Jesuit theologian John Haught’s book, What is God? How to think about the Divine, posits that one of the five characteristics of the divine is depth, the presence of something that we can still touch, that is still with us, when we are in the darkest, hardest places. It has been my experience that this is one of the gifts of good ministers, to be able to be fully present to people who are in these places, to hold folks in compassionate care and attention, and is a profound piece of the trust and invitation that congregants offer me as their minister.
In private homes, hospitals and walks along the waterfront, I’ve worked with people at the end of life forming their MAID plans or lamenting a move to assisted living; hosted a network of support meeting for caregivers of partners with dementia; supported a mother in the immediate aftermath of her teenage daughter’s opioid overdose; held the hands of a young father who couldn’t cry in front of his kids as he learned that he wouldn’t survive the month. In each case I practiced the skills of empathetic listening, helped them to name and hold their sorrows, and thought about the spiritual and material resources that could support them and their families. And I wept in the car and went for long walks after each to care for my aching heart (though they can still bring tears to my eyes as I write this).
The more time I spend with folks in hard times the more I am convinced that our society is badly in need of greater ability and more commitment to respond to one another in these hard places. In hospital I met a man who was in his early-50s whose mother was dying. He had mostly practical questions and after a little while I learned it was because he’d never experienced anyone dying before – he’d never been to a hospital at all, he’d never been to a funeral, never lost anyone he actually knew. There was an immediate response in me to think him blessed by a life without these sorrows, but the more I reflected the more I wondered about how independent, rather than interdependent, one must be to have lived a life like this. My ministry of pastoral care isn’t just about my own presence with others in these dark nights, but in building the capacity of the congregation, its members, and its community to respond. And I am so very excited to meet and work with Westside’s Pastoral Associates to share in this work.
I will do everything I can to make my availability clear, and to make it a generous invitation to reach out, but the work of pastoral care is also dependent on people taking that step to ask for a conversation, to suggest that I might want to talk with someone in their neighbourhood group. I hope that we will find a way to loosen the knots that make us hold our concerns so close, so hesitant to seek help. Offering care and receiving care are both acts for which we can be grateful.