Sacred Pathways: The Caregiver
Sunday, October 12, 2014
Paul Edwin Jackson for University Congregational Church
Psalm 23 (paraphrase by Isaac Watts (1674-1740))
My Shepherd will supply my need; Jehovah is his name
In pastures fresh he makes me feed, beside the living stream
He brings my wand’ring spirit back, when I forsake his ways
And leads me for his mercy’s sake, in paths of truth and grace.
When I walk through the shades of death, thy presence is my stay:
One word of thy supporting breath drives all my fears away
They hand, in sight of all my foes, doth still my table spread;
My cup with blessings overflows, thine oil anoints my head.
The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days;
O may thy house be mine abode and all my work be praise!
There would I find a settled rest others go and come,
No more a stranger, nor a guest; but like a child at home.
“The capacity to care is the thing which gives life its deepest meaning and significance.”
– Pablo Casals
“The simple act of caring is heroic.”
– Edward Albert
“If you find it in your heart to care for someone else, you will have succeeded.”
– Maya Angelou
“From caring comes courage.”
– Lao Tzu
One of my earliest memories of life is the day that my younger sister, Teresa, was brought home from the hospital. It was August of 1966 and I had turned 3 years old just a couple of months earlier.
It was a beautiful summer day in Kansas. I remember spending the days before at my sweet Aunt Kathy’s house with my older sister, Valerie. Aunt Kathy had gotten us up early, dressed and fed us and then her husband, Uncle Donnie, drove all of us from Wichita, where they lived, to Derby, where my family lived. Scrubbed and fed and excited, Valerie and I were seated in folding lawn chairs in the front yard.
When the car pulled up in front of the house, my dad, Earl, hopped out of the car, waved to Valerie and me and ran around to the passenger side to help mom and our new sister out. I remember the look on mom’s face as she carefully held this new member of our family and we all gathered around to peer at Teresa’s tiny face and clutching hands that poked out of the blanket.
It is one of our greatest blessings that we care for one another. Think about how much care went into that morning. The care my Aunt and Uncle took of me and Valerie. The care that my dad showed my mom and their new child. The care our family held for each other. Extend it outwards a few degrees. Think of the care that the doctors and nurses showed to mom. Think about the care that went into the manufacturing of the car that delivered the family to Derby. Think about the care that went into planning city roads that are safe and accessible. We care about many things and many people.
Pablo Casals, the great Spanish cellist, said “The capacity to care is the thing which gives life its deepest meaning and significance.” By caring for others we pull ourselves out of our selfish, petty concerns and once again look at others as a way to define our life. Not in a co-dependent, unhealthy way of “I’m nothing without you”…that’s not what we’re talking about here. I believe that we can’t care for others until we first care for ourselves. I know the golden rule says “love thy neighbor as you love yourself”. But some of my neighbors don’t love themselves and so I really would prefer that they treat me better than that. But by me caring for another, through ways both simple and great, Pablo Casals is telling us that this gives life its deepest meaning and significance. How on earth can my caring for someone else reflect on my life and give it meaning? Edward Albert says “The simple act of caring is heroic.” How am I a hero by caring? The great poet Maya Angelou writes “If you find it in your heart to care for someone else, you will have succeeded.” Succeeded at what? What did I do by caring for someone else? What’s the big deal? I’ll tell you.
To care means to be involved—to get yourself involved in the situation—to get your hands dirty—to get messy. Life is messy. We clean it up. It gets messy again. We clean it up. I would go so far as to say that we care because we have to. We care because it’s what God wants us to do. We care because Jesus taught us to care. Caregiving is one of our many sacred pathways to God. The care that the Great Shepherd shows towards his sheep, us, is reflected in the 23 Psalm. I particularly like the paraphrase by Isaac Watts found in your bulletin and just sung by the choir. Quite beautifully I might add, thank you. My shepherd will provide my need, Jehovah is his name. In Pastures fresh he makes me feed, beside the living stream. Our great Shepherd provides for us and cares for us. Jesus tells us to not waste time on worrying. Matthew’s Gospel recounts Jesus saying “Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are.” Are not these words of great care?
In Gary Thomas’s book, Sacred Pathways, he describes some of the other biblical caregivers: Mordecai who cared for the orphan Esther (who will eventually become Queen), is said to have never wearied in his care of her. Think of the care-givers in our lives. The mothers and fathers and nannies and sitters who take care of children; who feed them, and nurse them, and rock them to sleep and comfort them when they are sick and scared and anxious. Think of the caregivers of the elderly, who help with daily tasks, who drive our fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers to appointments and help with shopping–The care-givers who sit with them and hold their hand while they lie in hospital. Think of them and then think of how the Marys cared for Jesus, both his mother, and the later woman, Mary, who washed his feet and tended to his weary head. Think of the exhortations of Saint Paul who tells us to “look out not only for our own interests, but also the interests of others”.
