Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Walking With Which Light?

Who among you fears the Lord, and obeys the voice of his servant?  Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord, and rely on his God.  Behold, all you who kindle a fire, who equip yourselves with burning torches!  Walk by the light of your fire, and by the torches that you have kindled!  This you have from my hand:  you shall lie down in torment.  - Isaiah 50:10-11

How easy to forget that true Christianity is a walk of faith.

Instead, we Americans are taught to rely upon self-sufficiency.  Even as professing followers of Christ.  But how Biblical is self-sufficiency?

It's not exactly a bad concept, is it?  Unless you inherit your wealth, being self-sufficient usually involves two basic convictions.  You have to value work, which is labor.  And you have to value personal responsibility, in which we endeavor to make sure we don't owe other people something.  Neither labor nor personal responsibility, of course, are wrong.  The Bible teaches that God's people should work hard.  And having the personal integrity to provide for one's needs represents a basic building block for any civilized society.

Indeed, industriousness is a noble quality both inside and outside theology.  But industriousness doesn't necessarily lead to wealth, or abundance, or self-sufficiency.  Plenty of hard-working people are financially destitute.  Meanwhile, a person can be industrious in the wrong things, and accumulate great wealth.  A person can become self-sufficient in bad ways, and even if that person gives away their wealth, does such magnanimity erase the past?  Do the ends justify the means?

In our modern era, we Westerners have made self-sufficiency even more sophisticated.  We enjoy the ability to hedge our bets and shield our assets with financial instruments calculated by actuaries and financiers.  We have portfolios which can be diversified to help absorb unexpected losses in one segment of the economy.  Indeed, the mathematics of economics has become such a trusted field that we've come to expect a robust level of protection for our money.  We expect our money to perform in ways that insulate us from the worst things that life can dump on poorer, less-financially-prepared people.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with being responsible for the assets the Lord gives each of us.  Waste, ambivalence, and carelessness are not virtues.  But how much should any of us rely on the assets entrusted to our stewardship by God?

Especially in a life that the Bible says should be guided by faith, not sight?

"Behold, all you who kindle a fire, who equip yourselves with burning torches," Isaiah prophesies.  "Walk by the light of your fire, and by the torches that you have kindled!"  It's almost a dare, as if the trust we'd otherwise place in our burning torches is being mocked by the holy God of the universe.

Instead, what would a life of faith be like? 

"Let him who... has no light trust in the name of the Lord, and rely on his God."

For us Westerners, that sounds counter-intuitive, doesn't it?  Do we intentionally ignore wise counsel about good things over which we're stewards, like money, our families, our careers, or our relationships?  Of course not.  But neither do we walk solely on the basis of that counsel, no matter how wise it is.  We don't walk through life using wise counsel, insurance, hedged bets, or anything else as our primary source of confidence, resources, or comfort.

We still should be walking primarily by faith.  No amount of burning torches can light the path forward for us like faith in God can.

Do we believe that?  Isn't our answer to that question crucial to recognizing the source of our peace?  Or, at least, what we presume to be peace.

It could simply be a woefully misplaced faith.

In Who's light are you walking?

Monday, June 22, 2015

Beware of Happiness as a Validator

How are things going for you today?

If you are happy, content, or feeling as though things are going well for you, is this optimism really enough to prove that you're in the center of God's will for your life?

Does the lack of deep stress or hardship in your life necessarily indicate that your present happiness is based on the principles God expects His people to embrace?

The reason I ask is that, by default, we often presume that our circumstances have a direct correlation to the quality of our spirituality.  In other words, when our circumstances are oppressive, don't we tend to doubt God's goodness, or that we're doing what He wants us to be doing, or that we're anywhere close to being in the center of His will for our life?

Isn't it in times of great upheaval and dismay that we most often question our faith, or doubt God's goodness, or second-guess His faithfulness?

To be sure, when we make bad decisions, or intentionally sin, the negative consequences we will invariably endure testify to our poor choices.  But is "living the good life" automatically an endorsement from God of our decisions?

Don't plenty of evil people enjoy the luxuries of our world?  And don't plenty of earnest saints face oppression, pain, and grief?

How often do we pause and evaluate our own actions and motivations when we see our lives are going well?  Why do we automatically presume that the good things we experience are coming directly from God because He's blessing our choices?  After all, good things come to some dreadfully horrible people who have no business presuming God is blessing their sinfulness.

And when bad things happen to us, don't we usually recoil in confusion, fear, and doubt?  Meanwhile, perhaps, in some of these bad experiences, God may be wanting to display His mercy and love to us in ways we'd never appreciate if life was floating along all perfect and according to plan.

Might the misery God sometimes allows His people to experience be for us something more valuable than the good things we easily perceive to be blessings?

Not that we should necessarily feel guilty when good things happen to us.  But the good times might not represent for us the validation of our choices and actions that we think they do.

God allows the sun to shine and the rain to fall on both saints and sinners.  It's His providence that sustains His people no matter the weather.

Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria, the notable men of the first of the nations, to whom the house of Israel comes.  Pass over to Calneh, and see, and from there go to Hamath the great; then go down to Gath of the Philistines.  Are you better than these kingdoms?  Or is their territory greater than your territory, O you who put far away the day of disaster and bring near the seat of violence?  Amos 6:1-3

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.  I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound.  In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me.  - Philippians 4:11-13

Who among you fears the Lord, and obeys the voice of his servant?  Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord, and rely on his God.  Behold, all you who kindle a fire, who equip yourselves with burning torches!  Walk by the light of your fire, and by the torches that you have kindled!  This you have from my hand:  you shall lie down in torment.  - Isaiah 50:10-11

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Life Doesn't End at Death

"God heals all of our diseases."

Do you believe that?  Really?

Does God heal all - ALL? - of our diseases?

Psalm 103:2-3 exhorts us to "Bless the Lord... who heals all your diseases..."

That's what the Bible teaches, but do we believe it?  After all; people die.  We all die from something.  Some people die from accidents of some sort, and others die from unexplainable causes.  But most of us will die from sickness, whether it's heart disease, cancer, complications from Alzheimer's, or some other physical malady.

So how can the Bible teach that God heals His people from all - every single one - of our diseases?  Because, obviously, that healing most often will take place not here on Earth, but when we arrive in Heaven, to live with Him there for the rest of our lives.

And that's the key, isn't it?  "The rest of our lives."

The time you and I spend here on Earth is a drop in the proverbial bucket of eternity past and eternity future.  Our lives don't end when we die, do they?  But we often forget that.  We become so consumed with daily living and the pressures and rewards of our self-focused existence that it's easy for us to ignore the reality that death is a portal, not a conclusion.  Life continues beyond the grave.  What's different is the place where life will continue.

For those of us who Christ has redeemed, our lives will continue in Heaven.  For those who deny Christ's salvation, their lives will continue in Hell.  Most of us know this, or have at least heard it, even in the basest, most religiously colloquial sense.  Some people even joke about it.  No matter how illiterate our society is getting regarding Christianity in particular and religion in general, the concepts of Heaven and Hell remain widely understood, if not properly respected.

Yet God does not view life the same way we do, does He?  We tend to focus on the here-and-now, and our happiness or sufferings.  Meanwhile, God operates with an inestimably broader perspective of who each of us is, and our presence in His timeless reality - whether we'll be spending timeless eternity in Heaven with Him, or in Hell, with His fallen angel.

So when He promises to heal all of our diseases, He will.

Just, perhaps, not in our time here on this planet.

His perfect sovereignty reaches so far beyond our comprehension, we tend to wallow in disappointment when our loved ones battle some horrible disease.  Not that grieving is a sin, but begrudging God His prerogative to heal His own on the other side of the grave likely is. 

Disease is a direct result of the fall of man back in the Garden of Eden.  Some diseases we can bring on ourselves through our abuse of God's good things, like food and alcohol, but many more diseases can strike us through no implicit fault of our own.  Illness is a perversion of health and life brought about by Adam and Eve.  We are right to mourn its pernicious effects.

Ironically, although death is our entry into the rest of our eternity, God did not intend for death to be a "normal" part of life.  It's a popular saying, "death is a part of life."  But it's not, is it?  Death is another direct result of the Fall.  Death provides humanity a constant reminder of our proclivity for sin, even if our death comes to us through no immediate fault of our own.  Yet even in death, God's mercy can be found.  For people stricken with a terminal disease, death can be God's way of releasing His people from that disease, even though loved ones who remain here on Earth will mourn that person's passing.  It's natural - and indeed, fitting - to deeply miss people we've loved, and who've loved us.  But as 1 Thessalonians 4 exhorts us, we can mourn, but not as those without hope.

Indeed, our hope is in the fact that God will, at some point, reunite His people together with Him - and each other - in His perfect, healthy eternity.

In the 1843 hymn, "Come, Christians, Join to Sing," we're reminded of the totality of our existence, extending not simply through our time here on Earth, but throughout time itself.  Are we living with this future in mind?

Praise yet our Christ again,
Alleluia! Amen!
Life shall not end the strain;
Alleluia! Amen!
On heaven’s blissful shore,
His goodness we’ll adore,
Singing forevermore,
“Alleluia! Amen!”

"Life shall not end the strain."  Indeed!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Quality of a Life with Dementia

After seven years of helping my father cope with his senile dementia, I've learned a lot about the disease.  But after just a month of having Dad in a professional Alzheimer care facility, I've been learning even more.

Up Side of Down

For example, I've learned that an upside-down brain may bring some sort of comfort to Alzheimer patients.  At least two residents at this facility seem to derive significant relief from contorting their bodies so their heads are upside down.  Why else would they bend over so much that their bodies are actually folded in half, with their torso parallel with their thighs, so their ears are level with their ankles?

