The world is full of hurried people.
Worried, distracted people with too much on their plates.
When life is full, we miss the small moments.
So during this Advent, I wrote my worry on a slip of paper and burned it into ash. Finally ready to crush the serpent’s head, to tackle this problem by giving it over to Him, burned to nothingness. It’s a visual symbol of destroying something I keep clinging to.
The truth is I can’t do this on my own.
What I’m learning about life is how small I am to really accomplish anything without God’s help.
When Silas’s health was declining and I was his fulltime caregiver, I often found myself feeling exhausted and overwhelmed with all I had to do. I loved being his mama and taking care of him. I wouldn’t have wanted anyone else doing this job. But I also found that 24/7 caregiving took a large toll on my physical and mental health. I found myself exhausted and empty. I recognized my need for a short break, but because Silas was in a wheelchair, fed by a feeding tube every three hours and prone to multiple seizures on a daily basis, I hardly ever went out. I couldn’t go to the grocery store because it was impossible for me to push his wheelchair and a shopping cart at the same time. When we did go out, he usually had severe medical problems: seizures, problems maintaining his body temperature when it was hot or cold, choking, and diarrhea. Plus there was the risk of him picking up the flu, pneumonia and a thousand other things. It made going anywhere with him risky. I soon stopped going out with him.
I remember thinking how nice it would be just to go to a restaurant like a normal family, but that meant I had to tote a trunk load of medical supplies with me. Things that were relaxing family outings became stressful and complicated experiences.
The combination of not getting out of the house combined with exhaustion from caregiving made me anxious and weary. But I also knew that God didn’t want me living in physical and mental exhaustion. That’s life in the landfill, a place where the soul slowly dries up.
Even though I was fulfilling my calling and loved my son dearly, I just wanted some rest in this midst of the storm. I wanted to enjoy him and not worry about everything else. Yet there was very little peace. Not with this disease. Not when there was sin and death and pain in the world.
If Shalom is well being and wholeness, how do we find it in such a broken world?
Even more, what do you do when you’re fulfilling your calling but are weary and worn from the demands?
A few years back I learned about a book by Henri Nouwen, a Christian author and teacher who went to live at L’Arche Daybreak, a community for people with disabilities. Nouwen was assigned to care for a man named Adam who could not walk or talk and had seizures regularly. Through his time at L’Arche, Nouwen learned extraordinary things about God. Though he cared for a man who couldn’t do anything independently, Nouwen says
“[Adam] seemed to be without concepts, plans, intentions, or aspirations. He was simply present, offering himself in peace and completely self-emptied so that the fruits of his ministry were pure and abundant.”i
In the midst of living with his broken body, Adam showed Nouwen wholeness and peace—just by being. Adam didn’t have to fulfill expectations; he didn’t have to solve any problems. He taught Nouwen how life should be lived. We might say that Adam had peace because no one expected anything of a man with disabilities. But too many times we place expectations on ourselves that rob us of peace and cause us stress.
Self-imposed expectations drain us of much of the peace we could have. Perhaps this is our disability—when we choose worry over peace.
Holding my son was a cure-all to my worried heart. Yes, he needed a miracle of healing, a body that worked right instead of spiraling out of control, but in the midst of that brokenness, he was peace and calm in my arms. That calm extended to me, granting something in those small moments like flickers of life from a candle newly lit. He may have been the broken one, but I was broken too—just in a different way. My life showed none of the peace of his. I was worried and exhausted, constantly running from one task to another. My handicap was my lack of peace—my lack of focusing on Christ who would gladly hold me in his arms so that I could rest.
Even Nouwen recognized that in contrast to Adam’s life, his own life lacked peace and tranquility. What an irony that the man whose health was normal could not find peace in daily life and that the man who was broken could. When Nouwen reflected on the people with disabilities at L’Arche community he states,
“While at first it seemed quite obvious who was handicapped and who was not, living together day in and day out made the boundaries less clear. Yes, Adam, Rosie, and Michael couldn’t speak, but I spoke too much. Yes, Adam and Michael couldn’t walk, but I was running around as if life was one emergency after the other. Yes, John and Roy needed help with their daily tasks, but I, too, was constantly saying, ‘Help me, help me.’ And when I had the courage to look deeper, to face my emotional neediness, my inability to pray, my impatience and restlessness, my many anxieties and fears, the word ‘handicap’ started to have a whole new meaning. The fact that my handicaps were less visible than those of Adam and his housemates didn’t make them less real.”
Nouwen’s reflections on his ‘handicaps’ are as much my own. Yet I learned that what tired hearts need most is a peace that we don’t understand in circumstances we can’t solve.
In other words, we might not be able to change our lives, but we can change our focus.
We can claim calm in the midst of chaos.
We can choose shalom in the middle of crazy.
Now that my son is gone, the moments I treasure most were the ones I held my son and forgot the world for a time–
When peace was found in just being and not doing.
Sometimes that is all I need now.
To find peace in just being in Christ’s presence.
To choose fullness over frantic.
Wholeness over being half-engaged.
Holding on to His promises in a chaotic world:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14:27
All this starts by seeking Shalom in the waiting. Peace in the Advent.
i From Henri Nouwen’s Adam: God’s Beloved
Family photos by Heather Bleeke.