In the church we talk a lot about being the body of Christ in terms of all being valued the same, but used in different functions. We hear Paul’s analogy of how ridiculous it would be for the eye to say because it isn’t a hand it isn’t part of the body and agree that the eye is every bit as valuable to each of us as a hand. Sometimes we say it in a different way with more of a focus on serving others when we say, we want to be the hands and feet of Jesus or we see how others are the hands and feet of Jesus. While I believe these sentiments are true, I believe in the very neglected area of suffering we continually fall short in applying this analogy of being one body in Christ. It is intrinsically more fun to rejoice with someone who is rejoicing than to mourn with someone who is mourning, but if the view we have of ourselves in 1 Corinthians 12 is to show the collective people of God as one body of Christ and this image is to change the way we live our lives, then I think we need to apply that imagery to all areas of our lives.
Imagine we as one collective body are walking on a trail. It is a faint picture of what it should be. But since the fall in the garden and the loss of paradise, we have the joy of continuing to walk with God, only we will have troubles in this life. As we walk we commune with Him and with others, encouraging uplifting, exhorting, correcting, warning of dangers, etc. As we walk along we realize the day is going well, we’re singing, praising, praying, seeking wisdom for the future. When all of a sudden an animal runs out from the brush and bites the right leg. Knowing the rest of the body has enough to do keeping everything moving, the right leg decides to walk it off and just deal with it privately. In the meantime, the communication between members goes on swimmingly and all seems to be on the up and up. Only some time later and after miles of walking in pain, there comes a faint mention of the struggle. “Hey brain, it is probably nothing, but I cannot stop thinking about it because it does hurt quite a bit, but five miles ago an animal bit my ankle. I don’t think it was rabid, and I’m sure if I just keep walking, it will be fine, but just wanted you to know so you can pray it stops hurting.” “Of course right leg, we will all pray for you, I’ll put it on the prayer chain and send it to everyone via social media though I have not asked your permission because I ascribe to the notion that anything communicated in the form of a prayer request is spiritually kosher.”
The right leg really needed help, but because nothing practical was offered and it was the first mention of it, they are consoled with the realization there was genuine concern, and a truly felt encouragement that the pain will go away and soon it will get better. Only it doesn’t. After about three more miles the right leg mentions again the pain is intense and asks the left leg if they can help them. The left leg seems to be frustrated because they prayed about it three miles ago and the right leg hasn’t said anything since, so everything should be fine by now. The right leg apologizes and bottles it up again. Right about the time the right leg shrinks back into place, the left shoulder exclaims with glee a butterfly has landed on them. They praise God for being chosen and all the body including the right leg joins in the congratulating.
Seven miles later the right leg cannot stand the pain anymore. And because there has been no rest from the walking, the job continued to get done, but at a great cost. Right leg again tries to break into the conversation and again asks for help and prayers. Only this time it is met with anger for continuing to ask for help and still talking about something that should in all other’s opinions be over by now. The right leg is admonished through frustration to just take it to Jesus, because the body is done hearing about it. Only the right leg is confused because being part of the body of Christ, they thought they were bringing it to the figurative hands and feet of Jesus to be what He leads them to be. In solitary sadness and pain, right leg’s request for help becomes lost and fatally undeliverable.
The left shoulder tries to encourage the whole body by remembering the goodness of God at allowing such a beautiful butterfly to land on them all those miles ago and how it should encourage everyone that the blessings we wait for will happen. Left shoulder also for the first time relays how just a quarter mile before the epic butterfly landing, they had told God they would surrender all of their will to His. And thus the formula for victorious Christian living is reiterated and the right leg clearly has some soul searching to do. Only the right leg had not told anyone, but they prayed a very similar prayer of commitment at the onset of the journey, only the formula did not seem to be working for them.
All the body talked with delight about how the left shoulder was blessed and how God is merciful and gracious to give us any good thing at all. How a blessing for one is a blessing for all, and right leg should be happy for a fellow member of the body of Christ. How we all would be eternally separated from God were it not for His goodness and that the right leg should focus on all the blessings it has instead of a mere festering, throbbing flesh wound. And it wouldn’t hurt if they could be a bit more happy for left shoulder and stop being a complaining Christian.
