“She’s Been Loved to Life”

Clasping hands 2Linda entered Bethany, the memory care facility, in May 2015. It was a painful decision for us.  The subsequent eighteen months were the most excruciating I have experienced as she declined cognitively and physically.

By April 2016, she had lost 20 pounds and was becoming increasingly frail. After extensive medical evaluation, Linda was approved for hospice care.

She remained in Bethany for another six months. Confusion, fear, disorientation increased. She was gradually forgetting how to eat and walk. Her weight loss continued.

She was unable to perform minimal personal care, which made her ineligible for “assisted living.” She had to either be transferred to skilled nursing or taken home with full-time care.

I wanted her home! I asked the nurse practitioner for a prognosis of time remaining. Understandably, she was reluctant to project a time. But she said, “Perhaps six months to a year.”

It is now October 2018, thirty months since Linda was admitted to hospice care.  Although she can no longer walk and is confined to the bed and dependent for her personal care, she is more peaceful and less fearful.

“I would never have thought that she would still be with us!”  The nurse practitioner said with amazement during a recent visit.

As I stroked Linda’s hair and caressed her forehead, a pleasant smile and twinkle in the eyes appeared.

The usually stoic nurse said with evident emotion, “She’s been loved to life!”

Tearfully I responded. “We are determined to provide three things for her–physical and emotional safety, appropriate comfort, and the assurance that she is loved just as she is.”

“It’s obvious that she has all three. I just wish everybody could have what Linda has,” remarked the experienced and compassionate nurse.

I feel enormously blessed that Linda and I are both surrounded by love, and it is love that gives us life.

We are blessed with two daughters who love their mother with the unselfish love they received from her; and their families, including our grandchildren, share that love.

We have the help of caregivers to whom caring for Linda is a sacred vocation.

A couple from church bring a meal each Thursday, simply because they care.

A neighbor couple drop in almost every day to lend support.

I, too, wish everyone could have what we experience! Is that not what God desires for the human family–safety from unnecessary danger, comfort amid loss, and unconditional love and care?

We all need to be “loved to life!” Isn’t that why the church exists?

 

Why I Changed My Mind about Homosexuality and the Church

As a delegate to the United Methodist General Conferences in 1984 and 1988, I voted to reaffirm and expand the restrictive language regarding homosexuality. I did so out of sincere conviction as the right thing to do, even though the issue was an abstraction to me. I knew no one who was admittedly gay, and the notion of same-sex attraction was foreign to my experience.

I now deeply regret those votes! Over the intervening thirty years, I have changed my mind and now support the removal of all restrictive language in the United Methodist Book of Discipline here. The following are the factors that contribute to my change of mind.

First, I got to know people who fall into the category of “homosexual.” I came to realize that many of them had long been in my circle of relationships but were afraid to share this important component of their identity. Some are beloved members of my own family!

Many are faithful, devoted, life-long church members who can’t be open within the body of Christ for fear of rejection and condemnation. Some are parents of LGBTQ children who shared stories of bullying and abuse of their kids.

A few were colleagues on the staff of congregations I served, and their ministries reflected the qualifications identified by John Wesley—grace, gifts, and fruits. Many were exceptionally gifted, devoted seminary students whose call to ordained ministry seemed evident to me.

Some are people in same-sex marriages who are committed Christians and faithful to the church, faithful to one another, and faithful to Christ, and who possess “the gifts of the Spirit.”

Hearing the painful stories of these beloved children of God cut me to the quick. The issue of sexual orientation was no longer a theological or ethical abstraction. It became embodied in people I loved, from whom I learned, in whom I experienced God’s grace-filled presence!

Secondly, the evidence is overwhelming that sexual orientation is not a choice. I have yet to meet a heterosexual who can tell me when he/she decided to be attracted to the opposite sex; nor have I met a gay person who decided to be attracted to persons of the same sex.

Sexual identity and desire are complex realities with biological, social, environmental, and psychological components. While the Discipline labels “the practice” of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching,” the implication is that a person’s being is contrary to the Christian gospel. That is incompatible with our doctrine of creation.

