Category: compassion


In my mid-20s, I was part of a small Bible study group which was, truth be told, probably more of a ‘find your spouse’ study group than anything else.  We had a lot of fun and spent ridiculous amounts of time together as a group.  Church functions, discovering new restaurants, pool parties, bowling, Christmas decorating, weekend trips, shopping, football, Spades tournaments that lasted for days, New Year’s eve parties, and more than a few late night races between those of us who had fast cars (and yes, I was one of them). One particular weekend, very late on a Saturday night, we were exploring how we felt about the serious topic of life.  Everyone had to write on a piece of paper one word to describe how they felt about death. We scribbled on our papers and folded them up, laid them in a basket, and one person began reading all the words out loud.  “Scared”, “dark”, “alone”, “final”, and “trapped” were just a few of the sentiments.  Then our self-imposed leader read mine: “peace”. 

Now don’t get me wrong: I love being alive and want to squeeze every moment I have out of it. A friend said to me recently (in her elegant, slow Southern drawl), “Dawn, I hope when you reach the end of your life, there’s no more dance left in you.”  Her simple statement hit me deeply as someone who has faced a terminal illness and, praise God, lived to tell about it. I truly don’t have a death wish. But as far back as I can remember, I’ve never been afraid of it.  Death has always seemed to me a warm blanket of rest. And letting go. And peace.

For the past several years, I’ve had the wonderful privilege to be part of a volunteer ministry at my church whose primary focus is caring for families as they navigate the dark waters of a loved one’s terminal illness.  As one of the leaders, I am often the first point of contact for a family after they have been advised by their doctor that it’s time to ‘call in hospice’. Our small band of volunteers serve as a sort of liaison between the family and hospice care. Many of them have never heard of hospice and don’t fully understand what it is, so we help them understand the language of ‘end of life’ care.  We also help with the daily tasks of life: housecleaning, yard maintenance, preparing meals, laundry, grocery shopping, and day-to-day errands, so that family members are able to focus on caring for their loved one.

There is no time or energy for hiding behind masks here. Grieving before a loved one draws their last breath takes on many faces, and we have learned that no one has the right to dictate how another walks down the path to good-bye. Sometimes they need to laugh so they don’t fall apart.  Sometimes they need to vent – and there are no rules about language here. Sometimes they need to weep. Bitterly. Sometimes they need to ask questions and try to answer what is destined to remain unknown.  Sometimes they need to sit and embrace the silence. But they don’t want to be silent by themselves. There is an unspoken comfort that comes from simply having a warm body close enough to reach out and touch. Even if they don’t

People often ask why we do what we do – especially when they hear about us for the first time.  “You mean you go into a stranger’s house and clean their toilets?” Yes.  “Why on earth would you practically move in with someone who’s dying?” Because they need us.  “Wow – you guys are weird.”  The families we care for would disagree.  There are many answers, and we all respond in our own way. But for me, the answer is two-fold: meeting people at the point of their need is what Jesus does. Not to over-spiritualize or set ourselves up on some kind of pedestal, but for me it is truly that simple. However, a very strong secondary driving force, and probably what drew me to this in the first place, is that I feel very much at home with people who are broken.  Whether they are broken because of their own choices or choices that were made for them or choices that were forced on them, I am drawn to them.

After being unemployed for almost a year (three days shy of one year to be exact) I’ve been incredibly blessed to begin working with an organization whose focus is providing a safe haven for ministers and their families in crisis. It is a comprehensive, intense program (on average from 12-15 months in duration) which offers relocation, housing, counseling, and childcare when necessary in an effort to provide healing and restoration to ministers and their families who have had to walk away from their calling – as a result of their own actions, or the actions of their home church.  I was initially thrilled about this opportunity because it meant I would be writing – and getting paid for it!  But it didn’t take long for me to realize that once again, I’m submerged in an environment where people’s lives have been shattered.  Men questioning their failures. Women questioning their marriage. Children questioning their future. 

