A Literary Pursuit of Beauty, Grace, and Truth

It’s been a long time since I browsed in a Christian bookstore. They’re exceptionally rare here in Maine, but on one of my last excursions, I inquired about the poetry section hoping to lay hands on something by Luci Shaw or Marjorie Maddox. Alas, it was not to be on this day.

“We don’t carry poetry,” I was informed, in a tone that somehow made a virtue out of the omission, and given the disappointing nature of the Christian poetry that has found its way onto greeting cards and into cheerfully vapid collections over the years, maybe it’s just as well to save shelf space for more substantial material. Of course, the tragedy is that poorly written inspirational verse has inoculated the church against the rich treasury of  devotional poetry that is part of our heritage and our history. Taking the religious life as its subject, devotional poetry shows rather than tells, suggests rather than argues, and has the lovely effect of prompting “us to think about God and spiritual truth.” (14)

Leland Ryken, professor of English at Wheaton College for nearly 50 years, has done us the tremendous favor of sorting through the endless possibilities of great works and narrowing the field down to a manageable representative collection that begins with the oldest surviving poem in the English language and works its way up through modern times.  The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems provides helpful commentary on each work, beginning with explanation of unfamiliar or archaic terms and then moving on to enhance the reader’s understanding of artistry and content while noting specific devotional aspects of the poem.

Ryken’s contributors include all the Johns (Milton, Donne, Bunyan, Dryden) and the Williams (Draper, Shakespeare, Wordsworth) along with a  multitude of well-loved names including George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, C.S. Lewis, Christina Rossetti, Anne Bradstreet, and the Brontë Sisters.  Perhaps the greatest treasure, however, is his inclusion of lesser known poets who wrote with great depth of soul. Exercising considerable restraint, I will share a few favorite excerpts along with insights from the commentary that have added to my contemplation of their deep theological truth and have enhanced my understanding of the rich mode of expression used by skillful poets throughout history.

On the Incarnation:

“‘Twas much, that man was made like God before,
But, that God would be made like man, much more.”   (78)

“It is commonplace in Christian thinking that God made man in his own image. John Donne reverses that fact in a thought that is so unexpected that it can be considered a paradox: it is even more noteworthy that in the incarnation God was made in the image of man. [These] lines are an aphorism (a succinct and striking statement that we remember.)”  (80)

On Human Restlessness:

“Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.”  (92)

In these words put in God’s mouth by George Herbert, “we are given the reason why God created people to be restless in the world. The poet imagines that God created people with a built-in ‘pulley’ that draws them to God.”  (93)

On the Key to a Meaningful Life:

I confess to finding Milton’s writing to be beyond challenging — inscrutable, even — without assistance, but with the insights from Ryken’s notes alongside a slow and careful read, this excerpt in Adam’s words from the epic poem Paradise Lost are a road map for life in a fallen world:

“Henceforth I learn that to obey is best,
And love with fear the only God, to walk
As in his presence, ever to observe
His providence, and on him sole depend.”  (133)

On the Place of Lament in the Life of a Believer:

Anne Bradstreet’s “Verses Upon the Burning of Our House” renders tragedy in verse without trivializing it. “The pitfall that a poet needs to avoid in a poem like this is allowing the consolation to come across as facile (too easily achieved and glibly stated). Bradstreet meets the challenge by fully acknowledging the human and earthly loss that she has sustained.” (137)

“My pleasant things in ashes lie
And them behold no more shall I.
Under the roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy table eat a bit . . .
Then straight I ‘gin my heart to chide:
And did thy wealth on earth abide,
Didst fix thy hope on moldering dust,
The arm of flesh dist make thy trust?”  (136)

By her example, we may carve out our own faithful living of lament and peaceful acceptance of the will of God.

The Soul in Paraphrase as a title has been lifted from a poem by George Herbert:

“Prayer, the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heaven and earth.”  (8)

Herbert is referring to prayer, the ability to live in God’s presence as angels live, but Ryken argues that devotional poetry serves the soul in the same way, rendering and representing our souls in words that we might have come up with ourselves— if only we had the skill.


