Below is the transcription of a plenary address,”Building a Dementia-Friendly Community Through a Framework of Faith,” offered at the Andrew Gerow Hodges Chapel of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama on April 26, 2018 by Dr. James M. Houston, Professor Emeritus of Spiritual Theology at Regent College. The event was part of a faith-based dementia-friendly initiative of Cognitive Dynamics Foundation in collaboration with the Faith United Against Alzheimer’s Coalition of UsAgainstAlzheimer’s, funded by a grant from Dementia Friendly Alabama.
A video of the event can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TFG8GQhxxMI
For inquiries about the Dementia Friendly Initiative from Cognitive Dynamics, please contact project directors, Lynda Everman and Dr. Don Wendorf, at email@example.com
Introduction by Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN, Founder of Cognitive Dynamics Foundation
Thank you, Dean George, and good evening, everyone. I’m Daniel Potts. I’m from Tuscaloosa, a neurologist, and the founder and president of Cognitive Dynamics Foundation. We are certainly thankful that you could join us this evening in the beautiful and reverent Hodges Chapel, as we reflect on building a dementia-friendly community through a framework of faith. Surely the experience of encountering the Presence here will center and unite our hearts and minds around this topic, with which our current times urgently call us to deal.
We thank Dean George for the opportunity to gather here, and gratefully acknowledge the support we have been given by his colleagues here at Beeson Divinity School, including James Pounds, Kristen Padilla, Christy Harper, Robert Willis, and others. We also are grateful to Associate Dean Michael Hogue, and Coordinator Kim Eckert, from the Center for Faith and Health, for hosting a lovely and informative luncheon lecture, followed by Q&A by Dr. Houston earlier today.
The education that I received as a neurology resident here at UAB—the education I would have received anywhere as a neurology resident—did not prepare me for the day that I found out my own father had Alzheimer’s disease, and the ensuing pitiless march of this disease through his life and the lives of all of those who loved him. Yet, as Joseph Campbell would have predicted, where he stumbled, there lay his treasure. While attending Caring Days, a faith-based adult day care in Tuscaloosa, Dad discovered an unknown talent for watercolor art. Finding his inner gift enabled him to express his personhood, tell his story, and again to have meaningful relationships with others. We fully acknowledge this as the work of the Holy Spirit, acting amidst our suffering.
What happened to Dad changed my life and practice, and inspired the creation of a non-profit foundation, Cognitive Dynamics, to improve the quality of life through the arts and storytelling in others living with dementia and their care partners, as a means of paying it forward in gratitude.
Now a brief word for how this evening came together. Dementia Friendly America is catalyzing a movement to more effectively support and serve those who are living with dementia, and their family and friend care partners. Spearheaded by Lynda Everman and Don Wendorf, who are sitting here in front, dementia advocates and Birmingham residents, our foundation applied through Dementia Friendly Alabama, and received a grant from the Central Alabama Aging Consortium to provide resources and education to faith communities in the Birmingham and Tuscaloosa areas.
Cognitive Dynamics and our program partners, Dementia Friendly Alabama and Faith United Against Alzheimer’s, seek to reach two underserved populations. First, individuals with dementia and their care partners who are no longer able to fully participate in their faith communities. And second, faith communities who may need assistance and educational resources to help them recognize, interact with, and support their members living with dementia, and their care partners. We will reach out to communities of faith in the Birmingham and Tuscaloosa area, and arrange in-person visits with appropriate staff to talk with them about what constitutes dementia-friendly, faith-based community, and leave them with tangible educational and caregiver resources and ideas to initiate or expand this ministry of compassionate dementia care.
This evening, at the conclusion of the lecture, we will be happy to speak with anyone who might like to arrange a visit with your faith community, or who seeks to learn more about this initiative. So together we feel that we can raise awareness of the unique needs of this population, to help reduce stigma and foster dementia-friendly faith communities where those living with Alzheimer’s and their care partners feel respected, supported, and included, and where they can continue to participate in meaningful relationships.
As part of this project, we desired to offer a faith-based dementia- themed educational event featuring a thought leader. And Dr. Houston graciously accepted our invitation. This was particularly meaningful to me because of the central role this man has played in my own life of faith and foundational philosophy of caregiving.
