Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Lessons from Caregiving, #16: Living in the Comma

(This post is part of a series. For previous posts in the series please see #1#2., #3#4#5#6#7#8#9#10#11#12#13#14, #15)

Last night and again this morning, my husband didn't know who I was - he didn't know my name, or that I am his wife. By the time his caregiver arrived and I went to work he had regained that understanding, but my heart aches from the reality that dementia is stealing this realization from him, adding another layer of confusion between us.

And yet - in that moment of confusion, he was not panicked or anxious. He seemed to sense that this strange person in bed with him was someone safe. He allowed me to help him and received my presence as a comfort. Although he hasn't understood the signifcance of the word "wife" for months now, he loves touching his ring and my ring. It's important to him to see them both side by side sometimes, and so he wanted to see my ring during the night. It helped him remember. His comfort with me, and watching him touch my ring, brought me a measure of joy in the midst of my heartache.

I've been learning so much about grief on this journey, and this is something that I am starting to accept at a deep level: It is possible to live in the tension between heartache and joy. It's possible to hold those two realities side by side and not be insincere about either one.

I've started calling it "Living in the Comma". On one side, my heartache. On the other side, the presence of joy. It's not a comfortable place to be, but like Paul wrote in this passage, it is clearly part of the normal Christian life. In fact, in the context of this verse in 2 Corinthians 6, Paul includes a whole series of seemingly contradictory realities that he is familiar with living out simultaneously. I think Paul knew something about living in the comma:
In everything we do, we show that we are true ministers of God. We patiently endure troubles and hardships and calamities of every kind. We have been beaten, been put in prison, faced angry mobs, worked to exhaustion, endured sleepless nights, and gone without food. We prove ourselves by our purity, our understanding, our patience, our kindness, by the Holy Spirit within us, and by our sincere love. We faithfully preach the truth. God’s power is working in us. We use the weapons of righteousness in the right hand for attack and the left hand for defense. We serve God whether people honor us or despise us, whether they slander us or praise us. We are honest, but they call us impostors. We are ignored, even though we are well known. We live close to death, but we are still alive. We have been beaten, but we have not been killed. Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. We are poor, but we give spiritual riches to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything.
As a caregiver spouse walking through the ambiguous grief that goes with this terrible disease called dementia, I have to learn to embrace the truth on both sides of the comma. Yes, my heart aches. I live with some degree of sadness all the time. I am "sorrowful," to borrow the older and very appropriate term. I cannot run from the pain that goes with grief, because the only way to avoid grief is to wall up my heart from the love that makes grief possible.

The second half of the comma reminds me that there is JOY to be found. "We always have joy" is a statement of faith, a reminder that there is something deeper than my circumstances. JOY, in Scripture, is not situational. There is nothing wrong with happiness; Psalm 86:4 is a cry to God to "Give me happiness, O Lord, for I give myself to you." But happiness alone will not get me through the days when my husband doesn't remember my name. On the other side of the comma from my heartache, I have to search for joy. Biblical joy can be defined as a "calm delight" or "cheerfulness" and Galatians 5:22 tells us it is part of the fruit of the Spirit. In other words, it comes from within, from the work He is doing in me.

I'm learning that when I struggle with the second half of the comma, I won't find what I'm looking for in motivational posters or false assurances that it will be better. I won't find it in trying to muster up the "Christian answer" of what I think I "should" say or feel. No, that joy comes only as I am connected to the only One who produces fruit. Hosea 14:8 states it clearly: "Your fruitfulness comes from Me." This is one of the things that keeps me coming back into His presence day after day, when I can't pray or when I pour out my heart, when His Word jumps off the page and when I just read it perfunctorily. It's what I seek when I gather with other believers for worship and the Word at church each Sunday. I know He can still turn things around for my husband's diagnosis and heal him tomorrow. But what I am seeking for myself is even deeper than healing - it's a fruitfulness that brings joy, that helps me to live fully on both sides of the comma. When His Spirit produces the fruit of joy, I can find something to smile about even in my grief - like watching my husband touch both of our rings this morming.

Over the past several Decembers, God has given me a verse to cling to throughout the upcoming year. This year, I sense that this is my verse. I know I have heartaches deeper than today's ahead of me. My prayer is that I find a way to also live in the second half of the verse and "always have joy."

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Lessons from Caregiving, #15: Everything I Need

(This post is part of a series. For previous posts in the series please see #1#2., #3#4#5#6#7#8#9#10#11#12#13, #14)

By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence.- 2 Peter 1:3

Early in my walk with God, my small group leader highlighted this verse for us by telling us that if he were on his deathbed and had only one thing to say to us, this would be it: "You have everything you need." He taught us that the Holy Spirit can impart a gift for a single time, if that is what is necessary for His purposes. 

I won't lie - sometimes I don't want to do the hard things required to "live a godly life." It's always easier to do what comes naturally - walking in the flesh, the Bible calls it. Sometimes I wish I could get a pass. But if that were the case, I would miss out on something beautiful.

As I walk this journey of caregiving, I'm reminded of an overused saying that is definitely true in this case: It's a marathon, not a sprint. I'm learning that "everything I need" doesn't come all at once. It comes like the manna in the wilderness, just enough for a day - even a moment - at a time. 

It is through prayer, worship, Bible study that I "gather" that manna. I'm learning to pray for 1 Corinthians 13 love, for Galatians 5:22 fruitfulness, for Habakkuk 3:17-19 steadiness, for Psalm 23 peace and rest, and so much more! My time with the Lord is like the stretching, nutrition, hydration, and training runs that a marathoner puts in ahead of the race - except my race is every. single. day. 

Just like a marathoner, I can have great preparation and have a bad race that day. I can also have terrible preparation and have a great race. That's because the quality of my race doesn't depend ultimately on me. I get what I need by HIS divine power. I can guarantee a bad race, though, by failing to "come to know Him" - if I don't grow in knowing who He is, I will never get past the starting line. 

And here is the really encouraging part - when I act in ways consistent with His character - the "godly life" Peter mentions - I gain assurance in my own faith. Paul writes in Romans 5:3-5 that growth in endurance brings strength of character which increases my assurance of salvation. When I act in love toward others, I know God's love fills me because He is the source of that love. 

So I go back to Him, again and again, asking for what doesn't come naturally. I ask others to pray with and for me, especially on days I can't bring myself to pray. Because the beautiful truth is, doing the hard thing when I know it was Him and not me reminds me that I am His. 

He gives me everything I need. And when that happens, I realize everything I need - is HIM.