December 2, 2020

Pastoral Care Week: Carl

Couple on Porch

His name was Carl.

An old New Englander, he was strong and mostly silent. He was always pleasant to me, a young minister who had come to the mountains to take the pulpit in my first church. As with many of the men who lived in those hills, it was his wife who was actively involved in the church. There were notable exceptions, but a majority of those men would rather hang around the volunteer fire department or find some chores to keep them busy on Sunday morning. Carl would attend services with his wife, but I didn’t see him much at church activities besides that.

Still, we did exchange pleasantries often. His wife was the church treasurer, so every Monday I’d stop by their house for my check. At other times, I might have bills or receipts to turn in or questions about some financial matter that took me to their house, so I’d see him out in the yard or in the kitchen. Sometimes I’d sit with them and have a cup of coffee. He mostly smiled and listened as his wife and I talked.

I was young and naive, clueless about adult life, ignorant of the culture where I had just relocated, and wrapped up in moving away from home, getting married, living in a place of my own for the first time in my life, being called to my first church — you name it, everything was new. I was a babe in those hills. What’s more, I had landed among people who were deeply rooted in the rocky earth of those green mountains. The congregation itself had first been established in 1814. The buildings in which we met were over a hundred years old. Most of the folks belonged to families who had been there for generations. I was a fresh sprout among ancient oaks.

I am sure guys like Carl shook their heads in wonder at my youthful brashness, the silly things I said, the social blunders I committed. When you’re twenty-two, you know everything and you’re ready to take the world by storm. I’m thankful I went to a place where people had their feet on the ground. They had seen young pastors come and go, had heard the bluster and dogmatism, had put up with being experimented upon and forced to try newfangled practices. They mostly outlasted ‘em. They would do the same with this young buck.

In my second year at the church, Carl had a stroke.

I did my best to visit the family at the hospital and see them through the critical care period. To be honest, I don’t remember much about those days. What I recall is later, after Carl came home. As far as most of his body was concerned, he remained healthy and active. But Carl could no longer communicate. This strong silent man now had no words to speak at all.

This young pastor began to visit more often. Carl’s wife stayed home more and church attendance became less regular. Social situations could be a bit awkward. You see, Carl would give the appearance of talking and entering into conversations, but he made no sense. It was impossible to tell if he was comprehending anything that was being said to him or in the gibberish he spoke. But Carl would smile and “talk” just as if he was a full partner in whatever discussion was taking place around him. In fact, he may have been more talkative than before.

Sometimes this could be kind of funny. Sometimes it was heartbreaking. All of the time, it was Carl’s new reality, one his wife shared with him. It became hard on her. The partner with whom she had shared words for decades could no longer communicate. She got frustrated trying to help him with any number of simple tasks. She got cabin fever. She didn’t feel as useful at church or in other activities in which she’d been involved. The young pastor had a parishioner who needed regular encouragement.

And so I visited. And there we sat, the three of us. Carl’s wife and I would talk about church, what was happening in the community, our families, and how she was getting along with Carl. Carl sat with us and smiled and made his unique, incomprehensible contributions. I was in way over my head.

The novice minister had come to the end of his tricks fast. I had to learn right then and there that things happen in life I can’t change, fix, or make better. I came to the realization that words don’t solve all problems. I had to admit that I don’t have answers, that I don’t even understand the problems sometimes. I was forced to practice and come to appreciate the art of simply being with someone, sitting, listening, attending to the situation at hand without “working” in any tangible fashion to improve it.

I watched an unforgettable demonstration of love, as a woman kept her promise “for worse” and “in sickness.” Recognizing right away that I had little to offer in the light of such profound devotion, I learned the power of simple encouragement. All I brought to Carl’s home were a few words of affirmation, a couple of Bible verses, and a prayer or two. Such were the rudimentary tools I had to work with in those days. But, to be honest, I probably could have said the same simple things every time I visited — or nothing at all — and frankly, it would have been enough.

I learned that just dropping by, having a cup of coffee, showing a bit of kindness, and sitting for awhile could make a real difference for somebody. Who knew?

And that a pastor, even a young and clueless one, can represent the gracious, healing Word of God to hurting people.

And that pastors are made by means we would seldom choose and might never imagine.

I’m thankful for everything I’ve learned in church, in Bible college, and in seminary. But when it comes right down to it, it is people like Carl and his wife who help me learn what it means to be a pastor.


  1. “I had to learn right then and there that things happen in life I can’t change, fix, or make better”

    CM hits it out of the park. Again.

    • Christiane says

      + 1000

    • Yes he does. Way over the fence! Thank you for these wonderful writings, CM.

      A man in my church recently had a stroke, and when I took his wife to see him at the hospital a few days later, that’s the experience I had. “Bob” would say a few words just fine, but then continue with nonsense syllables: “Yes, “Grace and I like to play dob glos weddle notten renmist…” It was startling, but the good thing about Bob’s case was — he seemed to sense the words were not right, and when I or his wife would supply a word, he would nod vigorously and repeat it correctlyt. With a lot of therapy, he is back to talking almost normally, just a bit slower than usual.

  2. “I was forced to practice and come to appreciate the art of simply being with someone, sitting, listening, attending to the situation at hand without “working” in any tangible fashion to improve it.”.
    Oddly enough that’s an apt definition of contemplation or centering prayer. Attendance to the being of Christ is good practice for being attendant to those around us and vice-a-versa.

  3. Christiane says

    There is the suffering we must witness and cannot change, except that when we are ‘present with’ the people who suffer, who mourn . . . it is our ‘presence’ that bears witness to Christ.

    There is a saying in my Church:
    “Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or to remove it. He came to fill it with His Presence.”

    • “There is a saying in my Church:
      ‘Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or to remove it. He came to fill it with His Presence.'”

      I’m going to remember this one. Thanks, Christiane; you have a good Church! 🙂

    • Christiane, you’ve posted that quote before, and I love it. It is such a comforting thought to me.

      There’s no shortage of talking about being ‘lifted out’ of things. Fair enough: I’d certainly prefer to be rescued than not to be rescued. But if a person only ‘meets’ God by going-somewhere-else or by getting plucked out of things, then it becomes difficult to say very much about the great amount of human experience that is prior to or outside this moment. A remote God – even one who swoops in with fanfare at regular intervals – leaves a portion of life, perhaps a vast one, god-less and untouched, unspoken and unspeakable. Even if there’s a promised resolution, the aloneness of that is terrifying. The reassurance that God is still present in the suffering itself or the face of it (not only in its disappearance) is correspondingly wonderful.

      Someone just showing up, period, strikes me as the ‘answer’ that matters. There’s also a lot of power in simply offering reassurance, especially if I can’t offer it to myself.

      • Christiane says

        “. . . after our blindness seeing now that Light,
        by our understanding Jesus, whom we see in our soul, we follow . . . .

        Let us see whither He is going, and let us find our way by following His footsteps.”

        (From St. Gregory’s Writings based on Gospel of St. Mark)

  4. Renee Gamby says

    Today my mom and dad, Pam and Dominic Palmer, along with SNAP and others are protesting at T4G in Louisville, KY, to have C.J. Mahaney removed as a speaker at their conference this week. He is facing serious allegations of allegedly covering up child sex abuse. Stand in support with them as they protest by signing the petition below!

  5. Burro [Mule] says

    “I was in way over my head.”

    Ezekiel 47:3-5 comes to mind immediately. Would that more pastors felt this to be the case.

  6. Finches in the road —
    a dead one, and its live mate —
    pageant of life, death.