Many thanks to Crossway for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems, simply click on the title (or the image) within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Photo by Greyson Joralemon on Unsplash

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God Has a Bigger and Better Story for You

We are a story-telling family, composing on-the-spot homespun tales, filling up the long minutes of road trips with audio books, laughing together over replays from crazy conversations, and delighting in glory-moments together after the fact. As our family continually rotates in wider orbits, stories have become the fibers that connect us, that keep us known to one other.

I’m grateful that all our story threads are woven into the fabric of the huge over-arching narrative found in the pages of Scripture. This once-upon-a-time-that-really-happened got its start in the mind of God, but the plot first hunkered down in the idyllic setting of Eden. Nancy Guthrie picked up her pen, gathered up the tangled threads of that story set in a garden, and she moves forward in hope through the unfolding of God’s redemptive plan in her latest book, Even Better than Eden: Nine Ways the Bible’s Story Changes Everything about Your Story

On her meandering way from the thunderous God-force of creation to the end of the ages, she shares stunning truth about “what the original garden has to show us about the more secure, more satisfying, and more glorious garden we’re destined to live in forever, which will be even better than Eden.” (14) It’s easy to forget that Eden was born out of an uninhabitable wasteland on a planet that was “formless and empty.”

  • Guthrie follows this story of wilderness through the Old Testament and the wanderings of the discontented Israelites, the ruins of Jerusalem after Nebuchadnezzar’s armies had had their way, and into the New Testament where Jesus passed His wilderness testing and Paul lived pinned down by a thorn in the flesh, but found contentment in his spiritual wilderness;
  • Then, there’s the story of the tree, a symbol from Genesis to Revelation that pops up in the appearance of the lampstands in the Tabernacle and in prophetic symbolism. By grace, we are invited to find our way to the tree of life by way of Calvary’s tree;
  • The story of God’s image is full of hope, for though it was marred, it was flawlessly revealed in Christ and will ultimately be restored in us;
  • The story of clothing begins with God providing for Adam and Eve with love and tenderness that points to the truth that one day we will be beautifully clothed in “the greater glory Adam and Eve forfeited” (70);
  • The story of the Bridegroom features Eve as the original bride in the very first wedding conducted by God which went terribly wrong. That pain resonated throughout Israel’s history, but the ruined bride will one day be restored and presented to God’s Son, the second Adam’
  • The story of sabbath began before there was Law and remains as God’s gift;
  • The story of offspring unpacks Psalm 91 within the greater context of God’s sovereignty over evil and the “Offspring of the Woman” (Jesus) who will put an end to evil once and for all;
  • The story of a dwelling place assures believers of God’s intention to make His home with us–an intention that cannot be thwarted even by our own fumbling and fluctuating intention to cling to Him. The tabernacle, the temple, and God’s indwelling Spirit all bear witness to His zeal and devotion;
  • Finally, the story of the city reveals that all of Scripture points toward the story of two cities– “the city of man and the city of God. And what matters most about your story is which city you have made your home.”

Nancy Guthrie renders biblical theology with beauty and a depth of emotion that motivates me to become a better learner, and a more passionate student of Scripture and observer of life. A firm grasp on the gospel-oriented-big-picture of the Bible’s 66 books will change the way you read. God takes a long view of goodness and hope, and his promises for our welfare point to a life that exponentially transcends the three-score-and-ten we fixate upon.

A good foundation in biblical theology also impacts on the way we pray.  For example, God’s promise of protection in Psalm 91 is not the lucky-rabbit’s foot that means our children will “never face danger or death in this life. But [rather that God] has promised to gather his own to himself, where he will protect them from ultimate and eternal harm.”

Following the threads of these nine stories reinforced my understanding of God as both transcendent and relational. Finding myself within the context of His desires for me — a hope that far exceeds my own aspirations for myself and those I love — opens my eyes to the beauty of struggle and the redemptive nature of waiting as we fix our eyes upon the unseen, and trust God for a future home that will be truly (and amazingly!) even better than Eden.


