Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Feed My Sheep

And effortless way to bring a smile to nursing home residents' faces is to carry a baby down the hallway. This is my mom with her youngest grandson, Isaac.
I have been working hard to learn the names of the residents at my mother's nursing home without giving very much thought to why I feel inclined to do so. Spending time with these sweet souls isn't a natural tendency. There is an emotion akin to fear that would have me hurry straight to my mother's room, averting my eyes from the elderly patients who are seated in the half dozen overstuffed chairs and recliners that line the foyer. Left to my own, I would protect myself from their sad or hopeful gazes. Instead I've found myself grasping hands, asking names, and striking up little conversations.

And then, a few nights ago I woke up in the middle of the night with the words, "Feed my sheep," in my heart. And the mind picture that accompanied those words was of those elderly faces at the nursing home.

We tend to think of mission work as something that happens far away from home. We also have the idea that God always wants us to spend our efforts where the highest number of people will benefit. It is true that the fields are white with harvest and that the workers are few (John 4:35). But it is also true that we serve a Good Shepherd who cares very much about the needs of even one lost lamb.

We have to be careful that we follow the Lord's call to the field of His choosing. This almost always entails giving up the desire to please our fellow human beings. It's the workers who  build houses for the homeless or dig wells for needy people far away that are invited to speak at church functions; no one presents a slideshow of how they sang hymns with one elderly woman in a rural nursing home on a Saturday afternoon. We need the homebuilders and well diggers, but we also need to be certain that we don't choose more alluring fields of mission than the ones the Lord has assigned us.

I have received more than I have given to these precious folks They are so willing not only to be blessed but also to give a blessing. Yesterday I grasped the hand of a lady who was sitting in the hallway.  She was beautiful with her white hair and bright eyes and I told her so. One of the workers passed by and told me that this lady was 104 years old. I was astounded and turned back to her and said, "My goodness I hope I can do as well as you as I grow older."

She patted my hand, looked into my eyes, and said comfortingly,  "You will, you will." It might be a little silly but my heart received this as a blessing, and I left feeling uplifted.

This isn't the field I would have chosen for myself. I would like to be one of those energetic people who fly across the ocean to meet needs I would have judged to be greater. But this is where God has placed me, and I am blessed.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Earning Our Own Way Versus Receiving Acceptance by Grace

Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these (Luke 12:27). 
Our Kansas sunflowers have blossomed into September-lit, golden profusion this year. It seems amazing that these blooms spring up apart from the plan of a landscape artist or the maintenance of a squadron of gardeners. No human effort is involved in making these wildflowers grow.

I always think I have to put forth a lot of effort if I am to blossom in a way that is satisfactory to the Lord and to my fellow human beings. Trying to do things right in my own strength as opposed to basking in the acceptance that is mine through Christ is an ongoing struggle. Since placing Mom into nursing home care, I've been aware that I need to rest before the Lord, but instead I have plunged into a new round of activities (will I never learn)? I started physical therapy for my back yesterday (a good thing) and was intent upon making that therapist think I am a Really Good Patient (not a good thing). I was lying on the floor concentrating hard on exercises for my transverse abdominals when the  following thoughts came into my mind with the Lord's gentle remonstrance:

Sometimes, we enter into a new relationship thinking, "Here is a chance for me to start over and to do things right so that I will be accepted and not rejected." This can be an innocuous relationship with a new physician, a physical therapist or a health counselor,  a nutritionist, or a weight loss group. And we have to be careful, because during this time when we feel that pleasing this person/people might be possible, without realizing it we give up partaking of the unmerited favor that is ours through Christ because we are working to gain favor of our own.

We get the idea that it is impossible to please God, and so we stop trying, and we turn our faces away from Him. The beauty of His grace, offered to us through Christ, is that we don't have to try. Grace covers us so that we don't have to deserve God's love, we have only to receive it as an unmerited gift. 

Having received unmerited favor, we then have a template of how to love others who don't deserve it. We offer them the grace that we have enjoyed through Christ. But ahead of that, we must have given up the effort to be acceptable in our own strength; we must have partaken of God's grace in order to offer it to others. 

