Thursday, August 13, 2009

Making the Bitter Sweet

Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the Valley of Baca,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools. [a]
They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion.
Psalm 84:5-7

I awoke this morning with this Scripture in my mind. I remembered that the word "Baca" means bitter, and this in turn brought to mind a quote from my book for caregivers, due to be published by Bridge-Logos next month:

I felt an absolute dread of my mother's demise, not just over the fact that she would at some point die; but I was afraid of the loss of function that might happen before that time. The ingredients of the cocktail of grief of which I had unwillingly partaken included terrible pity and love for my mother, anger, resentment, guilt, and fear of the future. This draught was complex and it was bitter. It was as though I didn't want to analyze the components of my pain, but I had no choice about dealing with the results of having drunk such a bitter brew. I didn't feel so good!

Those of us who are Christians live our lives here on earth with our hearts "set on pilgrimage" (See Psalm 84:5, above). We are on a journey home, and our life experiences are like scenery on that journey. We will face difficulties and there will be sorrows, but the bitterness of those experiences is made bearable by the hope we hold in our hearts. Praise can flow in the midst of sorrow because he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Peter 1:3).

The art of living a Godly life has to do with making the bitter valley a place of refreshment. That’s why things like cleaning out drawers and doing laundry and preparing meals (or taking care of an Alzheimer patient) can be Godly pursuits.

The passage from Psalms doesn’t say that we simply provide little oases of refreshment here in this bitter valley, but that we transform the bitterness into sweetness as we pass through. The sweetness travels with us, emanates from us; and like the Israelites sitting safe and free from plagues while the Egyptians across town suffered affliction, we have been enabled to stay free from the corrupting and embittering influences of the world by the power of the Holy Spirit within us.

Lord show me today how to abide in Your presence so that my words and actions become a sweetening agent for my mother, my family, and myself; an antidote for the bitterness of coping with Alzheimer's disease .

Saturday, August 8, 2009

I Can't!

I believe that God's light shines uniquely through every one of us, and so as we learn from one another, we gain a more comprehensive knowledge of the Lord. In this way the body of Christ is knit together and strengthened.

During the past five years I've written about my experiences as an Alzheimer caregiver, seeking God's guidance and then recording the results. The portion of God's light that shines through me in a way that might edify others has little to do with the physical labor of caregiving. I came to understand this truth because when I was tempted to spend time describing specifics of my labors for Mom, I often felt the Holy Spirit's restraining influence. The anointing with which the Lord has entrusted me has to do with making a successful transition from a past relational role to a new identity and ministry as a caregiver.

The Lord often calls us to serve in ways for which we are not naturally well-suited. I remember when I received God's call to be a teacher. I had a passion to help small children to avoid spirit wounds, but few other qualifications for the job. I was not patient, or particularly maternal. I was not a person who could be spontaneously creative, and so every classroom session had to be preceded by hours of preparation and even rehearsal. Filing the deluge of teaching information and materials in a manner that gave some hope of future access was burdensome and time consuming, because I was not by nature orderly or organized.

Furthermore, my nerves just weren't created to withstand the strain of teaching. I developed insomnia, and for the 15 years that I taught first and second grade I often operated on just three to five hours sleep a night. I would occasionally not sleep at all.

The logical recourse would have been to find another line of work, but the Lord kept His hand upon me and I knew that I was where I was supposed to be. And so I had to learn to walk in His strength and not my own.

You see, we human beings will not access the Lord's strength as long as we are able to utilize our own. Whenever I've cried out to the Lord saying, "I can't," I've felt his gentle strength and the warmth of His smile. I hear Him say, "I know you can't, Child, but I can!"

Fast forward twenty-five years from that call to teach, to a chilly March day in 2004 when Mom's nurse practitioner said, "Your mother has Alzheimer's disease." As an only child I knew that I would become my mother's caregiver by default.

"Oh Lord," I cried, "I can't!!!!"

But I felt His gentle strength and the warmth of His smile...

If we say, "No," to God's call to serve based on our own "I can'ts," we remove ourselves from the influence of His sculpting hand, forfeiting great blessing.

Scripture: "But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me" (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Thursday, August 6, 2009

God's Love for Mom

In the five years since Mom's diagnosis with Alzheimer's disease, I have learned a little bit about the Lord's love for her. He loves her intensely, passionately, and with a Holy focus and constancy that is not mirrored perfectly by any human experience or emotion. It is a little bit like the first flush of romantic love, when the beloved consumes one's every waking thought. It is perhaps most like a mother's intense, protective love for her tiny and helpless baby.

God's love for Mom isn't much at all like a child's love for her parent. Child-love is somewhat selfish, and that's how I loved my mother before I became her caregiver. I was the child of a mother who always put my needs ahead of her own. I expected this of her, and even into adulthood I was guilty of acting churlish toward her if ever she seemed to neglect me. When I began to understand that the Lord had anointed me to be Mom's caregiver, I found that the love I'd held for her as my mother was completely insufficient to move me to serve her needs as the Lord was asking me to do.

When my mother became ill, I didn't at first understand that the Lord expected me to manifest His love to her. I had the idea that the Lord's love would back-light my determination to be a good daughter, and I went forward in human strength. Out of my intense need for my mother's love and terrible grief over the prospect of losing her, I fought hard to provide the best of care for her; but I couldn't sustain the effort. As a newly diagnosed Alzheimer patient, Mom viewed my efforts to help her as being intrusive. When human love is met with resistance or ingratitude, resentment and anger is the natural result.

God's love for Mom has nothing to do with whether or not she deserves it. God's love for her has to to with God Himself. Mom belongs to Him, and so as a sheep in His pasture, He cares for her according to His own Holy standards. I remember the discomfort of the dawning realization that the Lord had chosen me to be a human vessel through which He would manifest His love for His beloved Anna Ruth. He is the One and Only God, the God whose Holy love allowed Him to sacrifice His own son in order to reconcile fallen, sinful humans. His love is not reasonable or logical. There is no consideration of cost, no balance sheet that weighs Mom's needs against mine, no remonstrance saying, "You've got to consider your own needs and those of your family." God has never once said to me, "You've got to take care of yourself." He expects me to trust that He is my caregiver.

I have learned to respect God's love for my mother. In learning of God's love for Mom and how He expects me to manifest that love, I've gained a greater awareness of His love for me.

Scripture: "My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you," (John 15:12).