Sin and Grace in Pastoral Care Class

Fall 2006
PAGES 10, 11
[original publication]

Mountain climbing, sin, and theology. What do these three have in common? They were all part of a student discussion on the first day of a Calvin Theological Seminary (CTS) pastoral care course this fall. Students heard a story of life and death on Mt. Everest, observed sinful behavior in that story, and reflected on the motives of sin and pastoral responses to it.

The story from National Geographic Adventure magazine recounted the dramatic rescue of mountain climber Lincoln Hall from 28,000 feet on Mt. Everest—a man who had been left for dead one night but was found alive the next day, severely frostbitten and hallucinating from the effects of cerebral edema—swelling of the brain (read the story at National Geographic).

The team of climbers that found the delirious and half-clothed man gave up their chance of reaching the summit of the highest mountain in the world in order to save Hall's life and bring him down to base camp.

Just days earlier another Everest climber, David Sharp, was also stricken with the disorienting effects of cerebral edema. Although he was obviously ill, some 40 climbers passed him by as they proceeded to the summit. Sharp froze to death on the mountain; Hall lived to tell about his rescue on the Today show and landed a lucrative book contract.

In their pastoral care class, students listened to the story and then to a reading of Luke 10:25-37, the parable of the Good Samaritan. In small groups and then as a whole class they pondered the reasons why so many climbers passed by an obviously distressed man. Was it their desire to reach the summit for success or pride? Did they hope that others would stop and help? Were they concerned about their $40,000 investment in a climbing trip?

The students also wondered why a team of four climbers stopped to help the half-naked, hallucinating Lincoln Hall, who thought he was in a boat and needed to jump overboard to save himself. It took all the strength the team could muster to restrain him from throwing himself over a precipice. One of these rescuers who missed the chance to summit Everest on a beautiful clear day admitted later that he was "gutted with disappointment the day after the rescue." But he soon got over his disappointment and realized that he could not have made a different decision.

The students mulled over this life-and-death story, comparing the two responses and the rugged North American individualism that so much affected the varying responses.
>br> They also reflected on our mundane behaviors that belie the same kinds of values—such as how we sometimes drive our cars and use our cell phones—and wondered how marriages, families, and congregations might be affected by sinful behavior that is self-centered and insulated from the world of caring relationships. They wondered about ministry among church members who are being moved and shaped by a competitive, selfish culture—and, at the same time, by the self-giving Spirit of Christ.

As the students ventured opinions and teased out distinctions between sin and evil, healthy and selfish individualism, courage and pride, they imagined how they might guide future parishioners to follow the way of life that is shaped by Christ.

Few, if any, of the students in that class will have Everest-climbing church members. But they will all run into people who are insulated from concern for others, who think of themselves first, who would prefer to focus on their own lives rather than sacrifice personal success to meet the needs of others. As these future pastors contemplated preaching, teaching, and—even more important—modeling the kind of behavior Christ calls his followers to, they gained insight from the rescue team. Just as the team members were relieved when Lincoln Hall came and thanked them sincerely and didn't turn out to be a jerk just trying to make a buck off a good story, so the students were relieved to realize that God's grace saves all of us, even when we act like jerks with sinful motives.

That insight was a formative moment for these seminarians. As they integrated the story of life and death on Mt. Everest and their analysis of sinful human behavior in light of the gospel, they reflected on the role of pastors in addressing such behavior, realizing that this discussion and learning will certainly guide them as they enter a ministry of helping others to be formed in Christ's likeness.

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