Our Days & God's Years: Pastoral Care in Times of Change

March 01, 2016

Our Days & God's Years: Pastoral Care in Times of Change

It was the year 1747, and a young man lay dying of tuberculosis. Doctors had prescribed horse-back riding in the open air as a remedy, but it hadn’t achieved the desired goal. For some five years previous, he had served as a cross-cultural worker amongst Indian tribes in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, living in their villages, eating poor food, and always at risk of both physical and mental exhaustion. Christians had not lived with unbelievers for around a thousand years in Europe, and now a man, thrown out of Yale College because of his religious enthusiasm, was modelling a new kind of ministry as a missionary. His name was David Brainerd, and we know his story because his mentor, Jonathan Edwards, published a biography of his life from his journals and diary. For over a hundred years to come, reading this famed biography, The Life of Brainerd, was almost all cross-cultural workers had as preparation for their labours. Even the earliest chaplains to Botany Bay had read this work, making it formative for European settlement in Australia.

 As Brainerd lay dying in the Edwards’s home in Northampton, Massachusetts, he asked his host, together with friends gathered around his bed, to read Psalm 102:

 On the evening of the next day, viz. Tuesday September 29, as he lay in his bed, he seemed to be in an extraordinary frame; his mind greatly engaged in sweet meditations concerning the prosperity of Zion: There being present here at that time two young gentlemen of his acquaintance that were candidates for the ministry, he desired us too to unite in singing a psalm on that subject, even Zion’s prosperity. And on his desire we sung a part of the 102nd Psalm. This seemed much to refresh and revive him, and gave him new strength; so that, though before he could scarcely speak at all, now he proceeded with some freedom of speech to give his dying counsels to those two young gentlemen forementioned … Till now, he had every day sat up part of the day; but after this he never rose from his bed.[1]

 This psalm was particularly apt. We hear in this psalm the voice of an individual who is suffering greatly, who seeks to place his suffering in the context of God’s eternal purposes for the world. Brainerd was young, dying at the age of 27—in mid-life as the psalmist laments—and often doubted the difference he was making towards the progress of providence. His friends in caring for him read the Scriptures to him. They applied Scriptural truth to this individual’s need. It will repay our efforts to look at this particular psalm more closely, to see how it models for us a kind of pastoral care that chaplains are involved with every day.

Shortened days

The psalmist’s experience highlights how serious human suffering can be. In the first eleven verses, he seeks out God’s face, a sign of blessing and hope. His troubles have made him desperate. The imagery is graphic, for his bones burn like a furnace, his heart is withering because of lack of appetite. Physically, he is skin and bone, and lonely like an owl or sparrow crying out in desolate places. In the world of the psalmist, it might often have been assumed that extreme suffering was the result of extreme sinning, so perhaps that was why enemies taunted him. God’s indignation is mentioned, though no sin is actually listed which would provoke God’s wrath. Nonetheless the psalmist feels thrown down and discarded, perhaps like the nation had felt under God’s judgement as recounted in Psalm 89. He sees himself here like an evening shadow, insubstantial, fleeting, fading to grey. Drawing on other nature imagery, he describes himself as withering like that most ephemeral creature, the grass. After all his efforts, what is there to show for his life, which is so transitory? Effectively, the psalmist has been humbled, afflicted, and is pleading, How Long, O Lord? It is not just that his life is passing, but it is also painful, a most overwhelming combination.

 No doubt chaplains experience just this challenge of speaking with men and women, boys and girls, who find themselves in extreme situations. The mother who can’t let go of the pain of her son’s suicide and blames herself. The young girl coming to terms with a cancer in early life, the treatment for which has left her unable to conceive. The elderly man whose body is racked with pain, and can’t bear it any longer. Any pastoral responsibility, not least that of chaplains, involves listening to stories, requiring excellent skills in listening and empathy. On occasions, pastoral responsibility will involve crisis interventions, having to make decisions when the person being cared for is unable to make such decisions on their own.

 A particular kind of intervention, when someone is vulnerable, might be to exercise a ministry of advocacy and speak when they cannot. The person in your care may not have the words to describe what they are experiencing, so part of your care will be to help them find the words and thereby to externalise their feelings. It is so hard to put into words what we are suffering, that the psalmist here uses the comparative ‘like’ to express his linguistic desperation. We know from our experience that severe suffering produces feelings of extreme isolation. Suffering makes me look at me; as the psalmist says: ‘I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop’ (v.7). Laments in the Bible are frequently expressed in the first person singular. Part of why we use the Scriptures in pastoral care is to help those in our care to find words to express their situation. The psalmist would no doubt empathise with the grief expressed in these powerful words:

 Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Appointed time

But there will be moments when the right thing to do is not only to find words but also to tell a story, and to use the Scriptures and to help your conversation partner to see their life in the light of that story, just as Edwards and his circle did when caring for David Brainerd in his dying days. Our days may be short, so ultimately we need to understand them in the light of God’s own timing, his years.