I was first impacted by this great individual when my friend Bob Montgomery invited him to speak at a spiritual enrichment conference at my home church, First Presbyterian, Tuscaloosa. A few years later, friend and University of Alabama professor Dr. Michael Parker, who is here, invited Dr. Houston to keynote at an aging conference at the University. And I was so deeply moved by what Dr. Houston had to say that I traveled to Vancouver with a film crew in 2012 to speak with him and his late wife, Rita, then living with dementia, who now has been granted eternal rest. Since then, the video of that interview has provided the most impactful classroom material for my students at the University of Alabama. I’m happy to have Dr. Jim Houston lecture in my classroom anytime, believe me!
Dr. James M. Houston was University Lecturer in Historical Geography and Culture at Oxford University from 1945 to 1970; then Board of Governors, Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, where he also served as its Principal and later as its Chancellor, having retired in 2000. In his characteristic humility, which those of us who know him find so inspiring, Dr. Houston notes these as the two professional callings he has had in his life. He also was co-founder of the C.S. Lewis Institute in Washington, D.C., and is still active as a Senior Fellow there. He’s a prolific author of over 50 books, including A Vision for the Aging Church: Renewing Ministry for and By Seniors, which he co-authored with Dr. Michael Parker. Dr. Houston is respected world-wide as a leader in educating and equipping lay persons, and as a mentor for clergy and other faith leaders. His major areas of interest include the Christian classics, historical theology, and the traditions of Christian spirituality, and most recently, human emotions. In addition, he has just completed his memoirs. To his many credits, of significance for this group, he was faithful care partner to his wife Rita. This is an amazing 96 year-old man—almost 96—who is, for me, a model of what an elder should be.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is my distinct honor and humble privilege to introduce to you Dr. James M. Houston.
Dr. Houston’s Plenary Address
Well, brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s a great joy for me to be back in Beeson Chapel, where I have such fond memories of my collegiality in the past with Dr. George, and now to be involved more intimately with the whole dementia program that you have here for Alabama.
What I want to say this evening is more like a tapestry of layers of meaning, and so I hope you don’t get lost. But one thing I want you to think about from the beginning to the end is the biblical principle that where sin abounds, grace does much more abound. And in society we’re not being terrorized, as in the past, by the Black Death or other global horrors, but now the global horror is dementia. And God can use the fear of all old people, and younger people, about dementia for His glory. And the glory is that we will have a deeper understanding of the Incarnation, that Christians will be renewed in a new depth of faith to understand the parable of the Good Samaritan of how Christ comes to us where we are: we should be renewed by this. And that’s the purpose of my talk this evening: building a dementia-friendly community through a framework of faith.
Soren Kierkegaard once said, “We only understand life backwards, but we must live forwards.” And I’m vividly aware of this truth, as I’ve been writing my memoirs this past month. It has been a rich experience, giving me the zest to go on living longer than my 96th year.
I’m privileged to be invited then by the Cognitive Dynamics Foundation, Dementia Friendly Alabama, and the Faith United Against Alzheimer’s Coalition to give you this address.
As I nursed my wife for over ten years with varied developments of this complex cluster of diseases, I can appreciate the fears of our society today over this diverse threat to our mortality. Originally, I was a professional geographer, specializing in historical, cultural studies, and in the landscapes of the world. Then I developed further in becoming a historian of ideas, and finally, experimenting with three different approaches to the study of theology. Uniting them into a study into the landscape of the soul has meant that I’ve always seen things in broad terms, by synthesis rather than by analysis. Today our tech revolution gives us a cultural bias towards interdisciplinary studies, making the old disciplinary specialisms look rather archaic. For as the ramifications of specialized research intensify, so the need for greater synthesis is required from all of us.
A revolutionary approach to the health sciences has been the explosive development of neuroscience. I had the privilege of being invited—first, of being a colleague in my old college at Oxford—by Sir Wilfrid Le Gros Clark who was an early pioneer in neuroscience, and meeting the Nobel Prize winner, Sir John Eccles, who explored the distinction between brain and consciousness. And now I am cooperating on a book, Freedom from Fear to Love, with Theodore George, who has headed the addiction division of the National Institutes of Health in Washington. He informs us that fear is the primary human emotion, located in the thalamus of the brain. And we’re now entering research with a new breed of Galileos into the vastly expanding cosmos of the human brain.
