Places

I believe there are certain places, specific environments for each of us that retain spiritual energy or significance in our lives because of what has transpired there. These may be places where meaningful events have occurred, where we have come into immediate contact with the loving presence of God through relationships with others, through suffering, death or loss, through life-changing blessings, or through other circumstances which have transformed us and brought growth. I feel these places forever are marked with this energy; are hallowed, so to speak, and if possible, we should look for opportunities to revisit such places as life moves on, in a spirit of gratitude, homage and awe.

#gratitude #awe #transformation #restoration

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It Is Well

“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
when sorrows, like sea billows roll,
whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say
‘It is well, it is well with my soul.’ “

–Words by Horatio Spafford; Tune, “Ville du Havre,” by Philip Bliss

I consider “It Is Well” my favorite hymn because it resonates so powerfully in my life.  Something solid and true about the hymn appealed to me even before I learned the story of its writing.

Horatio Spafford, a Presbyterian elder from Chicago and friend of evangelist, Dwight Moody, had a successful and lucrative law practice.  Spafford and his family experienced an epic series of tragedies, starting with the death of a son, followed by tremendous loss of property in the great Chicago fire of 1871.

Desiring rest for his family and planning to participate in Moody’s evangelical efforts in Europe, Spafford booked Atlantic passage on the S.S. Ville du Havre.  Due to a last-minute business commitment, he was unable to leave with his family, and sent his wife and four daughters on ahead, planning to join them later.

In a chilling development, the ship sank after being struck by another vessel, and all four of Spafford’s daughters died.  When his wife reached Wales, Mrs. Spafford wired her husband the following message: “Saved alone.”

It is said that the hymn’s words came to Spafford as the ship upon which he was sailing passed over the spot in the sea where his daughters were lost.

Though no tragedy as heart-rending as Spafford’s has befallen me or my family, life has seen some depths and darkness.  Some of these lows have been due to my own inner struggles and poor choices.  At times, I’ve sought to captain my own ship, setting a wayward course from God’s will, and winding up adrift.  Alone in a sea of sinking hopes, as the psalmist wrote, “out of the depths” I cried to the Lord.  He saved me and my family through his great mercy, compassion and love.

Philosopher Joseph Campbell said, “where you stumble, there lies your treasure.”  Returning to the place of my sinking, now with Christ as captain, I receive faith’s treasure by the grace of a God whose suffering love brings salvation and new life to his children drifting bereft on a sin-stained sea.

I, too, must wire, “Saved alone.” But here the loss is that of the self at enmity towards God – the saved life arising is Christ, who lives in me.  Now I pray the words of Paul, the apostle: “And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

“It is Well” because you and I are safe aboard God’s vessel, never to be separated from his Love and direction.

May it be so for all of us, dear Lord.  Amen.

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Watercolor by Lester E. Potts, Jr., an artist who had Alzheimer’s

“Peace, Be Still”

When I turned the corner into the ICU, I saw him. He was not an attending physician, charge nurse or therapist. He wasn’t an administrator or a chaplain, a resident or a fellow.

He sat and rocked, covered with a blanket. I barely could see what he was holding. Then it came clear.

At that moment, in my mind, he was the most important person in the room.

At Children’s of Alabama (and I’m sure at other children’s hospitals), people can volunteer to rock and hold newborns who have had toxic exposures (such as cocaine) in utero, who have other conditions that might cause them distress, or who have no available parents. Many of these babies cry incessantly – a particularly agonizing sound to this adult neurology resident on the first day of his pediatric neurology rotation.

As many of you know, ICUs can be loud and very busy, with alarms, ventilators, monitors, and staff moving very rapidly to take care of their patients.

Like a sailboat in safe harbor, the old, blanket – draped man sat smiling in his rocker, his hands cradling a little lost person fighting for her life as a neurochemical storm raged inside her brain.

“Peace, be still, little girl. I’ve got you safe and warm here in my blanket. It will be all right.”

He rocked and rocked. The little body trembled and contorted. He kept rocking, whispering, singing. He looked like he had done this many times before. Perhaps he thought of his own little girl or boy at a time when they had needed comfort. Perhaps he thought of himself in his own mother’s arms. Maybe he dreamt of the child he never could have.

Before I left the ICU that day, the little lost daughter had stilled, and was quietly asleep.

So was the old man.

And the chair kept on rocking.

Gratitude for Mentors

Today, I call out my paternal grandfather, Lester E. Potts, Sr., affectionately known as “Big Daddy” (1891 – 1976).

Born of the Blake and Potts families in the Carolina community of Itawamba County, Mississippi, he moved to Pickens County, Alabama with his mother and brother in the 1890s after losing his father to typhoid fever. He was a saw miller and farmer most of his life, and was one of the hardest-working folks you’d ever know. But late in life he retired, and seemed to find that rest we all seek.

