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A Pastoral Heart in Pain

The Pain in My Pastoral Heart

    I write at the intersection of three sorrows which have cut across the lives of people (and/or their families) for whom I have in years past been privileged to offer spiritual counsel.

    This pastor that I was for fifty years finds it hard to shake the habit of taking personally the affronts visited upon people I care for and, by God, love.  The trio of circumstances have little in common except the sorrow.  One soul had come to the end of a long life, surrounded by her family, full ready to go to the Father's House where her husband was awaiting her arrival.  A second soul was wrenched from the middle of life with a massive heart attack, leaving behind his wife and three teenage boys.  The third soul dear to me, for forty-nine years, ever since the church ping pong table fell and broke her toe, is facing the struggle of her life (and she has had more than her share of such struggles) with a wasting illness.

    My pastoral heart is full of competing impulses.

    First and most of all, I want to enfold each of them and theirs in my arms, most likely not saying a word, just being there... there in the humanity, the fragile humanity, we share.

    But anger rises too.  I want to know why.  I'm not complaining about hurt done to me.  That I can take.  That I would probably deserve.  But why, God, should it be that a dear, good soul comes to the end of a long life, with its full share of difficulties always faced with courage, only to lose, in dribs and drabs, vitality and memory and the will to live?

    Why, God, is a good productive life, with three growing children to provide for, cut down in its prime, when there is so much needed left to do?

    Why, God, is a soul for whom life in this mortal body has been hard for years and years, operation after operation, all of them greeted with pluck and determination, the soul others, not just her husband and children, depend on to get things right in this world, why more troubles?

    Please, friends, don't give me the easy answers of priests and pastors.  I've read Job.  More to the point, I've read Genesis and the story of Jacob and the angel at the crossing of the river Jabbok.  Wrestling with God (think of Gethsemane too) is an honored tradition in the Book.  So, please, don't try to argue away my anger with nostrums about God providing the grace to match the pain, about God disciplining those whom God loves, about suffering as the education of the soul, about the sunshine that follows the rain, about... well, you've probably heard them all too in your moments of perplexity with the ways of God with the likes of us. 

    Those nostrums are true.  Of course.  Of course!  They are the material for sermons.  But at this intersection when the pain pierces the heart, before sufficient time has elapsed to provide perspective, offering such wisdom is a form of unwitting cruelty.

    Hear, please, my anger as an echo of that word from the cross from Psalm 22:1.

    Third thoughts also crowd in.  About my need to be more tender, less judgmental, more agreeable... sweeter?  A sweet Bob Howard: now wouldn't that be a wonder!  Can pepper and sugar coexist in the same soul?  You'll let me know, won't you?  

    Or for yet another thought roiling in my soul at this intersection of sorrows, how very precious and how very fragile is this life of ours.  Jack Benny, years and years ago, counseled Jack Paar (remember him?) who was in one of his famous snits about this or that or Walter Winchell.  Said (more or less) the violinist to the Late Show host: life is too short to be wasted in petty fights.  The positive face of the same sentiment is written on the bumper sticker we've all seen: "Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty."  

    Which brings me back to my first thought, the best one, in a world across which falls the shadow of the cross, to embrace and hold in arms, mind, and heart those bruised and broken fellow travelers on their way, as we all are, from one eternity to the next.  


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