The vast majority of the time, I will not personally interact with these families. Most of them I will probably never even meet.  But what we are doing is helping them put their lives back together. The ‘safe haven’ we provide is guiding them to an honest and authentic relationship with God, themselves, their families, and their church. It is a painful process. Peeling back years of unresolved or unexplored issues to face the core of their own souls.  And then to slowly, gently provide the balm of restoration. To help them stand again, scarred from the battle, but equipped with tools to win the war. I can’t say I love my job because it doesn’t feel like a job. I love what I am a part of. I love knowing that families have a place for hope.

And I feel very much at home.

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Dawn asked me to write a guest post for Father’s Day about three seconds after I asked her to write her guest post for my blog. Being her friend, and always looking for a chance to add a writing credit, I quickly agreed.
Then I started thinking about what to write.
Should I be funny? Should I be heartfelt? What could be written about fatherhood that hadn’t been written before?
Then my grandfather got sick.
The past couple of weeks my dad’s side of the family has been on high alert over my Pop Harold. He went into the hospital with trouble breathing, only to find out he had congestive heart failure and a heart rate just this side of deadly. The docs were able to get the fluid off his heart, but they weren’t able to isolate the cause of his heart racing, so that meant an extended stay in the critical care wing. Turns out it was a tiny valve malfunction and a blocked artery. They gave him medicine and sent him home on Tuesday.
They don’t expect him to ever really recover. We’ve brought in hospice to help out.
Being on the verge of losing my Pop Harold made think about the three main fatherly influence in my life, and I realized: if pedigree were all that mattered, I would be the world’s greatest dad.
Between my father, Rickey, and my two Pops – Pop Harold (my dad’s dad) and Pop Emmette (my mom’s dad) – I have the kind of patriarchal lineage one only finds when reading Biblical genealogies. Those three men represent the finest collection of fatherly wisdom ever assembled – a Daddy Dream Team – and it is my privilege to call myself their son.
I lost Pop Emmette eight years ago this August. I remember the day he died, how I stood over his body in a tiny ER alcove while the world went to hell around me. Doctors and nurses were rushing by outside the curtain that was supposed to give us privacy, and it was a weird juxtaposition to my feeling as if the world had suddenly stood still. Pop’s body seemed half its size; without his soul to fill it, the skin just sagged.
I spoke at his funeral. I told stories that he had told me, stories that were inappropriate for a funeral because they were designed to make people laugh their butts off. I think I may be the only preacher in the world who intentionally turned his grandfather’s funeral into a stand up routine and had the audience roaring with laughter despite themselves. I remember thinking, in that moment, how much of a gift Pop had given me through his stories. How much of me was bound up in him.
Now, with Pop Harold at home but simply waiting to pass on, I find myself planning to speak at another funeral. This one will be different, however. Not because Pop Harold wasn’t a funny man – he certainly could be – but more because Pop Harold’s life has been more of a mystery to me. Perhaps it’s because I was too enraptured in Emmette’s stories to ever ask Harold for his, or maybe it’s because Pop Harold never wanted to share his stories like Emmette did, but whichever it was, I don’t know nearly as much about Pop Harold as I did Pop Emmette.
But what I’ve learned is different. Not better, necessarily, but different. It’s like having silk in one hand and Egyptian cotton in the other – the texture is soft and wonderful for each, but for entirely different reasons.
Pop Harold has shown me the challenge and majesty of aging. That when people seem to have outlived their usefulness, they still have purpose: to teach those around them about the power and necessity of love and family. Pop’s life has become one final lesson from the Good Book – something he spent years studying – and it’s a lesson that we have learned fitfully, painfully even, but one we’ve learned well. When he is gone, there will be no laughter. There will be tears and plenty of them because such is the depth of our love.
And through all of this has been my own father, Dad, as I call him. In some ways we are polar opposites – he’s quiet, good with money, not artistic in the least – and in other ways we are almost carbon copies of each other. I look in the mirror and see where my hair is going gray in the same places his did, at the same age. I see his brown eyes looking back at me through my glasses. Our hair even parts on the same side (when I part mine).
We’ve never been talkers, the kind of father-son duo that can sit up late into the night swapping stories and telling tales. When we do talk, it’s usually to-the-point conversations, even when we’re just shooting the breeze. I’ve never thought it odd or abnormal because what my father says is so packed with wisdom and meaning that it simply doesn’t take more words than he uses.
