Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the brokenness. News of earthquakes and hurricanes, friends whose eyes fill with tears when I ask how their lives are unfolding, haunting photographs of children picking through piles of trash in one of the many slums which now dot the sprawling urban centers around the globe. I listen as Death Cab for Cutie sings “Crooked Teeth,” evoking a lostness that so many share. “You can’t find nothin’ at all if there was nothin’ there all along / There were churches, theme parks, and malls, but there was nothing there all along.” We yearn to be home, to be swept up and enfolded in a relationship that will finally not disappoint.
The brokenness will always haunt us in this in-between time, while we trust a Savior has appeared yet wait for his return to complete our redemption. It’s called the consummation. The word is intimate and relational, with sexual overtones. In the gospel we are not merely promised the legal forgiveness of an aloof God, but of being “in Christ,” an intimate relationship with a God who is both infinite and personal.
In a world of such brokenness, our gospel can seem unbelievable. When every significant relationship seems to fragment and disappoint, why hold out hope that an invisible God and an obscure Hebrew rabbi have managed a cosmic solution? Especially when so many of this God’s loudest followers are so negative, withdrawn, and judgmental? Our calling as Christians is to live out and talk about the gospel in ways our pluralistic world might be able to understand. Which is why how we treat people is so vital: our relationships must reflect something of the reality of the relationship on offer in the gospel. It will never be perfect, but it can be real. And one aspect of this involves caring for people. It’s something our world is starving for, yet few seem to have time or stomach for.
So, we thought we should talk to Andi Ashworth about caring, and let you listen in on our conversation. We chose Andi for two reasons. The first is that she has written a superb book on the topic, Real Love for Real Life. The other reason is that we’ve come to know Andi, so we can confirm that she lives what she teaches. Andi listens, really listens. She makes you feel at home, as if she really wants to be with you instead of doing something else. And over the years she has richly touched a multitude of people, not with fancy programs, but by caring for them. Andi doesn’t just talk about grace, she embodies it.
(A portion of this conversation appeared in Critique #7-2005.)
Critique: What do you mean by caring?
Andi Ashworth: As I’ve focused on this topic for a number of years now, I’ve come to see caring as a huge subject that covers a lot of ground. God designed us for relationships and he designed us to care for each other in those relationships—in marriage, families, friendships, the Body of Christ, neighborhoods, schools, offices—across the whole spectrum of life. Giving care to each other is really about being human—the need to give and receive care is woven into the fabric of our being. A baby is born dependent on the care of its parents, and we continue to be people who are needy in hundreds of ways throughout our life cycle.
I think we can understand caring best if we think of it in three broad categories. The first is a calling that we all share as followers of Jesus: to live in such a way that love is embodied and real to other people. It’s a lifestyle of caring, something that comes with an increasing sensitivity to the needs of others. No matter what kind of work occupies the main part of our day we can approach the people around us with an attitude of care, a welcoming demeanor that exhibits interest and empathy. In any situation, whether sharing an office, a classroom, or a neighborhood, people always have so many more aspects to their lives than the one dimensional setting in which we know them. So we’re called to care about people in tangible ways, not as projects, never as projects, but as human beings with complex lives. The love of God and the love of people is so tightly woven together that you can’t separate the two, and it grows and deepens as we mature in the faith.
The second category of caring is something that’s more focused and intensive and seasonal: the season of raising children and creating a home that’s interesting and alive and welcoming, the season of walking through an illness with a friend, the season of caring for an elderly relative. Even if the caregiving is long-term, it’s still temporary in the sense that it won’t always be the same.
The third category is more of a long term vocation—a lifework that manifests over a lifetime. Some of God’s people have specific caregiving gifts that coincide with a longing to respond to human need in practical, creative ways. In this category some people are naturally more nurturing than others. Some have relational gifts—they listen and communicate well. Some are drawn to care for the sick or the dying. Some are gifted at creating beauty in their environment, or maybe they’re skilled cooks and they love to serve in that way. Some people have a heavy emphasis in their lives to the area of hospitality. It’s more intensive and continual than the general calling to practice hospitality that all Christians share.
