“…we may be despising and rebelling against a divine ordering of things…”
Below is an essay I wrote back in 2014, with one very slight edit of word order. Because a dear brother in Christ fondly recalled it and asked if he might use it in his Intro to Pastoral Theology course at Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, IN, I revisited this essay today and decided also to post it here for his students to access.
It’s a devotional and vocational reflection on Psalm 16:5-6, pastoral ethics, and the Biblical theology of jurisdiction. I penned it during days while serving in full-time clinical chaplaincy for AseraCare Hospice in Norfolk, NE. Enjoy!
These Pleasant Places
Rev. Jeffery Warner
Spiritual Care Coordinator
AseraCare Hospice, Norfolk, NE
December 11, 2014
We Dwell in These Pleasant Places:
Thoughts on Membership, Fellowship, Church and the Office in Pastoral Care
Hear the words of Psalm 16:5-6 (NIV)
5 Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup
you make my lot secure.
6 The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
surely I have a delightful inheritance.
Agnes is not well. I know this from meeting her during visits I’ve made to her roommate, Gloria, someone whom the Lord has given into my care. Agnes has a pastor of her own. Indeed, I know the man. I’ve even spoken to him about Agnes, and other members of his congregation whom reside in the facility with my members. He is a fellow pastor in my church body. His visits have faltered. Predictably, Agnes is failing and desires pastoral care—my pastoral care. She needs Word and Sacrament, for the forgiveness of her sins and the strengthening of her faith. This is by divine design. For this very reason He established the pastoral office, so that His redeemed may gather and receive His gifts from the one He has called and ordained to the task. Unfortunately, that man who has been charged with the care of this soul is absent. What’s a brother to do?
The scenario above represents one terribly familiar briar patch in the course of pastoral ministry and especially so in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Sometimes I reckon myself a bit of a park ranger in these parts. People get lost here in these thickets, so do their pastors. I’m a hospice chaplain. Members from Catholic, many Reformed and various Lutheran fellowships comprise the body of people I serve.
The question of boundary lines and pastoral ethics is important, particularly because these matters call into question our faith in God and His divine ordering of things. How important is God’s institution of the local congregation and membership there? We also believe in the larger reality of the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church”—how does this article of faith inform our decisions? The Lord himself established and commanded that the Church appoint and consecrate faithful men to local congregations specifically for this holy work of Word and Sacrament ministry—what happens when they falter, and their baptized look to us to do what God first entrusted another man to do? Then there is the law of love: love dealing in compassion for the bleating lambs who are not being fed—and the law of love and dealing compassionately with the faltering brother in holy office.
Some, in sometimes misguided compassion and love, consider this a ‘no-brainer’ — that brother is a blatant sinner, not fulfilling his duties to his member’s satisfaction, nor to God’s, nor to ours. Therefore, many would conclude, the faithful, good and loving thing is obviously “Feed my sheep.” The stronger brother steps in, assumes care of the member, and let the chips fall where they may for that bastard who so despises his office and the flock entrusted to his care. The sheep deserves to be fed. The shepherd deserves to be disciplined, if not de-flocked and defrocked. Righteous anger and indignation here prevail, in the name of Christ and with sanctimonious pride. Perish the thought that we may be despising and rebelling against a divine ordering of things. So some serve to further diminish and desecrate the very office they plan so heroically to exercise in the name of love, in the name of our Lord.
King David says in Psalm 16 “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.” God does set the boundaries. We see this established throughout the Scripture, from the very first command that Adam not eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Man beholds something desirable beyond the boundaries and transgresses them. Lovely verb, “fallen.” The boundary lines “have fallen” from above, from God. Man has fallen, again and again. He fights the boundaries, and loses every time. His neighbor loses, too.
We are no antinomians when it comes to the individual Christian life, the corporate life of Christians in the congregation and in the wider Church. We comprehend there is lovely, most holy order of things when God gives gifts to men, including “some to be pastors.” These he commands, “Feed my sheep.”
We might do better to come to terms with the fact that those “some to be pastors” includes not only “some,” but “exclusively” sinners who live outside the boundaries. Private sins are bad enough, but when sin impacts vocation—especially that sacred calling we are given—then sheep don’t get fed, the sheep suffer the consequences, the Church and her Ministry are humiliated for all to see. We hate it when others live outside the boundaries. Maybe the only thing we despise more are those moments when we are caught in our own transgressions and found far outside the lines our God established.
In chaplaincy, I see you pastors—you holy men of God—do some of the most beautiful and faithful things for the people in your charge. I see pastors at their best, happily dwelling and functioning in your calling. In faith, you fulfill what has been given you to do—and you love doing what God has called you to do. I see the love your people have for you, sincere and earnest affection. I listen to them talk in admiration and pride about “my pastor.”
