Silence, Prayer and Pastoral Visits

One of my favorite authors is Fredrik Backman. His brilliant novel Beartown is set far north of the Arctic Circle in the fictional village of Beartown. I can only read a little at a time because it moves me so deeply.

In one section, he describes the effect of the intense cold on the method of building. I won’t quote the section word for word, but he writes that water can creep into the cracks and empty spaces of the bricks and the timber. And then when it freezes it expands and tears the structure apart.

Silence, he says, is like that. You keep it inside and it creeps into the cracks and chinks and then it expands and expands until it tears you apart. I felt that. I had to put the book down a while. And I started thinking.

The things that affect us the most are those things that we would never, ever share with anyone. We bury them down deep and promise ourselves to never, ever speak of them.

Hold that thought for a moment.

In the early church, there was a custom set up where members of the congregation could talk to the pastor and get help with whatever was troubling them, or to get counsel in their battle against sin. This developed into the confessional booth and the sacrament of confession and penance. (Long story).

In the 16th century, the Reformers did away with the abuses of the confessional and the false assurances of penance and rightly preached Christ alone received by faith alone.

But then they were asked about what a member of the congregation would do if they were bowed down by sin and needed to confess and get help?

And so began the custom of pastoral visitations. These have a long history in the Reformed churches, especially in the Dutch Reformed traditions.

Many years ago, I did a “pastoral visitation” with an elderly Dutch couple. They were a delightful couple and they encouraged my heart many times.

When I showed up at the house, it was spotless. They were dressed up properly. They sat at the edge of their chairs. It was almost like they weren’t themselves.

When I visit someone as a pastor, I just want to talk and see how they are. I don’t need to set up a formal visit to do that. I just try to connect.

But the Pastor’s Visit has a long, long tradition.

I tried to ask them about their lives, if anything was concerning them, if there were anything I could pray for – really anything to get them to open up. And I received short, one word answers. So I tried another strategy.

I closed in prayer.

They immediately relaxed, she got up and got cookies and coffee. And then we had our real talk.

I thought about that, and I thought about the silent spaces that grow until they tear us apart.

And that, of course, led me to our view of prayer.

I wonder how many view prayer the same way that this couple viewed the visit from the Domine? (The Dutch term for the pastor?)

Sweep the house. Get dressed. Answer properly. Don’t cause a fuss.

And the silences grow. Eventually it tears us apart.

To be fair, it is the fault of the pastors, for the most part. Pastors demand that the house be swept and cleaned, that they be dressed properly and their kids be lined up appropriately and that they don’t cause a fuss.

In my life before ordination, I can count on one hand how many times I tried to talk to a pastor about what was really going on in my life.

The first few times, the pastor responded with rage and contempt and asked how I dared criticize.

When I talked to another pastor a few years later, my struggle was dismissed and announced publicly at our next meeting.

So I get it. But it isn’t right.

And then we start thinking that God is like our pastor. We sweep our souls clean, stuff the embarrassing stuff into the oven or the dryer, sit properly, make sure we use the thees and the thous, recite the right words, and breathe a sigh of relief when prayer time is done.

We learned about God from our pastor, and didn’t even know it.

But what would happen if we actually told God what was really going on?

What if we left the dirty clothes and the dirty dishes and the cobwebs all over the place and just told him about it?

“Sometimes I scream inside my head and I don’t think that I will ever stop.”

“Sometimes I wonder how many sleeping pills to take to just finally get some rest.”

“Sometimes I cut myself just to see if I can still feel anything because pain is better than the screaming silence.”

“Sometimes I wonder if God looks at me with contempt whenever he sees me just like my father did.”

“Sometimes I feel far too dirty and used up to stand before God and if I could just do a better imitation of the corner of the room maybe he won’t notice.”

“I choke back my tears because if I let go and just start weeping I don’t think I will ever, ever stop.”

“Sometimes I’m so lonely even in the middle of a crowded room that I want to shout to the universe, “Sir! I exist!!” but I’m afraid that no one would hear me.”

“Sometimes I feel so cold inside I wonder if God ever loved me or if it were even possible.”

“I’ve been same-sex attracted my whole life and don’t know if the pain will ever stop.”

“Once I was so desperate that I got an abortion and never told a soul.”

Can you imagine saying these things to your pastor? Why not?

Pastor, if someone in your congregation said something like this to you, what would you do?

Is not this the help that people actually need?

In fact, God pleads with us to talk to him just like this. He doesn’t want us to hide away our pain and silent screams like a Dutch homemaker hides her dirty dishes and laundry. He doesn’t want us to sweep up before He is invited in.

Because he knows that we can’t sweep up. The wound is deadly and there is no cure apart from Christ. We can’t hide it away and when we try to hide it away it expands and expands until we break apart.

But if we tell Him about it – with words, with honest words, with true words – we will find that he already knows it and has just been waiting for us to admit it.

“Call upon me in the day of trouble” he says.

“Cast your cares upon him, for he cares for you”, he says.

And I know and fully understand why so many of you would never, ever tell a soul about the silent screaming. And I understand why the very, very last person you would want to know about the nightmares and loneliness would be your pastor.

We don’t have the best track record, do we? And for that, I am so, so sorry. I pray that the day will come when Jesus will make us more like him, and more worthy of the name “shepherd”.

