Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Long and Winding Road

A couple of days ago, the wonderful women at RevGals hosted a discussion on the challenges inherent in a minister's trying to help a parishoner who is grieving the death of her child. It's a good conversation and I highly recommend it.

I left only one comment; like many readers here, I could have monopolized the site, but I thought that listening would be the better part of valor.

I was struck by a couple of things. First, the genuine desire of the pastors to be of help. I have seen little of my own pastors in the past several months. I can acknowledge some of the responsibility for that; I have not been much in evidence myself. But I have reached out to others for help instead, in large part I think because I see our pastors as fixers rather than listeners ~ and I think I see them that way with good reason. I treasure them as gifted leaders of our church, as friends in ministry with whom I have worked for years on multiple projects, as committed parents and community leaders, as tremendous supporters of my own move toward ministry, but . . . . People have a way of diappearing, and that includes the best of them.

A friend of mine wrote a
recent blog entry about the long and lonely months devoted to her battle against breast cancer. Her main point: it takes a l-o-n-g time, and, while friends are present and encouraging and helpful in the early weeks, they don't realize that you still need them many months later. She reserves her most profund gratitude for those who were still there to accompany her to chemo or lend a hand with her daughter or play a game of Scrabble with her long after the rest had disappeared.

I am surely as guilty as the rest. Most especially now. I think often these days of what I would like to do differently in the future, as a neighbor, a friend, a pastor. I think of the other things that impinge upon our time and how we set priorities. I think of how important it is to read between the lines, hear between the words. I think about anticipating the struggles people might be facing, and what I might offer in advance. I think about understanding the reclusiveness that so often marks grief, and how to intrude upon it in a generous way.

Right this moment, for instance. It is a magnificent morning outside. I am studying Hebrew and working in the garden and house -- memorization being one of those things that must be accomplished in small doses over long periods of time. I would love it if someone pulled into the drive this morning and sat on the porch with me for half an hour. I would love it if , rather than the usual "You are so strong, so wise, so articulate, so blah blah blah whatever," someone said to me something more along the lines of "Do you want to talk about the parts you don't talk about?" I would love it if someone called to say, instead of "We hope you'll join us tonight," something like, "I know you probably won't come, but maybe I'll come by here in a few days instead."

I would love it if there were more people who understood that their task is not to provide comfort ~ because there is only occasional and very little comfort to be had ~ but to offer presence. I think that that dichotomy is perhaps at the root of so much absence: that presence without comfort is the best you can sometimes do. You cannot comfort a woman whose cancer threatens the possibility of seeing her daughter graduate from middle school (a joyful event that my friend has just witnessed). You cannot comfort a woman whose child is dead. It's that simple.

What can you do? Anything at all? Well, yes. You can put aside your own fears, the ones along the lines of, If this could happen to her beautiful child, it could happen to mine. You can clamp your mouth shut every time you are tempted to make something akin to a pronouncement, one of the multiple variations on God is with you, and instead ask, or wait to see, what her experience of God is these days. You can put a lid on the shock or dismay or sadness you may feel in response to what comes out of her mouth, and try to create a little island of safety for her in a universe that has revealed treachery and instability. You can honor her experience by hearing and seeing and enduring it with her.

That would be, actually, doing quite a lot.


Anonymous said...

I held a Barbara Kingsolver quote close during my time of separation and divorce -- The friend who holds your hand and says the wrong thing is made of dearer stuff than the one who stays away.
You are so right about presence and listening and holding. I have so needed it and I also have so not done it.
Holding you and listening,
Gracie, the lurker

Michelle said...

I wish I could appear on your porch and City Director calls this the "privilege of presence" - it is his privilege to be present to people, words are not sufficient!

I spent this morning standing next to a friend whose father had died, ready to step in if she could not sing. I could only offer her my voice in need, and my presence, knowing that comfort was not mine to grant.

Carol said...

Thank you for this gentle lesson and reminders. Wishing I lived closer so that I could do some of these things.

Magdalene6127 said...

I heard Gabriel Byrne being interviewed yesterday on Fresh Air about the TV series in which he plays a psychiatrist. He spoke of listening as the highest compliment one person can pay another-- real presence, real attentiveness. I hear you saying something similar and related here, and I'm grateful for it-- as one of those fixers, as one of those who probably does say "God is with you" or some such thing. I'm grateful for your honesty, always.

Betsy said...

I have learned a lot from your posts, and have been reminded of many things I know but tend to forget; this one about being present and listening definitely falls in the second category.

Here's the rub for me as pastor, as one who has served 10 years in my current congregation, which includes both a parish and a fairly large school and its staff: with each passing year, I am companion to more people in the challenges, griefs, and horrors of their life. In trying to keep up my ministry with those whose trials are occurring right now or within the past couple of months, I run out of time for those who are hurting from events earlier in the year or before that. I know their pain and need are still great, and I would dearly love to be more present for them, but logistically I can't. When possible, I try to remember anniversaries or occurrences that might be especially hard for them and call or send a note, but I miss far more than I catch. Maybe to these folks I seem uncaring or fearful of the intensity of their wounds, but I really don't think either of those is the issue for me; I'm simply out of hours. I struggle with this frustration, and I don't think there's an answer; I post it here as an observation.

This is where I pray that the love of each person's friends, both within and outside the congregation, is demonstrated. Long after I have moved on to more recent pastoral needs, I hope those people are still there, supporting and listening and engaging. You remind me that for my personal friends, I need to keep being one of those people!

Gannet Girl said...

I have often wondered about the issue you raise, Betsy, and I gave it a lot of thought after reading your comment.

I know that my father gave up on church after my mother and brother died -- he simply felt that no one was present to him after a certain point. One of the websites on suicide mentions how many people stop going to worship and never return after a loss like this -- I think that many experience something similar. I met a women who works for an organization that addresses the needs of parents who have lost young children and she said, "Oh, they all say the same thing - the clergy are wonderful in the immediate aftermath, and then they're gone."

I suppose that one of the things that keeps me in seminary is the faint recognition that I may have something to share that someone will need. But the reality . . .

I often wonder now if I am intended to focus entirely on spiritual direction, because the reality is that the church is too diffuse for these kinds of needs to be met in a congregational setting.

I suppose the answers will unfold. Thanks so much for providing the healthy reality check.

Anonymous said...

A thought for the idea that clergy fall off because they are overwhelmed and lose track... Do any congregations use a system of lay caregivers? I think that the problem posed by Betsy can be answered by the integration of Stephen Ministry ( or something like it into a larger congregation.

Betsy said...

Thanks for your ponderings on the question I raised; I really do believe it's one of those areas that has no answers, but we all can learn a lot by listening (there it is again!) to the experience of others, which may alter our own path/approach a bit.

Very interesting idea that the church may be too diffuse a setting (or maybe not diffuse enough) for some experiences. I will have to think about that.

Stephen Ministries or similar is something I have considered, and we may move in that direction. But even then the same issue could arise, depending on the ratio of new needs in the congregation to the number of people with the gifts for that ministry. I keep coming back to the notion that the answer lies with deep friendships; maybe I will work that into a sermon one of these days.