“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards… Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” ― Soren Kierkegaard
Motivation matters. What gets us up in the morning tells a lot about why we choose to do what we do with our day. The spiritual care of others out of the overflow of my heart, full of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is the driving force of my life. It’s grounded in the goodness of God and God’s good creation.
As a Christian, I believe that all spiritual care begins with the God of creation and ends with the God of hope. The Christian tradition emphasizes that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The apex of his creation, the height of all God’s creative activity, is the formation of humanity upon the earth. Human beings alone have been created in the image and likeness of God – reflecting him in their care for all creation (Genesis 1:26-27). Therefore:
All human beings on the good earth which God created are inherently good creatures and deserve utmost respect and common decency.
People also carry within them a nature, due to the fall of humanity, of brokenness, fear, shame, regret, and pride. Thus, people are complicated creatures with the capacity for both great good and benevolent altruism, as well as great evil committed through heinous acts, and everything in-between in their culture-making and their civilization (Genesis 3-4).
I have personally found the resolution to these realities of the presence of both good and evil, are resolved in the person and work of Jesus. In Christ, I was made aware of my own guilt due to things I have done, and things I have left undone; given grace through his redemptive events; and, thus, extend gratitude to God through living into his original design of creature care (this is the structure of the 16th century Reformed Confession, The Heidelberg Catechism). Therefore:
My identity as a person is firmly rooted and grounded in the soil of God’s grace.
I freely give grace to congregants, patients, and others because Jesus Christ freely gave to me. My Christianity has the practical effect of acknowledging that each person on planet earth is inherently worthy of love, support, concern, and care.
Furthermore, as a Christian, everything in my life centers (ideally) around Jesus. As such, I take my cues for how to extend care to others from him. For me, Jesus is the consummate caregiver. He entered people’s lives and their great sea of need with the gift of listening; a focus on feelings; and, the power of touch. Christ was able: to listen to others because he first listened to the Father; to be present with others because he was present with the Father; and, to give love to others with the love he enjoyed within the Trinitarian Godhead (John 14).
This does not mean that I act as God acts; it means I love as Christ first loved me. I am human, a creature. God is divine, the Creator. I do not have the role of God. Rather, I emulate the caring practice of Jesus in his earthly ministry. I embrace my human role to listen, establish empathic connection, and offer a supportive spiritual presence.
It is God who is active in giving the grace of healing and mending broken bodies, damaged souls, and fractured lives in his own good time and benevolence.
In short, I embrace the process of care, and God brings about the outcome of transformation (1 John 4:7-21). I am neither, therefore, responsible to change a person’s feelings nor involved to fix their broken body and/or spirit. I am there to wed competency with compassion, detachment with support, and discretion with comfort.
Listening to, acknowledging, honoring, and inviting the communication of feelings is what I did, for example, with a healthcare patient named Esther (not her real name). Esther was being surly and mean to staff and threw her food in defiance. When I entered Esther’s room she yelled and complained of not being cared for. I came and knelt beside her bedside, took her hand, and simply said, “Tell me what’s going on.” A cascade of emotions came pouring out of Esther. No one had the time (nor, perhaps, the desire) to listen to her. Esther shared her frustration of chronic illness, a deep and hurtful wondering of where God is, and a profound pessimism that anything would ever change for her.
The only other words I offered Esther was: “I hurt with you.” I was present, I listened, and I sought to live into what the Apostle John said: “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and in action” (1 John 3:18). When I left Esther’s room, after I had stayed with her until she was calm, another dear woman was waiting for me, sitting in her wheelchair, outside of Esther’s room. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said with heartfelt declaration, “You are my Pastor! A few weeks ago, when I was sitting alone after an event, you came and asked me if you could wheel me back to my room. That’s not your job, and I know you are a busy man. You didn’t have to do that, and I am so thankful you are here and giving kindness to an old woman like me.” And she began to break down and cry.
In these visits, I believe I am emulating the compassionate presence of Jesus because:
People’s stories of joy and pain, laughter and sorrow, certainty and wondering, are sacred narratives – continuously being written and revised in the heart, trying to make sense of life and faith.
Patients in need, residents in care facilities, those with disabilities of body and/or soul, and all who are the other side of the spiritual tracks may not be able to fully give themselves to their own motivations; yet, they are still full-time human beings who need the emotional connections which a caring and supportive person can provide.
Christ’s very pastoral response to nearly everyone he encountered was not to explain evil and trauma, but to confound and confront it with love.
Jesus did not walk around performing unsolicited healings, but dignified people with asking them what they wanted, and if they desired to be made whole. “Do you want to be made well?” discerns that others need to explain their situations and their stories and does not assume that someone wants a change in identity (John 5:1-9).
The craft of caring for others is not only objective clinical-like work directed toward another person; it is also profoundly, personally, and subjectively transforming for the caregiver. Every person, no matter who they are, is precious and carries within them the image of God. The personal journey and discovery of God-likeness within each person is an emotional adventure worth taking. Perhaps the greatest Christian theologian of the 20th century, the Protestant Swiss Karl Barth, believed that we are not fully human apart from: mutual seeing and being seen; reciprocal speaking and listening; granting one another mutual assistance; and, doing all of this with gratitude and gratefulness. Barth used the German term Mitmenschlichkeit (co-humanity) to communicate that we are not human without the other. In other words, human flourishing requires mutual giving and receiving.
Only in relation to each other, including those in need, do we thrive as people.
Christianity is a fellowship with God and one another, and not an isolated odyssey. Thus, any kind of care-giving, for me, is a symbiotic relationship between the care-seeker and the caregiver, within the foundation of Trinitarian love, expressed with grace and hope given by Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. The person in need not be Christian for this to occur, since all share the common human experience of birth, life, and death as people distinct from all other creatures, worthy of compassionate support and spiritual uplift. This is the reason why I do and feel what I do and feel, as a believer in and minister for Jesus Christ.