We the pastors have given you the impression that you have to make yourself properly fit to be worthy of welcome in the kingdom of God. And every time we do that, we deny our savior, reject the cross, and teach another way of salvation: my own ability to sweep my floor and clean up my mess.

I can’t do it, which is what the gospel is about. And I pray that they day will come when God will raise up true gospel preachers and make us more like Jesus.

But until that day, please remember this. God is big enough for your tears.

God is big enough for your silent screams and desperate darkness and cold heart.

What he wants is for you to tell him about it – not swept and clean and made presentable – but with the dirt and the snot and the ugly crying and broken dishes –

But it doesn’t magically disappear, for we are all still in a world that is under the curse of death.

But the day will come when those tears will be wiped away, when our house will be cleansed – but not by us. And we won’t have to hide in the corners anymore. We will be welcomed, clean, dressed, and sitting at the head table as the guest of honor at the marriage supper of the Lamb.

Won’t that be a fabulous day?


Filed under Pastoral ministry, Prayer

8 responses to “Silence, Prayer and Pastoral Visits

  1. This was awesome, Sam. Very sweet! That silence, that keeping of toxic secrets, is a sign of trauma. It is very prevalent in the church.

    One of my favorite sermons was from this pastor who was fed up with everyone always shaking his hand and saying they were just fine. Sharing the fact that we are not fine is what builds intimacy and community. It’s no coincidence that the West is full of stoics and deep divisions. The two go hand in hand.

  2. Janet

    “But until that day, please remember this. God is big enough for your tears.
    God is big enough for your silent screams and desperate darkness and cold heart.
    What he wants is for you to tell him about it – not swept and clean and made presentable – but with the dirt and the snot and the ugly crying and broken dishes –”

    He knows me. He’s seen my dirt and snot and ugly crying, and He still loves me. When others forsake me, He stays. I am so grateful. So very grateful.

  3. I read and love Backman’s books, too. Beartown was a hard one. Right now I’m reading: Britt-Marie Was Here.

  4. Mike

    Wonderful, moving words. God is the only one I feel that I can be honest with because he already knows me and what is going on in my life and my head better than I know myself. Is it a surprise though? Human experience has taught me that people are not to be trusted. As you touch on when mentioning your own experiences when confessing to a pastor, a very likely outcome is that you will be openly ostracized from the congregation or the rumors accurate or otherwise will start flying around the church essentially separating you from the church. I’m sure we’ve all seen this, so why would anyone risk it? Too many times, possibly most times, church is a prison not freedom and comfort.
    Who knows, maybe I’ll get blow back for what I’ve said here, but frankly I don’t care anymore.

  5. Bill

    the crumbs from the table are quite filling ; wise brother whose table is a far distance away from where I live… thanks. what you voice is relevant to all elders, not just the latin shepherds in our midst…

  6. Anu Riley

    This is such a beautiful description of how we do (or do not) communicate, and how we do (or do not) handle pain. Doesn’t even matter if the wounds are visible to others or not. It is all about how the ones who are hurting, how we deal with the hurting.
    Gregory Peck once said that when he first got into acting, it was like he was having a conversation with the audience. I never forgot that because I was like, what the heck is he talking about? What does THAT mean?
    Now I think understand. He talked about having a childhood where there was not a lot of communication, so not feeling very connected with others. As an actor, he was playing a character that he wanted to tell the audience about. it seemed to come naturally to him; to converse with the audience in order to communicate a message to them.
    When I looked back on certain movies and TV shows, I realized exactly what Gregory Peck was talking about. And it is HARD work to do what he spoke of. And it is NOT just about learning the lines and moving around as the script demands. Sometimes the strongest messages came across through body language and facial expressions. Nothing was said, but something was very much communicated to me.
    Best example: Terminator 2, when a young boy was pouring his heart out to Arnold, who was playing the Terminator. At strong emotions are expressed, Arnold simply looks at him. I was a young teenager when I saw this, and I KNEW that that expressionless, blank face was taking it all in, even though he was not visibly moved.
    Fast forward to my angel fur beagle baby. No, he didn’t necessarily howl, he was actually more of a “screamer.” Think of it as “howling,” but with the pitch of a soprano.
    Now, he had different types of tones and types of screaming, and it was up to me to learn to discern: Happy screams? Hungry screams? Pain screams? Sad screams? Angry screams? Warning screams? Attention screams? Needy screams? Cranky screams? Sleep screams? Screams simply to just be screaming? What are you trying to say, exactly?
    Body language and facial expressions helped, but the worst kind of screams? NO screams at all. Silence meant something is very, very wrong: Why aren’t you screaming?
    No, it’s not like this post spoke of: silent screaming because we are taught and/or trained to hold it all in, for understandable fear of backlash. My beagle never held anything back, and IF there was backlash, he would simply scream even louder. Never try to out-scream a beagle (he’ll eventually pass out from exhaustion) So, I became the most attentive when he seemed to not be needing any attention. That is actually when he needs me the most.
    As Gregory Peck described, he acted in order to give the audience a message, through the character he was playing. An audience doesn’t usually talk while the movie or play or TV show is going on. That is not just rude, it will interfere with whatever is being communicated through the characters. The audience needs to listen in order to hear them properly.
    It would be nice if those that profess Christ did just that: listen, but even and especially when nothing is being said. That might be just when you need to pay the MOST attention.

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