Ministering to the Chronically Ill
Patricia E. Clawson
Karen vividly remembers going with her family to Denice Murphy's apartment to sing Christmas carols and being shocked that the 59-year-old bedridden widow had been left by caregivers in shambles.
"This can't go on," Karen said to her husband (who prefers anonymity) as they drove back to their home. As members of Covenant OPC in Orland Park, Illinois, they knew the Scripture teaching that believers should care for widows and orphans. Bedridden with muscular dystrophy and fibromyalgia, Denice had lived by herself since becoming a widow three years before. She depended on caregivers to come six hours daily to help her clean up, fill her water tube, and give her one meal and leave a sandwich on her bed for another meal. Instead, caregivers stayed just two hours and left Denice disheveled, sometimes prompting her to cancel visits from church members because of embarrassment.
Denice was eight when she was first diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a degenerative disease of the muscles, and fibromyalgia, which causes pain in her fibers. As she grew older, the debilitating diseases forced her to walk by holding on to walls. At sixteen, Denice caught the flu and could no longer walk. After she married, her husband, Murph, cared for her until he died.
Denice and Murph were living in a nursing home near Covenant OPC when a visitor to Covenant suggested that church members visit her. They did, and a relationship grew. Soon the Murphys became members. The congregation helped them move from the nursing home to an apartment. Deacons installed window coverings, built a wheelchair ramp, balanced checkbooks, helped with medical care, and provided financial aid. Women brought meals, visited, and stayed with her during hospital emergencies. The girls' fellowship made her a quilt. Session members held worship services in their home.
After Murph died, Denice's caregivers were not accountable and often apparently stole her belongings, said Karen. If they forgot something, she did without. If her medicine or water bottle fell to the floor, she had none for the day.
On the way home from Denice's, Karen and her husband spoke about what to do about her situation. "Well, the dining room would work," said Karen, a mother of six children, aged eleven to nineteen. They had just remodeled their dining room, but knew that if they brought Denice into their home, she would need to be on the first floor. They also would need to change the windows and light fixtures and move furniture to transform their dining room into a bedroom.
"We just decided she needed to be where people could keep an eye on her," said Karen. "The Lord has called us to take care of one another."
Not every church member is called to open their home to those who are chronically ill. Church members bring meals to women who have just given birth or offer rides to those going through chemotherapy. But when someone has a chronic illness, it's easy to forget that the person may need ongoing help, especially during a flare-up. It's easier to lend a hand once in a while than to give aid week after week.
Yet to those with chronic illnesses, the repeated offer of help is a concrete way to assist them in handling their illness and a visible expression of the church loving their neighbor. The helping hand also relieves family members who shoulder the burden of giving aid while juggling work, school, or family.
Before Karen's family invited Denice into their home, they sought advice from the session and church members. Most were surprised and concerned that they were "biting off more than they could chew," said Karen. "They didn't want us moving her in and then deciding it didn't work out. That would be really difficult on Denice."
When Karen and her husband told their kids, the kids said, "OK. What do we have to do?"
"Watch TV and eat ice cream with her."
"Great," they said. They loved ice cream.
Then, after a worship service at Denice's apartment, Karen's husband invited her to live with them. "She cried," said Karen. "She was really overwhelmed."
When Denice heard that they wanted her to live with them, she thought, "Why would these people want me to live in their home when they don't even know me?"
"I think the entire congregation, as well as the session and the diaconate, were amazed by the invitation to Denice from Karen's family," said church member Doreen Voss. Denice moved into Karen's home on April 9. Now Karen stays home when the caregivers come, so she can observe them. When she needs to run errands or the family goes on vacation, church members stay with Denice. A retired elder visits Denice on Thursdays. The pastor, deacons, and members stop by. At one of their bimonthly worship services with Denice, twenty-nine folks came in support.
"We're told that true religion is to take care of the widows and orphans," said Karen. "How better than to show our children what they can do?"
Church members willingly offer a hand. "I think praying for someone continually brings people very close in the Lord and moves one to help out because of that closeness of love," said Doreen.
Ministering to Denice has its blessings. "Before you leave, she always asks, 'How can I pray for you?'" said Karen. "She does her best not to focus on her disabilities, but on her ability to pray for you."
"I help the family see how I handle big obstacles in life, yet can still praise God through it all," said Denice. "It helps them better understand others with similar circumstances."
Denice encourages those with chronic illnesses: "When you can't pray because you're overwhelmed with your circumstances, praise and thank the Lord in and through it all."
