3 Children’s Books That Build Empathy

In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, Bette Bao Lord (1984)

Builds empathy for: immigrants, people who do not speak the dominant language, people from different cultures

Shirley Temple Wong’s elementary school experience in New York City in 1947 captured me from the first page. She and her mother join her father in NYC, building a new life from scratch as Chinese immigrants. She becomes obsessed with baseball, identifying herself with Jackie Robinson. I vividly recall her experience babysitting a pair of Irish twins named Seamus and Sean as she tries to listen to the Dodgers game on the radio. As a kid, I didn’t grasp all of the ethnic, cultural, and racial subtexts. But I now realize this novel built my worldview about immigrants: they’re people with stories, and I want to hear them.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Mildred D. Taylor (1976)

Builds empathy for: Black people, economically oppressed people, bullied people, victims of violence and their families

Set in Mississippi in 1933, Cassie Logan’s story is powerful. She and her family fight to keep their land, which is not only property to them, but is also their independence, future, and home. Roll of Thunder examines economics in rural towns where minorities have limited economic options. The novel deals with people being burned alive and lynched, which gave me an early experience of phenomenological grief. Cassie’s story must be read, digested, and remembered for the continued reformation of American society. As I read news reports about community and national tragedies, my heart returns to this book as I celebrate how far we’ve come and face how far we have to go.

 

The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Elizabeth George Speare (1958)

Builds empathy for: people of different religious traditions and cultures, non-conformists, the elderly, abused children, people of different education levels

In 1687, Kit Tyler travels from her colorful, native Barbados to a dreary Puritan settlement in Connecticut when her guardian dies. Kit befriends Hannah, an elderly woman who is cast out of the Puritan community because she is a Quaker. Kit has difficulty understanding the nature of her new community, the lifestyle of her adoptive family, and the strange politics of the Americas. Though Blackbird Pond stretches Puritan culture to an extreme, it does not over-exaggerate the (witch) trials of women like Kit in the seventeenth-century Americas. This book is rare in its ability to build empathy for people on the “wrong side” of the story. Speare gives everyone a heart. I learned that oppressed people aren’t the only ones who need my empathy. All people are God’s people, and all need to be heard and understood.

 

Which books built empathy in you?

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Moana, Church History, and Me

(C) Disney

Moana resonates with me. Though I’m from the suburbs, while Moana is from historical Polynesia, we have something in common: a love for family history.

Though Moana could consider the coconut and its uses, list the names of her parents and grandparents, and give a detailed explanation of her role as the chieftain’s daughter, that’s not the family story she tells. In the song “We Know the Way,” Moana discovers that her family tapestry is richer than she realized. After she learns the ancient secret, she runs out of the caves, shouting, “We were voyagers! We were voyagers! We were VOYAGERS!”

When I study church history, I feel the same excitement. Church history isn’t about dry old men quibbling over trivialities. It’s our family history of believers who lived, struggled, and changed as we do. My church experience is limited to my brief years and vantage point. As I breathe the words of history, I enter a larger story. Church—the body of Christ—no longer concerns my liturgical comfort, theological ease, and social satisfaction. Church is an everlasting mystery of unity with the Godhead, and it is my privilege be part of it.

History gives perspective. The latest scandals, disappointments, and cruelties are less overwhelming when I stand with the historical body of Christ. I don’t study church history for convenience, but for challenge. The patterns I see in the lives of historical Christians push me closer to the Trinity, testing my ability to contextualize faith and live the redemptive power of the Gospel.

In the film, Moana’s gifting leads her away from her immediate family for a time. She reclaims her family’s past while providing for later generations. History saves their future.

Through a series of long events, American Christianity developed less historical focus than other streams of the Church. Though evangelicalism has commissioned dozens of thousands of missionaries, made Scripture easily accessible to billions, and seen a huge growth in the family of God, we are losing our family history. By ignoring the past, we ignore our brothers and sisters who faithfully spoke the word of God to spiritual generations that led to our conversions.

