Magazines 2021 May - Jun The pastoral imperative

The pastoral imperative

04 May 2021 By Bruce Clemenger

Rising above the pandemic in ordinary acts of service to one another

Brockville is Ontario’s first incorporated town located on the St. Lawrence River. Its imposing court house is poised atop the highest hill overlooking the river. Arched in a semicircle around it stand several grand stone churches of different Christian traditions. While Canada never had a state church, we see the historic prominence and influence of Christianity.

Many historians have commented on the tutelage of churches who sought to influence the moral and spiritual foundations of nationhood and to act as the conscience of the state. The Church and specifically clergy played three key functions – prophetic, priestly and pastoral.

The prophetic function admonishes all to turn toward God, by implication away from distractions. It directs sight toward the transcendent, a God rich in mercy (to forgive), grace (to nourish) and compassion (to comfort and encourage). It serves like a steeple, a tower that points upwards and a bell that tolls reminders of the sacred. It’s a call to humans created in God’s image yet free to accept or reject our created purpose. In contemporary Canada, the prophetic is largely unheeded unless it appears to align itself in tandem with a secular agenda.

The priestly function provides rituals of stability for understanding life, death and transformation while also lending legitimacy to secular authority. A priestly blessing at sacred moments of communion – when two lives come together, new lives are born and lives gather to face death – all mark significance in time. In some traditions the priestly role also provides absolution. When the importance of God wanes as other gods and their idols are followed, and as the compass of a transcendent moral order is denied, the need for the priestly is eclipsed.

The pastoral function is however still seen and valued – essential even in a secularized society. Those uniquely called and credentialled as pastors deserve our respect and support in this challenging task. Pastoral forms of service however, are not exclusive. They are ones we can all cultivate as we come alongside others with tangible varieties of comfort, providing physical or spiritual spaces of safety and nourishment where the immediate needs of the heart, mind and body are met (Psalm 23). We rejuvenate and restore the hungry, lonely, lost, grieving or suffering.

How many youth are struggling with hopelessness just as seniors are with loneliness? Are we grieving well amid the disruption of routines and the mandated isolation? In the pastoral, noticeably and tangibly experienced, we find expression of God’s love and care in times of trial and pestilence (Psalm 63 and 91).

Throughout the Gospels the pastoral nature of Jesus Christ is manifest. Being human and knowing human suffering, He is forbearing and able to compassionately and generously respond, meeting pressing needs and exuding a restorative vision of human life and meaning, including healthy boundaries and times of rest and prayer.

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