Brennan Hurley, a pastor in Taylorville, Illinois, invited me to join him in a conversation about dementia and the church. Brennan does interviews each week with a persons representing different experiences and topics and the conversations are shared with his congregation. I appreciate the opportunity to share my journey with Linda and lessons I have learned,
You may access the 45-minute interview below. Your feedback is welcome.
October 3 marked two years since I, along with daughters Sheri and Sandra and sons-in-law John and Kyle, stood in muted reverence beside Linda’s bed holding her hands as she serenely slipped into that mysterious realm we call “death.”
Though the moment had been anticipated for months, even years, as the losses had been inexorable over a decade, the finality of this moment was emotionally jarring. It set in motion a life-altering process with new challenges and adjustments.
Grief, though universal and unavoidable, defies all our attempts to fully explain or completely control. We confront our losses out of our own reservoir of experiences, values, traits, and relationships. Therefore, I offer no prescriptions for how others should grieve. I can only describe my own journey and hope others might find their own resources.
C.S. Lewis’s image of grief as a bomber flying overhead continues to speak to me. Two years ago, in the aftermath of Linda’s death, the disorienting bombs were dropping relentlessly, shattering every aspect of my being with waves of deep sadness. I didn’t know if I could endure the bombardment of such painful feelings of loss, disorientation, regret, guilt, anger, and loneliness.
Now, two years later, the bomber hovers further in the distance. The bombs fall with less frequency and intensity. Recovery and reorientation come more quickly. The pervasive and penetrating sadness has abated. Preoccupation with the images of disease, decline, suffering, and death are receding as joyful memories of decades of shared love and happiness move to the forefront. Gratitude is overshadowing regrets. Forgiveness is at least softening the pangs of guilt.
I’m learning anew that grief can only be lived through. Attempts to deny it or escape will only delay and exacerbate the consequences. We can get through it and move toward the future with hope. Indeed, love endures!
Marilynne Robinson in her acclaimed novel Gilead writes:
Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave — that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful.
This prevenient courage comes to me in. . .
the encouragement and support of family and friends
tasks to be accomplished
memories mingled with gratitude
the beauty of an approaching autumn
works of art or melodies and words of music
prayers of lament and thanksgiving
sharing the suffering and grief of others
nurturing old friendships and entering new ones
the birth of a great grandchild bearing Linda’s middle name
Anne Lamotte writes, “You lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly–that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
I never could dance, as Linda often reminded me. But I do walk a lot! The limp you may sometimes detect is prevenient courage enabling me to move toward the future with hope.
The wise and compassionate Don Saliers summed it up in a thoughtful and much appreciated message to me: “This deep rhythm of loss, consolations of grace, and then gratitude for the joy of shared life, it is a great mystery, isn’t it?”
Yes! Mysterium Tremendum! Tremendous Mystery! I call it GOD!
It was during a Q & A with Fred Craddock, the master preacher and teacher of preachers, following a lecture he had delivered at Vanderbilt Divinity School in the mid 1990s. A retired bishop and friend of mine asked this question: “Where are the great preachers today? We don’t seem to have any Harry Emerson Fosdicks or Martin Luther Kings today.”
The highly regarded and distinguished professor at Candler School of Theology responded something like this: “Well, these are different times and preachers aren’t listened to by the world around us in the same way as when Fosdick and King were preaching. But great preachers are still around.”
He added that the great preachers today are not the ones you see on TV or hear on the radio or read about in the newspapers. They are the unnamed pastors of local congregations, small and large, who Sunday after Sunday enter the pulpit after a busy and turbulent week and faithfully speak the truth borne from immersion in Scripture and the lives of their congregations.
Then Dr. Craddock added, “I suspect that most of the great preachers today don’t have time to write books or do dramatic things that get them in the news. They are too busy getting ready to preach again next Sunday to a world that doesn’t seem to pay any attention; and that’s not easy.”
One of my previous blogs consisted of reflections on entering my eighties. The dominating theme was that time is running out for me. Capacities and experiences are diminishing rather than expanding. More family members and close friends are dying than are being born. I am more focused on endings than beginnings.
