Month: August 2009

reconciling and pastoral care

The ancient historian Tacitus reports one of the generals of the Britons describing his Roman adversaries like this: ‘To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a wilderness and call it peace’ (Agricola 30.6).


And so often this is the experience that goes by the name of ‘peace’ or ‘reconciliation’ in our world, isn’t it? Peace not as the fullness of relationship but its absence:

  • Think of the vanquished foe, pacified, crushed (or even annihilated) and thus ‘at peace’ with the victor.
  • Or of chronic conflict avoiders — who achieve an apparent end to conflict by severing relational connection altogether.

Either way, what we have is just a wilderness — alienation masquerading as reconciliation.

And this is where the Christian gospel, and hence any pastoral care we offer that, has something distinctive to offer. God has achieved true and lasting peace in Christ, reconciling all things to Himself in Him, overcoming the hostility between human beings and Him (and between human beings and human beings). And He offers to us — as a gift — participation in it.

On the one hand, this frees us from the burden of needing to forge peace for ourselves. God has done it! Receive the gift with thankfulness and rejoice in it. This gives us such tremendously good news to bring to bear in the messiness of life.

On the other hand, it calls us to be agents of peace and reconciliation. To take up the task of forgiving as He has forgiven us. And this can be a hard ask — almost impossibly hard in some of the conflicts we know and bump up against from day to day: divorce, generations of ploughing deep furrows between ethnic groups, estranged children.

But it’s a task we can’t shirk if the church is to be the arena in which God’s reconciliation breaks out. This is the beauty of some of Jesus’ trenchant, down to earth teaching in Matthew 18, where the key is repentance in response to receiving God’s offer of forgiveness (which perhaps takes us back once again to sanctification by faith)…

the temptation to proclaim ourselves

One wonders if, in the contemporary ecclesiological consciousness, we are being tempted to simply proclaim ourselves as the church rather than Christ as Lord. (Halden at Inhabitio Dei)

Early in the life of this blog, I reflected a little on some temptations bound up with the current focus on church and community.

In light of this I want to take a second look at my series on how to become a church of irresistible influence. There, I invested quite a bit of energy in thinking through the task of building bridges — good will and meaningful connection — between local churches and their surrounding communities.

But did I trip over unintentionally and plunge head first into one of the chief temptations of community?

Have I invested so heavily in pointing out the benefits of Christian community in such a way that the church effectively appears as an end in itself rather than as anchored in and thoroughly dependent on its personal life-source and master, the Lord Jesus?

I think I still believe we need to invest in bridge-building, just like I still believe that the church has stack to offer the world — including a gracious, growing community. But the danger is that our attention can be (disastrously) diverted from what God has already done: He has built the unique and only reliable bridge into this dark world, lovingly giving His Son so that all who believe in Him may have life.

What I want to know is, how — without missing out on the very real gains of ‘the contemporary ecclesiological consciousness’ or underestimating the benefits and appeal of Christian community and behaviour which adorns the gospel — we resist the temptation of proclaiming ourselves…

sustaining & nurturing in pastoral care

In the world of biology they say that if something’s not growing it’s probably dead. And there’s truth to this when it comes to the two (closely related) pastoral functions of sustaining and nurturing.

People need sustaining and nurturing when they’re feeling overwhelmed or like their identity is being atrophied — a tragically common thing in hospitals and prisons where any sense of control gets stripped away.

Sustaining brings to mind the plants on our balcony. They tend to face not only neglect but my pretty much totally inept attempts at care. And let’s just say they’re quite a long way from flourishing… In the midst of crisis, what they need is sustaining — enough water at regular intervals, the right combination of shade and sun, maybe some fertiliser and occasional inspection for pests.

Nurturing, by contrast, feels more like what goes on in a nursery. Plants are sheltered from the harsh conditions they’ll experience ‘in the wild’ (like on our balcony) and effort is invested in ensuring they’re robust and well-established enough to face future crises.


But how can we approach these in a distinctively Christian way?