So those are the general categories for thinking about care. It’s hard to get specific because I could make long lists of the details of care depending on the person and the situation. But I know that concrete examples are always better so here are some ideas of what I mean by using the word care: creating a meal, changing diapers, rocking and soothing a fussy baby, sitting with a friend in the hospital, celebrating a birthday, practicing hospitality, being kind and considerate in the public sphere, mentoring, cultivating a garden and giving a neighborhood the gift of beauty, visiting a lonely grandmother or a neighbor, grieving with those who grieve, caring for the sick, writing a letter, praying, listening. It’s basically asking the question, What do people need and what can I give? It might be the generous passing on of accumulated wisdom and expertise from an older person to a younger one. It might be the gift of food, shelter, companionship, comfort, a cup of coffee and conversation, or a fresh perspective. In Quentin Schultz’s new book Here I Am: Now What on Earth Should I be Doing? he writes, “We are all called to care compassionately. We glorify God by being kindhearted, empathetic servants in all stations.” It’s a good summary. Caring is a way of being and doing that connects across the whole of our lives. Our stations include jobs, situations, and relationships so it’s all encompassing.
So much of caring involves the “ministry of presence,” which is a phrase I stole from the author Christine Pohl. As I understand it, the ministry of presence means being fully present with another person, paying attention to them, listening, and being interested in who they are. I struggle with this one. I have the appearance of being a good listener, but the reality is that my mind is noisy and it wanders easily. I can be quite a ways into a conversation before I realize how much I’ve missed. So I want to hone my listening skills because I think there are times when it’s the best gift we can offer. In general, we’re a busy, distracted people always on call through e-mails, cell phones, Blackberries, Palm Trios, laptop computers and the like. When you’re on the receiving end, the one needing the care of a listening ear, you realize how much it matters for someone to be fully present and truly engaged in what you’re saying.
Critique: How does caring fit in with family, community, home?
Andi Ashworth: Our role as family members, community members, and makers of homes always includes the work of caring. For example, my role as a grandmother calls me to a work as a grandmother. I’m called to be thoughtful and intentional about the gifts I want to impart, to care for my grandchildren physically and emotionally when they’re with me, to love them in ways that are a grandparent’s unique privilege. It involves lots of the hours and days of my life. A role and a relationship doesn’t exist apart from the work it takes to serve the people in those relationships. A role such as husband, wife, parent, friend, grandfather, or citizen doesn’t stand on its own without responsible, necessary caring activity woven in. Of course, the closer the relationship, the more care is involved. But in some way we’re all called to care for the people around us—whether we share the same home or the same community.
The classic Protestant doctrine of vocation, which comes from the 16 th century Reformers, sees the whole of our life as our vocation under Christ. It’s a way of understanding our vocation as the people of God that makes the most sense to me as I’ve read the scriptures over many years. Our vocation is a combination of our stations in life and the avenues through which we relate to others: in marriage, family, friendships, neighborhoods, citizenship in a city, state, and nation, and membership in the body of Christ–both locally and globally. It also comes through the gifts and talents God has given us to be used for the sake of others. When we understand our vocation in this way we see that the caring work, which flows from our roles and relationships is so intertwined with other kinds of work that it’s hard to separate it all. And we shouldn’t try. When we do our lives get compartmentalized and we view some parts, perhaps the paid, professional part, as very important and the work of care as incidental.
Martin Luther wrote, “The entire world is full of service to God, not only the church but also the home, the kitchen, the cellar, the workshop, and the field of townsfolk and farmer.” This view of serving topples our neatly defined categories of work as one part of life, service in the church as another, and life at home as completely separate from both work and service.
Critique: Where do singles fit in?
Andi Ashworth: Singles fit in everywhere. As the Bible makes clear from beginning to end, caring is everyone’s responsibility. Unless a person lives as a hermit, completely cut off from human relationships, there are always people to care for in some way. All you have to do is walk out your front door and look around.
Critique:It’s obvious that caring for people is a lot of work, but you describe it as an “art” too. How does art figure into it?
