Sunday, June 19, 2022

The Farce of Expectations

To quote Marx (and I don't mean Karl, but Groucho): “Although it is generally known, I think it's about time to announce that I was born at a very early age.”1 Perhaps you've heard the story from Dangerfield: “What a childhood I had. Once on my birthday, my ol' man gave me a bat. The first day I played with it, it flew away.”2 Or maybe you're familiar with the anecdote from Borge: “Once, my father came home and found me in front of a roaring fire. That made my father very mad, as we didn't have a fireplace.”3 Oh, and do you know what you call two men sitting atop a window? Our new bishop tells me their names must be Kurt and Rod. ('Curtain rod' – get it?)

Now, I have to admit: I've never cared for it when preachers start sermons with jokes. As a general rule, it strikes me as a lazy way of catching people's attention, and it's almost never organically connected with the passage or subject at hand. But I think this case deserves to be an exception. Because there's one thing we're maybe too slow to admit about the Book of Jonah – and that's that it's meant to be funny.4 Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Martin and Lewis, the Marx Brothers, the Monty Python crew, Rodney Dangerfield, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Jonah son of Amittai – now those are some of the comedy greats. One author describes the prophet Jonah as being, “as a man..., as funny as he is odd.”5 You see, what we get in the Book of Jonah is not the typical prophetic narrative. It certainly doesn't read like its neighbors, Obadiah or Micah. It's a self-contained narrative; the closest things we get are the exploits of Elijah and Elisha, but neither of those sound quite like this. This book has elements of comedy, of spoof, of parody. It's dripping with satire.6 You could label it a farce. So if we want to understand the Book of Jonah, we'd better practice having a sense of humor.7

So what do I mean when I tell you that the Book of Jonah is supposed to be funny? Well, no one behaves how they're supposed to be behave. Everybody is cast against type. All expectations of the first-time reader who's read earlier parts of the Old Testament get overthrown. And that's especially true when it comes to our story's main character, Jonah ben Amittai. For background, this is not the first time in the Old Testament we meet this guy. He shows up in 2 Kings 14, which is the only way we can get a historical lock on him. He's living in the eighth century BC, at a time when Israel – the northern kingdom – is a horribly wicked place. King Jeroboam II “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD; he didn't depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin” (2 Kings 14:24). This is exactly the setting where we'd expect, if we come here fresh from Judges, to see Israel put under affliction as a form of discipline. But Jonah steps onto the scene and prophesies that God is going to do the opposite of what we expect. In spite of the evil of Jeroboam's rule, in spite of Israel's sinful unworthiness, “the LORD saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter..., so he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam” (2 Kings 14:26-27), such that Jeroboam “restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah.” In other words, God has such pity on unrepentant Israel that he lets the unrepentant king play the hero, “according to the word of the LORD, God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher” (2 Kings 14:25). That's already a clue that Jonah has a weird ministry: instead of the usual prophet job description, which is being the unpopular bearer of bad news, Jonah's experience is being the celebrated bearer of unaccountably good news!

Now, we expect prophets to be good guys – very pious, very religious, great role models who are enthusiastic about their privileges, or at least respectful of the solemn calling to which they've been elected by the LORD. That should go double to those who, unlike the 'weeping prophet' Jeremiah, get to go around spreading sunshine all the time. So we expect Jonah to be the happiest and healthiest prophet, most excited to be the voice of God's soft and gentle mercy. I mean, he gets to outsource all the hard parts of his job to colleagues like Amos, who got to be persecuted for passing along God's word: “The sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword” (Amos 7:9).

But with Amos in charge of bringing bad news to Israel, Jonah's let off the hook of disappointing his people, told to go instead condemn the city of Nineveh, which will otherwise survive to become the future capital of the Assyrian Empire, through which – in less than four decades – God will wipe Israel off the map. And as we step into the pages of this book, Jonah – the prophet with the easy life – doesn't want to do his job any more. The prophet disobediently abandons the God he works for, in what one scholar calls “Jonah's entirely ridiculous response.”8 It doesn't fit his calling. But it does fit his name. Jonah's name means 'Dove,' and if there's one thing doves are known for in the Bible, it's that they complain: “We moan and moan like doves” (Isaiah 59:11). Doves moan in distress. The other thing doves are known for in the Bible is that they like to fly away and escape: “Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away...” (Psalm 55:6); “If any survivors escape, they will be on the mountains, like doves of the valleys, all of them moaning...” (Ezekiel 7:16). So Jonah chooses his name over his title: he's desperate to fly away, and he sure is going to moan. If that weren't enough, Hosea's soon going to compare the entire nation of Israel to “a dove, silly and without sense” (Hosea 7:11). I can't help but think the misadventures of his friend named Dove – that is, Jonah – were in the back of Hosea's mind as he said that, especially since one of the traits of this senseless dove Israel is... “going to Assyria” (Hosea 7:11).

So here's Jonah, reduced to the ridiculousness of a runaway prophet. We expect him to do as he's told; instead, he's a letdown, a rebel. He goes on the lam, and soon finds himself in a situation we don't expect: aboard ship with a bunch of pagan sailors, probably Phoenicians with maybe some Philistines. And we expect them to be corrupted by all “the abominable practices of those nations” (Deuteronomy 18:9). We expect them to be real rough characters, profane and depraved, notorious for human sacrifice. But instead, they value Jonah's life even when he doesn't, and go out of their way to try and save him! We expect them to have their hearts darkened by their idols, but instead they turn out to be more pious than the Hebrew prophet! In fact, they have to scold Jonah for his lack of religion. See, it's funny! Jonah is a ridiculous figure, he's the butt of the joke here. Here you've got an Israelite prophet, a symbol for true religion, and he might as well be a pagan; and that's underlined by these pagan sailors, a symbol for error and wickedness, and they have the moral compass of Moses and begin worshipping the God Jonah's trying impossibly to escape! Unbeknownst to Jonah, as he judges them later on, these run-of-the-mill pagan sailors are more spiritually attuned than he is (Jonah 1:4-16).

Now, when the storm comes, when all fingers point at Jonah, we expect him to come up with a plan to survive – to try something, anything, that will keep them all out of danger. Instead, Jonah volunteers to die. And it won't be the last time. Actually, Jonah seems to have a death-wish – he doesn't try to kill himself, but he does seem to keep hoping that somebody's going to put him out of his misery. The trouble for Jonah is, he can't even succeed at dying! Even thrown overboard to drown and be done with it, the unlikeliest savior scoops him up at God's command (Jonah 1:15-17). Jonah is fighting – and failing in his fight – against God's determination that he live. That's the stuff of black comedy right there! Jonah can't even die right.

When we meet him in the fish's belly – which becomes almost a nurturing figure to him, which is probably why the author gives the fish a sex change partway through telling the tale, switching from the male to female form of the Hebrew word for 'fish' – Jonah finally prays. It's been a long time coming, but he's up against a wall. He prays a fishy hybrid psalm, part lament and part thanksgiving. Now, what we expect Jonah to do is pray a prayer of repentance. We expect him to confess his sin, to tell God he's sorry. But Jonah never does (Jonah 2:1-9). He's not sorry, not repentant. It's a stubborn character flaw, the stock-and-trade of many a sitcom character who has to make life impossible for himself.

Still, after his prayer of thanksgiving, we expect Jonah to be gently released onto dry land. We expect him to be released into the shallow water at the shore and soon stand on his own two feet. But that's not what happens. Instead, Jonah gets puked out with gusto, like gumbo that was undercooked. He's delivered by indigestion. It's profoundly undignified. More than that, it's slapstick. Now we're in Three Stooges territory, or with Charlie Chaplin running down an up-escalator. This is Jonah's comedic pratfall – much against his own will. If there were any beachgoers on scene when Jonah was upchucked ashore, guaranteed they laughed at him as he stewed in his shame and stench on his way to the showers (Jonah 2:10).

