Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Growth

It’s time to gather all the Kleenex you used for the inauguration and clean up. Pack up all the good will and best wishes that floated around the room and store them away for the inevitable days to come when we can’t get our act together. But yesterday was just such a wonderful and historical time that I figure we all had fun no matter how you voted. I posed a short bonus “inaguration” paragraph a couple of days ago so if you missed it keep scrolling at the end of this post.

Now, a disclaimer of sorts. My posting today is unique in that I don’t think I have ever written about another person’s vulnerabilities with such poignant detail. I want my readers, especially the ones connected by our church website, to know that I am publishing this only after getting permission from the Walker family. Steve has read the following and gave me his OK.

If you read my blog last week, you’ll remember that our Parish Associate assigned the whole congregation to make a list of everywhere we saw God in the next week. His hint was for us to look for places where we found Growth.

So, here’s my list of where I saw God in the last week:

1. Everywhere
2. Everywhere else

I guess that’s a cop-out. But, as usual, God surprised me and the complete list would be too long so I’ll list my top choice of where I saw God at work. It was the culmination of several years condensed into one moment and one sentence.

We have a woman in our congregation who has Huntington’s Disease. The encyclopedia says it’s “a progressive, degenerative disease that causes certain nerve cells in your brain to waste away.” It’s also incurable. It has left her increasingly debilitated over the time I’ve known her. The most striking symptom is wildly uncontrolled jerky movements. So it’s a pretty hard condition to hide.

But when she and her husband first joined the church she was in the early stages of the disease; the unexplainable extra movements were hard to spot and she merely looked uncoordinated or like something was “off.” I noticed not many people struck up conversation with her during social times like the church picnic. I think we all knew something was wrong but we didn’t know what exactly it was. Consequently we didn’t know what to expect from a conversation and, sadly for us all, tried to avoid the whole issue by avoiding her. I’m embarrassed to admit this went on for a couple of years. We all sat around and wondered was there anyone at home inside this person. The only thing that can be said in our defense is that we’re just your average congregation of frightened and spiritually impaired sinners.

About a year ago her condition got bad enough that she needed almost constant care to help take care of herself as well as her two young children. One of the women in our church started spending the day with her and became her advocate within the church.

After a while people started asking Jan about her and Jan explained to us what was wrong but most important, Jan taught us how to be her friend. As the disease marched through Sherrie’s brain her speech became almost impossible to understand. Sherrie’s posture shrunk to state where her head hung low in a stare at the ground. But Jan was very clear that she understands everything that’s going on around her and is pretty sharp.

Jan gave us the gift of being able to Grow. We were each able to grow spiritually while we were growing a friendship with Sherrie.

With Jan’s help we started including Sherrie in our conversations and we even moved our Sunday School class downstairs so Sherrie didn’t have to walk up the stairs. By now, even walking was a problem for her. But through Jan’s mentoring, we have learned how to love Sherrie. I don’t phrase it like this because we aren’t normally loving people and had to be taught to love but because we needed to know the technicalities of the “how” part. Because of the way Huntington’s affects the brain Sherrie’s speech was sometimes difficult to understand and we didn’t know exactly how much information she was processing. Jan assured us that not only did she understand everything but Jan also told us what a high level of functioning Sherrie came from. She had held an executive level position in a big hospital system in Dallas. We came to realize that there was someone locked up inside this person, someone we all wished we had met in better times. So we started imagining her as that person and talking to her as that person.

The great difficulty with her speech meant that when she tried to talk, about the best she could do was simply one syllable repeated two or three times. Jan and Sherrie’s husband both coached us to be patient while Sherrie tried to take part in conversation. Jan noticed she had trouble reading but couldn’t hold the book still because of the constant jerky movements the disease caused. So Jan got books on tape. It has now become almost impossible for her to coordinate her body well enough to walk and she refuses to use a wheelchair. Jan showed us how to hold her hand as she walked–loosely enough that it didn’t appear we were helping her but firm enough to give her some balance.

As Sherrie’s body deteriorates we have grown in our love for her. The morning Clay gave me my assignment to list ways I saw God at work I left the sanctuary and went straight to Sunday School.

First, I have to tell you a little about our class. We are an all-female class of mostly menopausal chicks. So you can imagine we spend a great deal more time visiting each other than actual study of the bible. As a matter of fact, last week, after we had gone through the prayer list and spent some time planning a class party we then spent the rest of our hour discussing how we intended to redecorate our classroom and we never got around to any actual study. I suspect this happens in a lot of Sunday School classes like ours.

At the beginning of the class we always go over the list of people we need to pray for. The day of my assignment, one of the members of our class mentioned her husband’s numerous health problems. At the end of this long list of his problems, which I can’t discount—they are very real and serious problems; there was a pause in the conversation. Then out of the corner of the room, without lifting her head from her stare at the ground, Sherrie gave what amounted to a sermon in the longest sentence I’ve ever heard her say and this time she spoke as clear as a bell: “I will pray for him.”

The Huntington’s has robbed Sherrie of almost everything about her physical abilities but her spirit shines brightly through the darkness. The disease may rob her of every physical attribute she has but she will hold on to her relationship with God until the end.

We all grew a little that day. God had been at work in our midst.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

thank you god for letting me hear and feel Jane's words. I came to work this morning in self pity, read your column and was reminded what a great life i really have. thx df

Charles said...

Jane, I would like for us to do some of this with you. If you'd talk to Ann, we might. Thanks. Charles