What My Dementia Residents Teach Me

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It can be uncommonly hard to live in this day and age.  Bills to pay and mouths to feed; kids to shuttle; work stuff that never seems to end; sickness and disease to navigate; retirement to plan for; family junk to deal with; hobbies you want to do; and, seemingly, a thousand other things vie for your time and attention to the point of having difficulty sleeping or even sitting still.  The problem is that you and I can become so busy and so concerned about tomorrow that worry, anxiety, and fear can attach themselves to us like ticks on a dog.

I minister to a group of people living in a memory unit of a care facility.  They’re there because of a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s.  You haven’t lived until you’ve had Bible study with 32 memory care residents in a healthcare facility.  It’s a trip, a hoot, and a challenge all at the same time.  Sometimes it’s difficult to know if what you’re doing or saying has any meaning or significance.  But let’s flip this around.  Maybe it isn’t all about the “normal” (and I use the term very loosely) guy like me coming in and doing his mentally attuned thing for some folks who have problems with disconnection.  Perhaps the dementia men and women have something to teach me and you.  Methinks they do.  I’ll let you in on a few of the things I’m learning from my dear brothers and sisters in the memory unit wing….

They live in the moment.

Whereas you might think it is sad that Aunt Bessie or Uncle Frank doesn’t remember what you just said to them two minutes ago, or where you were together a few hours ago, I think there is something amazing such folks have to teach me.  You see, when they eat a strawberry, or watch I Love Lucy, or have a conversation with you as if they have eaten, watched a comedy, and engaged a relationship for the very first time, it can be astounding.  Some of these folks just don’t remember that they have always loved strawberries, sit-coms, and their family.  And when they partake – as if they have never done it before – their joy, laughter, and endearing qualities come through like the beautiful wonderment of a child.

Oh, my goodness, if I could only learn to live in the moment taking the example of my blessed memory residents!  Their worries are limited.  Yes, they have them – and they can revisit decades-old worries like they were yesterday – but their own reassurances from the past are still at the tip of their tongues.  When we say The Lord’s Prayer together, I believe God takes a break from maintaining His creation to sit-in on the beautiful voices lifting an ancient prayer to Him.  The Prayer is so firmly inside them that they don’t realize that what they are uttering is routine.  It has new meaning for them.  They look at it differently.  They ask questions and make comments, as if this Prayer is the most wonderful thing they have ever heard.  I’ve beheld more than one person who does not talk at all, but when prompted with The Lord’s Prayer, bellows it out like a professional orator.

Perhaps no other group of people live into Christ’s teaching about avoiding worry more than the person who truly lives in the moment and doesn’t think about tomorrow.  Dementia and Alzheimer’s patients can teach us to live like the believers in Jesus we were meant to be:

“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs.  Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.  So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:31-34)

They keep short accounts with others.

Rivalries and animosities don’t really exist with my memory men and women.  If they had them at one time, they aren’t there anymore.  They are forgotten.  Yes, that can be a great consternation to the one who was at the other end of the old animosity.  But a new relationship can be forged.  One that is fresh and can start with a clean slate.

What’s more, my residents are quick to let me know what they think, where they are at the moment, and how they want something to go.  I, personally, find it refreshing to have someone say exactly what’s on their mind or heart.  The very first resident I met on the memory unit said her name to me, and then, with all seriousness, looked me in the eye and said, “If you mispronounce my name, I’ll punch you right in the face!”  I laughed out loud.  She laughed with me.  We laughed together.  She couldn’t even ball up her arthritic hand enough to punch, let alone raise her frail arm to do it.  So, there we sat laughing, with joy amidst the ravages of a disintegrating mind.

You know what?  In the days and weeks to come, I mispronounced her name.  She didn’t really care (at least, most of the time).  She forgot her own name sometimes.  And we would laugh about it.  At one point, I couldn’t help but note the juxtaposition between one woman in a former congregation who never forgot that I misspoke her daughter’s name and continually held it against me.  The woman never adopted the teaching of Jesus to “settle your differences quickly” (Matthew 6:25) and the instruction of Paul to “don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Ephesians 5:26).  But here, in this time and at this moment, are two people in a non-descript nursing home experiencing a relationship free from the elephant-thinking that never forgets.

They have no inhibitions about expressing their emotions.

For a guy like me who tends to be emotionally constipated, it is good to be around a group of people that lets their feelings be known.  Just because a person’s mind begins to forget; and just because someone loses large swaths of memory (especially the short term stuff); doesn’t mean they have lost the ability to feel.  Sometimes all they have is their emotion.  Maybe some of them were stuffers of feelings back in the day, but now it comes out.  And you never know what it will be from hour to hour, sometimes even minute to minute.

