Sunday, May 15, 2022

The Unseen You

It's November 1781, and in a little town in the Uckermark region of the Kingdom of Prussia, there's a 47-year-old woman. She's dying. For the past 20 years since her late twenties, she's been diagnosed as mentally ill. Her neighbors have regarded her insane, a madwoman. No one who knew her could doubt there was something deeply wrong. You couldn't get a coherent word or thought from her. But this past month, the month leading up to her death, had been different. She'd seemed to wake up, to clear up, to return to her senses. Suddenly her mind was functioning healthily again – and not just barely, but resplendently. People from all over town rushed to visit her sickbed. In those final weeks, she was as well-spoken as a poet, as insightful as a philosopher, better than if she'd spent these last twenty years at the finest schools rather than in cognitive chaos. It astonished all who visited her – she was simply unrecognizable as the same woman they'd seen over and over for decades. Rejoicing in the will of God, she spent her final weeks in her right mind, then died a good and godly demise.1

Nearly five years go by. It's 1786, and at Bethlem Royal Hospital in London, England, a patient there, too, is on his last day. He's forty years old, and up until twelve years ago, he was a lieutenant in the British Royal Navy. But in the year before war had broken out against those ungrateful colonists across the sea, something happened to him. He went mad, they said – that's how one ended up in Bedlam. He lost his memory, to the point where he struggled to get his own name right when asked. His personality changed drastically: once the kind of man who thrived in military order, now he was constantly angry, raging, violent. So it went for these many years of his commitment at Bedlam. After his death, an autopsy would find incredible excesses of discolored fluid in his brain, with the brain tissue unusually firm and certain nerves looking abnormally stringy. But the day before he died, after several weeks of exhaustion, a calm came over him. He stopped his nonstop swearing, and began to think clearly. He begged that a minister should come to see him, to pray with him. He told the minister how he hoped God might see fit to have mercy on him in the last hour. Then, only then, did the lieutenant die.2

Both patients underwent a strange phenomenon known today as 'paradoxical lucidity' or 'terminal lucidity' – the rare occasion where, shortly before death, a patient with severe brain damage will suddenly reassert abilities that just shouldn't be physically possible for their brains to muster anymore. With centuries of case reports to go on, scientists still don't quite know how it happens. A few have ventured physical theories.3 But some wonder if perhaps it's evidence that there's more than the physical brain at play.4

A Scottish surgeon who studied the lieutenant's case file from Bedlam was convinced there was more indeed. He was sure that “reason and the testimony of God declare that in man, there is an immaterial substance which has a share in perception, thinking, and reasoning, etc. – a mind united with the brain,” and that “brain and soul... are joint agents in this world.”5 He was sure, too, that “the brain is... the corporeal organ whose health and entire structure are necessarily connected with all intellectual powers, all internal senses, and all the passions,” and that even “memory depends on the brain.”6 But in connecting these two points, he confessed that when it came to the relationship of brain and soul, “it is unknown how they are joined to us.”7

As for that woman in Uckermark, her case was written up a couple decades later by a German doctor, a bit of an eccentric, who said he knew of many similar cases, among patients not only with mental illness but with dementia, of paradoxical lucidity restoring forgotten memories and faculties for a time.8 He understood cases in terms of a mortal combat being waged between two sides of the human self: 'the inner man' and 'the outer man.' “The fresher and more vigorously the outer man vegetates, the more powerless the inner man becomes...; the more vigorously the inner man revives, the more the outer man must die off,” he remarked.9

And all of a sudden, that old German doctor sounds an awful lot like a much older apostle – though maybe not with the same meaning to their words. For Paul, likewise, sees two parts or aspects of us at work in life – and he also can call them 'the inner man' and 'the outer man.' “Though our outer man is wasting away,” he writes, “our inner man is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). This 'outer man' relates to “the things that are seen,” while the 'inner man' relates to “the things that are unseen” (2 Corinthians 4:18). But how?

What the Church has long taught is that you are not just a body, as the materialists of the world today will often argue. You are more than a body, you are more than a brain. But neither is your body just a tool you use, like a car you drive around the world but one day hope to sell off when it's at last totaled. You are a composite being: you are a body-and-soul. “A human is something composed of a soul and a body.”10 It takes both your body and your soul to fully make you, a single substance. Each relies on the other in this life, and human nature is itself incomplete wherever either the fullness of human soul or the human body is lacking.11

Now, your body – that seems understandable enough. Your body is material. A doctor can measure your body, weigh your body, run tests on your body, gauge your body's functioning. Your body is a physical object within the observable universe. When it has no soul, a body is called a corpse. As James says: “The body apart from the spirit is dead” (James 2:26). And your soul – that's harder for people these days to really understand. Your soul is the active principle that causes your body to cohere as a single organism, and which gives your body life, and which is the principle of all its powers. It's the body's substantial form, the defining entity that makes the body be what it is; and the soul is subsistent, able to endure the body's demise.12 But your soul is not material. We can't measure it, weigh it, run tests on it. Your soul is not a physical object within the observable universe. When it has no body, a soul is separated. That's the condition in which we can expect it to go to heaven (or, you know, elsewhere...) – but about it then, we probably know less than we tend to imagine.

Now, your 'outer man' obviously includes your body. So your body can waste away. And we all know that it's possible for your body to get sick with a bacterial infection or a virus, or go haywire in a cancer, or be hurt from sustaining trauma, or wear down with old age. Our bodies are awfully fragile – that's why Job speaks of us as living “in houses of clay whose foundation is in the dust, who are crushed like the moth” (Job 4:19). It's why Paul speaks similarly of our bodies as “jars of clay” (2 Corinthians 4:7), and why he says that “the tent that is our earthly home” can readily be “destroyed” (2 Corinthians 5:1).

So far, we follow. But a long line of solid Christian thinkers through the ages have added that your 'outer man' also includes those powers of the soul with which the bodily organs (like the brain) cooperate to function mentally in the world.13 The 'outer man' isn't just responsible for outward senses like seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling; it's also where more inward acts like imagining, estimating, remembering, feeling emotion, and being motivated happen.14 At least in the present life, the intellect – the soul – acts in these ways through the brain and the other organs of the body.15

We can see the body – whether the skin is lush and healthy or pale and discolored. We can count to make sure the outer parts are all there. We can look for bruises, burns, cuts, and scars, or verify their absence. Such things can be seen. With an X-ray, we can get images of the body's bones, to find whether they're intact or broken. With a CT scan, we can get images of the body's organs like heart or lungs as they work. Such things can also be seen. With an fMRI, we can watch changes of blood flow to the brain. With a PET scan tracking chemicals we inject into the bloodstream, we can monitor oxygen and glucose metabolism in the brain. While it doesn't let us zero in on individual memories or emotions, these are the next closest thing. Such things can be seen. And Paul reminds us: “the things that are seen are transient,” temporary, just passing by (2 Corinthians 4:18).