Then on March 20, my granddaughter, Katelyn Nash Aiken, gave birth to Vera Faye! Suddenly, life expanded rather than contracted. Coincidently, she was born on the first day of Spring as the earth was bursting with new life and beauty.
One look into Vera Faye’s beautiful, innocent eyes, and my heart leapt with joy. Here was pure, spontaneous love connecting across generations. It was a holy moment!
Her sparkling eyes and spirited smile brought instant joy. I felt the sanctity of pure love and the hope of new beginnings.
Such is the rhythm of creation. Such is the cycle of life. Birth and old age are part of the same tapestry of life. Being born and dying are built into the structure of everything, human and nonhuman.
There is continuity between beginnings and endings, birth and death. In one sense, nothing ever totally dies. All life is interrelated and in a constant process of changing. Biologically, we are all a collection of recycled atoms!
But we are more than clusters of cells and atoms. We are interconnected stories and part of a God’s Story of creation, liberation, restoration, incarnation, and transformation.
At the heart of life’s story is love, which is the power that creates us, connects us with one another and the creation, and ever seeks to unite us and enable us to flourish as God’s beloved children.
Sixty years ago tomorrow, June 30, Linda and I entered the covenant of marriage. I’m sorry that she did not live to know her great granddaughter. I can only imagine her ecstatic joy given the chance to hold this new member of our family. I will still celebrate our life together which now lives on in Vera Faye.
Vera not only carries Linda’s genes; she bears her middle name, Faye!
With Vera Faye’s instinctive grasp of my finger, I feel connected to one whose hand I can hold no longer but whose love continues to give life and hope.
I experienced Pentecost in the most surprising place. It was four years ago, June 4, 2017.
Approximately twenty-five residents in varying stages of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, plus six or eight volunteers, gathered for worship at Bethany, the memory-care facility at the Heritage at Lowman in Chapin, South Carolina.
Below is a slightly revised blog I shared following that service. I share it once more in hopes that we will all experience Pentecost again!
“How do we tell someone who has lost language comprehension that we love her?” I asked the worshippers at Bethany, the memory-care facility where my wife, Linda, was a resident for eighteen months. Beside me stood a resident whose speech has been reduced to incoherent babbling. She looked into my eyes as though longing to speak.
“Hug her,” came a response from a resident who struggles with hallucinations as well as lost and distorted memories. I put my arm around her and she embraced me in return.
Looking into her sad eyes and calling her by name, I said, “I love you!”
Suddenly, the sadness in her eyes turned to a sparkle. With a faint smile, she said plainly for all to hear, “I love you!” Babbling turned to the language of love.
It was Pentecost Sunday! We had been singing such hymns as “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “Kum bah Yah,”“Surely the Presence of the Lord is in this Place,” and “There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit in this Place.”
We heard the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 where people with different languages and cultures and traditions understood one another. “Tongues of fire” descended on diverse and multi-lingual people and God’s Spirit created a new community.
Bethany became a new community as the barriers once again crumbled!
Present among the residents were various religious traditions: American Baptist, Assemblies of God, Southern Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, Holiness, Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Methodist, and Jewish. A few claim no religious affiliation. Some present in the service have forgotten God and no longer remember who Jesus is. Perhaps a few have never consciously known God.
All share a common characteristic: Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.They are at various stages in their disease, but all are unable to live alone and care for themselves.
“What made it possible for the people present at that Jewish festival to understand one another even though they spoke different languages?” I asked the worshippers.
“They loved one another,” a resident called out. A conversation followed about how love enables us to understand and accept one another.
Other languages are present at Bethany. One couple speaks Portuguese. One’s native tongue is Spanish and another’s is Italian. A staff member speaks Swahili.A volunteer present for the service knows French and German.
“Let’s learn to say “I love you” in different languages,” I suggested. So, we tried to speak words of love in Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French, German, and Swahili. With varying degrees of success, we tried to speak love in multiple languages.
It was during those exchanges that the resident whose language skills have been destroyed by her disease came and stood beside me. How do we say “I love you” to someone who can’t speak or understand words?
There followed a time of practicing love without words—hugs, handshakes, an open hand, a pat on the back, a warm smile. Other love languages were mentioned—helping, protecting, encouraging, feeding, bathing, just being with….