I realize this is hard for family members or friends who have been close to the resident for years and years.  This isn’t the same person they knew in the past.  Yet, this is an opportunity to re-engage on a different level.  If expressing feelings and emotions were foreign to the relationship, now it can be engrafted into the friendship and become new and even healing.

Confessing your own emotions and feelings is on the table for you, as well.  After all, what are they really going to remember after you leave?  And even if they repeat it to someone, is that someone really going to believe what they’re saying?  Yes, I’m being a bit facetious, but you get what I’m saying.  You see, there is tremendous emotional freedom to be had, if you are willing to take it.  You might even realize that taking the risk to share your emotions and feelings with others is worth doing.  It would be a tragedy and a travesty if you moved through life always hiding how you really feel.  You have much to offer.

And that is the point I want to get across to you today, my friend.  Memory unit residents; dementia and Alzheimer’s patients; and, a host of other people we typically think always need us, it turns out that we really need them, too.  Every person, no matter who they are, is precious and carries within them the image of God.  To discover that God-likeness within is a journey worth taking.

Allowing Your Pain to Make a Difference

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There’s a reason I do what I do, and am what I am.  Through nearly 33 years of marriage my wife and I have been through a lot – more than I could ever share with you.  One of our big challenges came from the year 2014.  In the space of nine months, Mary had three spine surgeries.  I went from not only having the role of husband, but that of caregiver, as well.  It took months of daily physical and occupational therapy, not to mention the endless doctor visits, for my wife to learn to walk again and do simple tasks that most of us take for granted.

The good news is that Mary is upright and walking.  She can mostly get around and do things on her own.  The bad news is that she lives with chronic pain every single day.  Some days aren’t too bad, and Mary can accomplish a fair amount of what she wants to do.  But there are other days when she can’t get out of bed; days when taking a shower and getting dressed is all she can get done; and, days when the pain becomes so problematic that discouragement and depression sandwiches her like two evil slices of bread.

Yet, even on the worst of days Mary is an amazing wife.  She is tough and resilient, as well as compassionate and caring.  I’ve learned most of what I know about caring ministry from her.  I don’t talk a lot about her on this website.  Yet, Mary is behind each word I craft and every phrase I smith.  She is always on my mind and in my heart.  Mary has taught me how to care through the example of her own life, and given me the opportunity to show how much I care for her.

Mary maintains a Facebook page about her journey with pain called “Joy in the Mourning.”  Because she lives with chronic pain, her posts come neither regularly nor easily.  It is a labor of love, some days being a whole lot more labor than love.  Recently, Mary was able to return to a job.  By no means able to hold a full-time job, she has found meaningful work doing what she does best: caring for people as a companion to folks with dementia.

The following is her most recent post.  I hope you are encouraged in your own journey of faith.  Whether you face chronic physical or emotional pain, care for someone who does, or just want to live-out your faith in ways that make sense, I trust you find some joy in your life through whatever circumstances you may face today:

Friends, I’ve got great news!  I have completed the first 90 days at my job!  It’s been a long time since I have been able to say that.  I’m sore today from working. Usually, I say that I hurt today due to getting dressed or showering, walking the dog, or getting out of bed.  It has taken over 3 years, post-surgeries, to be able commit to a regular schedule of working.  

In my healing journey, I had to commit /submit myself to physical therapy, yoga stretching, strength training, biofeedback, acupuncture, massage therapy, weekly counseling with a pain psychologist, daily prayer, journaling, meditation, and even sought out healing through the laying on of hands from godly healers, as well as nutrition, essential oils and music therapy.  All very helpful, but…

I have to admit a foundational piece to getting to where I am today: I mourned. 

I gave myself permission to mourn my loss.  I admitted my anger… no, I wrestled with my anger is a better phrase; and, I embraced my sadness, and let myself feel the loneliness of disability. I asked the hard questions: WHY!? How long? I cried… a lot. In my darkest times a little spark of light invaded my space.  A gentle and soft comfort hugged my heart. A warm sprinkle of hope powdered my soul.  I began to discover a new kind of joy.

No matter what your specific suffering is, I believe that mourning your loss, and allowing yourself to walk through the valley of the shadow will lead you to a path where you can experience comfort, hope and even joy.  For me, this part of the journey has been life-giving. Christ understands suffering. He will walk with us through this experience.  

I never told you what I’m doing now. I am a companion for those who suffer – mostly Alzheimer’s patients, and those who are suffering life-altering afflictions.  I’m working 2-6 hours each day, sharing some of the comfort I received, and being real and open while allowing my pain to make a difference.  May you be blessed, my friends.

Learning to Grieve Well

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One day, years ago in a previous church experience, Frank (not his real name) came up to me concerned about a woman in the congregation.  The woman, Daphne (not her real name), had recently had a miscarriage when just beginning her third trimester.  Frank proceeded to tell me that it had been a few weeks since the terrible event of Daphne’s miscarriage, and he had never seen her cry.  Frank was uneasy with this and wanted to go tell her that something was wrong that she wasn’t bawling over her tragedy.