 This is what the psalmist does in the next section of the psalm, from verses 12 to 22. Here, God’s name Yahweh is used seven times, drawing us to reflect on the God who breaks into history to make a covenant with his people, who does not remain distant from the human condition. The section begins with a contrast from verse 11. There our fate is fleeting, but God on the other hand is enthroned forever, and remembered throughout all generations, unlike his creatures whose life may well be brief and forgettable. What is most striking in verse 13 is the language of eschatology: God’s city, Zion, will be remembered, and the time to favour her, the appointed time has come. God has a purpose for his people, represented in ideal terms as Zion, and he is about to intervene. While God apparently has forgotten his people, the people haven’t forgotten Zion. Not even her dusty stones are without the compassion of the nation in verse 14. The future-oriented theme continues with the prospect of all the nations of the world fearing the Lord of Israel, who is rebuilding Zion according to his promises. He has indeed heard the cry of the people, and like in the days of the Exodus, he hears their groans, destitute as they are, and answers. The plight of prisoners is acknowledged, and those who face imminent death are set free to praise the name of the Lord, along with all nations. The psalmist’s name has been derided but God’s name will be feared. Perhaps the psalmist’s prayer will be heard at last. A lament has merged with a statement of confidence in God’s purposes. God will do something about the sin of the world and the suffering of his people.

 Choosing timely words is at the heart of pastoral care, and indeed is at the heart of wisdom—knowing when to speak and what to say was a lesson the friends of Job needed to learn. But part of our ultimate goal in care is not just to help those afflicted to find words to express their experience, but to help them find words which locate them amongst God’s people. Setting our anguish in the context of God’s promises to his people can be profoundly steadying. Of course, saying a psalm, an underutilised means of pastoral care, is one strategy. But providing other kinds of counsel may work too. The resources of the Christian community shared liberally demonstrate that the person suffering is not a burden, with the chaplain as the concrete example. A friend’s promise to care despite the cost points to God’s own promises to protect his people even when progress seems faint. In moments of severe sickness, we need to help people to see that costly care is sometimes more real than a temporary cure. God is making a world in which there will be no suffering or pain for his people. Even using the Scriptures when appropriate is a sign that there is a venerable tradition of soul care which predates the chaplain’s labours, and will outsurvive him or her as well. Our friends may not be believers or hold the Bible in high regard, but it can function practically as a pointer to a bigger story, which has honoured individuals and cared for their needs for generations past. In some sense, the aim of pastoral care is the reintegration of the suffering person with the broader community, even church community, and the Scriptures can generate such connections, as Ed Welch suggests:

 In C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, Lucy [sic] is sent off on a rousing and perilous task: ‘Seek this lost prince until either you have found him and brought him back to his father’s house, or else died in the attempt, or else gone back to your own world.’ Then she is given four signs that will keep her oriented through her journey. Without these she will be lost, so she is instructed to repeat them over and over to herself during her journey. We need to do something similar on our journey. This is the way for both the helper and the person being helped to stay oriented: we remember the story.[2]

 The psalmist could well tell the story of God’s intervention to care in these terms:

Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings;
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea.
Come, Friend of sinners, thus abide with me.

Everlasting years

The third section of the psalm begins with the psalmist’s personal lament once again, crying out that suffering and the brevity of life sit uncomfortably with God’s eternal days. God should have acted sooner, but now life is cut off. God should not have begrudged the psalmist a few days, when God had so many to share! The language of ‘me’ reappears after lapsing in the central section of the psalm. But now the appeal is no longer to the character of God as exemplified in the Exodus, or to the promise of God to restore Zion after the exile, but to the power of God demonstrated in the creation in the first place (v.25), and in the power of God to recreate the creation when one day it will be worn out like a garment. The frame of reference is now enlarged. The psalmist seems more personally desperate, and at the same time more radical in expecting a new creation, not just a renewed city. God is beyond the creation as its Creator, and beyond the limitations of time as the one whose ‘years have no end’. A note of hope ends the psalm with the expectation of security and permanence. While it might appear that life is brutish and short, in fact God’s plans are generous and lead to flourishing: there will yet come generations of God’s people who live secure with him forever. The context of care has led to the outcome of mission.

 In these verses, the psalmist’s life and God’s eternal years are brought together dramatically. Not just personal suffering, and not just God’s secure purposes, but the psalmist’s place, even when uncomfortable, in those purposes. In a sense, an act of pastoral care has been achieved, with the psalmist finding contentment within the creative purposes of God. Learning how to be content in our skin, or patient with our circumstances, is the good outcome and largest possible framework of pastoral care. It is not always the case that our circumstances will change, but it is possible to come to terms with them in a new way. What we want to do through powerful words in pastoral conversations is to remove unreality, or any pressure that is imposed that gives false hope. Learning to live within the constraints of our bodily experience is wise. Without accepting our physical created reality, we cannot move beyond it in some measure of healing. It does not mean that we must accept the sin that has been committed against us, nor that in accepting the created reality of which we are a part it will go away. But in coming to terms with our present circumstances, we must at least not fight against something alien, but accept something created. Pastoral care will promote honesty and humility, and help us to look beyond the immediate. The hymnwriter, once again, helps us to put together our plight within God’s plans:

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

A still bigger point of reference

Psalm 102 has taught us to value words, to care for people by connecting their story to the story of God’s purposes for history, and to value our own unique creatureliness despite our suffering or sin. In fact, Psalm 102 was used by the writer to the Hebrews to do more than this. It speaks eloquently of the surpassing beauty of the Lord Christ himself, who suffered in the body, entrusted himself to God’s plans for his people when he gave himself up to death on the cross, and remains seated at the right hand of the Father, with a human body to this very day, ready to renovate the world with the church as its centre. God’s care of us is ultimately located in the Lordship of Christ, in whom every part of our life finds its meaning.

[1] Jonathan Edwards, The Life of Brainerd. The Works of Jonathan Edwards 7. Edited by Norman Pettit (Yale University Press, 1985), pp472f.

[2] Ed Welch, Side by Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love (Crossway, 2015), p155.

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