They got it! Beneath all our hyper-cognitive theological talk and creedal statements is the simple reality that God is LOVE. To love is to know God! Pentecost happens when people express the multiple languages of love!
The worshippers at Bethany are a microcosm of our world. They are black and white and brown. They are Christian, Jewish, and none of the above. Their behaviors are sometimes offensive and difficult. Intellectual abilities vary broadly. For some, the filters are gone, and they cross boundaries of affection and relationships. Some have been highly skilled professional people. Others have a background of common labor.
They are just like the rest of us! As I listen to the rancor in our society and churches and the talk about the United Methodist Church dividing as a denomination, I pray that we learn and practice the languages of love. One thing that binds us all together: We are God’s beloved children!
Within the embrace and “I love you” from the worshipper at Bethany on Pentecost Sunday was another voice! It was God’s Holy Spirit speaking the language of Greater Love, declaring to us all, “I know you by name. I have redeemed you! You are mine!”
We are surrounded by God’s ever-present love. Sharing that love in simple acts of kindness, compassion, and justice is our highest calling.
During my early childhood, my parents were tenant farmers and sharecroppers. We lived on three different farms in eastern Tennessee before I was nine years old. Two of the land owners made indelible, contrasting impressions on me. They helped to form my images of God and power.
One landowner scared me! I was only five years old when he held me over a rain barrel, threatening to drown me for playing on the roof of one of the farm buildings. “You’re gonna learn to respect me and my property,” he said angrily as he dangled me over the water.
“Respect” to him meant compliance, obedience, and “knowing our place.” We were among his possessions and considered to be subservient and dispensable. The housing provided for our family of six was a two-room shack with no insolation in the walls, no electricity, and no indoor plumbing.
I didn’t respect him. I was scared of him! Yes, I addressed him thereafter as “sir” and lived in constant fear that I would do something to displease him, but I secretly loathed him!
At that time, our family attended city-wide religious rallies, camp meetings, and revivals in which God was portrayed as a stern and sovereign judge who keeps records of all our wrongs. The end of the world was drawing near, and God would punish the wrongdoers and those who had not “accepted Jesus” by sending them to a burning hell for everlasting punishment. It felt as though I was being held over a burning inferno.
Though I didn’t consciously make the connection as a young child, the cruel landlord and God got connected in my mind. They both were all powerful, owned our livelihood, and expected, above all else, our respect, obedience, and acceptance of our place as “miserable sinners.”
That’s one image of God and power — authoritarian; dominating; controlling by intimidation, power-over; the superior enforcer; the judge. It’s often more subtle than what I experienced from that landlord, but it is no less dangerous and destructive.
Thankfully, we moved from that farm shortly after the incident with the rain barrel. The new landlord, Mr. Street, lived in a neighboring state. The house provided had four rooms and was much more comfortable for six people, though still no electricity and indoor plumbing.
The owner always let us know when he would be coming to visit. We eagerly waited for his arrival because he would bring us kids candy and my parents some useful gift. He would spend the day working in the field alongside us. (Yes, we children worked in the fields, too, hoeing rows of corn, cleaning out the barn, etc.) He was always kind, affirming of our work, and respectful of us!
We stayed on that farm for two years. The owner actually encouraged my dad to get his own small farm and offered to help make it possible. Tragically, he was killed in an accident on his farm in North Carolina. We were all saddened by the news. We respected him, trusted him, and enjoyed his presence.
Shortly after the kind landlord’s death, we moved again, this time to a small, hilly farm of 20 acres, which our parents bought on credit. Located within sight was McKinley Methodist Church. At age ten, I visited the church for the first time. Though it was seventy years ago, I remember it well. The teacher, Mrs. Mahoney, met me at the doorway and welcomed me with a warm hug.
The lesson that day was on the Good Shepherd. Mrs. Mahoney made a startling comment that began reshaping my image of God. She said, “God is like a good shepherd who searches for lost sheep and safely returns them home.” She not only told the story; she embodied it!
God was not the severe landlord eager to punish and destroy the world. God was a tender shepherd who cared for the sheep, protected them, even willing to lay down his life for them.
And God is more like the kind landlord who respected us, worked alongside us. He empowers rather than dominates, engenders love rather than fear, and encourages instead of terrorizes.
