If there is one thing that I both appreciated for me personally and wanted to take with me into practice professionally from my time at uni, it was something that my favourite tutor did. She had a very specific way of saying “Ok”. Not every time she said it and not on all occasions, but this special way of saying that tiny word taught me so much about pastoral care and ministry.
I can’t quite explain the way it was said and I don’t think I would have picked up on it from a professional point of view, had I not experienced it first hand as someone who required a fair bit of looking after during my three years studying. But when she said “Ok” in that special way she, in spite of saying only two syllables, was actually saying so much more.
She was saying: I see you in your mess, I see your pain, I’m not shocked by what you’re saying, we can handle what’s going on, there is a way out and things will be ok in some way or another. So much crammed into that one little word.
The reason that I’ve been thinking about that “Ok” (and can hear it perfectly in my head in spite of having not actually heard it in almost 4 years (Gosh!)) is because I’ve been reflecting on that element of pastoral care recently. That ability to say so much by saying quite little, the art of making your meaning known when perhaps not needing to say it explicitly and having big enough hands to hold what people need you to.
A big part of my roles as an assistant chaplain and a parish intern is watching what my bosses are doing and learning from it. And because I’m lucky to be blessed with two very good bosses who take the time to reflect on the things I’m learning with me, this is something we’ve been talking about recently. One of them says that what makes them a good minister is their ability to listen to people without feeling the need to fix everything. That may sound harsh, but so very often effective pastoral care is not actually in the fixing of people’s problems, but holding people’s pain or confusion as they work out what to do about the problem themselves.
That’s where the big hands come in. In ministry I believe you need to have hands that are always open and ready and spread wide enough to catch and hold the biggest of messes. Hands that aren’t itching to put the mess down to try and fix and tidy it up. Hands that will hold, not shocked by the pain or put off by the mess. Just open, steady hands.
I don’t know if you watch ‘Call the Midwife’ (Babies, nuns and plenty of storyline to make you weep… what’s not to love?!), but it is one my favourite programmes and is often full to the brim with some beautiful little chunks of profundity and theology. On Sunday in the first episode of this new series, a baby, Susan, was born with some significant deformities. The episode looked at how the medical staff in the 60s handled births like this and how it was still so difficult to be born in the 60s if you were different mentally or physically. But the scene that got me both weeping and itching to write this week, was the scene where Susan’s mum meets and holds her daughter for the first time. She holds this tiny little bundle in her arms and slowly unwraps Susan’s blanket, taking in her missing limbs for the first time. Through tears she says to her tiny daughter “Oh my love… what a mess… it’s ok, we’ll sort something.” A response so different to Susan’s dad’s initial fear and anger.
What do my tutor’s “Ok” and Susan’s mum’s “Oh my love” have in common? They both accept the situation for the pain and the mess that is real. It’s not belittling things and pretending it’s not happening, sweeping the hurt under the carpet. But rather identifying what is wrong and being able to hold all the pain and hurt in one fell swoop of some carefully chosen words. Not expecting that you will be able to fix everything, focussing on finding the solution. But rather focussing on the hurting person and holding them steadily in that place with your words.
As I continue to reflect on this, it is teaching me so much about ministering to people and caring for them pastorally as this points to and shows us such a model of the way God graciously deals with us.
In our sin and shame we must seem like this sorry, messy little lump of pain and hurt to God, and as much as our sin hurts him he doesn’t sweep over it like it’s not there. But there is also no judgement or shock there either. There are simply words of grace, words of forgiveness, words of love and ultimately hands big enough to hold us together as we make sense of what to do next.
There isn’t really a hugely profound point I want to make this evening, I’m simply writing to make sense of what it is that I am still learning about and thinking through. Reflecting on how an experience of life in the past and life now have come together with something in the media to open my eyes anew to something of God, as is so often the case!
But perhaps you need to hear those words today, for your situation at the moment. Perhaps life is a right old mess and you don’t really know what to do. Today, I would pray that you hear those words from God, or a friend (or both!). That you would hear that “Ok” and know that they see you, they see the pain and hurt and that they have hands big and steady enough to hold you in that moment.