Cancer, Ecclesiastes, Embracing Obscurity, Man's Best Friend, Servanthood, Service, Who is my neighbor?
Most of the time we think God must call us to serve Him in ways that are consistent with the gifts and interests He’s given us. Take for example, say, a church bulletin board on which are posted numerous opportunities for service within the local body. If I were perusing the options listed, I’d probably consider signing up for teaching a ladies’ bible study, or washing the linens after church events, or making meals for those who are sick or who have just had babies. Those are right up my alley. I can outline a passage of scripture in order to teach it. I do laundry all the time, so what’s another load or two? And sharing good food with others brings me joy. You could call it my love language.
They all seem like reasonable options.
But sometimes we don’t get the luxury of a sign-up sheet. Sometimes the “call” to service isn’t a check-off list in which we get to choose our most preferred ministry style. Sometimes it’s chosen for us. Sometimes it’s just dumped into our laps. Sometimes what we feel called to do is not the same as what God is indeed calling us to right this very moment.
Such has been the case the past few weeks and months.
Confession: Neither my husband nor I are dog people. We like animals alright, and see the need for them to be sweetly cared for—but not by us. We aren’t so much into pets.
But about four months ago, our neighbor Carolyn found out that her husband George had cancer. Brain and lung cancer. And these neighbors, these friends of ours, have two little dogs that mean the world to them.
When I think of friends dealing with cancer, the first things I’m willing to sign up for are to pray for them, bring them meals, and offer to clean for them. While those things are certainly appreciated, what was the first thing we were actually asked to do?
Train their dogs to stay in their yard. Help bury the wire for the invisible-fence-and-collar system to keep the little pooches from getting out again.
Our neighbors were too busy with doctor’s visits, cancer-induced vomiting and headaches, brain surgery, radiation, and dealing with the myriad physical and emotional effects of being in the throes of an ongoing battle against cancer to do it themselves. So, Nathaniel and I, who had no experience training dogs, found ourselves being made useful to the Lord in an area in which we felt woefully under-prepared. To be sure, it was a good experience for us and for our boys to learn about caring for and training dogs. The boys loved it! But it was awkward feeling so under-qualified and knowing that surely there are other people out there who could do a much better job…
Eventually the situation with the dogs was solved, and our less-than-competent services were no longer needed. Praise the Lord He made good of it despite us.
Then there was good news. George’s cancer had all but disappeared! The treatments seemed to be working! He was going for walks around the neighborhood with Carolyn, and even mowing the lawn on his riding lawnmower. We praised the Lord!
But then there was a heart attack. And then pneumonia, which seemed to take him down harder than the cancer had.
And about three weeks ago, the vomiting and severe headaches returned. Something was wrong.
For about a week there was quiet suffering at home as George didn’t want to eat anything because of all the nausea and pain. On a Friday two weeks ago, they went in for a routine check-up with the oncologist at a hospital about an hour away. They haven’t been home since.
George’s cancer had spread to his neck. He had become so weak that he needed to be admitted to the hospital immediately. I got a call that day. It was Carolyn asking me if I could take care of the dogs for a few days. I’d go over to their house a couple times a day to feed and care for the dogs. It was a pleasant enough task, aside from the reminder of George’s failing health every time I entered their empty house.
That week things were very up and down for our friends in the hospital. I suppose you could say they were very up and down in our home, as well. Nathaniel had just arrived home on Sunday from a long business trip, and while we were thrilled to have him home, we had no choice but to welcome him into a gastrointestinal house of horrors. So for several days, I was wiping up puke and diarrhea off of the floor at home and then going over to another house to wipe pee off the floor when the dogs had an accident (which thankfully was only twice). Nathaniel and I didn’t get much sleep at night because the boys were having their issues two or three times a night.
It was at this moment that I had to laugh. I had just been reading a book called Embracing Obscurity, which examines the call of Christ to be lowly servants for His glory rather than seeking to build our own kingdoms of “ministry” for our own glory. It’s been a great read, quite challenging, and here I was seeing the “practical application” of what I was learning. Thanks for the object lesson, Lord! You washed the dirty feet of sinners. This is totally fitting work for one of Your followers. I get it.
The stomach virus finally left us alone and we had a beautiful Saturday working together as a family around the house, taking care of the dogs over at their house, and celebrating our oldest son’s birthday at the lake. But that night we received a distressing text from Carolyn. She wanted us to take the dogs into our home—she didn’t think they were safe at her house.
This was a bit confusing, and the next morning we called her to clarify. There was indeed a situation, so after deliberating (which included me listing all the reasons why it would be a bad idea, and then recognizing those reasons were rather selfish), we said we’d do it.
I mentioned before that we are not “dog people”. What I didn’t mention is that we had both long decided that if we ever were to have a dog, it would most definitely be an outside dog. Our neighbors’ dogs were very decidedly inside dogs. The irony here couldn’t be missed. God was taking one of the few things on our “never” list and asking us to move it to our “whatever you need” list. This was more than just “Come over and help with the dogs and then go back to the relative peace of your own home.” This was invading our space.
I remember when we were deliberating, Nathaniel said something quite insightful: “If we do this, it clearly won’t be for us. It will be out of service to them.” We’ve often talked with our children about the fact that merely helping others when you want to isn’t so helpful. It’s far greater to meet a real need when it arises. Here was our opportunity to practice what we preached. Yet again, we were being called to something that was a rather unlikely service for us. It didn’t fit. There were surely other people who could more easily have taken these dogs into their homes. But here we were—evidence that God doesn’t call the wise or powerful, or even the qualified. He stretches us beyond ourselves and qualifies us for the task by His grace.
So what was our first order of business as doggy foster parents? Well, it was a Sunday morning, so we took them to church! Being a part of a home church has its perks. 😉 And starting out with the dogs in someone else’s home (another dog-owner’s home, to be precise) seemed to ease the transition for us. The dogs were very well behaved, and our church family loved on them and prayed for our neighbors.
The past week has been challenging as I wake up to little ankle-biters that demand my attention more loudly and persistently than do my preschooler and kindergartener. The invasion of my space, and particularly when that space would normally be quiet, has been a kind of static interference in my days. While our sleep was interrupted last week with sick children, it has been interrupted this week by sad puppies who miss their people. Still, I’ve kind of gotten used to it. And we couldn’t have asked for sweeter, cuter, or better behaved dogs. Really, all things considered, caring for them in our home has been quite easy. It’s the caring about our neighbors that has been the hardest.
I finally heard this morning that George has only days to live at this point. We hope to visit him in the hospital before he dies.
There is indeed a time for everything. A time for rejoicing and a time for mourning. A time for serving with our strengths and a time for serving despite our lack of the same. A time for fighting for your life and a time for saying goodbye when your Heavenly Father calls you home.
God is good.
Please pray with us for our friends.
Many Christians estimate difficulties in the light of their own resources, and thus attempt little and often fail in the little they attempt. All God’s giants have been weak men who did great things for God because they reckoned on His power and presence with them.