“On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul.”  Psalm 138:3

Several years ago I went to a particularly difficult memorial service with my daughter, Haley. It was the funeral for one of her friends from high school who died in a complicated way from causes that were not entirely clear.  He had been an Eagle Scout, a disciplined athlete, an excellent student, an adored youngest brother of four with an impossibly contagious smile…and he was just finishing up his freshman year of college.  In fact, he died the week before final exams.

As Haley and I drove to the funeral, it was very quiet in the car.  We had run out of ways to talk about the dreadfulness of this situation.  In this wordless silence, I ached for the family who had lost such a bright light in their lives.  I couldn’t help wondering, How would they be able to go on after such a devastating loss?  How would they ever experience life as anything but incomplete –shot through with an immense emptiness—now that their beautiful boy was no longer with them?

In addition to grieving for the family, I was burdened for the young people who were trying to make sense of this loss and the unanswered questions contained within it.  How were they to process the fact that this delightful boy—one with whom they had grown up, played soccer, gone to Boy Scouts, attended youth group, studied, gone on dates—was no longer with them and for reasons no one could understand?  I was unspeakably grateful to have my own bright-spirited nineteen-year-old right next to me in the car, very much alive, but even that felt awkward.

A Burden too Much to Bear

As we made our way to this unbearable occasion, I was also thinking about the pastor who would be presiding over the service.  What prepares a person to guide others through a moment such as this, I wondered? Does seminary do that?  Does a homiletics class do that?  A course in death and dying?  Would he or she know what to say—really—beyond canned liturgies and one-size-fits-all funeral meditations?

Could anyone really know how to provide true spiritual guidance to the standing-room-only crowd that gathered, each person carrying with them their gut-wrenching grief, confusion and unanswered questions?    Was there any escape from the terrible weight of expectation as people made their way into the sanctuary—some weeping already, others numb with shock, grown men in suits with red-rimmed eyes clutching twisted handkerchiefs, mothers clinging to the arms of teenage sons who were friends of the young man in the casket—all hoping against hope that this service would offer some comfort or peace or hope or insight?

As we waited for the service to begin, I couldn’t help praying for this pastor and for all the clergy I know and love and for whom the Transforming Center exists.  I prayed because I know this kind of scenario is repeated over and over again in pastoral ministry; on some days it doesn’t even seem fair that such weighty expectations could be heaped onto one office, and onto the person who fills that office.   On some days, it truly is too much to bear.

Available to God for Others 

Finally the pastor stepped into the pulpit and as he looked out on that sea of upturned faces, I wondered, Did he see what Jesus saw on that day when he fed the five thousand—so many sheep in need of a shepherd?  I’m sure he felt the pressure of knowing that while this might be one of his “routine” responsibilities as a pastor, it was one of the most important hours this group of family and friends would ever spend together.  Whatever happened here needed to make a difference in the deepest possible way.

As it turns out, this young minister did as well as anyone could have in the midst of such an impossible pastoral situation; I grieved and wept and despaired right along with everyone else. But I also gave thanks.  I gave thanks for pastors and clergy everywhere who dare to stand in front of people and attempt to bring hope and make meaning even when nothing makes sense.

I couldn’t help but be freshly aware of the great paradox of spiritual leadership: that ministry is all about you (because you are the one God has called to be where you are in this moment) and it is not about you at all (because it is all about being available to God for the work he will do in and through you for the sake of others).

A State of Ongoing Preparedness 

Such availability to God on behalf of others is not something we can “put on” like a uniform the day the call comes for us to do that thing we don’t feel prepared to do. It involves what Henri Nouwen describes as “living in a state of ongoing preparedness.”  “The question is not to prepare,” he says, “but to live in a state of ongoing preparedness so that when someone who is drowning in the world comes to your world, you are ready…”  1

Ongoing preparedness is cultivated within a life that is being lived in deep and honest response to the presence of God in the midst of our own human experiences, day in and day out. It is a defining characteristic of those who have experienced time and time again that “ On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul.” (Psalm 138:3) Ongoing preparedness is what I pray for, for myself and for all of us who minister.

This month we express gratitude to those whose very lives serve as a bridge between the troubled waters of the human experience and the solid ground of Divine reality. As we experience and express our gratitude to those who care for our souls, let us also call out to God and ask him to increase their strength of soul and our own. For the glory of God.  For the abundance of life that Jesus promises.  And for the sake of others.

1 From “Time Enough to Minister” by Henri J.M. Nouwen in Leadership (Spring, 1982)

©Ruth Haley Barton. 2014. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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