Although I think Frank’s heart was mostly in the right place to have concern, there were a couple of things off about his thoughts.  These few things I’m going to highlight are important to keep in mind.  Whether you are grieving yourself because of some trauma or hard situation, or whether you want to be there to encourage and help another person going through trouble, there are two realities to keep in mind through the hard road of grief.  The first reality is this:

Grief is personal.  No two people grieve in exactly the same way.

Part of Frank’s concern was that he himself had gone through the death of a child, and he had cried much over it.  In fact, he had tears in his eyes just talking to me about something that happened many years ago.  Frank had found that his crying and emotional expressions were a central part of coming to terms with his own child’s death.  So, when Daphne was not responding in the same way as he had, he quickly assumed she was in denial and was not grieving.

The truth was that I was close to Daphne and her family enough to know that she and her husband were very much in grief, and were certainly working through their awful ordeal.  Daphne had never been much of an emotional person, and she found that lots of talking with girlfriends and other women was an important path of healing; and, that having her pastor pray for her and her family and just be around in a spiritual presence reassured her that God was with her.

A few weeks after Daphne’s miscarriage, she was clearly still in the throes of grieving.  I knew her well enough to know that eventually she would have that big cry session.  Daphne was a more reflective person, and her grief was buckets-load more cerebral than Frank, who tended to wear his feelings on his sleeve.  As it turns out, sure enough, two months down-the-road, Daphne’s emotions caught up with her and she had her own very personal big cry session.  This brings me to my second important reality that we must keep in mind….

You cannot put a timetable on grief, especially someone else’s.

Another part of Frank’s concern was actually his own anxiety coming through.  He knew firsthand how hard it is to go through something that you never saw coming and forever changes you.  Through Daphne’s tragedy, Frank was reliving his own nightmare.  If Daphne could get through her grief, hopefully by having a good cry and getting over it, then Frank could move on and not feel so damned uncomfortable himself.  This was, of course, not a conscious reality for Frank.  But that’s what makes grief so complicated.  Other people’s grief really does affect our own lives.  If we are not in touch with our own emotions and the deep hurts within that can be triggered at a moment’s notice, then we project our anxiety and our desire for tidy resolutions onto others who are not ready to be done with their bereavement or their grief.

When we put timetables on others’ grief, it says much more about us than the person grieving.  Statements like, “It’s been two weeks, and she should be over it,” and “When is he going to stop being so depressed?” come from a place inside of the statement-maker that cannot live with other people’s pain and would like it all to be better.  My bet is that such statements belie unresolved grief and hurt from the person making them.

Wise people sit with the emotions of others, and let them feel the full brunt of their feelings.  They don’t try to push emotions off, make the grief-stricken person better, or fix them so that they aren’t unhappy anymore.  The sage person knows that you cannot hurry grief along any more than you can make a turtle do a 4.6 second 40 meter race.  Besides, last I checked, the turtle ends up winning with his slow, yet deliberate pace.

When his good friend, Lazarus, was sick Jesus waited three days before he went to him.  In the meantime, Lazarus died.  Jesus was pressured to get there immediately, to take the fast track, to stop any sort of bereavement that might take place.  But Jesus didn’t let the anxiety of others dictate his Father’s agenda.  Because he operated on his own timetable, a miracle of resurrection proportions occurred (John 11:1-44).  And even when Jesus knew what was going to happen by raising Lazarus, that didn’t stop him from slowing down even more by taking the time to grieve and sit with others’ in their grief.  “Jesus wept,” was a genuine heartfelt response to the folks around him, as well as an authentic display of his own personal grieving over his friend’s passing.

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What’s more, Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, never responded the same way to circumstances.  Whereas Mary wanted to be close to Jesus, Martha chose to work-out her frustrations in the kitchen.  Trying to pigeon-hole someone into a nice-and-neat grief to-do list never ends well for anyone.

So, how are we to grieve well when tragedy or trauma happens?  I’ve already hinted at it, but I’ll now give it to you plainly with two more realities….

You need to sit with your emotions.

When hard times come, our natural human reflexive response is to want to get away from the grief.  Feeling hard stuff hurts.  No one likes pain.  But feel we must.  Ignoring how we feel only puts emotions on hold – it doesn’t take them away.  Emotions must be felt deeply, usually over a long period of time for most people.  No one ever just “gets over” the death of a child or any other trauma.  It forever changes you.  Feeling angry, out-of-control, powerless, depressed, mentally and/or physically pained, and a whole host of other emotions can come flying at you like razor-blade arrows aimed at your heart.  Go ahead and feel them, feel them all.