End of Act I. Intermission. The curtain rises on Act II with a beautiful symmetry: Once again, at the midway point in the action, the Word of the LORD approaches Jonah, reiterating the same basic charge. Jonah gets a do-over. This time, he complies and behaves “according to the word of the LORD (Jonah 3:1-3). Now, ancient Nineveh wasn't all that big, but the narrator casts it as this vast city, so as to highlight how Jonah went about fulfilling God's commission. We expect Jonah to now do things right – to approach the city elders, to shout from the rooftops, to give a long and eloquent sermon listing all of Nineveh's sins, proclaiming who God is and why he cares what they do, and summoning them to change their ways. We know Jonah's capable of a poetic turn – he proved it when he was fish food. Instead, no sooner does he get through the city gate than he yells five words and calls it quits. “Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be turned!” (Jonah 3:4). He doesn't open his message with a “Thus saith the LORD.” He doesn't explain where he's come from or whom he serves. He says nothing about what Nineveh did wrong. He doesn't even clearly say what's going to happen: 'turned' is a pretty ambiguous word. Jonah doesn't even tell them that there's anything they can do. “The narrator suggests that he just makes it inside the city and utters the briefest oracle of all biblical prophets.”9 Jonah fulfills the letter of the law while spitefully thwarting its spirit. He's like a little kid told to clean his toys off the floor, so he piles them in his parents' bed under the covers, or tapes them to the legs of the kitchen table. Except Jonah is so low-effort, he does the bare minimum that will comply with God's instructions. The result is comically laconic. It's the stuff anti-jokes are made of. “What do you call a pigeon that can't find its way home? A pigeon.”

With such a weak set-up by Jonah, we hardly expect much from the Assyrians in Nineveh. They have no reason to believe Jonah, no context for the message, no implementation plan, no hope for compliance – exactly as Jonah hopes. Indeed, given their brutal reputation, we expect them to attack Jonah, maybe kill him. Instead, their response is as lavish as Jonah's summons was laconic. They promptly believed God, started fasting and wearing sackcloth, sat in ashes, and prayed (Jonah 3:5-9). They repent on a dime! There's no city in Israel at this time that receives the word of any priest or prophet with as much responsiveness as Nineveh shows to even what Jonah left unsaid. Like magic, they vastly exceed expectations – and the contrast is comical. Jonah tried his best to fail his mission, and he failed at failing! The big, bad Assyrians are softies before God, acting like a nation of Josiahs and Hezekiahs instead. But so extreme is their turn that we even get the picture of the people of Nineveh dressing up their livestock in sackcloth and inducing the animals to fast. It's a prayer meeting “from cow to king.”10 Yes, even the cows are repenting and praying. It's ripped right from a cartoon or a comic strip.

Now, Jonah's failure of failing – in other words, his success – ticks him off, and he starts moaning. You know, we'd expect Jonah to be happy. He's had a greater success than any prophet before him. Noah didn't convert so many, Moses didn't convert so many, Samuel didn't convert so many, Elijah and Elisha didn't convert so many! Jonah's going down in history as the great evangelist! And he couldn't be more miserable about it. He's furious and crestfallen at his own success, because he wanted to fail, but he failed at failing (Jonah 3:10—4:3). We find out that Jonah's well aware of how God described himself to Moses: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness...” (Exodus 34:6). Those words were the foundation of the covenant, the promise of hope beyond the sin of the golden calf – but Jonah, who comes from a land of golden calves – turns the promise into an accusation! Chutzpah doesn't even begin to cover it!

And so God plays a final prank on Jonah, like Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown only to yank it away at the last moment – and then give him a lecture (Jonah 4:3-11). The LORD gives, and the LORD takes away – only, unlike Job, Jonah has no time to say a “Blessed be the name of the LORD (Job 1:21). Each scene up to this final vignette has conspired together to highlight a God at work in the realm of the ridiculous, God making a mockery of Jonah's peevish strain of disobedience, until at last God ends his closing speech with a curtain-closing appeal to just think of all those poor cows (Jonah 4:11). And so closes this farce on our expectations.

Fast forward almost eight centuries, and we get to the Gospels. And there too, we find the farce of expectations. You see, as we step into the pages of the Gospels, we expect Israel's long-awaited Savior to be born in splendor – maybe in a palace – but instead, he's in a peasant's feed-trough. We expect heralds to call great dignitaries and scholars. But instead, all heaven pays visit to unshowered shepherds. When we meet the Pharisees, we expect them to live up to their reputation as role models of religion. But instead, we hear how prostitutes and publicans precede them into glory (Matthew 21:31). We expect rabbis to be stringent and demanding in choosing their disciples – but instead, Jesus invites backwoods bumpkins on sight. We expect these disciples to measurably improve through the years with Jesus – but instead, they seem no wiser or holier in Gethsemane than in Galilee. And then we expect the cross to be the closing catastrophe of sorrow and shame. But instead, it's a royal throne where the King is coronated in thorns. Here on the cross, the King holds court, reigning and judging the world. For the cross is the place where all the world's plans, all the world's expectations, all the world's assessments of what's sensible and plausible and reasonable, are lampooned by the lance that pierces the heart of God.

Don't take my word for it. Listen to the Apostle Paul: “Since, in the wisdom of God, the world didn't know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the foolishness of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks demand wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified – a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called (both Jews and Greeks), Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:21-25). On these verses, one literature expert commented: “The Christian is profoundly mad merely by the standards of the world. To the world, the wicked seem wise, but are mad in the sight of God. The Christian is touched by the Infinite, and will not only have the last laugh at the end of time: even now, he laughs more insanely than the worldlings.”11

But Paul goes on: “Consider your calling, brothers! Not many of you were wise according to the flesh, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world – (even things that are not!) – to bring to nothing things that are, so that no flesh might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29). And once again, that's very much not what expectations would have led us to believe. We didn't expect God to choose the foolish and weak and lowly (like us), and therefore that's exactly what God did, for the sake of shaming those who elevated their expectations into presumption. And if we come, by the way, to too readily presume that foolishness and weakness and lowliness are fine sources of boasting in the flesh, then God is more than happy to lampoon those expectations too, because either way, as Samuel says: “Presumption is like iniquity and idolatry” (1 Samuel 15:23).

So let's learn from Jonah and his comedy of errors. God is a God of surprises, a God at work in our ridiculous world, a God who displays himself first and foremost enthroned on the absurdity of the cross. Let us worship the God who exposes the disobedience of proud prophets and redeems pagan ignorance by his surprising dawn of light. Let's hold loosely our expectations in life, and be willing to lay our dignity and self-solemnity at the feet of the foolishness of the Father. And let us begin to laugh more insanely than all the worldlings and their dour, neat, and tidy chaos. To that end, I don't think I can close any better than by quoting Chesterton: “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”12 “Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground. To be at last in such secure innocence that one can juggle with the universe and the stars, to be so good that one can treat everything as a joke – that may be, perhaps, the real end and final holiday of human souls.”13 Amen.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

The Unavoidable God

He strolls into the port, knowing he's out of place. The Philistines gawk at this Israelite with mounds of food in tow. But he doesn't mind. He's in a hurry. Just days ago, he was on the job in Samaria. There he'd been sitting when, in the darkness of the night, he was awakened by a familiar and thrilling presence around him, beside him – even within him. His very bones had burned and tingled. The Word of the LORD was there. Jonah couldn't wait for more good news to announce to King Jeroboam. “Up!” said the Word – and Jonah sat up faster than if his bed were on fire. “Go...” said the Word – and Jonah reached for his cloak to dress for the day. “...to Nineveh...” He froze in his tracks. Time slowed. His brain spun. His blood chilled. His heart pounded. The Word continued speaking, but Jonah was scarcely listening. His mind fixated on tracing the implications of that one word, 'Nineveh.' Soon he realized that the Word had finished talking, that God was awaiting a response. In silence, Jonah got dressed. As dawn broke, he hit the streets of Samaria, looking for someone to sell his house back in Gath-Hepher to. He was going to need his assets liquid. Tarshish was a long way away.

