Missional Living

Join Me in Empathy as I Travel to Guatemala with World Vision

A couple years ago we had a late night house call.  We drove up to the house, and an uncle came outside to meet us, explaining the situation we were about to enter.

“You guys are here for my niece, Sara.

She’s 16 years old.

Been fighting cancer for four years.

She’s in the living room with her mother, Joan.”

We entered the house, walked to the living room and were greeted by about 20 family and friends that were scattered all over the living room, some sitting, and some standing, others laying on the floor.

When a terminal person is dying under home care it’s normal for a hospital bed to be temporarily set up in a large room, enabling larger groups to visit the dying.  In this case, the bed was in the living room, but the deceased wasn’t to be found lying on it; which was very unusual.  We allowed them time to explain who Sara was, what she meant to them.  All families need this time.  They need to believe that through their stories Sara would be incarnated in us, so that we could love her the same … so that we could become a part of their family.  Once we’re apart of “the family”, we no longer represent a cold funeral director, but a tender caregiver.

After their stories, we asked them if they were ready for us to make our removal.  They all had said their last “good-bye”.  And then we asked, “Where is Sara?”

“She’s here”, said Joan the mother.  And then we saw her.  When we first walked into the living room we saw a small girl being held by Joan.  The girl looked to be around ten years old, and being that it was late we just assumed that this was one of Sara’s younger sisters who had fallen asleep in Joan’s arms.  But, it turned out, Sara had died in her mother’s arms and there she laid.

Like the transfer of a sleeping child from one adult to the next, I got down on my knees, slide my arms under Sara’s head and thighs, lifted her starved body out of her weeping mother’s lap and carried her to our stretcher.  The room was full.  Full of love.  Full of grief.  Full of tears.  And I was a part of it all.


I tell you this story because I want to make a distinction between empathy and sympathy.  Let me explain the difference:

Imagine being at the bottom of a deep, dark hole. Peer up to the top of the hole and you might see some of your friends and family waiting for you, offering words of support and encouragement.  This is sympathy; they want to help you out of the pit you have found yourself in. This can assist, but not as much as the person who is standing beside you; the person who is in that hole with you and can see the world from your perspective; this is empathy.  — Dr Nicola Davies

There are times (at funerals especially) when all we can give is sympathy.  When it’s outside of our ability to fully empathize with a person’s situation.  But, there’s other times when you can’t help but be drawn into the narrative, so that you enter the narrative and become a character in the story.  Not just a narrator, but an actual character in the drama of life and death.

Too often when child sponsorship programs like World Vision attempt to gain your support, they appeal to your sympathy.  “Look at this poor, starved, naked child as he picks food out the dumpster.  His distended stomach looks like a balloon and those flies around his face are the only friends he has.”  Sympathy appeal, expected to make you go, “O.M.G.  If I only spend $40 a month I can give him some rice and … maybe I’ll send him an iPad for Christmas.”

And sympathy works … it creates donors.

But I want to invite you to empathy.

Mother Teresa said, “Do you look … at the poor with compassion?  They are hungry not only for the bread and rice, they are hungry to be recognized as human beings.”  This “recognition” involves more than food, it involves


health care,

economic development,

spiritual care

and food, agriculture and clean water.

All recognition factors that World Vision does in Guatemala and abroad.

In September I’m going with World Vision to Guatemala to visit a child that I sponsor.  And I want you to sponsor a child as well (here’s a link to World Vision’s Charity Rating).  In fact, my goal is to have 50 children sponsored by you, my readers.

So, I’m inviting you to empathy.  I’m not selling you something or playing on your sympathy.  No, I want you to get down on your knees, look into the eyes of someone you don’t know, learn about them and walk with them as they grow.

Enter a story.

Click here to sponsor a child in the village that I will be visiting.  And, if you sponsor or not, help me reach my goal of 50 sponsorships by SHARING this post.  

More Info on “The Most Beautiful Gravestone I’ve Ever Seen”

Last Friday, I posted this photo on my Confessions of a Funeral Director Facebook Page.

Since I posted it, over 2,000,000 people have viewed it.

Many have asked, “Where is this gravestone located?”  “Who is the gravestone for?”  And various other questions.

Here’s Matthew Stanford Robison’s “Find a Grave” page that will answer most of your questions:

Birth: Sep. 23, 1988
Death: Feb. 21, 1999

This unique monument shows the young boy jumping upward, out of his wheelchair. Confined to the chair most of his young life, he is now free of earthly burdens.

