The Stephen Ministry is all about “Christian Caregiving.” Our mission statement says that New Philadelphia seeks to be “a Caring Congregation.” St. Paul says that he was gentle among the congregation at Thessalonica, “like a nurse taking care of her children.”
According to Webster’s Dictionary we care for one or more people when we give them our “watchful or painstaking attention.”
I know exactly what it is to give people my watchful and painstaking attention. I will give you one example. Elayne and I were living in Nicholasville, Kentucky when we learned that we were going to have a baby. We prepared for the baby’s arrival. The bluegrass area is famous for its cherry furniture, and we bought a beautiful hand-crafted cherry cradle. We put it at the foot of our bed, and pictured our new son in it peacefully sleeping the night away. Jonathan arrived on January 23, 1976 in the midst of Kentucky’s worst winter storm in decades. He arrived after 17 hours of hard labor, and needless to say, I was exhausted. Come to think of it, I suppose Elayne was, too. We had one night to rest up. Then we brought Jonathan home, and put him in the cradle at the foot of the bed. Elayne immediately dropped off into a well-deserved sleep; but I could not sleep. I lay awake all that first night listening to every single breath Jonathan took: I gave him my watchful attention. Then I lay awake a second night, and gave him my painstaking attention. Then I lay awake a third night, and painstaking passed over into painful. Not sleeping was miserable, and the next day, I was suddenly barking my shins on the furniture, and fighting a daylong battle to stay awake in my seminary classes. About the fourth night, after Elayne had dropped off to sleep, I got out of bed, lifted Jonathan, cradle and all, and moved him into the next room. As I did so, I remembered that the God who watches over us neither slumbers nor sleeps, and I committed Jonathan to His care!
What I learned that first week of Jonathan’s life has been reiterated for me time and time again over the course of my ministry. When it comes to caregiving, there is a fine line between watchful attention, and painstaking attention, and another fine line between painstaking attention and a painful life.
We are all caregivers of one kind or another, and we don’t want to confuse those lines.
Just this week a person, who has been caring for a loved one for a long time, said to me, “Worth, the first responsibility that any caregiver has is to take care of herself, if she doesn’t, she cannot care for another, for she has nothing left to give. “
I could not agree more. To take care of herself (or himself), a caregiver must make two conscious and calculated decisions.
First, the caregiver must make a conscious decision to preserve time for himself. In Exodus 23:12 we read, “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest.” The 4th Commandment declares, “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” Like many of you, I have worked, more or less, six days a week most of my adult life. I can do that with no problem and function just fine; but when I am called upon to repeatedly sacrifice my Sabbath, which for me is usually a Monday, things start going wrong. I can’t sleep, I get cranky, I miss appointments, I let people down, and on several different occasions, after missing my Sabbath for a number of weeks in a row, I have been involved in an automobile accident. Everybody needs a Sabbath rest.
The second conscious decision a caregiver has is to keep a little distance between herself and the person for whom she is caring. This is not cold and heartless—it is absolutely essential. Let me give a graphic example from Stephen Ministry training.
Suppose someone has fallen into a ditch and can’t get out. If the caregiver climbs down into the ditch with the care receiver, there are two people in ditch, not one. The situation is twice as bad! The only way for a caregiver to help a care receiver out of a ditch is to go and get a rope, and then return to the scene of the accident, and plant his feet firmly on the solid ground, and then let the rope down into the ditch so that the care receiver who has fallen into the ditch can climb out.
This is a simple little scenario, but it is worth remembering, because it is the single best guide for helping people out of the thousands of ditches that we fall into. It does not matter if the ditch is named illness, or joblessness, or drug addiction, or Sin with a capital “S.” We cannot help someone out of a ditch unless we avoid falling in ourselves.
The first aspect of Christian Caregiving is to give those for whom we care our watchful attention. In the scripture that watchful attention is expressed by our English word “care,” but that is not the whole picture. If we read the scripture carefully, there is a second aspect of Christian Caregiving. Christian Caregiving is all about providing “comfort” when it is needed.
In Isaiah 40, following the fall of Jerusalem, God speaks to his prophet saying, “Comfort, you, comfort, you, my people!” At the end of a long and successful ministry, Arthur John Gossip, the great Scottish Presbyterian pastor, said, “If I had my ministry to do over, I would preach more comfort.” Jesus started his ministry preaching comfort. In Matthew chapters 5-7 Jesus goes up on a mountain, calls his disciples to him, and delivers the single most well known sermon he ever preached. He began his sermon with a series of beatitudes or blessings. First, he pronounced a blessing upon those who are poor in spirit, saying that it is only those who are “poor in spirit” who can enter the kingdom of God. He had to start there because being “poor of spirit” means being “humble” and only the humble can receive his words. The self-sufficient cannot. Then the first subject Jesus tackles for those who will listen is “comfort.” He says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Matthew says that great crowds of people heard Jesus deliver this sermon. In a crowd there are always people who mourn. No doubt the people who heard Jesus’s sermon mourned in many different ways. Some had buried people they loved—fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, friends and neighbors. Some were homeless, and others were hungry. Some were sick, and dependent upon the care of others. I will bet everything I own that a great many of the people who heard Jesus speak had come out to hear him because they felt alone, and friendless. I think that when they heard Jesus say, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” God broke through their isolation.