So what's left? What is there that doesn't have to waste away? That's the 'inner man.' And it's a part of you above even what we call the mind. It's your soul, specifically with its powers that don't rely on the cooperation of the body. It's been described as “the intellective part of man.”16 This part of you can't be seen, can't be scanned, can't get hooked up to a monitor. And this is something in you that won't break down into parts, won't lose its identity, won't waste away. “The things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18)

Paul distinguishes between acting “with my mind” versus acting “with my spirit” (1 Corinthians 14:15). Your spirit can act in certain ways, he says, even when your “mind is unfruitful” (1 Corinthians 14:14). Commenting on those words, one doctor admits that “the relationship between mind and spirit is fascinating yet poorly understood.”17 There are some things that the soul or spirit can do that, in the end, don't rely on the body's help, things for which the soul alone isn't just the principle but the subject, like universal reason and the will.18 Even a form of memory, distinct from the memories of sensory particulars, is found there.19 That's why, as one neurosurgeon writes from his own experience, “our higher brain functions defy precise mapping onto brain tissue, because they are not generated by tissue,” for there are “both material and immaterial powers of mind.”20

But then there are many things the soul, existing in the matter of your body, does only with the help of the body and its powers. The soul's higher operations, like intellect and will, engage with brain- and body-related operations (like memory and imagination) by enlisting, coordinating, and guiding them by harnessing the organ functions that make them up.21 Which means that, if those organs don't work right, then the operations they constitute won't work right either, so the soul won't be able to use them so smoothly. Even centuries ago, Christians knew that “if certain corporeal organs have been harmed, the soul cannot directly understand either itself or anything else, as when the brain is injured.”22 Everything we've learned about the brain since then has just helped fill in the details. Damage to the brain impedes mental powers like memory that, though rooted in the soul, the whole person only performs through the brain as his or her tool, since the soul's higher operations can't effectively enlist and guide those mental powers when the organs that support them are malfunctioning.23

So what does all this tell us? First, it tells us something supremely important about our loved ones (or future selves) who are mentally ill or disabled, or who have dementia, or even who are comatose. And that's this: they are not gone. So often, we look at someone in that condition and, if it's bad enough, we say, “He's not here any more,” or “She died away a long time ago.” I've read one dementia researcher write about how many caregivers have told him “they feel as if they are losing the person to a kind of living death.”24 I've also read a mental health chaplain who's watched this say that he fears if he one day has dementia, “my loved ones might abandon me because they think that I am no longer there, that I'm already dead.”25 But we have to understand: they'd be wrong. Just because the mind is unfruitful, doesn't mean the spirit isn't active. Just because memories and expressiveness and motion and many other things pertaining to the outer man are quite wasted away, it doesn't mean that the inner man has called it quits and fled the coop. If the body is still operating, if the heart is still beating, if the lungs are still breathing, if there's still any activity in the brain at all, then you can know for sure that the soul is still informing the body, still present as the active principle of life to the body; and if the soul and body are together, that really is the person, that's the same him or same her or same you as before.

And if that holds true for the most advanced stages of dementia, it's got to hold true for any lesser stage. The personality might change – for that's part of the outer man – but the personhood, relating to the whole self, is unchanged.26 Nor could this hold any less true for those with Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, psychosis – you name it. Conditions in the brain, relations in the environment, experiences of trauma might add up to interfere with or alter the bodily basis for the powers with which the soul tries to engage, but the soul is no less present than in the healthiest, brightest person you've ever met. Whatever the case, the person is definitely there and present, body and soul, even if some functions become disrupted, diminished, or damaged.

Which has serious implications for how we treat them. See, if we assume a person with dementia is less than a person, then we might convince ourselves he needs less care and attention, or is beneath considerations of pain and pleasure. But doctors have observed that even people with the most severe dementia “still value pleasant experiences such as eating tasty foods..., good aromas..., viewing beautiful scenes...”27 When we assume that dementia or a coma diminishes personhood, we assume our commitments and obligations to them no longer apply. We probably all know tales where people decide their marriage vows don't fully bind them to a spouse with dementia – “after all,” they might say, “my spouse is gone inside, and I've got needs I deserve to meet with or without him, with or without her.” I've read plenty of articles with such stories.28 But he or she isn't gone. That's still your husband, still your wife, fully, in this sickness as much as in any health. And to act on the opposite assumption and break solemn commitments is adulterous and a real harm to that spouse with mental illness or dementia or coma, whether or not they know it. So let this “marriage be held in honor among all,” as much as any other marriage, “for God will judge... the adulterous,” it's written (Hebrews 13:4).

When we assume a person with dementia is less than a full person, that he or she is somehow already gone, then we're likely to fail in treating him or her with the fundamental respect he or she is due. A loved one with illness or schizophrenia or dementia or in a coma is still made in God's image, still deserving of sacred respect. He or she is still a neighbor, of whom God commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). He or she is still among those of whom Peter reminds: “Honor everyone” (1 Peter 2:17).

We love and honor by trying to understand and appreciate what they might be trying to communicate.29 We love and honor by aiming to help them attend more to what they can do than what they can't.30 We love and honor by taking their preferences seriously, even when they can't express them in words.31 We love and honor by being concerned to avoid exposing them to unnecessary distress, discomfort, or embarrassment.32 And we love and honor by protecting them and tending to their enduring needs.33

And likewise, when it comes to our own sake, when we fail to understand the inner man, then maybe we make these situations out to be more terrifying than they need to be. Part of our fear of conditions like mental illness or dementia is the fear of losing our very selves – not just traits or capacities, but ourselves being lost in some way. But Paul's words imply that that can't happen. If you develop dementia, you will still be you. Sometimes maybe you won't feel like you, as you're used to feeling. Maybe you worry you soon won't act like the you that people recognize. Maybe you're concerned you won't remember your own story any more. But even if all that does happen, you cannot lose yourself. However much those things weaken and harm the outer man, the inner man – deeper than memory, deeper than experience, deeper than personality – won't be lost. As the old German doctor put it: “the eternal property of our spirit can be stolen from us by nothing.”34

Second of all, all this means that presence continues to be valuable. We also love and honor someone by being with them. The social self is so much more than the mental self. If someone you care for is in a coma, or in an advanced state of dementia, or delirious, or in some other way truly impaired, well, it doesn't actually matter if he or she 'knows' that you're in the room – it's still important to be there. The brain's response or the body's response to you might be inhibited, but who's to say anything of the spirit or the heart? One dementia sufferer writes it this way: “Please keep visiting me, even if I might not remember that you came before, or even who you are. The emotion of your visit, the friendly feelings you give to me, are far more important. … If I enjoy your visit, why must I remember it? … Isolation is a real problem for us.”35 One doctor has observed that, “for the most part, persons even in the most severe stages of dementia seem to do better when others pay attention to them, demonstrating that they are still social beings. … Contrary to what we might think, the gift of presence is perhaps most significant in the advanced stage of dementia.” Feeling that a visit doesn't 'count' if it isn't reacted to or remembered “may be precisely the wrong conclusion.”36

And then, third, Paul doesn't just say that the 'inner man' survives while the outer man is wasting away. Paul says that “though the outer man is wasting away, the inner man is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). And that's a more striking picture! The same processes of decay afflicting the outer man can be the occasion of more of God's grace for the soul. We should know, I hope, that that's true in bodily injuries and illnesses, where we can be matured and perfected “through suffering,” as the Bible says (Hebrews 2:10). But it's no less true in concussions, in mental illness, in dementia, or even in the depths of a coma. That whole time, the sufferings you or your loved one are going through can be a means of grace, an opportunity for the inner self to be in the transforming presence of God, relying on him in ways unmediated by the outer man and his powers.

For just as it helps a person with severe dementia to receive a visit from a friend, even if they don't recognize or even indicate awareness of the visitor, so a person is always open to a visit by God – even when it comes amidst silence, even when it comes amidst ignorance. The inner man, inner person, inner self can experience and relate to God even when that encounter is totally unknown to the mental powers, even when it isn't registering in our brains or making a memory or leading the imagination or causing any emotion at all. “Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls” (Psalm 42:7). Beneath this cloud of unknowing, that relation continues on unimpeded and pours renewing grace into the receptive soul in the inner man.