How can we bring some cohesion to these studies, as well as to minister to others affected by Alzheimer’s into a new form of community? This is what we will touch upon this evening.
We can choose, as the Spanish existential philosopher Unamuno challenged his readers, either to see the journey from the balcony or to travel on the road itself. The first heresy of the Church was narcissism in the second century, and narcissism is theology without practice. And we can all be prone to that in our generation. But fleeing from Florence, Dante chose the latter, to travel on the road, to experience a metanoia, which is more than a conversion. It’s a paradigm shift in thinking and acting. That is the invitation for all of us this evening.
It’s not enough to consider ourselves as in a Christian culture. Rather, we’re becoming Christians for the cultural needs that challenge us today. It is indeed a Dante-‘esque’ challenge. Starkly, it was the choice that Dante offered between being a community of the Inferno of Hell or a community of the Paradiso. We don’t like to have to make such stark choices any more than Dante’s pilgrims wanted to make them.
And so my address will review four basic issues. First, a new compassion for an expanding world of dementia care. Second, a new focus on the distinctiveness of Christian emotions within families challenged by dementia (And by Christian emotions, I’m not talking about our natural emotions). Third, a new community of friendship to love and not to fear. And fourth, a more comprehensive theology of faith and emotions for all Christians today. It’s a tall order.
Number one, then, new compassion for an expanding world of dementia care. Setting out on the journey, remember that an increasing number of us will experience the venture in the last stage of our journey. It’s like our mortality: we will all die someday. It’s a fallacy often promised by secular researchers that, just as they are overcoming heart problems or cancers, so they will overcome dementia. Don’t believe them. In the next two decades, with the advancement in aging by three more decades of life expectancy, dementia will explode within family and community life. And so we speak in great urgency. Since the language will become more pervasive in ordinary speech, we need, therefore, to define our terms.
Dementia is an umbrella term that refers to innumerable forms of illnesses that affect memory and other cognitive abilities. Most dementing diseases are progressive. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type, and best-known form of dementia. But many others, perhaps a hundred or more, are being recognized. Already we think of those caused by heart conditions and strokes, others by varied forms of diseases such as Parkinson’s. And Parkinson’s disease is no longer known as one disease; it’s multiple diseases. So we can build up a wide vocabulary about these diseases. Again, we talk about ADD, attention deficit disorder, that can range from mild, almost unnoticed, to severe forms affecting cognition. Many forms demand many forms of treatment and care. And again, this is not a medical lecture, for I am not a medical professional.
So how do we travel further? We remind ourselves that we are intrinsically relational beings. We’re all made in the image of God. And the primary commandment is “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” It’s all about alterity, othering, concern and care of the other. My son, writing on business ethics, entitles his book, For Goodness Sake, which is simply about the exercise of this commandment. But our American culture is not othering at all. It’s overwhelmingly narcissistic. Already, in the 1930’s, the French political observer, De Tocqueville saw America as a new laboratory for the rise of the individual. Nor are we so inured to self-centeredness, that we do not see that even Christian scholarship and Christian church ministry can be idolatrous.
Could it be that, as God afflicted the Egyptians with pestilences, God can use the same vast increase of dementias as a call to repentance in our generation? Ironically, we can generate a new compassion with nursing care for those with a specific condition, yet we can be without having the same exercise of empathy for our spouse or our own children. We need then an overarching mindset, such as the Apostle Paul exhorted the Philippians to embrace: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.” But the Apostle leads up to this by challenging his hearers, “If, then, there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing of the Spirit, make my joy complete. Be of the same mind and have the same Spirit, and do nothing from selfish ambition.”
As the compassionate God, He would embrace us into a whole ecological environment of compassion, where we minister one to the other. Where do we begin? It is always in small ways and in little things, as a child would solemnly bury a little dead bird it has found in the garden. It’s simply looking into the eyes of someone depressed, as recently I looked into the eyes of our church organist, and then tried to speak to her, to take her out for a meal, as I had done before. But she avoided me. I was very perturbed, because I was soon to be flying to Brazil. And after a week’s absence in Sao Paulo, I heard the news that she had committed suicide, our own church organist, because of the deep depression in which she found herself.