Andi Ashworth: I understand the art of care in two ways. The first idea is from the Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary which gives one definition of art as a, “skill acquired by experience, study, or observation.” As you care for people in different ways, especially in long-term situations, you have a growing body of knowledge, of skill and expertise.
The second way to think of the art of caring is in the use of skill and creative imagination. Caregiving is a very creative work. You are imagining for the good of other people and then creating—creating beautiful things or beautiful experiences. We can serve people through visual beauty, taste, good smells, music, texture, and color. Part of our image bearing capacity is to create in all of life because we’re made in the image of God, the Supreme Artist. It’s just so obvious that God cares about beauty because it’s everywhere in the creation. Our desire for beauty is a reflection of a God who loves the beautiful. We respond to beauty in deep ways. When beauty is offered as a gift of love, what is seen or heard or tasted goes past the surface and into the heart.
Right now as I’m answering this question, I’m sitting with my laptop at the edge of Lake Tahoe in Northern California, looking out at one of the most beautiful, clear lakes in the country. The lake is ringed with the snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains. It’s a breathtaking view and I am definitely being cared for and refreshed through this beauty! But I’m also cared for through the beauty that people create with God-given resources. I’m cared for when I walk through a garden, enjoy the food and fellowship of a wonderfully prepared meal, or partake in a celebration. I’m cared for by the mood that’s created through thoughtful attention to detail in a room. All of those things and hundreds more are places to use imagination and creativity. It’s about making artful choices in how to live and care for others.
The big idea is that we can be designers in caregiving. We can co-create with God in making memories for our people. This aspect of caring is something I like to call living art, because it’s art that’s passing, it comes in moments of time and then it’s gone. But it’s permanent in the memory. It’s art that tells a story. The story says: this is evidence that I love you. Add it to your memory bank and call it to mind when you need to remember that you’re loved. The memories can be an accumulation of smaller, daily experiences where you put in a little more thought and effort to make special times out of ordinary days. Or they can be a product of the more set apart times of lavish care. For example, celebrations can be a time for lavish care. You do a lot of planning, cook favorite foods, dress up the environment of the house. The extravagant care says, “This is my opportunity to show you through my efforts and my artistry how much I love you. Because I love you so much I will not hold back; I will give my all.”
Our society places such a high value on speed and efficiency, and the creation of beauty isn’t practical. It’s not convenient. In fact, it’s almost getting to be politically incorrect to do things in the caregiving realm that take time, because as a culture we value convenience so much. But if we’re convinced that going the extra mile actually matters, we’re more likely to take the longer route to create meaningful experiences: beautiful environments, home cooked meals that invite conversation and lingering at the table, traditions that create strong connections within our families. We need a longer view towards what we’re creating, which is hopefully a slow but steady undercurrent of good in the hearts and minds of those we care for. There’s definitely a place for short cuts and conveniences. We all feel the pressure and overload of modern life and are grateful for things that help. But there are also times to resist the shortcuts, to resist the dehumanizing of our lives.
I’ve heard that Van Gogh said, “the highest form of art is fashioning human lives.” I’m not sure if he really said it, but never-the-less it’s a true statement. It’s the work Jesus is up to in us, and in a much smaller but still significant way, it’s what we’re up to as well in our relationships. We can imagine a good story in the lives of our people and then work and create to bring about what we can.
So much in caregiving is about living from a place of hope—hoping that small deeds done with great love will matter in the grand scheme of things. We can’t control the outcome, but we do have the starting place of faith, hope, and love and that’s the mindset we can work from. When we live in light of the gospel and view time and people from the perspective of eternity, we can have faith that even the small things we do to show our people they matter, can make a difference.
Critique: Why should we bother?
Andi Ashworth: Caring for people in concrete ways is deeply connected to following Jesus—that’s why we should bother. It’s the outworking of our faith. It’s a life of response flowing out of the care and grace we ourselves receive from God. We really can’t separate real demonstrations of care from the gospel itself. The summary command of our faith is this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself. (From Mark 12: 30-31) Our neighbor ranges from the ones with whom we share a house to our literal next-door neighbor to a neighbor across the world. Our neighbor is someone in need, whether the person in need is our roommate or children or someone in another country.