Many thanks to Crossway for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

Grace and peace to you,

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase Even Better than Eden: Nine Ways the Bible’s Story Changes Everything about Your Storysimply click on the title (or the image) within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular content delivered to your inbox. Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging communities on a regular basis. They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week. I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

10 Ways to Reflect God’s Character

He placed one hand on the door frame, shifted his weight to one foot, and then placed the other small boot toe-down on the floor. Looking at his dad, he checked his hand position and then assumed the facial expression he deemed appropriate to the occasion, a conversation among “the guys.” My grandson’s imitation of his dad is endearing, but it is also instructional. If you want to be like someone, even if that Someone is God, you study their actions and do your best to imitate and replicate them. If you want to be like God, and if God has revealed Himself through inspired writing as One who values and embodies particular qualities, then you have your marching orders.

In His Image: 10 Ways God Calls Us to Reflect His Character is Jen Wilkin’s affirmation that God’s character, revealed in Scripture, is the believer’s template:

“How should the knowledge that God is _________________ change the way I live?”  (21)

Who Should I Be?

A laser focus on the character and attributes of God impacts on my own character, but it also shifts my perception for decision making. When I am seeking the will of God, I have tended to ask, “What should I do?” when the better question is “Who should I be?”  Wilkin expresses the tension well and from personal experience:

“Perhaps you’ve known the frustration of hearing silence, or worse, of acting on a hunch or ‘leading’ only to find later that you apparently had not heard the Lord’s will. I know that process better than I’d like to admit, and I also know the shame that accompanies it–the sense that I’m tone-deaf to the Holy Spirit, that I’m terrible at discovering God’s will. . . .His will does not need discovering. It is in plain sight. To see it we need to start asking the question that deals with his primary concern. We need to ask, ‘Who should I be?'”

Here’s what it boils down to:

“What does it profit me to make the right choice if I’m still the wrong person? A lost person can make ‘good choices.’ But only a person indwelt by the Holy Spirit can make a good choice for the purpose of glorifying God.”

So while there is no list of words, no magical set of adjectives that can fully encompass the character and nature of God, Jen Wilkin has chosen ten attributes that assist the reader in modeling a life after the character of God.

For example, God’s holiness is his most frequently cited attribute in Scripture. What does His utter purity of character mean for the believer who claims a desire to be like Jesus? Practical holiness, according to Jerry Bridges, includes a “desire to be made holy.” This leads me to ask myself a number of razor-edged questions:

  • Am I praying about the sanctification of my kids–and myself?
  • Are my motives for right behavior results-oriented or am I seeking holiness for its own glorious sake?

Asking the Better Question

In His Image: 10 Ways God Calls Us to Reflect His Character has heightened my awareness of God’s attributes as a doorway to worship, and the journey actually began for me when I read Wilkin’s earlier release None Like Him: 10 Ways God Is Different from Us (and Why That’s a Good Thing). (Click here to read my review!) In our efforts to understand the nature of God and to reflect His character, it is true that we are invited by the God who is holy, loving, good, just, merciful, gracious, faithful, patient, truthful, and wise to enter into the embodiment of these virtues as part of our sanctification process. These attributes of God are communicable, and this is a list that the believer can grow into by walking in obedience to the commands of God through the power of the Spirit of God within.

However, God is also infinite, incomprehensible, self-existent, self-sufficient, eternal, immutable, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, and sovereign. These are His incommunicable attributes, which, by their very nature can be true only of God. When we “strive to become like God in any of these traits, we set ourselves up as his rival. Human beings created to bear the image of God aspire instead to become like God.”

It is always a joy to return to the truth of the Gospel which is not self-help or advice for “better living,” but rather Good News. So, what is the Good News? It is simply this: The believer’s flawed and imperfect representation of the image of God can, by grace, be transformed. As we seek, by grace, to be “conformed to the image of Christ,” we begin by asking, “who should I be?” and then enter into the life long process of discovering who God is as we look to Him for the answers our hearts desire.  


Many thanks to Crossway for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase In His Image: 10 Ways God Calls Us to Reflect His Character, or None Like Him: 10 Ways God Is Different from Us (and Why That’s a Good Thing) simply click on the title (or the image) within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Thank you, as always, for reading and for your continual encouragement,

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular content delivered to your inbox. Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging communities on a regular basis. They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week. I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

Lessons from C.S.Lewis: Becoming Fully Human

In my senior year of college, I took an English elective on the writings of C.S.Lewis. The professor, Dr. Kaye, was ebullient, effervescent, and contagious in her love for the Oxford don who spun words into gold. Her instructions for the final exam were simple but ominous: simply bring a pen and plenty of paper. We all eyed one another with apprehension, and it turns out with good reason, because the exam consisted of one question: Describe the theology of C.S. Lewis and support your statements from his writing.