With hot tears of anger and frustration the right leg asks why remembering something good is acceptable, but not being able to get away from ramifications from the past is not. Why a good thing for one is a good thing for all, but a bad thing for one is not a bad thing for all. Ignoring the question and with disgust the brain sends out another prayer request for the right leg to stop being selfish and to come back to trust in the sovereignty of God. And so the right leg begins to distance themselves emotionally, realizing the broken cistern they’ve gone to for help is no help at all. And if nothing should happen to any other part of the body like what happened to the right leg, the rest of the body will go on in collective oblivion to the struggle of holding the Truth of God’s goodness in the midst of those who choose to ignore pain based on their own selfishness.
I wonder if the reluctance to acknowledge the undesirable things in life that happen to others is a way of trying to keep our view of God in a way that will allow us to hold to the if then formula of Christianity. If we allow our view of God to be challenged, it takes away our control. If we trust a God that would allow suffering as he did for Job, Joseph, Paul, His son, do we think He is no longer good? If we can control our outcome by doing everything right we feel comforted. If even by doing everything by the letter, we still have suffering, where is the comfort in working hard for suffering?
We cannot keep bad mojo away, we cannot ignore what is for hopes of what we want to be or what it should be were it not for sin. We live in a world affected by sin. We cannot Christianize voodoo or superstition and call it a spiritual win. We cannot ignore the suffering of those who are needing us to mourn with them. We need to enter into suffering with them as we follow the example of our saviour. We need to work to learn how to encourage without hurting. We need to stop being selfish by hoarding and protecting our good thoughts, knowing by doing so, we are turning a blind eye to the suffering of those around us we are called to serve. May we as one body balance the joy of joy with the sorrow of sorrow, knowing the creator of all has grace enough for the day.
Imagine being unaware of who your loved ones are, or not knowing what to do when someone puts a toothbrush in your hand, or not knowing the words you once used to describe a sunset. This is the reality of some people who are living with dementia. They are truly drowning in a sea of forgetfulness. It can be a daunting experience to watch one’s mother or father lose their capacity to think or reason, to move or speak, to acknowledge that you are their child.
By 2030, it is projected that the U.S population of people over age 65, will double and by the middle of the century, 16 million Americans will be impacted by Alzheimer’s (Alz.org). The implications of 1 out of 8 baby boomers having Alzheimer’s, on my generation (the Xennials) is striking. This means, that for each baby boomer that has Alzheimer’s, 1 or more of my peers will be tasked with taking care of their parent that may or may not remember they are their children. To be forgotten by old classmates, neighbors, or a beloved teacher is one thing, but to be forgotten by your parents is another. To be forgotten by the very ones that helped to shape your own sense of identity is a hard pill to swallow.
But, this sea of forgetfulness can be a double edge sword for those who will be the caretakers. On one hand, it is a burden to face the reality that some of the very memories that shaped you, that made you who you are, may be forgotten by the ones closest to you. This realization can lead to one enter into an anticipatory grieving process (long before the loved one ever dies a physical death). On the other hand, this sea of forgetfulness, requires you to enter into a new kind of relationship with your loved one. It requires you to truly enter their world, to see their world from their perspective, which sometimes shows up like disconnected puzzle pieces. And it’s not our job to put the puzzle pieces together for them, but to hold the pieces they give us, to explore these pieces as far as they will go. This sea, requires us to not be afraid to sink in and lose touch with our own reality, in order to enter theirs.
As a chaplain, providing pastoral care to people with dementia, I have found music and religious rituals seem to be “sticky memories”. There are residents I work with that may never enter into a full substantial conversation with me, they may not always remember the names of their children but if you sing a familiar song (maybe a hymn of the church, or even a song from their school days) or begin reciting the 23rd Psalm or the Lord’s prayer, they have no problem reciting it line by line. These things miraculously have not been drowned in the sea. Which makes me think even more deeply about the importance of cultivating one’s spirituality while we have the full capacity of our minds and bodies. I’m beginning to believe that maybe it is the spirit that somehow keeps one’s head above the water when the mind and even the body seems to be drowning in the sea of forgetfulness.