And so, as the outer man wastes away – as memories fade from view, as faces become unplaceable, as decision-making falters, as communication dwindles, as personality and behaviors change – even then, the inner man can be getting stronger, keener, even holier, as a result of this spiritual encounter with God unmediated by the outer man's powers. Such increases in holiness and inner strength may remain unseen, even to the person they're happening in. But though it may not look that way, sound that way, or feel that way, it can be real. A woman with dementia whose formerly sweet personality now seems angry and rude might very well be far holier now than she was before her behavior changed – for the behavioral change can be simply a result of the brain no longer giving the soul what it needs to express and act out what's happening within. The behavioral changes are the outer self wasting away, but the inner self, the inner woman, is day by day being renewed! Or take a man in a persistent vegetative state, attached to feeding tube and IV, heart monitor steadily beeping away, unable to eat or drink or speak or move or blink, with no conscious thoughts and maybe no earthly chance of recovery. Yet he may well be absolutely radiant in soul, attaining spiritual heights equal to Peter and Paul. The outer man, with so many mental powers, is clearly wasting away; but the inner man is day by day being renewed!

All that's just living out the pattern of our baptism: “We were buried with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Newness of life – it happens there where we're born again, and continues to grow day by day in the renewal of the inner person!

So, a quick recap: The outer you – including not just your body but also the mental powers operating through your brain – is vulnerable to the forces of decay in the world. They can get hurt, damaged, disrupted. But there is more to you than the outer you. There's also an inner you, an unseen you. Neither is more 'real' than the other. Both together is who you are. The body is the real you, the brain is the real you, but so is the soul, so is the spirit. And this inner you has an inner life deeper than memory, experience, and sensation. It's untouchable by the ravages of dementia or anything else. Disability, mental illness, dementia, coma – they can do a lot to handicap, weaken, harm, or break the outer you. But no matter how severe, there's nothing they can do to the inner you. Just the opposite: the wasting away of the outer you is where the inner you can be renewed, not just in extreme situations, not just once in a lifetime, but day by day. Dementia and other afflictions of the outer self can make the inner self shine all the brighter.

And there's more good news. All these things – injuries, cancer, mental illness, dementia, coma? Paul calls them all “a light momentary affliction,” and he promises it's actively “preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17). As one doctor chimes in here: “Though the troubles of Alzheimer's seem unending, the struggle is just for a short time. God promises us that our current sufferings are as nothing compared to the joys we will experience if we put our trust in him.”37 That's what the daily renewal is about: this inner renewal day by day is a daily foretaste as the glory swells toward its grand crescendo! And “we know that, if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed” – if our outer man totally wastes away – then “we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1).

Paul's dream is not for his inner man to float off on its own steam. Paul knows how intimately related body and soul are for completeness. He doesn't want his inner man to “be unclothed” and “found naked,” but “to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up in life” (2 Corinthians 5:3-4). Paul looks forward to a day of resurrection, when renewed inner man shines perfectly through rebuilt outer man, and he and we will all be more than complete in God. For “he who began a good work in you” – before the injury, before illness, before dementia, before whatever else – will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24). Amen.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

As Zion Was In Labor: Sermon for Mother's Day 2022

Today, people all over the United States of America observe and celebrate Mother's Day as part of our national calendar, honoring and thanking the essential contribution of motherhood to every human life. But twenty-six centuries ago, the mothers of Judah were not finding themselves celebrated – and it's not just because Mother's Day as a holiday is less than 150 years old, developing gradually from women's peace efforts in the aftermath of our Civil War. But Jerusalem in the year 587 BC was suffering woes Antietam and Gettysburg thankfully never knew. For by this time in 587 BC, Jerusalem was well over a year into an extended siege by the sons of the mothers in Babylon, and the situation was dire for the mothers in Judah. “The tongue of the nursing infant sticks to the roof of its mouth for thirst” (Lamentations 4:4). “Infants and babies faint in the streets of the city... as their life is poured out on their mother's bosom” (Lamentations 2:11-12). “Even jackals offer the breast, they nurse their young, but the daughter of my people has become cruel” (Lamentations 4:3). “The young women of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground” (Lamentations 2:10). Food supplies had fallen so short that malnourished mothers had nothing in themselves to nurse their children with. Infant mortality was high. And things only got worse from there – unspeakably worse (Lamentations 1:20; 4:10).

But through the siege and eventual destruction of Jerusalem, the mothers of Judah were not the only mothers bereaved. For Zion herself – Jerusalem personified – is a Mother to the people, and her children's faithlessness was the source of considerable grief and shame even before the Babylonians arrived. But once they did, then her sons “lie at the head of every street like an antelope in a net” (Isaiah 51:20). “Zion stretches out her hands, but there is none to comfort her” (Lamentations 1:17). “There is none to guide her among all the sons she has borne; there is none to take her hand among all the sons she has brought up” (Isaiah 51:19). And so “she weeps bitterly in the night with tears on her cheeks” (Lamentations 1:2). Once the temple is burned and her children are carried off captive, Mother Zion is described as utterly “bereaved and barren” (Isaiah 49:21). No wonder “Zion said: 'The LORD has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me'” (Isaiah 49:14). Zion was honored with no Mother's Day that year, nor in any of the years that followed, once “Zion has become a wilderness” (Isaiah 64:10). And so Mother Zion was left to grow old and gray alone.

That's hardly a cheery note. And if that were the final line, it wouldn't much be worth saying on a happier day like today. But – thanks be to God – across the years cuts the voice of the prophet, offering a word of promise, of a day to come that would be startlingly different from the day of lament. On that day, Zion's fortunes would abruptly revive. “Before she was in labor, she gave birth; before her pain came upon her, she delivered a son! Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall a land be born in a day? Shall a nation be born in a moment? For as soon as Zion was in labor, she brought forth her children!” (Isaiah 66:7-8). What a miracle! Mother Zion, for long decades old and gray, is suddenly in the glory of her youth, suddenly conceiving and giving birth to a massive child: an entire land, the fullness of a nation. And there's no pain in it. No sooner is she ready to give birth than she simply does, suddenly and painlessly. Long ago, when Eden said goodbye, the Lord had warned Mother Eve that henceforth mothers would find it personally quite costly to introduce new life into the world – that all would enter in hardship and agony, in sweat and blood (Genesis 3:16). But here, Zion is a mother who gives birth all-but-instantaneously, without the labor pains of Eve. On the other side of the exile, Jerusalem has been restored, when suddenly Zion gives birth to a prospering nation, when suddenly the desolate land around her is a full-fledged land again, when a sudden population boom astonishes the world.

'Shall I bring to the point of birth and not cause to bring forth?' says the LORD. 'Shall I, who cause to bring forth, shut the womb?' says your God” (Isaiah 66:9). God finishes what he started in her! The same God who brings her pregnancy to its ninth month has no plans of calling it quits then. Nor does the God who so loves his Zion's fertility have plans to put limits on it – to say, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther” (Job 38:11). He would be acting against himself if he did, if he brought things to such a point and then stalled or reversed course on her. And if God is that committed to Zion's fruitfulness, to Zion's maternity, then it can only mean that more children are shortly on their way! More exiles to return, and new mothers in the land to raise up young!

Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all you who love her! Rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her, that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast, that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious abundance” (Isaiah 66:10-11). I wonder if Isaiah, contemplating such words, would recall watching his wife nurse their sons. I wonder if the image came to mind of how happy and content little Shear-jashub was, falling asleep on his mom's shoulder after being burped. Once, in the siege, the mothers in Judah had been so malnourished that they could produce no milk for their little ones – or, if they could, it was scarcely a drop, not enough to satisfy. But the prophet turns that picture on its head. Now, in rejoicing and celebration, Mother Zion's breast never runs dry. Her abundance is glorious and well-supplied for all the little ones. After the long ardors of exile, what must this prophecy have meant, to think that the era of mournfulness is past, that satisfaction and delight are close at hand, that once-dry Zion will swell with strength and plenty!