For the Japanese, 60% of communication is non-verbal. So the Japanese are very sensitive to bodily and facial gestures. We need to learn from transcultural emotions. As I’m often in Japan, I can readily imagine how different this address would be if I was to give it in Tokyo rather than in Birmingham, Alabama. The first exercise we might participate in this evening would be on communication interaction responses. As Oliver Sacks, the pioneer brain scientist, observed, there are multiple possible cognitive impairments or deficiencies: loss of speech, loss of receptive language, loss of identity, and myriad others, all categorized with an “A,” including aphonia, aphemia, aphasia, alexia, apraxia, agnosia, amnesia, and so on. Some of you may know the classic essay that he wrote called The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat.
And so to test your empathy level, we could form small groups that deal with the following bedside scenarios: (You might do this some other time.)
- Ms. G has told you how much she enjoyed your visit, but now she must be excused, as she has to put the children to bed. But she’s already bedridden. What’s your response?
- Mr. R has been most of the day in a circle of other patients, but his zipper has been unfastened all day. Do you tell him to zip it up in front of the others?
- You’ve just set down the dinner tray for Ms. F, telling her to enjoy her meal. Her response is, “I can’t eat that; it has poison in it.” How do you react?
- Mr. S is trying to run out of the home into the street and you try and stop him. He may become violent with you. He tells you his wife is waiting for him at home, very ill, and needing him at once. How do you react?
Speech is the dignity of being human. So interactive communication is basic to the human condition. When then do we remain silent? As we have noted for the Japanese, as for the ancient monastic order of the Carthusians, silence is a deep form of speech. So to understand, we may simply need to touch our patient, look into their eyes with love, just as Jesus could recognize the touch of the woman with the issue of blood. Recognition. This is a deep form of interactive communication. How we long to be recognized, all of us.
Secondly, a new focus on the distinctive deteriorating faculties within families challenged by dementia. When my wife was dying, she could no longer be attentive to anything. But she simply held my hand for 24 hours until she went unconscious into death. But the grip of her hand as we were walking together through the Valley of the Shadow of Death was a tactile experience, the best you could ever have. So it was, and remains a unique expression of our human friendship that God has embraced us in His arms, that underneath us are the Everlasting Arms.
That is why, as Christians, we need to distinguish natural and cultural emotions as contrasted with Christian emotions. We have already mentioned our natural proclivity inherited from the Age of Reason to consider faith and reason. Reason is our capacity to view reality objectively, hence its close alliance with science, but faith is the bond between reason and emotion, in its bond with religion and art.
My old mentor at Edinburgh University, John McMurray, a philosopher of the personal, profoundly oriented my way of thinking ever since I was a student. And today he’s very relevant for dementia education, for he never saw a patient as an individual, but always as a person in relationships. Although we reason as individuals, we reason to relate to others.
Today, a primary focus for dementia care is what is called by the influential educator Gemma Jones, the “bookcase metaphor.” Different kinds of memory are referred to different types of “bookcases” in the “library” of the mind. There is factual memory storage, as in how chronological time is perceived, and the sensory memories—memories stored by archetypal categories of those who loved and cared for one. Significantly, in our cognitive bias, much is researched on how factual memories are stored, but little is yet known about sensory memories, whether it be loving care, or smell, auditory, touch or sight memories.
In neuroscience, the hippocampus, which is a Latin word for seahorse, stores factual memory, while the amygdala, which again is Latin for the almond, stores feelings. But other senses yet unknown may be operative in other areas of the brain. What is certain is that as the memory bookshelves wobble and finally collapse, emotional memory takes over more strongly. Gemma Jones has listed 22 negative, and the same number of positive emotions, all stemming from either fear or love. Caregivers need to work with them all, which is a tall order, for we usually are only conscious of a few of them ourselves in our normal mental health. With current progress of research, our vocabulary has grown accordingly. We have degrees of fear–timid, concerned, wary, anxious–then another series of worried, frightened, scared, and terrified. Their opposite begins with trusting and secure, to feeling ‘at home,’ love, confident with a showing of humor, content and happy, and finally, enjoyment and attached.
