Sunday, January 26, 2014

Dementia, God, & Christian Faith

Dementia, Alzheimer’s, senility:  these words cause us to shudder with grief, or fear.  Polls indicate that we fear dementia more than we fear cancer.  All of us have loved someone whose mind became something unrecognizable, muddled, confused, forgetful.  I had a friend who died after suffering Alzheimer’s for a decade; his wife said it was as if he died not once but twice.

     I’ve been trying to think about dementia and God, dementia and faith, dementia and the church – and I’ve gotten a lot of help from a Scottish theologian named John Swinton.
The premise of his book, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God, is that in Christianity, well-being is not gauged by the presence or absence of illness or distress; well-being is defined by the presence of God, and God is not distant from the one with dementia, or from those who love someone with dementia.  How do we understand this sense of God’s presence? and then how to live faithfully with dementia?  What might those of us who aren’t dealing with dementia directly learn about our lives because of the way we think about those with dementia?

     In America, we define being human by what we think, how we talk, what we can do, how productive and interactive we might be.  What happens when we aren’t productive? or become passive recipients of the care of others?  This question applies not only to dementia but also to aging, or people with disabilities.  W.H. Vanstone write a marvelous little book called The Stature of Waiting, in which he explains how in the first half of each Gospel, Jesus is in command, boldly striding into new territories, conquering demons; he is a doer, in control of everything, even the wind and the sea.

     But then the mood changes abruptly.  Jesus becomes reflective, less proactive, darkly hinting at his fate.  He is “handed over” by Judas, to the authorities, and he does not fight back; he says nothing.  He is no longer active, but passive.  His glory dawns not when he acts, but when he is acted upon.  Vanstone says this is hopeful for us, for our lives often traverse that same ground:  we grow old or sick and are increasingly forced to be dependent on others.  We fear our identity is lost if we are not active and productive.  But Jesus shows us that who we are, who he was, is found not in our activity but in what we suffer, in what we receive.

     Persons with dementia might continue to be productive, if we let them; I know a woman with no short-term memory who vacuums her house several times a day, and is content.  But even when we cannot be productive, we are no less valuable, to God and to Jesus’ followers.  We all need to learn dependence upon God – and it may be our best object lesson is in someone for whom we are caring.  Dependence is not humiliation, but grace.  My worth is not measured by my usefulness.  Because of the Gospel, nothing can happen to make you less of a person. 

     What about memory?  Life is often valued by what we remember, or what we think others remember about us.  But we never remember everything, or remember what we remember accurately.  Most of what I have read or learned, or what has happened to me, I have forgotten.  If I forget, am I any less valuable?  I do not remember my parents rocking me, feeding me, or nursing me; but they did, and I am the beneficiary.  My children do not recall me doing these things – but those moments were no less wonderful for not being remembered.

     John Goldingay, an Old Testament scholar, once invited his students to his home for pancakes.  He told them his wife suffered severe multiple sclerosis, and so she wouldn’t recognize or respond to them:  “She probably won’t remember you afterwards, but in that moment she will appreciate you.”  Is a visit, a tender word, or an embrace futile because the person won’t remember?  I have visited people with dementia, and have felt in the moment much love – and have even been ministered to myself because of the other person’s ability to love and nurture, even if my name and identity are an enigma.
     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.

     Can someone with dementia have a spiritual life?  I’ve seen forgetful, withdrawn people be quite prayerful; faith sometimes achieves a lovely simplicity in such instances.  I have seen extremely confused, forgetful people smile warmly and tearfully and even join in singing when some old hymn is played.  Perhaps the dementia sufferer cannot pray or read, but the rest of us can for them, and with them.  Four men brought a lame man to Jesus, who healed him not because of his faith but because of theirs (Mark 2:5); all of us are carried on the tide of the faith and prayers of others. 

     Lauren Winner (in her book, Still) tells a wonderful story of an elderly couple coming for Communion.  They both took a communion wafer from the priest.  The woman dipped hers and ate; then the man dipped his, handed it to her, and she ate it for him.  Lauren later learned he was afflicted by a wasting disease making it impossible for him to eat.  They were truly in that moment one flesh.  Can we be one flesh with persons with dementia?