Joe Rigney has taken this assignment one step further, for in  Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God (Theologians on the Christian Life), he presses beyond Lewis’s theology and considers its outworking in life on this planet. While it is true that C.S. Lewis was careful to remind his readers at every opportunity that he was not a biblical scholar nor a theologian, nonetheless, his writing has had an almost unparalleled impact on the way we think and talk about the Christian life. It is at this intersection of theology and practice that Rigney engages with Lewis’s words.

 

One of my favorite characteristics of Lewis’s thinking and writing is his ability to turn ideas on their heads until they suddenly–and unexpectedly–become very clear. Rigney’s goal in writing is not to explain Lewis so we don’t need to read him, but instead to create an appetite for his work, which he has definitely done in my case by quoting from The Weight of Glory, reminding me of the brand new copy that’s waiting for me on my bookcase.

On the Choice

Lewis is clear throughout his writing that Christianity boils down to a Choice:

“Both God and self are good and should be embraced. But the Choice in question is which of these will be at the center?

Furthermore, this Choice is expressed in any number of specific decisions throughout life, but the goal of the Christian life, according to Lewis, is to “so encounter the living God that we become our true selves. Becoming fully human in the presence of God–that is what Lewis thought the Christian life is all about.”

On the Person of God

In Letters to Malcolm, Lewis writes sage advice in four words:  “Begin where you are.” Of course, he’s thinking “chiefly on prayer” in that book, but the conflict lies in the truth that humanity is limited to here and now, while God, both omnipresent and transcendent, has chosen to join us in the here and now. “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him.”

In Lewis’s spiritual autobiography, Surprised By Joy, God is portrayed as a Pursuer. In Mere Christianity, he explains his favorite analogy of God as Author. “The world is His story or play, and we are His characters.” In Perelandra, we are reminded that Lewis viewed God’s creative work as a harmonious union, a Great Dance, and humanity’s sin came about because God’s Choice was to grant freedom in the dance, allowing for the possibility of sin.

On the Gospel

While Lewis decried the term “total depravity” on the grounds that a totally depraved individual would be unable to recognize sin in himself, his understanding of humanity’s sinful condition is certainly clear and orthodox. He also dismissed the doctrine of penal substitution on the basis that the reason why Christ’s death “has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start” is less important than the reality that He did it. However, it is ironic that Aslan’s sacrificial death on behalf of Edmund (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) is a lovely picture of the very doctrine Lewis protests about.

In applying the Gospel, Lewis describes the benefits of Christ’s work in the life of the believer through two images from Mere Christianity:

(1) Good Infection:  “We catch the Christ-life by being close to him, by drawing near to him, in truth, by being ‘in him.'”

(2) Good Pretending: This is the furthest thing from hypocrisy or moralism, but is rather a living out of our righteous standing in Christ, whether we feel like it or not. “The pretense leads to the real thing.”

On “Nothing-Buttery”

The Christian life, according to C.S. Lewis, is lived against a vigorous background of spiritual warfare. In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis highlighted the elder devil’s urgency in communicating to “the patient” a reductionist view of the world in which “everything we can see and know is nothing but a mixture of matter in motion.” If humans are nothing but sacks of protoplasm, emotions are nothing but a confluence of digestion and hormones, and stars are nothing but burning gas, life is reduced to its lowest common denominator.

For Lewis, the incarnation was an extremely practical matter in that it gave dignity to our physical existence and tore down the artificial barrier between “the scientific and the supernatural.” In fact, this is my favorite aspect of Lewis’s brilliance: he always left room for God.  As a spinner of tales himself, he knew the importance of giving the Author free reign, and maintained that “reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed.”

On Relationships

The way we treat other people is the test of our commitment to the Christian life, and Rigney chose Lewis’s final work of fiction, Till We Have Faces, to dissect the impact of divine love on selfish love. Juxtaposing Orual’s corrupt love with Lewis’s thoughts in The Four Loves, Rigney offered parallels that were revelatory for understanding Orual’s and our own twisted neediness. Even her relationship with the gods is marked by her demand that they reveal themselves on her terms.