Perhaps Tim Keller’s revival of a ‘sanctification by faith’ approach helps us. Keller (following Luther and others) suggests that problems in Christian living boils down to idolatry — trusting something other than Jesus. And idolatry boils down to pride and fear (I’m still trying to figure out exactly how this works).

According to Keller, the way to grow — whether you’re in crisis or preparing to face future crises — in these particular, concrete circumstances is to repent, turning your back on your idolatrous faith, and place your faith in Jesus as the true source of security (or whatever).

I’m not sure how far I want to go with this, but I can see some of its potential in terms of suggesting what trajectories might be worth exploring in caring for someone who needs sustaining and nurturing…

guiding and pastoral care

Our thinking about guidance is often focussed on decision-making (as reflected, for example, in the titles of popular Christian books on guidance — Decision-making and the Will of God, etc). And this is natural and obvious enough.

It’s often precisely in the moment of decision (or at least in the moments leading up to the moment of decision) that we reach out for guidance and advice. Similarly, when offering guidance, it’s typically when people are making decisions that we feel most useful, and can help provide some sense of direction and equipment for navigating through decisions.


Mention of such ‘equipment’ — the moral and spiritual equivalent of sextants, maps, charts and compasses — highlights a problem with this focus on decision-making as the chief moment of guidance. As far as I can see, there are two key aspects of this:

  1. It’s usually not the most effective time to be equipping to make decisions well (ie. in ways that centre on Jesus and his promises for our lives and futures).
  2. Neither is giving particularly effective in these times (I don’t know if you’ve ever met someone who’s nominally seeking advice who it turns out has pretty much already decided and it simply canvassing different opinion until he or she finds someone who agrees with them?).

This is where the kind of approach adopted in Guidance and the Voice of God seems fruitful. The fact that decisions matter is affirmed. But the decisions we normally prioritise are up-ended, such that — at least when matters of godliness aren’t directly at stake — decisions about (i) how to serve God (e.g., matters of character and church), (ii) where to live, and (iii) what job to get are tackled in that order — rather than the reverse.

This can be tremendously liberating, especially if it frees us from anxiety over decisions that seem important (e.g., what job to take) but turn out to be less important than how we’re going to honour God in our workplace and in not being swallowed up by our job.

Helping people develop habits of honouring God should be what Christian guidance is all about.

who is the ‘real me’?

Natalie and I (and Dan and Dave) went to a fascinating lecture last night on ‘Knowledge and Prejudice’ by Dr. Miranda Fricker at the State Library. It’s given me lots to mull over. And my experience of listening to such an eloquent lecture — delivered with such excellent diction — helped me realise how far I’ve come from my undergrad days as a knee-jerk anti-liberal (philosophically).

For now there’s one thing in particular I’d like to reflect upon. Dr. Fricker sensitively explored the possible mechanisms of ‘institutional racism’ (in relation to the 1999 Macpherson Report on the police handling of a racially-motivated murder in metropolitan London).

Crucial to her account was a contrast between the beliefs and commitments we hold relative our practical-identities — e.g., our roles as parents, children, students, local music society members — with the beliefs and commitments we hold as private individuals. The commitments attached to the ‘hats’ I wear (as someone with various roles in a range of institutional and family systems) as opposed to the commitments I hold as the ‘real me’.


I can sympathise with this contrast. I know what it feels like to have an underlying ‘real me’ that’s different from — or playing catch-up with — the hats I happen to wear. For instance, I sometimes find myself not only not wanting to fulfil some of my commitments as a student but seriously questioning their claim on me — not wanting to be someone who’s always tied down by deadlines or whatever.

Now my finely-honed postmodernist instincts instruct me that it’s quite probable that this sense of the ‘real me’ — despite its seemingly intuitive reality and authority (not to mention convenience as a way of shirking various ‘merely institutional’ commitments) — is illusory. When it comes to my identity, that is, I suspect it’s hats all the way down.

But I’d like to press further. What is it that generates this sense of having a ‘real me’ beneath — or over against — my role-specific identities? Why does it seem so intuitively obvious, undeniable, and even authoritative?

