Monday, January 27, 2014

A Gospel for the Weak?
Exploring Issues of Dementia, Identity, and Run-of-the-Mill Delusion

Iyesterday's homily, I wrote about the difficulties that arise in the project of knowing one's self: 
Whether being one’s self was possible was another question altogether. After all, if it was possible to not be one’s self (which the exhortation to be one’s self clearly implied), then being one’s self was not an obvious course; it threatened to become an inaccessible riddle, impossible to unlock from the inside. A cave, all in darkness, in which one blindly gropes past a litany of fantasies, distractions, and endless self-deceptions. As one writer puts it, "I never ask my friends: How are you? Because they don’t know.”
Today, a friend shared this beautiful, poignant, and sometimes difficult article titled Dementia, God, and the Christian Faith. It's worth reading in full, and it called to mind a supervisor's mantra from my clinical pastoral education at a state-run psychiatric hospital in rural North Carolina. This was the mantra: The mentally ill are just like us, only more so. In the spirit of that mantra, with tenderness, and without trivializing the uniquely painful realities of dementia, the blogpost's author connects the realities of dementia with the struggles we each face to know who we are:
Here is God’s truth for all of us: you may be uncertain about who you are, and you may be confused by the people around you, but God knows you. Who are you? You are God’s. You will not be forgotten. What did God tell us?  “Can a mother forget her baby? But even if she forgets, I will never forget you” (Isaiah 49:15). The thief on the cross asked Jesus, “Remember me” (Luke 23:42) – and God remembers us, always. God remembers everything you have forgotten, and clearly. No memory is lost in God; everything that is elusive at this moment will finally be redeemed.
On a lighter - if not less important - note, touching on issues of Christian identity and yesterday's gospel...

I recently read Tyler Wigg-Stevenson's (1) Captain Obvious but essential-to-say observation that Christians have fallen into the very bad habit of identifying with the characters we perceive to be the heroic characters - the good guys and gals - in Scripture. He gives the example of David. The king. Not Abner, the Israelite commander who didn't recognize David; not Eliab, David's oldest brother who resents David thoroughly; David. In ways that demonstrate the potential fruitfulness of an alternative approach, he writes:
...I don't think I've ever seen anyone read [the story of David and Goliath] and chuckle ruefully, saying, "Wow, I'm just like Abner, because sometimes God is doing something, and I've got absolutely no idea where it's coming from." I've never heard anyone lament, "Man, I am such an Eliab, because I am always tearing down the person that God's really picked for the job."
So last night I confessed to the students, post-worship, that I may have preached the wrong sermon. I still like the sermon I preached, I explained, but I don't know why I assumed they and I should identify with Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Why are we the ones Jesus called? Of course, in the grand scheme of the Christian story, we are. But are we also another? 

What would a sermon on the same gospel look like that identified the hearers with, for example, Zebedee? Why not? Surely, each of us has known a moment in which God's call to someone else - someone we loved - pulled at the attachments and loyalties we had come to expect from the other person. Parents are the most straightforward example of this, as we watch our children grow, develop, and choose in many cases to live with other persons. But not just parents, I think. Witness the church in which the values and priorities of one generation do not translate into central motivating factors for the generation that follows. The altar guild member that dutifully serves, waiting for the next wave to relieve her, only to discover that the new wave heard God call to go somewhere else.

But we are Americans, so we must be James and John. We must be the agents of change. The revolutionaries. The radicals. We find it unimaginable to be the ones left in the boat. But surely to be left in the boat is the experience of the one with alzheimers. We who worship a crucified God, dare we proclaim a Gospel for the weak?


(1The World Is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to do Good

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