Ah Jesus... associated with pain, suffering, loneliness, and sadness.
Well, if you asked Isaiah 53 for a portrait of Jesus, you'd get a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (your translation may vary).
This might not be the greatest thing to be associated with. In fact, Isaiah 53 even says that we would despise him. Perhaps he is just a little too associated with grief? Who enjoys a party-pooper anyway?
Pastors, sometimes, can be perceived as wet blankets. But the flip side of this is actually a wonderful reality: pastors can be wonderful counselors. Jesus was a wonderful counselor who met people where they were and loved them into better lives.
One aspect of my job that I enjoy is being able to help people work through tough places in life. Sometimes this is sad but sometimes it's just stressful. I've caught myself, more than once, asking, "why do I do this again?" And typically God responds in three ways:
First, it's not about me. It rarely is. I don't get to choose when I want to be a part of a congregant and when I don't. If I want the good times, I have to take the bad. And I'm not complaining - the best relationships are never about convenience but presence. And presence, for many people, is most important in the difficult times. Sure, we want to share the good times with everyone and hide the bad, but it's the bad times people remember you were there.
Second, it's an honor to be there for someone. I think to myself sometimes that as a pastor I must be privy to some really "shocking" things. I don't get some ego trip out of knowing this stuff - if anything its humbling to be that close of a friend. Look, to be honest, everyone has problems. Wait, let me change that: shameful problems. How cool is it when I'm trusted enough to meet someone in confession? It does do my heart good to be blessed with tough stuff. I hold this honor in such high esteem I don't even tell my wife about things that are entrusted to me. I try my best to be Christ incarnate for someone who needs Jesus very much. Who is safer with your secrets than the one who already knows them and loves you anyway? The de-facto starting point for a good Christian counselor is one of love expressed in complete inclusion. You can't find that everywhere, and you can't find that in every pastor (unfortunately). But I'd like to think you could find it with me.
Third, the pain is not for me. It's not my burden. That might sound harsh, but let me clarify. I can be Jesus for folks in some ways, but there are some ways that only Jesus can be Jesus. As a counselor, I'm channeling. I'm a go between. Protestant churches have always made a big deal about not having to go through a Priest to get to God because we worry that we are shortchanging God (or putting too much divine expectation into a pastor?). That's the same reason I'm going to pass the buck to my good friend Jesus when it really comes down to it. On one level, I can empathize with people. I can feel what they feel. I can experience their pain, anxiety, or uncertainty. But eventually, just like every person who has ever walked this earth, I have to give it to God.* Too many pastors have tried to carry the weight of an entire congregation on their shoulders only to crumple under the natural undulations of life. I'll be there for the person when they need me. I'll try my best to keep certain situations from destroying those entrusted to my care, but I won't be destroyed by these situations either. I can feel it, but I can pass it on to God.
This is one aspect of my ministry that is so important to me. Maybe because I've had some wonderful counselors before myself. Maybe because when it gets down to it, God really works one-on-one. Whatever the reason, I don't mind being a man acquainted with grief. A man of sorrow.
Wow, I should get that on my next business card.
* - yes, that is so cliche but I don't care. When I say I give God other people's problems I think of two things. First, I pray for, care for, and love on that person as if it is that person's problem (and not my own) and second, I keep important boundaries between my personal self and the people I counsel. Controlled burning is a great way to thin the underbrush, but it would be a failure if the whole forest is lost.