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.