In short, who (or what) is this ‘real me’, and where does it come from?

healing and pastoral care

People who are hurting need healing. Not just physically and/or psychologically — although they certainly need this — but emotionally and spiritually. This is the first function of pastoral care. But what role can we play as Christians?

Some go for a Name It And Claim It-type approach. Healing, they maintain, is promised and available in Jesus. Trust Him and you’ll experience His power. And conversely if you’re not experiencing healing you’re probably not trusting Him — or not trusting Him enough.

Reacting against this emphasis on a felt need for healing, others insist that people’s souls and eternal destinies are far more important than their (temporal) felt needs. ‘Spiritual health’ is what really matters (and what we’re actually trained to deal with). And so we hold out a kind of disembodied hope — for escape from our broken and weak bodies.

But if we turn to Jesus’ healings in the Gospels, we find they don’t quite fit into either box.

Seamen's Hospital, Royal Albert Dock

Seamen's Hospital, Royal Albert Dock

His ‘power encounters’ do effect physical healing. He does drive out demons. Although, He is able in a way we often aren’t — and healing is certainly not all He’s on about. But in line with the full-booded OT expectation for the resurrection and new creation Jesus consistently demonstrates the importance of bodily restoration in the saving work of God.

More, in providing a foretaste of the new creation Jesus humanises — or re-humanises — people. Hence, He treats them as people, not letting their illnesses define them. And, climactically, His restorative work often allows them to rejoin the community of God’s people.

Ultimately, though, Jesus’ healings have a goal beyond themselves. He’s on about re-focusing human faith and worship. Centring our devotion where it should be: on Himself — the Messiah, the unique Son of the Father. Yet such devotion will be costly and painful. For the cross is the shape of redeemed human life. We should expect suffering and service unto death (rather than constant triumphant health) to characterise life this side of the resurrection.

I wonder how these emphases of Jesus’ ministry might shape our offer of healing as a facet of Christian pastoral care?

‘like a mother tenderly caring for her children’


Paul has a beautiful way of portraying his pastoral relationship with the fledgling Thessalonian congregation (1 Thess. 2.5-8):

As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a mother tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

I find this so inspiring. Strong cords of love and mutuality bind Paul and this little congregation. He doesn’t stand on his rights as an apostle. Even in considering himself answerable chiefly to God — not seeking praise from mortals — far from draining all feeling and openness from his pastoral relationships, it actually enables profound care and transparency.

It sounds great. And thrilling (or threatening — which is really just the other side of the same thing). And open-ended.

But compare it with his more functional description his pastoral ministry in Acts 20.18-21:

You yourselves know how I lived among you the entire time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears, enduring the trials that came to me through the plots of the Jews. I did not shrink from doing anything helpful, proclaiming the message to you and teaching you publicly and from house to house, as I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus.

This is no less emotionally-loaded than Thessalonians. But Paul’s account of his ministry in Ephesus seems to have a much more sharply defined shape and texture. It’s all about repentance and faith.

Can you feel the tension here?

This, I suggest, is going to be the fundamental tension as we wrestle together with how to exercise the various functions of pastoral care in a distinctively Christian way.

begging to stay?

What might recompense, or what Baxter called ‘satisfaction’ require of us who arrived since 1788?

iv. We would ask the indigenous people if they wanted those of us who have arrived since 1788 to leave [Baxter’s ‘Resititution’], or to provide an equivalent recompense [Baxter’s ‘Satisfaction’]. Leaving would be a drastic and complicated action, but, as I have pointed out, it has happened in India, Africa and Indonesia in the last sixty years.

This was probably the most contentious statement Dr Peter Adam made in his lecture “Australia — whose land?” on Monday night. It was definitely what the Herald article highlighted. I was emotionally caught between wanting to say a wholehearted ‘amen’ and blurting out ‘but that’s totally impractical!’. I had to actively remind myself to first ask the question (without focusing on how we might do it) is it worth doing?

I have found it challenging to dwell on this and let it confront me. Thinking seriously about this claim and what it might mean for me (leaving all my family’s wealth and property behind for someone else) gives me a tiny little taste of what it was we took away from the Indigenous peoples of Australia. I realised I should not scoff. It is not absurd. This reflects what White people have already done in history.

