Monday, August 29, 2011

No, Really: That's Life

Her mother is nearly blind.

And her father, already blind, has other, even more debilitating ailments.

Talking with friends at church yesterday, I understood once again how caring for the aged poses challenges with which many families struggle privately.

Another friend is going up to Arkansas this week with her husband to get some answers about her aunt's deteriorating mental condition, which they suspect involves Alzheimer's. They've already moved her aged mother to a nursing home here.

All this news, just after my own family has been dealing with somber care issues regarding my 83-year-old aunt.

My friend with the blind parents has been struggling herself for almost a year to endure professional therapy on her back so she can avoid potentially dangerous surgery. This means that she cannot physically care for her parents like she used to, which just adds to her frustration and sadness as she watches, daily, their health fade more and more.

"You look at what they used to be, and all that they used to do," she confided to me, "and then what they are now, and you wonder, 'how does their condition today honor God?'"

And that's the question, isn't it? As modern science has allowed us to live longer lives, the quality of those lives hasn't been able to keep up.

Or at least, what we consider to be quality.

We look at our aging loved ones, who raised us and cared for us, and now we're propping them up in chairs, bathing them, speaking in simple sentences to them, planning their days, managing their finances, and watching helplessly as frailty consumes them. I don't do half of what these friends do for their parents; I'm not even involved in the oversight of my aunt's accounts, nor did I move a stick of her furniture from New York City to suburban Miami. But even from the distance from which I have viewed all of these changes, I find them to be gravely unsettling and fear-stoking. What about when my own time comes? I'm not afraid of death, but I have to admit: I'm afraid of the process of dying.

Aren't most of us?

So as my friends and I commiserated yesterday about the plight in which our families have found themselves, we naturally came to describe how the flickering flame of old life, like the wick in a spent candle, can seem so feeble and perilous.

Yet... the glow is still life, isn't it? It's not something we can turn on and off like an engine or a light bulb. Yes, parents conceive life, but even conception isn't a guaranteed result of intercourse. And murder is as heinous as civil law maintains it to be because nobody has the right to arbitrarily end another's life. And those who end their own we consider to have been mentally imbalanced.

Perhaps moreso than anything with which we come in contact on a daily basis, life serves as a constant reminder of God's gift of creation. Only God can give and take life. Which also testifies to His sovereignty over all His creation.

Even lying in bed, as a friend of mine days from death was doing several years ago at the end of her quick fight with cancer, and as I saw the skin and bones of her frail body slightly rise and fall with each slow breath, I had to marvel at how life remained even when all of her vital functions were shutting down.

Sure, she was comatose, unable to do anything except the basic, involuntary mechanics of breathing. Yet even in what we would consider to be a woeful state of existence, God had a purpose for my friend's life that day.

Maybe not climbing a mountain, or finishing a novel, or winning an election, or anything else we consider to be productive behavior.

Despite everything she could no longer do, my cancer-riddled friend honored Christ by simply being alive.

The teenager plunged into a semi-conscious state by a car wreck last year, about whom I wrote for Crosswalk, honors Christ even though his family and loved ones have to do almost everything for him.

The blind parents of my friend who herself is suffering from back pain honor Christ even though they can no longer see His creation. And the mother and aunt of my friend traveling to Arkansas this week honor Christ, along with my aunt now in Florida, because even though we don't think it's of a desirable quality, they have life.

I'm not saying that any of this is fun, or pretty, or comfortable. In most of these circumstances, both the infirm and their loved ones suffer pain, grief, frustration, and plenty of other miserable afflictions. Believe me; I know. If any of us could turn back time on our loved ones' physical disorder, wouldn't we?

But in terms of the way a life lived with dementia or another disabling condition can be honoring to God, might we find rest in the fact that God is still glorified in our body's use of His gift of life?

It's as Job declared: "The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."

If what I'm saying sounds trite and negligible, then maybe it's because our society has purged life's intrinsic purpose from our consciousness. We're taught to pursue and achieve and acquire in the name of dominion and productivity. Which aren't bad things if we maintain a proper perspective regarding Who really gives us any of them to begin with.

Those things we accomplish during our time on this planet vary from person to person, but the "force," or the "subtle energy," or élan vital that generates the reality we experience in and of ourselves is something that we cannot produce, generate, store, reduce, or multiply. It either is or isn't. The only way we see one as being better or worse than another is through our own culturally-conditioned lenses of relational hierarchy.

Maybe when our loved ones become stripped of all that we habitually consider life to be, and we're left with looking at life in its most basic form, God wants us to remember that it's all His to begin with anyway. And end with.

And all that we've done in between has no significant bearing on either.
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