Rather than focus on the explosive religious issues of the day, I thought I would write about the importance of providing pastoral care. Often times, we hear that providing such care is usually the “job” of the professional clergy. Nothing can be farther from the truth! Mirroring God’s love and compassion is a responsibility we all share. I personally know of a number of clergy and non-clergy who find this particular precept difficult because it often forces us to confront and face our own insecure sense of mortality. However, such a self-awareness is necessary if we are going to make our contribution toward bettering the world we live in. Like Abraham, we must learn to respond to the problem of human suffering with the word: hineni – Here I am. . . . How can I help? God calls upon us all to behave as shepherds toward one another.
According to rabbinic tradition, the entire book of Job is a parable about pastoral care. For many years, I have personally find this insight very illuminating—especially if we interpret the Jobian drama in light of the principles found in Psalm 23.
In terms of providing care that is pastoral, the story about Job’s suffering (or any human being), represents a spiritual challenge to the family, friends, and community. The Bible does not subscribe to a belief in fatalism. The existence of the poor and needy is a spiritual problem for any just community. The way we respond to suffering defines and reveals the depth of our own spirituality and faith. The imagery of Psalm 23 provides a spiritual way good people can respond to the problem of suffering in their communities. Here are several ways how the pastoral imagery of Psalm 23 might serve as a praxis for how helping caregivers can become shepherds to those who are experiencing loss and a sense of abandonment. In the Jobian story, the pastoral imagery of Psalm 23 was absent in the way Job’s caregivers related to him.
The LORD is my Shepherd—The sick person often feels abandoned as indicated by the Psalmist (Psalm 22:1): “My God, why have You forsaken me?” Questions like, “If God loves me, how can He allow me to be sick?” or, “If God cares about me, why is my child sick?” or, “What have I done to deserve this?” are all common questions asked by those who suffer. For those who feel that they are being “punished” by God, the care giver must be careful not to give flippant responses. Ministering to the ill is one potent way of helping sufferers feel that they are being shepherded through the love of the care-giver. Slowly and patiently, shepherding unties the knots that bind, and provides the way for the self to find healing and reintegration.
The caregiver must realize that he or she is reflecting the image of God to the sufferer; the visitor mirrors God’s Presence. While most people have more or less the same body mass, it is the human face that marks our individuality. For the philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, the face commands an ethical response and for this reason, when the human face cries out for help—even if the person never makes so much as a verbal request for help—there is divine imperative to respond to the face of the fellow human being. The human face and the Divine face are said to resemble one another. In the etchings of William Blake on Job, one of the characteristics that appear in all of Blake’s etchings is the resemblance of the face of God with that of Job. Job’s pain was also God’s pain; like a mirror, one reflected the other. Blake’s pictures suggests that the redemption of Job’s suffering is also a redemption of God’s own suffering—the suffering of the Shekhinah. Blake’s insights were anticipated centuries ago by the ancient rabbis of the Talmud, Midrash, and especially the Kabbalah.
He makes me lie down in green pastures—The second insight Psalm 23 offers is the importance of providing rest and respite to the one going through the spiritual wilderness experience. The goal of pastoral care is to tend to the needs of the sufferer, both physical and spiritual.
He restores my soul—Restoration of the body is an essential requisite for providing care for the soul. Job’s friends felt that Job’s denial of his sinful character was the primary cause of his suffering. The friends could have assisted in pulling Job out of his Hellish pit he felt himself situated in; instead they kept him in a state of hopelessness and despair. Later, at the end of the Jobian odyssey, God restores to Job a new life. However, Job’s own spiritual restoration came only after he forgave his friends and prayed on their behalf.