Thirdly, by the 1992 General Conference I had not only begun to change my mind about the language of incompatibility and exclusion, I had become convinced that legislation is the wrong way to deal with the issue.

The pivotal decision was made in 1972 when the language of incompatibility was added to  Social Principles Study Commission Report, by an amendment from the floor with limited debate.

The consequence of that political parliamentary action has disproportionately dominated subsequent General Conference agendas and expanded legislative restrictions. It now threatens to split the denomination.

We have legislated ourselves into a box, maybe into a regrettable schism. Whatever our position on this issue, legislative action will not resolve it!

Fourthly, I came to realize more fully the meaning of Martin Luther King’s words in his letter from the Birmingham jail:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

During my first eight years as a member of the Council of Bishops, I was deeply immersed in the Initiative on Children and Poverty. I felt that the persistent discussion of homosexuality within the Council and other denominational circles was distracting us from fully addressing economic injustice.

I shared my concern with a friend, a theological consultant to the Initiative. His response lodged my conscience: “But, Ken, you can’t portion God’s justice for one group and ignore it for another.”

I realize that some injustices are beyond our ability to remedy immediately, but to ignore those that are within our immediate sphere of influence cannot be excused. By removing the discriminatory language, we can take an immediate step toward correcting an injustice inflicted on our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

Fifthly, I’m convinced that the discrimination against LGBTQ people is being justified by inadequate biblical interpretation. I’ve read arguments from the Bible used by southern preachers to justify slavery, and I see a similar hermeneutic operating in support exclusion of gay persons.

Using the Bible to support misguided causes is a long-standing scandal in the church. Scripture has been used to justify such evils as the Crusades, genocide, slavery, the subordination of women, persecution of scientists, and burning of “heretics.”

I firmly, unapologetically believe in the primacy and authority of Scripture! What we mean by “the authority of Scripture” determines how we use it.

Here is my understanding: The authority of Scripture lies in its authentic witness to God’s mighty acts of salvation supremely in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in its power through the Holy Spirit within community to transform individuals, communities, nations, and the entire cosmos into the likeness of Christ.

The test of commitment to the authority of Scripture is this: Is it shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ and enabling us to love as Christ loves and to witness to his present and coming reign of compassion, justice, generosity, hospitality, and joy?

The influence of the Gospel over the centuries has enabled us to see Scripture through the lens of the Word-Made-Flesh, Jesus Christ. Such a lens enables us to avoid misusing  some troubling passages in the Bible.

Three glaring examples: massacring of religious opponents as did Elijah with the prophets of Baal (I Kings 18:40); slavery which was taken for granted in many Old and New Testament narratives; women keeping silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34).

Finally, my understanding and experience of what it means to love as Christ loves has deepened and widened over the years. People whom society relegates to the margins have taught me about the nature, depth, and expanse of God’s love. I have experienced profound faith among the incarcerated, the homeless, the frail elderly, orphans, immigrants, the poor, and LGBTQ persons.

I have met the Crucified and Risen Christ in my relationships with those whom society treats as “outcasts.” I know from experiences with them that Christ has broken down ALL dividing walls between us. Paul makes it clear:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

ALL includes gays and straights, LGBTQ and heterosexuals, “progressives” and “traditionalists.” Christ died for ALL, includes ALL, and invites ALL to “love one another as I have loved you.”

It is the quality of our love and its imitation of Christ’s love that is definitive, not gender or sexual orientation. As committed couples, our LGBTQ brothers and sisters should be able to love each other in ways mutually fulfilling to them, as surely as we who are heterosexual.

I’m still growing in my understanding and my ability to love as Christ loves. God grant me the humility to keep learning and growing toward the fullness of God’s perfect love!

How We See Others Matters

Stanley Hauerwas, (here) my friend and colleague at Duke, writes this about Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, a community of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities (here):

“. . . where I see an enemy to be defeated, he [Vanier] sees a wound that needs to be healed. That’s a big difference.”

