In the summer of 2012, my wife and I began a rather interesting journey together. And by “interesting” I mean the same sort of “interesting” that is implied in the ancient apocryphal Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times”. You see, my wife was diagnosed in July 2012 with (to use the medical techno-geeky terminology) Type II invasive ductal carcinoma. For those of you less involved in the whole process, this is breast cancer.
This put me in a role in which I don’t think I really have ever excelled at. I’m the big strong Daddy, the strong and determined husband. I’m the intellectual, the rational, the factual person. I’m the one who thrives on logic and reasonable, predictable progression. Emotions need to be subject to the mind. Me, give compassionate, loving, gentle care to someone dealing with a serious illness? Don’t make me laugh.
And yet, that is where I found myself. My choice was reduced, then, to not whether or not I’ll be a caregiver, but more what kind of caregiver I’ll be. This had been a serious wrestling point for me as it was entirely new territory for me and way beyond my comfort zone. I searched and sought for some sort of set of guiding principles of what this should look like for me. As an Anabaptist, I gravitated to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 as that, traditionally, has been the set of guiding principles for Anabaptists for centuries. The Beatitudes immediately stood out to me and I started really thinking over them and meditating on them. The more I pondered them, the more I saw them as not just a general description of what members of the Kingdom of Heaven should be like, but how they could be applied to this role as a caregiver.
Now, forgive me, but I might come across as “sermonizing” in this. When it comes to taking Bible passages and putting them to use, giving a “sermon” is my default mode. But this, really, is where my journey took me.
First of all, I want to point out that when these Beatitudes say the word “blessed” (or “happy” in some translations), it doesn’t mean what we think it means. There’s a difference between what Jesus is saying here and what we think about being “happy”. “Blessed” is a state of mind similar to what James mentions when he calls people to “consider it pure joy”, that the circumstances of life, difficult as they currently are, will lead to something better down the road and this hope is the source of our deep satisfaction. So, as I walk through the beatitudes, I’m not saying I am happy-go-lucky all the time, but there is a hope further out that I’m aiming at and that is where my “joy” comes from.
Poor in Spirit – The first Beatitude is about being “poor in spirit”. As a caregiver, I know what this is about. As a caregiver, there’s all sorts of weight and pressure on you. Not only do I have to take of my wife, but because she’s less capable than she had been, I find myself having to do a lot of her jobs. This feels so crushing, sometimes. But the “poor in spirit” gets the Kingdom of Heaven. And what is that? Well, it’s this immense community of people, lifting each other up. I am the pinnacle of a pyramid of people, each person lifting up the other, physically, spiritually, and emotionally. This is my joy, that I am not alone and, even in the pressure of being a caregiver, this network of people holds me together.
Mourning – My wife is not dead, nor is she in danger of dying right now at all. But I’ll tell you, there’s a lot of stuff in my life that, at least for now, is as good as dead. Our lives have been turned upside down, my wife’s physical body is not as it “should” be, my daughters no longer have the innocence of a world where Mommy and Daddy are always going to be around, and so on. The “comfort” in the Beatitudes, though, comes very easily. It’s not a comfort of “everything will be OK”, it’s a comfort of being held while I cry and leaning heavily, both on Jesus for my spiritual support and on my friends and family when I need a pair of human arms.
Meek – This is probably one of the harder ones. Meekness is not letting people walk all over you. But it is about setting aside my own desires, my own wants, my own priorities in favor of my wife’s desires and needs. And beyond that, what God wants out of me needs to take priority. Now, Jesus talks about “inheriting the earth”, but it seems to be more than just getting a big ball of rock, but more of finding a peace away from the battles of fighting against all my enemies. Just stop fighting, stop striving to get my way, my things, my stuff, and give it all over to what God wants and what my wife needs. What I’ll get in return is this amazing peace that comes from knowing that I don’t have to fight any more, that god will do the fighting for me and I can enjoy where I am, this earth that I’m on.
Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness – When my life is filled with caring for my ill wife and doing all the jobs that two parents normally do as a single parent, there’s almost no time for keeping my life on track. It’s so hard to find the time to spend in getting my spiritual life in order when there is so much of the physical to attend to. So, I’m “hungry and thirsty” for getting closer to God and I don’t see any easy way to do so. But the Beatitude says that I “will be filled”. There is grace and mercy available and, even though I’m stuck in the mundane of the physical, God will be there for me, he will help me find my fill even in those little “snacks” I get, and God will certainly fill me some day.