I've seen one woman hold that position more than once, sitting on a sofa, with the top of her head brushing the carpet on the floor, and frankly, I don't know how she does it.  Or how she can sit in that position for as long as she does - at least 15 minutes at a time.

Yesterday, I saw one poor man splayed feet-up across an upholstered chair, so that his head was propped just above the floor, his face burrowed in the chair's fabric skirt.  He'd figured out how to balance himself in that position so he wouldn't slide off head-first onto the floor.

Converse - Ation

I've also learned how fragile speech can become for dementia patients.  At least two residents who are staying at Dad's facility simply cannot speak coherently most of the time.

It's not that they're babbling or deranged; they appear to be trying to communicate normally.  They pronounce words correctly, and string them together into sentences.  They speak these sentences with a normal cadence, and if you didn't know the English language, it would sound like they're speaking in conventional sentences and paragraphs.  But the words they speak literally have zero relationship to each other.

For example, they could say "blizzard chair coming bathroom Chrysler soup," and look at you as though they're trying to say "it's a sunny day."

So I simply nod and reply, "yes, that's interesting," or something like that.  I've tried to find some thread of meaning that might be running through the words, but there's little point.  Theirs is merely another example of trying to function, but being deprived by dementia of the ability to do so.

One day, Dad was having a conversation with one of these residents - she kinda looks like Mia Farrow - who cannot speak coherent sentences, and I discovered that their entire vocabulary consisted of the word "yes."  Back and forth, between the two of them, with only one word.  Dad can still speak normal sentences, so I'm not quite sure what he thought he was doing, saying "yes" all the time, in response to the other resident's "yes."  Yet somehow, they seemed to have some purpose in their exchange.  Otherwise, why continue to say "yes" back and forth?

Actually, many dementia patients have an extremely limited vocabulary.  There's one tall, slender woman who silently walks around the Alzheimer facility all day, every day, patting on the handrails that line the hallways, and patting on people's shoulders and arms as she passes them.  I call her "Patricia."  You can be a complete stranger, like I used to be, or a fellow resident of hers, and she'll softly pat you without saying anything.  In fact, I'd never heard her speak, but one day, she tugged at a belt loop on my pants, finally murmuring that it must be a "tear" in the fabric before she walked on.

That's still the only word I've heard from her.

Not that Patricia can't communicate well, however.  One afternoon, I went into the secretary's front office to ask her something, and Patricia was sitting, motionless, in one of the chairs facing the secretary's desk.  The secretary explained that earlier in the day, she'd accidentally hit Patricia's foot while pushing a wheelchair-bound resident, so Patricia was spending the rest of the day in the secretary's office, glaring silently at her in protest.

"I keep apologizing to her," sighed the secretary remorsefully, "but this is my punishment."

Red Dress

Red seems to be an important color for dementia patients.  I've already told you about Shirley, and her ubiquitous red cardigans.  Well, one day last week, the normally cheerful Shirley was uncharacteristically glum.  A daughter of hers was visiting with her in the lobby, and I heard her ask her mother why she wasn't wearing her customary red sweater.  I don't know if there was a correlation between Shirley's sour mood and the fact that she wasn't wearing her red sweater, but the next day, the red sweater was back, and so was Shirley's good mood.

Some studies suggest that dementia can affect the color spectrum of a patient's eyes, which makes the color red particularly recognizable to them.  It's been said that red tableware helps finicky Alzheimer's patients eat more, and putting water in red glasses helps them stay better hydrated, because they'll more willingly drink from red containers than clear ones.

At Dad's Alzheimer facility, Patricia once tried to take my raincoat, which is red.  She started patting it and stroking it as it lay across my arm, but then she started pulling insistently at it, without saying anything.  I gently told her that I was going to need the coat when I went back outside, so she finally relented.  Another time, Mom was wearing a red coat, and another resident picked at it, raving admiringly yet incoherently about it.

Otherwise, nobody seems to care what we wear.  In fact, none of the residents seem to care what they wear, either.  One poor lady, who can't control the awkward stretching her arms and neck force her to do at inappropriate times, usually wears a thin nightgown no matter the hour.  Another woman - who must have early-onset dementia, since she's probably in her mid-50's - wears pajamas most of the time.  As long as residents are modestly covered, the staff of this facility, along with the residents' relatives, don't make much of a fuss about the time of day certain items of clothing are usually worn out in the "normal" world.

The staff does the laundry for all of the residents, and sometimes, clothing gets mixed up.  We'll find Dad wearing other peoples' shirts and pants, but he doesn't realize it.  I'm not even sure he realizes he wears a fresh change of clothes every day.  When he was at home, however, he'd get furious with Mom when she'd ask him to change out of the shirt and pair of pants he'd worn every day of the past week.

Among the residents, the concept of private property ownership is taken loosely anyway.  Residents commandeer wheelchairs and walkers whenever they need them, regardless of who actually owns them.

