The Woman at the Well

I’m thankful that one doesn’t need to be a philosopher or theologian to ponder and muse about truth. Truth is accessible even to the simple and the broken, like me.

When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (see John 4:4-30) I believe He saw her fully as a person, in contrast to the way she was regarded by society of the day. Jesus’ gaze is the ultimate de-stigmatizer, because pure Love holds no stigma against another.

Truly seeing her meant seeing the truth of her existence — her weaknesses, failings and faults — and how those were keeping her from being the person she was created to be. But loving her no less because of them.

I believe Jesus’ gaze is a gaze of mercy, not of condemnation (In fact, my life depends on that being the case).

Truly seeing her also meant seeing her potential, which could be realized only in the context of a relationship with God that He was offering her.

Particularly important for us today is the understanding that He was actively seeking a relationship with her, one whom society marginalized, and through that relationship, her restoration to the wholeness of unending life. He was seeking her healing, her wellness, her redemption, her fully embodied personhood…a personhood that would have been very different than that of most people in His cohort.  He wanted the best for her and sought to help her achieve it through this right and essential relationship. He loved her unconditionally, despite conditions leveled on her by society, and those brought on by her own misguided choices.

When you read this passage of scripture, do you get a profound sense of your own brokenness and need? I assure you, I do.

Are we doing the same in our time for the stigmatized, the marginalized, the misguided, the broken? I’m not sure about you, but I know, in some sense, this description also fits me. I am the woman at the well, seeking living water which will quench this aching thirst of mine forever.

Lord, please give us eyes to see that we all are in this category, thirsting deeply for the living waters of relationship with You so that we may embody fully the personhood wherein we were created, which at some deep level is the personhood of You, the Human One.

Amen.

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In This Very Room

In this very room. We are together.

Perhaps all come reluctantly. At someone else’s bidding. Or insistence. Perhaps it only seems so. Truth be told, we need to be here. With each other.

The air here is warm, shared. The spirit open, compassionate. The voices diverse, authentic.

No one is enabled, yet all are supported. No one is pitied, yet all are heard. No one is compelled, yet all are forthcoming.

We eat the common bread and share the cup. We are honest. “Now” exists, and that is all.

Across this backdrop spreads a story. We listen. Not just to hear, but to know. To be known. We listen for our throaty voices. To catch something familiar. Something new.

Hearing the rawness of it makes us cry. Because we are denuded. And losing skin always hurts. We feel the shredding of another.

We go to the dark places together. We need to know the whole story. Nothing is withheld. Because we have to help each other heal. And because each one of us carries a light. And the light is metered out so that all of us must share it.

What we see here changes perspectives. This is real. This is more beautiful and terrible than “I’m fine” and “Let’s get together for coffee” and “So good to see you” and “I’ll call you when I’m in town.” No, this is not a promise or a regret or a wish. This is the bloody aftermath.

And I enter. I go there because something in me rises up and reaches down and stretches out and takes it all, embracing, to itself.

I go, not out of valiance or bravery or breeding or martyrdom. I go because something out there is looking back at me with the greatest sorrow ever shown by any eyes, and all at once the deepest well of kindness.

I go because a man is running out to meet the son who fell as good as dead, yet lay there looking for eyes in that great dark nothing of a face. The gaze that had always seen him and everyone and everything in the light of love.

Because that’s how it has to be when all you have is the bloody dirt or the cesspool or the grave. The eyes have to be up there seeing you, seeing the light in you, and loving that feeble little flame.

No water. No first aid. No money. I am empty. Yet I go. And what I bring is more than food and balm and riches.

Offering this empty cup of my life, somehow I know, here, in this very room, there is a presence that will fill it. To overflowing. So that we all may drink of it and live. Here for the first time I know that all I need bring is emptiness – acknowledged, wept over, accepted, offered. And then this truth: it will always be filled while others stand in need.

And it does come. Through the words and tears and sweat of the story. Though the candle-warmed air we all breathe in. Through the reaching out of hands and validating words. Through holding and being held.

We are swept up together in this soul stirring wind. We move to the center. We lift our faces to the light of the great all seeing eyes of love. We pray, Thy will be done. And it is. And it has been. And it will be.

Because it is. And because we are, too.

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Personhood

Personhood. Finding one’s identity. Expressing one’s true self. This theme keeps coming up in my life, and the lives of those around me.

Yes, I think this must what life is all about.

