A little over 26 years ago, my parents were in an horrific automobile accident, an accident which changed my life to be sure. My father was killed. My mother would fight through an 8 month hospitalization to face life in a wheelchair. I learned a lot as my childhood effectively ended in a flash and was thrust into an adult world.
Recently, through a conversation with a brother in the ministry, I was brought to remember one of the many lessons I learned during that difficult time. In the first week after the accident, my mother was placed on one of those “Morphine buttons” (for lack of the official term). It was a button which allowed her to self-medicate for pain.
She never pushed it. At least it seemed like she never did. She would be wincing in pain and when I encouraged her to push the button, she would look at me like I had suggested taking poison. Those eight months were an education, I recall, in my mother’s high tolerance for pain. Sometimes it seemed like you had to remind her she was in pain.
The lesson I learned from that was a strange one. Pain, it seems to me, is relative. Or at least it is relative to the person experiencing it. A “6” on the pain scale for me might not be a “6” for you. Women are credited with a higher pain tolerance than men due to childbearing. Watching my wife deliver six children totally naturally, (yes, totally naturally), I remain amazed at how she is able to do it. For her “labor” is truly a “labor of love.” And the pain? Well, let’s just say she views it as an occupational hazard. She rarely complains in labor. She just plays through the pain.
My conversation with my long-time pastor friend reminded me of this “pain relativity.” He is in a difficult situation with his congregation and he is struggling to make sense of it. The psychological and spiritual pain he feels is great. He tells me he and his wife are taking Cortisol for suppressed Adrenal glands. He feels stuck in a situation he, his family, his health, his congregation need to get out of, but there is no way out.
And yet, I felt a little guilty during this particular conversation. As he described what was going on, I knew that his problems weren’t unique. Many pastors undergo what this man was going through. Pain, indeed, is relative. Many pastors go through these things bowed, but not beaten. Some are like Captain Kirk, ever pushing forward because they truly believe there is no such thing as an impossible scenario. Others, like my friend, truly are beaten and are looking for some white flag to fly to get out.
Why did I feel guilty over this conversation? Probably for a number of reasons, but I will cite one particular thought I have been wrestling with here. Knowing his problems are not unique, I may have been fighting a certain sense of apathy toward him. The Christian perspective on pain is not a “Suck it up, Buttercup!”-perspective. That apathy may have been rooted in having heard it all before–having “been there” myself. (I find this a risk for anyone who has worked in ecclesiastical supervision. A calloused, “Everybody hurts”-mentality can be a real wet blanket on the flame of compassion). All I know is that, if I was visiting the same person in the hospital room and it was physical pain they were talking about, I would probably not be so cavalier.
Pain, or our experience of it, may be relative, but that does not mean it is not real. The pains my friend related may not be unique, but they are real. Just because pain may be spiritual, emotional, or psychological rather than physical does not mean it is not still pain. The pain of others should, in all circumstances, stoke the fires of compassion and elicit responses of mercy toward those in pain. We can become too fixed on the relativity of pain and forget that pain is still pain no matter how differently we might experience it and express it.
As I later reflected on our conversation, I wondered how serious we are as a Church (Christ’s Body) to the alleviating of pain. Could we as a church do more for pastors and congregations whose environments have become “painful?” Could we do more to rectify those problems for both pastors and people without relying on the good, old call process to begin the healing. In some cases calls are not possible or realistic options. Should we work together to help bring about “the ministry of reconciliation” and try to restore congregations to their pastors and vice versa? As Christ’s Body, are we not committed to these very sorts of things?
(Some might cite various and sundry examples where this has happened in a congregation. I don’t deny that it has happened. I would argue that these examples don’t necessarily demonstrate any trends. All I’m asking is whether or not we have really thought through congregational health and made it a priority enough to keep pastors where they are).
There is a perspective on all pain given us in Christ. The Good News is that the pains of hell itself Christ carried on His cross. Our burdens, pains, crosses can be laid at the foot of the cross that saves. The risen Christ, who promised to be with us always, puts His own shoulder to our own crosses, His own healing to our pains, His own grace to our grunts, His hope to our temporary hopelessness. We won’t see an end to pain between now and His Second Coming, but we are in the care of the One who saw the greatest pain of all.
My friend didn’t need patronizing (which he may have gotten from me that day). He simply needed a good Word, a Word which puts his pain in perspective, and I’m afraid that sick little me didn’t have it for him that day. He also needs His church body to engage his situation toward the alleviation of pain on all sides. It may not be feasible for him to pursue a call or his congregation to call a pastor right now.
So how does the healing balm of the Gospel inform the way the broader church works with a pastor like my friend? What are the best and the worst points of our church’s efforts with pastors and congregations? Is it possible to improve these sorts of situations or should we just let the next pastor sort them out? Feedback is welcome.