I’m reading a book of interviews with Bono (from the rock band U2) titled Bono in Conversation with Michka Assayas. Speaking of the African AIDS, poverty, and famine emergency and our responsibility to help other nations in great need, Bono made the point, “You can’t have the benefits of globalization without some of the responsibilities. We are now next-door neighbors through television images, through radio, through the Internet…” (pg. 189). As my friend Steve Garber teaches, with knowledge comes responsibility, and responsibility leads to care. To know is to care.
Critique: How does one get started nurturing a life of caring for people without taking on too much too quickly?
Andi Ashworth: Of course this can be a very overwhelming thing. Sometimes I can’t bear to open a newspaper and read of more people in pain and despair across the world or to learn about another person’s tragedy in my own community. There’s no possible way to respond to all the need we become aware of, even within our own circles of friends and acquaintances. It’s so important to understand that we have layers of responsibility that begin with the people closest to us in relationship and in geography and moves out from there.
For years my pastor, Scotty Smith, has been encouraging our congregation to examine whether we’re living driven lives rather than called lives and to say “yes” and “no” in light of our callings. We’re all called to give care in some way, but it takes discernment to know what that means beyond our immediate circles of family and friends. We have to start by assessing our responsibilities and commitments. Is our life full in areas that we know God has already called us to? Can we handle one more involvement and stay true to our current responsibilities? Do we have an opening in our lives just waiting to be filled? Is the caring opportunity an area we’re drawn to and gifted for? Are there already people in place to give the care that’s needed? Do they need back-up people to give them respite? Is there a way we can contribute to a team effort? Can we do something short term? Can we be faithful to pray? Can we give money? Can we be politically active on some scale to affect good change?
There are so many ways to give care. The possibilities are endless as we pray and imagine how we might contribute something good to a particular situation. But we do need navigational tools to help us in our caregiving. Without them we’re in danger of putting ourselves in the place of God, who is the only one able to care for everyone everywhere at all times.
Critique: It’s okay for a grandmother to have a ministry of caring for people, but we live in a busy world where young adults pursuing meaningful vocations barely have time to breathe. Is this really something they need to be concerned about?
Andi Ashworth: The answer goes back to that “whole life” understanding of vocation, which sees the care of people as integral to following Jesus. I know a young couple who really live this out in a way I admire. They’re in their late twenties/early thirties. The woman works for a public radio station and the man is in music publishing. She’s very attuned to the people in her office—bringing flowers or baking cookies when someone is feeling blue or has something to celebrate. She attends the events that her co-workers are involved in outside of the office. Basically she’s a good friend to those she works with, along with being an excellent employee and contributing to the overall well being of the station. The man is equally tuned in to the people he works with and serves them in a variety of ways. Together they are involved in people’s lives in their church body—they cook and deliver meals when there’s a need, teach little kids in Sunday school, help fix things that are broken, participate in outreach service projects. They’re hospitable—hosting people in their home for meals or overnights or longer. They babysit often for friends and family. They mow the lawn of a single woman friend who needs the help.
Together they’ve woven a ministry of caring into the whole of their life because that’s how they understand discipleship. It’s important to say that what I’m telling about them is a composite of what I know about their life over a span of years. None of it has been lived out all at once or they’d be overwrought, overworked, stressed out people. They do have seasons of that like most of us, but in general they’re wise about keeping time to be quiet and private and restful and playful, alongside of their giving. The point is they’re young, they’re pursuing meaningful work in a busy world, but they also care for people in the midst of it.
Critique: In your book you say “isolating oneself in the Christian life is a dangerous thing to do.”
Andi Ashworth: The only way I know to answer this is to say that if you want to be in relationships where it’s safe to admit need, you have to be that kind of person yourself. You have to be willing to admit need and be vulnerable and real and down to earth. More often than not, that kind of demeanor draws others out of their self-protective shells and frees them to be honest too. Be a safe haven for others and there’s a good chance that those kinds of relationships will spread.
