Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Good Work Walk

Meet my dog, Maggie.

Maggie's here because of that prayer.  You know the one I mean.  I pray it every time I go in to the Community Care Center (CCC), and on a regular basis just generally.  "Lord, I know who I'm planning to see today, and I have some idea what I want to do. But Your plan is the one that needs to take precedence.  So, use me however You want today. Not my agenda…but Yours.  Not my intentions, but Yours.  Not my will, but Yours be done. Amen." 

It's pretty short, that prayer, but it changes everything.  Not just for me either.  Case in point:

I walked in to the CCC on Sunday with a pretty good idea what I was going to do.  It was my day to take my resident friend to African Church.  That takes all morning, and then I get his lunch and eat with him and go home.  It has always been God's will for me to be involved in his life, so I prayed the Prayer as a matter of course, because on this day of all days, I knew what God's plan was.
When I got inside, three residents came to tell me, "Kathy wants to see you!"  Good!  I'm always glad to see my friend Kathy as well. She is a ray of sunshine in the dark corners, and brings a little bit of joy wherever she goes.  I checked on my friend and he was ready to go. As I was walking down the hall. Kathy came around the corner and stopped short. "Oh, thank goodness you're here.  We need your help - we have a big problem."
Very hesitantly, I said, "I don't work here any more...I can't help with any big problems..."
"Oh yes you can," she insisted. "It's an ANIMAL."
On the way down the Truly Ancient Elevator, Kathy filled me in.  The morning shift staff had noticed a little beagle shivering in the parking lot from about 5:30 on.  She looked sick, and she was dirty and cold.  "I think she might be pregnant," Kathy said.  One of the independent residents had gone outside to sit with her and nobody knew what to do.
So I went to check her out.  She was clearly an elderly beagle. Her abdomen was hugely swollen, she was shivering, her claws were way overgrown, and she had an angry, bleeding, golf-ball sized tumor on her face outside her right ear.  The mass on her abdomen was not puppies; it was a soft, non-painful tumor of some sort (you can see the tumors in the photo).  She was filthy and she stank.  She shied away from my hand. What she needed was to see a vet. But I was taking my friend to church.
"What'll we do?" asked Kathy.  
None of us wanted to leave her outside, so I asked if Kathy could keep her in the Activities office while I took my friend to church.  She got her a blanket and a tunafish sandwich from the breakroom, and a bowl of water.  The little beagle ate the sandwich and lay down on the blanket, and I left to go to African church.

After I left the CCC, I took the beagle to a vet. Her legs were so shaky I had to carry her. He estimates she is 10+ years old. The big tumor is a lipoma. It weighs six pounds and drags the ground. The other is malignant. In addition to what I had observed, she has worms and fleas, is anemic (so no surgery yet), her teeth are rotten, and she has infections in numerous places.  She needed all sorts of medications, and who was going to do all that?  It was Sunday evening; noplace was open. So I collected her meds, brought her home, gave her a bath, and introduced her to the joys of home-cooked dogfood, a warm bed, and doggie playmates. We named her Maggie, and that's how she came to join our family.

She's doing grand now, and will have surgery to remove her tumors on March 9.  It's going to be quite expensive, so pray for provision. I have contacted the beagle rescue folks to see if there is any help available, and am waiting to hear back.

I was telling my friend Barb about this and she said, shaking her head, "You can even see the potential in a brokendown dog."
I don't think she's right about that. When I looked at her there in the parking lot, I didn't see any potential, except that I'd probably be the one telling the vet "She's suffering; put her down," and be a gentle hand and soothing voice while she died.   
So why did I take responsibility for her?  I don't work for the CCC; I'm not the boss any more. I don't have to take charge of every problem. I AM the chaplain, but this was not within a chaplain's scope of practice. I'm not working yet and we can't afford a huge vet bill.  We already have 14 pets and I don't really want any more. And I most CERTAINLY didn't need any more heartache right now. So why did I swoop in and take this cast off dog?   
As I reflected on this, I kept coming back to that prayer. "Your will be done."
When you pray that, you have to be ready for whatever He throws at you, and you have to know that you're probably not going to understand it while it's happening. 

Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:10 "We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works that God has prepared in advance that we should walk in them (emphasis mine). I'm not sure how that's supposed to work out practically.  Paul is speaking inclusively, in first person plural.  WE.  We believers.  So are the good works allocated specifically to one person, like a Christmas gift with my name on the tag; or are the good works allocated to all believers and it's up to us to find them and walk in them, like finding an egg in an Easter-egg hunt?  I don't know the answer to that. But here's what I do know:

That beagle wandered into the parking lot at the Community Care Center.  Not at Safeway or the high school or the assisted living place up the street. She came to the CCC. I am only there a couple hours, two mornings a week.  That Beagle could have showed up there any time during the other 162 hours that I was not there this week, but there she was, on Sunday.  When something drops into my lap like this, I consider that it’s one of those good works that God prepared in advance, and so I start walking in it.  Lots of other people saw her before I got there, and not one of them even let her into the building.  They had their chance to walk in that good work and they walked away instead. They were looking up at the huge pile of her problems and saying "I can't handle that."  I’ve learned not to do that.  Instead, I say “Well, she’s cold. I can do something about that.”  And take the first step.  And when you take just one step up, maybe you still can’t see the top of the staircase, but there’s one less step between you and the top. Maybe God doesn't want me to go all the way to the top, but until I know for sure I'm going to keep walking.