One lady has a fondness for Dad's four-footed cane, yet she doesn't know how to use it.  She'll wander around holding the cane horizontally in both of her hands, like she would a baton.  Maybe she was a cheerleader in her younger days.

Canes seem to be frowned upon in the Alzheimer care world, since they're inferior at preventing falls for users who aren't aware of their brain's inability to judge balance.  Dad is the only resident I've seen with any sort of cane.  Many ambulatory residents have fancy wheeled walkers, but Dad can't figure out how to use them.

I think we're expected to provide Dad a wheelchair for those times when he needs one, but so far, the residents trade out their equipment so freely, Dad's been able to get his occasional ride without any fuss.

Going Home

Unfortunately, Dad fusses about more serious things.  Like wanting to leave.  Just yesterday, as we arrived for our afternoon visit, we caught him at an emergency exit door near his room, having already tripped an alarm by trying to escape into a fenced side yard.  As two staffmembers came running to corral their charge, Mom and I herded Dad back to his room, with Dad mumbling crossly about all the fuss we were making.  "I was just reading the directions on the door," he fumed.

Sure enough, on every emergency exit, there are big signs required by city safety codes with detailed explanations about how the door works.  It's the ideal recipe for encouraging escapes:  take a bunch of people who don't understand why they're being kept confined, and mix in some doors with bold instructions about how to exit through them.

"Just because these people have Alzheimer's doesn't mean they can't read," an exasperated staffer once told me, as her co-workers were running off to yet another open-door alarm in the building.  The owners of the facility have tried reasoning with city officials to make the doors less straightforward for their residents, but to no avail.  As long as a resident can wait the 15 seconds the signs say it takes for the door to open - and the alarm to sound - they'll keep doing it.

Homeward Bound

Indeed, as diverse and individualized as each resident's case may be, they all share at least one common trait:  nobody wants to stay there.  Sure, not everybody gets to break out into the fenced side yards; many have degrees of dementia so debilitating that they can't figure out how to work the emergency doors.  Others are confined to wheelchairs.  Yet if they all could leave, I suspect they all would.

Where would they go?  It depends, of course.  But they may not want to go where you think they would.

When Dad still lived in his house, where he'd lived since 1978, he'd nevertheless be pining for "home."  We learned that "home" often meant one of two apartments in which he'd grown up in Brooklyn.  Alternatively, "home" also came to mean Heaven, since Dad's strong faith tells him that when he dies, he'll immediately be in the presence of Jesus Christ.  I've come to understand that for a dementia patient, "home" becomes anyplace where they'd be free of the prison that their dementia is building for them.  And in Dad's case, he still seems to know from decades of trusting in Christ that the only true freedom for which he can hope will come through his physical death.

Not that dementia patients have the capacity to strategize their own suicide.  We often say that only crazy people kill themselves, but dementia patients aren't crazy; their memory has simply short-circuited.  You'd think that, since all forms of dementia eventually lead to death, suicide might be a popular escape for dementia patients.  For those of us still in possession of our mental faculties - relatively speaking, of course - the act of suicide is at least something we can conceptualize, even if we'd never consider it for ourselves (read an exception to this rule here).  For dementia patients, however, suicide seems to be one of the many things about which they've completely forgotten about.

Except for our friend Shirley.  During that uncharacteristically gloomy day of hers, Shirley told me she wanted a pistol so she could shoot herself in the forehead.  Of course, Shirley is one of the most verbal and animated residents at this Alzheimer facility, so she's hardly representative of her fellow residents.  And Shirley's mood didn't last, either.  Sure enough, after a staffmember overheard her and calmly purred that "nobody's shooting themselves here today," Shirley let the idea slide.  At least for a while.

The longer I'm exposed to this place, the more I see how it's not just a job for the people who work here.

Although my Dad and his fellow residents are staying at a for-profit memory care facility, there's more to this side of the healthcare industry than simply money.  There's a whole philosophy about how sacred life is.

At least two residents at this facility are completely bed-ridden.  They can't move; their faces, arms, legs, and hands appear to have frozen into odd contortions.  I've never even seen one of these profoundly immobile residents blink their eyes.  Staffers must have to give her some medication to keep her eyes moist.  Each of these patients simply lays there, their mouths open or closed, their eyes not focused on anything.  Yet the staffers wheel them about the building on mobile beds, making sure they're included in the day's various activities, and otherwise treating them with respect, dignity, and purpose.

Indeed, life isn't over until it's over.  And while none of the lives being lived out in this Alzheimer's facility display cognitive attributes anybody would desire for themselves, there exists a persistent degree of reluctance to admit that the battle for life's sanctity is over.  Nobody seems willing to admit that these people have become so burdensome to society, so unnecessary, so impractical, and so unlovable, that their mortality should be terminated.

