South African sunset last August. Photo by Wade Jones.
This past Sunday afternoon I was invited by St. Julian's Episcopal Church in Douglasville, Georgia, to lead a session on “Care for the Caregiver” as part of a long series supporting lay people in ministry. I was a little overwhelmed by the detailed content I was given to present in an hour’s time. The night of the day I began preparing I of course had a dream of leading the event, and I feared running out of time, though in the dream I had a whole day to work with, not just one hour! But my sleeping brain (or should I credit Holy Spirit?) gave me an idea how to approach the challenge.
Part of the challenge was that the small group attending had either been part of a centering prayer group for years or were enrolled in an Episcopal Church multiple year program about faith and ministry fundamentals, or both! In my dream I said to them, “I am stepping into a river that has flowed a thousand years,” meaning their combined experience, and added, “I have more to learn from you than you from me.”
Yet we are all part of a two-thousand-year-old movement initiated by followers of Jesus who were so good—so kind, compassionate, and hospitable—that others wanted to be like them. And here I refer to Elaine Pagel’s Beyond Belief, in which she affirms that this evangelism by attraction is how the first “Christians” inspired converts.
I realized “care for the caregiver” is what this blog has always been about. I wanted to equip progressive Christians, who are not only care-givers but justice-seekers, with what I had been given to sustain my activism: a prayer life, contemplative ways of undergirding, strengthening, inspiring, and (perhaps most vitally) sustaining a ministry of compassion and care.
The course was trying to impart the wisdom of Saint Benedict, who saw spiritual community as the stabilizing foundation of a ladder to rise to great heights, to touch the face of God as well as that of other creatures through work, study, and prayer, with order, balance, and moderation.
So, still in my dream and then after as I woke in the dark to reflect on it, I began coming up with questions to solicit the wisdom and experience of the group. The members of their Community of Hope are the ones who will be there for years after my “splash in the pan” appearance—best to help them remember that and for me to recognize I am their beneficiary not their benefactor.
I’ve decided to share with you some of what I shared with them.
How do you care for yourselves? I asked. I explained not to judge any self-care methods, just be honest. As an example, I listed my own self-care practices: morning prayer and reading, of course, running and weightlifting, healthy diet and a good night’s sleep—all admirable, but also, watching old Frasier and Murder, She Wrote episodes and comfort food and chips and wine.
Do you have difficulty saying “no”? A denominational church leader came to me for regular spiritual guidance for a season and I advised her to tape “I can say ‘no’” to her office phone. A book entitled Ministry Burnout points out that often it seems to take as much emotional and spiritual energy to tell someone “No, I cannot do that” than it takes to just do it! But, as Jesus sensed healing energy going out from him when the woman with a hemorrhage touched him, anything we do may deplete our energy and effectiveness, so focus and boundaries are needed.
Do you trust your spiritual community? What I meant by that is do you believe in the variety of gifts you’ve identified in one another as you’ve come to know each other? I invited them to speak about those gifts, and I was moved by their readily offered affirmations.
I explained the “joke” in the first church I served after seminary was that, if you identify a need the church should address, you take the lead in that ministry! After all, you are the church! That’s how we started our jail ministry for gay inmates, our outreaches to homeless gay youths, our sack lunch program for the homeless.
Identifying our own gifts, strengths, and weaknesses and inviting others in our spiritual community to identify theirs, we better know when to refer to meet an expressed need or how to best assign and offer assistance. None of us have to be everything to everyone.
What is your motivation? The curriculum provided an exercise to help us sort “sympathy” from “empathy,” listing distinctions that, to me at least, were too clever and convenient, suggesting the first was controlling and the second detached. Somewhere in between is the word I would use: compassion, which means “suffering with,” and compassionate has been applied to both the Buddha and Jesus who respectively represent detached mindfulness and sacrificial love.
Compassion requires attentiveness and listening. Henri Nouwen gave the example of an incident from his early years in ministry when he gave beds to a family that had been sleeping several to a bed. Upon his next visit he discovered they had sold the extra beds and gave a party for all their friends. What they needed was a celebration, not more “things.”
When I worked with first-time AIDS volunteers and workers in the early years of the pandemic, I invited them to consider the values motivating them and identify their “spiritual community,” encouraging them to be creative in discerning the latter. One woman had the “aha” that her women’s tennis group was her spiritual community. Over the years they had been there for one another through births, divorces, deaths, jobs, unemployment, illness, and emotional ups and downs. I suggested that their values and their spiritual communities would help sustain them in this new work.
What are your boundaries and limits? Recently, working with someone with mental health and addiction issues, I am cognizant of how narrow the line between compassion and enabling can be. This is where a spiritual community and/or a spiritual director can come to the rescue. The curriculum on care advised ministering in pairs, consulting each other, and gaining input and support from the larger group.
Do you trust healing is possible? Healing and growth and fruitfulness seem to me built into the very nature of things. As Henri Nouwen once wrote, if you keep digging up a seed to see if it’s germinating, it never will grow. A physical therapist told me that wounds heal from the inside out. A massage therapist friend begins each session invisibly making the sign of the cross over the client’s body before applying his healing touch.
During the commissioning service of a trainer of hospice workers, she was to be given a charge by two clergy. The first minister went on and on and I have no recollection of what he said. The second minister cut to the chase. She said, the people whom hospice workers serve want to know two things: Am I alone? And am I loved? I believe that’s true of all who need care.
I recommended the best book on care I’ve read, How Can I Help? by Ram Dass and Paul Gorman. The authors’ presentation of first person narratives from care-givers and care-receivers from around the world suggest that the least patronizing and most satisfying care is experienced as mutually beneficial.
As an example of that, something I didn’t mention in my recent reflection on my mother-in-law’s passing was that, like other times we enjoyed talking, we continued to “talk” with each other in her final days when she rarely spoke at all. I brought reading material when visiting, but didn’t even look at it, I was so taken with simply watching her.
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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.