Discovering what God made you for. What God made you to be. What God means for you to do.

What brings you to life. What teaches you your soul song. What sets the most feet to dancing. What shares the light of hope most brightly for all.

Realizing your wrong turns, when you chase after what you think is yourself, only to find a shiny imitation. A paper-stuffed doll. An idol others have made. Or worse, a blade that will cut you.

Learning you can’t discover this all alone. It must be through relationships. But finding there will be times when you will feel alone on a dark journey. In the wilderness. On a starless night.

But discovering you are never alone. There is one who sticks closer than a parent. A sister. A brother. A best friend.

That one is you. Or rather, God in you. Your true and authentic self. A thing of immense beauty, wonder and creativity. A voice that can only be silenced by itself. A strong anchor in the harbor of souls. Trusted. Trusting. Trustworthy. Held in trust for you. For those you love. For the world. For Heaven. For God.

This is the paint that colors the world with love. That silences the critics. That lives on when lesser things die. That fuels the unquenchable fires of hope.

That cannot be forgotten.

Personhood: authentic, true, gentle, compassionate, loving, forgiving, creative, relational, outpouring, humble, peaceful, serene, soulful, long suffering, everlasting…

God. You. Together.

Amen.

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A Clear Conscience

The gift of a clear conscience is invaluable, bringing a sense of deep peace. It is a gift I can only receive through confession, repentance, grace, and faith. But before any action of mine, it is a gift conceived in the very heart and mind of God, and offered of God’s endless mercy and compassion.

For me, the only possibility of a clear conscience comes through the intentional action of a loving Savior, who cares enough to enter the deep recesses of my life that have been darkened by disobedience, disloyalty, self-will and faithlessness, and loves me there, bringing light and life in utter abundance.

The thought of this unfathomable love, this resounding “yes” to my existence, this boundless grace given even in the center of all my faults brings me to tears. I don’t have to be afraid. There is no condemnation. I am no more a slave to sin that had me bound. In Christ I now live, and move, and have my being. I’ve been set free in His Love, forever. And whom the Son sets free is free, indeed.

How could I not sing and pray and see His loving presence everywhere I look now, even in the shadows and desolate places of life? How could I not live in deep gratitude and humility at such unmerited favor? How could I possibly judge or condemn another person for anything? And how could I not share the story, the joy, the compassion and the love with others?

Thanks be to God for this unspeakable gift.

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Reflections on Personhood

Have you thought about what may be the root cause of the pervasive and toxic stigma associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other causes of dementia? I think about it a lot.

I believe stigma is the greatest barrier to be faced in all facets of this global problem, from research funding and clinical trial participation to building a dementia – friendly society.

In my view, the root cause for this stigmatization is the belief, albeit unacknowledged, that people living with dementia somehow embody less personhood than the rest of us. That the diagnosis of dementia somehow renders one less a person than before receiving the diagnosis, as if personhood could be diminished by any circumstance or condition at all.

Many definitions exist for personhood, including legal, philosophical, ethical, theological, psychological, ontological, relational and societal. The concept of personhood has evolved over the millennia, from the Greek “personae” of drama to the chauvinistic Roman legal definition, down through the Cartesian “I think, therefore I am.” This latter view has greatly influenced our modern cultural view.

But what about persons living with disorders of cognition? In our hypercognitive society, “brains” are valued almost as much as good looks and money. Is a person a person only if her “nerve net” can produce higher order reasoning, work differential equations or create success in the stock market?

I’m not a philosopher. Certainly no theologian. Just a simple country neurologist. But I am going to take a stab at defining personhood from a spiritual viewpoint, which I would argue is the most important one to consider:

Personhood is the condition of being a person: a relational being created in the image of God (imago dei) and named by God, who is sustained and will be eternally remembered through God’s Love and providence, with the potential to grow more in the likeness of God through an ever-expanding capacity for love, compassion and relationship.

That definition probably would not meet the muster of the experts, but it helps me work within a framework that can withstand stigma’s attack from without and within.

Yes, I know that I have unconscious biases that make me prone to stepping back into a dualistic, have and have-not, patronizing pattern that too long has characterized not only dementia care, but also society’s treatment of others who are different, who may have different challenges from mine.

No one can be rendered “less than” for any reason. That includes dementia. We retain our personhood for our entire existence. I would argue that continues after our physical bodies are no longer present.