     Swinton says we are wise always to give the person the benefit of the doubt, to treat the person as fully human.  We speak of love.  We say “I am glad you are here; I love you.”  We all have decay, we all suffer limitations.  The difficult symptoms of dementia (belligerence, anxiety, withdrawal) are perfectly understandable reactions to confusing situations, strange living quarters, strangers poking and treating you. 

     To be with someone with any disability requires patience.  What really is required is a new sense of time.  Time isn’t about being productive, or packing a lot in.  In patient waiting, those who sit with someone with dementia sometimes see small glimpses of beauty. 

 Jean Vanier (in Living Gently in a Violent World) tells about a hugely successful businessman he knew whose wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.  He said he just couldn’t put her in an institution, so he scaled back his responsibilities (and income), and stayed with her, fed and bathed her.  He said “I have become more human” – and he was there one night when for some reason the fog lifted.  Suddenly she was lucid; she looked and said “Darling, thank you for all you are doing for me” – and then, just as quickly, slipped back into the fog.  He wept and wept – both sorrow and joy. 

   All Christians are called to a radical hospitality, a welcome of the stranger – not just to welcome strangers, but doing what we can to be sure they stop feeling like strangers.  And studies show that if caregivers believe the person is still there, and still have value, the person does better.  Relationships impact the brain over time; people with dementia, if left alone or only pitied, decline more rapidly.  Those with dementia suffer an intense loneliness.  It’s not as if our presence cures them – but all our lives we long to be treated as a child of God, the God who never forgets us, who knows us thoroughly and still loves totally, forever.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Faith & Mental Illness (or Health) - parts 7 and 8

7. What kind of church?

Perhaps the most crucial question we need to ask when moving toward an Emotionally Healthy Spirituality is What kind of church do we want to be? What kind of church do we really need? What kind of church might promote health and growth?

The saddest words I’ve heard regarding church were from a woman I saw in a store. I told her I’d missed seeing her in worship – and she replied, “Oh, I’ve been having a horrible time in my life; I’ll be back when I’m better.” Church isn’t supposed to be a place for grinning, together people to hobnob with each other; church is a hospital for broken people. We may be polite and say to one another “I’m fine!” – but church should welcome and expect struggle, confusion, and hurt. “It’s harder to feel accepted by Christ and covered by his grace when you’re hiding in the church” (Amy Simpson).

AA meetings include humble, hopeful introductions: “I’m James, I’m an alcoholic.” Church should mimic this, even if only in our minds as we converse: I’m John, I’m Susan, I’m broken, I’m a sinner, I’ve struggled this week. We need each other; we need fellow travelers on the journey; we need honesty. Too often in church we ask What are your strengths and abilities? – and that is how we will put you to serving. Maybe we can learn to ask What are your wounds? Jesus never asked In what ways do you have it all together? Show me your resume! Paul portrayed the ideal church as “If one suffers, we all suffer” (1 Corinthians 12:24) – and the truth is, we really do.

What kind of church will we be in the face of mental illness? If someone has cancer we deliver casseroles and join prayer chains. But if someone is bipolar? or borderline personality disorder? or deeply depressed? We avert our gaze, and wonder if the troubled person might be happier elsewhere. Yes, the mentally ill need medical treatment. But they also need God, and a loving church. If we cannot reach out tenderly to those suffering the most daunting emotional difficulties, we will not be able to help anybody at all, even those who smile a lot and don’t really report much difficulty.

My dream, for all of us, for all of the churches, is that we will abandon ideas that we’re the people who are doing great – but will create a climate of caring, compassion, openness, a safe haven for everything from the most profound afflictions to barely detectable anxiety. Our mantra is Grace – and grace is unconditional love, felt, enacted, a commitment to be a church that mirrors Jesus’ healing compassion.

8. Jesus the Healer

Once when someone asked me if I believed the stories about Jesus working miracles, I found myself privately musing that I almost wish he hadn’t. Of course, I’m glad he healed, and I believe he did – but since he healed, some emotionally unhealthy spiritualities have dogged us for years.

