David Brooks just wrote an eloquent New York Times column entitled “The Art of Presence” on helping friends through suffering. Referencing a Christian family named the Woodiwisses who have experienced multiple tragedies, Brooks says the following is what such sufferers need in tough times:
I’d say that what these experiences call for is a sort of passive activism. We have a tendency, especially in an achievement-oriented culture, to want to solve problems and repair brokenness — to propose, plan, fix, interpret, explain and solve. But what seems to be needed here is the art of presence — to perform tasks without trying to control or alter the elemental situation. Allow nature to take its course. Grant the sufferers the dignity of their own process. Let them define meaning. Sit simply through moments of pain and uncomfortable darkness. Be practical, mundane, simple and direct.
It strikes me when I read sentiments like these that the world needs pastors. It doesn’t need some fancy new form of caregiver. Pastors do not offer anything particularly new. The best pastors are not necessarily famous; the best pastors are there for their people. They are shepherds. This is a common descriptor but a meaningful one. Pastors lead their people through the waystations of life. Pastors celebrate with their members in spectacular seasons and stick close to their members in suffering. There need be nothing innovative or dazzling in this work; the major palliative a pastor gives is Christ-shaped care and love.
There is much in life that cannot be fixed, but must simply be endured. Pastors are fitted for this reality. They sit beside their members when the darkness closes in. They help them fight off depression and despair. They offer simple acts of kindness, bringing a bite to eat or a card or a bouquet of flowers. Again, nothing earth-shaking; nothing that anyone is going to term the “Next Big Trend” on the evangelical conference circuit.
But here’s the thing, pastors and future pastors. The small stuff really is earth-shaking. You may not be able to dispense miraculous healing. In the power of Christ’s cross, however, you can display miraculous selflessness that guides a weary soul through the shadowland into the light. Most people don’t want to be inconvenienced. They feel for those who are hurting, but they don’t feel able to break away from ordinary life to help.
A pastor is a man commissioned by God to break away.
On this topic, my father’s example comes to mind. Our church in Maine had a few elderly ladies in the nursing home who did not have many people to visit them. My father selflessly went to the nursing home many, many Sundays of my youth, taking the elements of the Lord’s Supper to these two women so that they could participate in this holy ceremony. Nobody really knew about this. Nobody wrote it up in the paper. But I saw this. I saw my father’s ministry to the forgotten and the suffering. It stuck with me, and it always will.
Let us remember that there are few ways in which a shepherd more images the work of Christ, the kindness of God, than in his service to the suffering. The work done in this area may seem intangible. On the last day, though, I assure you that it will all be very tangible. The Lord will reward his faithful servants and his suffering shepherds.
To read more on this kind of “normal” pastoral ministry, consult the writings of Eugene Peterson, especially The Pastor: A Memoir. See also Practical Shepherding, a good resource for this field of work.
(Image: “Christian on the Borders of the Valley of the Shadow of Death,” Joyce Zucker)