So now we have Maggie. I honestly have no idea why He prepared this good work for me. What use is it to God that we gave an elderly beagle a home? I may never know. But Maggie doesn't care about that.  She is not living a life of constant suffering any more, and she does a happy beagle dance when she sees me coming with her dish. We walked half a mile together in the park today. And yesterday she crawled into my lap to nap while I was grading papers. We're taking the next steps om this Good Work Walk together.  

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Go Gladly...A Modern Parable

It was the end of a long week.  Moby and Felix had been talking and joking and watching TV and living life together, as brothers do.  But as evening drew near, Felix got quieter and quieter.  They both began to look down the road.  “Our sister is coming,” Moby told Felix.  “She’ll be here any minute…you’ll see.”  And then, there she was.  “Hey, Debbe! How’s it going?” Moby asked.  Debbe was pleased to see them, and they sat down to eat together, as they liked to do.

The three visited for a while, and Moby and Debbe laughed and teased; it was their way.  All at once, when Debbe said she would see them later, Felix looked up at Debbe and told her that soon it would be time for him to go.  Debbe said she thought he might be right, and decided to stay.  None of them wanted to be the first to say GoodBye, so they tarried, visiting some more.  Some of their friends came and wished him well, until finally the time came for Felix to go and only the three were left. But still he lingered. It was growing dark and the way was shadowy. There were bumps and pits and tree roots on the path, and Felix had never been this way before. He wasn’t sure he could manage it with his wheelchair.

“It’s alright, Sweetheart, we’ll walk you home, won’t we Moby?” Debbe said. “Hmmm?  What? Right now?  Oh, OK, sure,” Moby replied, and the three set off together, with Debbe pulling Felix’s wheelchair along beside her, like she did whenever they crossed a parking lot.  The three followed the path, talking and singing and remembering their past adventures.

Sometimes they would laugh; sometimes a memory was so special they would cry a little bit.  Sometimes Felix would hesitate, not knowing, and Debbe would take his hand and encourage him with thoughts of what a nice place his home was, and of the wonderful One who was waiting for him there, while Moby reminded Felix of all the great things he had done. Near the end of the journey, their friend Kathy joined them and refreshed them with singing.

Finally, there they were, at the very Gate of Home, and it was full dark.  The sun had gone down, the night was cloudy, and the fireflies had not yet begun to twinkle.  Moby said good bye and stood back.  Debbe took Felix’s face in her hands, looked into his eyes, and told him, “Little Brother, before I took you anyplace, I always went ahead first to check it out. To see whether you would like it, whether it was safe for your wheelchair, and how we could manage it together.  Now it’s your turn to go on first and check it out for me.  It’ll be OK. You’re alright. Let go now - -you’re almost there and there’s nothing here to keep you. When you hear Jesus calling you, go gladly.”

Felix nodded.  He looked up, and there was his Savior on the other side of the gate, calling “Felix!”  Suddenly, Felix found that he wasn’t afraid. The gate was too small for his wheelchair to go through, so Debbe helped him to stand up, just as she used to do, and he left it behind him when he stepped across to the other side of the gate.  Debbe, Moby, and Kathy stood beside his wheelchair calling out “Good Bye, Felix!  We Love You! We’ll see you soon!” and maybe they cried a little more, but Felix didn’t look back.

He was home.

Sunday, July 10, 2016


My dear friend Nathaniel Brown is 85 and his kidneys have given up the ghost. So he goes for dialysis several times a week. During the hours-long process, blood is taken out of his body, filtered through an artificial kidney of sorts, and pumped back in.  It's tough on an old body, but Nathaniel soldiers on. He lives with his family, but they are not believers and he's more or less house-bound, so he feels acutely the lack of spiritual support.

Every Saturday I visit him and spend some time with him while he undergoes dialysis.  We talk and laugh, share our week's activities, sometimes vent about our struggles. I read to him - sometimes from the Word and sometimes from other works. Every month or so I take him communion.  

