I’m never exactly sure how to respond when people thank me for giving pastoral care to them or their family members. “You’re welcome” just doesn’t seem to say enough. “It’s no trouble” misses the point. I don’t come because it’s convenient. Often it’s not convenient. “It’s my job” makes it seem like merely a duty which I perform. What I usually end up saying something like, “It’s a privilege to serve.”
Recently I have had the chance to think about what makes pastoral care—especially to the sick and the dying—such a privilege. Over the last few months, I have been privileged to serve at the bedside of a dear Christian man named Vernon Haverstick. I must have seen him a couple dozen times in the hospital, and several times at his home as the end of his life drew near. To me, it seems like a perfect example of why this work is such a privilege. But what makes it so?
It is a privilege to get to know some of the most amazing people. If you read Vern’s obituary, you’ll see that he has quite the list of accomplishments. He did some very important work. That work was highly respected by many people, especially in northeast El Paso. He was highly intelligent, playfully witty, and genuinely kind. And many people saw that in him. That was evident from the 200+ people who showed up yesterday for his funeral. I count it as a privilege to have had the chance to get to know him by serving as his pastor.
But perhaps what makes it all even more of a privilege is just how encouraging these visits were to me. It is always encouraging to see examples of faith in the midst of adversity. It is a joy to see faith’s fruits ripening as someone patiently and joyfully bears whatever cross Jesus sends him. It is a beautiful sight to see a Christian cling tightly to Christ even as “every earthly prop gives way.”
But, for a pastor, the most encouraging thing of all, is to see Christians find Christ where Christ has promised to be. It is an encouragement to see that there are people who truly treasure Christ, his Word, the means of grace. So much of the time pastors deal with people who think their faith is fine, but have little time to listen to Jesus and his Word. There are many things which are important to them, but the means of grace, they could take it or leave it. If they make it to church, great. If not, that’s fine, too. Vern was in the hospital the week before Christmas, and I was not expecting him to be strong enough to get to church on Christmas. But there he was. I asked him how he was doing on the way out of church. “Terrible pain,” he said. But it didn’t stop him.
I loved the way Vern would eye my communion set, or my Pastor’s Companion as we would visit in the hospital. And if I took too long to get to it, he would say, “I know you have something in there for me, pastor. I know you don’t come without some devotion prepared. What do you have for me today?” It was a privilege to open the case, to open the book and give to him what Jesus had prepared for him.
That’s just scratching the surface of this privilege. It is the profound honor of being able to bring Christ to souls such as this. To be able to assure someone of their status before God because they have been baptized into Christ. To handle the body and blood of Christ, and to place it on the tongue of a dying man who knows full well that because Christ lives and is present in this sacrament, he too shall live eternally. I have a front row seat for Jesus’ saving work, to watch God’s grace applied to individuals. This is the heart of Lutheran pastoral ministry—a pure privilege.
It’s the same thing that I get to do on a regular basis in public worship, and Bible classes and catechetical classes. But being able to serve souls one-on-one, individually—in private confession and absolution, the sick room, the death bed—is a unique privilege.
In the last few days I got to see Vern, our conversations were not long. I spoke, read, and sang. He listened and prayed along. One night, after he had called me back into the room while I was about to leave, all I could make out was, “Schlaf gut.” Another night, “Thank you, pastor.” I don’t remember my response. I didn’t say it then, but someday I think I would like to say, “Thank you for the privilege.”