THE CARE OF THE SOUL
Matthew 10: 24-39
The text I am using today includes the revelatory words of Jesus in Matthew 10:28. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body.” Jesus acknowledges the soul. It is also perhaps this verse and others which the reformer Martin Luther referenced in the hymn at the end of our service today “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” with the line: “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also, the body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still; his Kingdom is forever.” It is true that the Apostle Paul had to take up the battle for the resurrection of the body as he preached in Asia Minor. That contradicted the Greek’s understanding of the immortality of the soul. The Greeks said that the body, like a cocoon, would drop away and the eternal soul would go and be with the gods forever. What happened with Jesus at the empty tomb, Paul argued, was that he really died, and that he was raised from the dead in a bodily resurrection. But “soul” is very much a concept in the Bible co-opted
from Greeks and used in a different way. Soul appears 755 times on the Old Testament, but never does it refer to one’s “immortal soul,” but instead to one’s “life principle” or to a “living being.” In the New Testament the soul refers to a person’s “life as a whole.”
Back in 1996 when I was deciding what to name our health ministry, it was never a question but to call it “Body, Mind, and Soul” instead of “Body, Mind, and Spirit.” Christian ministers historically have had in their job descriptions in part as “the care of souls.” Even though “the soul” sounds like a fragmented part of a person, today we will explore what your soul is and how to care for it.
Have you noticed in stories about the preciousness of life people are referred to as souls? In the movie “Sully,” Captain Sullenberger refers to the number of passengers on board as “souls” in his official report of the plane strike by birds. He landed safely in the Hudson River. In the sinking of the Titanic or in the lives lost in 9/11, most official reports list the number of “souls” lost. A soul must be more than a part of our body. It is, in fact, the essence of who we are. When I as a little boy as I told the children, I prayed “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Something else happens to our physical bodies when we die, but the parts that make us us, our appearance, our personalities, our memories, I believe will go to heaven. That’s been my prayer since my parents taught it to me. Hymnology has picked up on the message of the soul as well. The hymn “In Christ There is No East or West” includes the line “All Christly souls are one in Him throughout the whole wide earth.” And in the Christmas hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the great preacher and writer of this hymn, Phillips Brooks, includes the line: “No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.” The human soul, in large measure, is the concern of Christ and of his church.
Jesus, in our Matthean text today, mentions “Beelzebub” who was known as the “Prince of Demons.” Human beings, according to Genesis were given freewill as a precious gift from God; we were not created as godly marionettes with a Heavenly Father pulling our strings. We were created, according to the book of Deuteronomy, to choose between life and death, blessing and curse, with God’s fervent hope that we would choose life.
Part of choosing life is saying no to temptations or to tempters; turning away from darkness toward the light; and resisting living in the valleys every day of your life. Part of having a healthy soul is tending to it. Some in the secular world call it “tending to your spirit.” It includes doing things regularly in your life that bring you happiness, not just grinding through each day. I once asked a man “How do you like your work?” He replied, “I hate every (blank) minute of it. I’m counting the days until I can retire.” He had a full 20 years until he could retire. He is still alive, and I presume and hope he is happier in the 20 years he’s spent in retirement. I knew another man who worked night and day to build his business. When I asked him why he never took a vacation he said, “I’m building toward a great retirement when my wife and I can travel.” A couple of years before his retirement, a stroke took his ability to work, and he died an early death. Tend to your soul—now—instead of just slogging your way through life. Part of what I committed to being in my life is to be the best husband, the best father, and the best pastor I can be. I work hard at them all. I know how to work hard. But what I have finally learned is how to lighten up and play too! It has brought me new-found joy; and a new goal to be the best grandfather I can be is easy around our four little grandsons! It is well with my soul.
