Saturday, November 5, 2011

This is not what I signed up for...

Work in the inner city is always full of surprises. Poverty. Violence. Drugs. Homelessness. Hunger. Unemployment.  Add on top of that the fact that as the director of social outreach at the community center I provide aid to those in need and my share of surprises becomes disproportionate to most.  For the most part (knock on wood), I have become more comfortable with handling the unexpected on a daily basis. As time has gone on, the importance of faith and trust have been reinforced and reaffirmed as "God will provide" has moved far beyond a simple axiom and become a way of being and ministering.

I truly believe that God will provide. If I didn't, I wouldn't be able to do the work that I do. That's because a) I would worry myself to death about where we would get all the help we need, i.e. why the food pantry is empty, b) I would realize that there is no way we should be able to do the work we do with the staff/help we have, i.e. who in their right mind delegates event coordination to teenagers?!?, and c) If I didn't think God would provide, I pretty sure I'd be saying that we can do/ are doing this on our own, which is just plain false.  Those are just some of the reasons I believe God will provide.

That faith though does come with some consequences.  God will provide. That means whether you like it or not, God is there and is going to come up with something. God will provide. And that means that you don't really get a free choice in what exactly the Good Lord giveth.  Whatever it is that God provides, I have to believe it's good.  That each new experience/ surprise/ twist in the road is a blessing and/or opportunity for grace. I wouldn't be able to do the work I do without that.

But what about when what God seems to provide isn't exactly what you signed up for?  Not that you were expecting something in particular, but nowhere in what you expected or thought would be expected of you did this ever come up.

Empty food pantry? Vietnamese elderly couple in need on Federal disaster grants? Volunteers with criminal backgrounds?  Putting on large scale community events on 2-weeks notice?  No problem. I've got it covered.

Accompanying a neighbor through diagnosis and treatment for breast and lymph node cancer? This is not what I signed up for.

In fact, I don't like doctors, I have no medical training, and blood makes me woozy.  Our neighbor, Sally, is not the most agreeable woman in the world, has smoked all her life and won't admit that that is the root of her emphysema. She can't and most likely wouldn't go to doctors appointments if someone didn't accompany her, in essence making her go.  That someone doing the accompanying is me.

In the midst of my ministry last year, I wrote about a breakthrough moment with Sally.  Soon after Sally opened up to me I wrote of the experience of caring for her:

I can feel that moment. The memory of it is triggered deep within me and while the details of our conversation fade, that touch does not. And I wonder, did Christ ever forget those he touched? The lepers and the blind people he healed- each one had a connection through touch with Christ. For healing to happen they needed to touch, not because healing is somehow linked to touch, no, they needed to touch to believe that change could happen. Such belief comes from a connection, a presence, a belief and care by those who touch us. Jesus touched those in need and changed their lives... I can hope to reach out like that in/with my life. If I do, God is bound to touch me and that's the type of feeling you don't forget- it changes you, it heals you, it stays with you, and it makes you stay in touch with what's all around you.

Our relationship had been rocky leading up to that moment of connection but in that moment barriers were broken and progress was made.

I wish I could say that the smoothness of that moment continued... it didn't.  That's probably why I haven't really written about Sally since.  Grace abounded vividly that day. It opened my heart and gave me the opportunity to love another in a new way, connecting with God and making a difference in the process.  The day that we spent seven hours in the waiting room of an inner city Emergency Room, because Sally told me she couldn't swallow and hadn't eaten in days, only to have Sally storm out of the waiting room without being seen and demand to be taken home was less obviously graceful.  As we yelled at each other in the parking garage, I could feel the moment but in a much different way.

The ensuing months have been rough. I've learned that giving your heart to others in ministry does not give them the right to trample all over it, that vulnerability is a two-way street that must be tread with caution, and that sometimes to best serve someone you need to detach yourself from them so that they can walk on their own. After all, once healing takes place it is the healed that gets up and walks not the healer that walks for them.

As we've traveled towards this diagnosis, I've put these lessons into action.  The work I do requires commitment to a lot of people and as such I can't let one person monopolize my time and energy and I also have to leave time and energy for myself.  I've made other parish staff go to appointments, dropped Sally off to fend for herself, and emotionally distanced myself from the case.  None of this has been easy.  Once my heart is invested in something or someone I want to see it through. Detaching my well-intentioned heart and placing responsibility on Sally has been difficult, but I know it is for the best.  In moments of doubt or guilt, I think that I should be doing more, that somehow pulling away and making Sally self reliant is cold-hearted and uncompassionate. Yet, this is what I need to do... for her and for me.  To do anything else would be a disservice.

So, when the results of a biopsy and other battery of tests came back today and the doctor called me into the examining room to bear the news and be with Sally as we looked towards what this future with cancer will mean, I didn't (and still don't) quite know what to do with it all.

This is not what I signed up for, no way no how.  Still it seems to be what I've got and what God is calling me to work in and learn from.  It's one of those surprises that comes with the work I do.  All I can say is that  God will provide.  What exactly? I'm not sure. Perhaps a new way to serve, a different way to grow, a discomfort that I would never wish for, or an opportunity for grace and mercy.  Really, I don't know. I can just believe that God will provide for Sally and myself.