Chantry La Belle, 39, has many responsibilities as a mother of seven, ages five to fifteen, and the wife of James, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Cape Cod in West Barnstable, Massachusetts. Seven years ago, when James was a seminarian, Chantry was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which causes numbness, weakness, loss of balance, fatigue, brain fog, and occasional bowel and bladder problems. With a flare-up, she also becomes dizzy.
That's when the deacons and church members, especially the women's fellowship, step in to assist with the kids, cleaning, and meals, especially since Chantry homeschools six of the children. James then goes shopping, does laundry, cooks, and cleans on top of his pastoral duties.
Chantry was first diagnosed while attending Calvary OPC in Glenside, Pennsylvania. The women there organized volunteers to bring meals three to five times a week and helped with the children. One church member cleaned weekly (paid by the deacons as part of her livelihood). Others provided child care when she was hospitalized, did laundry, drove her to appointments, helped with the homeschooling, or watched the younger children while Chantry homeschooled the older ones or needed to rest. The deacons helped financially.
Without such help, the burden falls on James. "Then his work as a pastor would suffer," said Chantry. During a flare-up, "I pray, pray, pray," said James. "I rest on the Lord, lean on his character as faithful, good, and all-sufficient." When he has a need, he speaks with the diaconate, with the women's fellowship, or at prayer meeting. "It is good for the church when people become the occasion for obligating them to love as Christ loved us, to live out I John 4:11: 'Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.'" James now understands the meaning of the church as the body of Christ. "If one member suffers, all suffer together" (I Cor. 12:26).
When the La Belles moved to Massachusetts three years ago, Chantry was ill. One church member came three or four times a week for four hours to play with the little ones so Chantry could focus on homeschooling the older children and resting. When Chantry was hospitalized, another woman taught the children.
Chantry's MS is stable now. She's doing everything in the home, except running with the kids in the park, because she tires quickly. Sometimes church members donate frozen meat, breads and rolls, or apples. New church members have been especially service oriented and help with the children, she said.
Chantry's advice to others in need is not to worry how your house looks. "They're not going to judge you," said Chantry. "You have to let that go. I know I needed help, so I didn't worry about the floor needing to be swept."
What is the best way to help someone with a chronic illness? "Just ask," said Chantry. "I'm sure I can find more than one way for someone to lend a hand. The best thing is to be available. Galatians 6:9–10 tells me we are to serve each other, especially 'those who are of the household of faith,' as we have opportunity, and not to grow weary."
"Rachel" (who requests anonymity) has been on both the giving and the receiving end of helping the chronically ill. A member of a small OP church, she took time off from work to take a woman to doctor's appointments. Now she often can't drive others and needs help herself. Sick with an undiagnosed illness, she periodically experiences vision loss, blood pressure changes, loss of balance and mobility, pain, blood count changes, and hearing difficulties. She usually walks, drives, and works, but during flare-ups about once a year she needs someone to drive her to appointments and to work, which her pastor does when her husband can't. She sometimes fears she will lose her vision and have to stop working.
During flare-ups, her husband, her pastor, and the "faithful few" at church step in to help her cope. For church members, "it's an opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Christ," said Rachel. "What I have found over the years is that one must trust the Lord to send a 'saint' who is willing to give of their time and serve sacrificially."
Providing such help is especially challenging for small congregations. "As a church grows spiritually and learns to love actively, then no matter how small the congregation, other members will step forward and make the sacrifice to help," said Rachel. "In every way, the person in need learns to give thanks for the sacrifices of others."
OP pastors, elders, deacons, and church members often step in to help those with chronic illnesses, lifting weight off the shoulders of the needy and their families. As pastor of Grace Fellowship, Bill Snodgrass said his small Philadelphian congregation has many needs, taxing their limited resources of time, energy, skills, and finances. Periodically, he prepares an "opportunities bulletin" to report areas of need inside and outside the church, such as those needing babysitters, a phone call, or cards. "Both the helper and the helped need the motivation that comes from knowing that the Lord is with us (Matt. 28:20)," said Bill. He reminds them that the burden for helping "falls on the risen Christ first and foremost," and "his burden is light." Bill remembers a work team helping to clean one member's apartment. "The sweat pouring from one woman's face as she cleaned and cleaned on her knees remains one of the earthly images of glory that I will carry with me as I follow Christ," said Bill.
In Acts 20:34–35, Paul says: "In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'"
Denice, Chantry, and Rachel know the blessing of being on the receiving end of giving. "I don't know where I'd be today if Covenant Church members hadn't come to visit me at the nursing home that day," said Denice. "I've learned how to gracefully accept God's blessings through the church."
The author is the editorial assistant for New Horizons. New Horizons, January 2011.