Throwing away joy with both hands, Orual brings us full circle, back around to Lewis’s point that the Christian life teeters at the tipping point of choice from beginning to end. Whether it’s a matter of initial surrender of your life or a wide place in the road where you are holding out on a seemingly smaller decision, here’s the Truth from Lewis’s pen:

“If you have not chosen the Kingdom of God, it will make in the end no difference what you have chosen instead.”


Many thanks to Crossway for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God (Theologians on the Christian Life), simply click on the title (or the image) within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular content delivered to your inbox. Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging communities on a regular basis. They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week. I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

Treasuring the Uncomfortable Church

One of my reading goals for 2018 is to tackle Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. For a myriad of reasons, I need to absorb his hard won wisdom, but most of all I want to lean into his observations about Christian community in the crucible of “life together” in a secret seminary under the looming threat of Nazi persecution. Somehow, in the most challenging of historical contexts, Bonhoeffer was able to address the disconnect between the “dream of a Christian community” and “the Christian community itself.”

Waking up from his own dream church, Bret McCracken confesses that there are a good many facets of his own fellowship — and even about the Christian faith — that rub him the wrong way. In Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community  he analyzes, laments, and offers perspective on the struggle, for as the old saw goes, even if you are fortunate enough to find the perfect church, you will surely ruin it when you join. (Did you know this came originally from Spurgeon?)

Of course, all this insight doesn’t stop us from fantasizing about the ideal facility, the perfect constellation of ministries, a doctrinal statement and liturgical bent that fit like a glove, and the “perfect” Sunday morning music . . . alongside a good cup of strong coffee.  We are immersed in a culture that encourages us to inflate our wants until they take on the dimensions of a need. However, part of the amphibious nature of the Christian experience is that “what we think we want from a church is almost never what we need.” (Loc 302).

“Commitment even amidst discomfort, faithfulness even amidst disappointment: this is what being the people of God has always been about.”

Why the Church Seems So Uncomfortable

Devoting one chapter to each topic, McCracken explores the difficult aspects of following Jesus:

  • The uncomfortable cross that requires an embrace of suffering and sacrifice;
  • The uncomfortable call to be a set-apart people, pursing holiness and a set of values that set us at odds with the world around us;
  • A collection of counter-cultural truths around creation, hell, and sexual ethics that wreck our cool-factor and make for awkward conversational pauses;
  • The call to love outside our comfort zone and to worship beside people who annoy or puzzle us;
  • The controversial differences in worship that arise from different perspectives on God the Holy Spirit, the role of liturgy, music, prayer, and every other imaginable preference;
  • The multiple challenges around authority, unity, diversity, commitment, and even our understanding of what it means to be “comfortable” on a fallen planet.

The End of All Our Petty Preferences

One source of all this discomfort with the church and her people is a discomfort with God Himself. Author Adam McHugh describes the God we long for who “always agrees with us, . . . who always favors our nation or political agenda, [and] feeds us candy and never vegetables.” The God who sent prophets walking naked and barefoot through the streets of Jerusalem in order to make a point will not hesitate to require a modern day saint to walk a path of growth that puts comfort aside for the sake of something greater.

The call of God is a summons to embrace the discomfort of the cross and a counter-cultural call to holiness in spite of the cost to our dreams. The startling truth is that a comfortable Christianity without an instrument of torture at its center and without a message that sits us across the table eye-to-eye with an enemy and requires a loving response is not really Christianity at all.

Christ’s call to spiritual neediness, mourning, and meekness found in The Beatitudes captures the difference between comfortable Christianity and “a kingdom where worldly comforts are nothing compared to the power of the Comforter in us; where all manner of uncomfortable things are endured for righteousness’s sake.” As we look outside ourselves and assign greater value to Truth than to comfort, we find that worship is about God and not about us. We begin to value each other’s differences as we look toward the future assembly of people and nations and tongues and tribes that will one day surround us as we worship God — and as we look back on our petty preferences and wonder what all the fuss was about.