For His Name’s sake—Caregiving requires humility. Human beings are at best agents for divine healing—not originators. The more egocentric we are in providing caring, the less effective we will be in healing our loved ones and friends. Caregiving must never be reduced to something mechanical, perfunctory or heartless; there must be a conscious effort to allow the spirit of God to heal. The friends of Job appeared to have been concerned with self-adulation when they visited Job. Their egos got in the way of Job’s healing. Treating the sick with respect and dignity helps the ill considerably. The story of Job teaches among other things, the importance of nurturing of the care receiver for the sake of Heaven.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . . . The Jobian experience is a journey through the valley of darkness; it is easy to give up hope and feel a sense of abandonment. The sick and needy often feel like the sheep walking on to the edge of a cliff feel—just a step away from death. A sensitive caregiver can help the sufferer realize that his/her suffering can have meaning and purpose. The caregiver would be wise to remember the words of Victor Frankl who once said, “Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” On the other hand, the lack of meaning increases and intensifies suffering. Though its presence does not necessarily end suffering, still, even the awareness that meaning exists can help the sufferer better cope with life. Suffering can help us reevaluate our lives and help redirect ourselves towards a new way of being and becoming.
I fear no evil; for You are with me—Oftentimes loved ones cannot face their moribund parents, family members, and friends when they are suffering. This is a characteristic that human beings share with many species of animals, which will shun a fellow creature that has been wounded or is dying. To become a caregiver, one must make peace with one’s own mortality. The person who is languishing in bed could just as easily be you or me at another time of our lives. Would we want to feel as though we are abandoned? Being with a sick person—if nothing else—affirms our common bond of humanity. As caregivers, we must creatively find a way to enable the sick or needy to make it through those dark nights of the soul. It might be through reading a story, telling a funny joke, since humor often has curative properties as Norman Cousins has illustrated. Playing music or bringing family members to visit can literally lift a spirit with a renewed sense of hope. Every decision we make begins with a choice, therefore—Choose life!
Your rod and staff, they comfort me—Shepherding must involve giving protection (rod) and support (symbolized by the staff). The person who is sick feels violated in the most personal way imaginable. The individual’s physical health has been compromised. Once a person has returned home from the hospital, there is still a moral obligation to follow up with telephone calls. Offering to buy food at the market or schlepping around with the recovering patient is a wonderful way to offer support. Encouraging words and prayers can also serve as instruments of healing and hope. When someone starts complaining about their illness with questions like, “God, why me?”, it is important not to offer glib or superficial answers. As already seen in the book of Job, Job’s questions emanate from a deep desire to give expression to the depth of pain he is feeling. One must allow the sufferer to explain and tell his or her personal “story” of lament. Anguish needs to be expressed in words and externalized. If the griever cannot externalize his pain, s/he will internalize it and implode. We show support to those we love by allowing them to tell their stories and give expression to their pain and anger. In today’s culture, society tends to respect the quiet stoic temperament. With respect to death in particular, mourners are generally encouraged to have a “stiff upper lip.” Mourners are to make little or no reference to their loss. Many feel uncomfortable around a mourner and feel embarrassed at their inability to relate meaningfully to the loss of the mourned. Quite often, the mourner acts and works as if nothing happened, while he is admired by his co-workers for showing such “courage” and “strength of character.”
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows—The tragedies that befell Job illustrate how the sick and needy require care in the most elemental manner; they need somebody to look after their material welfare, and help maintain their living quarters and take care of their bills in the face of illness. The critically sick person often feels a resignation towards death, and will often refuse even to eat food. Providing a table for the ill and taking care of their most elemental physical needs helps that person realize that life is worth living, and gives the person hope to go on. It may involve helping him to eat, or merely swabbing the patient’s mouth when it gets dried. Jewish tradition has long recognized the vulnerable state mourners are in when grieving and the mourner’s need for physical and spiritual sustenance. The Seudat Havarah, the “Mourner’s Meal of Condolence” is a special meal where the community brings food gifts that provides the table of blessing for those who grieve.
Only goodness and love will pursue me all the days of my life; I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever—Caregiving must be carried out with enthusiasm and relentlessness. Even after recovering from sickness or sorrow, the skilled pastoral caregiver stays in contact with the sufferer.