Moana offers a powerful warning to those who forget history: we lose perspective, drown in fear, and are unable to face contemporary problems. History doesn’t have all the answers. Yet, history can give us perspective and courage in facing our troubles.

In “We Know the Way,” the ancestors sing, “We tell the stories of our elders in a never-ending chain.” We can’t separate ourselves from our historygood or badany more than we can remove our DNA. Let’s learn from the past, ground ourselves in the present, and prepare for the future.

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Hebrews 12:1-2 NASB

Interested in digging into accessible church history? Start with online articles, a book on historical devotional practices, and an overview of significant historical events.

How Love Appears

Photo by Mason James Photography

Before I met and fell in love with my now-fiancé, I wondered, “How will I know when I’m in love?”

Maybe it’d be the electricity from the touch of his hand, the fast beats of my heart, dreaming in the color of his eyes.

After I met him, I forgot about that question. As the months became a year, the reveries became a ring. It happened slowly, naturally, without astonishment. I looked back on the previous year and realized I’d fallen in love without noticing.

When did it happen? I can’t quite say. How do I know? I don’t, really.

I no longer feel the shock of holding his hand. I know the contours of his fingers. My heartbeat slows around him, because with him, I am peaceful. I see his eye color in greenish blues and golden sunsets, but my dreams are about us.

Our love happened without fanfare. It grew in the soil of our hearts, was watered with our tears, and blossomed under the sunshine of our laughter.

As L. M. Montgomery writes in Anne of Avonlea, “Perhaps [love] revealed itself in seeming prose, until some sudden shaft of illumination flung athwart its pages betrayed the rhythm and the music.” As I read the pages of my life, I didn’t notice that they were slowly becoming music, until I looked up from the pages and heard it enveloping me.

When Jesus walked on earth, he didn’t frequently proclaim his status as the Messiah. He let people perceive it on their own. “This is how God’s love has appeared among us,” John writes. “God sent his only son into the world, so that we should live through him.” (1 John 4:9 NTE) Love was sent in the form of Jesus. He stands before us, hands outstretched, voice calling, eyes beckoning. Yet, it is our place to recognize that this love is God’s.

Love is my quietest companion and my loudest defender. It’s as present as my body and distant as the sky. It changes my desires, awareness, and demeanor. Love is appearing, and in its appearing, I am being transformed.

Love is peaceful participation with another person. Peaceful, because wholeness and holiness abound. Participation, because love withers without reciprocal interaction. Love comes back stronger after storms. And love is more than two people fancying each other. It’s fostered by communion. The love I have for my fiancé is possible because of the love I have from God. I am loved by my fiancé because of the generosity of our well-loving God, who mirrors the magnificence of his story in our tiny story.

Love appears long before we observe it. Incidental to us, intrinsic to us, love appears.

“God is love; those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. ” (1 John 4:16 NTE)

Blind Faith?

Pullens Lane

During my bike ride home from the city centre in the late afternoon, the sun was setting through the autumn-scented trees. But this day was different. It was nearly five o’clock, and my route through the forest had become entirely dark. My bicycle’s lights flashed dimly, just bright enough to let other travelers know I was there. But the faint flicker was not enough to light my way.

I was too close to home to turn back and find another way back, but I could not see my way forward. So I kept biking in a calm panic.

As I approached a speed bump I pressed the brakes and rode over the interruption slowly. Wait a minute. I knew that speed bump was there. I knew it was coming and I could tell where the road curved as I approached it. I knew, most of all, the way home. By feeling the road under my tires, I knew where I was and where I was going. Finally, I emerged from the sightless street to a street glowing garish orange-black under streetlights. I grinned as I coasted down the hill and braked at the gate. I’d made it home, after a blind ride.

