An Unexpected Communion

It happened shortly after a visit last week from Karen, the hospice chaplain and friend who visits Linda regularly. We sat in the sunroom and listened to Linda as she mumbled  incoherently but keeping time with the music playing in the background.

As she always does, Karen ended her visit with a short prayer, calling Linda by name and asking Jesus to continue to be with her.

Shortly thereafter we returned Linda to her bed for her evening meal. As the caregiver, Arlene, slowly and gently placed the pureed food in Linda’s mouth, Linda slowly and clearly spoke these surprising words, “Have. . .  Communion. . . today.”

Arlene called to me to come from the kitchen where I was preparing Linda a dish of her favorite dessert, ice cream. She told me what Linda had just said. I asked if she wanted to have Communion. But, by this time, her thinking had moved on and her speech returned to scrambled words.

I ran to get grape juice and wafer which I keep on hand. By the time I returned, Linda was sound asleep.

Early the following morning before the caregiver arrived, I gave Linda her morning medication. She seemed especially alert, looking intently at me as I smiled and said, “I love you!”

I asked, “Linda, would you like Communion?” No visible response, only calm silence. I retrieved the chalice with grape juice and wafers.

Standing beside her bed, I sang “Jesus Loves Me” and “Amazing Grace.” Then I recited Psalm 23 and parts of Romans 8. She remained in uncharacteristic silence, even reverence. I prayed the Words of Institution from memory.

“We are remembering Jesus. He loves us and is with us now,” I said as I dipped the wafer in the cup and placed it on her tongue.

A slight smile and a glimmer of peace appeared on her face. “Thank you, Jesus, for loving us and being with us,” I prayed as I peered through my tear-stained eyes. She quickly drifted into a serene sleep.

It was a holy, transcendent moment of keep connection with God, one another, and “the great cloud of witnesses.”

The experience confirms the mystery of the Sacrament as well as the puzzle of the human mind. I don’t know for sure what triggered Linda’s comment, “have Communion today,” but I suspect it was Karen’s presence and prayer.

I really don’t know if she understood any of my words as I recited Scripture and sang familiar hymns. I can’t comprehend what was happening in her world as I placed on her tongue the signs of Jesus’ self-emptying love.

This I do know: There was more going on than can be intellectually understood by either Linda or me.

Furthermore, the most important ministry is PRESENCE! The chaplain’s attentive presence likely kindled an embedded memory and a connection that cannot be broken by brain disease!

 

 

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.

Healing Scars

The older I get the more scars I have! Scars from multiple medical procedures add to those lingering from childhood scrapes. Some are more visible and pronounced than others. The scar on my chest from by-pass surgery reminds me that there is also an unseen scar on the heart itself.

Then, there are the less visible scars resulting from wounds to the psyche. Those blemishes lurk inside and surface in our behaviors and moods. Anger, guilt, grief, even violence often are outward signs of hidden scars.

To be human is to be scarred! Our scars tell our stories. Each mark reveals an event. Frequently, the story is one of loss and grief. A cancerous growth removed. Surgery to repair a diseased organ or fractured bone. An accident or fall. Maybe a battle wound, an act of violence.

The Apostle Thomas fixated on Jesus’s scars/wounds. Unless the wounds were visible, he could not believe the resurrection. Apart from Jesus’ scars, we miss a central meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection.

The  visible wounds represent more than empirical evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead.

The request to see the “mark of the nails” expresses Thomas’ profound theological longing. He wants assurance that the Resurrected Christ is the Crucified Jesus.

No phantom Jesus who only pretended to suffer can be the Savior! Only a wounded and scarred Jesus can save a blemished and scarred humanity!

Jesus’ scars declare the profound message that God is in solidarity with humanity’s wounds. Our wounds are seen, understood, accepted, and healed! God takes on our wounds and redeems them!

“By his stripes (scars) we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). Jesus’ scars tell the story of forgiveness, reconciliation, love, justice, hospitality, and peace.

Scars themselves indicate healing. The open wound has closed, the malignant cells removed, the broken bone mended, the diseased organ healed.

Jesus’ scars proclaim:

  • Our wounds are shared, understood, accepted, healed
  • Forgiveness heals vengeance
  • Love cures hate
  • Integrity counters political and religious expediency
  • Justice prevails over exploitation and oppression
  • Courage triumphs over apathy and conformity
  • Hospitality rectifies exclusion
  • Peace reigns over war and violence.

