Saved by Story

I had settled in for the evening after a long day. The phone rang as I was about to drift off to sleep. “Is this Reverend Carder, the preacher who is quoted in the newspaper as being against the death penalty?” the irate woman asked. I had gone on public record in opposition to executions in the Tennessee.

“Yes, I am opposed to capital punishment,” I calmly replied. What followed kept me awake most of the night and taught me a lesson that is being relearned in my relationships with people affected by dementia.

“Tell me why you are against it,” demanded the caller. I began to explain that the death penalty is not a deterrent. Before I could make my point, she interrupted, “It would deter that one murderer!”

Next, I stated that the death penalty runs counter to my religious faith. Again, she would have none of my argument. “The Bible says, ‘an eye for an eye’,” she retorted. I countered with quotes from the Sermon on the Mount: “Turn the other cheek. . . Love your enemies.” The debate was on!

Our verbal clash went back and forth with ever-escalating emotional intensity. Then, she blurted out something that abruptly ended the arguing!

“If your daughter had been murdered, you’d think different,” she yelled while sobbing uncontrollably.

I had totally missed her! I had seen her as an opponent, one with whom I disagreed. I missed her as a person, a grieving mother of a murdered child. I was bent on winning an argument. I should have been listening to her story, especially her pain.

“Oh my goodness, I’m sorry,” I said with embarrassment. I shared that as the father of two daughters I couldn’t even imagine the pain of one being murdered. I apologized for my insensitivity by arguing with her. For another hour I listened to a heart-wrenching story of horrific loss and harrowing grief.

She ceased being an opponent and became a person with a story I needed to hear. We both moved from an abstract argument to sharing stories behind our ethical/theological perspectives.

We like to think that our ideas, doctrines, affirmations, and understandings are derived purely through rational thinking. We assume that our truth is totally objective, universally applicable, and detached from our personal stories.  But behind every theological, ethical, and political proposition is a story; and we never fully understand another’s perspective until we hear his/her story.

The caller’s position on the death penalty couldn’t be separated from her experience of having a child murdered. My opposing position is inseparable from having a friend awaiting execution and earlier having sat with a mother whose son was executed in another state. The mother whose son was executed loved him no less than the grieving mother of the murdered daughter. Both had children who were intentionally killed, one by a boyfriend and the other by the state.

Our church and society are awash in arguments—political, theological, ideological. Placing opponents within the margins of our dismissive categories prevails over seeing them as persons with stories. And, we would rather lead with our arguments than with our vulnerabilities and hurts. Consequently, we compound the polarization, deepen misunderstanding, and intensify suffering.

We organize into groups of those who fit within our margins of preferred categories—“progressive,” “evangelical,” “liberal,” “conservative.” It’s easier to control the margins than to listen to the stories of others, especially the painful ones. But we can be sure that no one fits neatly into any of the categories, if we know their stories.

In reality, truth can never be severed from story. Arguments over abstract propositions are more about winning and losing than about understanding and growing. Positive change emerges from shared stories of pain and struggle more than from quarrels and contentious debates.

God didn’t redeem the world with an argument. God saves the world by entering our stories with The Story of a Love that shifts the margins outside our prescribed categories.







We Are Stories, Not Symptoms

The physician’s assistant (PA) was sharing the results of an evaluation of Linda. We were seated at a table, with Linda beside me and the PA across the table.

Looking at me, the PA said coldly, “Mr. Carder, your wife is no longer the person she used to be.”

She went on to describe the symptoms of Linda’s dementia—lost memory, disorientation, confusion, agitation, inability to focus and solve problems, loss of language skills, etc.  All the while, her eyes were on me, as though Linda didn’t exist.

I noticed Linda’s growing agitation and restlessness–the glare in her eyes, the rigidity of her body, the scowl on her face.  I knew that look. The PA was about to learn something she missed in medical training.

Linda straightened in her chair, looked squarely at the PA. Slowly, firmly and deliberately, she said, “Talk– to– ME!”

Taking Linda by the hand and smiling proudly, I said to the stunned expert, “You just met Linda.”

I added, “She isn’t a disease or cluster of symptoms. She’s a person you don’t know. You only see her symptoms. I know her story.”

Regrettably, the PA reflects a prevalent lens through which people with dementia are viewed. They are seen as a medical diagnosis, a disease that robs them of identity. They’ve “lost their mind!” They aren’t fully human. They have impaired memories, so they have no identity. They can’t produce, so they have no value. They can’t reason and relate, so they don’t belong.

Here’s the point:  We are stories, not symptoms or categories or labels! People never fit neatly into the margins of any lens or label or category. Stories are always complex, multilayered, intertwined, and unfinished.  And, we don’t really know another until we know his/her story.

We try to force others within our narrow margins of perception, especially those not like us. Those outside the margins of our theology, politics, class, race, ethnicity, culture, or sexual orientation are treated as objects of our margin-justification efforts. We speak past them, about them, against them, around them, and down to them. We seldom speak to them and almost never listen to them, learn their stories.

I’m learning anew that every behavior has a story behind it. When Linda was first admitted to Bethany, she was awakened every night by another resident who kept coming into her room, turning on the light, adjusting her pillow, and speaking garbled words to her. It was frightening to Linda and disruptive to staff. The intruder’s behavior didn’t make sense. Or did it?