Since Jesus healed (and frankly, many of his miracles were of emotional maladies, like schizophrenia and personality disorders), we see it as God’s primary job to heal us – although healing was only a small fraction of what Jesus was about. And dreams of healing have been the ruin of prayer. The vast majority of prayer requests we receive are health related – when there are a bevy of other things (praise, gratitude, confession, wisdom, holiness) to pray about.

Jesus did heal a few people – apparently to declare something about his identity, and to make larger points; he healed the blind, not evidently just so the blind could see, but so the spiritually blind Pharisees would realize their piety was bogus. Jesus’ healings were “signs” of a new way of life with God; the majority of sick people Jesus encountered remained sick.

We might think of Jesus’ best healing, not in his miracles, but in his habits. Over and over, the Gospels tell us Jesus withdrew from the bustle of the crowd to pray; Jesus knew how to say No to increasing demands on his energy. Jesus gathered people together into a loving community that accepted everybody. Jesus was intimate with God, and embraced hurting people where they were. Jesus’ spirituality was emotionally healthy. Jesus displayed that “saving grace of repetition.”

Jesus Christ heals the emotions today through formation, new habits, and others in what really can be the Body of Christ. Jesus Christ also heals us by exposing the false gods that beleaguer us. He doesn’t scold, but he tenderly reminds us that things, money, diversions, being cool, climbing the ladder simply can’t deliver, and are perilous to the soul.

Jesus cast out demons – and there certainly are destructive spiritual presences out there, and in our own heads. We can trust that this happens for us now – and ours isn’t to pinpoint evil presences, but to keep our focus on what is good, whole, beautiful, healthy. Thomas Merton was right: the devil attention above all else – and the one who is close to Christ increasingly notices only what is good and hopeful.

In this short YouTube I try to explain the Miracles of Jesus.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Faith & Mental Health (or Mental Illness) - parts 4, 5 and 6

Peter Scazzero, God & the Emotional Life

  Peter Scazzero gave a dynamite talk at our Church (watch here).  It was more than just a lecture; we had an experience, we engaged, we interacted.  I like this: too often we think of religion as info about the Bible or God being downloaded into our heads. But Jesus, it appears, was not much of a lecturer. He asked questions, he probed deeply, he got people moving and involved.

   Scazzero's value is in his insights into the linkage between God and our emotional life. Sure, many Americans think about God and feelings - as in Do I feel God? Do I feel anything in worship? But God is interested in your inner emotional life, in bringing healing, and redirection to your emotions. The Bible is an intensely emotional book: the stories of complex people, the profound prayers, and even the rich swirl of emotion in the very heart of God!

   If we think of depression, anxiety, and other maladies that afflict us, doctors and counselors are of much help. But a healthy spirituality is pivotal to our well-being, and to understanding the depth of God's own heart.

   In yesterday's sermon, I spoke of the sinister messages our world bombards us with, lies about who we are and why we are here: I am a burden, a producer, I need others' approval, I can't make mistakes, it's all up to me. No wonder we are anxious. Beseiged by smug, pious people, Jesus said "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick" (Luke 5:31). Hint hint: none of us are well, or not yet. We need this physician.

   The way this physician heals us is intriguing: he diagnoses our brokenness, and we are glad - for we are healed, not by going faster, but by slowing to a stop, by faith, abandoning our obsession with success and failure. Jesus heals us with mercy, and we learn to be merciful with ourselves, and others, and life itself. Karen Armstrong wrote that "For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn't know we needed, and take us to places where we didn't want to go."