Mercy – Mercy is not, in the biblical sense, putting someone out of their misery, commuting a sentence, or relieving a pain. That plays a role, perhaps, but when it comes to being a caregiver, or even a Christ-follower, it’s much bigger than that. It is a kindness and compassion. As a caregiver, during my wife’s recovery, my days are spent exercising kindness in immense quantities. Refilling ice-packs, refilling water bottles, getting pillows, helping her get out of the chair, bringing her a meal, etc., all come under this immense kindness. But I realized that mercy is also in treating the person in a way that relieves the soul. Not being a woman, there are aspects of the cancer treatments that just don’t hit me as hard. It took another woman offering to take care of some of those needs for my wife that I just couldn’t meet that showed me the effects of mercy. Not only was my wife shown mercy, but I received a mercy in that the weight of responsibility for those parts of my wife’s care was no longer on my shoulders. What a relief. This is God’s mercy and, as I showed mercy to my wife, I received this mercy from God.
Pure in Heart – Purity in heart, when it comes to righteousness and such, does not really apply to the role of a caregiver. There’s plenty of time to talk about that in other places. For a caregiver, this purity in heart manifests in a different way. With every test, every procedure, every treatment, every surgery comes a whole host of possible complications and side effects and long term problems. These things are very real to us. Our loved one going through it all is facing, every time, the possibility of something going horribly wrong. I need to be able to hear her fears and return with confidence and peace. It’s extremely difficult to do this when I am fighting the same fears and uncertainties. This beatitude promises, though, that this purity of heart, on dwelling on the good things of God, will allow me to actually see God. This does not mean that I’ll actually see the dude with the white beard riding on a cloud or anything. Instead, if I’m focusing on the good things of God, just like if I’m focusing on a star in the sky, or focusing on the words on a page, God will become that much clearer to me in the events and happenings of our lives. When I seek that purity of heart where it is unsullied by doubts and fears and worries, then the beauty and goodness and shalom of God becomes so real, I can see God.
Peacemaker- I know for a fact that a life that involves cancer treatments certainly does not feel peaceful, at least by the world’s standards. There are doctors and treatments and surgeries and more doctors and nurses and chaos and insurance claims and bills and all sorts of stuff. Add to that maintaining some semblance of sanity for our two daughters and their lives and our lives with appointments and meetings and church stuff. Peace? What’s that? Shalom? Where? he promise that goes along with this beatitude, on the surface, just doesn’t seem practical at all in the face of the stresses of being a caregiver. What does being a child of God have to do with this? Aren’t I that already? Then I remember something: God doesn’t ask shalom of us because he wants to give us an impossible task. God asks shalom of us because God is already in shalom with us. The peacemaker will be called a child of God. This is not a “bonus” for being a peacemaker. Being a peacemaker is evidence of something I already am. My peacemaking in my relationship towards my wife is something that will naturally grow out of my sense of shalom in my relationship with God. As God’s child, I can help my wife know this shalom, this sense of “rightness” in her life by living it out myself in my relationship with her.
Persecuted/Put to Flight – After reading about Richard Wurmbrand and others like him, I really hesitate to call simple troubles and trials “persecution”. In the case of my wife’s illness and the issues surrounding what it means to be a caregiver to a loved one, I certainly am not, by that standard, persecuted. At least, certainly, not by human beings. But in this beatitude, behind the word “persecuted” is a greek word that translates more into “put to flight” than it is any sort of violence done against a person. As a caregiver in the USA today, living a Christian way, trying to be righteous, I cannot say I’m persecuted. There are times, honestly, when the burden becomes very, very difficult. While I’m doing all I do as a caregiver, I’m providing strength and comfort and support for my wife as she, too, is feeling a lot of the same pressures as I am…and more. And in all of this, I need to keep it together. I need to do what I’m called to do out of love. I need to be that strength, the confidence, that support for my family. I need to be a witness to the rest of the world about the different kind of hope and contentment that followers of Jesus are supposed to have. Under all that pressure, I feel like I’m being pursued and chased around by big, ugly, scary guys with bad teeth and tattoos on their eye-balls ready to do me bodily harm. To quote those zany British guys, “Run away!!!” But I have to remember, in all this, that I have a King, Jesus, who faced grief. “Jesus wept” is the shortest memory verse… but it is also the deepest. Jesus knows what it means to face grief and pain. And because he’s been there and knows what it’s like, he sends people to us who have been there and know. My wife and I have been constantly amazed at how people pop-up out of the virtual woodwork to give us a blessing of some sort, whether it is food, a ride, or simply just a shoulder to cry on. This is the Kingdom of Heaven, the body of people who support and lift each other up in the hard times.
It all comes full circle then. As I support my wife, she actually supports me. And we have friends, neighbors, family, and fellow believers supporting us both through all of this. Perfect strangers lift us up in prayer daily and even offer such small blessings as a phone call, an offer of a ride, or just a few moments to listen. The Kingdom of Heaven is an amazing place to live. When I feel like I just want to run away, I can take comfort that I have such a place to call home where I know that, even though the shadow of death pursues me, God is with me.