Every week he talks until he just can't stand it any more, then he digs his hand out from under the blanket, reaches out to me and says, "Pray fo' me."  And we spend a long  time, praying by turns. Thanking and praising the Lord, praying for each other, for our friends and family, and just talking to the our Heavenly Father.  Here we are, praying at the VA:

Nathaniel and I are very different. Beginning with the obvious: he's a man, I'm a woman.  I'm 40 years younger than he is. He's from the Deep South, I'm a Yankee born and bred.  He grew up in a poor family without a father. In fact, to this day he doesn't even know who is father was. I grew up in an intact, middle-class family, and I just talked to my father this afternoon. Nathaniel's skin is a rich dark brown. Mine is eminently sunburnable. His faith background is Pentecostal/Holiness and mine is Mennonite - an Anabaptist sect second cousin to the Amish. He's a career military man; Mennonites are conscientious objectors. He is physically handicapped and my handicap is neurological. I have long hair; he has no hair.  He's always cold, I'm always too warm.

We are on opposite sides of just about every dividing line there is, Nathaniel and me: gender, socio-economic, familial, geographic, racial, denominational and political.  

There is so much I can learn from him!

The violence we are seeing today in this country, leveled against people on the opposite side of some arbitrary dividing line, is incomprehensible to me.  I just can't wrap my brain around the mindset that "not like me" is a bad thing. And the backlash that says "Because YOU are not like ME, you don't have a voice in this.  You're part of the problem; you can't be part of the solution!" mystifies me just as much.  Everyone is decrying the problem but I don't see anyone proposing a solution.  We're just digging in and entrenching more firmly on "our side" of the line.

A line I don't see.

Why don't I see it?  Maybe because what Nathaniel and I have in common is greater than all the lines in the world. He is a pastor. I am a chaplain. We both believe in God the Father who sent his Son into the world to save sinners, and that is our common ground. "In Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free, no male nor female. You are all one in Christ Jesus." Galatians 3:8.  

Saul of Tarsus was the great Drawer of Lines.  He took his permanent Sharpie marker and made a thick line between "Jew" and "Christian," and the Scriptures say he was taking Christians bound to Jerusalem to stand trial for heresy.  Whole families of Christians. In Acts we see him "Breathing threats and murder" against the church.  But then he had an encounter with the Risen Christ, the Eraser of Lines.  On the Road to Damascus, Saul was physically blinded, so he could no longer see the lines, but had to take people as they were. He became Paul - Apostle to the Gentiles. And he was the one who wrote the letter to the Galatians where the foregoing quote is found.

Nathaniel and I, who are so totally different, really are blood brother and sister. Not the blood that flows through my veins or from Nathaniel's body and into the dialyzer and back, but the blood of Jesus poured out to make us wholly His.  
I don't know what the solution is to the nation's problem; I can't even begin to imagine why the problem exists. But maybe that in itself means that there is still hope.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Expect the Unexpected

Here's the prayer I always pray before I go into the nursing home:
"Not my will, Lord, but yours be done."

I also pray it before going into the big VA hospital up here in Seattle. Every Saturday morning I spend an hour or two sitting with "Pastor Brown," a man who used to be a resident at the Community Care Center (CCC) and now lives with family.  Unbelieving family.  He covets our Saturday visits, prayer, and talking about what the Lord is doing in our lives.

This morning as I was going out the door I saw the box of my pre-filled Communion cups left over from last week’s CCC communion service and said, “I should take Pastor Brown communion.”  So I put two cups in my bag. I was going down the steps when  I had a thought, and I went back up and threw in a third cup, just on a whim.

The way the dialysis unit is set up, there are a series of double cubicles; a single space with two reclining chairs facing each other  about 8 ft apart and a curtain that can be pulled in between for privacy (but rarely is).  Today the fellow in the opposite chair was someone I hadn’t seen before, so I smiled briefly at him and sat down with Pastor Brown. 

We started out our visit with prayer, as always.  He reaches out from under his blanket and I take his hand and we pray over our week and our friends and just praise the Lord. Pastor Brown prays loud, being Pentecostal.  Our friend Al (One of the dialysis techs who is a brother in the Lord) was there, so we prayed a blessing over Al. 

After prayer we visited for a while and it looked like Pastor Brown was going to fall asleep, and I rethought my plan to have communion.  But I’m a firm believer in “Why not?” as a guiding force of ministry, so I asked him if he wanted to take Communion.  “Oh yes,” he said in his Georgia drawl. “I surely would.”  So while I got out my Bible and supplies, Al came over and was talking to the other guy.  “Hey!  You’re back! I haven’t seen you in a while!”

And the other guy said, very loudly, “Well, the LORD….pulled me through.”

He was clearly announcing his allegiance, having heard us praying.  Al said, “So do you know the Lord?”

“Oh yes. Yes I do – I’ve known Him for a number of years.”

Al gave him a fist-bump.  “Me too, brother!”

And I piped up from across the way, “Us too!”

Al shook his head, saying, “MMmmmm, Mmmmm. MMmm. This is a holy corner,” and I pointed an imperious finger at him and shot back “Take off your sneakers, Al, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground!”

And we all busted up laughing.  Laughter is rare in dialysis, and everyone started poking their heads around their curtains to see what was going on.

