I’m still learning the ministry basics | Dear Diane,

by Elouise

This is a tough read for me.  It’s October 1997, about 22 months after Diane, Sister #3, was diagnosed  with ALS.  She lived with ALS for 10 years.  Besides the legacy of her life, she left the following words for us to ponder.

I’m still learning the ministry basics

About three months before I retired, I had what I knew would be my last opportunity to lead Down in Front Time with the children in our morning worship services.  The day happened to coincide with the tenth anniversary of our family joining South Main.  I reflected on the most important truth I had learned in church and had come to understand much better during those most recent ten years:  God loves me and nothing that I could ever do nor anything which might ever happen to me will ever separate me from his love.

After experiencing rapid, devastating losses in the twenty months since that time, this fact of God’s loving presence remains the foundation of my faith.  But from my new perspective I have discovered the significance of another parallel truth which I had often preferred to overlook.  Just as God feels no anger or embarrassment when my grief is “in his face,” his people need to become comfortable face to face with grieving persons.  And just as God shares his presence with us, his people need to learn to be truly present with, not just around, hurting people.

I am describing one of my own ministry shortcomings.  I certainly understand all the ways we protect ourselves from one another.  I admit, however, that discovering this weakness among many mature members of the body of Christ has been disappointing—as I am certain I have disappointed others.

I trust my words will not be misunderstood.  I have been overwhelmed and humbled by all the loving acts of ministry generously performed for me and my family.  But “doing for” is not the same as “being with.”

Certainly I don’t want every acquaintance to “be with” me.  Nor do I think it is desirable for every member of Christ’s body to attempt to “be with” every hurting acquaintance.  But I do believe we are all called to be fully present when needed.

Our ability to touch others is often entangled with our own pilgrimage.  And not all of us have been given the same ministry gift.  However, as we all seek ways to reflect the nature of Christ in our world, we must learn more about being his loving presence.

October 1997

Dear Diane,
This was a tough read for me.  Not because I disagree, but because I see myself in you.  It’s one thing for me to accept God’s presence.  It’s another to accept someone else’s “being with” me—or to give my presence away to someone else.  Without feeling the urgent need to “do” something for them!

Sometimes it’s easy.  Other times I feel like running the other direction.  One thing that gets in my way is the incessant voice that drones on in my head:  “I’m wasting their time.”   Or, “I feel so useless just sitting here!”

Our parents over-programmed us to stay over-busy.  I remember Mother talking often about being ‘over-tired.’  She connected it to having had polio.   That’s true.  Yet apart from that, her daily output of energy just to keep us fed, clothed and clean was enough to do anyone in.

Frankly, when I’m just sitting there ‘being present’ I’m never sure what to do with my mind.  Even when I was sitting with you, reading a book or writing in my journal, it felt as though I were somehow ‘not present.’  As though I didn’t really exist for you if I didn’t ‘feel’ present.   Sometimes I had a hard time accepting your desire that I do ‘nothing’ but just sit there—doing whatever I ‘wanted’ to do!

There’s another hook for me in your piece.  The word ‘touch.’  You talk about our ability to touch others.  I don’t think you’re talking chiefly about physical touch, but for me that’s also a challenge.  It’s difficult for me to touch someone physically if they’re grieving, distressed or dying.  It’s easier if they want me to ‘do’ something.

This reminds me of Mother.  It got tricky when she had her stroke that led eventually to her death.  I had to figure out what she might want from me.  Ironically, something I did unlocked my ability to be fully present with her.  I don’t remember ever telling you about this.

I flew down to see Mother right after she had her stroke.  She was in the hospital, unable to speak much or move around.  She lay there and the nurses just kept coming in and poking her arms and hands with needles—trying to find large enough veins through her loose thin skin.  Her arms and hands were a mess of bruises.  Not pretty at all.  Some fresh, others just hanging around.

I felt queasy just looking at them.  I wanted to touch her, but everything inside me was repelled by the sight and by my own inner turmoil.  I commented on the bruises and asked whether they hurt.  She nodded her head a bit and raised one arm to look at it.  She also teared up at what she saw.

That did it.  I had to do something!  I asked whether she had any anti-bruise cream.  No.  Would she mind if I put some arnica ointment on her arms?  No, she would not mind.  I got my trusty, ever-present tube of arnica ointment and began anointing her arm and hand, starting with the worst side.  Before I got finished, she raised her other arm slightly and nodded toward it.  She didn’t want me to forget it!

My insides melted as I gingerly and gently massaged the ointment in.  Her paper-thin skin seemed ready to tear.  But she was so happy.  The next day she immediately held up her arm to show me how much it had improved.  The difference was dramatic.  Then she motioned me to get  busy and give her another arnica massage!

No, the bruises didn’t go away entirely.  The nurses kept up their scheduled pokings, normally having to try several times for one good vein.  How Mother endured this is beyond me.  But the bruises were healing.  So was I.  Maybe she was, too–on the inside.  Perhaps relieved that her oldest daughter was finally paying some personal attention to her.  And relieved to have me share some of my life (a tube of arnica ointment!) with her.

Yes, I’m tearing up as I write this.  Sniffling and blinking and remembering.  Mother’s body.  Your body.  My body.  All longing for this kind of tender touching that helps meet our deep need for affection and tenderness.  Mother-love.  Sister-love.  Daughter-love.

Hugs, love and smiles,

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 9 September 2014