Indeed, it is a big difference!

What if we were to consider ourselves and others as bearers of common wounds that need healing, rather than as adversaries to be defeated or competitors to be outdone?

What if we were to see the hurt beneath others’ anger, rather than as aggressors meriting our retaliation?

What if we were to view every person as a potential means of grace to us, rather than as an object of our correction or  charity or evangelization?

What if we were to approach those with whom we disagree as mutual explorers of the ineffable mystery we call GOD, rather than as misguided dupes in need of our superior insight?

What if we were to consider every person as a beloved child of God with infinite worth and dignity, rather than as an object of our desire or a means to our ends?

What if we were to see “the other” through the eyes of Christ, rather than through the lenses of partisan politics, racial prejudices,  and national borders?

The lens through which we view others really matters!

Artist Captures Mystery of Love’s Connections Amid Dementia

I was deeply touched by this ceramic work of art created by my daughter’s friend, Olga Yukhno. This particular sculpture was inspired by our family’s story of what we call “the birthday miracle of 2016.” Olga’s thought-provoking creation captures the mystery of the diseases that fall under the category of “dementia;” and it is testimony that the very BEING of people with dementia call forth our creativity, love, and gratitude. Below is Olga’s description of “The Sleeping Mind.”

Sleeping Mind

Sculpture by Olga Yukhno, Five Peaks Studio Art

Sleeping Mind

My best friend’s mother has dementia, and sadly she is no longer able to recognize any of her family members or even remember their names. One year, when the family went to visit her on her husband’s birthday, like a miracle, she opened her eyes, gave a big smile, and remembered everyone. She remembered their names and how they were related, and it was the most special birthday gift. When my friend told me this story, with tears in her eyes, that is the moment that inspired this piece. You can see the mind is asleep, but

there is still a connection to the heart. A long path, though difficult to traverse, can still sometimes be used. The big bell in the heart, all of the love and affection from decades of life, can reach the small bell in the mind, all of the memories and happy thoughts, and together they can wake up the sleeping mind.                   — By Olga Yukhno

Linda awakens to know her family and dog!        November 18, 2016

 

This sculpture, along with other sculptures by Olga Yukhno, is part of a series called “What Moves Us” and is now on display through September at Anastasia and Friends Art Gallery (more information here on gallery and Olga Yukhno)

Let’s Remove Stigma from Dementia

 ” Dealing with early stage Alzheimer’s, I’ve found the hardest part is the stigma that comes with it. Friends don’t come around as often. Is this true?????,” wrote a friend.

care-97984_1280“Don’t tell anybody! I don’t want anyone to know,” pleaded Linda when in 2009 we received word that she has Frontotemperal Dementia (FTD).

“They’ll treat me differently. They will think I’m crazy,” she added.

Studies indicate that people fear dementia more than they fear cancer, and even death itself.

When asked what they fear the most, the answers vary: loss of control, loss of identity, “being a burden,” not remembering family, being treated differently, what other people will think.

A societal problem undergirds those fears, and it’s the stigma associated with the disease. Our hyper-cognitive, capacity-reliant  society diminishes the personhood and worth of people with cognitive impairments.

Even the word “dementia” contributes to the stigma. It literally means “loss of mind” and the dictionary lists the following among the synonyms: ”madness,” “insanity,” “derangement,” ”lunacy.”

Dementia is an umbrella term that covers multiple diseases that affect cognitive functioning, with Alzheimer’s disease comprising between sixty to eighty percent. Indeed, changes in the brain contribute to the diseases.

But dementia is more than a brain disease. Dementia is a social-relational disease; and the stigma society attributes to people with cognitive impairment contributes to its destructive consequences.

Stigmatizing people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia may be more damaging than the pathology at work in the brain. Stigma contributes to isolation and diminished sense of self-worth.

There should be no more stigma associated with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia than with heart disease, diabetes, or any other disease. As with other diseases, those causing cognitive impairment are no respecter of persons’ class, education, race, prestige, or reputation.