The contrasting images of God and power operate today in the worlds of business, education, politics, and religion. Maybe there is some of both landlords in all of us. But I know which one is most like the God we know in Jesus.
Since reaching my 80th birthday in November, I have been keenly aware that I am running out of time. According to the Social Security actuaries, my life expectancy is now in single digits, roughly eight more years. That’s a sobering realization.
For most of my life, my orientation has been toward the future, anticipating and preparing for new beginnings. Beginning school, entering marriage, starting a family, graduating from school, launching a vocation, moving to a new congregation and community, retiring from one position and beginning another one, having grandchildren and even a great grandchild. The future has seemed limitless.
Now, I am living with more endings than beginnings. I have more memories than dreams, more recollections than anticipations. I’m losing more long-time friends and family members faster than gaining new ones.
Diminishment is my reality. Diminished energy, diminished engagements, diminished responsibilities, diminished influence, diminished number of living siblings, diminished circle of friends, diminished mobility.
Although my health is currently strong and my cognitive capacities are intact, frailty is likely just around the corner. I dread that phase for me and my family. I prefer to skip feebleness, but physical and mental frailty is the norm in our later years.
This sounds so depressing! Admittedly, I am grieving a multitude of losses and learning to live with accumulating endings and fewer beginnings.
Laments have become integral to my prayer life. Psalm 71 surfaces regularly: “Do not cast me off in the time of my old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent.”
Laments, however, clear the way for possible new beginnings. They are means of letting go, probing deeper, and re-ordering priorities. Lament makes possible a re-orientation toward the present and future.
During a seminar on pastoral care and dementia, a friend asked, “Ken, you cared for Linda during the years of her frailty and death. What did you learn in that process that is helpful as you face your own frail years?”
My immediate response was that I know I will be supported in my infirmity by people who love me. As Linda was surrounded by love and support as her capacities diminished, I will be upheld by that same love. I may not be able to reciprocate, but I know from experience that love expands as we live in solidarity with the vulnerable and powerless. After all, love endures because love is participation in the very life of God.
As I have continued to ponder my friend’s question, other lessons have emerged.
Loving Linda in her frailty has taught me to value the present moment and fill it with as much joy and love as possible. In reality, the present moment is all any of us have for certain. As with most things, time increases in value as it decreases in quantity. In a sense, each moment is a new opportunity, even a new beginning!
Linda also helped me to learn that it’s the simple, even unnoticed actions that have the most meaning. A gesture of recognition, fleeting smile, twinkle in the eyes, gentle squeeze of the hand, simple act of kindness toward those nearby have immeasurable effects. Though the circle of relationships may grow smaller, the depth of the love can grow deeper. As Mother Teresa affirmed: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
Finally, I am learning that being really is more important than doing! That is a hard reality to accept in a society that values productivity above almost all else. Human worth often is measured by capacities to produce, to DO! I’m living proof that the ability to DO inevitably diminishes with the advancement of age. But BEING a beloved child of God has no expiration date.
Although death has taken Linda’s presence from me, she remains part of my BEING, reminding me that when death comes to me, I will still be part of those with whom I have shared love.
It may be the most important question in this age of media overload, “alternative facts,” “fake news,” partisan political propaganda, and competing religious voices. To whom do we listen in determining our own perspectives and our responses to current realities?
Make no mistake about it; we are shaped by the voices we listen to. Words matter! They shape how we feel and act. Hateful words provoke hatred. Divisive words divide people. Angry words spark angry action. Arrogant words generate haughty actions. Violent words incite violence. Lies distort reality. Falsehoods inflame prejudices.
On the other hand, loving words sow seeds of compassion. Reconciling words open doors for reconciliation. Gentle words soften hard hearts. Humble words invite dialogue. Peaceful words promote peace. Truthful words foster understanding.
For followers of Jesus, the Transfiguration story provides the answer to the question, “To whom shall we listen?” Jesus and his disciples were at a crossroads, on their way to Jerusalem, the center of religious, political, and economic power.
Ahead loomed confrontation and conflict as the values of the reign of God clashed with the values and practices of established religion and the Roman Empire.