Mary (not her name) was a retired nurse! Her behavior now made perfectly good sense; she was working the night shift and Linda was one of her patients.

Shortly after Linda entered the memory care facility, I wrote a letter to the staff. In that letter, I shared some of her story and why she is important to me. I wanted them to see her as a person with a story worth knowing. Treatment of her changed. They came to see her as more than a category called “dementia.” They see beyond the symptoms; they see her as a person.

Here is the larger point: We don’t know another until we see him/her as part of God’s Story. God’s Story simply will not fit neatly into any of our categories-medical, religious, doctrinal, cultural, political, or otherwise!

Until we see others as part of God’s Story of Creation and Redemption, they will be but identified symptoms and labeled categories. As symptoms and categories, they can be pushed aside, devalued, scorned, defeated, and feared.

But they/we are participants in God’s unfolding Story of creation, liberation, reconciliation, restoration, and transformation. That’s our identity, our worth, our dignity, and our destiny.


Cognition can be an Idol

Living with and ministering among people with dementia is shifting my priorities and way of viewing the Christian faith. I am being confronted with my own idolatry.  I think I may have made an idol of cognition, thinking straight, and being intellectually competent.

Knowledge has always been a priority for me! Education became important very early. I’m not sure why. My parents only went through the sixth and eighth grades. The only book we had in our home was the Bible. But somehow “knowing” became important to me.  I suspect it was partly compensation for feelings of inferiority born of economic poverty.

I never considered myself to be smart and those intimidating standardized tests varied that I’m not “intellectually gifted.” But I worked hard, made good grades, and got lots of affirmation from teachers and others. Being intellectually proficient has been and continues to be highly valued. I genuinely want to love God with my mind.

I’ve spent a lifetime clarifying my beliefs and  helping others make intellectual sense of Christian doctrines. I’ve written books and articles on the importance of right beliefs. I have taught and preached those doctrines as a pastor and seminary professor. Beliefs and intellect do matter!

But the margins of my thinking are shifting! When Linda was diagnosed with Frontotemperal Dementia (FTD) in 2009, I was deeply immersed in the hyper-intellectual environment of Duke Divinity School. I spent my days teaching and writing. I graded students on their intellectual comprehension and integration and their oral and written communication skills. I was in intellectual heaven!

What a contrast to my current context! Now I am immersed in a different world.  While continuing to teach part time in seminary and the church, my daily life is among people whose intellectual comprehension and communication abilities are being stripped away by disease. Abstract thinking has ceased. Reading is nonexistent. Memories have vanished and only the present is real.  Most words have been deleted from their lexicon and verbal expressions are garbled and disconnected at best.

Many of those with whom I relate no longer know their families and some have forgotten their own names. Several don’t recognize themselves in the mirror. None of my congregation at Bethany can claim to know or explain such orthodox theological affirmations as the Trinity, Incarnation, Justification, Salvation, Atonement, authority of Scripture, etc. Many have forgotten who God is!

Yet, I have never been among people who seem closer to God and more faithful in their discipleship than those who live at Bethany, the memory care facility where my beloved Linda now resides.  I remind them regularly that they are in the home of Mary and Martha where Jesus felt most at home. I suspect Jesus feels more at home at this Bethany than in many churches.

Dementia shifts the margins of orthodoxy from the intellect to the heart, from knowing to being. Neuro-cognitive impairment provides a different lens through which to view such core doctrines as Creation, Incarnation, Imago Dei, Salvation, Discipleship, Vocation, etc.

What does it mean to know God? What does it mean to “accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior” when the person doesn’t know who Jesus is? Can people who are unable to comprehend and/or recite the orthodox creeds be disciples, full members of the church?  Do people with dementia have a calling, a vocation?

Where do people with dementia fit into the mission statement of The United Methodist Church: “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”?  What is “right” and “wrong” behavior when the ability to make decisions has been lost? What would the local church look like if people with dementia really belonged?

These are among the questions I am raising as my understanding is shifting outside the margins of the abstract thinking. The people at Bethany know God, Jesus, and Church in ways that transcend cognition.

We have made cognition an idol if we assume that salvation is the product of our thinking. Some theologians have identified reason as “the image of God”, buying into Rene Descartes’ dictum “I think therefore I am.” That’s idolatry! That’s just plain wrong! The notion contributes to the dehumanizing and marginalizing of people with cognitive diseases.

At Bethany, the issues that occupy the contemporary church have little, if any, relevance. Arguments over who is orthodox and who isn’t, the definition of marriage, and which religion is right aren’t on their experiential radar. Those are abstractions, outside the margins of their existence!

What’s real are Love, Belonging, Dignity, Safety, Peace, Connection, and Presence that transcend the margins of intellect and language. The cognitively impaired know God, though they may no longer know about God!

The cognitively impaired are now my primary teachers! They are teaching me things I’ve not learned in books or from the intellectually astute. If we will enter their world, they just might save the church from its idolatrous notion that we are saved by our intellectually constructed doctrines and abstractions! We really are saved by GRACE!