Now, what's going on here? The Word of the LORD explained to Jonah – whether or not he was listening – that the great city Nineveh needed to hear a message, because “their evil has come up to my face” (Jonah 1:2). For that reason, Jonah was to get up and go. Jonah does get up – so far, everything goes as the first-time reader can expect. But then come those next words: “to flee to Tarshish” (Jonah 1:3). Hey, Jonah, that's the wrong verb, that's the wrong noun. And just in case we missed it, the narrator underscores it: “away from the face of the LORD (Jonah 1:3). The Ninevites' evil had approached God's face; Jonah is moving in the opposite direction, avoiding God's face. This is, by the way, an expression we first meet in Genesis, when “Cain went out away from the face of the LORD (Genesis 4:16). Not a great role model to be picking, Jonah!

The narrator underscores it by repeating the phrase just a little bit further on: “He went down to Joppa” – that's a then-Philistine-controlled port town a little over 43 miles from Samaria – “and found a ship going to Tarshish” – that's a city in Spain, which had a strong trade relationship with the Phoenicians, and that's likely who's running the ship Jonah finds. “And he paid her wage and went down into her, to go with them to Tarshish – away from the face of the LORD (Jonah 1:3). Two key directions: 'away' and 'down.'

But what was Jonah really trying to do? He surely couldn't have been under the illusion that the LORD was just a local god, bound to the land of Israel but powerless in far-off Spain. Jonah himself is going to confess that the LORD “made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9). But to be a prophet was to have a position standing in front of the LORD's face – it was to be a herald employed by God's royal court. Jonah's staging a walk-out in protest. Jonah's point is to make himself unavailable and ineligible to fulfill God's call on his life. And he's not the first to want to turn down an assignment. When God called Moses, Moses peppered God with questions, doubted his prospects, and challenged his qualifications to the point where “the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses” (Exodus 4:14). When God called Gideon, Gideon made excuses and then launched a habit of requiring constant reassurances that God was who he said he was (Judges 6:15-17). Jonah doesn't do that – but only because Jonah won't engage at all. See, at least Moses and Gideon acknowledged what God was saying, took it seriously, and tried to respond to it. Jonah won't do that. Jonah knows he can't win the argument. So why play at all? Jonah disagrees so strenuously with God's plan – for reasons we'll explore in later weeks – that, rather than bring these fears and doubts and resentments out into the open before God's face where God can resolve them, Jonah would rather cling to his problems and keep them buried within. Jonah fears that confrontation.

So Jonah develops a strategy – and that strategy is to go incommunicado. It's to give God the silent treatment. It's to cut off communication, dodge the discussion, and hope that sooner or later God will just take the hint. So Jonah begins by disinheriting himself from the Promised Land where God had promised to specially dwell. He aims to leave the Promised Land behind. Secondly, along the way, Jonah avoids associating with people who might bring God into the conversation. Surely Jonah knew other believers. Hosea is just starting his ministry at this time, and if Jonah were willing to consider it, Hosea's hometown is more or less on the way to Nineveh. But Jonah dodges Hosea or anybody else who might remind Jonah he's a prophet. Thirdly, Jonah sets out to put maximum distance from his assigned destination. If God wants Jonah to walk the nearly 700 miles northeast from Samaria to Nineveh, Jonah is going to go a few thousand miles in the opposite direction, to the furthest place from Nineveh he can think of. And he's going to go by a boat which, once he's on it, Jonah will have no way to turn around – the perfect excuse if, once he's aboard, God starts hounding him. Jonah's goal here is to make it prohibitively inefficient for God to send him to Nineveh, thus forcing the mission to be scrapped.

But besides that, Jonah will go to even further extremes. In his disengagement with God, Jonah quits praying altogether. You'll notice that, on the ship, when all the sailors are praying to the different gods they serve, Jonah is asleep. When the captain begs Jonah to get up and pray, the reader expects a sentence where Jonah does that – but the action moves on without it happening (Jonah 1:6-7). Jonah's goal, in his disobedience and silence, is to render himself spiritually ineligible for the mission, to strip off enough qualifications that God wouldn't want him anyway. We find later that he's even already told the sailors that the point of his trip is to run away from the face of his God (Jonah 1:10). But then, not only that, Jonah urges them to make him a human sacrifice (Jonah 1:12). If nothing else will work, Jonah aims to make himself unavailable for his mission on grounds of death! Whatever it takes, he thinks, to quietly excuse himself from his call without having to talk to God about it first. As for how that works out for Jonah... well, for that, you might just have to read ahead. “If I take the wings of the morning” – or a Phoenician boat – “and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me” back toward Nineveh “and your right hand shall hold me” (Psalm 139:9-10). The bottom line is that Jonah is going to end up having that conversation. Jonah is going to find himself on the streets of the city he least wants to see. All of Jonah's tactics for avoiding God are going to fail, in the end. God is unavoidable.

In many ways, we stand closer to this God than Jonah ever did. Oh, Jonah heard his voice, Jonah came face-to-face with the discarnate Word. But we know the incarnate Word, for “in these last days, [the Father] has spoken to us by his Son..., through whom also he created the world” (Hebrews 1:2). We've received the Spirit of God in a way unavailable to Jonah, through a persistent indwelling. We now stand close enough to God's face to catch glimpses, not just of who God is from the outside, but on the inside. And we've seen that God's inner life is dynamic love, love as pure act, love acting between three persons defined by their relationships to one another: the Father who begets the Son, the Son who filiates from the Father; the Father and the Son who breathe forth the Spirit, the Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son. When we catch a glimpse of God's inner life, we behold God as the Trinity: one God, yes, but in three persons.

And the reason we ever finally got close enough to see and hear and believe and know this is because of Jonah's lesson: God is unavoidable. In the beginning, God the Father spoke his Wise Word and sent forth his enlivening Spirit, and out of nothing God made the world – and made us. This God, intimately present in our midst, had a calling on our lives from the start. Much as he told Jonah to get up and cry out, he told us to call out his name in friendship and to rise up in his unspoiled grace that perfected our nature, calling all creation to ascend with us into God's own glory. But then we tried to wrestle life out of creation rather than receive it from God the Holy Spirit. We tried to erase traces of the Word, of Wisdom, from our minds. We disinherited ourselves from the Father who made us. And as our hearts and minds grew dark, as we strayed into the deserts of bare existence, we fled away from the face of the LORD which we were unworthy to see directly. We ran further and further from our primeval calling, as Jonah fled from his.

But God proved unavoidable – so unavoidable, he'd spill his guts – his inner life – all over his creation to reach us. For the same Father who sent his Word to prophets like Jonah then sent this same Word into human flesh, by his Spirit uniting that Word to a complete human nature. And that Word-made-flesh is Jesus Christ. Jesus often described himself as 'sent,' as “the One whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world” (John 10:36). “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of the One who sent me” (John 6:38). “I was sent for this purpose: …to preach the good news of the kingdom of God” (Luke 4:43), “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). “The one who rejects me rejects the One who sent me” (Luke 10:16), but “whoever receives me receives the One who sent me” (Matthew 10:40). “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

And so Jesus pursued the lost and hurting throughout Galilee and beyond during his earthly ministry, as he laid a foundation for the renewal of God's people. He was sent to the cross “to purify for himself a people for his own possession” (Titus 2:14). To that end, he even was sent to pursue the souls of the dead who'd died without seeing God's promises fulfilled. And surely the soul of Jonah was among those that waited in the underworld's darkness for the Light to dawn on them. Fulfilling his mission below, Jesus then rose from the dead in victory as the Life, pursuing his deflated disciples in the midst of their sorrow and perplexity. He was so unavoidable, even their locked doors couldn't keep him at bay.

Then, shortly after ascending into heaven, Jesus – the second person of the Trinity – poured out from the Father – the first person of the Trinity – the presence of the Holy Spirit – the third person of the Trinity – onto these disciples, this people, to bind them into a unity: one Body, one Temple, one Church. Jesus had foreshadowed that Pentecostal plan when he'd told them: “He whom God sent... gives the Spirit without measure” (John 3:34), “and when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8).

