A month or so ago, we chose to enter my husband in a local palliative care program, the goal of which is to make him comfortable and as pain free as possible. I have been caring for him on a variety of levels for years, but this transition assumes that hospice care and the end of life on earth are next. Coping with the COVID -19 pandemic has being made responsible for his well-being even more scary. His stage 4 COPD means that he is a prime candidate for COVID – so neither of us done anything outside the house or car (except for blood draws and a short trip to Sam’s Club) since the beginning of March.
As I learned to cope with new responsibilities and new doctors and nurses and social workers, I was grateful to have the strength and organizational skills to do the job. Fred was grateful as well. He did not want any home health care visitors, and I longed to serve him in “sickness and in health.”
As March became April became May became June, I began noticing some angry feelings creeping up especially in response to Fred’s growing crankiness and “leave me alone” feelings. I started to sorry for myself and unappreciated. And then I got upset with myself. “He’s very sick and I should expect him to be angry and bored and tired of being told what to do all day long,” I told myself. Thus guilt was added to the mix.
Soon negativity wafted through the every room in the apartment like a thick fog. I felt more guilty and didn’t know how to fix it. Then I woke one morning dreading the day. “It’s not fair!” came creeping in. I knew I was in trouble. As I gathered Fred’s morning pills and walked toward his room, out of the blue came this Voice, “You are behaving just like a martyr. You’re just like your mother – the one you criticized constantly during her life and even after her death for ‘being such a martyr.’ I knew that Voice. I knew things had to change. I had to change! But how?
I began thinking about martyrs. I turned first to the story Stephen, the first Christian martyr, in Acts 7. He preached and preached and the crowd got angrier and angrier. The Message reports that “the crowd went wild, a rioting mob of catcalls and whistles and invective.” Then they “dragged him out of town and pelted him with rocks.” But Stephen, “full of the Holy Spirit, hardly noticed – he only had eyes for God whom he saw in all his glory with Jesus standing at his side.” . . . .”And then he knelt down and prayed and asked God not to blame them for this sin – and he died.”
Next, thoughts of martyrs who served humanity throughout history flashed before me, William Tyndale, Anne Frank and her family, JFK and Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela.
Captain Rowland Koskamp, my own chaplain father, also came to mind. During WWII, he walked into a wall of guns to try to bargain with the Germans to save the lives of the injured soldiers that he and medics were treating in the basement of a nearby house. The Germans spared the house, but the men, including my father, ended up in a prisoner of war camp. Months later he and his men had been released and were marching to join with Patton’s army. On Easter Sunday he served communion to his men and their German guard in a corral on a farm where they had stopped to sleep. A week later he died from a concussion caused by American bombers bombing a nearby train station.
Lastly, I saw the pictures of struggle and death in Minneapolis: George Lloyd on the ground with a police officer’s knee on his neck. I heard again his pleas, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. No invective here, just a cry for help. And then the tear gas, rubber bullets, and physical attacks on peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park came to mind. And then the Black Lives Matter protesters beaten by police batons or shoved by cops to the ground came into my view. These, too, all martyrs for a cause.
I, however, was not a martyr. I was a phony martyr. I didn’t have a cause outside myself; I was acting like a teenager-feeling sorry for myself. I was selfish and longing for praise or appreciation. I didn’t need to be praised or appreciated. I needed to stand up and carry out the mission God has assigned me to do. But how do I do that without the self-pity?
A week or so later I read this quote from the work of Henri Nouwen:
“The basis of all ministry is the experience of God’s unlimited and unlimiting acceptance of us as beloved children, an acceptance so full, so total and all-embracing, that it sets us free from our compulsion to be seen, praised, and admired and frees us for Christ, who leads us on the road of service. This experience of God’s acceptance frees us from our needy self and thus creates new space where we can pay selfless attention to others.
This, then, is how we carry out our missions without self-pity or martyrdom. Like Stephen, we look into the face of Jesus standing at the side of God. Like Nouwen, we embrace the fact that we are God’s beloved children. We open our hands and our hearts to God’s unlimited and all-embracing acceptance. We let go of our compulsions and neediness and free ourselves to serve. And like Captain Koskamp, we step out into our world free from our needy selves and open to serve until God takes us home.