“And then it shall come to pass, that the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow.” Peacefully in his sleep on Sunday, February 21, 1999, our cherished son, brother and friend, Matthew Stanford Robison was received into a state of happiness, and began his rest from troubles, care, and sorrow in the arms of his Savior and friend Jesus Christ.

Matthew was a joy and inspiration to all who were privileged to know him. He was a testament to the supreme divinity of the soul and an embodiment of the completeness our spirits yearn for. The godliness of his soul inspired, influenced and blessed all who knew him. He came into this world as a miracle and left this world as a miracle.

Born with severe earthly disabilities on September 23, 1988 in Salt Lake City to Johanna (Anneke) Dame Robison and Ernest Parker Robison. At birth, Matthew’s life expectancy was anticipated to be only hours long. However, fortitude, strength, and endurance, combined with the power of God allowed Matthew to live ten and one-half years enveloped in the love of his family and friends. His family was privileged to spend time with him here upon earth, to learn from his courage and marvel at his constant joy and happiness in the face of struggle. His family will be eternally changed by his presence and temporally changed by his passing. His presence inspired all those who knew him. He opened their hearts as well as their eyes.

He is survived by his parents: Ernest and Anneke; sisters and brothers, Korrin, Marc, Jared, and Emily of Murray, Utah, and Elizabeth (Czech Prague Mission) Also, grandparents and other family members. A heartfelt thanks to his special care givers, especially Shauna Langford, and others at Liberty Elementary School.

Salt Lake City Cemetery
Salt Lake City
Salt Lake County
Utah, USA

Here is part of Matthew’s obituary:

Eight False Ideas about Heaven

Most people only think about heaven / the afterlife during times of death.  So, if you’ve had someone close to you die, you probably have strong opinions about the existence or nonexistence of the afterlife.

And, our opinions are probably wrong.

If heaven exists at all, it – by definition — is much different than what you or I imagine it to be.  And while my religion’s scripture (Christianity) has little to say about what heaven is like, it seems that my religion’s preachers – especially the ones at funerals – know much more about it than their Bible.

So, here are eight common ideas about heaven that I think are false.

Heaven is not …

One.  An opiate.  Like religion, heaven has too often been used as an opiate to blind people to the dismal reality that someone is in fact dead.

Two.  It’s probably not about you.  It’s selfishness that has made this place so shitty.  So, if heaven is better than what exists today, it will probably only happen when we are somehow drawn out of self-absorption by something greater (i.e. God).

Three.  A product of subjective validation. If you find heaven meaningful, good for you.  But, that doesn’t mean it exists.  Just because you like the idea of an eternal life where everything is unicorns and butterflies is not proof for heaven being an actual reality.

Four.  Subject to wishful thinking.  “In heaven I’m going to have a Ferrari with Kathy Ireland as my wife.  I’ll dress her up in My Little Pony outfits and I’ll play Black Ops all day.  Oh yeah, and grandpa will be there too and we’ll fly around together on the back of my Pegasus.”  Probably not.

Five.  A product of communal reinforcement.  If the only reason you believe in heaven is because your family believes in heaven and because everybody wants to believe in heaven, you probably haven’t thought about it too much.  And any perception you have about heaven probably sucks.

Six. Escapism.  Or, an excuse to trash this world because it’s going to be destroyed anyways (some evangelicals believe this.)  If anything, I believe in an inaugural eschatology that is bringing heaven to earth as opposed to bringing us earthlings to heaven.

Seven.  Hedonism.  A place where we can do whatever the hell we want.  Yeah, that place – if it exists – is called Las Vegas.

Eight.  A certainty.  That’s right.  It’s a hope, not a certainty.  It’s a valid hope during death.  It has a valid place in our lives now, but you simply can’t prove its existence empirically.  In some sense, we are creating heaven.  We are bringing it into existence.  And its creation is conditioned on us losing our egotistical outlook.  Heaving is becoming, but it’s not a certainty.

Mourners Dare to Imagine what Others are Feeling

Today’s reflections on the recent shootings in Aurora, CO. come from Don Follis, a pastor in Champaign-Urbana, IL.


At 7:30 am my wife and I took the boat across Jenny Lake and hiked 7 miles up Cascade Canyon to Lake Solitude in Grand Teton National Park in Northwestern Wyoming.  From Lake Solitude, high above tree line, you can view the back side of the majestic Teton Range and bask in the wonder of creation.

As we drove back to our campsite I turned on the radio and heard the news of the horrific shootings in Aurora, CO.  I was shocked.  Life is so fragile.  Idyllic, serene Lake Solitude – a perfect name given its location – gave way to the stunning news of the senseless killings and maiming in an Aurora theater.  Feelings of appreciation and wonder earlier in the day suddenly collided with emotions of tension, mystery, paradox and complexity.

