there is no perfect place, no perfect job, no perfect church, no perfect life. In everything and everywhere there will be moments of joy and moments of challenge and nothing will ever be just the way you imagined it would be no matter how hard you try.
There’s a kind of disappointment in this. Surely one thing in this existence could be at least close to what you imagine it’s supposed to be. Yet, while some things may come achingly close, nothing will ever be “it”. In fact the closer they come the greater the disappointment when the flaw that mars comes to the surface. Just when you thought you won the prize, the reality of life does something to pull it from your fingers. It’s, perhaps, one of the most maddening things about being human.
There’s also a freedom, though, in this realization. Accepting there is no perfect anything on this Earth and in this life gives the gift of wisdom, of patience, and a release from the tyranny of perfection into the cool waters of grace. One can be set free to enjoy that which is beautiful and release that which is less so when you realize that a normal life will have parts of both. The good can also become more precious and the harsh can be more temporary when you realize all things pass and see life through this window.
And then there is heaven which seems, as I grow older, to be less like any image I have of it and more like an existence where I can simply “be” as I was meant to be because the presence of God will fulfill all my expectations and heal the imperfections and unrealities of my life. One of the great gifts of getting older is that having seen so much of the world over the years one realizes the quiet ache in your heart on even the best of days is a sign there is more and better and it’s closer than you think. Stepping through that door you realize you’re more at home there than any place your travels in this world may have taken you. Every beauty here is a sign of a greater one to come and every challenge is a reminder of a larger day when all such things will pass.
Ghana is warm and humid, busy, and full of life. Street vendors come to you while you’re stuck in traffic and quiet towns rest in the tropical sun. Ghana is color, tins roofs, skyscrapers, a country emerging out of a colony, and everywhere is a fertile green.
Six hours out by air from Amsterdam and you arrive in Accra, the capital. More than a million souls live in and about this city and like every city it has gleaming high rise buildings, government offices, streets swirling with traffic, monuments, and slums. There’s an unfinished look because people build as they have money, each story rising when the funds are there and resting incomplete when they’re not. As in the villages a raw capitalist energy flows where everything can be purchased right on the street and all prices are subject to debate. When you arrive you can feel the place is ready to become something extraordinary, a city of the world in its adolescence.
It’s a deeply spiritual place as well, this Ghana. Put away the idea of some sort of pagan Africa from the past. Everywhere there are churches large and small. In some places its hard to find a tree or a billboard without a poster for a revival, church service, or an “apostle” promising spiritual renewal. Cabs and businesses overtly proclaim the faith of the owner and the radio stations are filled with religious broadcasting. Like the street markets where vendors vie for your business the spiritual market here is full, crowded, and full of variety. Jehovah’s Witnesses are here. Latter Day Saints have contructed a magnificent temple not far from the President’s home in Accra. Every street seems to have a church of one kind or another and if not a church a mosque.
In this place the Orthodox Church is relatively young, a matter of decades and not centuries. Like other Orthodox communities in Africa it was the product not so much of colonial missionaries but of the Africans evangelizing themselves in a search for the roots of Christian Faith. There are people still living who were part of that original group of searchers and their descendants have entered the spiritual world of Ghana with the vigor and challenges of a new community of Faith. Everywhere, like the rest of the country, there is something to build, something to grow, and dreams for the future. Everything is needed from nuts and bolts to seminary training. Everything is in the process of being built. Everything is new like a bird stepping from the nest and learning to fly.
Yet there is also remarkable seriousness and maturity about the Church in Ghana. They’ve weathered some challenging times. They’ve created beauty from scratch and are tuned in to the people they seek to serve. There is a wisdom in this place and a depth of faith formed in the crucible of facing and overcoming obstacles that few in our world of convenience could, or would, ever understand. It’s a young church of old souls with an intentionality about being the Church that reflects the very best of our ancient Faith.
