the daily grind: caring

This past week I was in Ontario for a couple of days to attend the funeral of an uncle of mine. His name was Andy, and he was 59 years old.  After a two year battle with cancer, he died at home a week and a half ago surrounded by his family.

I wasn’t terribly close to my uncle Andy. He was almost a generation younger than my father. Also, my family never lived in very close proximity to my uncle and his family – growing up we would usually see them once or twice a year. It had probably been 7 years since I had seen my uncle.

 Over the past two years, however, I received regular updates about my uncle’s battle with cancer. As I read those emails, and then as I attended the funeral service last week, one of the things that struck me was the amount of care that my Aunt Lucy provided. Particularly in the last months and weeks of her husband’s life she offered an intense level of care. She comforted Andy, fed him, washed him, gave medicines, cried with him, laughed with him. Caring for her husband was my aunt’s preoccupation, with increasing intensity over the past year.

Last week we began a sermon series entitled the daily grind – it is a series in which we are looking at daily life. We’re trying to find the link between our faith in Jesus Christ and our everyday life. We are trying to find those cracks in the everyday through which the love and reality and purposes of God shine. 

Last week we talked about waking in the morning, taking as our text those simple words from Mark’s gospel: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark out, Jesus got up, left the house, and went off to a quiet place where he prayed.” It is vital to our life and faith to begin the day by carving out a space of attentiveness to the God who has created and redeemed us. With Jesus, we try in the morning to resist that rush of thoughts and responsibilities that comes at us. We want to take time in the presence of God.

This morning, as we think about what it means to care for others – that whole idea of attentiveness to God can’t drift too far from mind. When it comes to the very real work of caring for others in the everyday, we will find only strength and enrichment by setting a pattern of attentiveness to God. Setting aside time in the morning for prayer – setting aside time to sit quietly in the presence of God – setting aside time to read a Psalm – this isn’t about doing something pious just for the sake of being pious. It’s not something that religious people do, just for the sake of being religious. To start the day out with attentiveness to God is to set a pattern for the rest of the day – including as we care for others.

We care for others in many different ways, but this morning I want to focus on the care we offer those with very real needs or hurts – I want to focus on the care we offer in relationships of some intimacy. Some of us here this morning are in relationships not unlike that faced by my Aunt Lucy over the past months – in the day to day there are some of us who offer care by bathing, comforting, feeding, preparing medicines for someone we love.

Others of us are perhaps in relationships of care that are less intense.

Some of us have young children – there are bandages to put on knees, and diapers to change, and feverish heads to cool.

Some of us have elderly, frail parents – there may be time spent at their bedside, help in brushing their hair, or assistance as they go for a walk.

Of course we all go through different seasons of life – and for some of us the present time is not one of caring for others as we did earlier in our lives. Nevertheless, caring for others, even if in small ways, is a dimension of each of our lives.

Perhaps as you entered the sanctuary this morning you wondered about that ladder leaning against the front wall. Or perhaps you were wondering about that ladder until you read the words of Jean Vanier that are printed in the bulletin this morning. Jean Vanier is, of course, the founder of l’Arche. L’Arche communities are now found in 39 countries around the world and they offer care and compassion to those with intellectual disabilities. It all began when Jean Vanier invited two men with such disabilities to live in his home, back in 1964.

In his book The Broken Body, Vanier reflects on his experience within l’Arche. He writes:

Jesus calls each one of us to go deeper, and to be compassionate as he was compassionate, wherever we find ourselves and whatever our circumstance. The poor and the weak have revealed to me the great secret of Jesus. If you wish to follow him you must not try to climb the ladder of success and power, becoming more and more important. Instead, you must walk down the ladder, to meet and walk with people who are broken and in pain.

Where are we on that ladder? Are we perhaps trying to inch our way upward – upward in terms of social mobility, in terms of professional success or in terms of wealth? Or, as I suspect is the case for most of us, are we happy hovering somewhere in the middle, content to cast out lost with comfortable? Or as Vanier asks, are we slowly putting one foot down a rung, and then another foot down a rung – into the place of compassion and care.

It is not mere duty to find our way down the ladder, to the place of another’s need, grief, or pain. It is not mere duty to embrace an anxious child, not mere duty to bath a feverish spouse, not mere duty to help a struggling parent out of bed. To care in this way, day by day, week by week – to make our way down the ladder – is to find ourselves in the presence of the servant who is also the King. To care for a loved one in this way is to find ourselves with Jesus, where we belong. He comes to our world even now, with us and through us and alongside us – he comes with hope and healing. As you offer loving care with your words, your hands, your body, you live and breathe in the presence of Jesus – you and the one you care for – you are together in the presence of the one who healed lepers, who touched the outcasts, who embraced the sick.

Often, in the day to day, we are not attentive to the voice and presence of Christ. Hence, again, our need to start the day with such attentiveness… Sometimes when we are caring in the most practical ways – sometimes when we are offering compassion in difficult ways – we forget that we are enlivened for the task by Jesus. We forget that in such moments of our day, Christ is decisively present – speaking through us, touching with our hands, and showing forth his love. What a reassurance and gift it is, in the middle of the everyday, to know that Christ the servant king is our strength – here is a crack in the everyday through which shines the love of God.