Unlike me. I can take more words than three people need. But that’s just what makes him so interesting to me. It’s part of why I respect him.
He leads by quiet example, almost by sheer force. Not as a bully forces, mind you; more like Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird. When my father sets a course of action, his integrity almost compels other people to choose that same course. This explains how he was able to become a vice-president in a major bank without his college degree: he learned everything he could, choose what was right, and got others to do the same.
And then there’s me.
I’m a father now – my daughter, Ella, is 5 and my son, Jonathan, is 2 – and one would think that given the examples I’ve had, I’d be a flawless father.
I’m not.
But even as I make major mistakes, I’m learning that perfection is not required of a father. Nothing astounds me more than when I screw up and my kids look past it. Not in a “we’ll remember this later and use it against you” way, but in a genuinely forgiving way. The more I am with my children, the more I begin to understand things like grace and love and mercy – not just from me to them, but from them to me. I can look into their eyes and see how much they truly love me, not because I’m perfect but because I’m daddy.
That’s a lesson that no one but your kids can teach you. And it’s the best lesson in the world.
Happy Father’s Day to all of you fathers out there, wherever you are.
An anonymous poet once said, “The pouring of compassion, combined with the mixing of gifts and generosity, blend together to serve miracles.”  The first time I saw this printed in a magazine, it was the artwork that caught my attention.  The artist had captured an old world feel, something between Renaissance and Renoir.  I read the words again, promptly tore the page out of the magazine, and taped it up on the wall where I could read it daily – sometimes several times a day.  In light of Mother’s Day I would like to tell you about a very special woman who epitomizes every word of this short but powerful prose – my Mom.
The pouring of compassion… my Mom feels things deeply and even though her strong Southern upbringing won’t always allow her to show it, her heart is as tender as fresh biscuit dough.  She will be the first volunteer to provide a meal for someone who’s sick or recovering from surgery.   When she and my Dad travel, she always tucks away the complimentary shampoo, conditioner, bath gels, and lotions from the hotel so she can deliver them to a local ministry helping underprivileged women.  Whether she’s praying (I’ve heard her) or writing in her journal (I’ve read a few entries), nine times out of ten it’s about someone else and their needs.  When I had breast cancer and was overwhelmed by everyone wanting to take care of me, she touched my arm and said gently, “Sweetie, they love you.  Let them.”
Combined with the mixing of gifts and generosity… my Mom has many gifts and she happily, generously shares them with anyone and everyone.  She has the gift of beauty but you won’t find one vain bone in her tiny frame.  She has the gift of hospitality and can instantly make anyone feel at home, ready to put their feet up on the sofa and stay a while.  She has the gift of creativity and can make the simplest meal beautiful and memorable.  She has the gift of music and sings with a joyful spirit.  She has the gift of reading.  That may sound strange but no one – and I mean no one – can read a story to a child like my Mom.  She can literally make time stand still in a story.  I’m thankful my children have been the benefactors of that one!  Everything she does is blanketed in generosity.  She regularly goes above and beyond and finds tremendous satisfaction in making life a little sweeter for others.
Blend together to serve miracles… my Mom always made our house a home.  We may not have had a lot in the world’s eyes but we didn’t know it.  She made birthdays, Christmas, and sometimes a regular old Saturday morning magical – usually on a shoe string budget.  She worked a full time job, volunteered (for everything) at our church, kept our house clean and the laundry done, carted my brother and me to all our social and sporting events, and taught me by example to be a gracious, kind, compassionate woman.  I learned to respect others by watching her respect others.  I learned to do my best by watching her touch everything with excellence.  I learned the deep satisfaction of a ‘Norman Rockwell’ moment by helping to prepare a special meal and gather her family around the kitchen table.  And I learned to be fiercely loyal to my family by understanding that sometimes it’s alright to not keep your mouth shut.
I lovingly refer to her as ‘Miss Daisy’ (when she’s not around), my children call her ‘Honey’, and our friends know her as ‘Mrs. C’.  She pours compassion, combines it with the mixing of gifts and generosity, and blends it all together to serve miracles.  She is simply, beautifully, my Mom.
 
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