A few days later I was standing on the western shore of Lake MacDonald in northern Montana’s Glacier National Park when I overhead two men discussing the Aurora tragedy.

“It was pure evil,” one man said.  “There is nothing else to say.”

The other man was intent on blaming guns.  “Why is it so easy to buy guns?” he said.  “Can’t we as a nation do anything about this?  I’ll tell you this country needs a national discussion about how easy it is to buy firearms.”

The man who spoke first sighed.  “The poor young man who did this is just sick, just very, very sick.  How utterly senseless.  It makes me so sad for all those innocent people and their grieving families.”

Now he’s getting somewhere, I thought.  Later that day I turned to the beatitudes and read these words of Jesus: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

The writer of Ecclesiastes said there is a time to weep and a time to mourn.  The days following tragedies are times to mourn.  Real mourning, true grieving, humbly says, “I am so sorry.  I can only imagine how the families must feel who lost a loved one.  I can only imagine how those who were maimed must feel.  I can only imagine how the family members of the shooter must feel.  This is so heartbreaking, so sad.”

Mourning does not say: “As horrific as this was, we know God works all things together for good, if we turn to him.  Evil will not win the day.  Now is the time to stand up and fight.”  Those phrases may be true.  But is that what you would want someone to say to you, if you had just tragically lost a loved one?  I doubt it.

Neither does mourning say: “I’ll be there for you, whatever you need.  You are in my prayers every single minute.”  Well, maybe you will be there.  Maybe you will pray for a while.  But what are you really saying?  Are you actually saying: “What happen scares me so much and I don’t know what to do. What if it was my child?  I could never face this if it were me.”

Finally, mourning does not say:  “I just can’t imagine what you are going through.”  Really?  Maybe you ought to try to imagine.  A person who mourns never denies what happened.  True mourning is not afraid of suffering.  No, a person who truly mourns tries to imagine how another feels.  Thus, you might say something like: “I’m so very sorry.  I can only imagine how you are feeling.”

To imagine how a grief-stricken person feels takes intentionality.  Imagine being the parent of one of those young people killed in the theater on that awful night in Aurora.  Or imagine being the father or mother of the young man who did this awful deed.

“I don’t want to imagine that,” you say.  “Please don’t make me.  It’s too awful, too hard, too painful, and too scary.  I can’t go there.”  Well, okay.  I certainly can’t make you.  But you will not fully understand mourning unless you engage your imagination and your emotion.  That’s what mourning is.  You enter right into the middle of the grief-stricken person’s world. Are you afraid of crying?  You may cry.  You think you might blubber or sigh or moan?  You might.  Are you afraid that giving yourself emotionally to mourning might feel scary?  It will.

But mourning is a good thing, Jesus says.  Comfort comes to those who mourn. The Apostle Paul explains it when he says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice.  Weep with those who weep.”

Now let’s say, for example, that your son or daughter hits a home run during a little league game.  They are thrilled and so you are you.  You scream, “My goodness sweetheart, that’s the best hit I’ve ever seen.  What a slugger.”  That’s rejoicing.

How does that make the son or daughter feel?  Loved, naturally.  They think, “My daddy thinks I’m the best thing ever.”

Now imagine you know a family who has experienced a tragic loss.  Enter their world by imagining how they feel.  You mourn by saying, “I can only imagine,” not “I can’t imagine.”  You become focused and intentional about feeling painful emotions – grief, pain, loss and despair.  You may begin weeping or sobbing as you try to say:  “I am so sorry.  I love you.  I can only imagine your pain and loss.”

How do they feel when you join them in their pain and sorrow?  They feel loved and cared for.  When we enter another person’s painful emotional space, the person feels loved.  The feeling of love is the same as it is for the child who hit the home run.  That’s what it means to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.

The grieving people in Aurora need love, not theological explanations.  There is a time to weep and a time to mourn. Both are on the path that leads through the valley of the shadow of death.  Don’t be afraid to walk on that path.


Don Follis is a long-time (30-year) pastor in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, a college town (University of Illinois) in East-central Illinois.

Don first worked as a campus pastor, then on the staff of a large Vineyard Church and now with pastors in a coaching and mentoring ministry.

He writes a popular Sunday column called “On Faith” for the Champaign-Urbana, IL, News-Gazette.

Copyright 2012 by the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, Champaign, IL  61820.

