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    Jun 11, 2017

    Wisdom and Joy

    Passage: James 1:2-8

    Speaker: Vivian McCarthy

    Series: Important Conversations

    Category: Pastoral Care

    Keywords: death, dementia, family, illness

    Strength and wisdom come from practical preparation for health crises and the challenges we face with regard to catastrophic illness and caring for aging parents.

    I’ve been planning for this series for months. Who knew that it would begin the very week we were really struggling with issues related to my own mother’s care. As is often the case, when someone we love who already has issues and then encounters a medical emergency or setback of some kind, my mother’s recent illness has moved us to a different place in relation to the care she requires – if not for the long haul, at least for the next several weeks. Please forgive me If I get a little emotional today. It’s been that kind of week – well, really it’s been a couple of  weeks.

    On Friday, Mom and I were talking about how we were managing, and something she said brought today’s scripture back to my mind. I think we were talking about all the challenges we had been facing, and she was expressing how she was worried about how I was managing. I shared with her the first verse that we read today, and we both burst out laughing!

    And then, my mother who seems to have shrunk 3 sizes in the last 2 weeks, looked at me and said, “knowing that is what always pulls me through.” My now-tinier and far weaker mother knows that God is at work bringing her what she needs – now and throughout her 85 years. It was a grace-moment for both of us in a very difficult time.

    The people who received this letter from James, the half-brother of Jesus, were living with harassment. Presumably poor, their rich neighbors were taking advantage of them. In other words, they were living through a trial – a test of faith.

    I wonder how they received those words – “whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy.” Some probably stopped listening right there. Joy? Really? But those who kept listening, soaking up the lessons of that passage, received strength for their journey that day. “The testing of your faith produces endurance (or perseverance as it says in the NIV); and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”

    The reason I chose today’s passage, however, comes in the next sentence that talks about wisdom and asking God for it. Verse 6: “But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.”

    You see, today and next Sunday we are looking at what it means to walk through times that are just plain hard – specifically times when we are called on to take care of aging parents. One of the people in our congregation asked me to talk about this – a family that is trying to care for a mother half a continent away and experiencing most of the challenges that go with caregiving, especially when it comes to parents.
    This is what our faith family member wrote to me:

    It is difficult from all perspectives. If you are the caregiver, you feel overwhelmed. If you are receiving care, you feel guilty. If you are a friend looking in, you don’t quite know how to help.

    I will probably say this next week, too, because I believe that it’s part of the wisdom that we need to seek from God – part of what James was saying to the early church. Here it is: Though we can’t control nor anticipate everything that will come our way, it is vitally important that we have conversations that prepare us. Knowing what our loved one thinks and values and wants may not solve all the problems, but it sure helps when the time comes that you have to figure out what to do when dementia begins to steal a mind or illness eats away at a body.

    Sharing our thoughts and feelings with in our family circles also help us to prepare. What I mean by that is it’s not just vital conversation with the person who is ill or struggling with dementia. It is a vital conversation with siblings and your children and maybe even grandchildren. It is in the sharing of thoughts and feelings that families can find a path through the challenges.

    First, it is important to discuss your general feelings with your family and closest friends in relation to illness, death and dying early and often. After all, catastrophic illness or injury can happen to very young people – not just those who are over 80. When a serious illness strikes or someone dies, it is naturally a terribly emotional time. And friends, it is just not wise in the biblical sense to make decisions based on emotion rather than out of your understandings and conversations that you have had over the long haul.

    I would compare this to how weekly worship and daily connection with God builds our faith so it’s strong when we are not. A lifetime of prayers builds you up and gives you the inner reserves of God-given faith and courage and grace in a whole different way than the prayer you pray in panic, hoping against hope that there is a God who has heard you. It’s second nature when you have nurtured your faith. You don’t have to cast around looking for faith. It’s part of you – part of your life.

    Secondly, when you face the onset of a catastrophic illness, have a family meeting. You will need to decide who should be part of that meeting. Let me give you a personal example from my family that has saved all of us from a great deal of stress.

    My father was diagnosed with a meningioma in his brain – a non-cancerous tumor that the doctor was certain could not be completely removed. The doctor knew from the time they found it that because of where it was, he would only be able to take most of it and what was left would grow new tumors – and eventually it grew over 30 new ones. Though it was not cancerous, it was anything but benign.

    We called a family meeting. In our case, since Dad was part of the meeting, it was me, my sisters and their husbands, and most of our children who were in and out of the room as children often are. We prayed together. And we talked about medical decisions that could come our way. As now the rubber was really hitting the road, we all heard Dad tell us what he thought about resuscitation efforts – and we had to clarify what he really meant a few times.

    We prepared his living will and advanced directives that day, deciding together who would be his agent in case he could not decide for himself.

    Friends, we had 12 years with Dad after that first family meeting. It was a holy time for our family. There were some tough decisions that had to be made because there were 30+ radiation treatments on his brain that made him hallucinate. But there was little doubt or confusion about what to do – especially on the day that he suffered a massive coronary. With peace in my heart, I was able to tell the doctor that we would allow him to transition to his new life. With about 15 of us around him, talking to him and each other and telling stories, praying and even laughing from time to time, we walked my father into his new heavenly home. It was one of the holiest days of my life.

    Thirdly, other family meetings need to take place when there is a significant change or a new major decision needs to be made.

    When we are working with elderly parents, dementia to greater or lesser degrees often sets in, for example, and as that worsens, new accommodations may need to be made. And here’s the thing: every major change can cause a great deal of anxiety for the patient and confusion for the family. Mom may seem fine to everyone other than the caregiving child when her every day behavior is hidden. Just a few of the changes that can cause major disruption for our loved ones are: no longer being able to drive, no longer being able to manage their own medications, the need for a caregiver or to move into another home, even no longer being able to shop or decide what I am going to have for supper because someone else is making those decisions. This is of course nowhere near a complete list.

    I believe that James’ message for us today is to be wise – and that it takes our dependence on God’s wisdom for us to be wise in situations that are chaotic and confusing and painful. And I am convinced that if we do not exercise wisdom by connecting with God and preparing ahead for the tough times, it is harder on us emotionally and does not lead to good decisions when good decisions really count. Preparation doesn’t take away the pain – it just gives us a platform – a foundation – that makes it possible to make good decisions at difficult moments.

    I’ll admit that there are days I have to work hard on that joy part!