Statistically, the bitter reality is that an average stay at this facility is two relatively short years.  And those two years comprise the final two years of a patient's life.  Sure, companies make profits off of dementia, and the cynic could say that it's only when somebody can figure out how to make money out of an illness, that care is provided for the people who suffer from that illness.

Still, there is a remarkable difference between an empty room at this Alzheimer facility, and a room with even one Alzheimer patient in it, fast asleep, or so lost in the haze of dementia that they don't even know you're with them.

And that difference, of course, is life.

It's not just a cliché.  In our performance-oriented society, dementia's victims may appear to be anachronistic.  Something far less than productive, or worthwhile.  Nevertheless, dementia's victims still possess a quality worthy of our respect:  life itself.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Meet Shirley, in the Red Sweater

We met her coming in the front door.

We were coming in, and she was going out.  Or, at least, she wanted to be going out.

Mom and I were visiting Dad at his new Alzheimer facility, and we'd just opened the front door, for which a security code is required.  Entering the facility's airy lobby, we immediately encountered an elderly yet sprightly woman wearing a red cardigan.  Mom and I hadn't even closed the door when she began to speak.

"My husband has gone out to get the car, so before you close the door, please let me go wait for him," the red-sweatered woman requested.

She looked normal enough to me.  The sweater, her crisply-tailored slacks, her curly hair done just so, her pink nail polish and makeup properly applied; Dad had only been at this Alzheimer place a day, yet I'd already realized that just about everybody living there displays an appearance varying from modestly disheveled to unnervingly bizarre.  This woman, however, looked fine and healthy, and she spoke without the slightest hint of deceit.

Mom, nevertheless, wasn't convinced.  "I think we need to shut the door," she whispered.  So I did.

A few moments later, we met a staffmember of the facility at the other end of the lobby.

"So; you've met Shirley?" he grinned.*

Apparently, Shirley stations herself by the front door most days, and spends her time sizing up the people coming in and going out, trying to figure out who she might be able to bluff into letting her out.  "She thinks she runs the place," another staffmember joked to us, since even when she's not at her usual post by the front door, she takes upon herself the role of mother hen for her fellow residents who are far less socially proficient.

One morning, while strolling the quiet hallways searching for Dad, Mom and I met a female resident wearing a Maine t-shirt.  She was walking the halls with her husband, who is not an Alzheimer patient.  Mom grew up in Maine, and we learned that this resident also came from Maine.  Immediately, they began chatting about the towns, lakes, and regions of their childhood memories. 

Shirley happened to be around the corner; out of our sight, but not out of earshot.  Apparently, Shirley heard people talking about land and property, and she couldn't help herself:  She burst around the corner, interrupting the conversation with offers to sell her farm to whomever wanted to buy it.

Mom, this other resident, and her husband were confused.

But I burst out laughing.

I already knew a lot about Shirley's farm.  On an earlier visit, when Dad was resting in his wheelchair in the lobby, Shirley had given up her post near the front door and come over to chat with us.  Of course, having lived with a dementia patient for seven years myself, I've gotten used to filtering everything they say with skepticism, since their version of reality and history can be unintentionally distorted.  Nevertheless, Shirley was convincing in her tale of once owning a large farm, parts of which flanked both sides of a country road.  After her husband passed away, Shirley had sold the part of the farm on the other side of the road, even though the house on that piece of land was newer and modern.

"I liked the older, bigger house," Shirley explained, referring to the farmstead's original domicile, "even though I didn't need all that space.  Besides, that part of the farm was blackland, which is real good for crops.  I wanted to keep the blackland."

Made sense to me.

"Did you see my car outside?" Shirley anxiously inquired, instantly switching the subject.  "I have that brand-new Cadillac, but nobody ever drives it!  I've got that Cadillac just sitting out there!  It's still there, isn't it?"

I hadn't seen a Cadillac in the small parking lot out front, but neither did I see any harm in playing along.  "Nobody's moved it," I assured her.

"That's good," sighed a relieved Shirley.  "I've got two daughters, but they hardly ever come to see me.  Everybody's so busy nowadays. I hate having that Cadillac just sit out there with nobody driving it."

Late yesterday afternoon, Mom and I had just come through the front door into the lobby.  Our red-sweater friend had been taking another breather from her place near the door, standing instead across the room near the fireplace, and when she saw us, she came across the lobby.  At first, I thought she was going to greet us, but she walked right by us, without acknowledging us.

"My girls are coming to see me!" Shirley happily announced to nobody in particular.  "I see my girls!"

And sure enough, right behind us came a middle-aged woman and a man who was apparently her husband.  Shirley greeted the woman affectionately, but barely acknowledged the man.  By the way both the woman and man acted, Shirley's daughter and son-in-law were no infrequent strangers to the facility.  With dementia patients, however, the discouragingly short duration of their attention span denies them the comfort of knowing that loved ones are with them more often than they remember.