All of us can contribute immeasurably to diminishing the suffering of those with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. We can help remove the stigma!

Whatever our infirmities or frailties, we are ALL beloved children of God with inherent worth and dignity, and worthy of respect, relationships, and belonging.

Splitting the Church is Just “Tacky”

© Ivan Grlic, Dreamstime

 

Thoughts of splitting The United Methodist Church trouble me for a host of reasons Some theological and missional.

This polarized and violent world desperately needs the witness of a community that grapples with disputes and differences with humility, mutual respect, and compassion. While divisions have been part of our heritage since the beginning, they never bode well for our commitment to oneness in Christ Jesus.

We need one another, whatever our labels. God has already reconciled us! We have been made one, whether we like it or not. So, I don’t quite understand why we can’t live the reconciliation already accomplished in Christ. If Christ has made us one, should we not live that oneness?

But I’m also troubled for personal reasons.

I’ll always remember that fateful Sunday morning almost 65 years ago when this son of Appalachian tenant farmers and textile workers walked shyly into a Sunday school class at McKinley Methodist Church.

Mrs. Mahoney greeted me at the doorway with a warm hug. I remember the Bible story she told that day. It changed my image of God and set me on a life-long quest to love, trust, and serve God. It was the story of the Good Shepherd. I can still hear her say, “God is like that shepherd.”

That was radically different from the messages I had been hearing in the church of my early childhood. I had the notion that God was like that cruel landlord who once dangled me over a rain barrel to “teach me to respect” him. God was the strict judge who expected, above all else, our respect and obedience. Eternal damnation awaited those who lacked such deference and compliance.

Mrs. Mahoney introduced me to a God who delights in rescuing little lost lambs, a God who invites us to share in the search and saving of the least, the lost, and the wayward. She invited me into friendship with Jesus, a friendship rooted in love not fear.

McKinley Methodist Church became my spiritual home as an adolescent. There I was baptized and received into membership. It was there that I:

• Received a new identity (beloved child of God)
• Learned I didn’t have to take the Bible literally to take it seriously
• Was elected to my first church office (president of the MYF)
• First spoke publicly before a group
• Had my first for-pay job (janitor)
• Taught my first class (Vacation Bible School)
• Was called into ordained ministry
• Introduced to the church as connectional (we were on a circuit)
•Selected to attend the National Youth Conference where I heard an African    American preacher for the first time (James Thomas)
• Approved for candidacy and granted a local preacher’s license

At a conference youth assembly, I met my beloved wife, Linda. We were married in the Methodist Church. She was educated in a Methodist college. We attended a Methodist seminary and spent 42 years living in homes provided by the church. Our daughters and grandchildren have been baptized in United Methodist Churches.

I’ve been privileged to serve eight wonderful congregations and two strong episcopal areas. Additionally, I have taught in a United Methodist seminary, sat on the governing boards of numerous United Methodist related institutions and agencies, experienced the world-wide mission of the church while visiting in Africa, Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

All of this is to say, it’s impossible for me to sever my life from that of the denomination in which I have been and continue to be formed.

To me the reasons being advanced for splitting the denomination seem extraneous to the core Christian gospel and the church’s mission in this polarized and violent world filling up with lost lambs.

When I entered McKinley Methodist Church as a child of poverty, I wasn’t looking for dogmatic pronouncements. I was longing for a community in which I was accepted, valued, and loved. I wanted a place to grow in my understanding of and friendship with God. And, I needed a purpose worth my life.

The church I joined gave me room to grow, and I’m still growing. It moved me beyond provincialism, challenged my racial prejudices and patriarchal practices, gave me a theological lens through which to view every aspect of life, anchored me in sound doctrine while encouraging continuing theological exploration, extended the horizons of God’s salvation to include the healing and transformation of human hearts, communities, nations, and the entire cosmos.

I’m not worried about the survival of the Church. The Body of Christ has been raised from the dead and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. And, I know the institutional form which the body of Christ takes is always changing.

But dividing The United Methodist Church into “Progressives” and “Traditionalists” is just plain wrong. As the late Will Campbell said about the death penalty, “I just think it’s tacky!”

