Note from CM: This is one of the first posts I wrote for Internet Monk, back when Michael asked me to help during his illness nine years ago. I think it a good preparation for the turn of the Christian Year, which happens this Sunday on Advent I.
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Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people
• Luke 1.68
In his wonderful book on pastoral ministry, The Jesus-Driven Ministry, Ajith Fernando quotes a classic seventeenth century manual of pastoral care by George Herbert. Herbert sets forth the exhortation that the good minister…
…holds the rule that nothing is little in God’s service; if it once have the honor of that name, it grows great instantly. Therefore neither does he disdain to enter into the poorest cottage, though he even creep into it, and though it smell ever so loathsomely. For both God is there, and also those for whom God died.
My work as a hospice chaplain involves visiting people in their homes every day. I also visit people in the hospital, in assisted living apartments, and in extended care facilities (nursing homes). Our entire team is a visiting team. We meet people on their turf. We enter their world. We do not ask them to make appointments and come to us, to an office somewhere. We get in our cars, check the directions and make our way around the city to find them. We park in front of their homes, walk up their sidewalks, knock on their doors, introduce ourselves, and wait to be invited in. We sit on their furniture, pet their dogs and cats, breathe their air, look around at their pictures, their messes and their treasures. We come as guests and servants, to hear their stories, to learn about their faith, to assess their needs, to assure them of our goodwill and desire to help them, to minister to their pain, to embrace them when they weep, and laugh with them as we consider life’s quirks and absurdities together.
Sometimes I read Scripture. When asked, I’ll bring my guitar and sing a few favorite songs. I almost always pray, with their permission. On certain occasions I speak a word designed to give them perspective on what they are facing. Mostly I listen. When I speak, it is usually to affirm that what they are going through is just plain hard, but we are there to support them in addition to their family, friends, and faith community. And…that God loves them and promises his comforting and strengthening presence.
The ministry of visiting – it’s what I have the privilege to do.
I think it is what pastors and Christian people used to do, what they were expected to do. But something changed in the church.
When I was in Bible college and seminary, little was said about the ministry of visiting. The institutions I attended trained pastors to be teachers. Preaching and teaching the Word of God was the priority. Study at least twenty hours a week. Take care of the unavoidable administrative details, but make sure you teach, teach, teach. “Sound doctrine!” was our cry, “Discipleship!” (meaning feeding heads with sound doctrine) our mantra. We consciously set ourselves apart from those “liberal” churches that emphasized the “social gospel” and were active in their communities. And, since they practiced pastoral visitation, we avoided that as a method as well and disdained the practice as time-consuming with little to show for all the effort.
Then came movements that changed evangelicalism forever. The spiritual gifts movement taught pastors that they were to “equip the saints to do the work of the ministry,” not do it themselves. The small group movement taught that it is more efficient and effective to handle matters like pastoral care through delegation to a network of circles within the congregation. The church growth movement emphasized that the goal is to establish big, continually expanding churches, thus setting these principles and a whole new organizational mentality in stone.
Pastors became “ranchers,” not “shepherds.” Church staffs began to grow and terms like “senior pastor,” “executive pastor,” and “preaching/teaching pastor” described the CEO at the head, whose job description changed from “ministering to the people” to “casting the vision”. Ministries like home visitation got delegated to associates. They in turn, saw themselves not as ones to actually darken the doors of someone’s home, but as mid-level managers in the system. They saw their job as developing “programs” to parcel out the personal caring ministries of the church. If one was “so gifted,” you could sign up for one of these programs, get trained, and participate. If it’s not your thing, that’s OK, there were plenty of other opportunities to serve.
If your church was lucky, you might find an older, retired pastor or missionary from the “old school” who could relate well, especially with those in their golden years. He might get added on to the staff part-time to take care of this ministry, which was deemed necessary but no longer vital to the “mission,” the “vision,” or the “core values” of the church.
I had a patient whose wife was an artist, and their situation meant that she was the only one available to care for him. She was struggling with this because she had an artist’s temperament and needed some space and time for herself. She was burning out and needed help. I encouraged her to call one of the local “mega-churches” nearby, thinking that surely they would have a caring person who could come and simply sit with her husband for an hour to give her some respite.
However, when she called, the person in the church office couldn’t seem to understand her request — “No, we don’t have anyone to do that. Are you a member of the church? Is your husband a Christian? — we could send an evangelistic team over. No, that’s not what you want? Well, do you belong to one of our small groups? I could direct you to our small groups pastor and he could take your information and maybe get you connected there, and you could attend a small group meeting and maybe someone in the small group could help you. No, I’m sorry, none of our pastors is available right now. Do you want to make an appointment to meet with one?”
This is Christian “customer service” in today’s church. Press one and get no help at all. Sorry, no option available for “I’m your neighbor who needs some simple human attention.”
In contrast, did you hear what Zechariah said in his Benedictus? “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people” (Luke 1.68). Then later in the same passage: “…the Sunrise from on high will visit us, to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1.79).
The true and living God visits his people. He comes to us. He meets us on our turf. He enters our world. He knocks on our door. He comes personally to sympathize with us and meet our deepest needs. Jesus is the Incarnate One who visits us.
This is one of the most wonderful “gospel” words in the Bible. If we would be true gospel people, let us open our hearts to receive his visitation this Advent and each day of the year. And may his presence so change us that we become known as those who do not “disdain to enter into the poorest cottage, though [we] even creep into it, and though it smell ever so loathsomely. For both God is there, and also those for whom God died.”