One of the greatest commandments is to love your neighbour as yourself, however we can sometimes be guilty of truncating this beautiful request by Jesus, so we end up serving our neighbour at the expense of our own self.
This trend can be seen in families, in health and welfare and in those who minister as a volunteer in faith communities.
One of the central difficulties is that pastoral concerns cannot be easily quantified or addressed in a one-size-fits-all manner. If one works for a sales company, then one can measure success via the amount of customers who frequent the store, and the amount of product sold. However, in family life, and social welfare and faith communities, we engage with people. They are not problems to be solved, and they hopefully are not simply processed like so many customers at a checkout.
When people are our primary ministry, rather than products, we are invited to engage in the world of their joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties. There is no measure for such involvement. We may begin by enrolling a child in sacramental preparation, only to discover the family is dealing with a pastoral issue. Maybe the mother is the primary carer for one of her parents. Maybe there is an unfolding tragedy affecting the family. What is our response?
And people do not operate to schedules. Funerals cannot be planned a month in advance, and there is no telling when accidents and sickness may strike.
The cry of the human heart calls out to those who minister. We want to respond and do all we can to address the needs of those in pain. An extra hour spent with an upset child at home, an extra hour preparing a funeral booklet for a grieving family, and an extra hour with the volunteer who is too stressed to perform their own role. Hour upon hour, day upon day, and we keep loving our neighbour, silently carrying our cross, not complaining about our own needs, for it is giving that we receive, yes?
Our Christian culture does not always offer us the best messaging when it comes to self-care. Having a veritable smorgasbord of saints who martyred themselves seems to send a rather explicit message that we are supposed to give without counting the cost. As the Bible says, “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7).
And we are called to “persevere under trial” (James 1:12), for “God will not test you beyond your ability” (1 Cor 10:13). These sayings seem to have invaded our Christian psyche, and for someone to stand up and say that they are not coping, or that they need help, seems counter to what a good Christian should be.
But let us consider Jesus himself as our model. Jesus took time out.
Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed (Luke 5:16).
And Jesus said no.
For example: “At daybreak, Jesus left and went to a deserted place. The crowds went looking for him, and when they came to him, they tried to prevent him from leaving them. But he said to them, ‘To the other towns also I must proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God, because for this purpose I have been sent’” (Luke 4:42-44).
And Jesus delegated: “The Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go.” (Luke 10:1)
And Jesus asked his friends to accompany him, and shared how he felt with them: “‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.'” (Matt 26:38)
And St Paul asks us to care for one another, not to try to do it all alone. “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ”, (Galatians 6:2)
And the early church seemed to be very clear on this point of supporting one another, rather than trying to do it all yourself: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” (Acts 4:32)
In society today, we have many messages reminding us of the importance of looking after our mental health and emotional wellbeing. While our Christian beliefs remind us that God will sustain us in our times of trial, it is clear from the above that both Jesus and our church does not expect us to burn out in our efforts to care for others. The command to love yourself is given by Christ himself, and is modelled through his own life of time out, prayer, asking others to help, sharing his heart with good friends, and through the many times we encounter him dining with others and enjoying life.
Let us continue to refill our own well, so that we can pour out our love in the service of others.
Richard McMahon is the Director of Pastoral Planning & Implementation for the Diocese of Parramatta.