This book was provided by Crossway in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

UncomfortableI have begun to experiment with including an Amazon affiliate link here in my book reviews. If you should decide to purchase Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community, click on the title here, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

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Dementia, Dignity, and Honoring God

Modern medicine has made optimists out of us all.
Cancer? Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy frequently combine to leave the patient cancer-free or living well with the disease as a chronic illness.
Heart attack? Clot-busters, by-pass surgery, rehabilitation, and the patient returns to a normal life.
Dementia?  Well, that’s a different story.  Pharmaceutical options are disappointing, and there is no cure for the progressive downhill slide into confusion, loss of independence, and eventual death.

In Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia, Dr. John Dunlop asks, “How can such a tragedy as dementia be dignified, and how in the world can God be honored through it?” He’s well-qualified to seek the answer to his question. As a geriatrician (a medical doctor trained to meet the special health issues of older people), he has worked with dementia patients and their families professionally. He has also experienced the challenges of dementia from the patient’s perspective as he walked that hard path with his mother, his father, and his mother-in-law.

The Science and Theology of Dementia

Judeo-Christian values support a position of respect for the dignity of everyone, rooted in our belief that people are made in the image of God regardless of whether or not they can contribute to the nation’s gross domestic product. Since statistics show that, of those who live to the age of 90, nearly half will manifest some form of dementia, it is important for us to arrive at a right understanding of our role, as individuals and as the Body of Christ, in coming alongside patients and families.

Dr. Dunlop is careful to anchor his view of dementia firmly upon the foundation of Scripture’s narrative arc:  creation, fall, redemption, and future hope. Although dementia was not part of the “good” God declared in the very beginning, He has a purpose in all that He allows to happen. A stunning quote from Tim Keller brought this into focus for me:

“The evils of life can be justified if we recognize that the world was primarily created to be a place where people find God and grow spiritually into all they were designed to be.” (Loc 307)

With all the good that God has given to enjoy, I find myself imagining, at times, that I’ve been placed on this planet to be comfortable and to have my own way. Dr. Dunlop encourages his readers toward a trust in God that looks for purpose even in the midst of the horror of suffering that appears to be meaningless.

Understanding dementia requires an understanding of the human brain. I found this distinction among brain, soul, and mind to be especially enlightening:

“Our brains are packed with countless nerve cells, and the chemicals that go between those cells allow one nerve cell to affect another. This enables our brains to process and record our thoughts. But we also have immaterial souls, where our thoughts originate. Together our physical brains and our immaterial souls constitute our minds.”

Normal brains forget sometimes (especially as they age — cringe), but a diseased brain is comparable to an old computer with limited memory capacity. It is storing many old memories and loses the ability to store new ones. When memory loss begins to interfere with speech and cause personality change, it is diagnosed as dementia. Seventy percent of diagnosed dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, caused by plaques and tangles in the brain which begin to kill nerve cells and “lead to a deficiency of the chemicals . . . whose job it is to carry signals from one cell to another.” (Loc 730)

Insights for Families and Caregivers

Case studies of former patients are a valuable part of John Dunlop’s contribution to the caring community. Discernment comes into play from the very beginning, even in deciding WHEN to make a diagnosis of dementia. Some patients are helped by having a name for their confusion; others are sent into despair at the prospect of future loss. He recommends calling it “a memory problem” in the early days to allay fear, and stresses that physicians should communicate hope for a meaningful and enjoyable life in spite of deterioration.

Again, because he has seen the caring process from both sides, Dr. Dunlop’s insights are especially practical and helpful:

  • Try to share the burden of decisions and care for the dementia patient, even though it is usually best to have just one person be the primary caregiver and decision maker.
  • Do not delay in setting up a legally designated, durable power of attorney for medical decisions and in having a lawyer draw up documents to give supervision of the patient’s finances to someone else.
  • Notify spiritual leaders so they can be available for counsel and encouragement.
  • Maintain a regular schedule to help dementia patients get their bearings.
  • Over and over again, the author emphasizes the importance of respecting the dignity of the patient. When we serve a dementia patient, first and foremost, we are serving God who finds people so infinitely lovable that He joined us on this planet so that we could know Him. Those with dementia are whole persons, loved and valued by God.
  • Prayer is a spiritual resource which may help the one who prays more than the patient by graciously changing our attitude.
  • Remnants of pre-dementia personality may persist, but lack of inhibition may allow some previously suppressed aspects of the personality to present themselves with startling results.
  • Committed Christians may experience a sense of the absence of God as the ability to feel anything at all recedes.
  • Even the most habitually grateful individuals may become apathetic toward their caregivers, never acknowledging the sacrifice the loved one is making. Caregivers for dementia patients face daily challenges and deal with their loved ones’ meltdowns, agitated behavior, sleep disturbance, endless messes, and this is exacerbated by their resulting loss of contact with the outside world.  This amazing statistic is both startling and motivating to the Body of Christ to be offering assistance:  “Thirty percent of caregivers die before the patient for whom they are responsible.” (Loc 1027
  •  One way to connect with those who have dementia is to repeatedly tell them the stories of their life, emphasizing God’s part in bringing them to Himself and reminding them of our love for them. One of the greatest ways of communicating love to someone with memory loss is the gift of presence.
  • The church plays an important role in providing for the spiritual needs of dementia patients and their caregivers, but also in teaching what it means to be fully human, educating believers in an adequate theology of suffering, establishing believers in spiritual disciplines that will sustain them through hard times, and developing a culture that values serving and caring for “the least of these.”
  • Dr. Dunlop addresses end-of-life issues with answers to questions about appropriate medical care, the process of dying, and whether or not it is appropriate to limit life-prolonging care. His answers come from a biblical perspective coupled with a respect for both the sovereignty of God and the value of life. His position on end-of-life care for those suffering from dementia could be summarized in this way:  “Comfort is more important than length of life.” (Loc 2377)

Inside Dementia

After a certain point, it is impossible for a patient suffering from dementia to report his feelings from within the disease, but Dr. Dunlop shares empathetic insights he has gained from his work.  Dementia is constricting. Suddenly words do not work as effective tools for communication. It is not clear where the bathroom in one’s own house can be found. Life becomes small and boring as abilities and hobbies become unmanageable. People act embarrassed by the new you, so it’s easier just to withdraw. Everything is unfamiliar and, therefore, threatening. Frustration becomes a way of life.

J.I. Packer shares words that are applicable to both the dementia patient and the caregiver:

“The weaker we feel, the harder we lean. And the harder we lean, the stronger we grow spiritually, even while our bodies waste away.”
(Loc 1173)

I recently attended the funeral of a friend I’ve known for most of my life, but the beautiful memorial service was not the good bye. My friend had been slipping away from us into the fog of dementia for years, leaving us all feeling as if we had not had the opportunity to say a proper good bye. Even so, as we gathered, we remembered her as she had been, and we honored her as we thanked God together for the gift of her life, for the fortitude of her caregiver, and for the truth that our value to God is not tied up in how well we perform or how much we contribute.

By embracing biblical values, respecting the dignity of those with dementia, gathering around the caregiver as brothers and sisters, and placing our ultimate hope in Christ, we grow, God is glorified, and we are reminded in one more way that our eternal home is not to be found here on this planet where “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed in us,” (Romans 8:18).

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This book was provided by Crossway in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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“Laundry Is My Overflowing Inbox”: Working within the Home

Stuffing a ratty t-shirt into the washer’s maw, I try not to think about the fact that it was only yesterday that I hung this very same t-shirt on the clothesline.  The laundry is never done — even though we are down to a family of four these days.  How in the world did I survive eleven years of cloth diapers?  Apparently, somewhere along the way I have discovered that there is Glory in the Ordinary, that there is meaning to all the mundane tasks that are stuck on replay in this mothering life.  So when Courtney Reissig compared her laundry hamper to her husband’s overflowing inbox at work, I stopped and underlined, and nodded, “yes and amen.”

My soul resonated, too,  when she argued that in our ordinary chores and in the act of corralling chaos into order, we image God.

“You and I were created to work because God Himself works.  It is a function of being image bearers.”

Organizing a cluttered closet, mucking out a nasty refrigerator mess, distributing clean and folded laundry to the four corners of the house — these are all as quietly mundane as the work God does in our time to water His trees with rain or, in history, to arrange for the Exodus 16 manna that faithfully fed a generation of Israelites.

Go Back to the Purpose

Courtney’s personal illustrations and the vignettes shared from the lives of her friends encourage me to lift my eyes from the all-consuming “what” of my daily list and from the pervasive “how” (as in “how am I going to get all this done?”), and to fix my eyes on the one beautiful question:  “Why?”