So the unavoidable Father sent his unavoidable Son, and once the Son had lifted up his head into heaven, he anointed his corporate Body left on earth with an unavoidable Spirit. For even the psalmist had said, half in lament, that the Holy Spirit is unavoidable: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your face?” (Psalm 139:7). Not to Tarshish, that's for sure. The Holy Spirit cannot be dodged, for “the Spirit blows where he wishes” (John 3:8). Personally distinct from the Father and the Son, but one God with the Father and the Son, the Spirit shares their divine unavoidability. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have proven themselves in salvation-history and in the Church's experience to be one unavoidable God in three persons – blessed Trinity!

And that all matters for us. Because just as Jonah was by God called and commanded, we together – and often we individually – are called and commanded. That call is, first and foremost, a call to God himself – to stand before his face, and not turn away from it. It's to allow God the Holy Spirit and his gifts, diffused throughout the Body of Christ, to build us up and lead us upward to our Head, who is God the Son, through whom we begin already to see God the Father. And that happens especially in our worship, in the great liturgies of the Church, in which we most become who we are. Worship is itself our first command. It's not just a time to refuel for our mission; it's what we're sent into existence itself to do and be. The first word of God to Jonah is the first word of God to us: “Up!” (Jonah 1:2). Lift up your hearts to the Lord from the altar! Behold the King in his beauty! Worship our God in his splendor and his glory!

To that end, the call we all share is also a call to a holy life – that is, a life rendered ready for heavenly realities. Again, that's what worship is meant to do – that's worship's secondary function, to expose us and shape us to the likeness of God in the company of his angels. But it also happens as we surrender to the unavoidable and relentless, though often quiet and resistible, work of the Holy Spirit in convicting us of sin and conforming us to the sanctity that flows down on the Body from Christ our Head – that “we all, with unveiled face, mirroring the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

But furthermore, we all share a call that sends us to the world. Jesus said that. Listen to his words: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). As Jonah was sent to great city Nineveh, so the Body of Christ is the Body of a Prophet sent to confront, inspire, and evangelize the City of Man. “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). “As you go, disciple all the nations” (Matthew 28:19). Jesus said these things, ultimately, to the Church as a whole. They pertained principally to the apostles, but the whole Church is apostolic. As individual parts of the Body of Christ, each of us has a somewhat different role to play in the overall mission on which the Church has been sent. But no part of the Body stands unrelated to the Body's mission. None of us stand outside it. None of us are uncalled.

And what is that mission, when it comes to the world? That mission, that sending, is to proclaim – in word and in deed – the Trinity as the God who pursues and saves us for the sake of inviting us to share the Divine Life by grace. The mission is to conform the world, wherever it's within our reach, starting with ourselves, to the image of the Trinity, because to say that God is a Trinity is ultimately to say that God is eternally and essentially, not just contingently and accidentally, Love. The mission is to announce this God to the world, and to urge the world to trust this God, be loyal to this God, be actively united to this God through the bridge that is the flesh of God in Jesus Christ. The mission is to invite the world to plunge into the face of the Spirit and Son and Father.

And in receiving this sending, we're told to “go into all the world,” each of us respectively as God leads us by his Spirit speaking to and through his Son's Body in the Father's name. Likely, for you to play your part in the Church's 'going into all the world,' it means for you to go intentionally into this neighborhood, the places where God has placed you. Unless God makes clear otherwise, your Nineveh is probably not so far nor so foreign as Jonah's was. The streets where you pursue your mission are sometimes the hallways of your own house, even, and the aisles in the grocery store, and the rows of chairs facing the concert stage at the park. But wherever God has assigned you, there you are sent in the name of the Triune God. You have a mission.

And in the end, we will find this God to be unavoidable. Jonah hoped that, with his various avoidance tactics, he could evade the uncomfortable conversation of actually discussing his call with the God who gave it. All his efforts to escape from reach, to silence his voice, to disqualify himself even unto death, were attempts to avoid God's face – to not have to meet God's gaze and lay out his fears and doubts and resentments in the open where God could openly overrule them and insist on the mission. But Jonah couldn't avoid that. Jonah was wrong. The very same tools Jonah threw up as obstacles – the boat, the waters it crossed, the winds filling the sails – God took up as tools to push Jonah to the point of confrontation. Jonah at last had to face his call, look God in the eye, and let his Yes be Yes or his No be No (cf. Matthew 5:37).

And so for us, and so for the world. The world – and often we ourselves – have, in one way or another, been fleeing toward our Tarshishes, deluding ourselves by whatever means necessary that we can evade the grave discomfort of God's face. The world – and again, too often it's us too – is bent on papering over the seriousness of God's call with polite pleasantries and paltry pleasures. But at the end, it's not us who have the luxury of fleeing away from the face of God. For “from his face... earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them..., and the sea gave up the dead who were in it, death and underworld gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done” (Revelation 20:11-13). On the last day, all from Nineveh to Tarshish and beyond will have that uncomfortable conversation with God. Either their Yes will be proven to have been Yes, or their No will be proven to have been No. But silence will be forbidden; avoidance will be impossible. So, as it's written, “see that you do not refuse him who is speaking! For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven” (Hebrews 12:25).

Thus, each one will finally have to confront the call on us all. You are “called... to repentance” (Luke 5:32). “You are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:6). You are “called to be saints” (Romans 1:7), “called into the fellowship of [God's] Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9). You are called to your place in the great liturgy, the worship of the church which is our first purpose and mission in existence. You are “called [to] the peace of Christ ruling in your hearts” (Colossians 3:15). You are “called” to “follow in his steps” of enduring suffering with patience and virtue (1 Peter 2:21). You are “called to freedom..., [to] through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13). You are “called... to a holy calling” (2 Timothy 1:9), to “be holy in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:15). “You were called to the one hope that belongs to your call” (Ephesians 4:4), “a heavenly calling” (Hebrews 3:1), “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). And, Paul adds, “the calling of God” is “irrevocable,” unavoidable (Romans 11:29).

So then “let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned him and to which God has called him” (1 Corinthians 7:17). For this God has opened up his inner life, showing us Father and Son and Holy Spirit. He has spilled his inner life, his innards, his guts, out into the world he made. He has made himself unavoidable, though so often so unseen. May we turn our backs on Tarshish, admit God is blessedly unavoidable, and simply let our Yes be all Yes to this Triune God of Holy Love. Amen.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Help in Weakness

It was a Sunday in August 1986, and the Rev. Robert Richard Davis' 6-foot-7-inch frame towered behind his familiar pulpit to preach. He'd been pastoring Old Cutler Presbyterian Church in Palmetto Bay, Florida, for nearly fourteen years, and he was at the top of his art. From less than fifty discouraged people terrified of bankruptcy when he'd arrived as interim pastor in December 1972,1 the church had exploded to well over two thousand.2 During his years of service, he'd ministered to people of all sorts of backgrounds. One was a friend who had dementia who'd become concerned she was going to forget how to pray. The words wouldn't come. She forgot many prayers she'd learned. It was a challenge for Pastor Bob to help her through that. But he did.3

Then came the first Sunday in August 1987, and his mere appearance in that pulpit provoked a standing ovation. It was Bob's last Sunday in that pulpit, or in any pulpit. Pastor Bob had always believed that there was no such thing as retirement in God's eyes. But not only was Pastor Bob retiring, he was retiring early. He was 53 years old. He'd recently been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. It had become clear he could no longer function well enough to continue on, and so, with immense sorrow, he was stepping down.4 In the next few years, his condition progressed rapidly, and he – like his friend – began to face some of those same struggles. “When I pray, I often pray in silent blackness of spirit,” he said.5 “I could not pray as I wanted...”6 Already by 1989, Bob increasingly found prayer a struggle. I imagine that, as he neared his deathbed in March 1993 at age 59, stringing thoughts and words together to express them sensibly to God was seldom within reach.7