Dad's been at this facility for a little less than a month, and so far, Shirley is the only other resident who regularly talks with us.  Several residents are ambulatory, or can navigate their own wheelchairs, so they're moving about the facility every time we've been there, and the place is by no means deserted.  Still, the atmosphere, hijacked as it's been by Alzheimer's, is decidedly unique.

I've never before been around so many people whose brains are literally closing them off from interpersonal communication and interaction.  This facility has programs and activities that try to get its residents to participate in things together, like meals, sing-alongs, and question-and-answer sessions where residents call out words that begin with certain letters of the alphabet.  Yet only a couple of women ever verbalize their answers during the quizzes, and the sing-alongs are mostly muted mumbles by - again - just a couple of the ladies, in a room of maybe a dozen people.  And mealtimes?  From what I've seen so far, they're eerily quiet, too.

Today at lunch, for example, there was an elderly man slouched in a wheelchair alongside a dining table demanding "where's the food!" like that lady on the old "Where's the Beef?" commercials.  But otherwise, everybody was sitting quietly, and still; their faces displaying the trademark blankness of dementia.

At first, you'd be tempted to appreciate such model patience, but it didn't seem to be that they were being patient.  Being patient implies that one is exercising a certain measure of grace and tolerance while somebody else gets their act together.  No, with the exception of the one rowdy gentleman, these residents had some sort of mental button that had been set to "pause" while staffers bustled about them.

Patience is a virtue.  Blankness is simply sad.

Indeed, it's not just because of her ubiquitous red sweater that, within this sheltered tableau of crushing social dysfunction, Shirley stands out.  And to me, at least, she provides some much-appreciated relief.

Even if she herself cannot disguise her own struggles with dementia.

"I'm going to visit my mother this afternoon," she cheerfully told Mom and me the other morning.  "She's 400 years old!"

"Four hundred years old?" Mom exclaimed.

"No - she's four hundred and ten," Shirley corrected herself, as if at Mom's prompting.  "Yes - 410!  Shame on me for not remembering my own mother's age!"

"Wow," I marveled, "She's sure lived a long time, hasn't she?"

"Yes!" Shirley replied, beaming with pride in her mother's longevity.  "She's got a lot of get-up-and-go in her.  And so do I!"

And with that, Shirley grinned broadly, with a twinkle in her eye, raising a well-manicured fist into the air, like she was charging off to battle.

If only she could slay the enemy that is destroying her brain.

* "Shirley" is not her real name.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Who Cares if Your Husband Isn't Gay?

Who cares if your husband isn't gay?

A mix of conservatives, evangelicals, Mormons, and gay-rights advocates are getting all hot and bothered over an otherwise flimsy show scheduled for Sunday, January 11 on the cable channel TLC.  Provocatively entitled, "My Husband's Not Gay," the show has succeeded in drumming up a lot of free publicity by coyly pitting religious conservatives against social liberals and letting them duke it out in the court of public opinion.

And like reliable, predictably reflexive machines, prominent conservatives and liberals have taken the bait.  What was otherwise probably going to be barely a blip on the cable TV radar screen has turned into its own media circus before it even airs.

The show's premise involves same-sex feelings a select few Mormon husbands profess to have despite also professing to be happily married to women.  One woman each, at least.  So liberals say the show depicts intolerance towards gays by portraying homosexuality in a negative, deviant, and undesirable light.  And conservatives say people of faith should have the right to act on that faith without being accused of being intolerant.

It's part of the antagonistic dialog that has flooded much of our post-Modern, post-Christian world recently.  Ours has become a jaded civilization of misguided universalism, haughty narcissism, and individualized moralisms, in which religious dogma is considered quaint at best, or destructive at worst.  Witness the panic being visited upon France this week, as bloodthirsty jihadis slaughter cartoonists few of us had ever heard of before, hold hostages in multiple venues, and kill an injured cop at point-blank range.  See what religious devotion can inflict upon society?

Yet, is promoting "My Husband's Not Gay" an expression of religious devotion, or reckless haranguing?  Baptist professor Denny Burk calls the liberal backlash against "My Husband's Not Gay" a form of anti-religious propaganda.  Another popular Baptist, Jim Denison, is more cautious, but he drops another "P" word - persecution - when writing in support of TLC's show.

As a member of the Baptist church's more fundamentalist flank, Burk describes socially liberal critics of TLC's show as intolerance against people of faith.  Denison, being more partial to moderate Baptists, says that Christians need to "earn the right" to share our faith, while both men casually give Mormonism the green light to claim that Joseph Smith's version of God's Word speaks for orthodox Christianity when it comes to homosexuality.

Meanwhile, God's Word has a lot more to say about marriage, sex, sexuality, and sin than merely the wrongness of homosexuality.  Should we be spending so much effort only criticizing the two percent of our population that is gay?  Consider the firestorm currently in Atlanta, where religious conservatives are up in arms over their mayor's firing of the city's fire chief, a Baptist deacon who self-published a book on sin.  Apparently, he briefly described homosexuality as a sexual sin, but he was pointedly sensationalistic when he did so.  In a sentence that is technically accurate yet intentionally incomplete,  Kelvin Cochran, the former fire chief, listed sodomy, homosexuality, lesbianism, pederasty, and bestiality as being "opposite of purity."  But he failed to also include forms of sexual perversion in which heterosexuals far more frequently engage, such as lust, fornication, and adultery.