Gary Thomas continues this line of discussion in the book and goes on to outline some of the possible pitfalls and temptations that caregivers may face as they perform their tasks. He writes about the temptation of obsession leading to judgment. Imagine the person who says “Well, I have to take care of her, because no one else is capable. I’m the only one who really understands this situation.” He also reminds us that caregiving is not a license to judge others who serve God in different ways. He warns against the temptation to serve ourselves through serving others. And finally he warns of the danger of caring for others yet neglecting those closest to us. I would argue that these pitfalls become manifest when the intention of our caregiving is not clear. If we attend to someone with a selfless spirit, we are actually attending to them out of interest in them-not interest in ourselves.
My mother put herself through nursing school while raising 3 children and working full time at St. Francis Hospital. She and my father had divorced and she found herself in a new life—one that she was not particularly prepared for—but she knew she had skills of caring and helping. She knew that she was a care giver at heart. And so she enrolled in St. Francis School of Nursing and took a job at the hospital and worked very hard to complete this program of study so that she could become a Registered Nurse. What great courage she had to do these things. She had little choice. My sisters and I depended on her to make it work. To make life work. At the time we didn’t know the sacrifice and the mental exhaustion and the pain and the horrible doubt that she was going through. All we knew was that life went on. We had food and clothes and we went to school and life went on. Life’s funny that way, isn’t it. It goes on and on regardless of where we are and even whether we really want it to go on and on. Life goes on. And I think that’s great. Life goes on and we can be a part of it. So mom got her degree and built a life as a professional caregiver and continues to provide great care to me and my sisters and, now, another child, my brother Joshua, and our families and our friends. When I asked mom about this recently, she simply replied that she does this because it’s what God has asked her to do. She is a deeply spiritual woman and God has used her to provide care for hundreds of patients and for her family and friends. Here’s an interesting additional benefit to being in this woman’s care—her example of care-giving has rubbed off on us. All of her children and some of her grandchildren are in “caring” professions, whether it is teaching or event planning, or ministry, or other related fields, we all chose to work with other people in ways that, as part of what we do professionally, provide care for others.
Lao Tzu tells us “From caring comes courage.” Another memorable day in my life happened in the spring of 2001. My friend Kent had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and his family and I were gathering around him during his last days. On what would prove to be Kent’s last day of life, his sons, my friends as well, could not bring themselves to carry him down stairs. Somehow Kent had made it upstairs one last time the night before, but was too weak to get himself down again. I volunteered to help him down, sparing the brothers and his wife the pain of this difficult event—Kent fought his disease long and hard and this was really that painful moment when all of us were finally realizing that he would soon no longer be with us.
So I put on my best face and went up and lifted him into my arms. He barely weighed 80 pounds at this point and it was no trouble to slowly, carefully bring him down the long flight of stairs to the living room. About half-way down he stirred from his deep, deep sleep and looked at me and managed a weary smile and said “Hi Pauly” (a pet name my closest friends call me). We got him settled in his bed downstairs and the hospice nurse came and we administered his pain meds and tucked him in and we prepared ourselves for what we had been assured would be a few days or even weeks of him in this state.
At about the same time that our pizza arrived for dinner, so, too did his minister arrive, from their Lutheran church. So we left Kent in his minister’s hands and the rest of headed off for the kitchen table so we could eat and regroup and depressurize from all that had happened during this long, sad day.
I remember walking out of Kent’s sick room and just catching his minister beginning to read some Bible verses to Kent.
We had barely been in the kitchen for 5 minutes, when the minister came out of the room asking for me, saying he thought that Kent had passed. We went in the room and, yes, Kent had died just then. It seems that the good care we provided Kent in his final moments, the kindness that we showed each other, the fact that his minister was there, reading him his favorite Bible stories and that Kent could hear us in the other room laughing and caring for one another. Well, Kent knew he could leave us then. He knew we would take care of each other. He left his life and this world safe in the knowledge that life goes on and we would take good care. Kent just wouldn’t be a part of it. He was moving on to whatever awaits us all. I think that took great courage on Kent’s part. He showed care for us by dying as he did—a final act of love and care and letting go.
Whether it was the memory of my dear sister’s birth and her coming to our house in Derby, or my memories of my friend, Kent, and his death, the care that surrounded these too extreme examples of life can serve as the model for the care we should give to each moment of life. The sweetness and the sorrow and the joy and the unbearable pain that come between our homecoming following our birth and the homecoming that awaits us after our death. We should care as much for each of the sacred and boring and profound and usual and unusual moments–all of the moments of our lives. As our Creator God cares so much for us, let us care, too, in the same measure. Life goes on and if you care, you are a part of it.
Please stand as the choir sings our Sending. If you are feeling comfortable with the melody and the words, feel free to begin singing along.
Go out into this world, full of care for all of the moments we have together, from now, until our deaths, may we care deeply and thoughtfully for one and another. Amen.