Presence is Pastoral Care

Amy Butler learned a great lesson in a difficult situation. Our presence speaks volumes to the hurting. Will you stop and think–what do you have to offer? Could it be that being and being in a person’s presence, is the greatest gift, the greatest support you have to offer?

Listen to Amy’s story.

I’m fairly certain the most comforting words are not words at all.

At least through all these years of trying to be an effective pastoral caregiver, I sure hope so. While I’d like to imagine I can pull from the deep recesses the perfect holy statement to soothe the pain, I suspect that the impression that one’s possession of a seminary diploma automatically instills magical ability to turn the perfect phrase in a painful situation is grossly erroneous (and probably fairly dangerous, too).

I first started to suspect this was a true statement after my very first visit to the hospital room of an elderly church member who had lapsed into a coma of some sort and was nearing the end of her life. I was so nervous, because I didn’t know what to say to her or to the people in the room with her. I’d never really contemplated death all that much, never spent much time in hospital rooms, and certainly never been the one called upon to actually say the comforting words.

I prepared by nervously reciting the 23rd Psalm all the way to the hospital. After all, those were some comforting words I definitely knew by heart. And just in case I couldn’t for the life of me think of anything comforting to say, at least the Psalmist’s words would sound legitimate.

The visit started off pretty well from what I remember, though honestly my dominant memory is that of sheer terror. Sure enough, though, I found myself lost for words as I stood there feeling like I had to say just the right thing (as if there is any right thing one might say to make death go away).

I admit it: I used the Psalm.

The problem was, I got so nervous that I left out, “He restoreth my soul.” (I’ve always thought that phrase was a little out of the cadence of the Psalm, anyway.) The poor woman in the hospital bed, having already mostly left her earthly life, chose that moment to come back to herself and shake her head firmly to let me know she knew I’d forgotten those important words. Dejected, I realized that, in addition to being wholly unable to summon unique words of comfort, even using someone ELSE’S words failed to offer comfort in that moment.

So I began to hope then with everything I could muster that there was something else to take along with me into whatever future situations might require pastoral care and comfort. Because the truth of the matter is, most of the time I don’t know what to say. When I see your pain and doubt and weakness and mortality and grief, words fail me because … I also see my own. And sometimes I am suddenly knocked breathless by the shocking realization of our shared humanity, the sure knowledge that we walk the same path.

In these moments I don’t believe the things I learned in pastoral-care class anymore. Open-ended questions and thoughtful, reflective responses ring hollow in the echo chamber of human pain. All the specifics fall away and I know, with sobering certainty, that your hospital room could well be my hospital room — and that the hot, salty tears you cry feel the same as the ones that drip from my eyes, too.

Sometimes I think an easy reference guide would come in handy (“prayer before triple-bypass surgery, p.38”). But there is no easy reference guide, because there is no formula for dealing with human pain. There are, however, some words that I’ve come to remember since that dreadful afternoon in the hospital room. They are words Jesus said when he faced the pain of saying goodbye to his disciples. Remember those? He said, “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Yes, I recall the words, but now I finally know it’s not the words that comfort; it’s the promise of presence.

I thought when I first started that I had to have the perfect words, words that soothed and comforted in any human crisis. But there are no words to fix the pain of our humanness. I’m finding, however, that sometimes, if God’s Spirit shows up in that hospital room or nursing home or counseling session, that I can help remember: presence.

No words to fix things; just a hand extended, a hug of comfort, a cup of water, a comforting song, a calm smile, a deep breath — shared. As we walk through pain that often renders us unable to remember, sometimes together we can help each other recall that in the mystery and fear and uncertainty and grief there is … God. Ever and always, God. With us. Amen.


Pastoral Care


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