So how could I possibly treat persons living with dementia differently than I would treat persons who fully possess all their cognitive abilities?

One of the most important developments in the world of dementia advocacy is the emergence of persons living with dementia who tell their own stories, sharing the lived experience from inside a world unfamiliar to most of us. There are too many of them to name, but I am profoundly grateful for their courage, strength and vulnerability. They are some of the best teachers and friends I could ever have, and I am learning more about life from them and their care partners than I could possibly write in this essay.

So, what do they say about their own personhood? Without naming specific sources, I will tell you that most of them acknowledge the times when they feel less than, or when they seem to be losing a sense of self. But many also share how they can “find themselves” through relationships with those whom they love, through faith and spirituality, through the arts and creativity, in the presence of animals or children, through the world of imagination, in present moment centeredness, through giving back to others, and by living in ways that add meaning and purpose to their days.

Out of deep respect, I would dare not speak for them. They are out there sharing their stories of pain, courage, resilience and hope. Listen for them. Look for them. Befriend them. Be transformed by them. Then share those stories yourselves, and be inspired to tell your own.

My two dear friends and fellow advocates, Lynda Everman and Don Wendorf, and colleagues have recently edited an upcoming book about dementia worship titled Dementia-friendly Worship: A Multifaith Handbook for Chaplains, Clergy and Faith Communities. The book is being published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers in June 2019. One of the themes of the book is the concept of souls “shining forth,” giving their unquenchable light to the world despite the dark days of dementia. We should look for that light in everyone, and in so doing, our light will shine more brightly, as well.

Thomas Kitwood, the well-known pioneer of person-centered care for those living with dementia, highlighted the role of relationships in maintaining intact personhood. He coined the term “malignant social psychology” to describe the way in which treating some as less than persons has negative effects on well-being. He posited that persons with dementia live in a state of relative well-being or ill-being, based not only on neuropathology but also the degree to which their needs are met in an affirming social context.

Thus, the importance of loving, compassionate, affirming relationships in dementia care.

Philosopher Martin Buber believed humans have two distinct ways of engaging the world, one of which the modern age ignores: “I – It, “and “I – Thou.” According to Buber, I – It is based on experience, not relationship; “It” is a collection of qualities and quantities, and a distance remains between the experiencing “I” and the experienced “It”: one is subject, and the other object.

In the I – Thou paradigm, “Thou” is encountered entirely and universally in a relationship that transforms both parties; in this “absolute encounter” we come to see every other being (nature, animals, people) as a “You.” There is no objectification, judgement or diminishment in this type of encounter. Further, Buber suggests this phenomenon is best described as love; through encounters of this nature, we meet the Divine: “In every Thou we address the eternal Thou.”

In a similar vein, philosopher Emanuel Levinas emphasized the essential nature of face to face encounters with others: “The dimension of the divine opens forth from the human face.” Roger Burggraeve, discussing Levinas’ thought, states “being touched by the vulnerable and injured face of the other…we no longer can remain indifferent…we are called to responsibility. In order to be touched by the suffering of the other, we must be touchable.” Catholic nun and author Simone Campbell follows: “Touching that which causes us to weep can liberate the transforming fire of hope within us.”

Encountering persons living with dementia can change our lives and make us grow in our humanity; indeed, our own personhood can be bolstered by such encounters.

Stigma also affects our willingness be place ourselves in relationships with persons living with dementia. Truth be told, I believe we fear looking in the mirror. That is, because of the unconscious (and incorrect) belief personhood can be lost at the hands of dementia, we fear relational encounters with those who are living with dementia because we fear our own future of diminishment and death.

I think this is one of the primary reasons we physicians do a generally poor job helping people with dementia to live well despite their diagnosis. In the culture of cure in which we were trained, we may consider our own selves “less than” competent if we must confront the reality of incurable disease, especially one which we believe steals the self of the patient. “Is life without a self really worth living?” we may wonder. How wrong-headed is such a notion?!

It is critical that we get over our fears by stepping out in openness, courage and vulnerability just like our friends living with dementia are doing. I would argue that, in many cases, people living with dementia are doing a better job of living into their own personhood than are many of us who don’t have cognitive impairment.

To summarize, I strongly assert 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 deprives them of due dignity,  amounting to a judgement…a judgement in favor of dementia, and against the human spirit.

I dare not pass such a judgement on a soul “shining forth” in the light of personhood. Rather, I’ll lift my own lamp and bask in the communal glow.

