Sunday, October 11, 2015

Barbara Moyer Lehman: Experiencing mutual care

“What if the church did mutual care like a family?”
Ephesians 4:1-6; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22

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It was perfect timing when I opened the local newspaper a few days ago and saw that this month’s insert of Seasons Plus focused on the topic of Caregiving, just when I was working on today’s sermon on, “What if the church did mutual care like a family?” The cover story, written by Jeannette Suter, titled “The Daily Journey of Caregiving”, is about an adult daughter who is providing care for her elderly parents in her home for 2.5 years. The daughter states, “I didn’t plan to be a caregiver and didn’t necessarily know how to be one, but the situation presented itself, and it was just something I needed to do for my parents.”
Inside there is another article by Elaine Dunaway, (some of us know), on “Understanding Caregiving in the Family.” She points out that caregiving can be very stressful, particularly over an extended period of time. Research shows that caregivers often burn out and experience physical symptoms themselves.

When we are going through difficult challenges, life-threatening illnesses, unexpected surgeries, loss of jobs, break up of a marriage, mental illness, we often lean mostly heavily on those closest to us, our loved ones in our nuclear family. Sometimes they are emotionally healthy and with enough resources to handle the added stress, but not always. As Elaine writes, it is especially difficult when the caregiving extends for months or even years. Some of you here today have been in that role and maybe still are. You know what I am talking about.

I have seen how caregiving has played itself out in my own family in recent months and years. I saw how my oldest brother, Barry, cared for my sister in law, his wife of over 55 years, as Alzheimers took over her life, requiring increased assistance for daily living. For over a year, Barry bathed her, dressed her, fed her, lifted her in and out of the wheelchair, took her to the bathroom. Day after day, over and over again, he did this. I could hear the weariness in his voice, when I talked to him, but he didn’t complain. Their two adult children live nearby and provided some support. A daughter in law, a nurse by profession, was extremely helpful in translating the medical jargon, listening to doctor’s reports, offering her expertise and knowledge of what resources were available to them, as Nancy’s disease progressed. She died in July.

Two and a half years ago, my other brother, Bruce, was in a similar situation. When an unexpected diagnosis of cancer was given to my sister in law at the same time she had just retired from work, their future plans and life together changed drastically and quickly. Still in shock from the news and the grim prognosis for Jody, they were surprised on Easter morning, when Jody’s sister and her husband showed up at their doorstep, having driven from Florida to PA, and said, “ we are here to help and give support in whatever way you need and for how long you want us.” Jody’s sister and brother in law moved in with them, she..a nurse, he a retired Methodist pastor, and stayed for 5-6 months, until Jody died in Sept, offering support, help with meals and meds, giving Bruce some needed support in so many ways, as well as the rest of the family.

In July John and I traveled to Indianapolis for a nephew’s wedding and to visit his 99 year old mother. John’s sister Rose and her husband opened their home 4 years ago to mother Lehman to provide additional care for her. She moved from her apt. in a retirement community in Berne, IN to Indy to live with Rose and her husband. We thought it might be for 1-2 years. It turned out to be 4 years. With great care and compassion, Rose cared for her mother, sacrificially. When we were in Indianapolis in July, John and his siblings met together, a family meeting, and then with mother, to make plans for providing additional support to Rose in her caregiving role and to relieve her of some of the daily responsibilities. We drove back to Harrisonburg the next day, and received a phone call that evening, that mother had died. 99 years old surrounded by 3 of her children.
We are grateful when there are enough family members to share the challenges of caregiving when that is needed, and when the members are emotionally and relationally healthy enough to work together, but we know that isn’t always possible. Families are sometimes scattered geographically, or alienated from one another or unavailable to each other. Sometimes families just don’t function very well together. There might be jealousy, competition, unresolved issues, members feeling left out of decision making, etc. The added stress of needing to provide care for a family member can be devastating.

As Christian brothers and sisters, we are aware that mutual care needs to happen in our nuclear family, as much as possible. We need to be teaching, modeling, talking with our children and youth about the important role they have in our families, and how they can contribute to caring for others and to the care of the household. Mutual care happens in a variety of ways and at a variety of levels, among siblings, between parent and children, between adult children and aging parents. How is mutual care modeled in your family? What healthy, concrete ways are you teaching that and practicing that?