It's not an uncommon challenge as dementia worsens. One minister in New Zealand reflected how her mother faced the same struggle: “When memory and orientation to time and space began to ebb away in the relentless pull of the outgoing tide of Alzheimer's disease, my mother lost the habit of daily prayer and worship.”8 Another woman with dementia found that for herself, “study, prayer, ordered thought, and quiet reflection were no longer possible.”9 A clinical psychologist has observed that in dementia, “sometimes a person advances to a stage when articulating needs and prayers becomes difficult, if not impossible.”10

But it's not a challenge exclusive to dementia, either. The hymnwriter William Cowper, who faced a life-long struggle with mental illness, once had to write to his friend and mentor that he'd begin praying for him once he found a way to even “pray for himself.”11 In more recent times, a pastor diagnosed with bipolar disorder wrote: “Pray? Pray? Are you kidding? My mind is mush, jello, the leavings at the bottom of the garbage can. How can I pray?”12 “Prayer from a mentally ill mind is exceedingly difficult. Not only is it hard to concentrate, which is necessary for prayer, it is also painful to give thanks.”13 “I try to participate actively in prayer..., but it is all removed from me, as though through a soundproof, bulletproof glass.”14

But it's probably safe to say that most every believer has had some time in life when prayer has, in one way or another, posed its challenges. Even Mother Teresa faced her own dark night of the soul, lamenting in 1959: “I don't pray any longer. I utter words of community prayers and try my utmost to get out of every word the sweetness it has to give. But my prayer of union is not there any longer. I no longer pray.”15 It wasn't for lack of trying, and indeed, after that letter, plenty of people were amazed as they watched her pray. But all of us can relate to some of what Bob Davis faced in those final years. So what is there to do?

The first thing to do is to pray as we can – to persevere, and not give up on ourselves! That's true of those who find it difficult to pray because of mental illness. That pastor who found her mind like 'mush' also said: “We have to pray, although that may seem impossible while we are in a mental illness.”16 It's also true of those with dementia. One doctor pointed out how “a regular prayer life can... persist well into dementia.”17 And it's likewise true of those of us who pass through spiritual doldrums, when words and energy seem far away.

When Bob Davis went to help his friend with advancing dementia who feared forgetting how to pray, each time she asked him to write out the Lord's Prayer for her all over again. But one day, Bob's wife Betty found a plaque that had the Lord's Prayer embossed on it in raised letters. “I took this along to her,” he says, “and prayed it with her as she ran her hands along the words. Using more than one sense helped her grasp the prayer and experience reassurance that she could still pray.”18 One doctor points out that even in the middle or later stages of dementia, “a person may recall... how to recite the Lord's Prayer.”19

As I've said before, that's one of the reasons we've put so much effort this year into making sure all of us know the Lord's Prayer, and appreciate it as best we can. The Lord's Prayer is a vital pillar of any Christian's prayer life, and was prescribed by the early church to be prayed three times each day.20 Let me tell you, in the seasons when thinking is hard and praying is exhausting, when just getting over the hump and escaping inertia is the important thing, the Lord's Prayer makes a mighty good ice-breaker with the Almighty.

Other prayers can do that as well. For some people, Psalm 23 can also fill that role. Almost everybody knows it, and its tender imagery couldn't be more reassuring. There's also the Jesus Prayer, ancient and good for repeating often, and it goes like this: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” That covers the bases: it confesses who Jesus is, it tells of our need, it asks him to meet that need. I had a good talk about that prayer with an elderly monk the last time I was in Greece. It can be a valuable crutch in the lean times.

I know our tradition has tended to look down on pre-written prayers sometimes. In Evangelical churches, there has often been a prejudice against them – a fear that, if you don't come up with the words to your prayer fresh on the spot each time, then there's a risk you won't really mean them, that they'll be mere forms of godliness minus its power, that they'll become the vain repetitions for which Jesus censured the Pharisees. And so we've historically scorned 'formal prayers.' But let me tell you, many chaplains and physicians have seen first-hand that people from traditions with extra 'formal prayers' and 'repetitions' fare quite a bit better continuing to pray throughout dementia than those who come from traditions that reject them.21 And the same is true for those in the dry places. It doesn't have to be spontaneous to be sincere; it doesn't have to be on-the-spot to be real.

But on the framework of those 'formal prayers,' whether the Lord's Prayer or the Jesus Prayer or Psalm 23 or other ones you learned as a kid, it's good and important to make the effort to add your own prayers, even when that's taxing the limits of what you can manage. It doesn't have to be fancy, doesn't need to be eloquent. Once the ice is broken, talk with Jesus as your friend, talk with God as your Father. You can do that some in the dry season. You can do that some in mental illness. You can do that some in dementia. One doctor reports: “Those with dementia can pray as well. I have been amazed at the coherent prayers of some of my patients.”22 He even suggests that people with dementia take opportunities to lead others in prayer, when they can.

Second, when praying on your own initiative becomes a great challenge, get others to help you. We're meant to lift each other up, and that means we're also meant to let others lift us up. Sometimes, when you're struggling to pray, let somebody else lead you in prayer, and just let your mind and heart echo and amen what they say. Like the paralytic lowered through the roof, let the strength of others carry you to Jesus when you find you can't move (Mark 2:3-4). The doctor we heard from just moments ago – he tells of how his mother, who for many years had been a faithful intercessor for others and especially for those in her family, had advanced dementia and couldn't formulate her requests to God on behalf of other people any more. That bothered her, and her son knew it. So in each phone call, he'd lead her in prayer for each person in the family, the people he knew she'd had the habit of praying for – and it delighted and contented her. You see, he said, “she wanted to continue her longstanding practice of praying for her children and grandchildren, though unable to do so on her own.”23 If that can help a woman in advancing dementia to keep up her ministry of praying for others, it should for us too.

But, third, there may come a limit beyond which, at some point in time, you just can't pray what you would want to pray. Words fall short. Energy fails you. Your focus is scattered. Try as you might, even with help you find you've met your match. If that can happen to us sometimes in fair and reasonable health, certainly it's a live possibility in mental illness, depression, or dementia. But when you find your limits, then it's time to come back to the words of Jesus. See, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).

Now, why's that important? Because Jesus says, “With all your.” He doesn't tell you you have to love God using everything you wish you had. He doesn't tell you you have to love God using everything you used to have. He says nothing about using everything your neighbor has. Your job, your task, your calling is to love God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength that you do in fact actually have, in the present, in the moment. It's measured by your capacities. In the vigor and strength of youth, a Christian might have a great deal of strength to love God with. A few years into a debilitating chronic illness, loving God with all his strength might mean just getting out of bed in the morning and thinking, “I'm getting up for the love of Jesus.” If that's as far as your strength extends, that's all this word asks of you! Now, if that man judges himself, in his chronic illness, for not having the strength to do all he used to do, and thinks that he's failed God, he's running beyond the word, isn't he? He's being too hard on himself. So long as he loves God with all his actual strength, and aims to restore his strength if he can (so that he'll have more strength to love God with), he does it all.

And the same is true with your mind. In the sharpness of younger years and better days, a Christian might think so clearly about God, and memorize Scripture, and learn theology, and string together eloquent and heartfelt prayers for hours on end. And if that's what her mind can do, then she's loving God with all her mind then. But in the depths of depression or in the ravages of dementia, her mind might not be able to call up a Bible verse at will. She might not be able to string together more than one sentence. She might have hours when praying with her mind at all just doesn't happen – her mind just isn't capable of that. Well, if her mind isn't capable of it, then she can love God with all her mind even without doing it. See, Jesus asks her to love God with all her mind, as it is – not the mind she wants to have, or used to have; not the mind her neighbor in the next pew has. So long as whatever mind she's got is put to loving God however it can, even if only implicitly, that's what Jesus calls for, and she shouldn't judge herself for not having more to give. None of us should.