Also, let others feel them, as well.  It isn’t anybody’s job to fix another person in grief.  You and I don’t heal people – that’s God’s job.

Your emotions will make a comeback in the future.

Just like the example of Frank, your emotions can get triggered by another’s grief, or even when you least expect it with seeing, hearing, or smelling something that reminds you of what you have lost.  Just because you grieved, and even grieved well, back there in the past doesn’t mean that it is a one-and-done affair.  Nope.  Not even close.  The feelings associated with that hard thing in your past can come back at the drop of a hat.  It’s okay.  Go ahead and feel them again.  Don’t short-circuit the emotions.  Coming to grips with trauma and hurt takes a lifetime of dealing with.  That’s not a popular message today; but it is certainly a true one.

I myself have had to learn the hard way that having a detached Mr. Spock-like approach to trauma only compounds the trouble.  I might not always be in touch with my emotions, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel deeply.  Sometimes I need to slow down and stop long enough to feel, instead of running away from my heart.

Trauma, tragedy, and hard circumstances forever change us.  We can never go back to the way things were.  But, over time, we can learn to pay attention to our emotions, acknowledge them, and live with them as guides and friends rather than as unwanted guests.

“Why, God!?”

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“Why, God!?” is a refrain expressed by all kinds of people and, most likely, by you at some point in your life.  That’s because we all face suffering, on some level.  The circumstances might vary from person to person, but we all have been touched by this fallen world and experience some sort of brokenness.

Brokenness of either/both body and soul comes in all shapes and sizes.  Yes, it sometimes is the result of our own foolish and/or self-destructive choices.  But sick bodies, broken spirits, and damaged souls are just as likely to occur simply because we live in this world that’s askew from how it should be.  In other words, sometimes we really are victims of disease, accidents, natural disasters, and mysterious evil that we have trouble putting a name to.

In such situations, it’s very normal of the human condition to cry: “Why, God!?”  I like honesty, and this is an honest question.  Personally, I don’t “poo-poo” people who are frank and sincere with God.  Yes, sometimes that question is only rhetorical – not really asking a question but expressing anger.  That’s okay, too, because God is more than big enough to handle a question asked in frustration, even rage.  Even a cursory reading of the book of Psalms reveals David’s emotions of not understanding many of his situations and exactly what he’d like to see happen.  Sometimes he pukes some awfully raw feelings onto God – and those emotionally charged words made their way as being a part of the Bible.

I get it.  Suffering is an unwanted companion, and we’d like to send it packing and have nothing to do with it.  Yet, suffering and the evil it can wreak is not outside the purview of God.  As heinous and as powerful as suffering might manifest itself, it is never beyond God’s capacity to touch it with resurrection power.

The answer to our “why?” question is, frankly, not usually answered – and even if it does get answered, sometimes we don’t like what we hear.  I want to make an observation about the New Testament Gospels and the life of Jesus, and I want you to consider it for a moment.  The observation is this:

Jesus never explained evil and suffering. 

Christ did not send out fliers and emails for a seminar on suffering from a divine perspective to be held at the downtown Jerusalem Hilton.  Instead, Jesus, the supreme Pastor, was present with people in their pain and wondering.  Jesus Christ did not provide cerebral answers to questions; he asked his own questions and filled people with God’s grace, forgiveness, and love.

Jesus encountered people in their concrete real-live struggles and trouble, and, when a group of five-thousand people were hungry, he asked, “Who will feed them?” and when folks were struggling with how to make ends-meet, “Where is your treasure?” and to those with misplaced values, “What does it profit?”  Christ’s questions were designed to shepherd and lead people toward a path of healing, not necessarily a way of being cured.  Jesus Christ’s words and actions were meant to show people that he himself is the path toward peace, healing, and, sometimes, even the perceived need to be healed.

In the encounter with a Samaritan woman, Jesus, the Pastor, comes along and has a lengthy conversation with her that began with talking about getting a drink of water on a hot day and ends with the woman being in touch, maybe for the first time, with her deepest need of being accepted, loved, and satisfied.  Sometimes I chuckle over some scholars and writers pouring over this story in John’s Gospel, trying to find the secret sauce or discernible outline to speaking with people in need of emotional and spiritual healing or enlightenment.  Yet, again, I’ll just make a simple observation about the story:

Jesus put love where love was not.

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The woman did not have love from the Jews because she was a “half-breed” Samaritan.  Furthermore, she had a string of loveless marriages and was with a man who apparently was just using her.  Then, Jesus showed up.  He abandoned all contemporary Jewish convention by speaking with a Samaritan woman.  He put his agenda on hold.  He was fully present to her.  He asked questions and took the time to listen.  And then he extended to her the kind of love that she desperately needed. Drinking water from a deep well became a powerful metaphor and picture of cleansing and refreshment to a dry and parched soul that had not known love for a very long time.  Jesus changed her life.  He put love where love was not (John 4:1-42).