My mum's family's farm in the Wimmera after a good rain

My mum's family's farm in the Wimmera after a good rain

But if we are really going to offer to do this, we have to be able to follow through. It’s harmful to make such an offer in the expectation that our Indigenous brothers and sisters will graciously allow us to stay. But the follow through is so very complicated and I can’t resist sharing with you some of the things I’ve been wrestling with while I try and take this seriously (beyond where would we go):

  • How many Indigenous Australians would need to say ‘please leave’ for us to act? Just one? All? Some sort of quorum?
  • In other places in his speech, Dr Adam suggested restitution should be made tribe by tribe in ways that are appropriate at a local community level. Yet this suggestion is a one size fits all kind of thing… how would we balance differing opinions in such an absolutist action?
  • For persons of mixed blood, does their Indigeneity trump their whiteness? How do you balance guilt and ‘wrongedness’ in the body of the one individual?

Also, I feel like offering to leave risks allowing us to be arrogant if we are given leave to stay: a “see! you can’t live without us, you need us to stay” kind of response.  Offering to leave also fails to embody how much we have come to love Australia and how connected many of us now feel to the land.

And so, I’ve been wondering whether it would be more appropriate and shape our response better if, instead of offering to leave, we begged to be allowed to stay, offering Indigenous Australians whatever it takes to be granted leave to remain?

how can pastoral care be distinctively Christian?


A wise one once gave me this piece of advice: ‘Remember you’re a creature as well as a Christian’.

There’s something profoundly right and helpful about this, isn’t there? It can be easy to answer the call of Christian discipleship by becoming more and more deeply embedded in church-related things — signing up for more rosters, spending ever greater amounts of time and effort (and money) on activities and programmes with other Christians, etc.

In this way, our vision of the Christian life can become narrower and narrower. And things like hobbies and rest can drop off the edge.

In the pastoral care literature a number of different ‘functions’ of pastoral care have been identified which try to help us care holistically about people — care about them as creatures as well as Christians.

I’d like us to explore the following six generally agreed upon ‘functions’ together:

  1. Healing
  2. Guiding
  3. Sustaining
  4. Reconciling
  5. Nurturing
  6. Liberating

To pre-empt a little, I’ve heard it suggested that we can baptise one or more of them in order to render pastoral care distinctively Christian — reconciliation, guidance or maybe even liberation would be solid candidates. But surely the gospel speaks to us in all of our creaturely and not just our narrowly Christian — or (institutional) ‘churchy’ — reality. The announcement of the achievement of God in our Lord Jesus Christ tells us how to be (thoroughly) human!

So the big question I want to probe is, How can the exercise of these functions be distinctively Christian? What shape and texture will pastoral care have if it’s not only to be expansive and holistic but also thoroughly informed by the gospel?

‘fit audience … though few’

At a significant moment in Paradise Lost (actually … I struggle to think of any moments in that poem that aren’t significant), John Milton calls upon his ‘Muse’, Urania — code for the Holy Spirit — and expresses his hopes about the hearing his epic poem will receive (Book VII.30-31):

                          Still govern thou my song
Urania! and fit audience find, though few.

'Jacob's Ladder' by William Blake

'Jacob's Ladder' by William Blake

Clearly, Milton’s not all that optimistic about the number of people who will qualify as an audience ‘fit’ to hear — and respond rightly to — the story he’s telling.

Which brings me to you, Gentle Readers. I recently asked you to give me some feedback about what direction you’d like us to head off in. And the votes are in. With a landslide 50% of the vote — out of a grand total of 14 voters (count ’em!) — you, my own ‘fit audience’ of Conversation Partners, have decided upon the trajectory of the conversation over the next little while.

You’ve decided that we’re going to wrestle together with the issue of what shape pastoral care will have if it’s to be distinctively Christian.

So, strap yourselves in. Switch on your heads and hearts. And warm up your hands so you don’t get RSI typing your responses. Tomorrow we begin!