I said to Al, “Hey, I’ve brought Pastor Brown communion. Would you like to partake with us?” He sometimes joins us in our little communion celebrations.

“I can’t,” he said with regret. “I’m crazy busy and I just don’t have time to stop.”

I saw the look on the other guy’s face and felt a familiar nudge.It made me nervous; I'm very timid around strangers. I wanted to just stay there and take communion comfortably with Pastor Brown.  But God wouldn't let me off, so I went after Al.  “Al, would it be alright if I offered Pastor Brown’s neighbor over there communion?”

Al glanced back uncertainly. “Umm...Sure…you can ask him and if he says yes, just check with the nurse to be sure.”

So I went back and asked him.  Immediately he smiled up at me.  “Oh, yes please. It’s been so long.  I can’t get out any more and nobody from my church comes to visit me. I haven’t had a chance to take communion in almost a year.”

So I asked his name and he said it was Philip.  I began by reading Isaiah 55, and then I went to John 14 and finished up in I Corinthians 11 and read the usual verse there.  Taking the wafers, I handed one to Pastor Brown and said, “This is the body of Christ, broken for you, Pastor Brown.”  And to the other side, “This is the body of Christ, broken for you, Philip.”  He nodded.  Then to the cups. “This is the blood of Christ, shed for you, Pastor Brown, that through His death you might have everlasting life.”  And then over to the other side, “This is the blood of Christ, shed for you, Philip, that through His death you might have everlasting life.”

He had difficulty swallowing the juice, because of the tears that were spilling down his cheeks.  He wept quietly while I was praying, and wiped his eyes and thanked me when I was done. Since I hadn’t examined his beliefs very thoroughly, I made sure to pray the gospel into the prayer.  I do this often with residents who ask for prayer, but whose beliefs I’m not exactly certain of.  It goes something like this: “Lord, thank you for my brother Philip over there. Thank you for his life, and his belief.  I don’t know exactly what he thinks about You, but I know what You think about Him, because you gave your only son…your Most Precious One….to forsake heaven and come down to earth, live a perfect life that we couldn’t ever hope to live, and die a gruesome death that we deserved, so that we could know Him and believe in Him and inherit eternal life. Forgive us, Lord, for all of our sins.  Take our lives and let them be a living prayer of thanksgiving, and let us walk in the good works You have prepared in advance for us to do, with a joyful  spirit and a grateful heart.”

I said goodbye to pastor Brown and my new-found brother and left to go to work.  But as I was walking down the dimly-lit back hallway Al stepped out from behind a doorway and stopped me. “I just wanted to thank you for that…I wish I could have joined in, but I enjoyed what I heard.  That guy...Philip...he’s been coming here for quite a while, but I never knew he was a Christian. Because you’re brave enough to come here and pray out loud like that, he was brave enough to claim Christ. And because you were brave enough to offer him communion, he could take it and enjoy it. Who knows how long it'll be before he ever has the chance again."

Four of us left dialysis like the paralytic, "Walking and leaping and praising God."  I looked back at the way God had planned this encounter from the very beginning, though I had not the slightest clue, and praised Him even more.  
"Not my will, Lord, but yours be done...." 
Not my will, indeed.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Our Father...

Before our services begin on Sunday at the Community Care Center,  I usually give a Scripture and welcoming piece. This week I wanted to say something special for Father’s Day, as many of the men are lonely and feel forgotten.  Here’s what the Lord gave me for them.

When you first meet someone new, the question “What do I call you?”  needs to be answered, because the name or title by which we address someone tells a lot about the nature of our relationship.  If someone says “I’m Mr. Simmons,” we know the relationship is more formal.  If he says, “My name is Harrison,” we relate to him on a more personal level.  And if he says “Just call me Harry!” that’s an even more friendly, less formal relationship. 
What if we think our relationship with someone has changed, and we're not certain what we should call him or her?  It's an uneasy feeling, isn't it?

We see a similar issue in the Bible. In the Old Testament, God spoke to a few people, who relayed His words to everyone.  A formal relationship. Jesus brought with Him a new issue – How do we think about God now that He is Emmanuel - God With Us? 

Jesus was God, and He shared some of the titles and forms of address from the Old Testament, just to reinforce the fact of Who he was.  The disciples called Him Lord and Master, and God was also called those things (Genesis 28, Malachi 1:6). God is the Creator and in John 1:3  we read “Through Him (Jesus) all things were made, and without Him nothing was made that was made.”  God is the deliverer (2 Samuel 22:2), and so is Jesus (Romans 11:26).  God is light (1 John 1:5) and Jesus is light (John 8:12). God is the Rock (Deuteronomy 32:4), and 1 Corinthians 10:4 identifies Christ as the rock. 2 Samuel 22:31 tells us “As for God His way is perfect.”  Jesus said “I am the way”(John 14:6). God is truthful (1 Timothy 3:15) and Jesus said “I am the truth” (John 14:6)  Finally, Jacob identifies God as his shepherd (Genesis 48:15), and Jesus is also the good Shepherd (John 10:11).