When in Doubt, Love!

Wedding photo 2

Saturday, June 30, is our 57th wedding anniversary. It’s a bittersweet, reflective time!

Linda has reached the stage in her disease that she rarely acknowledges my presence. I’m not sure that she now knows who I am. After being married for 57 years, expressions of love and affection go largely unacknowledged.

Several times throughout the day, I stand or sit beside her bed, take her hand, caress her face and hair, and kiss her on the forehead or cheek. I feed her, brush her teeth, watch her sleep.

Often in the quiet of the early morning, I sit in silence beside her bed and wonder: Does it matter to her that I am here? Who am I to her now? What is going on in her mind? Why does my presence sometimes seem to agitate her? Why does she often say “quit” when she is touched?

Those are painful questions for which there are no clear answers. But I have come to this conclusion: When in doubt, love! I don’t always know how best to express that love, whether leaving her alone is sometimes the loving act. But withdrawing love is not an option.

It’s not because I promised 57 years ago that I would love her in “sickness and in health.” I don’t love her out of a sense of duty. Loving her brings joy, meaning, fulfillment to my own life. Neither do I consider her a “burden.” Just her being is a gift! I love her now as she is, as I loved her as the gorgeous and vibrant young woman I married.

There’s a mystery in all this! Linda continues to teach me a lot about life and what it means to love in this broken and confused/confusing world.

Political chaos, corruption in high and low places, mass shootings, normalized hate-filled rhetoric, disrespect for others, cruel separation of migrant children from families, scorn for the poor, widespread racism, arrogant nationalism, . . .! Feels like the nation has lost its mind!

And my own beloved denomination which I have served since my teenage years is tragically divided over homosexuality and threatens to split as we did over slavery in the nineteenth century. To do so, will damage our witness to God’s reconciliation in Jesus Christ and simply mirror the brokenness in our nation. Feels like the church has lost its mission!

I don’t know the best way forward for our nation. Political parties have conflicting agendas and visions. Compromise and the common good are being sacrificed on the altar of personal power and partisan agendas. I know that we as citizens can’t withdraw from the process, even if we feel our vote and advocacy make no differences. Love demands that we stay engaged!

Neither do I know the best way forward for The United Methodist Church. Some caucus groups are drawing lines in the sand and maneuvering politically to win votes, all in the name of faithfulness to truth and doctrine. I realize that whatever is done will be rationalized as devotion to God and our Wesleyan tradition. But I think John Wesley had it right, “All schism is a failure to love!” At least, least us confess our failure to love!

I sometimes feel overwhelmed! Grief and loss are constant companions. So much is beyond my control. My life partner seldom knows me. The future looms ominous. Some problems seem unsolvable. The nation totters. The denomination falters. Doubts arise.

Yet, I am learning from a love honed over more than 57 years this practice: When in doubt, love!

So, I will continue to love Linda even if she doesn’t recognize me or acknowledge my presence.

I will stay engaged on behalf of justice, compassion, and hospitality in our land and love those whose political views are contrary to mine, even if it seems to make no visible difference.

And, I will continue to serve the church whatever institution emerges and whatever forms my service takes, even if I don’t see any results.

After all, love will win! God IS love! The pivotal victory has already been won in the Crucified and Risen Christ.

Amid personal suffering, political corruption and violence, and rigid religious threats, Jesus LOVED and prayed, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.”

When in doubt, we will love as Christ loves us!

hands_11.4.2017

That Which Endures

A friend whose wife died from Alzheimer’s disease said, “Living with dementia is like having a perpetual funeral.  Every day brings another loss until nothing remains but grief.”

I can relate to the feeling! Dementia diseases gradually strip away memories, ideas, decisions, mobility, initiative, bodily control, recognition of family and friends, and finally breath itself. Each loss triggers grief and the one you miss is sitting beside you. We lose them a brain cell at a time!

Of course, it isn’t just dementia that strips life from us. Everything passes away—our looks, our intellect, our abilities, our energy, our mobility, our health, our independence, our cherished relationships, our productivity, and finally life itself.

