biblical stories: the Prodigal Son; the Woman at the Well; the Woman Caught in Adultery; Peter’s denial and subsequent restoration; Thomas; Paul’s persecution of the church, conversion, and subsequent ministry.

How do these elements of God’s character inform my life and ministry? I believe they find expression in several convictions that guide my way of being in the world and my way of relating to people. First, I try to respond to the grace God has extended me by extending grace to others. Second, I believe God provides what is needed. A patient’s mother, who had been struggling with the fear that she might not be present when her daughter dies, said to me: “I realized something the other day. When my daughter dies, she will not be alone – even if no one is in the room.” This is a statement of faith in God’s provision. Third, I believe God’s business (at least as far as we humans are concerned) is redemption. Near the end of Revelation the voice from heaven declares, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). These three convictions are grounded in a fourth: God loves me regardless of my present circumstances, regardless of my choices, and regardless of my present state of mind. Because I trust in God’s steadfast love, I can have hope even when there seems to be no hope. Finally, I rely on God’s grace to sustain me when I fail to live up to the convictions I profess.