Strive to fill and expand your capacities, but never be judgmental of your weakness (when it's not born of sin). The Apostle Paul says of all of us, himself included, that “we do not know what to pray for as we ought” (Romans 8:26). Whether we admit it or not, all of us are in the same boat. Our hearts are small, our souls are small, our strength is small, our minds are small, next to the infinite ocean of God's wisdom and grace. The difference between the greatest prayer life you can imagine and the prayer life of a Christian in the last stage of dementia is a matter of degree – and next to the prayers of which God is worthy, it's a matter of small degree indeed.

That's why the fourth factor is such good news. And it's that Jesus ascended into heaven. We passed, just ten days ago, the anniversary of his ascension into heaven. “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). That right there is the beauty of the resurrection: Jesus, with an indestructible life that death can't touch, always lives – and he uses that life to pray, to make intercession, for those who come to him for salvation, those who want Jesus to carry them to his Father. “Christ Jesus is the one who died – more than that, who was raised – who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:34). When you can't seem to pray, know that even then, the Lord Jesus is praying for you, bringing you right in front of God his Father.

And as if that weren't encouragement enough in our weakness, there's one last help that should be near and dear to all those who struggle. “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place, and suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind... and divided tongues of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit...” (Acts 2:1-4). Today is the Feast of Pentecost, the day on which the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ poured out the Holy Spirit's presence onto his Church, transforming us from a gaggle of worshippers into the indwelt Temple of God, the animated Body of Christ alive in the world. And “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Romans 8:14). The same Holy Spirit who fell on the first disciples is also given to each one of us – maybe with less flashy gifts, but with fruit and gift and comfort all the same. The Spirit of the Living God sealed you and dwells within you.

So when our minds are damaged or insufficient or broken, when our minds have met their limit, there's also, as Paul says, “the mind of the Spirit” (Romans 8:27). Your mind may be the only mind your soul can access, but your mind is not the only mind at work in you. Your thinking may be impaired, but the Holy Spirit's isn't, and his mind is present in you. And so, amidst our challenges in prayer – whether they come from depression, mental illness, dementia, the dark night of the soul, or your run-of-the-mill spiritual dry season – we hear the blessed assurance that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” How? “The Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words,” that's how (Romans 8:26). The Holy Spirit prays for you from inside you. “The Spirit intercedes for us when we cannot think of the words to pray.”24

And his prayers are no surgery by sledgehammer. “The Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10), and correspondingly “the Searcher of Hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit.” And why's that helpful? Because “the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:27). The Holy Spirit doesn't have to guess what to pray for. I may not know what to pray for, you may not know what to pray for, but the Holy Spirit knows exactly what to pray for. The Holy Spirit knows the Father and the Son inside and out, and vice versa. So the Holy Spirit prays in us for us, just as the Son prays in heaven for us, in a coordinated duet that's precisely targeted to the good God will say yes to. The Holy Spirit never fumbles in prayer. Nor does it matter if you can't find the words, because the Holy Spirit doesn't even need words – yours or his. Nor does he need your thoughts. When you're asleep, he's praying. When you're daydreaming, he's praying. When you're having a panic attack or a nervous breakdown, when you're depressed or demented, when you're comatose or catatonic, he's praying for you, helping your weakness by making his prayer-power perfect in your weakness. His effective prayers are the divine side of your prayer life you can't see or hear or imagine.

One mental-health chaplain specializing in dementia care put it like this: “When we don't know what to say, the Spirit prays on our behalf. When we can no longer say what we want to say, the Holy Spirit intervenes on our behalf. When we can no longer access God through our prayers, our meditations, or the Scriptures, we can be certain that God is with us in ways which, at least right now, we don't understand. In this sense, if and when we reach the advanced stages of dementia, we can be 'sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see' [Hebrews 11:1]...”25 And a believer and psychologist adds that, even for those in the latest stages of dementia, “the Lord continues to search and know their hearts, interceding on their behalf with wordless groans in accordance with God's will. Our faith is in a God who is good, loving, and compassionate. Even when we are unable to speak – perhaps because we are overwhelmed and weak, or the disease has severely damaged our brain – we are promised that God still searches our hearts, seeing our innermost thoughts, fears, and hopes, and he responds with prayers on our behalf. God's grace is so amazing. He gives us what we need when we are too weak or confused to ask for it ourselves.”26

And, friends, that isn't just good news for those with dementia. It's not just good news for those with mental illness. It's good news for all of us. It's good news for you when you're a caregiver, receiving responsibility of helping a loved one through difficult times. It's good news for you when your body cries out in exhaustion. It's good news for you when you're fatigued and overwhelmed, when you struggle to focus, when you find it so difficult to muster up the energy to string words together or even lift your eyes to heaven. At the limits of all your prayers, at the end of your rope, you'll find the Holy Spirit is praying for you – and praying for you, in fact, better than you can pray for yourself even at your best. These reassurances are alien to none of us.

And that's why Pentecost is worth celebrating today. That's why it's such an unbelievable gift the apostles got from heaven that day, and passed along to us as they laid hands on new believers, generation after generation. We have been given God himself, the Holy Spirit living in us, praying in us, interceding for us. We are weak in so many ways, but his strength is all the help we ever need. And all our learning how to pray is just learning how to cooperate, with what strength of mind and heart and soul we've got, in what he's up to in there. So when you feel weak, when you know your frailty, don't lose heart – for Pentecost has come. When you look in the mirror and don't like what you see, believe the promise – for Pentecost has come. When you can do no more, when you have nothing left to give – Pentecost has come. When you've forgotten everything, when your brain has broken down at last, when your mind is static counting down to the end – Pentecost has come. And when in the last instant you're falling asleep in Jesus, still the Holy Spirit is praying you through the last steps into the river – Pentecost has come. Thanks be to God for the ministry of the Holy Spirit in me and in you! Amen.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Failsafes of Faithfulness

A microscopic flash. In ancient Israel, over three thousand years ago, a single egg cell inside the body of a lady of Bethlehem had just fused its membrane with that of a wriggling cell that's docked to import foreign DNA. A sharp spike in calcium prompted the release of a burst of zinc – hence the microscopic flash. Within the cell, a new nucleus took form, embracing the full forty-six chromosomes. As swift as could be, as the material multiplied, the cell cleaved itself in two, then the next day into four, then the third day into eight, as the whole mass slowly drifted downward from the Fallopian tube. On the sixth day, with some of the sixty-four cells already differentiating themselves from the others, the new organism was ready to produce enzymes to dissolve a hole through its outer protein layer, escaping to implant itself in the nearby uterine lining. By the eighth day, the outermost layer of cells had separated from the inner core, forming an amniotic cavity. By the fourteenth day, a thickening of cells occurred, giving rise to the primitive streak, which set the direction defining future development. In the days after that, cells continued to divide and differentiate into the three primary germ layers: endoderm, mesoderm, ectoderm. Over time, the endoderm developed into the gut lining, the mesoderm developed into organs and bones, the ectoderm became skin and eyes.1 And many years later, in a different environment, the creature originating from that fusion and that growth would sing a psalm, crying out to God: “You knitted me together in my mother's womb!” (Psalm 139:13). “My frame was not hidden from you when I was being made in secret” (Psalm 139:15), “for you formed my inward parts” (Psalm 139:13).

That's the incredible and speedy development from which the psalmist – and, in processes just like it, me and you – began to be. In that instant of the fusion of two cells into one new life, God created a rational soul – we talked about this a couple weeks ago – then and there, to be the form toward which the development of this body was directed. And accordingly, God remained at work, knitting you together, making you in secret, and – as cells further differentiated – forming your outward and inward parts out of the primary germ layers.

The result is remarkable. It's not for nothing that the psalmist marveled: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made!” (Psalm 139:14). And so am I, and so are you. And what that means is, we are made in a way that's just so exceptional, so set apart from everything else, head and shoulders above the rest of God's craftsmanship of the stars and seas, that to recognize it, to realize it, is nothing else but to stand in awe, eyes wide and jaw dropped, even to feel chills and thrills in amazement. It means that the design that went into you can only be fairly viewed with profound astonishment at the holy spectacle set before us, the majesty of our Maker at work, outdoing himself with the masterpiece that puts a universe of miracles to shame. And the masterpiece is you!