Holy Week Reflections on God’s Broken Heart

Floyd McClung had just finished teaching at a YWAM (Youth With A Mission) school, which involved speaking, personal ministry and personal counseling—18 hour days.  Physically and spiritually exhausted, and simply “tired of people,” McClung boarded his plane back to his home in Amsterdam where he encounter the last thing he wanted—a needy, drunk man wanting his attention:

After a few minutes his head came around the corner. “Whatcha reading?” he asked as he peered over my shoulder.  “My Bible,” I replied a bit impatiently.  Couldn’t he see I wanted to be alone?  I settled back in my seat, but a few minutes later the same pair of eyes were again looking over the top of my seat. “What kind of work do you do?” he asked.

Not wanting to get involved in a long conversation, I decided to make my answer brief.  “A kind of social work,” I said, hoping he wouldn’t be interested.  It bothered me a little that I was verging on not telling the truth, but I dared not tell him I was involved in helping needy people in the inner city of Amsterdam.  That would be sure to provoke more questions.

“Mind if I sit by you?” he asked as he stepped over my crossed legs.  He seemed to be oblivious to my efforts to avoid talking to him.  He turned to face me and he reeked of alcohol.  He spat as he spoke, sending a fine spray over my face.

I was deeply irritated by this man’s obnoxiousness.  Couldn’t he see I wanted to be alone?  All my plans for a quiet morning were destroyed by his insensitivity. “Oh God,” I groaned inwardly, “please help me.” The conversation moved slowly at first.  I answered a few questions about our work in Amsterdam, and began to wonder why this man wanted so desperately to talk to someone.  As the conversation unfolded it dawned on me that perhaps I was the one who was being insensitive.

“My wife was like you,” he said after a while.  “She prayed with our children, sang to them and took them to church.  In fact,” he said slowly, his eyes misting over, “she was the only real friend I ever had.”

“Had?” I asked.  “Why are you referring to her in that way?”

“She’s gone.” By this time the tears were beginning to trickle down his cheeks.  “She died three months ago giving birth to our fifth child. Why?” he gasped, “Why did your caring God take my wife away?  She was so good.  Why not me?  Why her?  And now the government says I’m not fit to care for my own children, and they’re gone too!”

I reached out and took his hand and we wept together.  How selfish, how insensitive I had been.  I had only been thinking of my need for a little rest when someone like this man desperately needed a friend.  He filled in the rest of the story for me.  After his wife died, a government appointed social worker recommended that the children be cared for by the state.  He was so overwhelmed by grief that he couldn’t work, so he also lost his job.  In just a few weeks he had lost everything, his wife, his children and his work.  It was December so he had decided to leave; he couldn’t bear the thought of being at home alone for Christmas without his wife or children, and he was literally trying to drown his sorrows in alcohol.

He was almost too bitter to be comforted.  He had grown up with four different step-fathers and he never knew his real dad.  All of them were hard men.  When I mentioned God he reacted bitterly.  “God?” he said.  “I think if there is a God he must be a cruel monster!  Why did your loving God do this to me?

As I flew on the airplane with that wounded, hurt man, I was reminded again that many people in our world have no understanding of a loving God – a God who is a loving Father.  To speak of a loving God, a God who is a Father, only evokes pain for them.  And anger.  To speak of the father heart of God to these people, without empathizing with their pain, verges on cruelty.  The only way I could be a friend to that man, on the trip from Oslo to Amsterdam, was to be God’s love to him.  I didn’t try to give pat answers.  There were none.  I just let him be angry and then poured some oil on his wounds.  He wanted to believe in God, but deep inside his sense of justice had been violated.  He needed someone to say that it was okay for him to be angry too.  By the time I had listened and cared and wept with him, he was ready to hear me say that God was more hurt than he was by what had happened to his wife and family.

No one had ever told him that God has a broken heart. (8)

From “The Father Heart of God

What does a broken hearted God imply?

It implies that God is not the victimizer… He’s not the master puppeteer behind this world of evil, but rather that HE HATES EVIL!

His grief reveals that God doesn’t have control over evil, for, if God controlled the evil, why would He grieve Himself?

God’s broken heart attests to his innocence, justice, hate of sin and effort to do everything in His power to stop sin.  God is not the one inflicting suffering, He is the ultimate one who sufferers!  Recognizing this alone has often staved my heart from losing faith in the goodness of God.

And maybe the cross is the pinnacle of that suffering.  A suffering so intense that His body was unable to handle the grief and he died, not from the wounds of the body, but the wounds of the heart (more thoughts on this tomorrow).

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