    {In addition to Scazzero's book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, we're also recommending a daily devotional, also by Scazzero, The Daily Office (or Kindle), which for me is the best devotional book I've used in a decade or more.}

     {Join an Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Small GroupThis is the best and most strongly recommended way to learn and grow in this process! We'll start the week of Feb. 3.}

Repetition as Saving Grace

   Part of Scazzero’s genius is the way he has found the intersection between the emotional situation of 21st century people and the classic disciplines and spiritual practices the Church has utilized for centuries.  Christianity has the goods – like being still and simply meditating (not just a Buddhist thing!).  John 20 tells us Jesus “breathed on them” – and maybe he was teaching them how to breathe, how to inhale and then exhale, deeply, and feel the grace of God filling body, mind and soul.  Jesus showed them how to be with other people, who also need grace, to open up, to be a church where deeply flawed people love and help each other toward healing.
   To be well, we think about all our habits, like diet, sleep and exercise; we rely on our physicians, and more of us should go in for counseling – which can be wonderfully useful for the spiritual life!  Kathleen Norris, who underwent plenty of therapy herself, found immense value there – and yet also realized how therapy “falls short of mystery, a profound simplicity that allows for paradox.  In therapy I search for explanations, causes, and information to help change behavior.  But wisdom is the goal of spiritual seeking.”

  Wisdom.  Mystery.  Grace.  This is God’s realm.  We might fix anxiety or depression medically, but still feel a hollowness, a restlessness.  St. Augustine prayed, “O Lord, You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in You.”  Finding that rest in God is actually essential even for dealing with anxiety, depression, guilt, sorrow, and broken relationships.  There is a deep weariness in the soul no vacation or napping can alleviate.

   I’m riddled with uneasiness; do you have anything to take for this?  How about reading the Psalms, or a breathing app on your phone, healthy prayers, listening to a hymn, joining (maybe for the 1st time) a group to grow in God?  There is a spiritual malaise at the deepest marrow of your self.  Building spiritual habits into your daily routine:  this is the only way to complement diet, exercise, sensible habits, and whatever the doctor has prescribed.

   Kathleen Norris spoke of “Repetition as Saving Grace.”  No single prayer, lecture, sermon or email will do it.  We are embarking upon a discovery of a committed rhythm of connection to God and others – and the very repetition itself will be God’s grace for you.

God’s heart, your heart

  Think about your heart – not just that fleshy engine that pushes oxygenated blood throughout your body, but that inner core of your being that desires, loves, grieves, and hopes.  The Bible tells us about God’s heart – and the healthiest I can be spiritually is when I get my heart beating as closely as possible to the heart of God.

   I learn God’s heart by a long project of immersing myself in Bible, worship, prayer, and conversation with others.  I come to want what World Vision founder Bob Pierce spoke of – for my heart to be broken by the things that break the heart of God.  An emotionally healthy spirituality involves caring about God’s world, growing up and away from self-absorption, frustrating by injustice out there, discovering what God is calling me to do, becoming a person who embodies God’s own compassion.
   You may say, But I am too broken myself to do any good.  Yet, your brokenness may prove to be a surprising, lovely gift.  Nassir Ghaemi’s intriguing book, A First-Rate Madness, explores how great leaders like Lincoln and Churchill led brilliantly, not in spite of their bouts with deep depression, but precisely because of them.  Studies show that depressed people are more realistic, and are naturally more empathetic to suffering.

   Of course, we all battle something or another in our souls – and the battle is the way to compassion, and ministry to others.  Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a striking letter to his young poet friend in which he urged, “Do not believe that he who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled.  His life has much difficulty and sadness.  Were it otherwise he would never have been able to find these words.”

   So, believing in the saving grace of repetition, we pray once more, You called people from their daily work, saying to them ‘Come after me.’  Today, may we hear your voice, and gladly answer your call - to give our lives to you, to serve your Church, to offer our gifts, and give away our hearts to you only. Bless our hopes: the first tiny stirrings of desire, the little resolve to go forward, the small vision of what might be. Deal gently with our fears, the hesitation of uncertainty, the darkness of the unknown, the lack of confidence in our own capacity, and turn it all to trust in you.


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Faith & Mental Health (or Mental Illness) - parts 1, 2 and 3

Faith & Mental Illness (or Mental Health)

  A few months ago we kept getting questions, and hearing many personal concerns, around the area of mental health and Christianity. Between now and Easter, we will try to understand how faith matters for the struggles we face - or even provide strength of soul for all of us.

   Mental illness is intriguing; words like bipolar, depression, and personality disorder give us pause, or drive us to our knees. Then there are the inner battles we usually don't share in public: anxiety, shame, darkness, insomnia, fractured relationships, drinking, addictions - our whole emotional life. Maybe we think everything's great - but something's missing.