For thus says the LORD: 'Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream...'” (Isaiah 66:12). Before, Israel nearly drowned when against them came “the waters of the river, mighty and many, the king of Assyria and all his glory” (Isaiah 8:7). War rushed on them as a river – on Israel then from Assyria, on Judah from Babylon later. But if only Zion's children had kept their Father's commandments, “then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea, and your offspring would've been like the sand, and your descendants like its grains” (Isaiah 48:18-19). And now, that's exactly what the LORD promises – belated through their faithlessness, but assured through his faithfulness! Instead of a dangerous river rushing to drown Zion's children, a river of peace and wholeness will flow her way, in which all her children can bathe and drift beneath the summer sun. And the very riches and prestige over which Zion's children once drove themselves mad with greed shall now wash ashore for the family like a rising tide, for the glory and strength, the gold and silver, the reputation of the empires will be theirs.

'...and you shall nurse, you shall be carried on her hip and bounced on her knees! As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you: you shall be comforted in Jerusalem; you shall see, and your heart will rejoice...'” (Isaiah 66:12-14). Think of a mother, carrying her baby on her hip as she moves about the house. Picture a mother, bouncing her little one on her knee, amusing him, playing peekaboo with him. Envision a mother, bopping him gently and rhythmically up and down, softly shushing and cooing to reassure him and bring his cries to a happy conclusion. See a mother, as her child ages, wrapping her arms around him and tending to his scuffs and scrapes, his bumps and bruises – holding him through his tantrums, reasoning with him through his pouts, cheering him through his sorrows, encouraging him through his doubts. That's the prophet's picture here of Mother Zion. In their great festivals, they'll nurse on the flavors of their sacrifices again at last, and not be cast out from their homes. Secure and shapely, Mother Zion will soothe, amuse, and bond with the children God gives her, dangling the nations' glory like car keys to her grinning child's delight. And when her children are still crying from the losses they once endured, now they have comfort from God in their mother's arms, comfort as only a mother can give. And so their hearts will rejoice with her.

A wonderful prophecy in its time. But even the ancient Jews saw meaning in it beyond the return from exile – a return that seemed to fall short of the glorification of Mother Zion they'd been hoping for. And so, in the line we read about Zion giving birth to a son, ancient Jews heard there a promise of a royal son – a king, the Messiah.1 And in time, over five centuries after the Jews returned to the land, the Messiah was born. He was born not in Jerusalem but just over five miles south, in nearby Bethlehem, to a mother named Mary. Mary's role was to perfectly personify Mother Zion – to be Zion giving birth to the Messiah, mothering the Messiah, giving the Messiah to her people for their consolation. And for just that reason, as far back as we can go, many, many Christians were convinced that, when Mary gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, the childbirth was literally sudden and painless, as if the Fall and its results for Eve just couldn't touch her.2 And far be it from me to argue with them! In England today, there's a mother of three whose longest labor, start to finish, has so far been 26 minutes. Her shortest? That was last year, and it was 27 seconds. She didn't even realize what was happening to her until the baby's head was out. Delivery was painless; afterward, not so much.3 Still, if she can give birth like Zion, why not Mary, when it seems so much more fitting there?

Before we even make it out of the New Testament, there are hints that Mary – still embodying the prophecies of Mother Zion – is portrayed with a relationship to all Christ's disciples, each reader of John's Gospel invited to see themselves standing beside her at the foot of the cross as Jesus declares, “Behold your mother!” (John 19:26). But her role as Mother Zion is then stretched into a template for the Church's maternal calling, for as Paul says, “the Jerusalem Above is free, and she is our Mother” (Galatians 4:26). The Church, seen from the standpoint of heaven, is our Mother Zion. And no sooner was Mother Zion in labor than she brought forth her rejoicing children – and that's us! Think first of the three thousand added on Pentecost (Acts 2:41), think of the five thousand not long after that (Acts 4:4) – isn't that a nation brought forth in a moment (Isaiah 66:8)? All those added on Pentecost or after were incorporated into the Body of Mary's Son, all brought into the Christian family, all made children of Zion. “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47), for shall the Lord “bring to the point of birth and not cause to bring forth?” (Isaiah 66:9). God continues onward as faithful as ever to our Mother's fruitfulness, refusing to withhold her strength to continue conceiving and bearing new Christians from her womb. For as the early Christians said, these words in Isaiah include “the mystery of the new birth, both of us and of all who look forward to the glorious coming of Christ in Jerusalem and strive in their every action to please him.”4 And so, at Christ's coming, Zion will at last give birth to an earth all at once, when the new creation is born and all blessings of prophecy are enjoyed in full.

It's in light of this prophecy and this fulfillment that we can celebrate Mother's Day today – both in our families and here in the bosom of our church. So how does the prophet tell a child to respond to a mother?

First, a child should “love her” (Isaiah 66:10a)! Isaiah assumes that, from the very basis of nature, a little child will love his mother, will be close to his mother. As a little child, that's not so hard. As a teenager, things tend to be rougher. In adulthood, attachment can find a mature balance. For an adult child, loving his mother can no longer be the dominant attachment in his life, but that's hardly to say it's anywhere close to unimportant. In a healthy relationship between mother and child, whether immature or mature, that love, that attachment, that connection is undying. And so should it be for us and Mother Zion. We show love for Mother Zion when we cultivate a real connectedness to the church. We love our mother when we don't withdraw from her, don't push her away, don't detach ourselves from care and concern for her.

Second, a child should “rejoice with her in joy” (Isaiah 66:10b)! Now, a little child can rejoice in just about anything, so long as it's presented to him as exciting to someone he loves. Say it in an exciting voice, and the words don't matter, the excitement does. When a mother is excited, the child can be excited and rejoice with her in joy. As the child grows, though, and becomes an adult, he might in some ways find it easier to have a mature rejoicing, because he's capable then of a deeper understanding of how his mother really fares. It might not look as exuberant, but he can and should take festive delight in things going well for his mother. And so should it be for us and Mother Zion. We rejoice with Mother Zion when we rejoice over the state of the Church overall and over the affairs of the local church. Is she at peace and untroubled, from without and from within? She rejoices – rejoice with her! Does glory flow to her, crediting her for her good? She rejoices – rejoice with her!

Third, a child should “nurse and be satisfied” (Isaiah 66:11)! This one is essential in an infant child, especially in the world of ancient Judah – no baby formula there. To fail to nurse is to be in mortal danger. As we heard, that happened plenty during the siege of Jerusalem, not from the infant's failure of desire but from the mother's lack of milk. When each of you was an infant, you regularly nursed and were satisfied, else you wouldn't be here today. Later, as you grew, you likely ate other things your mother prepared, not from her own body, but with the efforts of her hands. No longer nursing, you ate solid food, but it was still a mother's gift. And so, with Mother Zion, are we called to “nurse and be satisfied.” As the Apostle Peter tells us: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 2:2-3). We nurse on the church when we listen to her teachings. We nurse on the church when we eat what she puts on the table. And to fail to nurse, to fail to drink, shows a problem with our desire, a disturbance in our appetite – because Mother Zion never runs dry of the pure spiritual milk that makes us grow.

Fourth, a child should “be carried upon her hip and bounced upon her knees” (Isaiah 66:12). As a little child, this is just natural. It's not something an infant even has to choose; it's a natural consequence of a mother's tender involvement in her child's life. She carries him from room to room, she holds him, she plays with him, she bonds with him. His task is simply to not struggle and just accept the bond she creates. Later in life, a child has more choices, and the kinds of bonding should look different – good luck bouncing a forty-year-old on your knees! – but the bond still can be a source of fun and enjoyment. And so with Mother Zion. The church invites you to be carried on her hip – to accompany her, to be present with her. The church invites you to be bounced on her knees, to play – and that play is worship. It's a natural consequence of the church's involvement in your life, of being present where she is. Worship is how the church bonds with her children, worship is what happens when you gaze at the gospel she jingles before your watching eyes, and you smile and giggle your praise and awe at the shinyness of grace and dream of the glory that's to be revealed.

