Splitting Asunder What God Joins Together—Truth and Love!

Aside

 

A battle rages within The United Methodist Church! It’s ostensibly between “Traditionalists” and “Progressives” over homosexuality, authority of Scripture, and adherence of doctrine. But I propose that the conflict may expose an underlying, festering heresy: the severing of truth and love.

“Traditionalists” seek to preserve the truth of the Bible and doctrine as contained in historic creeds and the Articles of Religion, and they call for enforced adherence to established norms.

“Progressives” advocate for continuing divine revelation and the prioritizing of love as the core of Christian doctrine, and they call for expanding the circle of inclusion.

The stage is set for the apocalyptic showdown at General Conference in February 2019. The weapons of inflammatory rhetoric, proof-texting, political strategizing, and either/or dichotomies have been mobilized.

It’s either truth OR love, doctrinal faithfulness OR cultural accommodation, biblical authority OR philosophical relativism, traditional marriage OR sexual sin, my way OR the highway!

Let’s be reminded that dialects are integral to the gospel as viewed through the Wesleyan tradition

  • faith AND works
  • knowledge AND piety
  • personal AND socialtruth-and-love
  • justification AND sanctification
  • doing no harm AND doing good
  • sin as person AND systemic
  • church as local AND Universal
  • doctrinal standards AND theological exploration
  • sound doctrine AND holy living
  • discipleship as belief AND practice
  • truth AND love

In the Bible and Christian tradition, truth and love are inseparable, integral to one another. They are conjoined twins, each giving life to the other. Either without the other is neither authentic truth nor Christian love. When they are severed, the gospel is truncated with calamitous consequences.

In the name of defending truth, people have been persecuted, jailed, banished, and killed; and countless people have been demonized, demeaned, marginalized, and ostracized.

In the name of love, people have engaged in all kinds of exploitative, degrading, dehumanizing behaviors and activities; and devastating personal and social evils have gone unchallenged.

Methodists have long struggled with the tension between maintaining sound doctrine and living Christlike love. John Wesley’s sermons, “On Schism” and “Catholic Spirit” document his own internal battle. He holds fast to the church’s doctrines grounded in Scripture and Tradition while giving priority to holiness as “the love of God shed abroad in our hearts.”

For Wesley, the truth of doctrine lies in the character produced in its adherents. Lives filled with the love of God and neighbor are the evidence of doctrinal truth, not biblical prooftexts or scholastic arguments. And the truthfulness of one’s love is how closely it resembles the self-emptying love (agape) of Christ.

“You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” is an often-used mantra in the academic world. The statement from John’s Gospel, however, has a condition attached to knowing the truth.

Here is the statement in context: “Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciple; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’”(8:31-32).

The truth that sets us free is not abstract formulation about Jesus. It is relationship with Jesus. In Jesus Christ, truth and love are perfectly and inextricably joined. Truth and love flow from relationship with the One in whom the two are one.

What does this mean for United Methodists searching for a way forward as a denomination. I certainly don’t have a definitive answer as to the best institutional configuration for the future.

But I am convinced that splitting into “traditional” and “progressive”, “conservative” and “liberal” is NOT the way to bear witness to the unity of truth and love. The dichotomy implied in those labels is false, a betrayal of the One who is Truth and Love. To form denominations around those labels would be to institutionalize heresy.

Truth and love are woefully lacking in our polarized, deceitful, and violent world. Untruth and hate are being normalized in the prevailing culture. Our social fabric is being ripped asunder. The common good is being trampled underfoot.

The witness of a community that embodies truth AND love is sorely needed. The church can’t be that witness by splitting asunder what God joined together in Jesus the Christ.

We need “a come to Jesus” meeting and declare to the world that Truth and Love are inseparable in Jesus Christ. By God’s grace, we can together find our way to truthfully love and love truthfully.

Early Morning Prayer

Sovereign and ever-present God, whose love is steadfast, whose truth is inexhaustible, whose beauty is boundless, and whose goodness is without blemish: You have called us into a new day filled with occasions to share love, to explore truth, to delight in beauty, and to embody goodness. Open us to your redeeming presence so that your love, truth, beauty, and goodness will flow freely and untarnished through us. May we not restrict the flow of your love with hate and malice. May our narrowness of mind not confine your infinite truth to our limited intellectual grasp. May our busyness and self-preoccupation not blind us to the inestimable beauty that surrounds us. And, may our sin and brokenness not distort the purity of your goodness. Through your grace enable us to be beacons of love, truth, beauty, and goodness in a world filled with hatred, deceitfulness, ugliness, and evil. We offer our prayer in the name of the One who is the incarnation of boundless love, infinite truth, limitless beauty, and perfect goodness–Jesus the Christ. Amen

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!

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“Betrayed with a Kiss and a Sword”

Jesus asked the piercing question of the disciple-turned-conspirator: “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” (Luke 22:48)

Why a kiss? Would not a slap or pointed finger or clinched fist be more appropriate means of betraying Jesus into the hands of his opponents? But, no! Judas betrayed with a sign of affection!

Upon closer reflection, however, Jesus’ question is appropriate for all who claim allegiance to him. We rarely, if ever, hear expressed outright hatred or denunciation of Jesus. Yet, we all betray!

