“We’re going to talk about Jesus,” I said to a resident at Bethany as I was rounding up people for Bible study. Her quizzical stare indicated that she didn’t understand the invitation.
I tried again, “Come with me. We’re going to tell stories of Jesus.“ The puzzled gaze intensified, signifying growing agitation with my persistence. She retorted, “I don’t know what you are talking about! I don’t know any Jesus!”
Many residents in the memory care unit have forgotten Jesus. My wife, a trained Christian educator, who has spent her life in the church, doesn’t remember who Jesus is. Few if any of the residents can comprehend and verbalize basic tenets about Jesus—Son of God, Lord and Savior, Incarnate Word, etc.
Can one who has forgotten or never consciously knew Jesus follow him? Can people with severe cognitive impairment be Jesus’ disciples?
If salvation requires intellectual and verbal acceptance of Jesus, where does that leave those who cannot comprehend or express who Jesus is?
We are all on a continuum when it comes to intellectual understanding and verbal skills. At what point are intellectual belief and verbal accent no longer prerequisites for following Jesus? Insisting on rational belief in and verbal confession of prescribed doctrinal propositions and creedal formulas eliminates the participants in my congregation at Bethany, including my wife.
But the residents are teaching me what it means to know and follow Jesus on a level deeper than the intellect and beyond words. They know Jesus even if they can’t remember his name or recite things about him.
My wife, Linda, only occasionally knows my name and remembers little of our fifty-five years of marriage. She doesn’t know me as her husband or the father of our daughters. Still, she knows me! She loves me!
I sat quietly holding Linda’s hand. With a confused stare she asked, “Who are you?” I replied, “I’m Kenneth, your husband.” The puzzled look intensified. “Kenneth? Who’s that?” she responded.
I interrupted the subsequent silence with an occasional “I love you!” She made no response. After a few minutes she said with tenderness and a twinkle in her eyes, “I have a wonderful man.”
“That’s great,” I remarked. “What’s his name?” was my follow up question. Bewilderment reappeared. She had no answer. “Is his name Kenneth?” I asked. “I don’t know. I can’t remember,” she said sorrowfully.
The one she experienced as a beloved person was holding her hand! Yet, she didn’t know my name or remember any facts about me or our life together. I knew, however, that she was expressing love for her forgotten husband!
Phillips Brooks and Helen Keller were friends. Several stories exist about their friendship. One incident has been shared in various versions. It seems that the eloquent preacher once described to the young Helen who Jesus is. As she “listened’ by placing her fingers on his lips, she became increasingly excited as the story of Jesus unfolded. Finally, she responded, “I knew him! I knew him! I didn’t know his name!”
In our hyper-cognitive and word-saturated world, we need to be reminded that God isn’t confined within the margins of our thoughts and language. Our intellectual formulations and affirmations about Jesus are important. Knowledge of the Jesus of the Gospels and the Creeds is significant. And verbal witness is part of Christian discipleship.
But those who have forgotten Jesus (or perhaps never cognitively knew him) can still love and follow Jesus!
Jesus shifted the margins when he declared, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom; but the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
The woman who protested, “I don’t know any Jesus,” attended the Bible study session. As I was sharing the story of Jesus healing the woman bent over (Luke 13:10-17), the resident who had forgotten Jesus spontaneously began to sing, “Jesus Loves Me.” She may have forgotten Jesus, but Jesus hasn’t forgotten her! And, she follows and loves a Jesus her mind no longer grasps!
Thank you for this thought provoking article. I had a grandmother with dementia who was a Christian woman but in her last months of her life she cursed something she never did in her earlier life.
We could really not have a conversation but she could sing hymns with me often knowing 2nd or 3rd verses. This comforted me knowing that her faith was some how still a part of her.
Thank you for your comments. Your grandmother’s behavior and language in her last months reflected the disease, not her faith and discipleship which were deeply embedded in her life!
Thank you, Ken. Once again you make faith very real in a fractured world.
Thank you for that. Sometimes we get so hung out on doctrine that we forget what’s in the heart is all that matters. Thanks for the reminder,
Thank you always for reminding me of the unconditional love of Jesus!
And for the love you show unconditionally in his name.
Thank you, Brian. I hope you and Trish are doing well.
I have an autistic son. He knows Jesus and i lnow Jesus knows him. A lot of times he simply sings Jesus loves the little children. He is a 26 year old 5 year old. Thanks for your thoughts.
Thank you for sharing this!
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,I feel knew me close to the end of his life. He could not put words together and then this was in a whisper. I could look into those beautiful eyes and know if he knew me on those special days. Thanks for the article
Thank you, Dimple! I am convinced that the heart knows when the mind forgets!