Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Companioning Caregiving

Companions are important. Whether on a literal, figurative, spiritual, emotional, or you-name-it journey, companions are an essential part of good travel. Their stories influence the way we approach the voyage ahead, and help us interpret our own stories, even as we relationally reciprocate as best as we can. Companions on a journey become friends, whether for a season or a lifetime, that change our story because they are there, and the best companions, at least in my experience, create safe spaces for exploration, discovery, grief, celebration, confusion, and vulnerability. Journeying without these safe spaces of oasis can become a tiring endeavor, slowing our pace to a slow trudge, hoping solace will be just over the next hill. 

I have found myself in this situation lately, particularly in my role as caregiver. Before you get worried, it is not for lack of those who desire to help in my life, some of whom I have called and others whom I have not known how to approach. But, it's kind of like stopping at a 7-11 at midnight for a dinner heated by an overhead lamp when what you really need is a leisurely 3+ hour meal at Restaurant Eugene (if you are in Atlanta--Go there!) for food that sustains the body and the soul. Where is this calm place of restoration? Where is the companion who can hold the complexities of my life as a caregiver with tenderness and care, reflecting back to me through her own experiences the community and wisdom I need to thrive in my journey? She's been niggling at the back of my head, bothering me for weeks until I finally stopped and listened. My companion is Abigail. 

Not many people are aware that Abigail is actually a character in the Bible. You can read her story in 1 Samuel 25, but I would like to take a little liberty and tell the story myself:

Once upon a time, there was a man in Maon, whose property was in Carmel, named Nabal, which means fool. Nadal was very rich; he had three thousand sheep and a thousand goats and it was sheep-shearing time in Carmel. Nabal's wife was clever and beautiful, and her name was Abigail. But Nabal was surly and mean. Now, David, future king of Israel, heard that Nabal was shearing his sheep, so he sent ten young men with the instructions to greet Nabal in David's name and salute him: ‘Peace be to you, and peace be to your house, and peace be to all that you have. I hear that you have shearers; now your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm, and they missed nothing, all the time they were in Carmel. Ask your young men, and they will tell you. Therefore let my young men find favor in your sight; for we have come on a feast day. Please give whatever you have at hand to your servants and to your son David.’”

When David’s young men came to Nabal and repeated David's message, Nabal answered David’s servants, “Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants today who are breaking away from their masters. Shall I take my bread and my water and the meat that I have butchered for my shearers, and give it to men who come from I do not know where?” So David’s young men turned away, and came back and told him all this. In response, David said to his men, “Every man strap on his sword!” And every one of them strapped on his sword; David also strapped on his sword; and about four hundred men went up after David, while two hundred remained with the baggage.
Meanwhile, one of the young men told Abigail, Nabal’s wife about David's messengers and how Nabal shouted insults at them. Yet, according to the young man, David's men were very good to Nabal’s shepherds in the field and created a wall to them both night and day so that the shepherds never suffered harm and never missed anything when they were in the fields. The messenger reported this to Abigail for her to consider what to do because evil had been decided against Nabal and against all his house by David because of Nabal's ill-natured responses. 

Having listened to the young man, Abigail hurried and gathered a feast—two hundred loaves, two skins of wine, five sheep ready dressed, five measures of parched grain, one hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs. She loaded them on donkeys and said to her young men, “Go on ahead of me; I am coming after you.” But she did not tell her husband Nabal. As she rode on the donkey and came down under cover of the mountain, David and his men came down toward her. Now David had said, “I protected all that this fellow has in the wilderness in vain, so that nothing was missed of all that belonged to him; but he has returned me evil for good. God do so to me and more if by morning I leave so much as one male of all who belong to him.”