And, if somewhere along the line you choose to travel to this place, this Ghana, it will become your school. You may think your work is to travel to teach and explain but the larger truth is that you will be taught and you will learn. You may ponder the romance of serving abroad but you will discover that the faithful of this country will make you crushingly aware of how much needs to be done right around your own home. Ghana will teach you the Faith. Ghana will teach you humility. Ghana will teach you joy. Sit in the silence of the Holy Transfiguration Cathedral in Accra and you will begin to understand.
as it travels to the little world that is 4th floor. Slow enough so that people in wheelchairs don’t have the doors slammed on them and slow enough to provide a moment of transition from everything below to everything above.
On the 1st floor are the offices and corporate things. Most everything is beautifully arranged with a view of the gardens and grounds. A post card serenity is there with a background of light Christian music. You imagine your grandmother there. Indeed, you can imagine yourself there some day, a suburban place of rest and relaxation where, after years of work and challenge, you can literally sit on a park bench and watch the lake change with the seasons. It’s that good.
As the elevator proceeds up each floor harder things become more apparent. People who are ill. People for whom the picture postcard of retirement turned into a scrum of illness, deterioration, and a single room with a few possessions and, if you are fortunate, no roommate. 4th floor, at the top, is where this truth of growing old and changing is where that other reality is most real.
Alzheimer’s disease is an illness of the brain. No one is quite sure how you get it and no one knows how to stop it. It kills you, eventually, but not before the person you thought you were gets slowly erased one brain cell at a time until your brain simply tells the rest of you to stop living. Even a cancer has a slim chance but right now there is no chance for the person with Alzheimer’s.
There are times when the very word is fraught with peril. Imagine the mixed emotions to be descendants of Dr. Alzheimer, the person who gave his name to this terrible thing because he began the process of figuring out what it was but also a name that can strike abject terror into the person sitting across from the doctor. If you hear that word, and the diagnosis is true, you will die but not before you change into something you wouldn’t recognize even if you could and the thought of it is a pain worse than any other illness.
The only respite is that eventually you won’t know what’s happening to you. The earliest stages are the toughest because you remain, for a while, aware of the changes, aware there is something terribly wrong happening, and you enter a world where nothing is the same even minute by minute. You can be lost within three feet of where you once stood and the people and places you knew slowly fade out of your comprehension, becoming thoughts you struggle to grasp and words that evade your tongue. As things progress you will lose control of your bowel and bladder and your speech, if it exists, will become gibberish. You may be able to smile but the rest of the world will become a blur where you are moved from place to place and tended to like an infant because, well, you are becoming one. The one good thing, perhaps, is that your death will be quite peaceful, gentle even, as the ravages of the disease give way to a simple falling asleep.
As you ride the elevator from 1st to 4th floor you prepare for this, the people who work as helpers and the families and friends of those who bear this terrible burden. What will I see today? How will this person, or people, I care for be when the door opens and I see them in this place? At best you hope they are at a certain place of comfort and peace. At worst you prepare for what you might need to do when the ravages of this disease turn ugly inside of them. Mostly it’s a little of each.
Some can’t take it at all. Family members who can’t bear the sight slip quietly off the floor never to be seen again until the very end. There’s too much trauma, too much loss, too much heartbreak to bear to look again. That’s understandable. Others are in for the long haul, women, mostly, who come sometimes every day and keep watch as their loved one slips away. Occasionally there is a husband and wife who have taken their vows to this end, a love that refuses to die even in the face of this monstrous thing.
And when you work on this floor, this place where the sometimes forgotten and forgetting have found shelter, you make up your mind to get through this day as best you can. Things will be messy, they always are. Yet, there will also be moments when love breaks through even the horrible reality of Alzheimer’s Disease. There is a quiet confidence that even though the people you care for will forget you and the world will as well (Who, in our cult of youth, wants to remember the suffering and broken?) that God remembers and good, even when it’s never noticed, still has an eternal quality to it.
So the elevator is slow, it has to be, but you press the button for 4th floor and stay the course.
they get to where I work they’ve already been through the system and this is pretty much the end of the line. Wards of the state, their illness, injury, or tragedy has brought them to the nursing home, the last stop in the medical/industrial complex.
Here they will have food, shelter, and medical care until the end. The least we can do, I suppose, for people who were once lovers, friends, workers, leaders, everything that any human being is, and now are laid low by the nature of things. In this place, stripped of most every possession except a room, or half of one, they will pass their days and rage, as the poet says, against the dying of the light.