Consider this example: From humble origins in a tube formed in the ectoderm in the first month of growth, three sacs gradually form at one end. From there they develop. Splitting into five sacs by the fifth week of life in the womb, the remaining weeks until birth (and beyond) see those sacs develop into a delicate organ that, by adulthood, comes to weigh somewhere between 2.5 and 3.5 pounds. It's soft, like tofu or jelly, and full of folds and wrinkles. It's not the prettiest sight; in fact, the look of it might make you uncomfortable. But it's the most complex organ in the human body. See, it's the human brain. You've got one of those in your skull. Through that soft, wrinkly organ, about four hundred miles of blood vessels carry oxygen to about 191 billion cells. Of those, a bit over half are neurons. Each neuron is incredibly small. Its cell body can be less than a hundredth of a millimeter across. From that body, they stretch many branches called 'dendrites' toward each other, plus a single nerve fiber called an 'axon' that can stretch even all the way down your spine. Each neuron connects to other neurons at synapses, about seven thousand contact points for each. Your brain has several times as many synapses as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy. And those synapses relay electrical and chemical signals from one neuron to the next, sustaining a network not only in the brain but throughout the entire body.

The psalmist declared: I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made! Wonderful are your works – my soul knows it very well” (Psalm 139:14). And echoing him, one professor of brain science has simply said: “The human brain is beautiful and complex, delicate yet resilient. … When this brain activity occurs, there is a resulting response such as a physical movement, speech, or recollection of a memory. … It happens seamlessly so that you don't notice it until something goes wrong. The fascinating complexity and efficiency of the brain should prompt us to glorify God along with the psalmist for the beauty of his creation.”2

Among all the activities your beautiful brain supports are memories – and we don't have just one kind. Your brain has multiple interrelated memory systems. On the one hand, there's semantic memory – that's the ability to recall facts, like what time the church service starts. On the other hand, there's episodic memory – that's the ability to recall events, like last year's Christmas cantata. These can be short-term memories, which the brain only stores for hours, or they can be converted into long-term memories, which can be stored for even years or decades. Then there's working memory, or immediate memory – the ability to grasp information while you're actively thinking about it, and it's only meant to last seconds. But also, there's emotional memory – the ability to recall feelings we've had. And finally, there's procedural memory – the ability to implicitly remember how to do a task.3 Even in healthy brains, some memory systems work better than the others – my episodic memory can lag pretty far behind my semantic memory, but for some of you, it might go the other way around. And for all these systems, there are three major processes: encoding, storing, and retrieving the memory.4

And God, in his wisdom, distributed the systems responsible for different abilities throughout the human brain. The brain stem doesn't weigh much at all, but it does a lot. Its upper piece, the midbrain, is linked to seeing, hearing, falling asleep, waking up, and regulating body temperature. Its lower piece, the medulla, has centers that control your breathing, blood pressure, and heart rate. Between those is the middle piece, the pons, which connects to the cerebellum, a structure separate from the rest of the brain which, using the majority of neurons, coordinates fine motor activity and is involved in procedural memory.5 The brain stem links the spinal cord to the rest of the brain, called the cerebrum. The cerebrum has an inner core of white matter, but also an outer core of gray matter called the cerebral cortex. Each half of the cerebrum, left or right, has four basic lobes: frontal (that's in the front), occipital (that's in the back), parietal (that's on top), and temporal (that's on the sides, where your temples are).6 About a third of your cerebral cortex is in the frontal lobes, and they play a role in our sensory inputs, in our working memory's ability to pay attention to things, processing emotion, considering the future, and organizing episodes for encoding into long-term memory.7 But the ordinary process of aging, though, takes a special toll on the frontal lobes.8 The occipital lobes, at the back of your brain, are crucial for processing visual information – recognizing things and placing them in space.9 A smaller chunk of your brain, the parietal lobes at the top, do a lot with motor skills and language and number processing.10 The parietal lobes also play a role in short-term memory.11 And about a fifth of your cerebrum is taken up by the temporal lobes, and they're awfully busy too. The medial part of the temporal lobes, which connect to a structure called the hippocampus because it's shaped like a seahorse, play a vital role in creating new semantic and episodic memories, especially in consolidating short-term memory into long-term memory.12 That's just the simple version, but we're learning more all the time. We still barely understand how the human brain – your brain – can do all the things it apparently does.

For the past month or so, if you've been here, your brain might help you remember that we've been reflecting on dementia, seeking wisdom from the Lord and his word to show us how the gospel carries hope for dementia's sufferers and their caregivers alike. And that hope is all the more necessary when we realize that millions of Americans do experience or will experience dementia, since 14% of people over age 70 have it, including 30%-40% of people over age 85.13 The physical changes from, say, Alzheimer's are now thought to begin in the brain stem, maybe as early as childhood, but somehow God designed the brain to resist them for decades. In fact, plenty of people who live out their lives with no effects are, upon autopsy, discovered to have had all physical markers of Alzheimer's disease.14 But sometimes it does cause disruptions. In later years, it can spread to the structures of the medial temporal lobe, and as the hippocampus deteriorates, the brain weakens in its ability to turn experiences into memories.15 Still, long-term memories from earlier years and procedural memories aren't hurt much there.16 From there it spreads to the lateral temporal lobe to destabilize semantic memory, and the parietal and occipital lobes where it meddles with perceiving visual information.17

But the point of all this is, the systems don't go down all at once. God designed the brain better than that, more resilient than they might've been. He could've given us lower storage limits, but he didn't. He could've made them slower, but he didn't. And he could've put all our eggs in one basket, so that the first sign of dementia would break everything at once, but he didn't. He chose this beautiful complexity to display his glory in us, and though our brains remain vulnerable organs, he gave them ways to compensate for the damage they endure.

So when it comes to our neighbors with dementia (whom God calls us to love like we love ourselves), God chose to leave us with what I'll call 'failsafes' – ways to help them live well before God, and to enjoy at least some of life as they're meant to, even as the disease progresses. So often, when a parent or sibling or spouse or friend starts showing signs of dementia, maybe we might feel a bit helpless, unsure how to adjust when our patterns of assumptions – like them remembering our last conversation, or being able to say just what they mean to say – no longer hold true. But armed with understanding of the brain, we can indeed minister helpfully.

First, they can be helped by patient companionship. People with dementia often have needs they struggle to express, even to themselves, which must be profoundly frustrating. Imagine how it feels to wake up with a full bladder and not remember where the bathroom is, or how it feels to have your words come out all wrong. Is it any wonder that sometimes behavior can seem agitated? But we're counseled to listen attentively to what they might be trying to get across, and to just be with them, patiently, even quietly, and to trust that fruit can grow even in the dark.18

A second help is to help them attend church, where possible. Spiritual dimensions aside, just being in a socially stimulating environment can slow memory loss and support mental function.19 But spiritual life is consistently shown, in every conceivable situation, to cultivate health in life, even the health of the body. So one dementia specialist says that “those who continue to practice their religion, attend church, and maintain their spirituality have been shown to cope better with their mental limitations.”20 Will it always be feasible to help someone with dementia get to church? Maybe not, and that's okay. But is it a vitally beneficial rhythm where possible? Yes.

A third help is reminiscing about old times. In most dementia, “memories from the distant past” are “better remembered than more recent memories.”21 Memories tend to get lost in reverse order of their creation, so someone with dementia might not have consolidated the memory of last week's conversation with you, but they might still recall a good fishing trip from when they were eight years old. And so, as more recent events get harder to talk about, you can just visit the more distant past with them. One expert reminds us that “in helping people with Alzheimer's remember, we must first begin to build upon these older autobiographical memories.”22 Those memories stay clearer, and it feels good to remember, and best of all, Christ was gracious to them then, and that deserves to be talked about. For those who've been believers a long time, episodic memories of years of walking with the Lord – sins forgiven, struggles won, prayers answered, glory glimpsed – are long-term memories. In a way, you could say these stages of dementia are an opportunity for a 'victory lap' – a mental run around the older tracks of God's goodness already run and won.