So, let’s wheel back around to the question of “why?” and “why” we ask it in the first place.  Typically, we want a fix.  We’re broken, and it’s a big enough mess that the only repair person is God.  God, however, doesn’t feel the same anxiety we do about the dilemma (in fact, he doesn’t have any worry at all).  Instead, God does something we usually don’t expect.  He sends someone to care, and another to help, and yet another to pray, and even more to meet various needs.  Behind the scenes, far from our fear-laden hearts, the Lord of the universe is paying attention to us and orchestrating a massive campaign of love.

In those times when it seems chaos will win the day, and in those seasons when evil appears to have the high ground, please know that there is a God in heaven who sees your life and is personally writing a protest song against the injustice and unfairness of what is happening.  And Christ’s resurrection is at the center of that song.  When it’s sung, it will melt fear, cause demons to flee, and create transformation in ways that you would never have seen coming.  Where we are looking for a supernatural miracle, God is eyeing to bring common ordinary people to your doorstep with a basket full of love.

When Jesus left this earth, here is exactly what he wanted his followers to know going forward:

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20).

The ever-present love of Christ shall never leave you, nor forsake you.  You can count on it.  Allow your “why” question to turn into a “who” question.  “Who” will be with me to the end, will pour his love into my heart, and will hold me up when I can’t stand anymore?  Every path leads to one infinite source of living water: Jesus Christ.  It is to him that you and I are to find our peace and our rest.

The Desert

 

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Every one of us must take this journey.  No one is exempt.  It is a pilgrimage that takes us into uncharted territory.  Lack of certainty, the unknown, and mystery are the companions along the way of this nomadic travel.  The harrows of this trip might seem to be the outward troubles and circumstances which surround you, but the real test is the journey within – it is the walk across the desert and the aridity that seems to exist in the soul, as if there are no familiar resources to draw from.  There is only one way, and that way appears so fearful that you and I try and avoid it like the plague.  But we cannot.

When times are tough, and when we find ourselves in the midst of circumstances that we didn’t see coming or have no desire to experience become the desert journeys which both demonstrate and define who we are as people.  The rock hard vicissitudes of this fallen world are no respecter of persons.  They come to all, whether rich or poor, black or white, privileged or underprivileged, introverted or extroverted, hard working or the just-getting-by, as well as the young or the aged.  What truly separates one person from another is how they handle the inevitable desert journey with its dryness of soul and seemingly endless barrage of trouble.

You cannot avoid it.  Eventually, someone you love will die – maybe even several of them in a short amount of time.  If not now, there will come a time when your financial budget will no longer budge and you’ll wonder what in the world you are going to do.  Even if you have never known poverty or want, the prospect of what will happen in the future might occur, with its lost investments and/or the slow erosion of economic resources because of circumstances out of you control.  There will come a time when you will be betrayed, become the victim of a verbal hate crime, or lose your reputation.  If relationships are presently serene, there is coming a day when it will not always be this way.  Strained friendships, difficult relations with co-workers, marriage troubles, and family squabbles aren’t just things that happen to other people.

Perhaps at this point you no longer wish to stick with me on this journey of words.  It’s a downer.  Maybe there isn’t enough positive thinking and you’d like to break off this train of trouble.  That is your prerogative.  But it doesn’t negate the fact that there is either right now something going on under your nose that you’re ignoring or in denial about, or a turn in your life that is coming down the pike.  Then what will you do?  Will you have the inner resources to face it?  Is your soul in a state that can sustain a loss, even a minor one, tomorrow?  Are you ready for adversity?

If you have ever felt alone, lost, hopeless, empty, and in the dark, as if you are sinking in quicksand, I want you to know that this is a journey that we all must undergo.  It is tempting, when going through such a time, to look backward and long for the good ol’ days.  But those days are gone.  They aren’t coming back.  What worked for you back there probably won’t work for you now.  So, here is the thought that I’d like you to think:

The desert is the perfect place for transformation; the wilderness journey is the means to a new and better life.

The ancient Israelites were slaves in Egypt, hard pressed and in agony.  Through a series of miraculous events God redeemed them out of that place and sent them on a journey… into the desert.  Yes, that’s right.  It might have seemed to the Israelites that they were jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.  Here they were out in the middle of nowhere without water, food, and basic necessities.  It’s endemic to the human condition to complain and seek to blame someone for your trouble.  Moses took a lot of crap from the people.  Yet, God had his own purposes and plans for the inner redemption of the people as well as outward freedom.

