GETTING READY FOR THE NEW LIFE: Lutheran Voices series. By Richard F. Bansemer
Richard F. Bansemer, bishop emeritus of the Virginia Synod of the ELCA, has authored a book which joins his earlier publications of prayers and sermons and combines his prayer- and sermon-writing facility. Avoiding a “preachy” style of writing, Bansemer approaches the salient topics in a conversational tone along with a pastoral sensitivity to people’s needs in their times of crisis.
Observing the experiences of the sick and dying, Bansemer has arranged this little devotional book as a progressive resource for various pastoral care situations, although the central theme deals with end of life situations. In his introduction, he explains the overall structure of this booklet: “The reflective Scripture texts were selected as the bridge between the words of this world in the commentary and the prayers to God. The Scripture texts are the Word of God and need to be read even more thoughtfully than the other offerings. Questions for reflection and discussion follow the prayers” (viii).
Bansemer views pastoral care from the perspective of the searcher or wonderer who faces the Mystery, which ultimately is God. “Illness is a great teacher,” he says. “More convincing than an athlete’s achievements, . . . illness lets us know, in no uncertain terms, that we are intensely human” (vii). Some chapters appear to be designed to leave the reader to ponder on the topic or to wonder at the very edge of life and death. Occasionally, a clear Gospel message shouts its way through the verbiage.
Each of the fifteen chapters presents some aspect of facing life’s terminations. Beginning with “Losses,” Bansemer quickly moves the reader to consider death itself and the reason for living and dying with dignity. One- to three-word chapter titles occasionally provide a key to the topic, although sometimes they seem too ambiguous. Chapter 10, the longest in the book, is actually a sermon which Bansemer offers as an example of a “funeral celebration meditation for a young man . . . who was killed in an automobile accident . . . to illustrate the involvement of the deceased with the still worshiping congregation on this side of the resurrection” (44). The last chapters offer greater comfort and hope, concluding with chapter 15, “Turning from Disbelief to Joy.”
Reading this book a week after my own father’s death helped me see the greater comfort in the assurance of the pure resurrection promises in the Gospel rather than search for meaning through therapeutic questions of ultimate reality. A clearer presentation, for example, of a pastoral application of the theology of the cross would have been helpful. Bansemer’s commentaries struggle at times to provide the comforting Gospel assurances that one needs, or at least they fail to draw adequate strength from the scriptural texts he selects for his own pastoral thoughts. This does not infer that he has no Gospel word, but rather that opportunities to bring clear words of hope and the light of Christ’s presence in dark times were often left open by unanswered questions and occasionally vague prayers.
The previous criticism in no way diminishes the benefits of this devotional tool. Ministering to the sick and dying is one of a pastor’s most precious opportunities to bring Christ’s presence and consolation to those in need. While this little book promises to do that, there are many other resources which will more beneficially provide a pastor with stronger spiritual tools for pastoral care, including the recently published Pastoral Care Companion. Perhaps as a supplemental resource for a Bible-based grief-support group or as a sermonic primer for pastoral care devotions, Bansemer has given a heart-felt reflection on the continuing necessity of biblical pastoral care.