Do you see the problem?  By focusing on sexual activity that many religious conservatives personally find offensive, such as homosexuality, the topic of Biblical sexuality becomes an "us-versus-them" scorecard.  Sin becomes a sliding scale of sexual deviance, instead of an all-or-nothing metric by which God's holiness is valued, and our holiness should be pursued.  It also becomes easier to sell conventional religious audiences on the truth that homosexuality is a sin, rather than the many forms of heterosexual adultery which are far more commonplace in virtually any church or Bible study group.

Alienating people you apparently don't care much about can seem to carry a lot less risk than preaching the same truth about sin to people who are supposed to be just like you.

Who cares if your husband isn't gay?  Whether your husband is gay isn't the issue here, is it?  Is your spouse lusting after anybody?  Is his sexuality piqued by anybody else of any gender?  What difference does it make if your spouse is attracted to or titillated by anybody or anything other than the person to whom he's married?

Focusing on homosexuality is deceptive in this case, because by default, you're diluting the perils posed by any marital sin.  Marital sin isn't just homosexuality, it's any form of adultery.  Right?

Besides, if your husband happens to have some sort of latent attraction for other men, is that something you should be promoting from the rooftops, or national television?  How does that promote marital harmony?  Do we have shows about fat men called "My Husband's Not a Glutton"?  Or shows about talkative men called "My Husband's Not a Gossip"?

And let's not forget another big problem in this flash-in-the-pan debate:  Since Mormonism is a cult, don't Christians need to be exceptionally wary?  Mormons talk about sin, salvation, purity, and marriage in ways and with doctrines that are unsupported by Scripture.  America's increasingly potent dialog over gay marriage and sexual morality may scare some evangelicals into trying to forge political alliances with anybody who sounds halfway sympathetic to Biblical virtue, but Mormons are not our theological friends.

And to carry the marriage metaphor, "My Husband's Not Gay" isn't worth getting unequally yolked over.

Sure, defend religious speech if you want, but let's not drag a myopic, one-sided sexual purity debate into this one.  If, as Denison claims, we orthodox evangelicals need to "earn the right" to advocate for Biblical truth in the public square, is getting all sanctimonious over "My Husband's Not Gay" a good way to do it?

Monday, December 15, 2014

Longing for Yesteryear

When was your yesteryear?

Was it several years ago, when your children were younger?  Was it a couple of decades ago, when you graduated college, or got married?  Was it half a century ago, when the world seemed to be a far simpler place?

My yesteryear was two months ago, back when my father's dementia was merely stressful.  My yesteryear is the beginning of November, when Dad could still recognize me as his eldest son.

Before he began accusing me of being evil.  Of being Satan.

My yesteryear is even before he began to believe I was going to kill him.

Starting on Thursday evening, and every night since then, Dad has prayed out loud to God for peace as he prepared for me to murder him.  Every evening, in what is called "sundowning" (the process in which dementia patients react in disturbing ways to nightfall), Dad now lives in profound fear.  Fear of Mom, fear of me, and fear of what he thinks we're going to do to him.

He shakes in agony, his voice cracks, he sobs without tears.  He whispers disbelief at how his life is about to be stolen from him.  He prays to God defiantly so I can hear that however I kill him, as he truly expects, I'll know I can't kill his spirit.

You don't see any of this on the Alzheimer websites.  You see lots of information about walking with Alzheimer patients through their earliest memories, but there's nothing about how to handle a loved one who believes you're about to murder them in cold blood.

My yesteryear is the time - about three weeks ago - before Mom began getting so afraid of Dad, and what he might do to himself and us, that she began calling 911.  She's called them three times now, and each time, the police come out and quietly try to diffuse our situation.  The first two times, it worked:  Dad calmed down and his fears subsided.  Saturday night, however, he began arguing with the cops, and I finally encouraged them to leave, since no progress was being made.

Yesterday afternoon, we experienced the earliest onset of Dad's sundowning, with the questions and fear beginning at about 5:00.  He'd scowl at Mom, asking for her identity.  He'd glare at me, disbelieving anything I told him.  I found one of his CDs of hymn music and played it, watching his face sink into his hands, as if in prayer.  Mom and I looked at each other, smiling to see him asking God for peace in the midst of his confusion.

Then he raised his head and looked defiantly at both of us.  He declared that he was ready for whatever harm we were about to inflict upon him.  We then realized he'd been praying for the faith and courage to face his imminent death.

Mom choked back tears.

I silently chided myself for being so gullible as to hope a simple thing like playing soothing music could intercept his worsening dementia.