A fourth help comes from familiar prayers and Bible verses. As semantic memory weakens, so does the ability to call up specific Bible verses on command.23 But our ingrained habits depend primarily on procedural memory rather than episodic memory, and “procedural memory is quite well preserved” even as dementia progresses.24 That's partly why consistent routines and organizational patterns are so helpful: if the process for meeting a need is consistent and orderly, it can be run off procedural memory. So if somebody gets used to finding their day's clothes on the same chair at the same time, procedural memory can help them get it.25 But as one doctor then points out, “The procedural memory system provides a different route for remembering God and practicing faith. It can provide some level of meaning and assurance, even in the midst of the confusion that results from the loss of memories.”26 Another doctor adds that if a person has developed a “regular prayer life” before dementia strikes, then prayer “can become part of one's procedural memory and persist well into dementia.”27 And that's one reason why, at our church, we recite the Apostles' Creed and pray the Lord's Prayer each Sunday, and why I hope they find place in your life between Sundays, too. As other things fade, these recognizable sequences of words and ideas can become tools for your souls. Far from signs of stale spirituality, set prayers can become pillars of stability for the day of storm and gale. And even beyond those formulas, when language becomes a tricky thing, people with dementia can still be aided to pray. One dementia-care chaplain offers the tip that saying “Let us pray” and offering a visual cue like bowing your head and folding your hands can help people with dementia, even in the middle or later stages, to recognize what's going on and, as they're able, to cultivate an awareness of God in prayer.28 You can love somebody with dementia by helping them pray – nothing elaborate or fancy needed, just simple and straight to the point is perfect.

A fifth help comes from using pictures and colors, not just words. As first language and then visual processing are affected, strong colors and images can communicate meaning when words can't. That's why experienced caregivers point out that putting pictures around the house can help people with dementia recognize where to find and put things – a picture of eyeglasses over the nightstand, for example – or that a solid black mat in front of the door might discourage wandering away by simulating a hole, or that a colorful toilet seat can help men with dementia aim.29 Some clinicians add that a to-do list made up of pictures of people to see, places to go, and activities to do can be much more helpful for people with dementia than lists of mere words.30 And so, in much the same way, pictures of the church can communicate the love of God they've felt there over the years.31 It's the same reason why, in the Old Testament, the priest Eleazar made a bronze altar covering “as a reminder to the people of Israel” (Numbers 16:40), or why Joshua made a pile of twelve stones in the Jordan River to “be to the people of Israel a memorial forever” (Joshua 4:7).

A sixth help can come from singing hymns. Emotional memory is resilient: even when you've forgotten details about an event, you might still remember how it made you feel. Those are tied into a different brain structure, the amygdala. That's why certain sights, sounds, and smells can evoke such powerful feelings and help us to remember.32 And we all know the emotional power of a hymn we've sung since childhood, one that's meant a lot to us and helped us express our souls to God. Beyond just the amygdala, hearing music activates brain structures like the basal ganglia and cerebellum that dementia usually lets off easy. Studies even suggest that people with dementia have a better chance of remembering something if you sing it to them instead of say it. But this all goes double for music learned during your youth.33 And so, even for people far along their dementia journey, having once-familiar hymns playing in the background can turn the lonely solitude of the apparent void into a space of worship, as the spirit is reminded and reconnected with God via emotional memories.34

A seventh help can come from the pleasures of creation. Even in the severest stages of dementia, people still are going to like beautiful scenery, pleasant smells, and flavorful foods.35 Paul speaks of “foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Timothy 4:3). So too did God make pleasant smells and beautiful scenes and sounds to be received with thanksgiving by those he's called his own. And there's no reason why, with help, somebody with even severe dementia can't receive and enjoy these things with explicit or just implicit gratitude to the God who made them.

And an eighth help can come from Communion. The familiar smells of bread and grape together will, even just on that level, bring back powerful emotional memories. In the Old Testament, parts of some sacrifices were called 'memorial portions' and burned up (e.g., Leviticus 2:2), so it's not for nothing that Jesus introduces his Communion in similar language: “Do this,” he tells us, “in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). Obviously, our experience of it has to be modified in cases where there's a choke risk. But while our brains may struggle to sustain memory, Communion remembers Jesus Christ with the whole self, far more than just the brain. And the spiritual gifts available in Communion are vastly greater than we can understand, bringing gifts and graces that don't depend on how well your brain's systems are working.

Through all these helps, the underlying point is this: God went out of his way to make our bodies so spectacular it's scary. He went to great lengths to give you an incredibly complex, capable, resilient, adaptable brain. That brain is a gift, one we too often take for granted. I know that this morning, even the relatively shallow scientific dip we took into the brain's complexity might have taxed us a bit. But that headache, that boredom, that eyes-glazed-over sensation is a wall between ourselves and wonder. It's the call to ascend a new level in appreciating and knowing God's gift. “Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them” (Psalm 111:2)!

And God gave us such a powerful gift partly so that, no matter what disease comes for us or those we know, we would never run out of practical ways to show each other the love he can put in our hearts, especially the love he pours into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who comes from Christ alone (Romans 5:5). Think of it! God gave you a pricelessly powerful brain as an act of love, to aid in your life of love for him and for those around you. “The LORD is righteous in all his ways,” it's written, “and kind in all his works” (Psalm 145:17). He invites us to understand and appreciate our brains partly so we can do that, and show his love in the best ways we can.

But even deeper than that, he invites us to take a good look at our brains and just stand in utter amazement of his workmanship in us, and to give him the glory. God made sure your head would contain an organ so rich and resilient and complex that the most advanced computer designed by scientists can't match all its capacities. In a very real way, the human brain is the greatest marvel in the entirety of God's known and visible creation – more majestic than Mount Everest, more beautiful than a sunset, more profound than any natural mystery we've seen. Doesn't that count as 'fearfully and wonderfully made'? If a team of scientists could manufacture something that genuinely equalled the human brain in every respect, that would be the most precious invention in existence. But you have it, signed by God, less than one inch beneath your scalp, right this very minute. So one brain scientist had to confess: “It is nothing short of a miracle that we remember anything, but the sheer number of things we remember is truly staggering. The process the brain uses to store a memory involves a variety of brain circuits, neurochemicals, and new connections that are formed between neurons. The efficiency of this system is amazing. It should cause us to stop and give praise to God for his magnificent design!”36

The works of his hands,” says the psalmist, “are faithful and just” (Psalm 111:7). And so, in all things, we can “entrust” our bodies and brains and minds, as well as our souls, “to a faithful Creator” (1 Peter 4:19). God is faithful: he's committed to what he's created. He loves you, and loves your brain. Even when you're running down, whether from normal wear-and-tear or from disease, he remains faithful. The psalmist expresses that truth by saying to God that “in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Psalm 139:16). Before ever you implanted in uterine lining, God had already written out the days he'd formed for you. That includes days after you're attacked by disease. For every person with dementia (or anything else), God has already written out that day, his promise that he'll be there to hold them together, still faithfully present with mercy and love. No day can surprise him, because God wrote out his promise for the day of the brain's deterioration before he even formed that brain in the first place. Before your brain even began to develop, God committed to love you. Now that's faithfulness.

That faithfulness is why he sent his Son to take on human flesh and blood. God put the Word of Life into a body with a three-pound brain a lot like yours, and – excepting his sinlessness and our sinfulness – there wasn't much difference on the natural level. The Son of God took a brain like the brain he created in you. And with whatever your brain's complexity can accomplish, he invites you to know and love him as Creator, Redeemer, and Faithful Lover, and to flourish in his grace, and to always be with him (cf. Psalm 139:18). So thank him, praise him, trust him! For great is his failsafe inventiveness – and no less great is his faithfulness.