It was during this last life chapter that I knew him. He was the best friend of my early childhood. He came to pick me up each Wednesday. We’d go to Mr. Tom Lemon’s store in Aliceville and get goods, and then head to a slough near the Tombigbee River to fish. Sometimes, we’d hike a bit and find us a stick to whittle, and talk about the trees in the river bottom. Mostly what we would do is be together.

He was one of the most authentic people I’ve ever known: an old tree standing strong in the modern day woods, but rooted in an earlier time. When I hear the word ‘man,’ at some level I see the silhouette of Big Daddy wearing his characteristic hat. Frugal to the point of being tight, he was also humble, and required very little on which to get by. “Y’all are over-ratin’ me,” he would say, if given a gift or a compliment.

After he had a major stroke when I was 10 and lingered for 3 months unresponsive, I wanted to be a doctor and do something to help make him well again. This desire became my primary motivation to go into neurology.

Thank you, Big Daddy, for sharing this with me.

Danny and Big Daddy

Celebrating Life Triumphant

Each day we are surrounded by thousands of examples of life triumphant over death — an addict lives another day clean and free, a scientist perseveres believing a cure will be found, an elder rocks an orphaned infant, a CEO builds a Habitat home, an athlete gives up glory for the team, a busy student visits the nursing home, an artist with no arms paints with her feet, a soldier prays for the enemy, a random act of kindness makes the news, a handicapped choir brings down the house, someone gives a hard-earned dime for a good cause, one who is soul-sick catches your contagious smile, a depressed person writes a poem or a song, mercy turns the life of a sinner around, forgiveness comes to conquer a rift, someone learns to love themselves for the very first time, a champion gives up the gold for the one who fell, someone plants a tree in the city, victory is found in surrender, someone reaches out through resentment to offer a hand, racial barriers are breached to find the common good, someone finds himself in another — let’s talk about and reflect on these people, these experiences, these snapshots of grace, and let them change the outlook of our lives.

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“Blessed is the Man”

“Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,

nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

But his delight is in the law of the Lord;

and in his law doth he meditate day and night.

And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water,

that bringeth forth his fruit in his season;

his leaf also shall not wither;

and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.”

–Psalm 1: 1-3

 

Sunday afternoon.  Sun sank on my father’s earthly life.  Something told me, if ever I was to do it, that day should be the day.

Nearing the end of his battle with Alzheimer’s disease, essentially unable to speak, walk, or care for himself, Dad resided in our local VA nursing home, a place of compassion and peace.  Mother sat faithfully at his bedside, feeding his body and soul, singing, reminiscing, showing him snapshots of himself.

It was Sunday afternoon. The Psalmist was speaking.  I was listening.

Giving Mother some respite, I shut the door and sat down in front of Dad, close enough to touch his face, to see the vessels in his eyes.  I wanted to hear them speaking to my soul as I shared what was on my heart.  I knew the end was nearing, and I wanted him to know how grateful I was for his life.  For his fatherhood.

Not sure if he would understand everything I was about to say, I started with silence, with touch; holding his hand, looking long into his eyes.  I quieted my mind and tried to listen.  Sensing the holiness of the moment, I humbled myself, thinking of the Psalm.  After a while, I spoke, as tenderly and honestly as I could.

“Papa, there are some things I need to say to you, some things I want you to know.”

The cold, blank stare somehow warmed.

“I’ve never told you this.  You are the best man I have ever known.  I look up to you and try to be like you.  You are the best father I could ever hope to have.  I thank God for you, for your love, and for all you have done for me.  I will try to follow the example you have set.  You have always done what you thought was right, and your faithfulness to God, to your family, neighbors, community and country inspire me.”

He cried.  I knew he understood.  I knew.  His body and mind were so broken.  Yet “his leaf also shall not wither…”

“Papa, I know you are tired.  You have fought the fight and run the race courageously, cared for your family, and your legacy is one of love and faithfulness.  It is all right to let go, Papa.  It is all right.  We love you, pray for you, and are with you.  God will care for us, as He cares for you.  We love you, Papa.”

A few weeks later, kneeling in a hospice prayer room beside a lit candle commemorating his life, I breathed a prayer of gratitude for having been given the opportunity to say these things while he was still living.  I come back to them every Father’s Day.

“Blessed is the man…”

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“Beyond the Sunset,” watercolor art by Lester E. Potts, Jr., an artist who had Alzheimer’s

Relationships and Personhood

Of all the losses associated with dementia, I believe the greatest loss is that of relationships, fueled in part by stigmatization. Yet a sense of relationship is vital to the integrity of the self.

What fuels the toxicity of this stigma, of this pulling away from those who are living with dementia? I believe it is our failure to recognize and honor the inherent personhood of every human being, regardless of conditions or circumstances. The loss of personhood does not follow from the loss of cognitive abilities. I strongly understand personhood as being imparted, and therefore inviolate, unfading, even unending. And certainly not lessened by any disease.

If I do not hold such a view of personhood, then I am apt to regard those who experience cognitive loss as “less than,” negatively biasing my treatment of them, and my expectations of being able to form or maintain relationships with them. This amounts to a judgement…a judgement in favor of dementia, and against the human spirit.

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