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The words of 17th century poet John Milton from On His Blindness, come to mind with every visit to my mother’s long-term care facility:
“They also serve who only stand and wait.”
I hope it’s true, and I’d love to report that in the midst of my waiting we have warm and meaningful conversations or that I push her wheelchair outside for sunshine and fresh air, but the truth is that she refuses to leave her room, and that for the duration of my visits, the t.v. is blaring infomercials and game shows. With every visit, I wonder if her life is enhanced at all by my presence. Of course, “standing and waiting” on behalf of my mother also includes advocating for her when her crankiness gets in the way of administrators hearing her real needs, calling health care providers, and bringing her treats, but, most of the time, I realize that I don’t know what to do in the face of her great need.
It is this awkward and frustrating sense of helplessness that often prevents people of faith from taking risks in serving those who are disabled or grieving or suffering in other ways. Being There by Dave Furman offers inspiration and advice from the perspective of the one being served. Readers who are familiar with his wife Gloria’s writing will remember that Dave is afflicted with a neurological condition which, over the past decade, has disabled his arms, caused chronic pain, and resulted in four major surgeries and a variety of tests, therapies, and prescriptions — none of which have been helpful.
With candor and realism, Dave shares his discouragement, his depression, and the impact his disability has had on his young family and on his ministry as a church planter on the Arabian peninsula. He warns readers of the danger inherent in playing the “if only” game, which goes like this:
Fill in the blank — If only ___________, then I’d be happy.
If only my arms were healthy.
If only I had more money.
If only my spouse were healed.
This is not a game that is exclusive to the disabled, and Dave quotes John Calvin, referencing our “idol-factory” hearts, for somewhere along the way he realized that pain-free living had become an idol to him.
Suffering is a group project, and those who care for the suffering have a unique need to come clean before God about their own grieving process. They need a marathon-level strength that is not their own in order to act, day after day, with selflessness toward one who is continually in need. The messy process of grieving over a loved one’s pain is hard work and is best done in community. Over and over, the Furmans urged: “Don’t walk this journey alone.”
The Psalms of Lament (particularly Psalm 88) give words for the hopelessness and for the sense that God is distant and uncaring. Three lessons emerge from the text:
- It is possible that a believer may experience unrelieved suffering.
- Our pain and suffering are not the final word, but remind us of the redemption to come.
- The psalmist does not give up. Even in the midst of darkness, he prays.
Being There thrums with Gospel-based reassurance that not only does God not look away in our suffering, but the truth is that “the only person who sought God and truly did lose God’s face and did experience total darkness was Jesus” — and this was on our behalf. “Because Jesus was truly abandoned by God the Father, we will never be abandoned by God.” This is solid truth to encourage the heart of the suffering as well as the compassionate caregiver.
A highlight of Dave’s writing is the wide range of great authors and thinkers he quotes. For example, citing Thomas Chalmers on “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” Dave reminds readers that our love for the hurting comes out of new hearts based on resurrection-hope and because of what Jesus has already done for us — not because we are stellar servants or possess super stores of personal endurance.
Horatius Bonar’s Words to Winners of Souls applies to caregivers as thoroughly as to soul winners. “You must be much with Christ before you are anything for anybody else.”
Seventeenth century English Puritan John Flavel’s writing drives home the truth that only those with a healthy heart can really help the hurting. With this emphasis on a growing relationship with God in place, Being There moves on to some very practical components for helping the hurting and their caregivers:
- Faithful friendship that offers silent presence, the fellowship of mutual burden bearing, loyalty over the long haul, the grace of lavish and ready forgiveness, and a willingness to use humor and lightheartedness to lift spirits.
- Continual clinging to the hope offered in the gospel over all other possible sources of hope.
- Selfless service that washes feet, honors the dignity of any image-bearer, humbly offers healing words, and shows up with specific and practical hands-on help.
- Heartfelt prayer in the manner suggested by Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “True spiritual love will speak to Christ about a brother even more than to a brother about Christ.” This includes urging the hurting to draw strength from their own prayer life.
- Loving rebuke when it’s clear that hopes need realignment and fear is in the driver’s seat. Paul refers to it as “restoration” in the sense of putting a bone back in joint.
- Avoidance of unhelpful patterns such as becoming the “fixer;” delivering a message of false hope; unsympathetic questioning, pushing, condemning, or comparing; and allowing the disability to become anyone’s main identity.
We are called to a life of what Paul Tripp describes as “intentionally intrusive relationships.” When we, as the Body of Christ, bear one another’s burdens in a culture of caring, we put the love of God on display and demonstrate our belief that He can provide strength to help us overcome obstacles and minister with love to those who are hurting. We can “stand and wait,” as we watch the grace of God prevail.
This book was provided by Crossway in exchange for my review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”