Saturday, November 30, 2013

There's No End

Not long ago, I was with a new widow in the emergency room of a hospital. Together we looked at the body of her husband who had taken his own life. In fact, we sat for hours waiting for the medical examiner to sign the forms, and we watched over the body of the man whose head was wrapped in a bloody towel.  Later that week, I performed his funeral. And then later,  when the woman could muster the courage to ask, I assured her that the man she loved all these years did not go to hell. 

I do this a lot. 

In the first church where I served as the pastor, I remember there was a terrible accident where a man was buried by over a ton of fertilizer. I remember how people, including the two grown sons of the man, dug frantically to find him, but mercifully, he died on impact, rather than from suffocation. The sons were huge, laconic young men, but they let me hug them as I told them how sorry I was. All that day, people involved at the accident, stopped me and told me how hard they had tried to help and how they felt then and now.  And I listened to each of them.

I remember at the time, as I watched men dig, how I had to swallow down the tears and project a strength I didn’t really have, so people could be cared for. 

I was twenty-three at the time.  

For over three decades I’ve sat next to those who were slowly dying, and held the hands of their loved ones. I’ve stood with family as they watched their precious member take their last breaths after it was decided to remove the ventilators.  I’ve held mothers and fathers as they sobbed at the deaths of their children. 

The minister doesn’t cry.  Well, maybe I'll show a tear or two to prove I'm human. But it’s not the minister’s turn to cry; it’s his or her turn to serve. And it’s an honor.

Other people work more intensely and more often in these settings: nurses, doctors, policemen, emergency medical workers. I think they’re all amazing, and I’m glad I don’t do that kind of work all day every day.  But as hard as their work is, they at least work as a team. Nurses, doctors, police, firemen, emergency care workers—they have each other. 

But ministers are generally alone. Their churches don’t want to think about the minister suffering, not in any real way. 

A few days after a death, I preach the funeral. The most draining moment of the service is as people walk by the casket and I see them tear up, or cry, or whisper something under their breath, or wail as family members hold each other up. As they go past me, I touch them if they’ll let me, shaking their hands, or hugging them, sharing and sometimes absorbing some of their pain. 

I see a lot in those moments: Sadness, courage, despair, relief, anger, shock, isolation, love, bitterness, hope, affection, coldness….

I don’t cry with them. Sometimes I want to cry for them but I don’t do that either. The feelings are there and they’re not so much locked away as they are kept in check, so I can do my job.

I’m always exhausted afterward. I go to the office to catch up on regular work and then call it an early day if I don’t have evening meetings. I’d like to go to sleep but usually, I sit quietly for a time.  My wife just lets me be at those times.

It’s an honor, really. I have the ability to do this. I have been called to do this.  I’ve done it often, lately, at least once a month and often once a week.  And one time twice in a day. 

There’s a price to pay. All these deaths, all this grief, all this sadness has a cumulative effect that get’s heavier each time. After three decades it’s very heavy.

And that’s just the deaths. There are the divorces, the conflicts at church and in families, the ugly politics that break my heart because I don’t just work with these people—I’m supposed to love them.  And there are my own personal failures and inadequacies.  

I’m supposed to be the life of the party when I go to the picnics and potlucks. I preach uplifting sermons where I’m funny and positive.  I mediate between conflicts that can be utterly ridiculous. Sometimes it’s all that I can do to keep from rolling my eyes when I hear the angst about misplaced kitchen utensils, spots on the carpet, and do I use enough hand cleaner when I serve the Lord’s supper.  I sit at church meetings and we hammer out the business issues that I don’t care about, although they have to be taken care of.

People sometimes look at me sympathetically and say, “Where do you go for support, Pastor?” I just shrug.  I think they answer their own question by telling themselves that my being so close to God probably gives me near superhuman strength. It doesn’t. I have to find human ways to deal with my human frailty.

There have been times when I go sit with the children at church. Once, when I was in desperate shape, I blew bubbles with the preschool kids. Another time, at a church gathering, I sat on the ground with a child and ate homemade ice cream with him. Joyful kids are restorative.