I know that many churches are not safe places to admit deep need and ongoing struggles. No one can change the people around them, but we can all begin with ourselves to offer what we’d like to find in other people. Of course there’s risk involved and you may get burned. But there are always people out there who long for honest, safe relationships and will respond when they find it in others. Honest strugglers are a gift to the Body of Christ. They set the tone for others to be real about ongoing struggles with sin and life in a fallen world. Even when people do put off an attitude that things can always be tied up in a nice, happy Christian bow, it can’t last. At some point life will overwhelm them, suffering will enter in, and they will have to admit need and vulnerability.
Critique:Christians who home-school their children seem to have no time and energy beyond church activities and home-schooling. How does this factor into your emphasis that we need to restore the art and work of caring to our lives as Christians?
Andi Ashworth: This is where the concept of life seasons comes in. Caregiving responsibilities shift with the years and we’re able to do different things at different times. People who already have a lot of caregiving on their plate should not be anxious about doing more, but should rest in what this season of life is calling them to. Raising children and homeschooling them is very time time-consuming work. Sometimes the work of caring for a family requires stripping back to a minimum what you offer to those outside the household. That said, the years of being more home-based can also be the time to be an interested, involved neighbor, to create a home that is welcoming to your children’s friends, to practice hospitality in ways that are a natural extension of your life in this season.
Critique: Tell us a little about your own story—how does it fit into your ideas about caring?
Andi Ashworth: Well, for many years caregiving was my full time work. We’ve always been a self-employed, music business family, operating along the lines of the family farm, though our product has been music and books. So I’ve had lots of work to do inside of that as well. But I would say that more than anything, caring for people’s lives has been the main thrust of my adult life. It began with motherhood and homemaking and all of the volunteer work that flows out of those roles. Then as a new Christian I got involved in the food ministry of our church—cooking and delivering meals to people who were sick or grieving or had just had a baby. It was the beginning of learning what it looks like to care for practical needs when people’s lives are out of whack in some way. As the years went on I volunteered in the nursery, held babies, led women’s small groups, things like that. I used to take my kids and hang out with people in a nursing home near our house. There are always plenty of lonely people who have no one to come see them, so we found those people and became their visitors.
The area of caring that has always been present in our lives since coming to faith twenty-three years ago is hospitality. God started bringing people to us who needed a meal or a place to spend the night and he’s never stopped. In the beginning it was usually connected to my husband’s work as a musician , and it grew from there. In 1990 after moving to Nashville from California, we purchased a very old and wonderful country church, which we named the Art House. We bought it to begin a ministry of art, hospitality, and biblical study and moved our family in a few years later, making it our home. Living in the Art House has been a long lesson in learning the ministry of place—what it means to offer a place as a service to God and people. We’ve literally had hundreds and hundreds of people through our door over these years. There have been different seasons in our Art House life—sometimes we’ve hosted crowds of people from our community to hear speakers, musicians, and partake in Bible studies. In other seasons it’s just been a steady trickle of people who come for meetings, conversations, meals, overnights, or weekends. Through my husband’s work producing records and developing young artists, we’ve often hosted the artists he works with. We have a studio and offices on the grounds of our home and people come here to work every day. It’s very normal to have people in and out of the house all the time as an extension of what’s going on in the office. So even now that my children are grown and my work has expanded to include writing, speaking, and seminary study, caregiving is still a large part of what I do.
When I first started writing about caring it was to address the work aspect, to bring it out of the shadows and name it correctly. I always wondered, hey, why doesn’t anyone talk about this stuff, why are there so few books written and conversations going on that address the realities and complexities of what is daily life for so many? Since caregiving so often happens behind the scenes, many people don’t understand the work involved. That’s one reason it’s dismissed and demeaned in our society as a legitimate form of work for those who do it full time. It’s also why so many fail to make room for the work of caring or see it as a part of their human work on the planet.
I’ve had seasons of life where my household was thick with the flow of people in and out. There were children still at home and we had the continual stream of houseguests. It meant that my days were filled with menu planning, grocery shopping, cooking, serving meals, washing dishes, changing sheets and towels, cleaning toilets, having conversations at odd hours, along with the whole gamut of work involved in caring for a family and helping to run our business. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for houseguests, especially the twenty-somethings to ask the inevitable, “So, what are you doing these days?” Even when they were the target of my care, they still couldn’t envision or understand the work that had taken place to prepare for their arrival, or to care for the ongoing needs of the household while they were with us. As a society we’re so used to thinking of work in terms of paid labor, that we’re blind to the work of people care, even when it’s right in front of us and we are the recipients.