God put his people squarely in a place where they could not go back, couldn’t go around, and most definitely could not stay put where they were.  Nope.  They had to go through the desert.  There was no other way.  Moses made it through those years of living in the desert by reminding the people that there was a future for them, a better future than Egypt or the desert – a hope of the Promised Land.  God also shaped the way they were to think about the past through an annual rehearsal of the deliverance out of bondage, the Passover.  For the daily and ever present activity of desert living, God enabled Moses to delegate the practical situations of being together in a desert situation by gifting others to help and walk with him.  And this was all formed through the covenant experience of Sinai – the giving of the Law, the Promise that God would always have his loving loyalty upon the people.

Going through your own desert journey will require the same resources of Promised Land, Passover, and the Law of Promise.  That is, viewed through the lens of the Christian, God is forming within us a deep spirituality based in the promises of His Word, the sustenance of the Lord’s Table, and the confident expectation of Christ’s return and the hope of His reign to be manifested in everything from small family structures to large corporate systems, and humungous governments.  In short, the kingdom of God is near – if we have the eyes of faith to see and the ears of belief to hear.

It is imperative that you and I connect with Holy Scripture in a healthy and consistent rhythm of hearing God and responding back to him.  It is most necessary that our perspective of both the past (Christ’s cross and resurrection) and the future (Christ’s return and reign) is formed through regular spiritual practices which remind us of what is most important in life, not to mention how these spiritual resources can sustain us through dark times.

To survive the desert, one must walk through it – not around it, not going backward away from it, and not sticking our spiritual heads in the sand.  To make the trip, we must deliberately walk with others who will remind us of healthy ways of seeing ourselves, our past, and our coming future.  Faith, hope, and love are the practical necessities which need to be in our backpacks as we go forward.  They will be our food and our drink.

Travel well, my friend.  May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with you as the Spirit hurls you into the desert to experience the love of God in new and profound ways.

The Power of a Name

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It is more than ironic that one of the most powerful emotions on the planet is a feeling that is simply overlooked and often not recognized: the sense of being forgotten.  I’m not talking about rejection, but just being looked past by another, neglected, or an afterthought.  The sense that you are on no one’s radar can be more than disappointing – it can be devastating and destructive.  Yet, there is a way in which you and I can push back on this reality for the benefit of others and ourselves.  And on the other side of it, there is immense joy and satisfaction.

Notice that I didn’t mention the feeling of rejection along with the sense of being forgotten.  Rejection is certainly something you don’t like to experience.  It’s not a pleasurable emotion.  But it isn’t the same as being overlooked.  At least with getting a repudiating brush-off you are acknowledged by another.  That is, someone noticed you enough to even give a rebuff your way.  But with being neglected and forgotten, there is nothing.  If you have ever gotten the silent treatment from a parent, a co-worker, or a parishioner, then you likely know that getting any kind of words, even harsh ones, can seem better than being ignored altogether.

Sometimes neglect is a life and death issue.  There was an occasion when Greek-speaking widows in the book of Acts were overlooked.  They were not given their share when the food supplies were handed out each day (Acts 6:1).  When this came to the Apostles attention, it was a serious enough situation to warrant a major overhaul to the ministry system.  Deacons were formed, roles were clarified, and a group of women received much needed food.  In our society today, elder abuse is real.  Sometimes we might forget (again with the irony) that leaving senior citizens alone and ignoring them is also a potent form of abuse.

Then, there is the situation of Mary Magdalene.  She had a “past.”  This Mary was immoral and influenced by the darkness (Mark 16:9; Luke 8:2).  She was only a nameless person to be used for the benefit of others.  Then, she met Jesus and her world changed.  The darkness turned to light.  Jesus treated her like no other before.  Mary was as much a follower, maybe even more, than the twelve disciples.  It was she who poured the expensive perfume on Christ’s feet and applied it with her hair and her tears (John 12:1-8).  If there was anyone who loved Jesus, it was Mary.

So, you can imagine Mary’s grief when she saw her Lord tortured, crucified, and dead.  The one person on earth who looked at Mary and saw something more than an immoral woman, who looked beyond the infiltration of demonic influence and observed a woman who needed to be seen and truly loved was now gone.  But the story doesn’t end there….

“Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot.  The angels asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying?’  She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.  Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?’ Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.’  Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned and said to him in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni’ (which means Teacher).  Jesus said to her, ‘Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”  Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, ‘I’ve seen the Lord.’ Then she told them what he said to her.” (John 20:11-18, CEB)

Take note of how Jesus dealt with Mary.  He asked her two questions: “Woman, why are you crying?” and “Who are you looking for?”  Jesus didn’t ignore Mary.  He didn’t immediately get on with the business of prepping for ascension and overlook her grief.  Jesus also didn’t talk down to Mary.  By asking questions, our Lord entered her grief and was present to Mary in her sheer lament over not knowing where Jesus was.  What Jesus did instead is, I believe, one of the most powerful things which can happen and is clearly the antidote to all feelings of being overlooked, forgotten, and neglected.  Jesus said one word: “Mary.” He said her name.

