Lisa Nichols Hickman: Jesus heals not just the sick, but caregivers

Being a full-time caregiver can be a crummy job. But you know what Jesus does with crumbs.

As the church observes Lent, American health care reform is at a standstill. On his journey to the cross, Jesus went out of his way to heal. Each week of Lent, Lisa Nichols Hickman will ask, "Is there any balm in Gilead?"

As I type, my husband is at home sleeping and recovering from pneumonia. While I wish I had the heart of Christ in my love and support of Jason, I sometimes get cranky and feel crummy. This care, for me, is just a few days. What of those whose caregiving extends for years? It is a role no one chooses and most often are not well-trained for doing.

Many houses in our small, 2000-person town have situations where full-time care is necessary, due to Alzheimer’s, kidney disease, paralysis, cancer, Parkinson’s, cystic fibrosis, and simply old-age. I am overwhelmed by the percentage who are overwhelmed by the task at hand.

I admire these caregivers. Their faith, good humor and fortitude are inspiring. But there are moments when these caregivers crumble with burn-out, social isolation and despair. While their loved ones are remembered in their illness, the caregivers are often forgotten.

A woman in our congregation jokes that when she gets to that place of despair she cries out to her friends to “Circle up the wagons.” The friends arrive with good humor, good casseroles and hours for companionship. She is one blessed lady. Others are embarrassed by their own perception that they are constantly in need of help. “Aren’t they going to grow tired of me?”

When Jesus encounters the Syrophoenician woman (Matthew 15:21-28), he meets one burned-out caregiver. Caring for a young daughter possessed by an unclean spirit had left the mother feeling crummy. When the Great Physician first refused medical treatment, the woman crumbled. The words of Jesus, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” suggested he came first and foremost to save and heal Israel.

For those reading this story through health care eyes, the pinnacle moment here is in the healing the caregiver herself receives from Christ.

She is so desperate that she says to Jesus, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She is crumbling. Jesus says to her, “Great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” These crumbs, from the one who breaks bread for us, are the nourishment she needed.

The woman asking for crumbs just precedes the story of the feeding of the five thousand in Matthew. Loaves multiply, bread is broken. People are fed. And twelve baskets full are left over.

Is it possible that the crowds present at the time of the feeding of the five thousand were the very crowds who had been healed in the preceding story? Matthew 15:30 says “Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute and many others. They put them at his feet and cured them.” Just two verses later Jesus says, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat and I do not want to send them away hungry.”

Could it be that the feeding of the five thousand was the spreading of crumbs not just to the Canaanite woman, but to thousands of caregivers? Jesus provides healing not just for the afflicted but for the caregivers as well.

The church has sustenance to offer. Our brokenness is countered by broken bread and smashed fruit. Jesus knew that caregivers crumbled. His worry that they might faint prompted him to provide a feast before they departed. So he took five loaves and two fish to feed the multitudes. Jesus knew that the Syrophoenician woman was crumbling. So Jesus changed his mind and recognized her great faith. Her daughter was healed, and so was she.

The church, likewise, has a creative role to play in continuing the life-giving ministry to those exhausted from providing care.

Lisa Nichols Hickman is a Presbyterian Pastor and writer. She serves at New Wilmington Presbyterian Church in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.