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.

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.