Nameless people are forgotten people.  But those with names are real.  Saying someone’s name acknowledges, recognizes, and even validates another person.  That’s why when we are upset and mad at someone, we often don’t like to say their name.  Instead, they get referred to with some other moniker such as “his mother” or “that pastor” or “some guy.”  But when we use a name, it opens to us all a realm of grace, love, and compassion.  It’s easy to ignore another if they have no name.  Knowing a name and using it is the secret superpower which is available to everyone.  Even those without academic degrees and special training have ability to change the world with only the knowledge of one word: a person’s name.

Mary’s immense grief was turned upside-down in a moment to exuberant joy – through the power of her name being spoken by the Lord who cared enough to say it.

Jesus knows your name.  What’s more, he is pleased to say it.  Even now, Jesus sits at the right hand of his Father in heaven interceding for you by using your name.

If there is a skill which is worth developing, it is the ability to know people’s names and to say them.  Sometimes folks remark to me that they can’t believe my memory with names.  Um, not so much.  My memory is not really very good anymore.  It’s just that, if I want to know someone’s name I use it as often as I possibly can without sounding weird about it.  Repetition sinks it into my pea brain, not intelligence or some gift.

Which gets us back to the feeling of being forgotten, unnoticed, and/or ignored.  Acknowledging a person through using their name shoos away those negative feelings for others as well as helps give us connection with others.  In other words, it’s more than good sense to use people’s names – it is the very stuff of healthy relationships.  Relations don’t sour because of differences; they go south when we stop using given names.

Those who care don’t have a special caring gene.  They just know the power of a name.  And it matters to them to liberally validate others with the grace which comes with knowing and using another’s name.  And speaking of names, the Scriptures tell us that there is only one “Name” under heaven by which we are saved: The Name of Jesus (Acts 4:12).  There is such power in naming, that it is truly a life and death affair.  In the name of Jesus Christ there is no overlooking, no neglect, no being forgotten.  With Jesus, there is connection, relationship, attention, and remembrance.

Discovering Yourself in the Bible

Elijah

The Holy Scriptures are timeless.  All kinds of people throughout the ages have been drawn to discover it.  One of the reasons we are interested in the Bible and become tethered to its contents is that we often resonate deeply with many of its characters.

A good and healthy spiritual exercise is to connect and project yourself into the pages of God’s Word.  To relate, express, and find a common human condition with ancient believers is a means of strengthening your faith, uncovering your own spiritual journey, and paying attention to the soundings of your soul.

Let me demonstrate what I’m talking about through speaking of my own life and the life of a famous biblical character….

I feel like Elijah.  Elijah was an Old Testament prophet who acted with unusual faith, single-handedly took on the ungodly Queen Jezebel, sparked a national revival, fell into a dark depression, allowed God to extend him pastoral care and comfort, learned to not journey alone in his faith through mentoring another great prophet of Israel, Elisha, and was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire.

As far as prophets go, we have a great deal of information on Elijah in the biblical accounts.  Our introduction to him goes as follows: “Elijah was a prophet from Tishbe in Gilead.  One day he went to King Ahab and said, ‘I’m a servant of the living LORD, the God of Israel.  And I swear in his name that it won’t rain until I say so.  There won’t even be any dew on the ground.” (1 Kings 17:1). And it happened just as Elijah said it would.

I’m a believer in making simple observations of the Bible.  What stands-out to me foremost is Elijah’s solitary behavior.  He initiated and acted alone.  Elijah saw the systemic evil of Ahab and Jezebel’s reign in Israel and he boldly spoke truth to power.  Whether Elijah had thought through the consequences of his words or not, we don’t know.  But we are aware that this was understandably not received well, at all.

If Elijah was alone before, now he is driven to a life of solitude with only ravens for company (1 Kings 17:5-6).  I resonate deeply with Elijah on this.  I tend to think in organization and order.  When I see systems in place which oppress, hurt, and damage people instead of helping them to succeed, thrive, and flourish, it disturbs me.  Elijah was a solitary kind of guy, that is, until a system of injustice was in power.  Then, he used his speech to agitate for what is right.

In many jobs I have had throughout my life, I’ve had a kind of “Elijah” experience.  I see systemic issues which keep marginal people on the outside. Meanwhile, those on the inside enjoy the perks of power.  Sometimes I’ve been fired for calling-out corporate owners and vice-presidents, church elders, and denominational leaders for their exclusive policies and procedures which only benefit themselves.