So I wanted to write a book that would bring encouragement and affirmation to anyone in a caregiving position. I wanted to highlight the importance and value of giving care. As I studied the scriptures, researched, and developed the book, I realized the topic was really a very large one and had everything to do with how we live as human beings , and especially as Christian human beings. From my own experience and my research, I knew that people of all ages were hungry for care in all its many forms. And I also knew from experience that caregivers were hungry for affirmation.
Critique: How does caring relate to grace?
Andi Ashworth: Thankfully it’s all about grace. None of us can sustain a life of caring for others on our own. Our hearts are too riddled with selfishness and the battle of our sin nature rages inside us telling us to hold back, stay safe, and keep a tight grip on our self-interests. We repeatedly come face to face with our utter dependence on God to transform us. Sometimes when we rub up against others in intimate ways, that’s when we find our sin just lurking and waiting for the right button to be pushed. I have some relationships that push those buttons in me. If I keep them at a safe distance I can retain the vision of myself as a nice, caring person. But if I’m up close and personal for very long, I’m exposed and become someone that I don’t recognize, can’t seem to control, and am later ashamed of. Even if I haven’t acted out verbally, I know the state of my heart. There are deep-seated sinful patterns of relating that I can’t even begin to identify, let alone turn into something healthy and life giving on my own. I am completely dependent on the Spirit of God to change me, to bring me to a place of true, heart-felt repentance, and to give me wisdom and insight for how to proceed. And with particularly difficult relationships and situations, I will seek the help of God’s people who are gifted in giving wise counsel.
There are so many caregiving situations that bring us to the end of ourselves: long term care of those with special needs or illness, too much hospitality without a break for the refueling of privacy, the continual care of babies and young children, walking through difficult times with a friend when you are their constant sounding board, riding the waves of life with a teenager, the care of elderly relatives. Especially when a caregiving situation is new and completely changes the shape of your life, buttons may be pushed that have never been pushed before, accompanied by a weariness you’ve never known until now.
In all of these places we learn that we’re dependent on the strength and grace that only God can give. We can’t do this stuff in our own strength. And we have to come back again and again to the bedrock truth that our standing is in grace (Romans 5: 1-2). We need a continual reminder that God’s love and acceptance won’t move up and down on a meter according to our behavior and the state of our hearts. Our status before God is firm and unmoving because it’s based on Christ’s perfect record of righteousness, not our own. It’s a gift of grace from start to finish.
1 John 3:16 says, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” For most of us, laying down our life won’t happen with one grand act. Rather, it will consist of a thousand small turnings of our will from its natural self-absorption to the self-giving ways of God. And it will happen as we ask and rely on the Holy Spirit to change us, to give us creativity, fresh strength and new abilities, and the grace to lay our lives down for others, one person at a time.
Questions1. When have you experienced being cared for in a way that meant a great deal to you?
2. Whom do you know for whom caring seems to be a way of life?
3. What impresses you most about them? What comes to mind most quickly when you hear “caring for others?”
4. Why do you think that is? What impresses you most about Andi Ashworth’s reflections?
5. What questions would you wish to raise to her? Which of her statements touched you most deeply? To what extent is caring for others a regular part of your life?
6. What plans should you make? What hurdles to caring seem most difficult to overcome today? Why?
7. How does caring—and being cared for—fit into the individualism that is prized in our culture?
8. Many see needing care as an expression of weakness. How would you respond?
9. How can we care for people without turning it into a duty? Without turning it into a program? Without feeling morally superior to those who give less care? Without making the person being cared for feel like a project?
10. What sort(s) of creativity do you tend to express? How might that be expressed in a caring relationship with others?
11. What texts of Scripture seem to speak to the ministry of caring? How does Jesus exhibit caring for his disciples? For strangers?