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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Heading in the Right Direction

No matter where you start, you can head in the right direction.

The right direction for me today is to wake up grateful for another day of life, and the opportunities it holds to grow to be a better, more loving person. I will fail often, but I will try again.

I promise to condemn no one today; neither will I be condemned. Because today and every day, through nothing good I have done and despite all the bad I’ve done or good I’ve left undone, I am loved, forgiven, and bestowed a limitless supply of mercy and grace from my faithful Savior whom I know and love today more intimately and dearly than ever because of where He has led me, holding me up with His unseen hand. He’s been with me in the depths of shame and sorrow and the heights of joy and blessing.

I will be bold enough, courageous enough to say this to everyone. I bow my head in humility to this love that is so much stronger than anything I will ever have to face, and I’m not afraid of ever losing this love. Because that’s not possible.

And I honestly want to share it, first at home, then with the world’s family, through compassionate presence, language, action and leadership.

And it all starts with the knowledge that I am nothing without God’s love, mercy, grace and faithfulness. Nothing.

You are loved like this, as well. Everyone is. Let no one tell you otherwise.

This is my song today, and I have to sing it, because my heart is both full and empty at the same time.

Have a blessed Sunday.

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Digging Deeply

If we allow ourselves to dig deeply enough into the present, we may find treasure there. Silence, stillness and space are required, as are trust, vulnerability and surrender to the ego’s need to remain in control.

The place where the treasure lies may be dark, but it is a luminous darkness, like the God-cloud of the Hebrew Exodus. It is necessary to be confronted by the truth of the “Thou shalts, Thou shalt nots,” and thereby to see the unholiness of our apparent separation, the utter death in our wandering, in light of the holiness of God. Then, by grace, in a state of deep need, we may turn.

We must camp awhile in the desert until our resources are depleted, and our divining rods lead to the bottomless lake of love from God’s well of the True Self, the Kingdom within, the water poured into us by the merciful One with hands that look like ours, though pierced straight through.

This Jesus, with his wounded body, has bridged the gap between what we were created to be and what we have become. It is He who we find in the depth, His Face we see.

Finally face to Face, we are fully known and forgiven. Then Love begins our transformation into the person we were made to be in Christ.

Authentic personhood found in divine relationship. This is the deep and universal treasure.

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The Importance of Narrative

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou

In my opinion, we healthcare providers don’t do a good enough job supporting psychosocial/spiritual well-being (both in our patients and in ourselves).

We should strive to help people live well both in the presence and absence of disease. Appreciation for narrative is an essential element in helping to support psychosocial/spiritual, and thereby also physical well-being.

We live in a society increasingly characterized by data inundation without the framework of depth, ethics, knowledge and narrative to always make that data meaningful. Data uncoupled by knowledge of and connection to narrative is not always helpful, and can be harmful or misinterpreted. Just because data can be acquired, doesn’t mean that time and effort should be expended acquiring and presenting it.

In my opinion, efforts should be made to bring back an appreciation for and use of narrative and story and let it inform, broaden and deepen our experience.

Educational models which make use of personal, familial and cultural narrative should be developed, supported and implemented for all ages in the educational system, particularly pertaining to education in health-related disciplines.

We should stop, look each other in the eyes, and listen to one another’s stories.

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Reading “Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver,” Penguin Press, 2017

My Hope and Prayer for This New Year

My hope and prayer for this new year is that God will enable me to be a light-bearer, and give me the courage, integrity and humility to authentically share the story of my spiritual journey through dark valleys and mountain clearings; paying forward in gratitude what those who have loved me have given to me, bearing witness that the end of faith really is its beginning, that in all places and at all times, the love and mercy of God can be found and must be counted on, even, and most especially in spaces within in our lives that we might call Hell; that I might never shy away from telling the truth of this great good news, or seek the comfort of sitting in safety with such knowledge that is too important to remain unshared. I say again, I know God can be depended on, even in the many faces of death, and Love is the core reality of our existence. We are embraced safely within it, whether we know it or not. This is what I want to share in the coming year. May it be so.

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