I am a Christian pastor in the United Methodist denomination. One of the privileges of that vocation is walking with people through the deepest valleys and the highest mountains of their lives. Over fifteen years of ministry, I have learned that between these two points our faith is fully realized.
After graduating from seminary, I participated in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). CPE is a training program to teach pastoral care to clergy, chaplains, and other religious professionals in hospital settings. It has become mandatory training for many Christian denominations because of its unique approach to pastoral care. It emphasizes that the role of clergy in a pastoral care situation isn’t about providing solutions; rather, it is about being present with people in the midst of crisis by simply listening and witnessing.
In theological language, CPE trades a ministry of doing for a ministry of being. Reframing pastoral care, this “ministry of presence” taps the healing power of shared physical presence. The idea was explored by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection in The Practice of the Presence of God, and expanded by theologians and writers like Henri Nouwen, Parker Palmer, and Richard Rohr. A ministry of presence is not a uniquely Christian concept. Jewish Philosopher Martin Buber wrote in 1937 in his seminal book I and Thou that the Hebrew name for God, “Yahweh,” was best translated as “I am present.” When we are present with each other, God is present; a ministry of presence is the ministry of God.
In hospital settings, a ministry of presence means attending some of the most horrific, tragic, and difficult moments in life: from the sudden death of a parent to the slow-progressing illness of a spouse, or an accident that paralyzes a child. It is a deeply anxious and indeterminate space.
In such liminal zones, we have left one period (sometimes by choice, though often not) but have not yet entered the next. These spaces are filled with uncertainty and may be spurred by crises. We tend to avoid them. In the face of crisis, we may wish to bury our head in the sand and pretend it isn’t happening. Through CPE, I learned to actively resist my urge to flee when I was uncomfortable, and instead to show genuine compassion—meaning literally to “suffer with” someone—without rushing to fix the problem. This skill was far from natural; it required development and practice.
The first time I worked overnight as a CPE resident, I was called to the emergency department. A nineteen-year-old man was in emergency surgery after a catastrophic car accident. His parents had just arrived. My task was to support them. When I met them in the waiting room, they bombarded me with questions I couldn’t answer. They were frantic. Their lives had been turned upside-down in a matter of moments. Life feels like a guarantee until, suddenly, it isn’t.
I first responded by trying to make things better. I quickly read a half-dozen scripture verses while their eyes glazed over. Every fifteen minutes I asked if there was anything they needed. Over the course of an hour, I brought them ten cups of water and all the snacks I could find in the hospital. I did everything I could to stay active and avoid putting myself in their terrifying reality. I was afraid. Their situation was depressing.
After a few hours of rushing around, when I couldn’t avoid it anymore, I sat next to the couple. We said little in the half-hour that followed. At one point, after time had already become a blur, the doctor came out to deliver unimaginable news: their son had died on the operating table.
When the couple finally left the hospital, his mother took my hand. “Thank you for sitting with us,” she said.
For all the daze and confusion of crisis, memories of loss stay with us in surprising detail. Living through loss has profound potential to change the way we live, whether or not the loss is ours. That night, I understood the power of being present in liminal spaces. The power of attention to raw wounds. The power of a held hand and held words.
While liminal spaces may be distressing, they open a space for faith and hope. On that night years ago, it was prayer in a liminal space that brought peace for the moment. Other times, liminal spaces hold opportunities to witness miracles, to discover pathways and healing. Gradually, I have learned to trust leaning into them. Trusting that instinct does get better with time, even if the challenges of the space do not. Similarly, over time I have come to trust the possibility of hope and healing to intermingle with pain and suffering. This is the ultimate paradox of faith: that there can be light amidst darkness and life where there is death.
In the Christian tradition, the expanse between suffering and hope shows up time and time again: in Scripture, in our application of it, and in our celebration of it. For forty years, the Israelites wandered in the desert. For twenty five years, Sarah waited for a child. For one hundred and twenty years, Noah labored building the arc. Only in Chapter 38 of the 42 chapters in the Book of Job does God finally break His silence and answer Job in his suffering. Perhaps most prominently, every year on Easter, Christians around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. On Easter, Christians also remember that the only way to Resurrection Sunday is through the suffering of Good Friday and the silence of Holy Saturday. Good Friday—when Christ was crucified—symbolizes the pain, brokenness, and humiliation ever-present in our world. Holy Saturday—when Christ’s body lay dead in the grave—represents the test of our faith when God feels distant. Then comes Sunday—the day of resurrection—when we learn that death is not the end of the story, and that life has the last word. In the words of Frederick Buechner, an American novelist and preacher:
"The worst isn't the last thing about the world. It's the next to the last thing. The last thing is the best. It's the power from on high that comes down into the world, that wells up from the rock-bottom worst of the world like a hidden spring. Can you believe it? The last, best thing is the laughing deep in the hearts of the saints, sometimes our hearts even. Yes. You are terribly loved and forgiven. Yes. You are healed. All is well."
Even the deepest pain can be redeemed. If we view liminal spaces as sacred spaces where suffering and hope can coexist, and where death and life may meet, we may at last discover that they can lend us faith as well.