But the most significant example begins all the way back to Exodus chapter 3.  There was Moses, standing by the burning bush, receiving his commission. And he said in verse 13, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”


This is the name God told His people to call Him. 

I AM Who I AM. The self-existent one. 

It was a holy name; a powerful name; the personal name of Almighty God, that one could only whisper with awe and reverence.  But to everyone’s shock, in John 8:58, Jesus tells the religious leaders, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” And the next thing they did was pick up stones to stone Him, because they knew exactly what He meant. He was claiming to be God. He was using the personal name of Almighty God.

These are only a few examples. But there is an exception, and that’s what I wanted to talk to you about today. 

When God sent His Son down to earth to relate to us in our humanness, He had to then choose a new name that would distinguish him from the second and third persons of the trinity. A name that would indicate the new relationship it was possible to have with Him through Christ.  What name would He pick?

Jesus said, “When you pray, pray like this; Our Father….”

In the Old Testament, people could come before God as before a king, with fear and trembling, not daring to look into His face.  But now, in the New Testament, we have been reconciled to Him through the blood of Jesus Christ, and the relationship has changed. Now He is Our Father, a relationship all peoples understand.  Not our dictator or our jailer or our police chief. 


It is a vastly different thing to come running to your Father than to come cringing before your King.

When God wanted to relate to us – when He wanted to show us that He loved us and cared about us and had all our best interests in His heart and mind and hands -  he chose a name that would show all that.

It was a name He kept to Himself and didn’t share even with Jesus, His Chosen One.

He called Himself “Our Father.” And so on Father’s Day, we remember our earthly fathers, given to us as a picture of His love, so we could understand how He wants us to relate to Him.

And we give thanks for our fathers, to our Heavenly Father, who gave us the right to be called Children of God.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Greater is He Who Is In You

The Other Side of Ministry

Everyone loves to hear the success stories, and I love to recount them. These are stories that show how God is working in a mighty way, showing His Love among those who are too often forgotten by people.  But perhaps that makes us complacent.  If God is for us then who can be against us, right?  God is working over there at the Community Care Center (CCC); it's an easy ministry and it's pretty much got LifeCare covered, so there's no need to get involved.

But the truth is there is another side.  If God is working, Satan is not just going to snap his fingers and say "Shucks.  Missed my chance" and go looking for a handy herd of pigs.  He's going to dig in, up the ante, and try to at least keep his ground.  

Betsy is a perfect example.  You met her before under a different name (one drawback to having to report anonymously is that I can't ever remember what I've been calling people) - she loved the carrier I got her for her walker.  She called it "That THING for my walker" in her delightful accent.  She was very suspicious of me at first; she was Catholic and I wasn't.  But after I gave her the walker bag for Christmas and brought her flowers from my garden she started seeking me out on Sunday afternoons.  Then she began coming to service. And that's when things started going wrong for Betsy.
Her mental illness, which had until that point been well-controlled with medication, began to worsen.  She'd get worse, get depressed, and disappear from the service for  while, and she'd get better and come back.  The second time this happened I went to her room to visit when she didn't show up for service.
Her part of it was completely bare.  Nothing on the walls or the nightstand, and only a thin white sheet on the bed.  She wanted it that way.  On several occasions people tried to give her things like a cozy afghan or a religious picture, but during her next "downhill spiral" she'd get rid of them. 
Her family, scarred by her mental illness, had put her in care with the first relief they'd felt in years and gone back to try and rebuild their lives.  They visited on her birthday, and that was it.  She was convinced she was worthless. I committed to visiting her twice a week, just to let her know I cared how she was doing, and God cared how she was doing.

At first she was suspicious.  Then accepting.  Then she welcomed the visits.  Once, around Halloween, she asked me to pull her up in bed so she could sit and talk with me.  I did, and she looked around as though expecting to be overheard.  "I moved my room," she informed me.
"Yes, I know."
"They lost something.  I can't find it.  not anywhere. Somebody took it."
"What was it?"
She tried several times to speak. Finally she got it out.  "My...Bible.  It was black.  I miss it. Could you get me one?"
I smiled.  "Do you want a black one, just like the one you had?"
"No," she said, eyes darting around like a mouse caught pilfering in the pantry.  "Purple," she said.  "A purple Bible."

