By Sean Palmer
I break out in cold sweats when I think of 2004. What should have been a great year turned like milk left on the counter overnight.
My first daughter was born in November 2003. She was our miracle. Six years earlier, before my wife, Rochelle, and I married, doctors told us that Rochelle would likely never have children. Yet there we were—after five years of trying and not trying to have kids, and thinking and not thinking, and planning and not planning on a childless family life—holding our 7-pound miracle. At the time my oldest brother was single with no prospects for marriage, and Rochelle is an only child. This treasured wonder was the only grandchild on either side of the family, and her every coo and burp was received with relish. That Christmas we knew what glad tidings and great joy actually meant.
That feeling didn’t last long.
Nine weeks after my daughter was born, Rochelle’s dad sat in his recliner and asked his wife, “Why do I feel so bad?” He had a heart attack and died. It was unexpected, sudden, and surreal. As I spoke to my mother-in-law that night, Rochelle walked into the kitchen holding our freshly fed daughter and collapsed to the floor. Just like that Rochelle lost her dad, her mentor, her hero. It was a hard winter.
On the heels of his death, I got word that a job I did on an interim basis and felt I performed well was handed to someone else. It was my first public and painful failure. I hardly knew what to do with myself. The same morning our church elders sat at my kitchen table, telling me that I’d been passed over, was two days after our mortgage company wrote to tell us that we underestimated our taxes and there was $5,000 due. Past due, in fact. Rochelle had stopped working to stay home, and this meant a further depletion of the war chest we’d spent years building or else lose the house.
A few months after her father died, Rochelle’s mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Rochelle spent the next four months driving between Houston, where we lived, and my mother-in-law’s home in Salado, Texas. For a young couple with a new baby, we hardly saw one another.
While having a new baby in the house was exciting (read: exhausting), and also a graceful distraction, our beagle, Ralph, who was a rescue dog, disagreed. Over a period of weeks he bit our daughter and another little boy from our small group—twice. Back to the rescue for you, Ralph.
In the span of a few months, Rochelle lost her dad, nursed her mother through surgery and cancer, we almost lost our house, I lost a job, and we lost our dog. Our lives had turned into a country music song. And I don’t like country music.
I was neither spiritually or emotionally prepared for the onslaught of horrors swelling inside me, and I was ill-equipped to serve and love Rochelle as I should have. I had never felt weaker, yet I was churning with fury and indignation. My faith was beginning to waiver.
One Sunday an older gentleman from our church, Rolfe, asked me to join him attending a morning men’s group. Another local church hosted a teaching and fellowship ministry that began at 6:00 a.m. each Tuesday. Rolfe had gone a few times and invited me to join him. Like most pastors, I attended mostly with a mind toward stealing ideas. Rolfe and I attended that ministry together for nearly two years.
Tuesday mornings were augmented by Rolfe offering invitations to lunch and phone calls. He and his wife, Carol, cared for our growing family and shared the joys of everyday life with us. We spent Valentine’s Day with them, and they became our go-to babysitters, even watching our two daughters on their wedding anniversary. Our girls learned to climb and descend stairs and make pancakes in their home. And it wasn’t like they had free time! Rolfe is an international attorney with clients all over the world. Carol is a therapist with more than enough clients. Plus they had their own children and grandchildren.
What I couldn’t see then, but can’t miss now, is that Rolfe and Carol saw a young couple whose lives were onboarding more water than they could bail and decided to bear our burdens. Doing so changed our lives.
I don’t believe in math theology—the idea that the number of times something appears in the Bible gives it more weight—but I am conscious of the fact that there are somewhere near 60 “one another” phrases in the New Testament. There is a pulse of caring for one another at the heart of following Jesus. Yet as much as we might like to, we hardly ever find time to do it. All those exhortations to care for, love, bear with, wash the feet of, and live in harmony with one another crash against kids’ schedules, project deadlines, honey-do lists, and the regular appointments and predictable irritations of life. We lack the bandwidth to do, so we tell one another, “I’ll pray about that,” as we furiously race to whatever comes next. It’s impossible to care for one another given the pace with which most of us live. Paraphrasing Dallas Willard, it’s impossible to love someone when you’re in a hurry.
This means, for me at least, facing the indisputable fact that I am not available to care for others the way Rolfe and Carol cared for our family. If you’re anything like me, you aren’t either. The Bible can encourage and extol us, but caring for others rarely makes it to the top of our task list. That means a lot of people who are at their wit’s end sink deeper rather than find rescue.
But those stubborn Scriptures insist we care for one another.
Some of the folks Jesus called us to care for are obvious; they live at the margins: the poverty-stricken, homeless, and underemployed. Other “others” are more like I was in 2004—they are close in proximity but distant in every other way. Still other “others” are the people least like us: minorities, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and those on the other side of the political aisle. Many of the contemporary criticisms aimed at the church aren’t truly about politics, morality, theology, or ethics. They are about caring. The world wonders whether Christian women and men care enough to create space to love those inside and outside their walls; it wonders whether we believe “the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
As our Lord washed his disciples’ feet in John 13, Jesus was not naïve about what lay ahead. He would be betrayed, abandoned, and denied. Yet he chose to care for his disciples anyway.
That’s not what we would do. We would give Judas a good talking to and explain to him the consequences of his actions. We’d tell the other disciples to rest up because we’ll be awake all night praying. We’d poke our finger into Peter’s chest and tell him not to give in to the culture or be ashamed of the gospel. We would’ve given a sermon complete with a PowerPoint and three simple steps.
But Jesus didn’t.
In the face of those who would sin against and betray him, Jesus chose simple caring. Jesus knew what we often forget: People are transformed by our care. That’s why time and again the New Testament recalibrates the Christian’s compass to basic, simple, transformative care for others.
Reflecting back on Rochelle’s and my miniature dark night of the soul, I wonder: What if I did for others what Rolfe and Carol did for us? What if all Christians did? Rather than expecting people to pull themselves together, get their lives right, figure it out, and join the rest of us in our exhausting performances and pretense, what if we just demonstrated uncommon caring? What if rather than organizing the outcomes for others or manipulating and managing their righteousness, or fearing the fallout of not being explicit enough in giving instruction, we simply cared for one another—especially the others we dislike and disagree with?
Maybe, just maybe, if we did, we could change some lives.
Sean Palmer is Lead Minister of The Vine Church in Temple, Texas. His book Unarmed Empire releases this spring.