Most often our betrayal takes the form of declared affection for Jesus. Here are a few ways we betray Jesus with a kiss:

  • Singing “O How I Love Jesus” while hating those who are different
  • Declaring “Jesus Is Lord” while prioritizing partisan politics above the common good
  • Claiming Jesus’ forgiveness but holding grudges and seeking vengeance
  • Affirming love for God while despising neighbors near and far
  • Singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children, All the Children of the World” while failing to provide all children with access to education, medical care, safety and love
  • Proclaiming “God is Love” with anger in our voices and hate in our actions
  • Honoring him with our lips while our lives are far from him
  • Saying “Lord, Lord” and failing to do what he says, go where he goes, and welcome those whom he loves

Judas resides in all of us!  We, too, betray with a kiss!

But Judas wasn’t the only disloyal disciple present in the garden when Jesus was arrested. Luke tells us, “One of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear”(22:50).

Jesus responded resolutely, “No more of this!”

The kiss and the sword have much in common as forms of betrayal. History is replete with efforts to violently defend Jesus.

The Crusades were fought in name of loyalty to Jesus. Scientists were burned at the stake under the guise of protecting religious doctrine. Preachers used the Bible to promote slavery! Klansmen terrorized and murdered with burning crosses and prayers of devotion to Jesus. The Bible has been used as a sword of discrimination against women.

Defending Jesus with physical, verbal, and emotional swords is a pervasive means of betrayal. Could these be subtle contemporary examples of betrayal with swords?

  • Using Scripture as a weapon for exclusion, hatred, and discrimination
  • Promoting hatred of Muslims, immigrants, gays, and others in the name of defending the Christian faith
  • Applauding the Sermon on the Mount while defending possession of assault weapons as a “God-given right”
  • Proclaiming God’s preferential presence in “the least of these” while advocating public policies that damage the poor, vulnerable, and powerless
  • Increasing spending for weapons of war while decreasing support for education, healthcare, housing, and food for the under resourced

But the final word in the Christian gospel isn’t betrayal! It’s forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.

In Matthew’s account of Judas’ betrayal, Jesus calls him “friend.” Judas’ kiss may have been betrayal, but Jesus’ response was one of steadfast love.

After admonishing the disciples against violence, Jesus healed the victim. The final word was/is healing, not violence.

From the cross, Jesus spoke the ultimate response to all forms of betrayal: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Whether betrayed with a kiss or a sword, Jesus forgives, reconciles, transforms.

Can Doctrines/Beliefs Become Idols?

Our Sunday School class had just concluded a session on idolatry. Martin Luther’s statement had launched our conversation: “Whatever your heart clings to and trusts in is your god.”

We defined idolatry as making ultimate that which is finite and intermediate, elevating the finite to the infinite; or mistaking symbols for the reality they point toward.

We proceeded to name values, practices, and realities that our hearts cling to and which shape our decisions, priorities, and character. You can imagine the “gods” named: consumerism, sports, politics, the media, success, productivity, etc.

After the class dismissed, a member approached with a question. “Can Christian doctrines and beliefs themselves be idols? Can creeds become more important than God?” Good questions!

If the answer is “yes”, the follow-up question is when do creeds/beliefs become idols?

No doctrinal formulation or theological affirmation totally captures the essence and reality of God. The Infinite cannot be compressed to fit into the finite. The best our language can do is point toward God. There is always more to God than can be confined to human understanding and experience.

Therefore, creeds and beliefs become idols when no room is left for mystery and further theological exploration. If no questions remain, growth ceases and dogmatism becomes god. Airtight certainty that we know God fully means we have the wrong god.

When doctrines/beliefs are locked in rigid intellectual compartments with little or no impact on our character, actions, and relationships, they have become idolatrous.

Religious beliefs and affirmations can function similarly to the notion of life on other planets. Such life may exist but it has no impact on daily living.  That’s what John Wesley referred to as “practical atheism”— intellectually acknowledging the existence of God but the affirmation has no influence on behavior.

Doctrines/beliefs can become weapons of coercion, manipulation, and domination of others. In so doing, they become idols. The history of Christianity is replete with illustrations of such idolatry.

The Crusades were fought in the name of evangelism. Slavery was defended by idolatrous interpretations of Scripture. Women have been denied equality and subjected to abuse by religious doctrines/beliefs. Scientists have been burned at the stake in defense of an idolatrous doctrine of creation.

Persons of differing sexual orientations and identities have been treated with cruelty, violence, and rejection in the name of faithfulness to the Bible.

When doctrines and beliefs motivate hatred, disrespect, and violence toward others, those doctrines and beliefs are idols. Any belief that denies the inherent worth and dignity of every person as made in the image of God fails the test of true orthodoxy.

Here is the test of all Christian doctrine and belief: Does it promote love for God and neighbor? Any theological affirmation that promotes and motivates hate becomes a form of blasphemy against God made known in Jesus Christ.

The real test of doctrine is the character it produces in individuals and communities. Sound doctrine and strong character are integral to one another.

Christian doctrines and affirmations in the hands of persons with malformed character become distorted and dangerous. And doctrines/beliefs that sanction hate, superiority, and exploitation form persons and communities that hate, exclude, and exploit.

Gore Vidal’s historical novel, Julian, captures the essence of beliefs that become idols. Following a scene in which a violent argument breaks out over the doctrine of the Trinity, the author proclaims:

“Even a child could see the division between what the Galileans (i.e., Christians] say

they believe and what, in fact, they do believe, as demonstrated by their actions. A

religion of brotherhood and mildness which daily murders those who disagree with

its doctrines can only be thought hypocrite, or worse.”

Yes, doctrines and beliefs can become idols!? We would all do well to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1John 4:1).

What is the test? Do my doctrinal affirmations and beliefs form persons and communities in love, compassion, humility, hospitality, and justice?

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!

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!