So I went on a quest.  She was on one of her familiar downhill slopes, despondent because Thanksgiving and Christmas were coming and she had nobody. She began missing service but was holding her own when I went to visit her one Sunday and right in the middle of what I was saying she blurted out "Pray for me."
I was surprised. She'd never allowed me to pray with her before.  "Is there something in particular we should pray for?"
She shook her head. "This place is a cesspit of human suffering. I have mental illness and my family doesn't want me and I just want to die."
I prayed with her.  You can get in a lot of gospel truth in a prayer. I thanked God for her life, that He had ordained all of her days, and that He was in control. I prayed for release from her suffering, for peace and for snatches of joy so she would know that He was with her even in despair.  Then I went on to thank Him for His word that tells us we were all created for a purpose, and for His Son who made a way for us to spend eternity in heaven with Him when our lives here are over; that all we need to do is say "I'm sorry for the all the wrong things I've done. Thank you for coming to die to pay the price for all that. I believe in you and want to give you my life.  Help me to live for you." And then I thanked Him for His promise that He would forgive us, and make us more like His Son, and take us to heaven to be with Him.  I ended with general thanksgiving for the blessing Betsy was to other residents, mentioning a couple specific examples I'd witnessed.
When I opened my eyes she was staring at me with her mouth dangling open.
"I ain't never heard a prayer like that before," she said. "That was so nice. Come do that again sometime."
"I'll be back on Wednesday."
And so I left.  On Tuesday, she asked Herman the Bus Driver to pray for her, and he did. I imagine along something of the same lines. And I came in on Wednesday and prayed the same kind of prayer again. And she had peace, just for a moment.  So I figured I'd go by any chance I got and pray with her. 
And that's when things began getting worse for Betsy.
When I got there on Sunday, Betsy wasn't at home. Her body was there, but the eyes that looked out at me from Betsy's face were not Betsy's eyes.  This was way different: Not the usual downward spiral. She'd become violent.  While I was there she tried to break out the front window, and lunged for the staff member who tried to restrain her.
"Betsy, Betsy," I said, and she looked at me with utter hatred.  But she stopped swinging.
"Come on.  Let's go to your room and talk.  Look - I brought you some flowers."
She dropped her arms and came with me, with three staff people following behind in case she  went after me.  But she was meek and calm.  At her door I said, "Here we are; let's go in and we'll arrange your flowers and I'll pray with you."
She whirled around, threw her walker into the closet door and screamed "Leave me alone!"

That was it. As a volunteer I can't stay if a resident asks me to leave.

That was when things really began going wrong for Betsy. 

Medication, psychosis, and brief windows of clarity that only tortured her further because she could remember the psychotic episodes and knew another one would come.
(note: I'm not a physician and I'm not privy to the details about the residents' condition unless they tell me something.  The words I use are my own best descriptions of what I observed, but may not be correct).

I tried to catch her in those lucid windows to let her know I had a special Christmas gift for her.  I'd found her purple Bible, you see, and I was keeping it for a Christmas surprise. In the meantime I and the CARE ministry folks prayed fervently for her, although I didn't share her name or any details of her condition. Christmas was a little more than a week away when I came in and Betsy was gone. Sent away to a place where she couldn't hurt herself or others. Nobody had let me know, because they said she'd be back in a few days. But Christmas came and went and no Betsy.  Finally, she returned, and she was back to her old self!
"Betsy!" I said when I saw her.  "It's so good to see you back! I have a Christmas present for you!"
"Where is it?" she asked with a grin.
"I didn't know you'd be here so I don't have it with me, but I'll bring it with me soon."
On Wednesday she met me at the door.  "Do you have my present?"
I'd forgotten it. 
I finally remembered the following week, and watched while she opened  it. She was delighted with her purple Bible.  I was delighted.

But that's when things started going wrong for Betsy.

She took a nosedive, and when I went to pray with her or read Scripture she stared at me and said, "I can't hear anything."  The nurses said her hearing was fine, but she couldn't hear me.  She took to bed, and a week later when I went to visit her her name had been removed from the door.

She'd passed away.

There was no reason for her death that I know of.  Aside from the mental illness, she was not sick, and her health was in fact pretty good.  She hadn't had any sort of medical event and was not on hospice. She just...died.

Look at the progression. She was fine until she began coming to services. She rebounded to a lower level when she stopped coming to services, but when she came back she suffered setbacks.  She continued to be OK until we started praying for her.  Then she got sent away, with no spiritual input for a while. When she rebounded that time she was back to being fine again...until she came back to the CCC and I gave her the Bible. 
At that point, having tried lots of other avenues without success, I believe that the enemy took her life. Either to keep her from giving her life to the Lord or because she already had, and this was the only thing left that he could take - so she could have no joy with her saviour. I know she heard the gospel many times, thanks to the faithful men who preach for our worship services.  I know she had peace after I prayed with her.  I will not know until heaven what the end result really was. But I look at her life and see the enemy, alive and well, like a cancer, chewing away at souls.

Yes, the war has been won, but the enemy will not give ground easily, and the battle rages on.  There is need. 
A need for prayer.
A need for love. 
A need for Jesus.

"Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world." I John 4:4


Saturday, February 28, 2015

On God and Dementia

Happy (Almost) Spring!