Jesus preached comfort. Of course, Jesus did not just talk about comforting people; Jesus actually comforted people. Do you remember how, after Herod had put John the Baptist into prison, John sent his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you Him who is to come, or should we look for another?” And Jesus said:
Matthew 11:4 “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.
In his time among us, Jesus comforted people in very practical ways, and he put in a plan for continuing his effort. Not only did Jesus authorize his disciples to give care in his name, Jesus universalized caring by putting himself into the place of the people who needed the care and comfort! In Matthew 25 he said:
Matt. 25:31 “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. 34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’
And you know the rest of this story, how the Son of Man told those on his left that in failing to care for those in need, they had failed to care for him. It is plain from Matthew 25 that Jesus wants all of us to be his caregivers. With that in mind, I am going to spend the last third of this sermon lining out a little practical knowledge about what it takes to be a caregiver.
First, be advised that our English word, “Comfort” is made up of two Latin Words: “com” and “fortis” meaning “to strength greatly.”
We don’t always have the strength to comfort someone, but God does. In John 16:7 Jesus tells his disciples that it is to their advantage that he goes away, for he will send the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, to be with them. (KJV) In the days of his flesh Jesus could be in one place at a time. As the Lord who is the Spirit, he can be with everyone in everyplace at every time. When we seek to comfort others, we have the dynamic help of the Holy Spirit!
Secondly, please note that comfort takes many forms.
If you are serious about knowing how to comfort others, go home and pull out a concordance, or download a Bible search program—I like Olive Tree Bible Reader, and look up the word “comforted,” which is the past tense of “comfort.” Here is a little of what you will find.
According to Job 7:13 when Job was sick, he said that he was “comforted by his bed,” and that his couch “eased his complaint.” Physical things can comfort us! Everyone who ever needed an aspirin knows that. I myself have been comforted by a long run, and by a couple of days at the beach. How about you? What comforts you?
According to Genesis 24:67 Isaac was comforted after the death of his mother by his marriage to his wife Rebekah. According to 2nd Samuel 12:24 David comforted Bathsheba after the death of her son when he went into her, and she conceived, and bore him another son, Solomon. There are two things at work here.
Frist, we see that love and even sex (and children) can be a means of comfort—and the sex part does not have to be seedy or sinful, though it often is. Where sex is not appropriate, touch may be appropriate. Jesus comforted the leper and welcomed back into the community when he touched him. During a long hospitalization, Bishop Herbert Spaugh watched nurses working with their patients and wrote an article for the Charlotte News, “The Hands of a Nurse Are the Hands of a Healer.”
Second, never underestimate “the expulsive power of another affection.” Christian’s grieve, but not as those who have no hope. (1st Thessalonians 4:13) It is always better to love the people we still have (or will have?) than to grieve excessively and over long over those that we have lost. David saw this after the death of his child by Bathsheba, when he returned to normal life saying, “I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2nd Samuel 12:23) That is why, after a major loss, the last step in the grieving process is to come to terms with the new reality of life. After a great loss, life will never again be the same, but it can be good. God wants that for us. Those we have lost want that for us.
According to Job 42:11 after Job had lost everything, and God had begun to restore it, he was comforted when members of his family came to his home, and ate with him in his home, and each of them gave him a little bit of money. Wow. Think of that. We can sometimes comfort others with money. (Job 42:11) We can even send our money and comfort people where we cannot go.
According to Ruth 2:13 Ruth, was a widow in a strange land. She was comforted when Boaz “spoke kindly to her,” even though she was just his maidservant. Eventually Boaz married her, but that was later. Sometimes a kind word is all the comfort that people need. In Proverbs 25:11 we read that, “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” Unfortunately, not all words are rightly spoken. In Job 21:34 Job complained that his friends tried to comfort him with “empty nothings.” People are never comforted by careless platitudes.
I once heard Fred Craddock, longtime professor of preaching at Emory Theological Seminary, tell the story of the woman who came up to him at his mother’s funeral and said, “Isn’t it wonderful, your mother is with Jesus.” Craddock responded, “Madam, I am quite sure that your mother is still among the living.”
Likewise, after the death of my father-in-law, I rushed home from seminary to be with my family family. At one point I put my arm around my mother-in-law and said, “Mom, I know how you feel.” She responded, “No you don’t and I am glad you don’t.” There is a double entendre in there somewhere. In that gentle rebuke my mother-in-law taught me more about Christian caregiving than I had hitherto learned in seminary.
Later, I did learn in seminary, that the best caregivers are not the people who can say all the right things; the best caregivers are those who can listen to the care receiver say all the necessary things. It is all about cathexis and catharsis. Cathexis is the process of taking into ours hearts and lives the people and things that we love. Catharsis is the process of letting them go after we have lost them, and to do that, we have to talk about them.
I learned all of this when I searched the Bible for the word “comforted.” I have just scratched the surface, but I have to bring this sermon to a close. Let me close with this:
Third, Christian Caregiving is an act of gratitude in which the caregiver becomes a channel of God’s grace.
It begins when God cares for us, and comforts us. That enables us to care for, and comfort others. That is what Paul is getting at in 2nd Corinthians 1:3-4. The apostle writes:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
The best reason I know for anyone to be a Stephen Minister, or any kind of Christian Caregiver is gratitude! If we sincerely believe that God has done something for us, we cannot help but want to share that blessing! When we share God’s comfort, we get more comfort. Indeed, the more we share our blessings, the more blessings we will have to share. What Jesus said Luke 6:38 certainly applies to Christian Caregiving:
38 Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.