The disciples are in for a test of their loyalty and the source of their authority. To whom will they listen to shape their actions and loyalties? Their lives and destiny depend on their choice. Will they listen to the one who had called them to “come follow me;” or will their actions be determined by the voices of expediency, safety, hatred, bigotry, and violence?
Mysteriously, Peter, James, and John experienced Jesus as the fulfillment of the authority of Moses and Elijah, the liberator and prophet. The authoritative voice from the heavens declared, “This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him!”(Mark 9:7)
It’s time for us to decide to whom we will listen in these uncertain, polarizing, hate-filled, violent times. What voices are shaping our actions and relationships? FOX News? MSNBC? Talk radio? Politicians and their spokespersons? Religious celebrities and power seekers?
What would it mean to listen to the One who is the Word made flesh, Jesus the Christ?
For the last three years, I have begun each day of Lent reading from the Sermon on the Mount. They are the first words I read in the morning. Before email, Facebook, and news articles. The words of Jesus thereby become the filter through which I read and hear everything else.
The contrast of the voice of Jesus and voices of much of social media, talk radio, television, and the internet is stark. Here are a few of the radical words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for righteousness, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted . . .
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
Turn the other cheek, go the second mile.
Practice forgiveness if you expect to be forgiven.
Don’t make a show of your piety.
Judge not that you be not judged.
Don’t be anxious about tomorrow.
You cannot serve God and wealth.
Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
As the disciples faced an uncertain and tumultuous future while on the Mount of Transfiguration, we live in a world of competing voices. We would do well to heed the voice the disciples heard from the heavens:
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7)
It was a Sunday afternoon before Christmas in the early 1970s. I was resting comfortably in the parsonage in Abingdon, Virginia, when the telephone rang. It was the owner of the local funeral home, a member of the church I was serving.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Kenneth, but I need some help. A man is here whose wife died and they have no church affiliation. He is from this area but has been away for several years. Would you be willing to come down and help him plan a funeral service?”
I readily agreed and made my way to the funeral home. I wasn’t prepared for what followed. There awaited a young father and two children, Patricia, age 5, and two-year-old Eddie. They were the same ages as our daughters, Sheri and Sandra.
The father was grief-stricken. His wife, whom he had married in Korea during the war, had died from cancer. He needed help in telling the children that their mother had died. How do you help young children understand that their mother is gone? Here it is a few days before Christmas and Patricia and Eddie have lost the one who gave them birth and cared for them. I don’t remember what I said. I just remember hugging them!
We had the funeral a couple of days later. Only a dozen or so people were present. After the service, I asked the father what they were would be doing Christmas Eve. He had no plans but to be with his relative. I asked if he would like Patricia and Eddie to spend Christmas Eve with us. Eddie decided he wanted to stay with his Dad, but Patricia was eager to be with Sheri and Sandra.
Linda rushed out and bought more presents to place under the tree as we anticipated having a special guest for Christmas, a little five-year-old who had just lost her mother.
The Christmas Eve celebration began with a service at the church. It was a simple portrayal of the Nativity as described in Luke and Matthew. I narrated the story from the pulpit while the shepherds, magi, Mary and Joseph, and angels made their way to the altar.
Linda sat on the front row with Sheri, Sandra, and Patricia. I heard Sheri whispering to Patricia throughout the drama. I suddenly realized what was happening. She and Sandra were interpreting the drama to Patricia. It dawned on me that she was experiencing the Christmas story for the first time, and she was hearing it from two little girls.
Following the service, we gathered at the parsonage for dinner. About the time dessert was served, Patricia got up from the table and ran to a bedroom crying. After a short time, I followed her into the dark room.
I cradled her in my arms as she sobbed. “You miss your Momma, don’t you? I’m so sorry. It’s okay to cry.”
Suddenly, the door opened and into the darkness came Sheri and Sandra. Sheri was carrying one of her favorite possessions, a jeweled box given to her by her grandmother. She reached it toward Patricia and said, “This is for you.”
Patricia’s tears stopped as she reached for her gift. She slowly returned to her dessert, holding onto her special present.
That Christmas, more than forty-five years ago, remains my most memorable and transformative Christmas. Amid the darkness of grief and loss, three little girls BECAME the Christmas story.
May we, too, become the Christmas Story amid the darkness of our grieving and suffering world.