With aging and dementia, close attention is required. Since the sensory senses become more important, such as sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste, past positive sensory experiences can then be recalled more easily. With my wife, I would rub her hand or touch her face with Chanel, which was her favorite perfume since our courtship, and her face would smile so radiantly. She would remember those moments of that romance years ago. It’s long been recognized that smell perception is one of the most powerful sources of memory. At the same time, the sense of smell worsens as people get old. As we experience, old people become unaware of the smell of their dirty clothes or that they need to wash their bodies. It appears that in some types of dementia, as associated with Parkinson’s disease, there appears an extra reduction of smell. Knowing this, we can be less judgmental about “dirty old people,” seeing their lack of hygiene, not judgmentally, but compassionately.
Likewise, old people make much more fuss about their food because of the deterioration of their taste buds. We have five taste bud receptors on our tongue and surrounding tissue: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami or savory. And as sweet perception diminishes, patients will increase the amount of sugar that they use or the number of sweets they eat. They are not spoiling themselves like a child. They are instinctively dealing with a deprivation that they feel. The same is true of salt, which we try to keep patients from having too much of to prevent the knockout effects of a stroke. But instead of sodium salt, we have alternative substitutes, like potassium salt, which accumulates less in the body. So we begin to understand a whole new range of things about our diets and about our cooking that I certainly never knew about before I got married.
Food can become much more favorable with other ingredients. I now make my own vegetable broth with all its intensified flavors, because I get all the vegetables I can in a big pot and stew it all down to the basics. And it does wonders with any other canned soup you can imagine. It’s just a trick of culinary art. And likewise, I find that foods become more tasteless when you’re eating alone. But when I’m entertaining, or with other friends, then there’s something added to the quality of taste. And it’s that of friendship. Perhaps there’s something significant about the Last Supper in the Upper Room.
At times, patients will think their food is being deliberately poisoned. On a sensory level, this is because bitter perception deteriorates, while on a social level, an indifferent attendant may cause fear arousal. So you get the conjunction of an inattentive server of the food, together with the nature of the food, and there could be trouble.
One of my recipes for a long life is, the more sleep one has, the longer one will live. Siesta time between two and four p.m., as well as having early nights, are important for us as we age. So sleep long, and resist being a micromanager, because you’ll carry far more stress. Delegate it to others, and then you won’t get a heart attack. Oh, above all, exercise humility, which in the Augustinian sense is freedom from self-consciousness. For nothing is more stressful than being too conscious of yourself. Crediting others, having gratitude, waking up every morning, praising the Lord, “I’ve got another day to live,” those are the incentives for a creative, long life.
We can interpret aging, then, as either life on the downward slope or else on the upward slope. The one stems from regret, an unforgiving spirit, bitterness and anger. The other results from happy memories, gratitude, the giving and accepting of more and more love.
One of the things that my wife loved when she could no longer remember was to bring out the old photographs of the children and the holidays. Bring out the holiday photographs and you’ll arouse a whole new vitality in someone who thinks they’ve lost it all. They haven’t.
The third aspect of this evening’s talk is a new community of friendship to love and not to fear. As neuroscientists are discovering, as I mentioned in the work of Theodore George, fear is the basic human emotion. And the ministry of Jesus in the Gospels has so much to teach us about the emotional realm of fear. For Jesus, faith is the opposite of fear, whereas secular society sees faith as the opposite of reason. Jesus habitually uses faith with no object. He would ask, “Why have you no faith?” Or, “Your faith has healed you.” For us, faith is a doctrine, a creed. But, for Jesus, it was an attitude of mind, setting up in contrast to the attitude of fear.
And after the Resurrection, Jesus introduces a radical change of mind, a metanoia indeed, where faith, peace and love are all on the same continuum. In a world of endless paralysis of fear, there’s this realm of endless opportunity. Moreover, fear is for the moment, perhaps an emergency. It’s good for us to have fear sometimes, but we do not live for the moment. We look before and after. Addiction is a prescription for a momentary pleasure, like alcohol or sex, which we get hooked on. Fears then become habits that determine our behavior submissively, or aggressively so. Fear wears a mask, never recognizes faces. It breeds distrust. It destroys relationships. Since we are created intrinsically relational, fear destroys our humanity. That is why all religions deal with fear, promising security and protection to their followers. But the mission of Jesus was to destroy fear, promising, “In the world you shall have tribulation; but fear not, I have overcome the world.”