Fifth, a child should cherish God's comfort through a mother's love: “As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13). Comfort is that sigh of relief as tension and fear leach away, as pain is obscured and soothed. Every mother, I'm sure, knows what it is to rush to her child when she hears his cry. Every mother knows what it is to hold her child close, to kiss where her child bumped his knee, to bandage a scraped chin, to tell him things are going to be alright. And so it is with Mother Zion. When we pray in the church's embrace, God wants us to have that sigh of relief that comes from knowing he's near and is holding us through. And faithfully the church holds you too, as many of us can attest practically but as all of us can trust spiritually.

Sixth, a child should “take her by the hand” and “guide her” when she needs it (Isaiah 51:18). This especially belongs to an adult child. As your mother ages, or when your mother's ill, she may be in greater need of some of the gifts she used to give you – like a hand to hold, like guidance on the way, like strength for a task. Give it. It's not foreign to the role of a child to do it; it's most proper to give her support and help. And so with Mother Zion also. When we actively lend our strength and support to the church's ministries and mission, we're taking her by the hand, holding her up. To help the church as her child is as fitting as helping our mothers in the flesh.

And seventh, a child should once again “rejoice” (Isaiah 66:14) as he sees his mother's fruitfulness continue (Isaiah 66:9). It can be difficult, though, for a small child to see things this way. As naturally focused on self as young children naturally are, jealousy and possessiveness can get in the way, a trial in understanding a newborn brother or sister as other than a potential rival for all the love, for all the care. But one of the kindest attitudes a child can have is to be happy, not merely to him- or herself be gaining a little brother or sister, but to be happy for the mom. And so this is a crowning mark in celebrating one's mother – it's to rejoice with her over her subsequent children. It's to love and embrace a growing band of siblings with love and respect for her sake, and to share in her joy over them. And so also with Mother Zion! God, having already begun his work in her, isn't going to let all Zion's perceived weaknesses on earth bring her birthgiving to a halt. God has every intention of strengthening Mother Zion to successfully bring our new brothers and sisters to birth, raising them up from the waters of new birth before our eyes. And it's our lot to rejoice with Mother Zion over each new soul added, and to cheer on our Mother's fruitfulness, and to gather with her under her one roof as one family.

To those of you in the church who have been mothers or grandmothers – whether by birthgiving, by adoption, by influence, or whatever the case – thank you for reflecting a great mystery into our lives, whether you did so for many decades or for a shorter while. To those of you in the church who were not mothers after the flesh, but who have faithfully lived your calling in other ways, we honor and thank you also for assisting the mystery in whatever way you did. Happy Mother's Day to you all. And as each of us remembers our mothers, and perhaps in turn are remembered as mothers, may we all celebrate God's goodness to Mother Zion! Amen.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

The Crucified Brain

It was late Friday morning, and if you'd been in Jerusalem that day, standing on the right street, you would have seen them. Three men, whipped and torn, staggering through the street, urged on by soldiers. Each had their arms bound to a wooden bar. The soldiers called it a patibulum. They were headed for a hill outside town, where three poles – the soldiers call them cruces – had been rooted deeply in cracks in the rock.1 Once there, you know they'll be nailed to these beams they carry, and those beams will be hoisted up and attached to the poles, suspending them in midair to die in full view, scarcely a loincloth left to cover them, as bit by bit they wrestle for breath. Above the one in the middle is a sign: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (John 19:19).

Flashback to earlier in his ministry. Jesus and the Twelve are on a retreat north of Galilee. Jesus has unpacked the outline of his suffering and his resurrection, he's faced Peter's befuddlement and anger at the thought, and now Jesus must teach them that it's the only way – and not just for him. “If anyone would come after me,” he shouts to all in earshot, “let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me!” (Luke 9:23). If they really want to be Jesus' students, if they'd learn all he has to teach them, then only one way works: It's to forget themselves, give themselves away; it's to follow Jesus on a road that risks execution. Because that's where Jesus has to be headed. And it's a radical demand of discipleship! It's as if Jesus were saying that to follow him is to sign our own death warrant, and to know we'll be treated lower than dirt as we sink beneath the foundation of the world, to crack it and make it new in him. He promises a burden on our shoulders, a hard and narrow road, a humiliating gauntlet of shame and scorn. But nowhere will he teach us more than on our death march.

The Apostle Paul was one who chased Jesus vigorously on the way of the cross. For the gospel he's beaten and whipped and stoned, risking his neck time and again, all in pursuit of Christ's glory in the salvation of the world (2 Corinthians 11:22-33). From these injuries, he could say, “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17). And in it all, his prayer was to “share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10).

For the most part, when Paul and the apostles speak of sharing Christ's sufferings, they're thinking of the unique pains of the missionary lifestyle they live – of real physical danger from the world's opposition to the gospel. They also see that to their converts it was also granted to “suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29). The wounds neighbors inflict on them as Christians are aiming at Jesus in them, so their wounds are an overflow of the crucifixion itself, being played out continually on the Body of Christ below. But fast forward a few centuries, and now many Christians live in lands where, whatever pressures we face, we can go through life with minimal risk of being literally wounded in Christ's name. We don't much expect following Jesus to really lead to our execution. If radical suffering for his name is out of reach, are we cut off from a chance to gain his glory?

Over the centuries, the Church grappled with that question, finding occasion to dig around Jesus' words to hunt for treasure, buried implications for the ordinary Christian whose society thirsts no more for the blood of the saints. Some traveled abroad to the mission field in quest of a chance to confront real risk for Christ. Others sought radical discipleship not as martyrs but as monks. But then some saw that ordinary natural suffering could also become suffering for Christ. Our everyday problems can be hooked up to the cross.

So one medieval mystic spoke of all our sufferings being “conformed to the suffering Christ,” imagined Christ speaking of us having “died with me as I was dying... You should always have the memory of my passion in your heart, and offer to it all the tribulations and adversities that you suffer, and, so far as that is possible, you should clothe yourself in its likeness.”2 Martin Luther said that “such evils as sickness and the like are borne, not by us Christians, but by Christ himself”3 – that “the touch of Christ sanctifies all the sufferings and sorrows of those who believe in him,”4 that “through the suffering of Christ, the suffering of all his saints has become utterly holy, for it has been touched with Christ's suffering.”5 In Christ's cross, “human suffering itself has been redeemed,” so that “each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.”6

Put that vision all together, and it means that kind of suffering by a Christian can be experienced as a kind of cross-bearing. It can be made cross-bearing by you, because that's a privilege of the Body of Christ. Because you're a part of Christ's Body, your suffering is a suffering of the Body – and so that suffering naturally belongs on Christ's cross. You can unite your suffering to his. That's a choice, to consider it that way, to create that link. And then your suffering is different. It's not your private, mundane hurt; it's part of the mystery of the passion. Jesus took the suffering of his cross, and he made himself a sacrifice, and he gave it to his Father. And we, in suffering, have the privilege of choosing, instead of resisting or regretting the suffering, to instead lay it on Christ's cross, lay it on the altar, lay it where Christ hangs dying, and offer it with him as a humble gift to God.