Naturally, in my vocation I also hear other things, see other things. Things that are not so lovely. I see neglect. I see hurt, anger, resentment, loneliness and hunger in people who are estranged from pastor and parish. I see unfaithfulness in clergy of every stripe. I see you when you falter, too. When your sin manifests against your people by what you have done or left undone, I see that too.
“The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.” Can you believe that? What this means to me in chaplaincy is that first and foremost I need to acknowledge this fact: God himself has established a relationship between one particular pastor and this particular person. Some of those relationships are healthy and strong. Some are sorely strained and nearly severed. It has not been given me to dishonor that relationship, that bond, but to uphold it as a glorious thing God himself has done.
God entrusts the care of some certain sinners into the hands of other sinners. We might not like that much, but do we believe that? We better. I do. In chaplaincy I understand full well that I am not the pastor of any given person I visit. You are, or your brother is. As I carry out what God has given me to do as a chaplain, I must take great care. I dare not so ingratiate and insinuate myself into that relationship that I displace you, or even usurp what God has given you. Given the sometimes urgent, vulnerable and intimate context of a dying hospice patient, the intense emotional state of a grieving family, to believe when beholding such glaring need that “the boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places” is sometimes difficult for a man to maintain. By God’s grace, and with practice, I strive to trust fully in what God has established between you and your member, to uphold it, and whenever possible nurture and strengthen it.
If I don’t honor that bond God established between you and your member, chances are pretty good I could get asked to do a funeral behind your back. Even when I see your sin, your shortfalls, brothers, rather I would be to you like Shem and Japheth—averting my eyes to your shame and bearing a robe to cover your nakedness, never to act like Ham and further expose it. I’m not involved with your members to be your accuser, usurper or judge. I’m no sheep rustler, either, stealing away the affection, honor and love that is owed you. I am confident that God has commanded me to honor and trust in this divine order of things, to trust in your divine call, even as he commands your members in Christian love to uphold and love you in all your frailty, with all your faults. God calls forgiven sinners to be pastors. God sends pastors to forgive.
I forgive you for not being a perfect pastor for your members. I’m one of those forgiven pastors who faltered. The Lord Jesus knows I fell far short of what I was given to do in the parish for my members at times. I’m no better than you. But by God’s grace alone, it happens I’m not quite so mired in sin right now today—fighting to get free of the snares that kept me away from the people given me to serve. I often think that were I in the parish now, after five years of intimate witness of what the poor people go through during their suffering and death when their pastors are away…O God how I would run gladly not only to see my shut-ins, but to be there for my people wherever they might go. I’d like to think I would do that. I pray I can do that again someday—be the pastor of the people I visit.
But for now, as a chaplain, I am given to be your forerunner whenever I can, like John who freely confesses to the people that hear him preaching that He is not the one who bears the office of Christ. There comes another, and soon, for you. “He must increase, I must decrease” is my credo in regard to a patient’s pastor. Perhaps, when you see your brother in office falter, you can be his forerunner. The Lord knows he needs one then at that very moment, there in that place.
What, then, shall I do when I behold the neglect of a brother’s parishioner? Shall I ignore the boundary lines? Or uphold them? Can I possibly be glad in this gift: that almighty God made a real sinner to be a pastor? Can I help his people be glad God has done this? Can I help him, in the middle of all his fear and guilt and shame for failing his members—despite his irritation for my persistence and feeling accused by the Law in his heart—can I help my faltering brother stand up once more, wash off, and be glad God really called a sinner like him to this ministry, and to this member’s care?
Anyhow, I try. I try to love real, inadequate, sinful pastors. I try to help their sinful members love their sinful pastors. And in the trying, I proclaim far and wide what a wonderful thing it is that Christ has done for us all, forgiving sinners all day long through his appointed men and means. “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.” They have fallen from heaven to surround me, protect me, drive and guide me away from forbidden fruit and unto that Christ who yet lives and reigns among us. These boundary lines have fallen “for me,” for my benefit, for the benefit of His people—and yours.
Christ has bound himself to Word and Sacrament. Christ has bound men to serve in office. Christ has bound Christians to his body, the Church. Christ has bound particular Christians to other particular Christians, to love and serve them, feed and grow with them. Christ has established a bond of mutual love and service between pastor and people. God grant that as we go about serving our members and reaching out to others in need, we may continually dwell in such pleasant places as this, where sinners are called to forgive sinners, and be forgiven forever. For The Lord Jesus himself is OUR portion, yours and mine. He is our cup. Only thus shall WE–each and all–then dwell secure, together,
In Christ Jesus, our Lord,
Rev. Jeffery Warner
Spiritual Care Coordinator
AseraCare Hospice, Norfolk, NE
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