Is there anything that survives through all the losses? Is there a constant which holds us together amid perpetual change, persistent loss, and death’s finality? Or is grief all we have left?

Living and working among people with dementia has confirmed for me that one reality not only endures but actually thrives amid loss of cognitive and physical functioning. Dementia erases memories, strips away knowledge, garbles or mutes language, diminishes abilities, narrows relationships.

But this remains:     L    O    V    E          hands_11.4.2017

The Apostle Paul declared it more than twenty centuries ago: “Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end”(1Corinthians 13:8).

Love is not sentimentalism or warm fuzzy feelings.  It is entering the messiness, anguish, resistance, and hostility of the beloved with a non-anxious, gentle presence. It is action on behalf of the wellbeing of the other. Love is radical acceptance when behaviors feel unacceptable; compassion without expectations; continuing to care when the caring is not returned.

The expressions of love change, but the reality endures. I have known scores of people with one or more of the dementia diseases. I have yet to meet one who did not respond to being loved, even those in a comatose state. And even when the ability to express love is gone, love is generated with those who enter the person’s story.

Linda no longer comprehends the word “love.” Yet, she expresses and responds to love! Language now fails her; but gentle touch, brushing her hair, a smile assures her of value and worth. She can no longer feed herself, so slowly placing food in her mouth becomes a sacrament of love. Mobility is gone! Turning her in the bed or smoothly transporting her to a recliner become means of bearing her in the arms of compassion.

She no longer has control of bodily functions. Washing her and keeping her clean is an exercise in love’s humility and servanthood.  Her filters are gone and emotional control is lost. Being with her, absorbing her anger and frustration with non-anxious presence enfolds her in unconditional love.

The love is reciprocal. Linda’s expressions of love are rarely verbal. Occasionally, she will say “thank you” to a service rendered.  But her more typical expressions of love are these: a fleeting smile, reach for my hand, raising of an eyebrow, look of recognition in her eyes, calling my name or that of our daughters, growing calm with a caress of her face.

Love endures because love is God! The Scriptures clearly declare: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:7).

Love is that which is ultimate and the most permanent reality in the universe! Everything else may pass away. LOVE is as permanent as God for God is Love!

The Sacrament of the Present Moment

Catepillar1In response to a photo I posted which captured a moment of connection with Linda, a friend, Betty Cloyd, replied with the title of a book by the eighteenth century priest Jean-Pierre Caussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment. The phrase captures the profound and transcendent nature of each moment.

Sacrament is often defined in the words of St. Augustine of Hippo as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The English word comes from the Latin sacramentum, which means to make holy, or to consecrate. The term is also derived from the Greek New Testament word “mysterion,” or mystery.

So, how does the present moment rate as a sacrament? Each moment becomes a mysterious gift within which the holy and transcendent is present as grace, the loving power of God to create, renew, reconcile, and transform.

Pastoral theologian John Swinton contends that people with dementia do not lose their “sense” of time; they lose their “tense” of time. The real time is the present moment. Those who care for them must learn to be present in the moment.

Regrettably, I have never been as contemplative in my spiritual quest as I have wanted to be. But people with dementia, including my wife, are teaching me to be truly present in the moment. It’s hard work! I have to slow down, concentrate, pay attention to little movements and subtle expressions.

Celebrating the present moment is an art and craft. It is learned and honed with practice, requires disciplined attentiveness, mindfulness.  It is one of the gifts Linda is giving me now! She is teaching me the sacredness of the present moment.

We often speak of the ministry of presence. I frequently hear pastors, laity, and family members express hesitate about visiting people with dementia. “I don’t know what to say! They don’t know me when I arrive or remember when I leave. So, why visit?”

It is a devilish temptation which robs people with dementia, their pastors and family members of the sacrament of the present moment. From my experience as a caregiver and pastor, I am convinced that the feeling/experience of a momentary connection lasts far beyond the cognitive awareness.