We could think of this challenge differently. We sometimes think of the care we offer as a moment away from real life – the real world of reading the newspaper, or of employment, or of picking up groceries, or paying bills. But in those moments of caring – a warm cloth in our hands, a sobbing friend in our arms, a cup of water pressed to loved one’s lips – those moments are real moments of life with the one we love and with the risen Jesus. These moments are life in the real world. These moments at the bottom of the ladder represent the truly human.

One of the challenges we face as we care for others is a tendency to adopt a posture of superiority in relation to those we care for. When we care for others, whether a child, a parent, a spouse, a friend – it is easy to see ourselves up as helper, as a strong one, as one with a gift to give. Even as we care for one who is at the bottom of the ladder – we in our minds lift ourselves up the ladder. We don’t necessarily do this in an arrogant way. But we somehow elevate ourselves, seeing ourselves as a couple of rungs higher. We are looking downward on the one who is needy, weak, and without power – who is unlike us.

This past week I read a part of Ian Brown’s beautiful, difficult book – The Boy in the Moon. In that book he speaks of raising, and caring for a son named Walker. Walker was born with a rare syndrome – he is now 14 years old; he does not speak; he wears diapers; he wears special cuffs on his arms to prevent him from hitting himself; he eats through a feeding tube. Ian Brown speaks of his longing to know who his son Walker is – who he is beneath the surface of the unsearchable face – a question that is never answered.

In an interview with CBC’s The National, Ian Brown speaks about lying with his son sometimes at night. He says that “in the darkness, invisible to each other, but holding each other, touching each other, then we are pals, you know, he is normal – I’m no better, bigger, than him – we’re just equals. You know, that’s a great liberation.”

Ian Brown (with his wife) has cared for this severely disabled and needy son for fourteen years – and out of that reality he is able to speak of the fundamental equality of son and father, of disabled boy and ‘normal’ man.

Something very similar happens from the perspective of the gospel. According to the good news of Jesus there is a lifting up of the one to whom care is given – but there is also a lowering of the one who cares. We are, and belong together, at the bottom of the ladder. Jean Vanier, again, writes:

At l’Arche we might have come to serve the poor, but we will only stay if we discover that we are the poor, and that Jesus came to announce the good news, not to those who serve the poor, but to those who are poor! It is the broken ones who lead us to our own brokenness, and to the knowledge that we need a healing saviour. Thus they lead us to Jesus, to healing,  to wholeness, to resurrection.

There is no room here for being a proud helper – for being self-assuredly competent.

Some of us have difficulty in facing the needs of others – whether it is the simple need of a child to be cared for – or the more complex need of an aging, weakened parent… Sometimes we have difficulty facing such needs because in them we are confronted with our own vulnerabilities. The other is a mirror in which we see ourselves. As much as we would like to give everyone the impression that we are at middle or top of the ladder looking down – nevertheless, in the face of the one who is broken and suffering we are reminded of our own need of the healing, the wholeness, the resurrection gift given in Jesus Christ.

As we turn toward a close this morning, it is perhaps worth remembering that we live in a culture that privileges autonomy and independence – autonomy and independence represent the top of the ladder. However, that culture brings grave problems with it. In terms of our theme this morning, such a culture sometimes prevents us from acknowledging we need help in caring for someone.

In The Boy in the Moon, Ian Brown speaks of a time when Walker was two years old, when everything seemed to change. A darkness seemed to come over Walker. He began to self-mutilate – biting and hitting himself. It was a devastating time for Ian and his wife. And out of that devastating time came a realization, at least for Ian Brown. He writes: “I began to look in earnest for a way out. I didn’t tell Johanna, but I had to find a place for Walker to live, somewhere outside our home. I didn’t realize it would take seven years, that it would be the most painful thing I have ever done and that the pain would never go away.”

We all know that these kinds of decisions are difficult – never easy to sort through. But reflecting on such possibilities, our starting point must be nothing other than the realization that we belong together in the Body of Christ. Which is to say that in caring for friends or family members, we are not alone – should not be alone. The burden of providing such care is a burden we must share with one another – both in the sense of talking and praying about it together, and in the sense of offering actual physical and emotional support. For Ian Brown and his wife, it was a question of either living perpetually in a kind of shadow-land of exhaustion, or of finding help they needed.

There are of course public services that offer help, but none of that can detract from the fundamental point we must make again – that we belong together in the body of Christ. The burden of our care for friends and family members, is something to be shared – we can support a caregiver by providing a meal, by giving him an afternoon off, or by lending her a hand in the home. Of course life in the body is equally about a willingness to receive such assistance. But let’s be clear that all of this flows, not simply from some general moral principal about helping people. Rather, this mutual care is rooted in who we are – rooted in our very being. In our truest, deepest selves we are those who belong together in Jesus Christ – in his love and service.  We are one in him.

We draw to a close with words from Jean Vanier:

Jesus is calling us to become compassionate and to walk down the ladder into the heart of poverty and pain, both our own and that of others. There we will find the freedom to cherish all the beauty given us, the love, and song, and laughter, and we will then rise up together in a community of forgiveness and celebration, knowing what it is to be Jesus’ Body.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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