When we are exacting with ourselves in the attempt to earn our own favor, we become exacting with others. Falling back into the grace that is ours through Christ will indeed lead us to the effort of obedience, but we will be released from the sure-to-be frustrated labor of attaining perfection through our own efforts. 

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.  I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?  Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?
Galatians 3:1-3

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Lens Effects and Reminders of God's Provision

So, I know that this is a lens distortion due to shooting a photo into the sun...but the Lord used it to remind me of His  presence with my precious daughter and grandchildren.
Sometimes, when the Lord wants to remind us of His abiding presence with us, He provides us a physical symbol of a spiritual reality. During dark times of my life I have been encouraged, not by rainbows and eagle sightings themselves, but by the reminders they serve of God's faithfulness. The Bible tells us God placed His bow in the sky as a promise (Genesis 9:13), and that if we wait upon the Lord we'll mount up on wings as eagles (Isaiah 40:31).

We get in trouble when we confuse a symbol with the reality itself. That's when we develop a hunger for stories about angelic presences and the afterlife. We risk an unwitting flirtation with the occult when we seek spiritual thrills rather than rest on the Bible's promises of truths yet unseen. If we are to mature in our Christian walk at all, we have to accept that God in His wisdom has chosen to be invisible, perhaps so that we are required as a result to walk by faith and not by sight. And yet He is so gracious. Sometimes He allows a tangible reassurance of His intimate involvement in every detail of our lives.

An ongoing grief in my life has been that I've not been able to be as supportive of my adult children as they need me to be. My daughter is a busy homeschooling Mom of three young boys, and her husband works long hours to support his family during these challenging, child-raising years. My son works long hours himself and is a housekeeping and child-rearing partner to my daughter-in-law, who is a compassionate, hard-working veterinarian. But for the past 12 years my responsibilities to my Alzheimer's mom, along with my own health glitches, have robbed me of the time and the physical strength that would have enabled me to be a more active and supportive presence in my children's lives. On good days I feel only a constant, guilt-tinged sorrow, and on bad days I have to struggle against a crushing sense of inadequacy that too easily flares to active, irrational, resentment toward God for making me the way I am and toward my kids for having needs I can't meet.

Yesterday we made a quick trip to visit our youngest granddaughter and her sweet mom (the vet). They live about an hour away, and on the way home we stopped to visit Mom at the nursing home. These activities, along with my rosacea--which keeps me from sitting in the sun watching kids' sports events as in days of yore--had kept me from riding along with my daughter to her oldest son's soccer practice as I'd like to have done. As we drove home from our visits, I had my husband stop the car along our country highway so I could take some photos.  I was standing in the middle of the road when a vehicle appeared at the crest of a hill about a mile away.  It was my daughter and her three boys, on the way to soccer practice!

They zoomed by, the boys shouting their greetings through windows hastily opened, "HI GRAMMY!"

My heart overbrimmed with love and regret that I wasn't able to be with them.

It wasn't until I got home and uploaded the days' photos that I saw those star-shaped bursts of light and received the reassurance that the Lord is present with my loved ones when I am not.  He is with my mother during long nights at the nursing home when I am no longer able to hear her if she calls my name. And He is with my precious children to preserve, protect and provide for their needs in ways I, not even on one of my best days, ever could.

We miss our loved ones when we are parted from them, but we don't need to add inadequacy-sparked feelings of guilt to the grief of separation. It is such a comfort to know that prayer is powerful, God's presence is abiding, and heart connections through the Holy Spirit can't be broken by time, distance, or even death.  God is so good. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Surprised by Grief

Life transitions can be likened to a road that must be traveled. If we sit down at the side of the road in order to avoid the grief of changing views, we won't get anywhere!
I have been surprised by the grief I've had to traverse in the wake of placing my mom in nursing home care. So long as I was busy with caregiving I didn’t have time or energy to face the sorrow of the loss of my mother as she once was. Alzheimer’s had already taken my mother from me, but I still had the daily, broken solace of meeting her needs and demands of me. Our interactions had changed, but there was still a relationship: that of caregiver and patient. The nursing home placement brought this phase of my relationship with my mother to an end. It was an abrupt change similar to that of a death, and in the release from constant responsibility to meet her needs, I have been confronted with the cumulative pain of 12 years of watching my mother fade from sight. The monitor on my bedside table no longer channels my mother’s voice because her room is empty; there is only silence. 

