Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Dementia and the Church

I am reading a book that explores dementia. The book is entitled Dementia: Living in the Memories of God. It is really a book that falls under the heading of practical theology and pastoral care. I am a systematic theologian (which by the way is also practical) so what does this book have to do with me?

This is a very personal issue for me because my father has dementia. And as it turns out, this is also a very theological issue because the book has at its core ideas about what it means to be a human person and how we, as Christians, may have allowed science and the medical community as a whole dictate the answer to this question more than is warranted.

With nearly every page I am struck in some way by how the community, including the Christian community, speaks about people with various forms of dementia. And it has long been recognized that how we speak about someone or something influences how we think about that person or thing. For example, if we refer to a person as a patient, we understand and react to that person in ways that we would not if we had not classified the person in exactly that way.

And so it is with dementia. We approach the person with dementia with a certain set of presuppositions about what a person with dementia is like, what she can or cannot do, what she will or will not remember. While assigning a label can be helpful in certain ways, it can also shape our understanding of a person and more importantly, cause us to respond to a person in ways that we would not ordinarily respond, thus influencing that person’s understanding of herself.

One common response, as it turns out, is to ignore or forget the person. The author, John Swinton, correlates this to unfriending someone on Facebook. It turns out that the person with dementia, particularly if they are placed in an institution, is rarely visited, except by a few close family members. The reason? “He/she won’t remember anyway.” It does not seem to occur to people that this person might be horribly lonely, in the same way that we would be if we were forgetful and forgotten. If this same person had cancer or some other form of chronic illness, would she be as easily ignored, questions Swinton?

More disturbing to me in all of this is the reaction I have observed in the church, a reaction verified by Swinton. The church, it turns out, seems also to easily forget or unfriend those who have difficulty remembering. These folks are never brought to church – a place of familiarity for them – although the church (the pastor/elder) will occasionally come to them. They are rarely if ever prayed for in a congregational prayer where nearly every other disease, including chronic diseases, is regularly brought before the throne of grace.

I remember my mother asking our very large church whether there might be a Stephen’s Minister who could spend time with my dad now and again, even though he still lives with her, just for some company. She was told no one was available for that sort of thing, although a kindly gentleman from the congregation was eventually located who was willing to spend time with my dad every other week – truly a Godsend.
I have long observed that our churches, like our culture, are obsessed with youth and that this obsession leads to a neglect of those who have served the church well their entire lives. It is hip these days to worry about the marginalized, but how often do our elderly fit into this paradigm? Are they not marginalized in our culture? What will the church do about this group?

With regard to those elderly with various forms of dementia, Swinton asks a haunting question: “Given the ease with which people with dementia can be unfriended, what is it that we actually love in those we claim to love?”

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Male and Female

There is increasing societal pressure to accept homosexual behavior as just another way of being. In addition, there is ongoing pressure to understand gender as something that is or should be self-constructed. This notion includes a complete dismissal of claims that biological categories have anything at all to do with whether one identifies as male or female. 

One of the two texts in my devotional reading this morning was Gen. 2, the "other" creation account. I have read this text many times but one thing that struck me this morning was the loneliness of the first man. God creates man (adam) from the dust of the ground (adamah), an interesting Hebrew play on words. He puts the man in a garden, in Eden, so the story goes.

After reading the whole first chapter of Genesis where creation is repeatedly affirmed as good, God comes along in this sequel and says here that something is not good. "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper." 

No suitable helper is found among the animals, so God crafts another person especially for this man. God could have made any sort of person. God could have created another man. In fact, God could have created these first persons androgynous. But curiously, God does not. The person God creates as the suitable helper for the man is a woman, a female. The man responds with poetic glee: "This  is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh (emphasis mine)."

The man has seen other options and realizes that this creature, this woman, is exactly the being God intended for him to become "one flesh" with, a fact Jesus himself refers to.

What struck me as I pondered and re-read this ancient text, is how deeply creational this relationship of man and woman is. This is the way God intended things to be. This created male/female distinction in relation is God's design.

The Levitical and Pauline prohibitions aside, this text seems to me to be the central teaching on gender and sexuality for Reformed folks like myself, who take the goodness of creation seriously.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Seeing God

A few weeks ago, a group of young people visiting our church sang the popular worship song, "Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord." As I listened and worshiped with them I started wondering whether we really understand what  we are asking in a song like this. 

The song goes:
Open the eyes of my heart, Lord.
Open the eyes of my heart, I want to see you, I want to see you.

To see you high and lifted up
Shinin' in the light of your glory
Pour out your power and love
As we sing holy, holy, holy.

Most of this is repeated, with some variation, and the line "I want to see you" is repeated a number of times.

At least two things are notable here. First, the insistence on wanting to see God. While I like the impulse - I hope to see God someday too - I wonder what would happen if a congregation suddenly did see God. After all, this is YHWH, the Holy One of Israel, the one who told Moses that no one could see his face and live. (Ex. 33:20)

It all just sounds so cavalier to me. Israel does not see God, but trembles in fear at the base of Sinai while Moses is on the mountain with God. In fact, God instructs Israel not to touch the mountain and if they did, they would die. Only Moses and Aaron may go up Mt. Sinai, although the people could hear God's voice at the base. Sounds like fear is the right response to me.

If every instance that an angel appears in the Bible the persons involved are fearful, how much more fearful must it be to see the living God?

The second notable thing in this song is the repetition of the word holy. The song rightly recognizes that the God we seek is holy. But what does that mean? 

In a very basic sense, to be holy is to be set apart. In other words, God is not a big, powerful version of us. God is other. We are like God in certain ways but only God is the Holy One. The Holy God cannot dwell with sinful people. Thus, to ask to see God is in some way to ask to be destroyed.

My hunch is that our rather thoughtless singing of these simple words rarely has the appropriate amount of fear mixed in.

Annie Dillard once wrote about worship:
"Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies straw hats and velvet to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return."

She's right, of course. To ask for an audience with YHWH is to ask for God to change you, to strip you of yourself, and to rebuild you into what God wants you to be not necessarily what you want to be. Encountering God guarantees having to let go - and keep letting go - of all kinds of little idols that we all hold dear. This is indeed a fearful thing. A good thing, but a fearful thing.

There is an old saying, "be careful what you wish for." Perhaps we should add, be careful what you sing for.