Thinking of the things that my academic vocational education failed to equip me with, I realised that arguably suffering is the best pastoral care education one can get. The world we live in is awash with pain and brokenness, and the church is no exception. Being part of a community you cannot escape this harsh reality.
You start in ministry with a neat set of prescribed pieces of advice a la Job’s friends – that are often insensitive and inaccurate. As the years go by, you swing the other way, where the best encouragement you can offer is a deep heartfelt sigh, a shed tear and well…just your silence.
Yet God has a way of equipping you that is both un-welcomed yet cherished. He allows you to sometimes experience glimpses of what others are going through. That’s the only way you truly begin to ‘get it’. And it’s only a glimpse, a beginning really.
The temptation is to avoid the hard places, to skip the course, to try a shortcut and anaesthetise the pain. And it’s understandable. Because it hurts, and sometimes it hurts like hell.
In the last few months I felt as if God, pulled back an invisible curtain and offered me an insight into caring for people that I had not seen before. I wanted to learn from books and conversations – akin to a trainee surgeon that observes the surgery from the safe distance, behind the glass. Yet God said, step in and get into the bloody mess of pain, suffering, despair and hopelessness. And still, this was nothing compared to the devastating pain my friends Richard and Esther went through in the last few months (see www.fullhands.blogspot.co.uk).
I have a very long way to go, and I fear the personal pain. Yet, as Paul was observing, it’s only when we are comforted in the midst of trials that we learn how to comfort others. Jesus himself was so radical in his incarnational way of identifying with human suffering, shame and temptations – that he went beyond the ‘extra mile’. All this so that no one could ever say, ‘God would never understand’…