There are many times in the course of ministry when you start to realise that people want you to fix them. It is almost as if, in some people’s thinking, that ‘the pastor’ is the god-representative, and as God seems a bit harder to get an appointment with, well, ‘the pastor’ will have to do. On one hand, it is lovely that people want to talk – I wouldn’t want to have it any other way – but there is something we have to say about the expectations we may harbour and the distance of those from what often happens in reality.
Now this, I have to confess, is one of the things I watch out for. Why? I am a rescuer and fixer. Situations in my young life built in a trait that makes me feel like I always have to rescue or fix. As a child I was made to feel like that was my job in my family setting. Early, far beyond any sort of capability to handle it, I carried heavy burdens of people around me. I carried that trait into the early years of ministry, and the early realisation that there were many things that I couldn’t fix caused me a lot of pain.
So much of our society avoids pain and suffering like the plague. It is somehow like it shouldn’t be there, or that it should be pushed away or…fixed. Take funerals, for example, and the 21st century fixation on sanitising death. Many come and say, from a heart-felt place, ‘I want this to be a celebration of life’. I’ve nothing against a celebration of life. But what I realise more and more is that it is easier to celebrate a life when you’re not in absolute excruciating knots inside. I really believe you need to have a funeral first, and a celebration second. Face death head on, recognise the agony and the pain, the anguish and the devastation of loss. Celebration will be fuller in the light of day.
I believe this is a necessary suffering. It is a suffering that is right. It is a suffering that is a part of love. It is right to feel the devastating pain of loss. I’ve told my family that, when I die, I want them to come dressed formally in black and weep at my grave. Why? Because I love them and they need to get it out! If you bottle it in a jar called ‘celebration’ it will rob your right to grief, and the chance of a healthy process.
I believe it is the same with every loss. I’ve been involved in some men’s work in recent years and have been amazed at how much pain and grief gets locked up inside a man, and how transformative it is when a man has a safe space to start to simply let it out. I’ve seen men change in amazingly beautiful ways in the space of days.
In my own life, I became crippled by depression because my ‘Christian mindset’ didn’t have space for pain, failure, hurt and grief. Everything had to be happy, everything had to be joyful. Many around me were like Job’s ‘comforters’ – well-meaning but somehow irritating and ultimately unhelpful dispensers of platitudes and nice truths. The transformation came for me when God sent people in my life to open the lock, sit with me in the dark, and walk with me out the other side.
As a pastor, I must resist the opportunities to offer a quick fix, a ‘pray this ten times’ prescription. I realise the more I go on that much of the pastoral ‘skill’ is sitting with the other in the dark waiting for the dawn.
My favourite poet, Mary Oliver, once wrote this:
‘Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me some time to discover that this, too, was a gift.’
Suffering isn’t something to go looking for. But when it comes, as it will, find ways to dignify it with your attention. Sit with it, ask questions of it, feel it, and let it be a guide. Don’t be afraid of it. Embrace it. For, in embracing it, transformation will come.