How do you create common ground with a chronically sick friend? What do you talk about when your lives no longer overlap? What can you bring her besides flowers that wilt and candy that won’t be eaten?
Serving requires creativity. An act of service can be a work of art.
Twelve years ago a woman in our church began to hurt. It started in her low back. Midway through the church service, she would quietly leave her chair and stand at the back of the sanctuary. When standing no longer worked, Camille would find a place to lie down.
As the mysterious pain began traveling to other joints, it forced more adjustments into her life. For a little while she found relief in walking, which somehow felt better than standing. If you walked with her, you had to slow down, but it was worth it. The sunshine and conversation turned each stroll into an Event, a celebration that broke up her long hours into more manageable segments. I enjoyed these shared times, catching her up on life in our church body. She, in turn, told me about her children and the coming grandchild, her quiet, Canadian chuckle punctuating the stories.
Then came the day she could no longer take those walks. How could I possibly encourage my friend now?
Her life turning into a roller coaster–not a thrilling amusement ride, but a daily reality of being jerked up and down and around sharp corners, by her unexplainable, and apparently untreatable, condition. Could I somehow jump on and keep her company?
No Common Ground
Now that Camille was housebound, my visits floundered. I would arrive, full of good intentions, but leave feeling I’d done more harm than good. The common ground between us was shrinking as her confinement increased and the world outside faded. The latest chit chat from church wasn’t relevant. News about her life was non-existent. A monologue about my life wasn’t inclusive.
Her world had shrunk and I wasn’t sure how to enter it.
Then I remembered an idea my mother had told me about years ago. Mom had a fiercely independent friend who had become bed-ridden. Kathryn Overton—nicknamed K.O.—had been a multi-talented athlete during her school days. A competitive diver, scratch golfer, and distance swimmer all her life, her energy had been phenomenal, poured into her community as well as into her sports.
But now she was confined, first to her house, eventually to her bed.
She and my mother had shared a lot of life together, but when mom began to visit her in her sick room, she realized several things. First, they couldn’t simply talk about the past, partly because pain was clouding her memory. But also because remembering “better times” wasn’t always a pleasant distraction, carrying with it the pain of loss. Second, they couldn’t simply talk about the future, either, because her future — at least in this life—was bleak. And heaven seemed far away.
That left the option of talking about the present. However, since KO’s present was dreary and my mom’s seemed irrelevant, the common ground of the life they had once shared shrank so small, it threatened to disappear.
Creating Common Ground
My mother always had a book with her. On one of her visits she brought along a book she had wanted to read, but hadn’t yet started. “What would you think if I read this book aloud to you? I promise I won’t read ahead or peek at the ending. It’ll be our book, to read together.”
I promise I won’t read ahead or peek at the ending. It’ll be our book, to read together.
They started that day, my mother reading for a whole hour. Then she slid a bookmark between the pages and closed it with a thump. “Next time we’ll start here and keep going.” In that moment she created a new patch of common ground between them, a shared space where they could be together, no longer as “the invalid” and “the healthy”, but as companions, enjoying a good story together.
I don’t know how many books they worked their way through before K.O. entered her final days, but I went with her once and, not only enjoyed the book, but the way it changed the atmosphere in the room. The sick room faded soon after mother began to read, KO’s face relaxed, and I no longer felt awkward about what to say or how to act.
One Spark Creates Another
That experience birthed my own read aloud moment. The next time I went to Camille’s I brought a book. I had decided that children’s literature would be a good starting place for us, since the concepts were simpler and the chapters, shorter. I had loved the pictures left in my imagination by George MacDonald’s book, The Princess and the Goblin, so that book was my top pick.
“Would you like to read this together? You can sit or stand or lie flat as often as you need to be comfortable.”
Camille was willing to give it a try. Now, I know the first chapter of a book is the toughest. You feel as if you’re picking your way across the surface of the page, stepping slowly from word to word. But I also know that eventually you slip beneath the surface of the page and catch the current of the story. So I prepped her, introducing the characters as they appeared and drawing attention to details that would become relevant later.
Gradually the story pulled us in and we were both skimming along.
Gradually the story pulled us in and we were both skimming along. Her face relaxed. She laughed at some detail. And we began to enjoy the story together, as equals.
The Joy of Creating Common Ground
I asked my mother years later, “Remember when you read to KO? Where did you get that idea?” “I don’t remember, “ she mused. “I just remember that I enjoyed it. It meant a lot to me.” She paused, then added, “it was … pure joy.”
Serving others often begins as duty and ends with a check mark. Done. But when God uses a simple act of service to create something new, something good, we experience a taste of the Creator’s joy. It is the freedom to create something good. The good works of the new creation.
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.Ephesians 2:10 ESV
I began to ponder the joy that God has in his acts of creation, especially in creating each of us. This is how one theologian asserts such a reality, “The joy that God takes in every man, the magnanimity with which he sets him free…should teach us, for God has granted us the privilege of being in his image” Romano Guardini. What was God teaching me in this moment of new creation?
The joy that God takes in every man, the magnanimity with which he sets him free…should teach us, for God has granted us the privilege of being in his image.Romano Guardini, Learning the Virtues that Lead You to God
Yes. That’s it. The privilege of bearing the Creator’s image is also an invitation to share the Creator’s joy. I wish you joy in today’s hidden, ordinary moments of service.