Something as humdrum as a headache can be offered to God on Christ's cross – it's not much, but it's a privilege to put it there, to open the channel and let that headache be an overflow of the passion into your life. Something as dreadful as cancer can be offered to God on Christ's cross – and that may well feel much more cruciform. Arthritis, fibromyalgia, pneumonia, vertigo – none have to be meaningless, none merely endured. You can take them up as a cross, and carry them after Jesus, living out the baptismal gift of being “united to [Christ] in a death like his” (Romans 6:5), “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:10). You can choose to accept these afflictions, choose to embrace them, choose to make them a sacrifice and a gift to God.

Every day you get up and feel that hurt, feel that ache, feel that your body is malfunctioning, you can look in the mirror and declare, “I belong to the Body of Christ, so this suffering is the suffering of the Body of Christ. This suffering belongs with Christ on the cross. Jesus, I put this on your cross, I accept it as my share in your pain, I thank you for the privilege of suffering with you this way, because I believe in you.” And then, in an act of will, you can put it there. You can take your suffering in your hands, and place your hands in Christ's hands, and when you don't have that strength, he can lift up your hands, holding your suffering and your hurt, and present them before the Father and say, “This, too, we give in love for you, O God.”

In this way, your suffering is an occasion to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). That's what it can mean to take up your cross daily: you lay yourself on the altar as a sacrifice each day, and you trust that, if it please God, you'll wake the next morning to do it again. And this is an act of worship! Suffering this way is a holy action, a gift, the firstfruits of the toil of your endurance. On its own, it wouldn't be much. But tie it to the cross, include it as a bonus gift packaged into Christ's passion, let it be an act of the Body of Christ as such, and it's acceptable to God, a welcome gift. In this way, when that's how you treat your suffering, it still hurts, but there can be joy in it, meaning in it, because it deepens the bond between you and Jesus, when you accept your hurt as a cross like he accepted his for you.

Over five centuries ago, a little monastery asked a German painter named Matthias Grünewald to come paint a new altarpiece they'd commissioned in their church. Now, the monks here, they devoted themselves to the care of the sick, especially those dealing with skin diseases, for generation after generation. Lately, outbreaks of the plague brought many of those sufferers into their care as well. So, over several years, Matthias painted them an altarpiece. And on the middle of the outside, he made a life-sized portrayal of Jesus hanging on the cross. Only Matthias didn't paint it like everybody else. He knew it was for a hospital, to be seen by the sick and suffering. So Matthias painted the body of Jesus contorted with pains, his muscles wasted, his lips blue, thorns so thick on his head to hide his hair. Then Matthias went one step further. He covered the body of Jesus with plague sores. 

 


I've never seen the altarpiece in person (yet!), but I've seen pictures. It's terrifying and repellent. It's also immensely comforting. The image was big enough to be seen from a distance, and patients who were mobile were required to pray in the church several times a day.7 Imagine being among them. Imagine being a patient there, suffering ergotism or plague, and seeing the sight of Jesus on the cross, suffering what you suffer.  How, then, will you see your own suffering body when next you glimpse the mirror?

If accepting and offering our physical sufferings can be a way of crucifying our bodies with Christ, then giving the sufferings of our skin crucifies it with Christ, giving our bones or our lungs crucifies them with Christ, and so on. But then that has to include our brains, too. Yes, your brain can be sick. Your brain can suffer. And that suffering is, if you're part of Christ's Body, already ready-made to carry after Christ, to rush that suffering to him and daily put it on his cross with him, as an overflow of his passion.

Too often, we separate the brain from the body. Church cultures might show great grace and kindness to people suffering, let's say, arthritis; but they've sometimes been much less supportive of those suffering, let's say, from clinical depression. “It's all in your head!” people might say – meaning, “Just get over it; you're imagining things; simply will yourself to be better; just have faith.” Well, unless you're John the Baptist after Herod gets to him, your head is part of your body! No one would dismiss arthritis by saying, “Oh, it's all in your joints!” It makes no more sense to wave away mental illness as all in someone's head, or as a deficiency of faith. Mental illnesses have some degree of physical reality in the brain, which is part of the body.8 Brain biology might not explain all of what goes into having mental illness, but it consistently explains some. Honest psychologists will tell you they need to “take seriously the biological foundations of nearly all expressions of psychopathology” – that “nearly every major cluster of [mental] disorders has been linked with deficits or vulnerabilities in neuroanatomy, brain chemistry or genetics, or with viral infections,” even if “biological factors alone can rarely account for serious mental illness.”9 They'll say that “mental illnesses... have their origins in faulty biological processes,” though they're “complex states that result from an interaction of biology and environment. … An individual's biological vulnerability must interact with stressful life events (e.g., trauma) in order to prompt the onset of the illness.”10 And so we should treat people suffering mental illnesses accordingly.

But it also means that Christians with mental illness are suffering “mini-reflections of the redeeming suffering of Christ.”11 It means the suffering experienced through mental illness can be “meaningful because of the One in whose suffering we participate, Jesus. … The personal suffering of the Christian finds the correlate in Christ's suffering.”12 Through mental illness no less than any other, you can present your brain as a living sacrifice.

And the same is true of dementia, which – even more strongly than mental illnesses – is known to be a physical reality, a kind of suffering afflicting the brain. The World Health Organization defined dementia as “a syndrome due to disease of the brain, usually of a chronic and progressive nature, in which there is disturbance of multiple higher cortical functions.”13 Various causes can damage brain tissue and the connections between cells there. In Alzheimer's disease, usually starting in the brain's hippocampus and temporal lobe, brain cells degenerate (from causes we don't understand yet), resulting in plaques of amyloid proteins building up between the cells, inhibiting communication, while the tiny tubes connecting the heart of the brain cell to its branches get all tangled up.14 In frontotemporal dementia, certain proteins build up in the frontal lobe and temporal lobe, so that brain tissue shrivels.15 In Lewy body dementia, weird protein clumps grow inside the nerve cells, usually in the midbrain or the cerebral cortex, and they crowd out the cell's nucleus, impairing the cell's function.16 In vascular dementia, blockages form in arteries leading to the basal ganglia, restricting blood flow and causing lesions to develop in the white matter within the brain.17 All these conditions work by different mechanisms, usually starting in different parts of the brain, so the dementias don't all develop the same way or share all the same symptoms. But in each case, there's an underlying physical change in the brain lurking behind the cognitive changes, the behavioral and psychological symptoms, and the family issues downstream from it all.18

All of these dementias entail suffering – real physical suffering in a part of the body. So suppose you're in the early stages of dementia. One or more of these diseases is beginning to progressively affect your experience. Your brain – as much part of your body as your skin or bones or lungs – is suffering. Tissues are being harmed, vital cells are hampered or choked or crowded, and the results you experience might already leave your brain feeling often pained and fatigued. You're a Christian. Is there anything you can do with this for God?

