Monday, May 2, 2011

Sermon - "Compassionate Companions"

"Compassionate Companions"

There are certain advantages to being a young minister. And there are some disadvantages as well. One of them being that my life experience does not include many of the things that older people experience and deal with. I just haven’t been down that road yet.
This Sunday we are talking about caring for loved ones through illness and the aging process. This isn’t something that I have a great deal of experience with, certainly not the kind of experience that many of you have. But, it is far too important of a subject for this community to shy away from. Most of you have already had some experience like this. Nearly all of us will at some time in our lives car for another aging person. And I can guarantee that each one of us will be the recipient of this kind of care. So I want to talk a little about how we might do it gracefully.
Like most of my sermons, this isn’t intended to offer that last word on a topic. Quite the opposite, I hope that this worship service serves as a conversation starter, something to mull over and discuss. Because we’re all learning together. There’s no one right or perfect way of being a compassionate companion.

This past week I heard a description of hope that I thought was particularly helpful for our discussion today. It was that hope isn’t something that you have or don’t have. Hope is something that comes into being, sort of like a path across a meadow. It’s something that gets made slowly over time. It takes shape by putting one foot in front of the other, over and over again. Until finally a way is worn, a way that seems like the normal way that anyone would go.

Being a companion on the journey of aging reminds me a lot of this. I’m sure there are stages, moments, when the future is completely uncertain. It’s unclear how you will make it through. But somehow, a path gets made. It seems daunting, impossible maybe at first. But then you find your way. One foot in front of the other, one step at a time as you journey with your companion.

Companion seems to be the best word for this type of caring relationship. Because it’s not just about caring for your spouse. It may be a parent or a grandparent. It may be a good friend. But the relationship is the same. And while we are talking mostly about aging today, often in life this type of long term care is needed for someone impacted by illness at any age. It may be a friend, or even a child that we companion along this journey of uncertainty. It doesn’t matter who the person is that you are caring for. It’s about being present with someone you care about through a change in their life. It’s a bit of a journey that you go on together. Neither one in the lead necessarily, but companions exploring a new territory.

Of course this type of change happens throughout our lives. We move into a new phase. Not to diminish the fear and pain that often accompany aging, but it may help to remember that some of those other transitions are scary as well. Going to school for the first time, going to college, entering the reality of the working world and paying the bills. Lives certainly change when children come along. Talk about daunting. Then there is retirement and aging.
Over and over again in our lives we shift to a different way of being a different reality. We find that there is a new normal, and we adjust to it. Some of those ways of being normal, we never anticipated, and couldn’t have imagined until they become our lives.
A new normal can bring out a person you never expected. A person hiding inside that you never knew existed. The tremendous new normal that came out of nowhere when my grandmother first got sick, was how my older brother suddenly became a caregiver. At the hospital, when everyone else was a wreck, he was able to be there and be calm. When everyone else taking a grim picture of the future, he was able to see through the mess, take one step at a time, and literally make sure everyone was eating and sleeping. While my brother is an amazing father now, this was the first time I had seem anything resembling a care taker in him. As he took charge seemingly out of the blue, I realized for the first time that he would be a great parent. He found a new way of being, a way that none of us expected in that moment.

When my grandmother was debilitated by that stroke, my whole family found a new normal. This was the same grandmother who had been the regular babysitter for my younger cousin and who cared for the older people in the apartment community where she lived.
My how the tables turned over night. After her stroke my grandmother was in a nursing home, a place we all knew she dreaded going. Her life changed, and so did my mom’s. For the next three years, my mother spent two or three hours a day at the nursing home. She was there nearly every day. In an effort to find hope in the situation, she put one foot in front of the other and did what she thought was right for her. This new normal changed her life, and frankly the rest of us had a hard time understanding that. What was normal to her meant a pretty big change for us as well. For the rest of us who only visited occasionally, the idea of spending hours there every day just seamed so strange. Not to mention our mother, my dad wife, has a completely new and defining focus of her life and time.