Søren Kierkegaard can be credited with the idea of the “leap of faith.” Often, this term is synonymous with “blind faith,” which is proceeding based on non-rational optimism.[1] And that’s what my bike ride felt like at first. I was leaping into the darkness on the chance that a car wouldn’t run me over and that I would make it home safely. I had a rape whistle in my pocket; I’d be fine, I thought.

But as I proceeded riding, I learned two things: I knew where I was going, and I knew how to get there. But I couldn’t see my way there. My faith wasn’t founded on an irrational belief that I’d eventually get home after a long, obedient bike ride in the same direction. I had to turn and twist my way through the back roads based on my mental map.

This is faith: knowing where to go and how to get there.

Yet, getting there isn’t easy at all. Sometimes, the only thing to do is stop traveling and understand the road. Everything is dark, but there are ways to find the path without sight. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”[2] The things are there. Not seeing them is not denying their existence, but forces interaction without sight.

[1] Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There, in The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview, Volume I: A Christian View of Philosophy and Culture (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway, 1982),16

[2] Hebrews 11:1 NASB

Shout Outs

It’s nearly the end of the semester, and thanks are in order to the small things, which kept me going for the past weeks.

Shout out to this view. You were a reward to my tired eyes every day.
Shout out to this view. You rewarded my tired eyes every day.

Shout out to milk chocolate orange digestive biscuits. You kept me real, at 1 AM, in the throes of an essay on Petruccio’s heinous abuse of Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew.

Shout out to my earbuds. You poured upbeat Christmas music into my brain when I wanted to crawl into a hole and pretend that speech act theory doesn’t exist BECAUSE IT WAS SO CONFUSING, until “Just for Now” came on and suddenly IT ALL MADE SENSE.

Shout out to Jazz apples. Your tangy sugar-flesh was sunshine on a cloudy morning and an embrace at the end of the day.

Shout out to my bicycle. On you, I rode up Headington Hill, in the rain, in a skirt, with heavy books in my backpack, with grocery bags on my handlebars, while managing to remain alive. Bless you, Number 03.

Shout out to my blue leather gloves. You know how important you are to my would-be-cold fingers. May you live forever.

Shout out to my Sharpie pens. You never failed to give me a tiny rush of delight every time I had to sit through yet another lecture, sermon, talk, meeting, or session. When I took notes in that shade of deep blue, which was born of ocean and sky, my day glowed.

Shout out to my Nalgene. I wasn’t supposed to drink from you in that one library, or keep you out on the desk in the other library, but I did, because you became my closest companion. Without your innumerable tally of the ounces I sipped this semester, I would be lost, shriveled and dry, contemplating why living in a land of swampish humidity made me as thirsty as living in a desert.

Shout out to my plaid blanket scarf. You are closer than a brother and my dearest friend. Praise Dame Fashion for dictating that wearing a BLANKET is not only acceptable, but also à la mode. Without you, those essays on regular sound change and Othello would have remained unwritten.

Shout out to eye makeup. You shrouded me in an illusion of alertness, and for that gentle deception I thank you.

Shout out to apple-scented shampoo and conditioner. Many scents have done excellently, but you surpass them all. My olfactory senses rise up and call you blessed.

Shout out to my watches. Without you, I am nothing. Once I forgot to put you on and promptly forgot my name and where I was. Maybe our connection is a little too close. But who can despair when one listens to the steady beat of your heart?

Shout out to George Herbert. I didn’t know whom you were a year ago, and I couldn’t have cared less before the beginning of the term. Now, I know that we share a soul and your poetry has become my mantra. Bless your heart.

Shout out to cafes and coffee shops. Your warm tea and scones and cold butter and jam fueled me through many a long week. Cream tea > all other teas.

Shout out to the Number 8 bus line. On rainy days when my tutorial was (seemingly) very late in the day, you sheltered me under your metaphorical wing and flew me to the Language and Brain Institute, and I bless you for your service.

Shout out to that opera singer on Broad Street. You are amazing. Never stop. You are what street music should be.