My friend, Dale Sessions, assists with worship at Bethany, the memory care facility at the Heritage at Lowman. He bears two clearly visible scars on his head.Dale outside

Dale was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Both his father and his brother died of the dreaded disease.

Wanting to contribute to research, Dale voluntarily entered a trial program at Emory University. Two holes were drilled into his skull, leaving sizable scars.

When we serve Communion together, Dale holds the cup. As he bends toward each seated participant, his scars are plainly visible. Those scars have come to symbolize his courage in the pursuit a cure for Alzheimer’s . But they also are visible signs of self-giving love on behalf of others, a fitting reminder of the Sacrament itself.

Dale at Bethany

Another friend’s face is badly scarred from a wound inflicted by racists in the 1960s. He put his body on the line on behalf of racial and economic justice. Some might refer to his scarred face as “ugly.” To the contrary, the scar beautifully tells the story of courage on behalf of compassion, justice, and inclusion.

I’m glad Thomas asked to see Jesus’ wounds/scars. Those scars testify to compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, justice, hospitality, and peace–SALVATION!

Perhaps Jesus asks to see our scars of healing in this wounded and flawed world!

 

“It is what it is!”

img_5388

“It is what it is! I’ve got it. I wish I didn’t have it, but I have to make the most of it!”

Those are the remarks of my neighbor and friend, Dale Sessions, who is in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease. He is among my mentors, teaching me about courage, discipleship, and ministry as he approaches his disease with characteristic courage, exuberant humor, and disarming authenticity.

Dale has seen the disease at its worst both as a professional and as a family member.  His ministry has included the pastorate as an American Baptist clergy and the chaplaincy in mental health facilities and addiction treatment centers.  Prior to retiring, he was the chaplain in a long term care facility where he provided pastoral care for elderly veterans, including those with dementia.

Dale is prophetically pastoral and pastorally prophetic.  He envisions a world of justice, compassion, reconciliation, and peace; and he has been an advocate for peace, civil rights, and economic justice. He has facilitated change in systems and individuals by helping others see new possibilities and to believe that change is possible, at both the personal and community levels.  He resists the notion of victimization and helplessness; and with compassion and humor he instills hope that things can change for the better.

His experience with Alzheimer’s has been painfully personal. Both his father and brother died from the disease after years of relentless loss and decline.  Following his father’s death and his brother’s diagnosis, Dale was acutely aware of his own risk. He thought and wrote a lot about the possibilities awaiting him.  But something deep within enabled him to accept the negative prospects, which he faced with “eyes wide open.”

Soon after symptoms began to appear, Dale courageously sought an evaluation.  Immediately upon receiving confirmation of the disease, he volunteered to be part of a clinical trial at Emory with the hope of helping others.  He willingly relinquished his driving privileges and began making plans for his diminished capacities. He and his lovingly supportive wife, Norma, moved into a retirement community.

Alzheimer’s disease is relentlessly stripping away Dale’s exceptional language and cognitive abilities. Once an avid reader and astute analyst of contemporary culture, he can no longer comprehend a simple lunch menu or remember the last news report. Once a gregarious extrovert who lit up every room he entered, Dale’s world and circle of friends have narrowed. Silence is becoming more prevalent than his jolly laughter. The twinkle in his blue eyes is giving way to that recognizable detached glare.

Dale’s dealing with his Alzheimer’s is an example of what Marilynne Robinson calls “prevenient courage.” In Gilead, she 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… to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing.” (245-246)

What accounts for Dale’s courage in confronting his disease? What were the experiences which contributed to this “prevenient courage”?  We can assume that those whom Dale served and his experience with his father and brother helped to shape his own response. He saw those whom he served as his friends, teachers, and colleagues in ministry.

Each of us can increase our awareness of and response to those around us who serve as our teachers, preparing us for whatever lies ahead. We can affirm “It is what it is!” with courage because we are held in community. People with dementia, people with mental illness, people struggling with addictions and others whom we might think have little to offer, are part of that community!

I share Dale’s story of courage to emphasize that people with dementia have gifts to share.  They minister by their presence. I wish everyone could have witnessed the power of his presence as he and I shared Communion with residents, staff, and family members at Bethany memory care facility. And, you should have seen the courage and grace in Dale’s tear-filled eyes as he served me Communion!

“It is what it is” and it is GRACE!

[I did an interview with Dale a few months ago when his language skills were more intact. I wanted others to hear Dale’s comments and to witness his courage and discipleship. You can access the eight minute interview on YouTube: https://youtu.be/Sff-fgZ8Des.]