Yes! You can make a decision. You can pray that, if God doesn't see fit to withdraw the suffering by healing you, then you tell God that you'll accept the suffering of dementia in Jesus' name – that you'll claim it as a cross and carry it with him on the road to Calvary. You can stretch out your brain on his cross. Imagine that the tangles in your nerve fibers are the twists in his crown of thorns which you wear with him (Mark 15:17). Imagine that the protein clumps or plaques are the tips of his nails, being hammered between your brain cells. Imagine that the narrowing arteries are being distended on the cross. Imagine the lost memories and cognitive functions are washed away by the sour wine and gall (Matthew 27:34,48). When you can't dress yourself, so too did they dress and undress Christ (Mark 15:20). When your old hobbies and interests are stripped away, see there Christ's garments being gambled over by the soldiers (Mark 15:24; John 19:23-24). When you're frustrated, tell yourself – or have a loved one whisper to you – that your brain is crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20). When your brain feels powerless, just so Christ “was crucified in weakness” (2 Corinthians 13:4). When you're confused, your brain cries out with him, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). When you can no longer care for your basic needs, then is Jesus saying, “I thirst” (John 19:28). When your dementia advances all the way, then Jesus cries out for your brain, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). And when all is said and done, and your brain can do no more, then at last his prayer embraces you when you cannot think to know it, and says: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

When we focus on the cross, we see the trials of dementia in a totally different light.”19 To approach dementia that way, to help a loved one approach dementia that way – that is the gift of the crucified brain. That's a brain stretched out on his cross, the brain presented as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1). In the white matter and gray matter of your flesh, you're choosing to “fill up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, the church” (Colossians 1:24). And now dementia is not meaningless. Now dementia is not mere tragedy. Now dementia is changed from coercion into challenge – a challenging call to suffer it with Christ, to live it as an overflow of his passion into your brain. Now dementia is an altar from which you hand your afflicted brain to God, in the hands of Christ lifting up his infinite self-giving at Calvary. And the God who could hardly refuse to be glorified in his Son's cross-shaped love will most certainly be glorified by your afflictions – be they dementia, mental illness, or your other pains and diseases – when they're made to fill up and flesh out the crucifixion of Christ in you, and you in him.

And so in the crucified brain, dementia can become holy. In the crucified brain, mental illnesses can become holy. And in your flesh, the same can be true for arthritis, for cancer, for carpal tunnel, for coronavirus, for fibromyalgia, for gout, for pneumonia, for vertigo – the list goes on and on – provided only that you choose to suffer it with Christ, choose to suffer it as a cross, choose to make it an occasion of joining him at Calvary, and so embrace it out of love. For then, in the experience of the body itself, we're blessed to say with Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ! It is no longer I who live” with cancer, no longer I who live with chronic illness, no longer I who live with dementia; “but Christ who lives” with these things “in me” (Galatians 2:20). Hallelujah from the hurt! Praise the God who, on the cross, redeems suffering and sanctifies it with his bleeding touch. Blessed be the Lord who calls us to carry our crosses and follow him. “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13). Amen.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Not Dark to Him

In the beginning was the Word … In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not” (John 1:1-5). The darkness couldn't understand the light. So John tells us. You'll hear a lot about light and darkness as you read or listen to the Bible. The most common is in speaking of the darkness of sin. The darkness of sin is a darkness that falls upon our souls. John describes sin as “the darkness” (1 John 2:11), which Paul says causes our “foolish hearts to be darkened” (Romans 1:21). He adds that when we sin, we're performing “the unfruitful works of darkness” (Ephesians 5:11), and indeed, that we become participants in “this present darkness” which is ruled by “spiritual forces of evil” at work in the world (Ephesians 6:12). And this is the darkness from which Jesus has acted so profoundly to rescue us! We're told that God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13) – that “he called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9), “for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Ephesians 5:8).

But the Bible speaks of other darknesses besides the spiritual darkness of sin from which Christ's cross already has saved us and is saving us still. Even when we're living rightly, even when our souls are light in the Lord (as the Scripture says), there are other types of darkness that present themselves in our lives – darknesses we have no guarantee of avoiding as Christians. Not all of them are even unconditionally bad! Some are good presences in our lives in this world, gifts of God for the here-and-now. Others are deeply unpleasant, consequences of the Fall with which we have to bear. And still others are severe challenges, even though allowed by God for good.

First, there's what we might call the darkness of distress. Here, it's our physical body that's darkened due to some kind of suffering or illness. Job talked about it, when he said: “When I waited for light, darkness came..., days of affliction come to meet me” (Job 30:26-27). These days of affliction were dark times in his life, difficult to bear, difficult to see his way through. Likewise, it's written in Ecclesiastes: “All his days he eats in darkness: in vexation and sickness...” (Ecclesiastes 5:17). Being sick, especially being chronically ill, is a kind of dark experience in life. It can easily blind us to other aspects of our lives, because it presses itself so oppressively on our perceptions, on the way we feel. Contrary to what some heretics will tell you, sickness is a real and regular part of Christian living – bodily health isn't just something you can 'name and claim' if you've got enough faith. God calls us to have faith to trust him through the sickness, through the vexation, through the darkness.

But second, there's what we might call the darkness of depression. Here, it's our emotions and our psyche that are darkened. Job was pretty familiar with this one as well. He refers to “gloom like thick darkness” hanging over his life (Job 10:10). He complains: “My face is red with weeping, and on my eyelids is deep darkness” (Job 16:16). Sometimes, this darkness is simply a deep sorrow, of the kind that a healthy mind will experience from time to time in our world, depending on the outward circumstances or just depending on the movements of the waxing and waning of emotional life. But sometimes, this darkness is of a sort that afflicts the mind as a mental illness. A novelist suffering from clinical depression described the experience of getting lost in “depression's dark wood,” and of those early morning hours “when I stared up into yawning darkness, wondering and writhing at the devastation taking place in my mind.”1 And, yes, Christians can very well suffer from it and may very well require professional treatment for it. One minister who suffered from bipolar disorder wrote about how “a back and forth in and out of darkness lasted for years,” and how her “depressive black holes are just the darkness and void of nothingness, not even the movement of time.”2 It fittingly merits, then, to be classified as a form of darkness we must prepare ourselves to potentially face in the Christian life.

Third, there's what we might call the darkness of dormancy. Here, it's our consciousness that's darkened. And all of us are familiar with this one, because it's sleep. We read in Genesis that “as the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram, and behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him” (Genesis 15:12). Generally speaking, this is a pleasant and comforting darkness! It's akin to the physical darkness of the night itself, which, after all, was created by God in the beginning (Genesis 1:5). God is the one who put Adam to sleep when Eve was to be created (Genesis 2:21). The psalmist expresses confidence by saying that God “gives to his beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:2), and the sages have hope that “when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet” (Proverbs 3:24). Paul lists “sleepless nights” as a hardship alongside being beaten and jailed (2 Corinthians 6:5).

But the darkness of dormancy has its less savory side. It's not for nothing that the Greeks portrayed Sleep as the brother of Death,3 or complained of “the tyranny [Sleep] exercises over our eyes.”4 It can be overly drawing to those in the darkness of depression, as when Luke depicts the disciples “sleeping for sorrow” (Luke 22:45). The sages warn that sleep's downside is that it robs us of productivity: “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber” (Proverbs 6:10-11). One of Job's friends even mentioned the fearfulness of nightmares, how “thoughts from visions of the night when deep sleep falls on men,” when “dread came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones shake” (Job 4:12-13). And so Revelation gives us a picture of a world where even this darkness will ultimately be overcome, for in heaven, the saints “serve [God] day and night” without needing slumber (Revelation 7:15), and in the new creation, “night will be no more” (Revelation 22:5). Just as we can rest assured that the risen Jesus doesn't need to sleep, we can expect that one day we won't need it or crave it either.

But there's a fourth darkness, and it's the one we're going to spend the most time considering over the coming weeks – and this one we might call the darkness of dementia. Here, it's our mind, our cognition, that's darkened to us. You could include here, by extension, the age-related forgetfulness that's a natural consequence of aging. But more than that, we're susceptible to a variety of brain diseases, injuries, or conditions that cause a less-than-natural state of progressing dementia. One doctor writes: “All forms of dementia are diseases; they are not part of normal aging.”5 And yet dementia is ever more common, as two other experts write: “Nearly 14% of adults over age 70 have some form of dementia, and another 22% have cognitive impairment … 5% of people aged 65-70 years have dementia, with the rate doubling every 5 years, such that up to 30-40% of people aged 85 and over have dementia.”6 Live long enough, and that's not a small likelihood to say nothing of early-onset dementias. I guarantee you've met someone with dementia.

