How This All Started

This morning was a particularly stressful morning of pastoral care. My son picked something up at daycare yesterday. He came home with a runny nose, sneezing, congestion, and a fever. It made for a rough night. He couldn’t sleep well so that means my wife and I didn’t sleep well. So this morning, tired from lack of sleep, we had to make a decision about how our day was going to unfold. I decided that I would attempt to take our son to work with me. The nursery is right next to my office, and I figured he could play while I worked. We made all the preparations, packed all his snacks and food, and I left on the thirty-five minute drive to the church. On the way to church I go through a deadzone for cell service, and when I finally got to the other side two voicemails from church members awaited me. This was about 7:45.

Both voicemails were about the same issue. One from a husband (I’ll call him Dan) and deacon who’s wife (I’ll call her Lisa) is chronically and debilitatingly ill with various maladies; one of which is dementia. Because of all this the wife has been homebound for over 2 years. The normally private and stoic man’s voice was broken and weeping as he left a message for me that his wife had taken a turn for the worse. They apparently had been fighting that morning, but he had to go to work. The second voicemail was from the matriarch of the church (I’ll call her Ann), a pillar in our church. Because Dan was at work, I called Ann to get the story about what is happening.

The Crisis

I found out that Lisa was in a desperate state of depression. She felt that she has been attacked and cast aside by the church, and that her husband had provoked it by speaking ill about her. Lisa also thought that Ann had  helped spread lies about her character to make people in the church hate her.

So, I dropped my son off at Mrs. Ann’s house only to discover that I forgot to grab his diaper bag when I was leaving the house. I have no choice but to leave him and worry about getting a diaper after I go talk to Mrs. Lisa. On the way to Mrs. Lisa’s house I took time to fill my wife in on what was happening and get her to pray for the situation. I was praying all the way to Mrs. Lisa’s house. I didn’t know what state she would be in when I arrived. By the grace of God she was calm, and welcomed me into the house to talk.

I know about all of her illnesses, I regularly visit their home, and I talk and pray regularly with her husband about their situations. So entering in to the home I am well aware of how bad her dementia is, but I was not aware of all the feelings of bitterness and unforgiveness she had been keeping inside for the past few years. So I sat and listened to her tell me about her problems for a little over 30 minutes. I didn’t interrupt or try to correct anything she was saying. I let her speak her peace. I just wanted to see her heart. She was obviously hurting in more ways than one, and I was praying God would give me discernment through her words to find her greatest need. Mrs. Lisa is a believer, and had been long faithful to the local church I serve. Her and Dan had led the worship for over 30 years with her on the piano and him leading the singing. So being homebound and giving all of that up was incredibly hard for her. Her dementia had altered her perception of what had happened over the past 3 years. The past and the present seemed to meld together in her mind to the point that the hurts of years ago seemed like they were happening in the present. She was consumed with anger and bitterness toward her husband and Mrs. Ann. So as I sat there listening and praying, I wasn’t entirely sure how to respond to it all.

Focus On The Person In The Present

As I’m processing Mrs. Lisa’s words I reflect on the story of Jesus and the woman at the well from John 4:7-25:

7 A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.2 The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”

When Jesus was dealing with the woman at the well she tried talking to him about different things to distract from the truth that needed to be spoken.  Jesus was able to see through her questions about places of worship and who dug a well and he spoke truth to her. He spoke to her in a way that forced her to take him serious. He was honest and direct. He just dealt with the woman in the present. I also reflected back on my counselling training and how I was taught to phrase my responses in situations like this. So when it was my time to talk I tried, to the best of my ability, to be direct and truthful about what I thought the real issue was.

I said, “What I’m hearing, and correct me if I’m wrong, but what I’m hearing is that you have a lot of bitterness and unforgiveness towards your husband and the church.” And just like that, through the working of the Holy Spirit, her walls fell down and she began to weep before me. In a moment of clarity of mind she talked to me about how her anger and hurt just consumed her, and she didn’t feel she had the strength to forgive. No beating around the bush. No jumping between five different strands of thought. No forgetting where she was in her sentences. She clearly and coherently was asking me for help. Help to forgive and love her husband, to learn how to apologize to him. She wanted to know how to reconcile with the church members while she is bound to her home. And I was able to talk with her and point her to Christ. I talked about how she doesn’t have the strength in herself to forgive, but by the power of Christ in her that she could forgive those that hurt her. (Whether the hurt was real or perceived is of little consequence because to Lisa, in this moment, it is real.)

I defended her husband, and spoke to her about how he relentlessly is an advocate for her in the church, and how he urges and even begs at times for people to come visit her. I addressed the real shortcomings of the church when it came to caring for the shut ins of our community, and at the same time helped point out the love that the people had for her. She wasn’t as alone as she thought she was.

And then….poof… the clarity was gone. The ramblings began again. The hurts and pain and frustration flooded back in as if it had never left. I spent some more time with Mrs. Lisa before I prayed over her and left. I’m left asking myself, “Did I make a difference?” “Did that moment of clarity actually achieve anything?” “How would Christ view Mrs. Lisa in light of this situation?” “Would she ever be able to achieve reconciliation in any meaningful way with her dementia affecting her so strongly?” All of these questions swirl in my head. As I sit here writing this journal I am still broken over this situation. My heart aches for this woman and her husband, and for the church family who hurts along side her. They love her and minister to her, all the while she is casting blame and hurt upon them because she feels neglected.

Now What?

So where do we go from here? How do I shepherd my flock through these tempestuous seas? First, I admitted to myself that I don’t know what to do. Second, I prayed for wisdom from my Father in heaven to guide this flock he has intrusted to me. Finally, I committed myself to love this woman in the present. To care for her more vigilantly than I have in the past. I have started forming a schedule for visitation. I have made calls and talked with members of the church who are closest to Mrs. Lisa, and twice a week for the foreseeable future someone will be visiting and ministering to Lisa. The ones I have talked to I have prepared for the insults and the bitterness. I want them to be fully aware of what they are walking into when they visit her, but I refuse to sit idly by while a member of my flock suffers. When a member of the body suffers the whole body suffers. So I don’t know exactly how this will pan out, but I am trusting in God that he will bless this endeavor.

Soli Deo Gloria