Is life worth the living in a perceived state of diminishment? Ultimately, that is a question with which we must become acquainted, as sooner or later, we will ourselves experience diminishment of one kind or another.

Because of the faith I’ve been given, and because of the light I’ve seen coming from the lives of persons who are living with dementia, my answer to that question will always be “yes.”

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This is a photograph of a beautiful work of art hanging at Caring Days Adult Dementia Daycare Center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Anxiety and Trust

I tend to be an anxious person. Always have been.

Usually, this stems from a feeling I have not done a good enough job at something, being afraid I have let someone down, unintentionally caused pain, not lived up to my potential, or that mistakes I have made will have consequences for another person. Unfortunately, during some challenging times of my life, these anxious fears have been realized.

Now, as I approach my 53rd birthday and have a chance to reflect, I can identify God’s loving providence, mercy and grace as the underlying forces moving along the river of my life. God is clearly writing my narrative. And I am supplying the ink, whether I have been conscious of this or not. But what a joy it is to be given this awareness!

Being mindful of this narrative helps me to develop trust to counter my innate anxious tendencies. I have found that this requires intentional mind work, including perception of the rising tide of anxiety in my mind and body, and a directive on my part to release this into the loving care of God and leave it there. This needs to be done many times a day, any time an anxious thought or concern enters my head.

Mindfulness techniques which bring me back to the current moment, such as awareness of breath, centering prayer, or repeating a word like “peace,” “trust,” or “love” seem to help. But the key is release. Letting go of the anxious fear, and the judgement I place upon myself. And usually I am letting go of things that are not mine to grasp, anyway. I should release these things into the river of my life’s narrative, letting them float off with the current.

Of course, much of the anxiety is about the future, and a healthy dose of reality shows me that most of the things I worry about never materialize. Deep to all of this lies the issue of control, and my attempts to grasp something solidly when it is only a vapor. Control is an illusion, as it relates to me. I control nothing, and God controls everything. Once this truth begins to take root, an element of freedom is born…freedom from fear (yet not freedom from the responsibility to do the next right thing).

Fear must flee in the freedom born of love’s recognized presence. When I can move around within this freedom, I am moving around within the force field of God’s love, where I “live, and move, and have my being.” A place where anxiety no longer has the power to put its choke hold on me.

I realize this battle against anxiety will be a lifelong one. But it helps to look at this not as a battle against anxiety, but rather, a surrender into love, through learning to trust God more and more, day by day, in the countless situations life presents. Perhaps reading back through my own narrative will help.

I challenge you to do the same.

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

The Forest Gathering

(A story of gratitude)

Standing silent and alone, just off a ridge crest on a flat stone outcropping in a grove of white oaks, I saw them, as they gathered near the river.

Their faces took shape, it seemed, from the gently drifting breeze dancing like river eddies among the pines and hardwoods anchored in the bottomland soil, some with roots that reached from the steeply sloping bank to waters’ edge.

Emerging forms moved in unison with the autumn air, turned pastel with the paint of leaves, downward drifting to their sabbath rest on the forest floor.

To my mind, they were familiar, but I could place no names. Though moving, they were silent, like the rippling coat of a deer running through the hills and hollows of its wooded home.

Their presence brought an air of antiquity, of lives that had always existed somewhere. Yet youthful spirits skipped among them, as well, like adventurous children emerging from an old, abandoned wood-frame house.

Like a Sanskrit circle, the gathering had an aura of utter completion within itself, a universal embracing of life in all its facets, without blurring any of the faces swirling in this forest dance.

Training all my senses upon the ineffable scene unfolding before me, I felt a sense of belonging and hope; a warm and satiated joy like the love of a mother came over my spirit, and I began to feel a stirring deep within to the rhythm of the river and its brother wind.

Yet mingled with this undeniable joy, a sadness came, hand in hand. I wanted to cry, and to be held by the mysterious elders bowing beneath the shadows of oaks, primeval.

Time passed; I’ve no idea how long. The gathering seemed to fade into the colors of the forest canopy from whence it came. Shadows and spirits, once intertwined, now unmingled, leaving outstretched arms and open hands…or were they simply the appendages of limbs angled against an autumn sky?

Standing upon my rock in a state of serenity and peace, I pondered the meaning of this place and all its gatherings, then left with gratitude for the simple enormity of grace, and the ever-open invitation to partake.

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