In this condition, our mental faculties one by one begin to fail as the disease afflicting the brain damages tissue there. One journalist with dementia listed his symptoms as including “ongoing memory loss, poor judgment, loss of self and problem solving, confusion with time, place, and words, withdrawal, abrupt changes in mood.”7 There's the forgetfulness and confusion, there are the anxiety and the headaches, and often sleeplessness and depression and a decline in independence. One philosopher who developed Alzheimer's disease described the experience as one of “sailing into the darkness.”8 A doctor diagnosed with Lewy body dementia remarked that “for now I still see the light, but on the other side of this knife-edge ridge I walk, there is darkness.”9 A minister descending into Alzheimer's writes how “the darkness and emptiness fill my mind,” “blackness and darkness of the worst kind.”10 A scientist diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia described her experience of feeling like she was “struggling to live in a fog,” “hanging onto a high cliff above a lurking black hole.”11 “It's like being blindfolded, looking through a tunnel,” or “as if a black curtain has fallen over what has just gone by.”12

We know that Christians can find themselves in the darkness of dementia just as readily as anyone else in the world. My first assignment in pastoral ministry was as assistant to a pastor suffering from a worsening case of frontotemporal dementia. And we know wonderful members of our church and their loved ones, in years past and even right now, who have lived in this darkness that, once begun, does not end in this life. There are others among us here today who have a very high chance of either experiencing this darkness ourselves or holding onto a loved one as they do. And part of our ministry here and now must be understanding this darkness.

Does that strike home for any of us? Maybe you used to be so bright, so mentally quick on your feet, but now you identify more with the prophecy of Joel, that “the sun shall be turned to darkness” (Joel 2:31). The brain's darkness may make it a considerable struggle to locate the right memory.13 The brain's darkness may make it a struggle to find a name and a reason to put with the face – to achieve that basic connection and recognition.14 The brain's darkness may make it a struggle to piece together context for what's going on around you, and a struggle to sift through and unscramble the words and numbers in time to hear what other's have said, and to get across what you want to say – to hit these verbal targets your mind can't consistently see.15 The brain's darkness may make even the most basic tasks a struggle, as what used to be basic is now broken down into all its constituent parts, each one requiring the labor that the whole task once used.

In any of the darknesses we face, but maybe especially depression and dementia, the psalmist's words might just resonate with you: “Surely darkness shall cover me” (Psalm 139:11). But here's the good news for you. The things the darkness hides from you, even within yourself, are not hidden to God! “O LORD, you have searched me and known me,” the psalmist says (Psalm 139:1). But maybe we wonder: “How, when the darkness is so dreadful and so heavy? How, when everything is a bleary blur? How, when our hearts melt within us? How, when the brain feels like a crumbling castle in a starless void, and flickers of recognition and capacity come and go like fireflies trapped under rubble and dust – blinking vividly or dimly for a moment, but so difficult to see even then? How, then, can God search us and know us?”

This is how – hear these sacred words: “If I say, 'Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me be night,' yet even the darkness is not dark to you: the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you” (Psalm 139:11-12). God has perfect night vision, perfect X-ray vision. And so to him, all the darkness in you – be it dementia, be it depression, be it distress, be it anything at all – is literally plain as day to his sight. For his vision of you, what's going on in your heart, what's going on in your mind, it doesn't matter whether you're cheery and transparent, it doesn't matter if you're complicated and dark, it doesn't matter if you're broken up: he can see you just as well in all cases. The night is of equal brightness with day in his sight. No rubble, no dust, no shadow, no void obscures his sight or his understanding. That can and should be consolation in depression – as one sufferer prayed: “Even though I may feel that darkness is my only companion, to know that the darkness and the light are alike to you is great comfort.”16 And equally should it be consolation in the face of dementia – as one doctor and dementia specialist reminds us: “Even the seeming darkness of severe Alzheimer's disease does not separate us from the Lord and his love.”17

Sometimes, in this darkness, you might be unsure of what's going on, might be unable to make a clear decision, might lack understanding of what's happening – for didn't Christ say that “the one who walks in darkness does not know where he is going” (John 12:35)? But in it all, the psalmist praises God: You know when I sit down and when I rise up” (Psalm 139:2a). See, when we aren't sure what we're doing, he is sure! Even if we aren't sure who is doing what we're doing, he's sure! “We may be uncertain about who we are, but God is not.”18

Sometimes, in this darkness, you might be restless, might wander around, might be frightful and agitated. But in it all, the psalmist praises God: You search out my path and my lying down” (Psalm 139:3a). When things get intimidating, when we get lost to ourselves, God knows exactly where we are, inside and out. And, thanks be to God, the psalmist can likewise say: You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me” (Psalm 139:5). When we're wandering away, when we're wobbling and stumbling, God is in front of us. When we're looking to the future with dismay, God is behind us. When both past and future seem to disappear, when all we can see is a passing present, we can trust that what's behind us is God, what's before us is God.

Sometimes, in this darkness, you might forget the habits that sustained you for so many years. It just becomes impossible to keep track, to keep up. But in it all, the psalmist praises God: You... are acquainted with all my ways” (Psalm 139:3b). When the reading we used to love becomes a blur, when prayer becomes a maze, when church becomes a cacophany, when everything falls by the wayside, God is acquainted with all our ways. He sees and knows our old habits as if they were present, when they've fallen through no fault of our own. When we can't sustain their practice for our souls, he sustains their fruit in our souls, so merciful and loving is he.

Sometimes, in this darkness, you might not be able to sort out the right word, might not be able to piece together the puzzle, might not be able to express the associations of images that flit through the periphery of your mind. But in it all, the psalmist praises God: You discern my thoughts from afar” (Psalm 139:2b). “Even before a word is on my tongue” – or, for that matter, in the conscious mind – even before that, “behold, O LORD, you know it altogether” (Psalm 139:4). “God knows us, even before we act or speak.”19 Before whatever we say, before whatever we do, even before whatever we think (or try to think, or try to try to think), God knows us in the deepest way. No matter the darkness, he sees and knows within our mind and brain what we cannot see ourselves. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me!” the psalmist cries (Psalm 139:6). We can't attain it, we can't know ourselves so deeply in health, much less in dementia. But even in dementia or in depression or in distress, our impairments and our challenges are no obstacle to God.

And in all the darkness, he holds us. Wheresoever the darkness takes us, even if it separates us from our friends and family, even if we're as isolated as if we were buried at sea, “even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me,” the psalmist marvels (Psalm 139:10). God isn't afraid of our darkness – it isn't even dark to him. He guides us and holds us even in the thick of depression; he guides us and holds us even in the throes of dementia. You're not far from his grip in sickness, you're not forsaken in depression, you're not in free-fall in dementia. In each of those conditions, you can be a holy child of God, held by his hand. And if he'll do that in those blacker darknesses, he'll do it in the softer ones as well. If you're facing some kind of darkness in your life, rest assured that there's no darkness that can hide you away from the searchlight of God's love. If someone you love is in the darkness, rest assured: God's love sees them there like a cloudless noon.

Whatever darkness you or your loved one are in, may you find it to be a Mount Sinai, where Israel of old saw before them “the thick darkness where God was (Exodus 20:21). If you're in the darkness of depression, may you realize you aren't alone – that it can be the darkness where God is. If you're in the darkness of distress, or the darkness of dementia, may you find that, too, to be the darkness where God is, where he's in it with you, where he sees you plain as day, and loves you still, even as your castle crumbles. “Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the voice of his servant?” asks the prophet. “Let him who walks in darkness and has no light” – is that you, is that your experience? – let him “trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God” (Isaiah 50:10), for “he reveals deep and hidden things: he knows what is in the darkness” (Daniel 2:22). Amen.