It is difficult to come wholeheartedly to the Lord when we are in grief. This morning I remembered the chapter entitled “Facing the Grief,” in My Mom Has Alzheimer’s. I wrote of our human dislike of change, and of the difficulty of transitions in our relationships. I used as an example my emotions when my daughter married:
…for a time my daughter’s leave-taking left a terrible feeling of emptiness in my life. I clutched that emptiness to my heart and tried to rise above it on my own, because I had fallen to the deception that to come to the Lord would necessitate my facing the whole of my grief and pain. I had no desire to hurt more than I hurt already. I finally recognized the fallacy of the idea that God would require my heart to be ripped open and the contents emptied in order for me to gain access to Him. This lie was the enemy’s attempt to keep me from the solace that was rightfully mine in the Lord.
These days the lock my key fits perfectly is that of Alzheimer caregiver, but this role is also temporary. I pray that when my job as my mother’s caregiver comes to an end that I will bring my heavy burden of grief to the Lord quickly and willingly. He has promised that those who mourn shall be comforted, and I pray to avail myself of that comfort. My Mom Has Alzheimer’s: Inspiration and Help for Caregivers, Bridge-Logos Foundation, 2009, p. 28. 
The enemy offers us alternate sources of comfort that cannot satisfy when we are suffering from grief.  I’m praying today to “bring my heavy burden of grief to the Lord quickly and willingly.”  

Monday, August 22, 2016

Transition to Nursing Home Care--Exhausting!

Today marks the beginning of Mom's fourth week in nursing home care. I am surprised by how difficult this transition has been; I thought the grief of parting would be balanced by the vast relief of liberation from being constantly on call. However, my time commitment to Mom's needs hasn't lessened during this transition time. The time I spend at the nursing home is balanced by a new freedom from the physical demands of caregiving, but another unwelcome surprise has been a sense of grief. Ministering to someone as I have ministered to my mother engenders a special kind of love.  We might say that it is impossible to give so much without caring deeply: thus the term "caregiver."  In my desperation to be freed of the burdens of caregiving, I underestimated how I would miss the blessings of giving so much. 

I was surprised by the steep learning curve of acclimating myself to Mom's new environment. As the person who knows my mother best, it has been my responsibility to learn how to communicate clearly with nursing home staff in an inoffensive way (though being inoffensive can't be my primary goal). I didn't know this would be so difficult. The hierarchy of authority among nursing home administration and staff wasn't immediately apparent to me (why didn't I just ask?). The administrators in the front offices were apparent, but there were bewildering numbers of aides, nurses, laundry workers, and kitchen attendants. And this is such a small nursing home; I can't imagine how much more challenging it would be to learn my way around a larger facility.

This morning's devotion time yielded a clear message for me: Rest! As I sank to the welcoming cushions of my old office couch awhile ago, I was reminded of how my mother--who in her prime moved quickly and worked hard--used to say, "Whew! I didn't know I was so tired until I sat down!"  Until I quieted myself before the Lord and sought His directive today, I had no idea how depleted I felt.

When we stay busy in order to distract attention from grief, we rob ourselves of the solace of silence and rest. The awareness of God's healing presence in His ordained gift of rest can be masked by too much noise and busy-ness.