This might sound commendable, except for the fact that I almost always acted alone on my own initiative without building a coalition of other concerned people.  Instead, I tended to think that I was the only one who cared and stepped forward, making myself a target that people couldn’t miss.  I wonder if Elijah, like me, was thoughtful and introverted with a close relationship with his God, yet with a fear of human relationships.

The event in Elijah’s life which defined him as a great prophet was the showdown with the four-hundred fifty prophets of Baal, of whom the Israelites had religiously prostituted themselves.  You don’t get any more John Wayne than one person versus four-hundred fifty.  In one of the best sarcastic statements you’ll find anywhere, Elijah said to the prophets of Baal who spent the entire morning trying to get their god to respond: “Pray louder! Maybe Baal is daydreaming or using the toilet or traveling somewhere.  Or maybe he’s asleep, and you have to wake him up.” (1 Kings 18:27, CEV)

Elijah on Mt Carmel

Elijah statue on Mount Carmel

Sometimes, for me, it seems easier to confront four-hundred fifty people than have an intimate encounter with one person.  I often find it more effortless to preach to thousands of people (of which I’ve done many times) than to connect meaningfully with one of them.  To me, Elijah sometimes seems like a contradiction, having within himself a great capacity for faith along with an equally large expanse of fear.

This bundle of contradiction is seen in the aftermath of the national revival Elijah helped to spark.  Through a miraculous display of the living God responding to Elijah’s sacrifice, the prophets of Baal were done away with (literally) and the worship of Israel’s God was immediately returned.  Queen Jezebel, the chief architect of establishing Baal worship in Israel, was not having this revival of Israelite religion.  A deeply symbolic heavy rain came with it, ending three years of drought, which only made Jezebel angry and on a mission.

Jezebel got a message straightaway to Elijah: “You killed my prophets.  Now I’m going to kill you!  I pray that the gods will punish me even more severely if I don’t do it by this time tomorrow.” (1 Kings 19:2).  The prophet who took on an entire establishment and saw the miraculous done right in front of his eyes had this response to the wicked queen: he was afraid, ran away, and said to God, “I’ve had enough.  Just let me die!  I’m no better off than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19:3-4)

Elijah was, in contemporary terms, burned-out and exhausted – and he became terribly depressed.  It’s as if Elijah had identified himself with taking down the establishment for so long that when it happened, he was lost.  Who was he now?  The scaffolding of prophetic witness was gone, and Elijah was left face-to-face with his naked self.

I feel Elijah’s pain.  I know the sense of laboring to do good and being spiritually and emotionally spent to the point of just wanting to die and be done with all the brokenness of this old fallen world.  I have felt the awkwardness of identifying with a role, and when that role is gone there is only my true self and the God I serve.

But God, the ultimate spiritual caregiver, sent his angel to help Elijah in his broken state.  He fed him, let him sleep, and sent him on a sacred journey to growth as a transformed person.  Rather than exhort Elijah in his penchant for solitary action, God simply asked him a question: “Why are you here?”  After listening to Elijah express his narrow thinking on how the world works, God simply asked him again: “Elijah, why are you here?” (1 Kings 19:9-14)

That simple question lingered with Elijah and changed him.  From that point forward, Elijah seems to move with a quiet confidence that doesn’t come from a place of acting alone.  He doesn’t carry the world on his shoulders.  He isn’t quick to identify himself as a prophet.  His zeal for God remains yet is focused into including others.  Elijah goes from his sacred encounter with God and finds Elisha, who, by all appearances, is just a plain non-descript Israelite farmer.  No longer does Elijah walk alone.  His protégé, Elisha, is with him until the end of his life here on this earth.  And when Elijah is gone, Elisha inherits a double-portion of his mentor’s spirit and goes on to be a powerful prophet in his own right.

One of the best decisions I ever made in my life was, after going through a debilitating depression, I made it my aim and goal to mentor others in the faith.  I never went for a solo pastorate, always looked to build into the lives of younger ministers and found the value of traveling with companions in my pilgrimage of faith.

Unlike Elijah, I’m still on this earth and not likely to be swept up in a chariot of fire anytime soon.  I’m still figuring out who Tim Ehrhardt really is underneath the academic degrees, ministry successes and failures, and all the roles and responsibilities in my life.  There’s both faith and fear wrapped up in it all.  I still struggle with the old lies that my identity is in what I have, what I do, and in the attention and accolades of others.  I continue to wrestle with the compulsion to reform church and society and find it difficult to savor what is already present.

I see Elijah as a prophet with a deep faith that influenced everything he said and did. Yet, at the same time, he was a flawed man who was often characterized and paralyzed by fear and maybe acted from a place of self-righteousness more than he realized. What is clear to me, however, is that Elijah saw himself transformed as he allowed his God to care for him in ways that changed his life forever.  And that is the kind of spirit I’d like to inherit from my spiritual ancestor.