Early in the year someone came up to me and asked whether I had any articles (or anything I’d written personally) on whether it’s any use to share the Gospel with those who have advanced dementia. This person had just put an aging mother in a nursing home in a nonresponsive state due to dementia, and was wondering whether (or perhaps had been told that) she was beyond hope.  This was not a new thought; others have in the past questioned the usefulness of a ministry to those with dementia or other debilitating mental conditions.  So let me share my answer, so you can see inside my world for a minute.

On God and Dementia.

Should we go and share the gospel with patients (even unbelievers) suffering from dementia Yes.

Even if they can’t reliably tell whether it’s day or night by looking out the window? Yes.

Even if they are completely insensible or comatose? Yes.


Because they are still alive, and where there is life there is hope.  It’s certainly not as rewarding as sharing the gospel with those who can respond to us verbally; but that is, at the bottom, a selfish goal. It’s human to want to be able to see the results of our work; to know we are being fruitful in what God has commanded us.  But many times we have to let that go, just do our bit faithfully and trust the results to God.  I think that’s the crux of the matter: questioning the benefit of sharing the gospel with those suffering from dementia evidences a misunderstanding both of the nature of the disability and of God.  I’ll deal with those one at a time.

The nature of the disability:

Dementia is not a disease. It’s a collection of symptoms. A disorder in memory, thinking, and reasoning that is severe enough to significantly impact the person’s ability to function independently.  It is insidious as it robs sufferers of both yesterday and tomorrow, and makes getting through today a challenge.  It isolates them by stealing away their memories and recognition of the people who, in normal conditions, would bring their greatest comfort.  The people to whom they belong. Eventually, the person with dementia is utterly alone in a land of strangers. Is it any wonder they react angrily and fearfully? Does this help explain why they push people away?

In their solitary state, they are aware that they are traveling - by what means they’re not exactly certain – to new unfamiliar places on a daily or even hourly basis. You can tell them all you want “This is your kitchen. You’ve lived here for 50 years! You had your breakfast here.” And it does no good. All they want is “to go home” – but  by that they don’t mean the same thing we mean.  They don’t recognize places in their house – but they remember that it is good to be “home.” That home they long for isn't a place: it's security, love and acceptance.  Even if they are physically in their own house, they are not at home because dementia has robbed them of their ability to recognize the familiar.  What they want is the feeling of security, love, and acceptance, and their condition robs them of even that.  Little by little, dementia takes them to a different place, though their bodies occupy the same bed or chair. Is it any wonder they’re disoriented? Do you understand why they prefer to sit in one chair for hours; why going outside for pleasant distractions completely unnerves them?

As the neurons in their brains die, they “slip away.”  And in our humanness we tend to write them off at the point at which they can no longer respond. “She’s beyond hope now,” we say. “It’s just a matter of time.”  And it’s true to a certain extent.  Dementia is, in the end, a terminal condition.  We visit out of a sense of duty for a while, but when there is no response we reason that there is no use in talking – they do not hear or recognize us – and we conclude that it doesn’t really matter whether we come and see them or not.  All we really need to do is ensure that they are adequately cared for and reasonably healthy.

And spiritually, once they can no longer respond we decide that “it’s no use” sharing the Gospel with them, because they can’t do anything about it anyway.

How do you know? You ask me.  Have you spoken with anyone who used to have dementia who doesn’t any more, and can tell us what it was like?

No, of course not.  But we don’t need that, really.  We need to rely on what we know about people, God and salvation.
One of the very most important things to understand about people is that “unable to respond” does not mean “absent.”  They can still hear. There are so many stories of people who were comatose but have recovered who can repeat what was said to them (or about then) when they were thought to be “out of it” that this is not seriously discounted any more.  Of all the senses, hearing is the last to be lost in the normal course of aging and disability.  Because hearing is totally passive.  Sight is an active sense, requiring one to exert effort and muscle coordination to open the eyelids, move the eyeballs, and focus on things/people.  Just seeing can be exhausting.  Our sense of touch (except for pain receptors) requires us to touch things.  Rest your finger lightly on something.  If you hold perfectly still, within a second you lose the ability to discriminate between soft, hard, smooth, rough, silky, furry…all you have is the sense of pressure. And after a couple seconds, even the sense of touching something fades away because we need to move the finger in order for the pressure sensors in the skin to fire.

But hearing is totally passive.  Even those who cannot respond can hear. And if they can hear, what do they need to hear more than the Gospel?  If they are believers, we can kind of understand that; they need to be reminded of the only security they have – even if they forget it again by lunch time.  But what if they are not believers? Is there any reason to share with them if they can’t respond? Just think about that for a minute. What does the Bible say about that?  Here’s a very clear encouragement from Romans 10:17. Faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the Word of God.


