A Pastor’s Reflections: Living the in the Shadow of Death
The sad and true reality is that we live in the valley of the shadow of death, and as a pastor, this is a pressing reality. While others in the church might be able to live somewhat detached from illness and death, the pastor typically has a much closer connection to it. I can recall, for example, that when I was a teenager, my pastor had to shepherd five different families through cancer and death over a two-year period. I was sad for these families, but given the size of the church, my contact with them was minimal. My pastor, on the other hand, made regular visits with these families, whether in their homes, in hospitals, or even on their death-beds as they prepared to meet Christ face-to-face.
Depending on the circumstances the pastor, therefore, can be hard-pressed to carry on his regular duties. Death does not make appointments—you can’t schedule a time to die (I’m not talking about suicide, of course). This means that the pastor is at the beck and call of Providence. Sometimes it might be difficult for him to prepare his sermons because he’s ministering to a dying congregant or preparing for a funeral and the ministry he must conduct after the burial. Other times ministers face the challenge of not knowing what to do when someone is gravely ill. I had someone in my congregation suffering and dying from cancer, but the precise moment of the person’s death was anyone’s guess. The doctors said it could be days, weeks, or even months away. What was I to do? Do I put my life on hold? Do I take my family on vacation or do I stay close to home?
Trying to decide between ministry and vacation might sound like a trite comparison, one where there is no real choice, but the truth of the matter is, it’s a real choice. When you’ve made plans before your congregant became ill, paid non-refundable deposits, are in desperate need of rest, and have relatives scheduled to be present and expecting you, that’s real life. In this particular case, my wife believed that this would be the last time she would be able to spend an extended period of time with her grandmother. Do I stay and send my wife and children? Do I go with them? Decisions, decisions, decisions. I had a few restless nights with this dilemma.
I decided that even though we live in the face of death, that we nonetheless have to live our lives—do the things that Christ calls us to do even in the face of uncertainty. I decided, consequently, to take my family on vacation only to receive word that my congregant died in my absence. I naturally immediately returned home with my wife and children and ministered to the family who had lost their loved-one. I wondered whether this turn of events was the proof that I had made the wrong decision. And in all honesty, I had to pray that the Lord help me not be frustrated with the turn of events. It may sound impious, but again, that’s the reality of the pastorate. Pastors struggle with life as much as anyone. While it’s certainly possible that I made the wrong decision and should have stayed and canceled our family vacation, I rested in the fact that as the pastor, I cannot be in every place at once. As useful as omnipresence might be, this is something reserved for God alone. It’s what theologians call an incommunicable attribute of God.
This means that as a pastor, you are human, and have human limitations. It would be one thing if you knew precisely when someone was going to die and then decided to do something else. But when you can only live life moment to moment in the face of the uncertainties of life and death, you can only do so much. You can make decisions but be prepared to roll with the punches, to be flexible. Like the proverbial horse between two bowls of oats, if you choose to do nothing, you’ll starve. Therefore, in the face of death, make decisions, live life, and don’t be held captive by uncertainty and indecision. Sometimes, you might choose to stay close to home to minister to someone who might die. Other times you might choose to travel because it seems like a reasonable course of action. Such is the nature of wisdom, which is much needed in the face of death. Sometimes you answer a fool according to his folly, and sometimes you don’t (Prov. 26:4-5). But do pray that when Providence does change your plans, that you have patience and love for those involved in your new plans, especially your congregation. Pray for your family that they will be willing to sacrifice for the sake of Christ’s sheep. And if you’re not the pastor, pray that the Lord would sustain him as he makes challenging decisions—pray that the Lord would give him wisdom, love, and a sacrificial heart.