1. The (ongoing) process of surrendering dear friends to the mission field in Japan so that others can grow in grace with them, as I was blessed to do for more than a decade
2. The privilege of caring for an aging parent. (“She is a delight to me. I don’t have to take care of her, I get to take care of her.”)
3. Friends who love me enough to confront my sinfulness
4. The cultivation of patience in my own quest for wellness and wholeness
I never grow tired of Robertson McQuilkin’s story, “Living By Vows.” When his wife Muriel was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, McQuilkin resigned his position as the president of Columbia Bible College and Seminary to care for her. He has said, “If I took care of her for 40 years, I would never be out of her debt.”
I remember weeping as McQuilkin told of his wife literally walking her feet bloody to be near him:
During those two years it became increasingly difficult to keep Muriel home. As soon as I left, she would take out after me. With me, she was content; without me, she was distressed, sometimes terror stricken. The walk to school is a mile round trip. She would make that trip as many as ten times a day. Sometimes at night, when I helped her undress, I found bloody feet. When I told our family doctor, he choked up. “Such love,” he said simply. Then, after a moment, “I have a theory that the characteristics developed across the years come out at times like these.” I wish I loved God like that–desperate to be near him at all times. Thus she teaches me, day by day.
It’s been more than fifteen years since Pastor Erick Allen first shared “Living by Vows” with our congregation during a sermon at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Boone. During that time, I’ve come to realize that living by vows takes a million forms.
Such a lifestyle involves remembering to pray for my beloved friends in Japan, even when I miss them to the point of pain. (Maybe especially then.)
It requires faithfulness in friendship, even when friends are knocking off my rough edges and sandpapering my soul to a high gloss. They do the hard work of grace in me, daily transforming me into the person that Christ calls me to be.
It demands care and thoughtfulness in maintaining my mom’s dignity as age robs her of independence, agility, and endurance. Though mom does not suffer from Alzheimer’s or dementia, she does have bouts of forgetfulness that sometimes take me by surprise. I am learning to take these in stride.
Occasionally, mom gets impatient with my efforts to love her well, especially when she needs medical attention. A good friend once told me I would have to grow a tougher skin. And I am. Sort of. It helps to remember that, most of the time, mom is not so much impatient with me as with the fact that her life is changing, and change can be. So. Very. Hard.
McQuilken says of Muriel, “She is such a delight to me. I don’t have to care for her, I get to. One blessing is the way she is teaching me so much—about love, for example, God’s love. She picks flowers outside—anyone’s—and fills the house with them.” These words once made me long for the kind of commitment that allowed a man to honor his wedding vows so fully. Literally, “in sickness and in health.” This godly faithfulness was absent in my own marriage.
Now I see how beautifully the words also fit my role as a caregiver to my mom. We take care of one another, really. She gives me so much more than I give her. The flowers of her stories of childhood in Connecticut. The blossoms of her wisdom and sound advice. The rich soil of her profoundly unconditional love, which encourages me every day. Mom is my biggest fan, my boldest cheerleader, my staunchest encourager, and I am so thankful for the time we share together.
And, in some ways, the life of commitment to vows means remembering to be gentle with myself. Personal growth in all of its dimensions requires time and patience. I don’t get it right every day. But I love the idea of “a long obedience in the same direction,” which Eugene Patterson uses in reference to discipleship, defying the “quick fix” mentality of our instant gratification society.
I suspect Robertson McQuilken would say the concept applies equally well to living by vows.