Setsuko, left, and Carol Sack
The Rev. Jim and Carol Sack are ELCA missionaries in Japan. Jim is a professor at Japan Lutheran College and Carol is a director of Lyra Precaria, a bedside ministry of prayerful presence through harp and voice. To support them, or another of the ELCA’s more than 240 missionaries in the global church, click here.
Setsuko is a beautiful 72-year-old woman who has been a volunteer for the past 10 years at the hospice for homeless people where I offer pastoral harp ministry.
Over the years, Setsuko has made the one-hour-forty-five minute (one way) trek across town, at her own expense, for two, three or four days a week, starting less than two months after her husband’s death. Her first time to venture to Hope House Hospice happened to be on a Tuesday, the day I visit patients. She accompanied me to the bedside of three patients that day, and she has been my support and partner for every patient visit thereafter.
She and I somehow felt a strong kindred spirit from the first meeting, and Setsuko has become one of my dearest friends. Before I actually met her, someone told me, “She cared for her husband for 15 years. He came down with early Alzheimer’s in his late 50s and just passed away recently.”
Hearing this, I remember thinking, “Wow, that poor woman. What a burden she has carried.”
Then I met Setsuko – with her bright, smiling, radiating countenance. Where did that come from, I wondered? She was like an incarnate oxymoron. How could the woman just described to me exude such vibrancy?
But that very first day she told me how she loved every minute of caring for her husband. Yes, in the early stages of the disease, before his condition was diagnosed, things were confusing and disconcerting. But as soon as she understood it was all due to a disease, she realized there could be no denial of that which is, and from that point she researched and learned to accept that which was coming day by day.
And she loved caring for her husband, who had always been such a kind and caring family man. She proudly showed me photos of his pure, childlike smile, with his strong nature still shining brightly through the surface diminishments of his disease. Setsuko grew to respect the strength of the soul itself, which not only stayed intact but radiated in new and undeniable ways.
Setsuko is not baptized (yet!), but she attended Christian schools and I dare say she knows the Bible better than I do. She stayed at home by her husband’s side for 15 years, and read book after book about the spirit, the soul.
Then, shortly after he passed away, she found herself at the doorstep of Hope House Hospice and has not been able to stay away since. She often says, “My husband led me to my life’s work.”
What captured me was her statement: “When we try to run away from the things that come to us, we increase our suffering greatly. I feel so blessed that I was able to just respond with YES! YES! YES! And in this I found my source of joy.”
There was something linguistically interesting going on in Setsuko’s statement. In Japanese, it just so happens that the word “yes” is pronounced “eeyehsoo” – which also happens to be the same way “Jesus” is pronounced (similar to “Jesu” as in “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”) So she was saying: “I feel so blessed that I was able to just respond with Yes! Yes! Yes! / Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! And in this I found my source of joy.”
She and I talked about this interesting intertwining of pronunciation, and she seemed surprised to realize that “Jesus” and “yes” were not actually one and the same word!
Through Setsuko, and through her gentle husband’s guidance, I have learned a new level of the meaning of I Corinthians 1:20 – “For in Jesus every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.’ For this reason it is through him that we say the ‘Amen,’ to the glory of God.”