No one wants to be here, of course, and everyone who is has a trail of loss that led, like bread crumbs on the ground, to this place. Provided by a long ago charity as a way to help the poorest find some dignity in their ending days this place has become the place of choice for world too busy to share the lives of those who have succumbed, as we must all, to the sometimes debilitating end of life. We’ve grown too old for our own good and we’ve added years for the sake of themselves and so we’ve come to this place, a charity for a culture so caught up in its own busy life that it hardly recognizes itself let alone its frail grandparents.
There is a certain sadness here. Those who’ve chosen to serve in these places know that we can never do all that needs to be done and meet every need. There are simply too many of them and too few of us. People who’ve already fallen through the cracks will fall again despite our best intentions. Everyone we throw our own life’s energy into will die no matter what we do. And we will watch it all from the time we clock in until the time we, often exhausted, clock out.
There is also, though, goodness and love here. It’s an imperfect system in an imperfect world but the people who care and have made this system their cause will also fill this place with a kind of love and goodness, both given and received, that only those within can completely understand. It comes mostly in fits and starts, moments in the continuum where a person who has traveled along the medical assembly line finds connection, rest, something to laugh about, or just a dry bottom to make them feel more comfortable. We’re all tired, the people who help and those who need help, but those moments are precious because they’re more real than any wealth and more human than can be possibly imagined.
Jesus is here, too. He just looks like an old man trying to move down the hall in a wheelchair after a stroke. One leg pulls, one arm tries to keep the wheels straight, and Simon of Cyrene is a young woman from Africa who works as a nursing assistant and helps him get where he needs to go. In its own way it’s a place close to God, close for the people who are ending their lives within it’s walls and close for those who serve God in the frailty and even the chaos of those who call this place, for lack of a better word, home.
In the end, it would be a better world if the old could stay with their loved ones for the entire journey and our culture would see that as a value and shape itself around this reality rather than keep the busy busier and discard those who no longer have the strength to make money. Until that time we have these places and the people who try to make the best of a bad situation. While you sleep we’ll keep the light, in all its forms, on and every time we clock on will be a silent witness to what makes us human in the best sense of the word.
Thoughts wandered while driving though the Minnesota backroads near Welch, a tiniest of settlements formed in 1860 with great hope on the banks of the Cannon river but now mostly a wide, but scenic, spot on the highway. Everywhere around the car autumn was settling in. Colors slightly changing. The sun dipping below the horizon ever earlier in the day. The cool in the air that reminds both man and beast that seasons are in flux.
As the road wound through the hills, thoughts followed the same circuitous route. Memories of a younger man so excited to go to seminary, so wanting to change the world, so sure the future was as wide and high and bright as the skies above a prairie farm. Amazing, the dreams of a young man with a Bible, a seminary degree, and the whole world in front of him.
Time has tempered that. The ideals remain. The hope is there. But as the years behind grow more than the years ahead experience has taught its lessons, sometimes gently and at times with great violence. It’s not that the world doesn’t need some major work. It’s just that great, broad strokes are most often not the way this is done and like it’s the work of ego to think that one person can rule the world it’s also ego to think one person can save it.
I don’t know if it’s wisdom, fatigue, or some combination of them but there’s a craving inside for the mundane, the every day. The young man’s dreams, illusions really, have been through the sausage maker of time and the result is things are both the same and different. Every ideal that spurred the young college graduate to not pursue a career in their field and take the leap to seminary remains but the applications have changed.
The world, in the end, is saved by the mundane, the everyday. Occasionally an apostle of some sort emerges on the face of the earth for a time and a place but for the most part the work of this Kingdom is done every day, a baptism here, a sermon there, a moment to help a struggler, even the seemingly endless meetings are a part of it. And there’s a craving inside for that kind of mundane, a parish, a home, a city, a place and the everyday life that once seemed like so much of a compromise and now seems like something that should have happened a long time ago.
In fact it did, and still is happening, but perhaps it takes a drive through the backroads near Welch to figure it out.