I like to watch movies. Often I’ll cry, sometimes at the oddest moments in the film. 
There ought to be other ways to process. I’ve been to counselors but in truth most of them have not helped much, though they tried. I go to preachers meetings. They understand, but in truth, most of them are in worse shape than I am and I end up listening to them.  I can’t inflict this on my family. I am the professional minister--they are not. Life in a minister’s family is not always easy for them, anyway—I hide as much of the crap as I can from them.   

I’m paying a price. I have anxiety attacks that I hide from the family, but when I’m alone I shake uncontrollably, and sometimes, this stupid twitch where my body tenses briefly like I've been startled. I’ve developed health issues—diabetes, high blood pressure and with any luck, it will cut my life short.

I started going to a massage therapist at the recommendation of a friend.  The moment she touched me, the muscles unleashed all kinds of pain. The first several sessions, I had those anxiety attacks. Often, just as the muscles began to relax, they would then lock up, and then I might twitch all over, and not be able to stop. Other times I burst into tears, and on two occasions sobbed loudly. 

The therapist was so sweet. She spoke quietly and reassured me it was all okay.  I would thank her while she worked, and she would say “you’re welcome,” very quietly. She always ended by massaging my face and it always made me cry if I wasn’t crying already. I usually captured her hand while it was on my face, and patted it once or twice.

I went every week. To be touched, to have some of the pain released. I never missed. And I started feeling better in general. 

But somehow it has gotten out that I actually go to a massage therapist, and somehow there’s something wrong with that, although many people from my church also go to her. And it has also gotten out how emotional I get--that “the preacher is cracking up.”

Maybe I am, but the massages were putting that off a bit. 

I also have a friend. One friend, who is a leader in my church and a counselor in the community. I haven’t actually had friends in a long time. I can’t trust anyone in my churches, and besides I move around too much. But she decided to be my friend. She spent hours listening to me, understanding what I said, saying wise and supportive things.

To be honest, I found myself attracted to her and I struggled with those feelings. We were careful not to touch each other, even to shake hands. I eventually came to a different place in my feelings about her.    

I did nothing wrong and neither did she, but someone has spread the rumor that she and I were having an affair, and so we’ve stopped talking except in public settings in front of others. I’m not going to respond to any of it—that would make it worse. I hope the gossip will just die down, and it probably will. 
Tomorrow, I will go to the church and preach to a crowd filled with desperation. Some are lonely, some are grieving, some are afraid, some are angry, and one or two of them are seething, thinking of reasons why they hate me.  I’ll do my best to be wise, gentle, funny, and kind, even to the hateful ones. 

Then I will go home and not tell my family how I feel. I won’t get to talk to my friend. I won’t be looking forward to a massage the next week.  I’ll eat lunch and go to work some more. 

I don’t have a conclusion here. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to wish for. That's the problem. There’s no end. 


  1. Is there a reason you don't talk to your family? Do you not want to burden them or feel that they wouldn't understand?

  2. Sigh. That's like another issue that's even harder to discuss.

  3. Well, blog about it if you can. Blog to US. We'll listen.

  4. I get so angry when I hear of things like this happening. I've been saying for many years that one of the biggest problems in the modern church is the pastor on the pedestal. Pastors are not superheroes, hell, even our superheroes are allowed to be flawed these days. If I believed in Satan I'd say he has the easiest job in the world, people will tear each other apart, and he doesn't have to lift a finger. If you were local to me I'd invite you to hang out and we could talk about anything you wanted, no holds barred. My phone number is in my Facebook profile, if you ever want to chat with someone.

    1. Hi Mike. That's a terrific offer that I will take you up on. An interesting thought on Satan. I've often thought it was mighty convenient to have someone to blame for our wrongdoing.

  5. This makes me very angry on your behalf as well. The modern ministry culture is just heartbreaking to see. It was bad when I was involved in evangelicalism, and things seem like they've just gotten worse in the decades since I got out. It worries me that you're having panic attacks--that's a good sign that your stress is getting way out of hand. I had them for years when I was a Christian and I know how rough the attacks are. PLEASE do what you can to get help managing that stress.

    Speaking of Satan, you would love "Good Omens," preacherman. It's about how a demon and angel band together to stop the end of the world. The demon, Crowley, actually mentions a couple of times that demons don't really have to do much to make humans sin--that humans would come up with all kinds of nastiness that would make a demon's skin crawl (worse), just as they could come up with levels of grace all by themselves that not even an angel could approach.

