a meditation via Moses on presence & pastoral care

shepherd and sheepI was minding my business, tending my father in law Jethro’s sheep. He’s been good to me, taking me in when I was a mess; in the throes of a major identity crisis.

After all, I was born of a Hebrew mother, then adopted by pharaoh’s daughter, who named me Moses (from the Egyptian word, meaning, “son”, but some say derived from the Hebrew, meaning “deliver” – how’s that for a diviner of destiny?) and who unknowingly hired a Hebrew nursemaid, who happened to be my own mother, to care for me! As a child, my mother told me the story, the whole story, of the patriarchs and matriarchs: Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel and their maids, Zilpah and Bilhah (Jacob was busy!), Jacob’s twelve sons, Joseph being sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, and his reconciliation with his family (Joseph was a lot more forgiving than I am!), all who came to live in Egypt because of the great famine. My mother told me all about it, for she wanted me to know my heritage.

But talk about difficult formative years: Israelite by birth, but living in the household of pharaoh who had enslaved my people! For years, I watched their suffering. One day, I saw an Egyptian beating one of my Hebrew brothers. In repressed rage, I slew that Egyptian! (I’m not that impulsive. Before I killed him, I first glanced about to see if anyone was watching!) The next day, I saw two Israelites quarreling. Bad enough to be oppressed without also fighting each other. I called out to them, “My brothers, love one another.” One of those ingrates shouted at me: “Who made you judge? You gonna kill us like that Egyptian?”

Who knew anyone knew? I was flummoxed and frightened! Immediately, I fled Egypt, heading for Midian. Jethro took me in. I married his daughter, Zipporah. I was set for life!

Moses & burning bush2As I said, I was minding my business, tending sheep, near a mountain, when I saw a strange sight. A blazing bush. Afraid that the underbrush would catch fire and scatter the sheep, I rushed to put it out, but I noticed the bush wasn’t burned. I heard a voice: “Moses, Moses.” I thought it might’ve been Jethro. He loves practical jokes and he’s a fairly good ventriloquist. “Yeah! Who’s calling?” But looking around, I didn’t see him and there wasn’t any place he could’ve been hiding.

Then the voice said, “I am God,” telling me I was on holy ground and to take off my shoes in reverence. Terrified, I almost ran away! Then I thought, God who?

“The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

That got my attention! The next thing I knew God was telling me about my people suffering in Egypt and that I should go tell pharaoh to let them go! Before I could catch myself, I yelled, “Are you crazy?” The flame flared up. I could feel the heat on my face. “Uh…um, I’m sorry…uh, God, I…I meant to say, ‘What was that again?’ Did you say Egypt? Pharaoh? Rescue? Uh, I beg your pardon, God, but who am I that I should go?”

“It’s not about you, Moses. It’s about me and doing my will, and, know this, I will be with you.”

“But who are you? What’s your name?” (I don’t know about anyone else, but, speaking always only for myself, when someone, with a voice I don’t recognize, calls me by name, I always ask, “Who are you?”)

“I am who I am.”

What kind of answer is that? I’m begging for clarity and all I get is some cute crypticism. I asked again, “What’s your name?”

“I will be who I will be.”

What? I was frustrated. “What does that mean?”

“I can be and I can do anything.”

“OK, then you go to Egypt and you tell pharaoh, ‘Let my people go!’ If you’re really God, then my people were your people before they were my people!” Instantly the flame flared, this time singeing my face. “OK, OK, I’ll go!”

I left the mountain with all of my doubts and fears, but also with continued deep concern for my people. I may not, I may never have it all together, but I believe that the most important thing is showing up. So, I went!

And the rest is history…

thinkingIn over 40 years of daily, serious Bible study, I delight in re-imagining, often whimsically (so to highlight deeply human dimensions of) the stories of the Hebrew scripture and New Testament. I am especially drawn to towering figures of the sacred narrative. Moses is a favorite, for in re-envisioning his experience, I often see my life and work more clearly.

For nearly 40 years, I, as a Christian minister, have engaged in the act of pastoral care; truly, an art of great depth and difficulty. Depth as I am allowed access to enter the lives of others, frequently in extremis. Difficulty as it’s not easy ever to be with another human being in sickness and suffering, whether involving, paraphrasing an old prayer, “the adversities that happen to our bodies or those that assault and hurt our souls.”

To offer pastoral care is to be like Moses, faced with self-doubt, asking, “Who am I that I should go?”

To offer pastoral care, like Moses, is to be called from a shepherd’s life, with clear duties and responsibilities, which is true of so much else that my vocation calls me to do, to take on an enormous, overwhelming task.

To offer pastoral care is to stare into the face of pharaoh, the symbol of all that oppresses, always standing amidst human need far more vast and complex than anything for which I could have prepared.

To offer pastoral care, like Moses, is to be driven by soul-deep concern for people that weighs powerfully on mind and heart, forcing me to wrestle with whether to remain in the safety of professional detachment, steeling myself against being overcome by the flood of my feelings of sympathy and sorrow. In this constant struggle, to offer pastoral care is to face my own nakedness and need, fragility and vulnerability.

To offer pastoral care is to do the most important thing. Show up. For ministry often involves neither doing nor saying anything, but rather being present.

In all the years of ordained ministry, when I reflect on the countless folk with whom I have been privileged to share pastoral care (many whose faces I, through my mind’s eye, see clearly and whose life-situations I remember) two primary needs have lain beneath their various circumstances and specific concerns. The first. Acceptance. That universal, undying human yearning to be received, as the hymn says, “Just as I am without one plea.” The second. Communion. That equally communal, continual need to hear, to know, to believe that one is not, is never alone.

Above all else, acceptance and communion are what I have sought to share with others. Day by day, as I approach my retirement from active ministry, this I pledge: As long as I have breath and strength, I pray God that I will continue to offer these gifts, these graces.

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4 thoughts on “a meditation via Moses on presence & pastoral care

  1. Paul I can’t imagine the toll being “present” for pastoral care takes emotionally and spiritually on you and all others who perform this role as part of their vocation. I know that you’re incredible at it…. And you’re more than present. You’re a great listener and as empathetic as they come. I’ve experienced how well you do scceptance too….. People can just come as they are, share what they want, and leave…. With no judgement given on your part. ! That’s so important in this life ….. Folks being able to be who they are and still be heard.

    What I hope for in your retirement is that you continue to provide pastoral care, acceptance, communion and your many other gifts to all who need it and in whatever way you can.

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  2. Thank you, Loretta. Pastoral care is a burdensome joy (or joyous burden) I gladly bear, though without disavowing its depth and difficulty. I suspect in retirement I’ll have more than plenty opportunities to be present with others and to offer the acceptance of community and the community of acceptance.

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  3. We are forever grateful for your pastoral presence to our daughter when she lived in Washington, as well as with her and John as they entered into marriage. It is a true gift that will continue to bless their lives.

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