  For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.
Psalm 62:1 ESV

Truly my soul finds rest in God;
    my salvation comes from him.
Psalm 62:1 NIV

Here is a summary of today's recommendations for caregivers who are transitioning their loved ones to nursing home care: 

1)  Your time commitment to your loved one may temporarily increase during the first weeks of nursing home care.  Plan for this.  
2)  Your focus needs to be your loved one's well-being rather than an attempt to be inoffensive to nursing home staff--but try to be inoffensive just the same!  Maintaining a balance between being a good advocate for your loved one and not becoming a pain to his/her new caregivers requires much prayer.
3)  Don't run away from the grief this transition will bring, or fill your days with tasks that bury the Lord's offer of solace with a weight of busy-ness. Find your healing in His arms as you quiet yourself before Him.   
4) At the nursing home, ask this simple question, "Which person should I talk with when I have questions or input about caregiving issues?" I try to visit with the attendant who is charge of Mom's care before I take my concern to the nurse, and I visit with the nurse before I look for an administrator. This provides the opportunity for a problem to be corrected without triggering a correction or reprimand from a superior.
5) Larger nursing homes may have photos and names of staff on a website. This would facilitate learning names, which is important. You need to be able to greet these hard-working folks by name, it's just good manners, and respectful t'boot.  It also sends a clear message that you are committed to partnering in your loved one's care, and makes them feel pleased (that you remember them), but also aware that you know exactly who they are should you need to visit with them about a caregiving issue.  This is an important part of advocacy for your loved one. 
    6)  Be kind to these underpaid, compassionate people who perform the most lowly of tasks for so many people each day.  Nursing home workers face burnout as they form emotional connections with terminal patients. They will cry with you when your loved one passes away, and they will cry with the next patient's family, and the one after that.  Pray for them.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

First Two Weeks of Nursing Home Care

Our pastor's wife sent this meme to encourage me the week we sent Mom to nursing home care. 

We have survived nearly two weeks of transitioning my mother to nursing home care.  

This has all been more difficult than I anticipated. Mom's room is empty for the first time in 12 years, and the house feels unfamiliar and silent. I have had to be stern against emotions that tell me I have abandoned her; the inaccurate emotion that attacks is  that of a mother who has abandoned her needy child. All of this, together with the inevitable challenges of helping Mom's new caregivers to understand her needs, has been overwhelming. I've had to spend more time at the nursing home than I would have predicted would be necessary. If I had not prayed through to peace regarding this decision ahead of time, I would have given way to emotions that told me we had made a terrible mistake.

I compiled a list of directives from myself, to myself during this time as I struggled to think clearly despite regular onslaughts of grief-driven emotion.  I've shared the list below, and hope others will be helped:
First Week of Nursing Home Care 
--Show up every day, at different times of day. If your loved one's hair is uncombed, comb it; if his/her clothing is mussed, straighten and freshen. If you have been the primary caregiver and have the skills to do so safely, toilet your loved one and check his/her cleanliness. 
--Don't apologize for your loved one's behaviors. Acknowledge the caregiving challenges, but don't make it seem as though you endorse shortcuts or omissions in caregiving practices just because your loved one protests or is difficult. As my cousin-the-social-worker said, "Don't put this on your mom, Linda. They are the professionals. She is the one who has sustained brain damage from Alzheimer's. They deal with things like this on a daily basis."

--If you notice some serious lapses in caregiving, don't respond with anger or righteous indignation.  The staff is learning to know your loved one's needs and capabilities. Be patient and kind, but also be persistent.  Pray, and don't leave until you feel confident the issue has been addressed. 
--Make an attempt to learn the names of every person who provides care to your loved one. Visit with the night staff.  Make it a point to meet everyone who interacts with your loved one.   
--While you are at it, learn the names of residents and greet them warmly as you walk down the hallway or stop by the fellowship room. This takes next to no time and your acknowledgment brightens their days.

--Be open about your grieving process in releasing your loved one to the care of others, but balance this with supportive words and actions toward the nursing home administration and staff (a thank you note and home-baked treats are always appreciated).  
--Pray for wisdom about which issues are important. It isn't necessary that my mother's new caregivers comb Mom's hair in the same style that I did, but it is important that they don't ask her to sit upright for long periods because she has a compression fracture in her spine from osteoporosis.

--If your loved one has a personality change, or exhibits behaviors you've not seen before, get to the bottom of the issue. Check to be certain there have been no errors in administration of medication. 
--There are two errors to make in advocating for your loved one: the first is to be too willing to give in when you sense something is wrong, the second is to jut your jaw and determine to examine every caregiving procedure to be certain they meet your specifications. Strive for a happy medium. Better yet, pray for wisdom.