    1. Cassidy, Thank you for caring about me. I'm working on the panic attacks--I've had them all my life. The movie sounds very interesting. And yes, I've often thought that people don't need much help in the way of acting wickedly and maybe they should get the credit when they do wonderfully.

  6. I'm glad you can share on your blog, but I am worried for your physical and emotional heath! Especially the fact that you had to stop doing the very things that were helping - the massage therapist and your female friend. I can understand why as a pastor you might have to give up the friendship, but I cannot understand why you have to give up the massage therapist - especially when people in your congregation go there. (Unless it's because you feel the therapist broke confidentiality.) I grew up as a PK and I can tell you the LAST thing I would want is for any of my kids to want to go into the ministry. It is a very lonely, and many times thankless job which no human being should ever have to endure. I feel for you and I hope you can find an acceptable and effective way to take care of YOU and YOUR NEEDS! If you don't, the price to your personal health and well being and that of your family's is too high! I used to be a surgical RN and was under incredible stress in my marriage, at work, and with extended family issues off the charts. I can tell you from personal experience NOTHING is worth losing your health over! Because once you lose it, you may not ever get it back. It's time to do what is in your best interest - and the expectations of others be damned. Easier said than done I know. I wish you all the best!

    1. Nurses are some of my very favorite people. As a PK, do you ever attend church now? Most PKs quit once they're grown, and I can't say that I blame them. It sounds like you know some of the loneliness firsthand, and as a father, I regret my children having to grow up in this setting.

      Sounds like you've had health issues yourself and I hope you're ok now. A friend once said to me, "When you finally have that heart attack, maybe your priorities will change.

      Thank you and I wish you the best too.

  7. I really hope you'll be able to start getting massages again. You are not superhuman and you must take care of yourself.

  8. It is okay to be human. You don't have to hide it or excuse it. Go ahead and be human. Cry. Laugh. Cry some more. You need a massage therapist/office who takes patient confidentiality seriously. And your congregation needs to know that rumors are ugly things, if someone has something they want to say, here is the microphone, come on up and say it to your face in front of the church. I hope you can go to your family and tell them they need to take turns manning the helm while you have a time of no emotional demands. Let them take care of you. Really take care of you. With lots of hugs. The "I love you" kind, not the "thanks for shouldering my load" kind. Be human. If you don't get it from anyplace else, then I give you permission to be human.

    1. It's very appealing to think of handing the mike to my accusers and demand they say out loud what they've been whispering behind my back. I'd do it if it weren't for my family in the audience, and my friends they have also attacked.

  9. I think tears are highly underestimated.

    Early in my ministry, I was working in a hospital and was called to the bedside of a 12-year old boy whose life support was going to be removed. His mom was out of the picture and grandpa couldn't handle it, so grandma and I were there alone as his life ended. She held him in her lap...and I cried.

    As I processed this later with a group of chaplains, I realized that crying was the right thing to do. If I had been Nathan (the boy who died) or his grandma, I would not want a God (or His representative) to sit by dispassionately. I would want them to enter into my sadness with me (in theological terms, we call that incarnation). Just as Jesus wept at the graveside of Lazarus, I wept at the bedside of Nathan.

    It was a struggle for me to accept myself as a "weeping" minister rather than a "helpful" or "strong" or "wise" minister. But that was my struggle, not my congregations. Granted, some congregations don't know how to handle tears in their minister. They want to think that the "sting of death" has been eradicated, not just defeated. They don't want to feel it and perhaps if you don't feel it, they think it will help. I'm not sure. The congregation I served embraced sadness...and tears...and a pastor who entered their pain.

    Two years ago, I finally got to hold a little girl who was born with a bad heart. She had just died. I came as soon as I could. As her body grew stiff and cold, I wept. We passed her around and wept together. Doctors, nurses, pastors, parishioners, parents...all of us. Neither her parents nor another parishioner who was there complained once. To the contrary, they appreciated that I knew and understood their grief.

    I believe in God the Father Almighty...who took on human flesh and carried our weaknesses...who in human flesh suffered and died...and after that was raised from the dead. And I'm not ashamed to cry because in human form, He wasn't either.