The Elevator is Slow…

An-older-woman-in-her-whe-006as 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.

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By the Time…

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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.

 

In My Younger Days…

I would leave the house in the wee hours of the morning. A little latch release here and a small push on the screen and I was out.

I meant no harm. I simply walked the streets of my town and enjoyed the alone and the quiet. The dark was cool and pleasant and while the rest of the world was asleep I was awake with my thoughts, my dreams, and the shadows.

Often I still wake up in the earliest part of the morning and while I most often don’t leave the house I will quietly slip out of bed and think about the world. It can be a time of prayer as the stillness of the hour lends itself to such things. I think of people, they dance in and out of my mind, and I mention them to God. Some are close to me and within my day to day life. Others I haven’t seen in decades. Yet the names come to me and I think of where they are and what they’re doing and how life has been for them and give God their name. He knows what I do not and He can care for them in ways that time and distance prevent me from doing.

This may be one of those nights, a night when God nudges me awake at a time when the cares and noise of life are few and far between and there is time for us to talk. While the quiet settles over St. Paul and the old day becomes the new is a holy hour, a gift better than any dream and rest beyond sleep.

Loving the Church

Every Sunday there’s a pulse in my life, a once a week heartbeat on Sunday morning. It’s been that way since before I was born and it’s rarely skipped a beat. A kind of timeless rhythm that ties everything together, two hours or so to live in a different world, to be in church.

It’s not about it being pleasant all the time. There are times I’ve been to church when I wanted to be a million miles away, my body present but my heart in a far away place. There have been times, even as a Pastor, where I just wanted to pull the covers over my head on Sunday morning and sleep until Monday. There were times when just being in the building made me feel guilty and unholy.

Still, every Sunday if you want to look for me I’ll be there and a large part of it is because it’s there that I also find a quiet place often distant from a confused and crazy world. It is there, as well, that the timeless river of faith has a home. It is also there that I have heard words that heal me and mercy beyond my own brokenness. It’s in holy temples that God shares life with me.

I suppose that’s why I’ve dedicated the larger part of my life to service in and around the church. I’ve been hurt in the church, for sure, but it’s also the closest I’ve been to heaven. An idealistic part of me has never stopped believing it it’s potential for good not so much because of the people inside but rather the One in whom the Church really is rooted. When the world around me darkens it is my, and I believe the world’s, refuge, a place that even the world at its worst cannot completely ruin.

One day, I suppose, it will also be the last building you’ll find me, one last time before going to where every day is Sunday.

 

 

 

We Live…

in a post truth culture. We can frame our positions and arguments for the Orthodox Faith by the strictest rules of logic and people will say “So what? That’s your truth.”

We live in a post authority culture so simply saying “This is what the Church has always taught” may have little or no weight with the larger society.

We live in a post knowledge culture and people may not even have the slightest idea of the words and terms we use or their context. How will we be able to speak of, for example, “Salvation” when the average person may have little understanding of what that word means, and especially how we mean it?

But people will, if they see what we believe demonstrated by the tangible outworking of our lives, at least have something solid to grab a hold of as they try to understand what we are saying in a world without truth, authority, or knowledge as they have been formerly understood.

In the end, therefore, perhaps one of the most profound and useful things we can do as Orthodox is to actually be, Orthodox.

 

Everything ends…

that’s just the way of things. A human life is marked by a series of endings as one chapter moves towards another. And, of course, at the end, is the end as we understand it.

Of course, when things are painful we hope we move quickly towards the end. No sane person desires endless pain and suffering. In our misery we cry out to God “When will this end?” Our question is reaction to our discomfort, our boredom, our suffering, and the sense that in it all time has stood still and we are without escape.

It’s the opposite when things are good and right. It is then we say “I hope this moment never ends.” It’s at that point where we would like to hold everything as it is and in place so that the peace, joy, and happiness we’re feeling would never cease to be. When it does come to a conclusion, as all things must, we are filled with a kind of melancholy for what might have been had that good moment in time not faded away.

Both of these things, I think, become more intense as we age because we realize as time passes that the opportunities to bounce back after a hard time or hold on to a pleasant time are increasingly limited as the actual span of our lives decreases. It is not very long into a human lifespan before we realize there is more behind than ahead and the time that remains is moving quickly. Sometimes that makes the painful times more intense and the leaving of precious moments more heartbreaking.

I think that this is perhaps the greatest gift of heaven because all that is hard and difficult in this life, even the things we brought on ourselves, ends as it is extinguished in the presence of Love itself. All that is good remains and enriched by that same Love. And until that day when heaven becomes real for us I think the only way to endure a life of endings is to live already, as it were, in heaven, to live eternally in the middle of time. If the endings still touch us, as they will, at least we have the knowledge that there is so much more than any moment in time, there is a forever and a timelessness that can give perspective and rest to those who understand and embrace it.