Jesus encouraged his listeners not to fear those who cannot kill the soul. But some of the best soul killers can be our selves. Those who are particularly hard on them selves never pass their own tests. They always expect more from themselves and so they push more. Like driving a racecar on the Daytona Speedway, if you push your tires too much, they’ll blow, and if you push your engine past redline, it’ll blow. You will blow too, with rage, or suicide, or in a breakdown, if you do not care for your soul. Ironically, churches, that are supposed to care for people’s souls, sometimes are the hardest on their workers, with critical comments or unreasonably high expectations. On our trip to Ireland I talked with a mother who’s 42 year old son is the pastor of a large church. He was proud to have the appointment at such a young age. Last year, likely in part from the high demands his church leaders placed on him, and the high demands he placed on himself, he was found on the ground and had to have a five-way bypass surgery. Forty-two years old. He survived, but needs to care for his body—and his soul—differently as he moves forward. I learned that lesson when I was quickly burning out in 1987. I wouldn’t be in a pulpit today if I hadn’t figured out ways to care for my soul. Now I include daily morning prayer (funny that a pastor in 1987 felt too much pressure to pray), breaks for things that make me laugh and bring me joy, and finding people who are my advocates. I recommend the same prescription for you. No one needs to get so broken down that they can’t function, or as Jesus pointed out, they might give in to Beelzebub, or to Joe, or Tammy, or anyone else who tempts them with one of the Seven Deadly Sins. The healthy soul should proclaim: “Get thee behind me, Satan!” in situations like those.
Back in 1961, Union Seminary professor and former pastor Daniel Day Williams wrote his book The Minister and the Care of Souls. In it he says: “Love is the center of Christ’s disclosure of our humanity….Paul enjoins the Christian community, [saying] “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus … who took upon him the form of a servant.” (Phil. 2:5 ff) And this surely is the foundation of Luther’s daring statement that we are to become Christ for one another. So far then we have the basis for all care of souls. It is an action in love which makes concrete the spirit of ministry we know in Christ.” [Harper and Row, 1961, p. 17] Or as Jesus has said in John 13: 34, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” That includes—and you should highlight—loving yourself, not to the point of narcissism, but if you cannot love yourself—that is with self-esteem, a sense of well-being, and a sense that you are loved unconditionally—then you cannot offer those gifts to others. You cannot give to others what you do not have yourself. Jesus knew that. Sometimes we must read between the lines of Bible verses. And other times the Bible speaks so our soul can hear it like: “We love, because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
In the 1990s the soul began to be addressed again in popular writings, first by author Thomas Moore in his book Care of the Soul, and in his follow-up book Soulmates. Another landmark work was by James Hillman in his book The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. It wasn’t until our trip to Ireland that the idea of the soul was brought to my attention again. Also when I was there, I learned two things about the Celts: they had a great reverence for the earth and they connected our world to the divine. Later Christianity was introduced to Ireland and the cross of Christ got superimposed on the Celtic orb, or circle. Thus, the Celtic cross, which adorns our communion table, was born. And it is everywhere in Ireland! The second thing I learned about the Celts is that “The soul needs love as urgently as the body needs air. In the warmth of love, the soul can be itself.”
[Anam Cara, Bantam Books, 1997, p. 30.] We visited the town where the author of those words, John O’Donohue, lived. We saw his house. He goes on to say:
There is a beautiful complexity of growth within the human soul. In order to glimpse this, it is helpful to visualize the mind as a tower of windows. Sadly, many people remain trapped at the one window, looking out every day at the same scene in the same way. Real growth is experienced when you draw back from that one window, turn and walk around the inner tower of the soul, and see all the different windows that await your gaze. Through these different windows, you can see new vistas of possibility, presence, and creativity. Complacency, habit, and blindness often prevent you from feeling your life. So much depends of on the frame of vision—the window through which we look.
Tend to your soul; tend to your spirit. Like a garden, weeds can grow or crops can wither without attention. Today, you can say to your soul words of comfort like these based on Psalm 46:10. It’s the first line of our next hymn:
Be still my soul, the Lord is on thy side, bear patiently the cross of grief or pain; Leave to Thy God to order and provide; who through all changes faithful will remain. Be still my soul, thy best, thy heavenly Friend through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
You are loved. Drink that in. And may your soul be filled with peace.
Jeffrey A. Sumner June 25, 2017