A good friend of mine is going through a very similar situation with his own parents. His parents are living together and his father is extremely ill. His cancer has consumed their lives and transformed their family home into one giant hospital room. My friend, a dear compassionate person couldn’t handle visiting every day. So he goes every other week, and still doesn’t know how is healthy mother does it.
“It’s like a morgue over there. I don’t know how she can stand it.” He tells me. That’s because he hasn’t been the one there putting one foot in front of the other day after day. Life changes; what we consider normal changes, sometimes into something we never would have recognized as our own life. And for those who are not an immediate part of the change, it can seem sudden and bizarre. But for those in the midst of it, those companions on the journey, finding a new sense of normal is just what happens.
While caring for a loved one can deepen that particular relationship beyond measure, it doesn’t do very good things for the rest of your relationships. It can often lead to major isolation. But I want you to know that you are not alone. Those of you who have been companions through aging and illness, and those of us who will be, you are not alone. Since the beginning of history, humans have done this for one another. It is sacred timeless work. It’s what makes us who we are. While some people may not understand the hours given or the limitless commitment, you are in good company with other companions, who are doing the same thing for the people who are so special in their lives.

I’m reminded of the Buddhist prayer concept of metta. We have done it several times here. It’s a way to stretch and strengthen one’s own compassion. You start by feeling your own experiences of suffering in the world. Knowing they are unpleasant, you feel compassion for yourself. Then reaching out, you see the suffering of those you love. Knowing that their suffering is unpleasant and not a choice, you feel compassion for them. Then more broadly, reaching out with your heart, perhaps to strangers, or to people you particularly have problems with. Recognizing that they too have suffering in their lives, you offer compassion, knowing that no one chooses to suffer. It’s a tremendously helpful spiritual discipline in life. But I point it out because the base of this isn’t being a perfect person with a heart of gold. The base is a very logical step beyond being in touch with your own suffering and difficulty in life. Don’t ignore it. Let it be a tool to better understand your brothers and sisters in need. Let the very real difficulty of the situation be a step toward deepening compassion.

Being a compassionate companion can be isolating. And eventually it can wear you down. But everyone needs some slack. I’m sure that even Mother Theresa has her off days, days of short temper and annoyance. No one is asking caregivers to be super-human, or to be any more than they already are.
These days in my life there are a lot of friends who are first time parents. Just last week for Easter we had a one-year old over for four hours and I thought I was going fall over by the time she left. What I see from these new parents is that they deeply love their children, and they are absolutely exhausted. They are occasionally angry and impatient. And the need their friends to say AMEN, and not judge them as bad parents. Just the same, companions, caregivers have taken on a tremendous commitment that undoubtedly leads to frustration and exhaustion. That’s okay. No one is going to judge you for that. It’s okay to say this is difficult, or I’m tired. Because what you are already doing is heroic.

Probably for most people being a companion through the aging process isn’t a choice. It’s just something that you do, like putting one foot in front of the other. There is no other option. But I want to pause, to say thank you, to those of you who have and who continue to provide long-term care for someone in need. You are heroes. You may not have chosen this path, but somehow it became your new normal. You never aimed to be a rescuer, but here you are. Well whether you chose it or not, I want to say thank you. Caring for our loved one’s is part of the glory of being alive. You are part of the beauty of what it means to be human beings.

In closing, I hope you will join me with a short visualization. It’s nothing difficult. Just join me in your mind’s eye seeing a meadow of tall, thick grass, gently blowing in the breeze on a warm day. In that meadow is a walking path. Not wide, but deep enough that the dirt has been packed down, deep enough that walking it, the way would not be lost.
For those of you who have already worn this path of hope, those compassionate companions, remember when all you had was a field of uncertainty. Remember when you didn’t know how you would possibly do this much caring. We thank you for putting one foot in front of the other, and for sharing with us a path of hope.
For those of us who haven’t had that duty yet, may we remember that step by step, one foot in front of the other is the only way to get there. When our patience is tapped, when we feel lost in the wilderness, let us remember that we journey where others have tread before. And they made it, one step at a time.

Whether we have been there or not, we are all going to need someone to walk gently with us. We will all need the support of compassionate companions at some point in our lives. May a way of hope and grace be found as we walk the journey together.

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