Every now and then the duties of the pastoral vocation overwhelm me. Sometimes I find being a pastor is painful and leaves me restless and unsatisfied. It usually is not the preaching and teaching which delivers the struggle. It is also not necessarily the handing over of the of the gifts, the administration of the Sacraments, that are a problem. No, the issue is usually rooted in what the older theologians discussed under the title of Seelsorge, an old German word meaning the, “care of souls.”
Most of the pain and disappointment, doubt and frustrations are in the strange craft of caring for my brothers and sisters in Christ. From taking time to sit with the sick and suffering to showing up when depression has consumed the thoughts of a child of God, it is the act of caring that poses the biggest problem. I find myself wanting them to be well, really wanting them to be strong and healthy and well-grounded in this precarious age. I am often frustrated when they wander from the Word of God, when they turn, yet again, from the gifts and promises of Christ. Sometimes I toss and turn at night wondering about how they are coping and praying for God to answer them in their time of need, praying I might not prove to be a stumbling block to them.
Deep down, I think part of the struggle is because I do not know why I do it. I do not know why I care. Why should I care?
By nature, I am selfish and driven to make a name for myself. I can often think of thousands of other things to do with my time other than care for the distant and wayward sheep of the flock. I am probably the least qualified person to care for anyone else. Over and again I opt for what is expedient and pleasurable over what is kind and loving. I can be petty and hold grudges. I make snap judgments and it turns out I am rather easily provoked.
Yet, for some reason, I care. Not that I am great at it, but I do it despite myself. I care and so, I hurt. I get angry and am filled with empty longing.
I could point to my ordination day and the questions asked of me as the source of this care. Questions like, “Will you minister faithfully to the sick and the dying, and will you demonstrate to the Church a constant and ready minster centered in the Gospel?” To which is so naïvely asserted, “Yes, with the help of God.” While such an answer was heartfelt and an indication of my intention to do it, this did not make me care. It was not some magic incantation opening me up to concern for others. Also, I do not think any law, any threat or call to duty, could create this desire either; at least not for such an abject sinner as myself.
The more I think about the question, “Why care?” the more I become convinced the answer is rooted in the good news itself. It is the Gospel which has caused the care. It begins not with my neighbor’s need, nor with their pain and suffering, but my own failure, my own sin and shame. It is not my action, but the life-giving Word of Christ freely given that changes me. This Word frees me from a bondage to myself and turns me toward His promise. And the promise turns me toward my neighbor. For the same Word which has set me free, is there for my neighbor as well. In fact, I have been set free to set them free. I have been loved to love others, forgiven to forgive others.
This is where the care comes in. I care for my brothers and sisters because I want them to hear the promise, I want them to trust the Word’s of Christ, I want them to know how they too are loved and forgiven. But that Word is difficult to hear when the pain is so great, when the depression consumes everything, when the darkness is all encompassing. To care is to play the part of a John the Baptist type, making the crooked places straight so the Word might be heard. To care is to follow in the footsteps of Saint Paul who said, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:23).
And yes, it will not always be pretty. It will be difficult and ugly at times and the care will be far less than it ought to be. That is what haunts me. But His Word still goes forth and, as a result, the care continues to struggle on. We care so our neighbor might not doubt but trust in the promises of Christ alone.