The Taser's Edge

Pastoral Care is a Waste of Time

One of my favorite definitions of prayer is “wasting time with God.”  As someone who has been highly ‘productive’ all my life, producing excellence of all kinds and being praised for it, constantly trying to produce self-betterment in my own self, defining prayer as ‘wasting time’ militates against things within me which I think are harmful.  Namely, the harm is utilitizing all of life, my relationships, my faith, and ultimately myself.  (As an instance of this move from ‘doing’ to ‘being,’ which I think is very tied to my ‘utilitizing vs. wasting time’, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness books became helpful to me when I began to see mindfulness as living into the image of the I AM which is being renewed in me, rather than the I DO, which is the demonic desire for self-sufficiency.)

Over the past few weeks I have been exploring a number of different pastoral care definitions, allowing metaphors and images to come into my mind freely, and then exploring them to see what they hold.  Among these metaphors has been the idea of pastoral care as ‘wasting time with people.’  What I do in the patient’s room is essentially non-productive.  I am not there to fix people’s problems, even though sometimes that happens.  Although patients’ bodies are in the hospital presented as medical problems to be medically solved, as a spiritual caregiver I cannot see my patients as problems to be solved or fixed.  I am not the Fixer, and they are not Problems.  When I turn patients into problems, then I have turned human beings into objects.  Our patients and our staff and their visitors are human beings and I am a human being, and somehow God comes into both of us, and we share in God together, knowing grace and love, hope and healing.

Choosing to waste time with patients, to not eye the clock, to not plan too far ahead, to live together for a few moments, and to invite one another (and yes, often most of the invitation will be my work) to rest in safety (God’s safe rest)—this is pastoral care.  Seeing pastoral care in this way works against the way that the world works (or at least the way American culture, American medicine, Duke Hospital, and the rest of the 21st century industrialized world work).  For me to be a caregiver with integrity, this is important, because it recognizes that the work we do is not our own work but God’s.  This is important theologically.  We must be wary of pastoral care definitions which cast us in the role of Jesus or the Biblical saint while casting the patient in the role of the one wholly receiving of the grace which God channels through us.  The fault (not to say there are not strengths as well) of incarnational understandings of pastoral care is that we are not Jesus, and that we are not called to be Jesus.  In fact, when Jesus speaks of our care of the sick in Matthew 25, it is not the caregiver but the one who receives care in whom we are told to see Jesus.

This recognition that our work is ultimately not ours—that patients are not Problems and that we are not Fixers—is also important psychologically.  If all rests on me, then I cannot help but be anxious.  If all rests on me, then it sets up for my goal a ridiculous and impossible perfection of production.  But if the patient is where I see Jesus rather than a problem to be fixed, then my visit to a person becomes a prayer to God.  “Wasting time with God” and “wasting time with the patient” can no longer be so distinct, and in order to be with God or the patient well, I must stop trying so hard to do.  Theologically, mentally, spiritually, psychologically, and ethically, asking myself the question, “How did you do on that visit?  How were you Jesus to the patient?” is problematic.  The question I should be asking: “What was the color and depth of your being with the patient and her visitors on that visit?  How did you see Jesus in them?”

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