Since graduating seminary in May 2012 with my Mdiv, a lot has happened in my life. At the top of that list is the return of my father into my life after a long absence. I discovered that Dad has frontal temporal dementia, which is leading to a gradual erosion of his normal, day to day functions, such as dressing himself. In my care for Dad, God has taught me some important lessons. I thought I’d share them with you today:
First, understand that the person who has a disease is still a person created in the image of God. While my dad’s brain and the rest of his body are dying and he will one day, unless God miraculously heals him, die from his dementia, he is still a person and deserves to be treated with love and value. There have been times when I marveled at my dad’s ability to remember things even from his childhood. While he is dying he is not dead and thus still has a God-given purpose to know and make known the Gospel. As my dad understands more of his identity in Christ, I’ve observed how God has been working in his life to make him aware of his strengths, weaknesses and limitations.
Second, minister through the tears. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read letters from my dad and broken out in tears. Knowing that your dad or loved one is going to die and what they are going to die from isn’t easy. Thankfully, during the majority of these times my wife has been home which has helped to not only calm me down but also to bring a measure of comfort knowing she understands what I’m going through. Jesus promised to send the Comforter to minister to us. God uses broken people to deliver the amazing message of the grace of God. Being broken isn’t a sign of weakness, but a mark of spiritual maturity.
Third, be compassionate. My dad struggles with anxiety and has deep fears about his dementia. Recently my dad told me, “I face deep fears and anxieties from dementia” and “It is hard to pray, pour these thoughts out to God. It hurts too much.” As I read those words God filled my heart and mind with compassion and I was able to point Him to Jesus. I noted in my reply letter to him, “Dad I can’t imagine how hard it is for you, but I do know as you said in your letter that Jesus prayed in the Garden “knowing He faced death.”
I went on to tell my dad, “I don’t know what is going to happen in the future. I don’t know what is going to happen with your dementia other than I know that is it an awful disease. Here’s the thing though: Our God is amazing and can do above and beyond what we expect. I know His peace passes all understanding and that He is always praying and interceding for His people (you and I, and all of His people) before His throne. When I struggle with anxiety, I rehearse what God has done and is doing in my life. In other words I try to focus on the positive things happening in my life without minimizing the reality of painful, difficult or hard situations. My focus isn’t on myself but on Jesus. Jesus helps us to face the reality of our lives and stay focused on Him.” I continued explaining that, “One day all things will be made new and yet as a family we are facing your dementia together by the grace of God. While it’s understandable that you are facing fear and anxiety about your dementia I encourage you to look to Jesus. Read the Psalms and notice how David cried out to God in the midst of his pain and struggles. Now read Matthew 11:28-30. Jesus says His yoke is easy, which means He can carry all your burdens. Since Jesus is our peace, the Holy Spirit grants to us His peace which surpasses all understanding. As a son of King Jesus you are entitled to all the rights and benefits of your adoption as a son of the King, and the grace of God superabounds towards you. This truth will help you and encourage you to rest in Jesus.”
Fourth, give them the Gospel. In my letter to my dad I shared with him, “When you face fear, guilt and shame look to Jesus. He is the solution and answer to our greatest struggles because He experienced all of our pain and struggles and yet never sinned. When we look to Jesus we look to One who knows us through and through and yet is unlike us because He is holy. Jesus is more than just our example, He is our Savior, Lord, King, Priest, Mediator and Intercessor.”
Finally, be real. Ministering to my dad is causing me to be real. It would be easy for me to compartmentalize the pain and to shove it down, but that would also be unhealthy. Rather than being anxious about my dad’s future, I’ve resolved to trust God. This doesn’t make it any easier but it does make it bearable because our God has big shoulders that we can lean upon. His promises are our bedrock and the foundation for why we can be real.
While I’m five hundred miles away from my dad, I’m very encouraged by the work of God’s grace in his life. Whether you are ministering to those with severe illness or a disease understand that God uses ordinary people for extraordinary purposes, so join Him in His unfolding story of redemption right where you are by being teachable, humble and available as an instrument to know and make known the glorious news of the Gospel.