When Abigail saw David, she hurriedly dismounted the donkey, and fell before David on her face, bowing to the ground. She fell at his feet and said, “Upon me alone be the guilt. Please let your servant speak and hear the words of your servant. Do not take seriously this ill-natured man, Nabal.  Just as his name is Nabal, and foolishness is with him. But I, your servant, did not see the young men you sent.  As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, since the Lord has restrained you from bloodguilt and from taking vengeance with your own hand, now let your enemies and those who seek to do evil to you be like Nabal. And now let this present that your servant has brought to you be given to the young men who follow you. Please forgive the trespass of your servant; for the Lord will certainly make you a sure house, because you are fighting the battles of the Lord; and evil shall not be found in you so long as you live…When the Lord has done to you according to all the good that he has spoken concerning you, and has appointed you prince over Israel, you shall have no cause of grief, or pangs of conscience, for having shed blood without cause or for having saved himself. And when the Lord has dealt well with you, then remember your servant.”

David replied, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who sent you to meet me today! Blessed be your good sense, and blessed be you, who have kept me today from bloodguilt and from avenging myself by my own hand!  For as surely as the Lord the God of Israel lives, who has restrained me from hurting you, unless you had hurried and come to meet me, truly by morning there would not have been left to Nabal so much as one male.” Then David received from her hand what she had brought him; he said to her, “Go up to your house in peace; see, I have heard your voice, and I have granted your petition.”

I have companioned with Abigail for some time now. When I was teenager, I had a youth minister who would often teach the more obscure stories in the Bible, and this is certainly one of those stories. If anything, Abigail is often seen as the Cinderella of the Bible, because right after this episode the text tells us that Nabal, hearing the truth of what Abigail did from her own lips, keels over and dies. Hearing of Nabal’s death, David sends some of his men to woo Abigail, and Abigail rather quickly becomes the wife of the future king of Israel. Cinderella is rescued, marries her prince and lives happily ever after…along with David’s multiple other wives. 

Since entering the world of “primary caregiver” almost seven years ago, Abigail’s companionship has become very dear to me. It’s not just her courage—which I can promise is not a one-time burst of bravery but a lifetime of choices to act in the truth. It’s not just the obvious love and trust she cultivated in her household such that young men came to her, risking the anger of their master, knowing that she would do everything in her power to protect her people. No, Abigail is my companion because at the very core of her story, I see the complexities and struggles of caregiving, and know I am not alone. I see in her the embodiment of the caregiver who stands in the middle of violence and foolishness to preserve and enable dignity and personhood for those with whom she offered and received care. We forget sometimes that Nabal is not the only enemy here—David is the one who responded to an insult with all-too-real threats to the lives of the innocent people within Nabal’s household. Death and destruction were imminent, and Abigail acted.  She didn’t just send her servants to risk their lives. She gathered a feast and went ahead of her servants, using her very body as an unexpected harbinger of peace, going out to meet David on the warpath.  She interfered between David and Nabal because the life and dignity of the members of her household mattered. This is the work of caregiving—to stand in visceral and embodied expression between Nabal and David, foolishness and violence, ignorance and prejudice, and act peace. 

I imagine, sometimes, what it might be like to sit down to tea with Abigail. To talk with her, not about this one great event of standing up to David and defying Nabal’s wishes, but of all the moments between her home and David’s feet when she thought about turning around, when she wondered if she could shoulder the burden, when she feared the consequences of speaking the truth. I want to hear of the times she felt alone and unseen in her work for life within a household run by foolishness in a world intent on violence toward the innocent. I want to hear of the times caregiving was messy, dirty, and discouraging. Because I know they are there. I know that this one event tucked away in 1 Samuel is the fruit of a life lived in daily tending to the needs she could meet, and some she probably couldn’t but tried to meet anyway. 

And so, Abigail becomes a safe place, a companion on the way because somewhere in this tea-time with Abigail, I realize God has been with us all along, both sitting at the table and dancing all around us. I am not alone any more. Abigail is my companion because, like me, she didn’t always get it right. She wasn’t perfect. But, she listened and followed when it was time to act in truth and embody peace in the face of foolishness, violence, and despair. She knew the cost and the risk of caregiving, and did it anyway. She offers a storied-wisdom that witnesses to God’s presence right in the thick of things. I am comforted not by easy answers but by true companioning with God, giving me encouragement and hope that there are others on the path with me, both physically present in this life and within the cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. 

May all of us who mutually give care and receive care in a myriad of expressions be encouraged that in companioning one another, God eternally dances in our midst.