One of the key teachings about pastoral care is that the care giver has to break out of the feeling that they need to have the perfect cure for a person’s problems, or the perfect words to pull a grieving person out of their dark night of the soul. Many pastors – male ones in particular – want to be the “fixer,” the one with the magic wand that will erase all the trouble and make everything alright for someone. Of course, the question arises whether the desire to be this kind of hero arises out of true compassion for the other person or a need to receive praise from others in order to feed your own needs. I think the honest answer to that question – and one that happens to be consistent with the Reformed understanding of human nature – is that it’s really an unavoidable combination of the two. In any case, pastoral care instruction has always tried to make it clear that often, there really aren’t perfect words for a situation – maybe there are no words at all, in fact; that sometimes, the best and only thing that someone can do is to simply be present with the person. To just shut up, frankly, and be with them, and let them lean on you, and vent at you, and maybe even take some crap from them that they would never dole out under more normal circumstances. This is very wise and true pastoral care instruction. But based on a recent experience, I think maybe some people are using this avenue of pastoral care as a crutch by applying the “just be a silent presence” approach in order to avoid situations that very much demand our words and expression of beliefs. I recently had the opportunity to be a reader/grader for the recent crop of Commissioned Ruling Elder trainees as they sat for their final exams. One of the questions delved into this realm of pastoral care, setting up a hypothetical, but actually all too common situation; one that I sometimes faced several times per shift while working as a hospital chaplain. A person is in the hospital and dies either unexpectedly, or after a long and painful battle with some disease, and you are the pastoral presence there in the room with a family member of the deceased. In the anguish of the moment, the grieving family member looks you in the eye and asks, “Why? Why, pastor? Why did God do this?!!” How, pastoral trainee, do you respond?
One of the exams I graded responded to this scenario by saying that they’d just hug the person and sit with them, and not really say anything; that the important thing would be just being present in the moment. I don’t know, maybe some people would say that was correct. I thought it was nonsense. In my comments, I told the exam-taker that while quiet presence was indeed an important tool in the pastoral care tool belt, it wasn’t the only one – and that the family member was specfically asking for your thoughts and beliefs. This could have opened into a more in-depth discussion about why the person believes it was God that “did this,” which could lead to really good insights for the person. This person invited – almost demanded – a real response from you, pastor, and if you sidestep the question with a non-answer or some meaningless pap (my personal “favorite” is assuring a struggling person that God never gives us more than we can handle, when we all know that there are some problems in this world that could crush any of us like a Dixie-Cup), then you run the very real risk of having that parishioner consider you worthless, or a fraud, or both. You can’t just always deflect. Often times, words really, really matter. Many times, they don’t have to be anything profound. They don’t have to have multiple layers of theological richness. Sometimes, they might be downright simple, but offered in a loving, and maybe unexpected, way.
Which brings me to what led to the title of this blog entry. I stumbled across this today. This person may be a genius. For a measly five bucks, they will take and send you a picture of their pet hedgehog, along with a personalized note for someone. It’s simple. It’s easy. And it’s so quirky that the person you’d offer some word of encouragement to will recognize that you support them and that you care. No, it isn’t something for those late-night hospital visits. But many times, it might be just the kind of spirit-lifter that’s needed. Really, who can look at a hedgehog, especially one sending you your very own special message, and not at least smile? And some days, one smile isn’t bad.