How then do we experience this new freedom from fear? In the Upper Room, Jesus gives us the answer to life’s problems: “You’re my friends, if you do whatsoever I command you. For henceforth I call you not servants, but friends. These things I command you, that you love one another.”
So much of our life is all about ministry. But the revolution of Jesus is all about friendship. We’re not primarily called to ministry, even to health care or to dementia care. We’re called to friendship, to be friends of God. How can our minds be changed? How can we have a metanoia experience? First, because service is related to duty. But the primary motive of friendship is not duty. It’s intimacy. It’s warmth. It’s nearness to each other. But then you may ask, what about sacrifice? Yes, self-sacrifice is good. But it wholly is eclipsed by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. That is our motive. As the Epistle to the Hebrews states, there remains no sacrifice for sins, once for all. That sacrifice is the sacrifice of Christ.
How we should glory in the words of the Apostle, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In fact, Christian friendship is then all about Christ and His love. We’re all beneficiaries of His friendship. Why did Jesus say, “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another”? Paradoxically, this is because it’s new in abolishing all the commandments in the One who alone has fulfilled all the commandments. They’re all in Christ. Now it’s simply a new way of life, of being in Christ, which Paul is to repeat 166 times throughout his epistles.
Literally, we’re receiving a new identity, a whole new personal life. Christianity is now the religion of friendship, not like religions of fear. Friendship now becomes a supreme value of life. I’ve been experiencing this now at the end of my life. In writing my memoirs, they reminded me, at every turning point of my long life, that friendships were there to comfort me. Yes, to rebuke me. To redirect my steps. To open and reveal new horizons. That’s what friendships do. They give you two pairs of eyes, or many pairs of eyes to see through the eyes of others. All other relationships, then, are like moons. Reflective. But Christ’s friendship is the full splendor of the sun of righteousness, setting all relationship aright.
But now you react, “You’re preaching a sermon, and we’re here to discuss dementia care.” This is true. But secular dementia care is very different from Christian dementia care. Any caring in dementia care is about intelligent friendliness. But this has no ontology. It has no deep foundation. It does not know that the source of love, as the source of friendship, is God, and not human sentiment.
And so, we come to the end of our address. We need a more comprehensive theology of faith and emotions for Christians today.
I’ve never seen a book distinguishing Christian emotions from natural and cultural emotions, so this is what I’m now exploring in a new study in which I select seven Christian emotions: praise, grace, faith, peace, compassion, love and joy.
Praise. We all tend to think of praise and worship as something for church on Sunday morning. But Karl Barth, and my old friend Thomas Torrance, as soon as they started the day’s writing at their desks, they would start records of Mozart’s music so that their souls would soar into worship all the time they were writing. Nothing did more to bring dear Thomas’s demise, as I watched him dying in hospice: none of his books were available to him. His mind was still alert. He was allowed no Mozart. It breaks my heart to think of how the great Trinitarian theologian died in such utter loneliness. That’s what happened to him.
Why then is praise the primary of all the Christian emotions? Because all the cosmos was created by God to sing His praise. As we sing, especially in the Psalms in the 90’s, the Psalms of Praise, where the mountains, the waves of the seas, the branches of the trees, the animals themselves all praise their Creator. Was Creation first? No. Praise precedes creation. The purpose of all creation is that it would praise God. Even C.S. Lewis stumbled over this need to praise God so much. Well, that’s the nature of God. All human response to God can only be praise.
If then, you manage or work in an old people’s home, the awakening to a new day should begin with praise. Dante in the Inferno encountered those were guilty of the sin of accidie, admitting to him, “Tristi fumma nel ‘aere bello,” meaning unobservant and ungrateful in the fair world God has made. That God cares is abundantly observed in the book of Job, where the ostrich, the wild ass, the warhorse and the crocodile are all given provision for their differing needs. How much more should Man, created as the imago Dei, be full of praise.