Shout out to John Donne. You are forever my favorite author and I will never forget your jeweled words. You live in my heart.

Shout out to Desk 122 in the Lower Reading Room of the Bodleian Library. With you, I puzzled over Bonhoeffer’s theory of conscience, cried when reading his letters to his parents, and pondered the meaning of telling the truth. With you, I stared longingly at the gloriously enormous collection of Barth while confining myself to the blue-backed Bonhoeffer Works. With you, I read linguistics every Sunday afternoon and Bonhoeffer every other day in the week. With you, I glared uncomfortably at the portraits of various old white men judging my Herculean efforts to write essays. With you, I treasured and pondered every moment of my Oxford experience. Now, when I think of learning, living, and loving, I think of you. You held my hopes and dreams of understanding life. Everything I learned to love in England is summed in you, and you are what I will miss the most. Desk 122, you are the love of my life, and I hope to return to you soon and long and well.

When All Has Been Said and Done

Radcliffe Camera - View from St Mary the Virgin

Sometimes it seems like it’s all been done before.

That’s the problem for creative minds who love history: we walk backwards into the future, reading what has been written before us. After reading Shakespeare, can I even consider myself a writer? After analyzing theologians from Aquinas to Barth to Calvin, does anything remain unexamined?

This is the writer’s existential crisis: do my words have meaning? What can I say that has not already been said?

But this existential crisis is not even existential: Solomon had it, long before the days of Plato, Alexander the Great, even Jesus Christ. There truly is nothing new under the sun!

But it’s not the act of creating something new that matters. What matters is your response.

J. R. R. Tolkien was the greatest influence on fantasy literature since the Gothic era that preceded him by one hundred years. But he didn’t set out intending to upend modern literature and make fantasy a genre and subculture. He was a philologist who loved medieval epics, so he formed his own languages and placed them in a new world that looked a lot like the mythology he loved. The Lord of the Rings and all its surrounding literature were Tolkien’s response to his lifelong love. Tolkien’s response looked to the past, and gave us the future.

Today I live and study in the same libraries in the same university that Tolkien attended. I read the same authors and answer the same questions. But the fact remains that I am no Tolkien, and will never have the audacity to dream up a world with its own languages. Oxford is strange in that regard: you feel worthy of something if you study here, but you feel unable to offer much to the world. What can I say that has not already been said?

Maybe I cannot create something entirely original. But that’s how artists learn, by examining and copying work until they create their own. Why not the same for a word-artist? I must read the greatest literature, copy its style, respond to it, and perhaps, someday, write my own magnum opus.

Response is not limited to responding to another person’s work. Respond to your life. Respond to the conversation you had last night. Respond to your thoughts, actions, beliefs, and feelings.

Your work has never been said or read before.

 

No Man Is An Island

No Man Is An Island

John Donne, one of the great cavalier poets of the seventeenth century, joined the Anglican clergy later in his life, and wrote this in a meditation:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main….any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…

In life, especially the academic life, isolation becomes all too easy. We live individualistic lives, with our individual desires and dreams. But, as Donne reminds us, we are not isolated: we are “involved in mankind.” While “no man is an island” is rather pithy, it is not encouraging when facing a sleepless night with a weeping friend, or when we must learn to forgive and live with others daily. Christianity makes the surface of community even more treacherous by adding requirements like confession, grace, and service.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian who made a point to live and work in community as much as possible, wrote the following in the first chapter of Life Together.

Christian brotherhood is…a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our fellowship is in Jesus Christ alone, the more serenely shall we think of our fellowship and pray and hope for it.

Christian fellowship is given to us as a gift, and it is a way of experiencing Christ while being “involved in mankind.” The joys and sorrows of daily life with other people is a way of experiencing sanctification. Apart from life, theology is ink on paper. In the context of a thriving community, theology is the living Word inhabiting hearts and minds through Christ.