Having an active role serving God within the local church or on the mission field is surely the most fulfilling task a Christian can ever be engaged in.
Despite the disappointments that Christian service can bring, being involved in building Christ’s kingdom must rate as the most privileged occupation on this earth. When circumstances in your life change, however, such as retirement, ill health, or — as in my case — caring for a loved one, and you are no longer able to do what you once did within God’s kingdom, questions arise as to what it really means to serve the Lord.
Experiences and challenges
Caring for my wife, who suffers with multiple sclerosis (MS), has been a challenge for both of us; and, I must say, my wife has coped much better than me in all areas. Only the Lord knows of our tears and frustrations, and, in my case, anger in my heart over this debilitating disease.
Having to care for someone with MS, let alone suffer with it, would seriously question anyone who holds to the doctrine of Christian perfection. It is Sunday morning as I write this article. Usually we would be with our dear brothers and sisters, sharing in the worship of God, but because of a re-occurring infection, Ann is not well enough to attend.
It goes without saying that she suffers far more than I do, but in this article I want to share the experiences and challenges of being a Christian carer.
My wife was diagnosed with MS in 1995 and, due to the nature of the illness, her mobility and other functions have got progressively worse. She can walk a few steps using a tri-walker in the home, but anywhere else is dependent on a wheelchair.
For many years I managed to juggle my responsibilities of caring for her — doing a secular job (retiring in 2005) and fulfilling my role as elder. In 2014, after 48 years as an elder in the same fellowship, and with the support and encouragement of the eldership, I ceased to be an elder. This was a challenge in itself. There is nothing quite like sharing and contributing in eldership matters, with prayer and sharing of Scriptures together. Of course, there is the prayer meeting and fellowship with all the fellowship, but, in my case, even that is now limited.
The frustrating thing for me, as for most carers, is that I am not ill or disabled, and learning to accept this role, with all the restraints it entails, is extremely difficult. I also miss, if I am honest, the buzz of being involved in decision-making and the organising of church life and activities. One of my responsibilities was the promotion and support of overseas missions, which I miss dearly.
The second problem for me is the resulting lack of will to study theology and pressing doctrinal issues. When involved in eldership duties or any teaching role, you have to study and prepare; when you have relinquished those duties and they are left in the capable hands of others, the need is no longer there.
Ann and I both share a ‘quiet time’ together, reading the Bible and using Bible notes, and we both read Christian literature, but, as far as in-depth study is concerned, the motivation has diminished.
I have been asked by the elders to preach, but the uncertainty of Ann’s condition means I cannot commit myself to this. I must confess that all this has caused much heart searching, with the question, ‘Where do I go from here?’
Since becoming a Christian in 1964, life for me has been one of ceaseless activity through earning a living, serving the Lord and bringing up a family. And, on retiring from secular work at the age of 65, I still had my eldership. Now, however, caring for Ann and doing household chores takes up most of my day and sometimes part of the night. So I spend a lot of time in the home and am prone to the inevitable humdrum of watching more television and becoming more involved in the social media.
I recognise that caring for Ann is a ministry in itself. The promise to care for her in sickness and in health was a commitment not to be taken lightly or viewed as unimportant and secular. However, it is not the same as public ministry, and in many ways is much harder, especially in seeking to maintain a healthy spiritual walk with the Lord.
Being more house-bound led me to write some children’s stories, a much better alternative than watching television and, hopefully, an antidote to going senile. The book is not primarily geared for Christian readers, but is really intended to get parents and grandparents to read with their children (Creepycrawlydale tales is to be published by Pegasus this summer). For me, it has had a therapeutic effect. It has also brought much laughter to my dear wife, who has not ceased to encourage me to write more.
As Ann’s MS progresses, the greater are the challenges for us both. It is my intention to care for her as long as I am able. I do not doubt we would qualify for social services full-time care, but the intrusion on nearly 50 years of marriage would be extremely difficult to bear for us, and it is our intention to delay the inevitable as long as possible.
It would also be difficult for me to let go of the responsibility of caring for her, as I am familiar with her every need emotionally, physically and spiritually. The MS, through sclerosis (scarring) of the brain, has left her with short-term memory loss, which the most competent social carer would find difficult to deal with for 24 hours a day.
The challenge is also learning to trust God to look after Ann, should anything happen to me. I have a lovely, supporting family, and faithful church members are always there when we need them, but her future care can only rest in God’s hands.
One of the many things I have learned is how easily I fail in my role as carer. MS is so unpredictable. In normal circumstances, coping with the disease is just about bearable, but there are times when Ann cannot move a muscle. Transferring her from the bed to the bathroom in such situations is a challenge that only gets harder. Catheters are great when they are working, but a nightmare when they fail to function. It is at times like these that my true spiritual condition is tested, and, sadly, I have to say, I often fail the test.
Learning to trust the Lord in such situations is an ongoing learning process and it is only the grace of God that helps us through these trying times. In the low points, Satan seeks to take advantage, but as believers we must be continually reminded of God’s promises.
So, what does the future hold for a Christian afflicted with a degenerative disease? For the Christian, euthanasia is not the answer and never could be. For the believer, God is not remote, but very much involved in every detail of our lives.
Has he not promised ‘never to leave or forsake us’? Has he not promised, ‘As your day is, so shall your strength be’? Are there any circumstances exempt from these exceeding great and precious promises?
No one is suggesting that the suffering and heartache will cease, that there will be in some magical way no trials, no tears of frustration and pain. Whatever the future holds for us, no obstacles are insurmountable, for our future is surely in God’s hands. Suffering in this present world is made much more bearable when viewed in the light of eternity. Trials and tribulations are described by the apostle Paul as ‘light’ and ‘but for a moment’ (2 Corinthians 4:17). The weight of glory that awaits us far outweighs the ‘light afflictions’ of this life.
These are the hopes that Ann and I, by God’s amazing grace, cling on to. Because MS is incurable, things will surely get worse. But, we know that nothing will separate us from the love of Christ, and that, one glorious day, along with all our sins and imperfections, MS and all other forms of suffering will be no more. What greater joy and hope could there be? To have a living faith in a glorious, living Saviour far outweighs any suffering, whatever that suffering may be!
Les and Ann are members of Trinity Grace Church, Ramsbottom (FIEC)