Created intrinsically relational, human beings will either worship God or they will worship idols. There is no alternative. We all see daily around us the pursuit or worship of money, of power, or sex. But you know, even in our seminaries, we can have the idolatry of Christian scholarship. We can have in our churches the idolatry of Christian ministry. When does it become idolatrous? When it’s all about the ego. When God is eclipsed by the ego. So there is the fundamental emotion: praise.
Secondly, grace. The more we realize our woeful ignorance of worship, as practiced by the early church, the more we need God’s grace in our shortcomings. The psalmist cried: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.” (Ps. 51:1) That is why grace is the most commonly used word in the whole of the Christian vocabulary. Never an abstract word. It’s the manifestation of the triune grace of God in His salvific manifestations to human beings. In other words, when we speak about grace in the New Testament, it’s simply the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. And the Apostle reminds the worldly Corinthians in deep rebuke of their quarrelsome behavior, “…you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for our sakes became poor, that we, through His poverty, might become rich.” Since Christ is the embodiment of grace, it’s not a substance, it’s not a thing. Grace is a divine relationship. Are we then saying that our homes and our care homes and all our institutions should have the environment of grace? Of course!
Three, faith. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” Faith is not a popular word today, because our society trusts in reason. Can’t trust anything else, certainly not people. And in the tech society, we want demonstrable proof, and proven technology. Too often faith is ridiculed as blind and naive and stupid. It’s not.
Faith is not for people with lazy minds. Faith is for those who are prepared to appreciate all the wonders of science and technology and explore all the realm that human society is so amazingly developing for us today. But above all, faith is of God. It’s like grace. Faith is not a biblical abstraction. Faith is a person. It’s an encounter with the living God of the Old Testament and of Jesus Christ in the New. And so, when the Samaritans met Jesus, they rebuffed the woman at the well by saying, “It’s no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and we know.” And so this dawning of faith is like the dawning of the day in the face of Christ.
Peace. “In peace, I will both lay me down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me to dwell in safety.” And in the current geopolitics of fear, where all our politics are motivated by fear, how the world longs for peace! We don’t want to turn on our television sets any longer. It’s bad news all the time. So what again is peace? This biblical word, shalom, has a root in totality. It means completeness, maturity, perfection. It reflects upon reconciliation, unity, friendship, covenant, community, the sense of serenity, a holistic wellbeing. And again, peace is attributed to God Himself. Peace and righteousness are linked together in an association of peace and right relatedness or justice, harmony with God. And all his creatures express the millennial blessings of peace. He is our peace. “My peace I give to you, not as the world gives, give I to you.” Doing the will of God is His peace to us.
Dante, again, as he began to compose his Divine Comedy, saw that his own pallid faith was the entrance to Hell. It was self-created, as the negation of the grace and peace of God. And Dante sees multiple manifestations of this in varied forms of evil people appearing in his vision, as in a nine-layered sphere, each creating its own specific Hell. It’s an enormous economy of evil. A global economy of evil, we would say today. But the poet sees one miserable, isolated group not even admitted to Hell, which the poet asks to be identified to him. He is told, they are those who would not take part in the great war between good and evil. Their neutrality creates greater evil. They are judged as both the enemies of God and the enemies of the Enemy. What a place in which to be!
This is what the Angel to the Church of Laodicea calls ‘being neither hot nor cold,’ deserving only to be spit out of the Angel’s mouth! For to be possessed by God’s peace is to become the warrior for God, speaking the truth in love. “The God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the Great Shepherd of the sheep,” (Heb. 13:20) is the Almighty warrior against all evil, all fear. And so Dante is helping us to see that our progress and the nature of Christian emotions gets more and more counter-cultural.
And then, love. “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, His steadfast love endures forever.” (Ps. 118:29) Yet perhaps there’s no word in the English language that is more confused than love. Simone Weil, a brilliant but lonely French philosopher, sees love as a sign of our wretchedness. God can only love Himself. We can only love something else. But as a Christian, I think she’s sadly, doubly wrong. For as God is love itself, love is shared with all His creatures. The nature of love is to share. Even Shakespeare shrewdly probed into human motives and needs, to expose many imagery forms of love that we cling to as humans, as needy human beings. Its synonyms are endless: fondness, liking, desire, attachment, yearning, regard, admiration, affection, tenderness, devotion, infatuation. But when exaggerated, they become like a flood that plunges into passion, flame, infatuation, idolatry, and even murder. Love can kill if it’s misdirected.
