I was once in a class learning about grief, as part of the six-month training process to provide one-on-one caregiving as a Stephen Minister. During that session, the instructor asked, “You’ve just learned that a parishioner’s husband has passed away; she still has two small children at home. Acting as a member of your parish, how can you care for her in a Christian way?”
Up until that point nearly all of our discussion units had been on active listening, reflecting feelings, and encouraging those going through crises to talk through their feelings while offering a Christ-centered focus for them. So, our answers to that query reflected our training: “Pray for her and her family!” “Pray with her!” “Encourage her to talk.” “Get her to reminisce about her spouse.”
There was a lull, and our instructor said, “. . . and?”
There was an awkward silence. Someone offered, “Ask if there’s anything we can do to help?”
Again, more silence. Finally, someone said, “Bring some meals, or offer to bring meals.” Someone else said, “Offer to babysit for a time so she can run errands.” Someone else said, “Ask her if there are any errands that we can help with!”
The instructor nodded. Although — as Stephen Ministers — we would be somewhat limited in what we could be expected to do or offer, the point of the exercise to the instructor was to recognize the needs of the grieving person, and realize that those needs extend beyond the spiritual to the tangible.
That episode came to mind when I reflected upon today’s readings. In the Gospel selection from Mark, it says, “[Jesus] told them, ‘Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.’ So he went into their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee.”
The line that jumped out at me was how Jesus was “preaching and driving out demons.” They’re mentioned in the same sentence . . . the same clause, even.
Think about the holistic nature of Christ’s ministry. It would be easy to pigeonhole his actions by saying, “Jesus preached throughout the whole of Galilee.” Or you could overlook the spiritual nature of his works and focus entirely on the tangible things he did for those he met: “Jesus drove out demons throughout Galilee.” But this selection from Mark’s Gospel put those two ideas hand-in-hand.
In other words, Jesus sought to address their most critical personal needs — demons certainly qualify — while addressing the vital matter of their spiritual salvation. The spiritual aspect is why Christ is here, but it seems unlikely that the seeds of the Spirit would have found fertile ground while there was still that dire underlying issue. It’s kind of like lecturing someone on fire-safety tips while their house is ablaze; sure, that information may prove useful in the future, but it’s likely to be entirely overlooked by the person dealing with the inferno right in front of them.
Our spiritual and physical natures are intertwined, and Christ understood that. That’s why he commands us to go forth and spread the good news (Matthew 24:14), and why he implored us to feed the sick and tend to those in need (Matthew 25). (And, again, notice how — in Matthew — “preach the Word” and “go take care of each other” are in adjacent chapters.)
When trying to help others, remember that specifics are often more useful than generalities. Thus “let me know how I can help” isn’t as useful as “Can I invite you over for dinner?” or “Did you need us to watch your children for you for an evening?” or “Do you need a ride to your medical appointment? I don’t mind keeping you company.”
And that goes for preaching, too. Jesus adjusted his message for his audience, and we should adjust how we deliver the Word based on who we’re talking to. Someone might have very different reactions to a message about God’s punishment for the wicked than about God’s offer of boundless forgiveness, but you won’t know unless you talk to them and get to know their situation.
Jesus addressed the needs of his flock — the flock of the whole world — in matters of body and spirit. I believe it falls on us as followers of Christ to do the same for those we meet who are most in need of his love.