But what about mutual care in this family? The local congregation? The “oikos”...the household of faith? This extended family network is called to practice mutual care. As Phil reminded us several weeks ago, the church in our time, here, in this household, we are not just metaphorically brothers and sisters, but also, brothers and sisters by the Spirit, a peoplehood. We are bound to one another and live with sacrificial loyalty.
So, how do we do that? How do we live in this ‘oikos’ and practice mutual care?
Maybe, first of all, we need to believe and accept that caring for one another is a ministry of the church that belongs to all. Mutual care is the responsibility of each person. No individual or team can accomplish all of the needed ministries. Caregiving for members in the household of faith, is not turned over to the professional clergy, the paid counselor on staff, the elder team, the deacons, the SS caregivers. We are all called to provide and practice mutual care for the household.

When we look at the 1 Thess. text, we see that Paul is instructing the brothers and sisters in this household to have certain attitudes toward their leaders. Leaders are to be respected and held in high regard. These are people who work for you, care for you in the Lord and yes, at times, admonish/teach/offer guidance and advice. They are not top-down leaders that are trying to manage and control a household, but they are servants of the church, and servants to one another. Value their leadership and integrity as leaders.
The verses following that give further instructions that pertain to all. All believers in Thessolinika are urged to actively pursue the way of love within the Christian community and beyond. Paul wants his friends to think through their relationships and to honor each other. He cares deeply about the relationships that the Thessalonian Christians have toward each other

According to Paul, what things are important for us to do and how to live, as we practice mutual care?
1.) Live in peace with each other or among yourselves.
2.) Admonish the unruly(those who are idle or disruptive)..sometimes there are members who need the admonition of the congregation!
3.) Encourage the disheartened (worried, discouraged, fainthearted) sometimes we need to offer that word of encouragement to another, even our children and youth, our young parents. Sometimes we need to hear that from another brother or sister in the congregation. (What a blessing to me when I receive a note or e mail or phone call of encouragement from one of you.)
4.) Help the weak. (we don’t know who ‘the weak’ is really referring to but it might be for those who are physically weakened, or could be for those ‘beaten down’ by circumstances, people who are vulnerable and need loving support, people who are exhausted and ‘burned out’ and need a shoulder to lean on or cry on.)
5.) Strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else!
6.) Hold on to what is good and reject whatever is harmful..

From Eph 4:1-6...
7.) Be completely humble and gentle
8.) Be patient, bearing with one another in love....this is patience that is longstanding, that endures, that is steadfast!
Bearing with, forbearing. , as part of mutual care,..requires tremendous patience...allowing people to have space, to have time, to have room to just be, or room to grow and become, or room to develop and contribute. Bearing with our children as they grow and mature and test us, bearing with our youth who ask us difficult questions we don’t know how to answer, but allowing them to ask the questions. Bearing with our YA’s who may choose to live a lifestyle we don’t approve of or leave us for awhile, as they explore and figure out the direction of their lives. ‘Bearing with’ encourages us to hang together even when we disagree on important issues. Bearing with one another ‘in love’!
Christians are to love every brother and sister whether or not the love is returned. We are to extend love even to those whose lifestyle or behavior or appearance is undesirable, rather than confine our love only to those who mirror our own values.

We are called to mutual care in this ‘oikos’, this household of faith. We are called to serve one another. We have much to offer each other and the world around us.
Lenora Stern wrote in an article on caring, that not only are we called to be servants, but to be assertive servants.! the family, in the congregation and in the neighborhood. We don’t just care and serve one another when something comes our way and an opportunity presents itself, but also to make an intentional choice to act, to get involved and to help others. An assertive servant acts out of an attitude of caring.
Jesus modeled a very practical brand of love that ministered to the pressing needs of his followers. Practicing mutual care in the household is not easy. Being an assertive servant demands that we give ourselves totally to God, and then extend ourselves fully to our brothers and sisters.

18 years ago when our 22 year old son, Andy, was killed when we lived in Orrville, OH,, we experienced a great deal of caring. It was extremely difficult to grieve, to face the pain, to walk that journey, while we were pastors of a congregation, living in a small town. Not only were we grieving as parents, but this congregation was grieving. They loved our sons. This was home for them. They saw them grow up, graduate from high school, go off to college. We needed each other. When all of our extended family lived hundreds of miles away, we needed the household of faith, our local body of believers to be there for us. And they were. Over 14 years of ministry with them, we served, cared for and walked with many in their challenging times and periods of pain. It was humbling to be on the receiving end and see how beautifully the body of Christ in its local context came to serve and care for us. Tragedies, illness, crises often have a unifying impact on the whole congregation and even beyond into the community. We experienced that to be true.

In many funeral services over the years since this hymnal came out, I have sung, we have sung, #307. “Will you let me be your servant?”. It was sung at Andy’s service and we continue to ask the question and commit ourselves to serving and caring for one another in the household of faith.
May it continue to be so...

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