People with dementia are hypersensitive to emotions. Linda senses moods of which I am unaware. I cannot hide my frustration or stress from her! It may be that as people with visual impairment become more sensitive to sounds, people with cognitive impairment develop added sensitivity to feelings/emotions/attitudes.

With very few exceptions, the one reality to which people with dementia respond is LOVE, even those in the severe stages. And you can’t fake it! They know if you care! They sense if you are afraid of them or uncomfortable with them. They sense if a caregiver really values them as persons or only relishes the paycheck or if a pastor or family member is only visiting out of a sense of duty.

What is the sacred within the present moment? It is LOVE! Love transforms the present moment into a sacrament!

A gentle touch, a clasp of the hand, a warm embrace, a silent presence, a  spontaneous smile, a compassionate act—these become sacraments, outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.

As we fill a moment with compassion we experience the sacrament of the present moment. After all, we experience God, the source of all love!

(Photo by Norma Smith Sessions)

“Why Don’t You Get on with Your Life?”

“Why don’t you get on with your life?”That was the question raised to a friend whose wife is in a memory care facility.

For six years, he has visited her daily between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m. Since the disease has taken her language, he mostly sits silently beside her, gently holding her hand. She responds with an occasional smile or a momentary twinkle in her eyes.

The casual observer assumes that she no longer knows her husband, rendering his visits meaningless. As I often hear from medical staff, family members, and friends, “They aren’t there anymore. She/he is already gone.”

If they are already gone, why continue to invest time and energy in relating to them?  Or as one daughter said about not visiting her mother, “She’s not the mother I’ve known. I want to remember her as she was.”

A pastor remarked, “They don’t recognize me when I visit or remember that I’ve been there. I have so many other things to do. They aren’t really there, so what purpose does a visit serve?”

Pat Robertson suggested in response to a caller on his television program that a husband can justifiably divorce his wife with dementia. His reasoning:  “. . . I hate Alzheimer’s. It is one of the most awful things because here is a loved one—this is the woman or man that you have loved for 20, 30, 40 years. And suddenly that person is gone. They’re gone. They are gone.“

Since the person with Alzheimer’s is “gone,” it seems permissible that “you get on with your life!”

The advice may be well intended.  Neurocognitive diseases do change people, stripping from them capacities to remember, communicate, and reason.  Personality changes are real and often dramatic. Difficult behaviors emerge.  Reciprocity vanishes or diminishes. Dependency escalates with ever-weighty demands on spouses and family.

Caregiving can be all consuming, with devastating physical and emotional consequences for the spouse.  Relentless grieving and pervasive sadness take their toll. Therefore, there is some value in suggesting that “you get on with your life.”

The advice, however, is based on a devastating myth:  Identity and worth lie in our capacity to think clearly, remember rightly, communicate plainly, and behave appropriately. It is the popular acceptance of Descartes’ dictum, “I think, therefore, I am.”

My friend responded succinctly and firmly to the suggestion that he get a life. He said simply, “This is my life!” He added that he enjoys spending time with his wife. Love is central to who he is. She may not always cognitively know him, but he knows who she has been and who she IS; and he loves her for all she has been AND for all she is! Love gives life, joy, connection to both!

Those of us who refuse to live by the myth know something very important: THEY ARE STILL THERE!  We are more than our thoughts or capacities or behaviors. We are distinct, beloved children of God, whose worth and identity are held permanently by God!

Those who take the time and energy to be attentive, to get inside the world of loved ones, to listen to the feelings behind the incoherent language, to really BE PRESENT know the person is still there!

Sometimes we see it in a faint twinkle in the eyes, or a characteristic gesture, or a fleeting smile, or a slight squeeze of the hand. When it happens, there emerges a profound joy which may last only a moment.  But the joy is real for both, and the residual effects endure longer than can be measured.

On the rare days when my friend does not arrive at the memory care facility at 1:00, his wife can be seen standing at the window looking out toward the parking lot. Mysteriously and inexplicably, she knows it’s time for her husband to come. She is STILL THERE! And he knows it!