The last time I saw my grandfather alive was in a dimly lit hospice room outside Morrow, Ohio, in February 2016. His cancer had spread further and faster than medicine could manage. Nurses made every effort to keep him comfortable, but he was in enough pain that we’d stopped praying for breakthrough healing and started praying for peace. We understood he was close to the end.
My mother and I came into the room and saw him: gaunt, hairless, exhausted. Grandpa had been a farmer and engineer and soldier, a towering figure of strength and joy throughout my life, an invincible man. Seeing him on that bed, I mourned the death of the man I knew and loved while he was yet alive.
As with any visit with the dying, in that room God’s grace was greater than sickness. Grandpa was lucid enough to recognize me. When his pained face broke into a remembering smile, I cried. When he asked for a good word, we prayed. When he wanted only a soothing voice, we told stories. And when he needed to rest, we left.
I presided at his funeral some days later, leap day of 2016, in Newcomerstown, on the other side of the state. His grave was cut in stony ground among the braes that come up ahead of the Appalachian Mountains. He called this place, where my grandfather rests with his ancestors and mine, the Home Place.
Sometimes we hear in the Christian story that Adam and Eve chose death instead of life. I’m not so sure about that. Yes, I think Adam and Eve chose to disobey God. But I think the point of the story is that God chooses life more profoundly than enforcing the consequences of death. Death isn’t a matter of choice. Life is. And it’s the choice God makes, again and again.
I think about my grandfather often, but I thought about him in a different light when I read a conversation published in The Christian Century between Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon. It was a disaster. Hauerwas and Willimon say the only good thing to come from the Covid crisis has been “to rescue some pastors by giving their congregations loss and pain worthy of the ministrations of the church.” They say too much time in seminary is spent on “self-care, keeping sabbath, and finding emotional support, as if that’s the purpose of the church and its ministry.” While it’s true that the raison d’être of the church is something other than clergy burnout, Hauerwas and Willimon sloppily conflate compassionate pastoral care with “an excuse to be killers and liars,” a feature of modern society in their view. Paradoxically, they chide pastors for shirking work and parishioners for making their pastors work too hard. Misleadingly, they unfavourably compare the spiritual needs of their affluent North Carolina congregations with the material needs of Christians in the Global South. I was baffled at the beginning and angry at the end, when Willimon implied Jesus didn’t care about a parishioner of his in critical care unless she were to “single-handedly fund the church’s food ministry.”
And I thought about my grandfather. He’s the closest relative I’ve lost, and he’s the person I’ve mourned the most. And I wonder if Hauerwas and Willimon would disapprove of the burden I levied on my clergy colleagues when I asked them for time to process my grief. My grandfather was a man of Hauerwas and Willimon’s stock, class, and generation, who would have shared their emphasis on hard work and self-denial. But, if pressed, he never would have been as unserious about the feelings and needs of Christians as Hauerwas and Willimon, who seem to promote an eschatological narrative of eternal crucifixion. My grandfather was a gentle man, an unbitter man, and so his Christianity, though unsentimental, was gentle and unbitter as well.
Recently, social scientists and psychologists have done indispensable work on how trauma plays a role in our relationships with others, God, and ourselves. Outstanding theologians have taken note. Shelly Rambo, writing in the same pages Hauerwas and Willimon did in 2019, demonstrates the incisiveness of a theology that takes trauma seriously as both a theoretical problem and a pastoral priority.
Rambo argues that trauma is indelible and not “solvable” by a realization—even a realization that one’s life is radically different because it belongs to Christ. Trauma-aware pastoral care challenges the view that suffering is a positive tool that God intends for the formation of character. Rambo puts it this way: “Pastorally attuned, the theology of trauma is wary of platitudes and how they may function in situations of trauma. Certain phrases capture whole theological systems: ‘It is God’s will.’ ‘God is testing me.’ ‘This is my cross to bear.’ Theologians of trauma probe the theo-logic underlying these platitudes.”
Trauma-aware theology seeks to integrate persons and communities while taking seriously how stubborn trauma is and how hard communities must work to begin this integration. Indeed, Christian communities work in imitation of God, whose economy of salvation is nothing other than transforming trauma and suffering into grace and hope. Those seeking pastoral care—whether that care is material and tangible or psychological and intangible—do so from positions of real need. And those providing pastoral care do so from a position that can include, but also go beyond, talk therapy and narrative theology. Talking about our pain is important; experiencing healing is too. Narrating the identity of our community relative to the world is important; actually being healed and transformed is too. We must think less of a come-to-Jesus moment and more of a walk-with-Jesus process.
We must think less of a come-to-Jesus moment and more of a walk-with-Jesus process.
Some Christian thinkers speak of congregants’ trauma as failures of discipleship, solvable by properly realizing how special and different the community to which they belong really is. “Quit taking yourself so seriously.” “Vocation is more to be desired than victimhood.” These and other platitudes dismiss wounds as “bourgeois,” promote a vision of pastors as anything but servants, and depict people seeking help as annoying, selfish, and beneath the high station of disciples of Christ. A narrative community solves the problem of trauma before a pastor even has to listen to another congregant’s middle-class Global Northern woes. We’re subjected to an insult-comic routine without a punchline.
Theology is worthless without the church, and the church is worthless without a ceaseless, reckless, fearless love of those who need healing. Anything that distracts Christians from the work of care—pastoral, communal, personal, structural—is chaff. My grandfather never said or wrote anything like that. But, of course, that’s my point: he just did it, and the people who saw him do it praised our Father in heaven.
Anything that distracts Christians from the work of care—pastoral, communal, personal, structural—is chaff.
When I remember my grandpa, I remember him atop a Minneapolis-Moline tractor he restored in his sixties. I remember him throwing hay bales and chopping firewood. He gave his grandkids gifts of rough-hewn chairs and strange, wonderful totems he carved with chainsaws. In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, he hoarded trash and branches and debris around the farm, knowing his family would delight in a spectacular bonfire when we came to the farm each year. He smelled like diesel, and everything he made was full of quiet beauty.
God was sanctifying my grandfather when he was living and when he was dying. God was with him on top of that tractor and beside that bed where his life ended. God is with the suburbanites who ask pastors for references to get bougie scholarships, and the alcoholics frustrating their pastor when they relapse, and the people who can’t buy enough food, housing, and clothing. God cares for these people and forms the church explicitly to care for these people.
God is with the suburbanites who ask pastors for references to get bougie scholarships, and the alcoholics frustrating their pastor when they relapse, and the people who can’t buy enough food, housing, and clothing.
Nothing good comes from Covid, and nothing good came from my grandfather’s death. I think the point of pastoral care is to say that. I think the point of pastoral care is to say God doesn’t use dead relatives to teach us lessons, especially not lessons on how different the church is from the world. God uses all of us all the time to care for people in a world where good and bad are mixed, where sin and redemption aren’t chapters in a story but parts of our daily lives.
As Willimon and Hauerwas wisely say, death is not optional. It’s not something we choose. And more important, it’s not something God has chosen. We can choose to be helpers. We can choose to see Christ in our neighbours, no matter their trauma or problems. We can indeed choose to be caregivers. We can choose to see caregiving for what it is: a high calling, worthy of the church’s energies.
Maybe when we get to the Home Place, we’ll all see that more clearly.