My yesteryear was when Dad merely forgot that his sister no longer lives in Brooklyn, where they had grown up.  Every time they spoke on the phone, Dad would ask her three or four times where she lived, since the experiences she told him about her day had nothing to do with the old neighborhood.  Last night, for the first time, he angrily told her she was lying to him, and tried to hang up the phone.  Mom grabbed the receiver from him and commiserated with my aunt over what had just happened.  Dad had turned on his own sister, the last person alive who can relate to their family's childhood experiences.

My yesteryear was an almost unbelievable one or two inches ago, back around the beginning of November, when I couldn't wear several old, old pairs of denim jeans.  I fit comfortably into them now, thanks to all the weight I've suddenly lost.  Because of my constant anxiety, my appetite has shriveled up, and so has my waistline.  I'm still hungry, but I can barely brace myself for whatever new hell we're going to face each evening with Dad's condition.

My yesteryear was when Dad refused to go to church because he didn't want anybody to see that he needed to use a cane.  On Sunday mornings, after breakfast and before the time he and Mom usually left for their church, he'd feign an illness, such as being too tired or dizzy.  But then, as soon as I announced that Mom had left for church alone, suddenly he was chipper and professing that he felt fine.

My yesteryear was when Dad fought with Mom and me for trying to help him take a shower safely.  It could take half an hour to coax him into the bathroom to take a 5-minute shower.  And those strategically-placed handrails Mom paid some contractor a ridiculous amount of money to install in their bathroom?  He would disdainfully use them only after I'd repeatedly remind him of their obvious presence.

My yesteryear was back when Dad didn't fear me as his potential killer; he merely considered me the bad guy in our household; the person upon whom most of his anger was directed.  Mom and I had learned that because of the confusion and anxiety dementia patients experience, they tend to direct their resulting anger towards one of their caregivers.  Usually, that unfortunate target of their anger is their spouse.  Yet in our case, since I'm living at home with them, as the overweight, underemployed son, I caught most of Dad's vitriol.  And that was okay, since it usually spared Mom from even higher levels of stress.

But those days appear to be over, and long gone.  When sundowning begins, both Mom and I are equal-opportunity targets for his scorn, vitriol, and outright ugliness.  Some experts say we should nurture Dad's childhood memories and walk through his version of reality with him, validating his humanity despite his confusion.  Unfortunately for us, however, Dad's childhood was irreparably scarred by an alcoholic father.  There is little in his earliest memories that is good.  Years ago, during one of his extremely infrequent mentions of his father, Dad told us that the day he came home from work to find his father dead in their apartment's foyer, there was such profound relief in his family, it took a while before anybody figured they should call somebody to remove the body.

Fortunately for us, there's an elder at Mom and Dad's church who has willingly come over on each of these past few nights and helped to calm Dad down.  This elder, Ron, has a remarkable knack for chatting through topics to find nuggets of relevance that can engage the person with whom he's talking.  With Dad, his only really good childhood memories involve watching Dodgers baseball games at Ebbets Field, and Ron, having grown up as an improbable Dodgers fan himself, despite being raised in rural Texas, can talk to him about the old players.

In my yesteryear, Mom once had me research and print off some information on the old Dodgers and their legendary players, but Dad read just a couple of sentences of it and then filed it someplace.  We haven't seen it since.

Ron is an engineer.  He was also military pilot, and has worked in several different industries, so he's accrued a broad and diverse history from which he can draw stories and anecdotes that touch on Dad's history in the military and employment in the concrete construction business.  Meanwhile, the life histories Mom and I each have are inextricably tied into Dad's.  And since he doesn't know who we are, he doesn't trust us when we talk - especially about experiences it's apparent he should remember along with us.  Mom and I try to talk with Dad like Ron does, but invariably, Dad becomes suspicious, and before long, he's denying what we're saying, and getting agitated.  I suspect that Mom and I are too close to him, even though he can't remember why we're close.  People like Ron are removed from his life just far enough so that there's a certain casualness to their relationship.

Chalk it up to one of the difficult ironies of dementia.  Dad would cheerfully chat away with telemarketers and willingly offer up his credit card information if we let him.  Yet he's fearful of us.  He convinces himself I'm going to murder him, yet he'd shuffle out the front door, off to who knows where in the black of night, if we'd let him.  He enthusiastically welcomes Ron into his reality, but he bitterly accuses Mom and me of holding him hostage.

In my yesteryear, I wasn't a hostage-holder.  I wasn't Satan.  I wasn't about to murder my precious Dad.

I want my yesteryear back, and everything it stood for.

In God's holy providence, however, even today's misery will soon become a yesteryear for which I'll likely pine as we descend ever lower into this netherworld called Alzheimer's.

Update - Sure enough; it's 4:09pm on Monday, and Mom and are getting ready to take Dad to the hospital, where his neurologist has arranged for him to be admitted before his inevitable placement into a nursing home.  As you might imagine, this is very hard.  Very.  Hard.