We were all dead in our sin. God had to quicken in us the faith to believe the gospel.  In a way, we were worse than those with dementia because we exercised our will to consciously refuse to respond to the Word. But their volition is significantly impaired. Their heart is softened; in their fear and disorientation they are like people being tossed about by a raging river; they are ready to cling to any rock.  It must be THE ROCK.

 We tend to put “boxes” around people’s Christianity.  To gauge the eternal state of someone’s soul by applying modern evangelical constructs as our meter stick.  Modern evangelicalism says the evidence of saving faith is a prayer (the Sinner’s prayer) or “asking Jesus to come into our heart” or showing a changed life. It’s something we have to DO.  That’s slippery ground to stand on. I’m not 100% in agreement with Calvinism, but it is pretty clear in Scripture that God is the agent, and the author, and the perfector of our faith. We are sheep. Clay.  Dead.  Hmmm. What a travesty it is to devalue someone’s life (or faith) because they can no longer move or smile or speak. 

The Nature of God

Saying it’s useless to share with those who have dementia is putting ourselves in the place of God.  We think it’s up to us.

Here’s the truth: IT’S NOT.

God talks about Himself in His word and shows us glimpses of what He is doing.  If you’re dealing with someone with dementia, I highly recommend reading Isaiah 55:10-11 daily until you have it memorized. Here it is:

ISAIAH 55:10-11

10 For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven,
And do not return there,
But water the earth,
And make it bring forth and bud,
That it may give seed to the sower
And bread to the eater,
11 So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth;
It shall not return to Me void,
But it shall accomplish what I please,
And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.”

See how important this is?  What food for the soul is here! The rain and snow come down to the earth and seem to disappear. But they don’t really.  They sink in and are hard at work watering the earth and making it productive and spreading the blessing far and wide.  The dirt may not look any different, but the water is working down deep and in due time the fruit is seen. Just because we don’t see the water on the surface doesn’t mean we can conclude that it’s not necessary.  To withhold the water on the basis that it’s just wasted pouring it into dirt like that will starve the ground and make it impossible for fruit to be produced.

Now, this is not a promise – it’s a principle. A general statement of the way things usually work. We know that the rain and snow do not guarantee  fruit.  Even if the water is sufficient, the fruit may fail due to environmental conditions or disease or human intervention. But without the water none of those other things matter. Even in the perfect, disease-free environment, with patient nurturing; if there is no water fruit is impossible.

The Word is the water.

Just because we don’t see it having an effect doesn’t mean it’s not working.  It may sound harsh to say it this way, but withholding the Word starves the soul, making fruit impossible. With the Word, fruit is possible. Without the Word, there will be no fruit – guaranteed.  No chance. No hope. No fruit – no seed – no future.

But, you say, in this case the life can’t bring forth fruit anyway – the person is comatose. 

Wrong again. The ultimate fruit is eternal life. Which we will not see until heaven.

The second half of the verse is familiar, but I don’t think we think much about it. But there it is in black and white. His word will not return void.  Like the water and the snow.  It’s not possible for it to return void.  And further, it accomplishes what He pleases.  This should make us laugh with joyful relief.  It isn’t only not about what THEY can do in response, it’s not about what we do either!  It’s not about phrasing the gospel just right to break through their defenses or out-logic them. It’s not about us at all! It is God who does all the work through His word. HA!

God has spoken through a bush…and thunderclouds, and a donkey…and still His word accomplished its purpose every time.  His words through His prophets have produced amazing results: like animating dead bones. His word through His Son and His servants have brought the dead back to life! How can we say God’s word can no longer work in this person just because they’re not able to respond?

And how will they hear the Word unless we proclaim it?  We should continue to pray for them, certainly.  But while they are alive, we should be diligent to speak the Word to them. If we cannot, we can definitely pray that someone else (like a chaplain perhaps) will. 

In conclusion, as long as what we’re saying is God’s word, it is never wasted effort. We may not see any result in their lifetime, but we must not stop speaking the Words of life to those who are suffering from dementia.  There is nothing to fear: no reason to hesitate. This life has nothing left to offer them – but eternity is within their grasp.

Here’s a parting song:

1.      Sing them over again to me,

                   wonderful words of life;

                   let me more of their beauty see,

                   wonderful words of life;

                   words of life and beauty

                   teach me faith and duty.


                   Beautiful words, wonderful words,

                   wonderful words of life.

                   Beautiful words, wonderful words,

                   wonderful words of life.


2.                Christ, the blessed one, gives to all

                   wonderful words of life;

                   sinner, list’n to the Gospel call,

                   wonderful words of life;

                   all so freely given,

                   wooing us to heaven.



3.                Sweetly echo the gospel call,

                   wonderful words of life;

                   offer pardon and peace to all,

                   wonderful words of life;

                   Jesus, only Savior,

                   sanctify forever.

                   Beautiful words, wonderful words,

                   wonderful words of life.

                   Beautiful words, wonderful words,

                   wonderful words of life.