   Does religion help? or make things worse? Shouldn't we be able to pray, and Jesus will just make it all better? We will examine ways religion is actually a problem - like the idea that God is punishing me, or I'm not praying hard enough, or God is only in places where there is sweetness and light. We will see how weakness and vulnerability are not problems to be conquered, but the very openings for God's best work in us. God did tell Paul, "My power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:7). We will ask What kind of church is God calling us to be in light of people's real struggles?

Epiphany: the Iceberg
 Usually I think of the word "Epiphany" in terms of looking up - to a star, a light in God's immense sky; or perhaps we think of the dawn, the bright sun peering over the horizon, or a light bulb going off in your head.

   But perhaps for there to be a real epiphany, a real revelation and discovery in our lives, we need to look down, deep, beneath the surface - like the iceberg, the bulk of the thing hidden, dangerous, very real even if unnoticed. Much of our life is lived on the surface - and sadly our religious life often is limited to some nice, observable acts: I go to church, say a quick prayer, volunteer once in a while, occasionally read my Bible.

But it's only the tip of the iceberg; the bulk of my life remains untouched, submerged - and I may not even be familiar with the depth of my own life! But it's down there. God is keenly interested in that submerged, unaddressed life. "Lord, you have searched me and known me" (Psalm 139:1).

   Our goals in this series (and in life!)? To grow in emotional health, real compassion for others, to break free from destructive patterns, and be filled with grace; we can embrace weakness, accept the surprising gift of our limitations, learn to resolve conflicts, and forgive.

   Our methods will be to take time to go deep, probably with others - and to utilize classic spiritual disciplines most Christians have forgotten or never heard of. Saints and other faithful followers of Jesus through history have practiced simple things like breathing, meditation, silence - slowing down, being anchored in God's love, abandoning delusions and society's alluring but harmful messages, serving humbly. When we learn these simple habits, our life with God becomes deeper, wider, fulfilling - and we begin to feel the ebbing away of anxiety, depression, hopelessness, and fear.

   We never perfect this quest; we live in a fallen world, and our very inability to get it all right opens us up to the mercy of God, and the joy of the journey. We will learn how feelings of emptiness, or the wounds we carry, are God calling us home. Imperfection is a great gift; vulnerability is the way to life. This is the Epiphany we pray for.
Emotionally Un-Healthy Spirituality

During my lifetime, we the people have become far more attuned to healthy eating. We care about how the food was processed, how it's prepared, and the impact on our bodies, now and over a lifetime.   So how odd then that when it comes to our spiritual life, we gobble up spiritualities that are maybe quick, readily available, easy and even cheap! There is a lot of Un-Healthy Spirituality out there - and we've all tried it, but it's only made us flabby, lethargic, and prone to catastrophe.

   Here are just a few of the popular but really unhealthy ideas about faith that will ruin you. Quickie piety: say a prayer, or even many prayers, and God will just magically make everything great. Guilt-driven: I done wrong, God's raging mad, I should do better. Sunshiney-faith: since I believe in God, I'm all smiles, always. Denial of Darkness: since God is the antithesis of anything negative, I ignore my own anger, fear, sadness and pretend God will fix things. Superhero belief: I have no limits, and can do even more than my already jammed full life since God is with me. Choiceless religion: I don't have to say No to anything to say Yes to God. Occasional religion: if I go to church now and then and slap a few prayers onto meals, I'll be close to God. The Evil God: horrible things happen, so the controlling God made bad things happen. Judgmental God: God must be as annoyed at people I don't like as I am. Laid-back God: God can't be bothered with my inner life or my daily habits. God the Butler: God exists to do me little favors. Tyrant God: I should be very afraid of God.

All these are false gods. And all of these jam spiritual cholesterol into your arteries. You need a new diet, maybe even some surgery. You need an Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. We begin by saying No to fast-food, junk religiosity, and begin to know and even be with a good God. And we take the time to dig deeply - into God, into my self, and into others. Real change most often happens in the company of other people. You may feel hesitant, or think you're too busy - but aren't you hungry for lasting change, and even joy?