November 7, 2012

The Circle of Caring

The phone call, when it came, was both unwelcome and unsurprising.

“Your brother needs to speak with you,” my sister-in-law said softly against a backdrop of hushed voices half a world away. Ron’s words when she handed him the phone were measured and calm: “Bill, Dad passed away just a few minutes ago.”

His words, beamed off a satellite or two, reached me on a Sabbath morning in Queensland, Australia, though spoken on a Friday night in southwest Michigan. I swallowed hard and bit my lip, suddenly measuring the distance between myself and all those I hold dear. For five months I had been fearing this day, knowing it was likely not far off. My father, David, for nearly 50 years a teacher in this movement, had gone to his rest just as the Sabbath settled over his town. This would be the first Sabbath of my life without him.

2012 1531 page6I went silently to worship that morning, sure that I needed some words of praise to mix with the tears that welled up in my eyes. I sat just outside the massive camp meeting tent, grateful that I would not preach until Sunday evening, swallowing hard as the words of familiar hymns caught in my throat. Alone among thousands of fellow believers, I needed both to talk about my loss and to let the others find the joy and sweet conversation this special Sabbath promised them.

That evening I found Casey, a pastor in South Queensland Conference whom I had known nearly 20 years ago as an eager, consecrated theology major at an Adventist college. Just after the meeting closed, I pushed through my Yankee reserve long enough to share my news.

His reaction—spontaneous, unplanned—was just about as perfect as a man in pain could hope to find. He simply threw his arms around me in a tight embrace and began to pray, not caring who might hear or wonder at two mature men holding each other at the front of the emptying tent. His words were warm, supportive, hopeful, inviting my immortal Father to wrap me in His arms even as Casey already had. No hurrying, no easy assurances that all would soon be well, that I would soon be “over it.” Just presence, prayerful presence, or what the counselors appreciate as “non-anxious presence.”

In the days since then, I’ve gone back to that memory many times, each time more grateful than the last. A pastor for more than 30 years, I was the beneficiary of the best in pastoral care. And not because someone had worked out a detailed care plan, or estimated my likely responses to their offer of support. Just presence, prayer, and a grip that wouldn’t let go.

This is the stuff of holy community, the bedrock stuff of “being church.” When the words of last week’s sermon have faded, and the fine points of favorite theological arguments no longer move us, we won’t forget the hand upon the shoulder or the prayer that holds our hearts.

So here’s to you, pastors of the scattered flock, you men and women who share yourselves in the small hours of the night in waiting rooms, in family rooms, with sorrowful saints and flinty sinners. Here’s to the times you get it—oh, so right!—and remind us—oh, so much!—of Jesus. Here’s to your remarkable patience and your gift for knowing when to keep silent and when to speak. Here’s to the hundred hidden moments you build the kingdom without the sermons, beyond the seminars, in season and between the times.

Such kindness should always surprise us. For grace, even delivered by a pastor, is never deserved, and can never be assumed. Remember, when you pray, to intercede for those who watch over us, who make grace tangible to our overburdened hearts.
And remember, as I’m doing here, to say “Thanks,” completing the circle of caring. 

Bill Knott is editor of the Adventist Review. This article was published November 8, 2012.