But how different is biblical love? In place of erotic love, which never appears in the New Testament, agape is coined, used uniquely. Verbally 137 times and as a noun, 116 times. And the Apostle Paul teaches that God’s love is giving His son as the extreme expression of love. Love is expressive of a new Kingdom, the Kingdom of God’s love that results in a whole new reign of love and energy to create, eternally, a new race. And so Paul could spend all his life proclaiming and teaching, raising love to the pinnacle of graces in his great hymn of I Corinthians:13. And it’s love that is now to be shared as brotherly love.
And finally—thank you for your patience this evening—we come to joy. The Psalmist celebrates that “…in your presence is fullness of joy.” As the poet William Blake affirms, “Man was made for joy and woe; and when this we rightly know, through the world we safely go, joy and woe are woven fine, a clothing for the soul divine, under every grief and pine, runs a joy with silken twine.”
Joy has not had much coverage in the history of the Church. Nor has it any coverage whatsoever in the outside world. I mean, they talk about happiness. And I remember reading a book recently that was a kind of ecumenical dialogue between the Archbishop of Cape Town and the Buddhist Lama. And they were both talking about happiness. But it was so flakey. It was so unreal. Rather, when we look at the biblical understanding of joy, it’s always that which creates exultation. It’s the antithesis of weeping. And so the Psalmist exalts his fellows to “…make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” One scholar, D.W. Harvey lists thirteen Hebrew roots and twenty-seven separate words for joy or joyful participation in a cult or act of worship. And so that messianic hope of joy has now become the redemptive reality of joy in the New Covenant.
As we think of this great celebration that we have that was anticipated by Zephaniah and especially Isaiah, but now we find in the narratives of Matthew, Mark and Luke about the Nativity: when Christ was born, joy came into the world. And so, as we rejoice in the reality of that, let me, in conclusion just simply say that joy is because of the cross: “…who, for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross…” (Heb 12:2) And we sometimes sing so beautifully, “O joy that seeketh me through pain.” It’s a remarkable thing that we can be so overwhelmed with oppression and suffering, and yet there is joy.
I remember one of my most memorable experiences of visiting with the leaders of the underground churches in China during the 1980’s. And I visited one dear brother. And he was still being hunted by the politburo police, so I met him in the dead of night. He came up to my hotel bedroom in the night and I asked him to tell me his story. And his story was that, because he was an underground pastor, and was arrested, he was condemned to work for four years in the municipal sewage system of Guangzhou, which is in the South, a great city of the South, of the Delta. And his garment would be floating on the top of the sewage. And his job was to clean the sewage so it would not block up the pipes of the sewage system. The smell was nauseous. And I said, “And how did you survive?” “Oh,” he said, “I used to sing a hymn all day long in my heart, because my lips were too parched, and I was too exhausted to sing verbally. But the song was in my heart: ‘I come to the garden alone, but He walks with me and He talks with me.’” And He thinks of the fragrance of the perfume of the Lord. And that the very presence of the Lord was like the Song of Songs, was the presence of his lover in his soul.
Wow, joy! Joy can be a very hard experience, but joy is the end of the story.
Thank you very much. Bless you. Thank you. To Him be the glory.
Dr. Potts: Thank you, Sir, for that beautiful, faith-filled address, and thank each of you for coming tonight. Dr. Houston has been so gracious to say that if any of you have questions, he would field those by email if I am the filtering device for that email. So, I will offer my email address if anyone has something to write that down with, which is a gmail account. And it’s firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have questions for Dr. Houston, I will send those along to him and he will get back with us. I’ll turn it over to Dean George.
Dean George: Please stand to receive the benediction.
Be present, Oh merciful God, and protect us through the silent hours of this night so that we, who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world, may repose upon thy eternal care and steadfast love. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Dr. James M. Houston, Professor Emeritus of Spiritual Theology, Regent College