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.


Almighty and ever-living God, Father of all love and grace, you are the Searcher of Hearts. You know us inside and out, when we cannot know ourselves. And you know your own Spirit inside and out. So you know that your Spirit, whom you graciously poured out upon your Church, prays for us from within us, and only according to your perfect will. When we cannot pray, when we reach our limits, when we stumble and falter, or when we rest passively in you, hear your own Holy Spirit's prayers, Father, and grant to us the good we couldn't or didn't ask for ourselves. Pour out your Spirit on us in greater measure, until we overflow with his light. Grant him to set fire to our hearts, that we might have a fiery heart of love to love you with. Let our minds be conformed to his mind, that we might have a greater mind to love you with. Let our weakness be filled by his strength, that we might have his strength to love you with. Save and sanctify our souls by your Holy Spirit, that we might have holy souls to love you with. And open our eyes to those around us, burdened and confused and weak like ourselves, and, not by might nor by power but by your Spirit, let us love our neighbors as we love our own selves, all for the sake of loving you, Lord. For in this are the whole Law and the Prophets fulfilled. Hear again your Spirit's prayers in us, and by his ministry of prayer, teach us also how to pray more as we ought, until at last we see in perfect daylight, the day of everlasting day, in Jesus' name. Amen.

1  “Presbyterian Churches: Directory,” The Miami Herald (2 December 1972): 11-B is the first to list “Rev. Robt. Davis, Interim Minister” instead of “Charles Aregood, Minister.” Rev. Davis' position was made permanent in March 1973 – see “New Pastors Named,” The Miami Herald (10 March 1973): 7-B.

2  Robert Davis, My Journey with Alzheimer's Disease (Tyndale House, 1989), 39-44.

3  Robert Davis, My Journey with Alzheimer's Disease (Tyndale House, 1989), 110.

4  “Alzheimer's Steals Pastor's Ministry,” The Miami Herald (3 August 1987): 1B, 3B; Robert Davis, My Journey with Alzheimer's Disease (Tyndale House, 1989), 19-20, 54.

5  Robert Davis, My Journey with Alzheimer's Disease (Tyndale House, 1989), 110.

6  Robert Davis, My Journey with Alzheimer's Disease (Tyndale House, 1989), 53.

7  “Deaths: Robert Davis, Helped Transform Church,” The Miami Herald (17 March 1993): 4B.

8  Eileen Shamy, A Guide to the Spiritual Dimension of Care for People with Alzheimer's Disease and Related Dementia: More Than Body, Brain, and Death (Jessica Kingsley, 2003), 21.

9  Christine Bryden, Dancing with Dementia: My Story of Living Positively with Dementia (Jessica Kingsley, 2005), 106.

10  Benjamin T. Mast, Second Forgetting: Remembering the Power of the Gospel During Alzheimer's Disease (Zondervan, 2014), 67.

11  William Cowper, letter to John Newton, 8 February 1783, in The Life and Works of William Cowper (Saunders and Otley, 1836), 2:112.

12  Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness (Brazos Press, 2006), 128.

13  Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness (Brazos Press, 2006), 159.

14  Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness (Brazos Press, 2006), 73.

15  Mother Teresa of Calcutta, letter to Fr. Picachy, 3 September 1959, in Brian Kolodiejchuk, ed., Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta” (Doubleday, 2007), 193.

16  Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness (Brazos Press, 2006), 107.

17  John Dunlop, Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia (Crossway, 2017), 55.

18  Robert Davis, My Journey with Alzheimer's Disease (Tyndale House, 1989), 110.

19  Benjamin T. Mast, Second Forgetting: Remembering the Power of the Gospel During Alzheimer's Disease (Zondervan, 2014), 52.

20  Didache 8.3 (late first century)

21  E.g., Eileen Shamy, A Guide to the Spiritual Dimension of Care for People with Alzheimer's Disease and Related Dementia: More Than Body, Brain, and Death (Jessica Kingsley, 2003), 105.

22  John Dunlop, Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia (Crossway, 2017), 150.

23  John Dunlop, Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia (Crossway, 2017), 136.

24  Benjamin T. Mast, Second Forgetting: Remembering the Power of the Gospel During Alzheimer's Disease (Zondervan, 2014), 67.

25  John Swinton, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God (Eerdmans, 2012), 222.

26  Benjamin T. Mast, Second Forgetting: Remembering the Power of the Gospel During Alzheimer's Disease (Zondervan, 2014), 67.

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