Why do I do what I do every day in my home?  To love God and to love my neighbor.  And sometimes the hardest “neighbors” to love are the ones that share my last name and my DNA.

While Martin Luther made it clear that the works of our hands are not meritorious for our salvation, he wrote decisively that “one ought to live, speak, act, hear, suffer, and die in love and service for another, even one’s enemies.” (Kindle Location 871)  Loving others in our homes is more than a feeling, and it is likely to include the inconvenience of vacuuming the mud from their shoes, replacing the groceries they consume, and washing the dishes and the bedding they besmirch.

Mother’s Little Helpers

The whole family is invited to experience the “glory in the ordinary” that comes with the work of home — not only because of the “many hands make light work” principle, but because of the soul-shaping nature of chores and collaborative effort.  With sweet reasonableness, Courtney shares this gracious logic (Kindle Location 923):

“The home we all live in is for us all, and therefore, requires that we all contribute to it.”

She traces the history of housework through the the subtle transition in terminology from “housewife” to “stay-at-home mum,” and examines the impact of cultural context on the believer’s theology of work.  For instance, missionary and author Gloria Furman is a mum and keeper at home in a middle-eastern, community-oriented culture, while those of us in the West tend to have a go-it-alone mentality which can lead to the isolation, loneliness, and burn out that has given motherhood a bad reputation.

Toward a Sound Theology of Home

Since God is relational Himself, and since He ordained (Genesis 2:18) that his creatures would fare better in company with others, even the introverts of the world (I’m looking in the mirror here), need to consider what part community should be playing in our work at home.  Hannah Anderson says it well:

“God did not intend for families to be islands; they are part of the continent.  This is why multi-generational communities are so important to the work of home.”

I enjoy covering the nursery in church these days so that young mums can get a break from little children, but I am on the receiving end when a dear friend in her eighties washes all my dishes whenever she attends a big gathering in my home.

“Home here on earth is a microcosm of the heavenly reality that awaits us, [and] so is the church.”  (Kindle Location 1134-1143) Good theology and its practical application should lead to a connectivity and a “my life for yours” mentality as we serve one another.  This glorious truth gets lived out whenever Titus 2-truth sees daylight in a discipleship relationship between older and younger women or whenever men and women of “grandparent age” step into a situation where are there are no grandparents nearby to help and encourage.

“Community done among women commends the gospel to a world that breathes isolation and loneliness.” (Kindle Location 1151)

The God-Designed Gift of Rest

If God rested (and He did), if Adam and Eve in their perfect prelapsarian bodies needed rest, it stands to reason that my own post-Genesis 3 life will be better if I submit to a pattern of work followed by Sabbath.  J.I. Packer speaks wisdom into this subject (Kindle Location 1276):

We need to be aware of our limitations and to let this awareness work in us humility and self-distrust, and a realization of our helplessness on our own.  Thus we may learn our need to depend on Christ, our Savior and Lord, at every turn of the road . . .”

Our prideful rearing up against the rest we need and the fact that work exhausts, depletes, and frustrates us are both factors attributable to our fallen-ness.  So is the idolatry that makes work into a god and permits it to supersede in importance even the people we are called to love and to serve.

When my children were all small (in the pre-homeschooling days), I gave myself the weekend off from cooking by preparing meals ahead every Friday.  Courtney shares an idea from a friend who depends on leftovers and PB&J for the weekend.  Regardless of how we accomplish it, we ensure that the Sabbath is honored in our homes by “working hard at rest,” investing the effort up front and employing some carefully chosen “no’s.”

 Enter into the Joy

The job description driving the work of home is an unwieldy thing, shifting daily and expanding and changing as our families grow.  While this is unavoidable, we can lighten our own load with some purposeful choices and a Christ-shaped mindset such as steering clear of comparison; resisting the urge to audition for the role of Super Mum; and encouraging our husbands to fulfill their own God-ordained roles as workers at home — without feeling threatened or “less than” because we are unable to shoulder the work of two single-handed.

Mired in the here and now, we forget that the work of home is the work of spreading God’s glory throughout the world.  By entering into the reality of that today, we leave a mark on those we serve and prepare our hearts for a future of greater work and greater joy when we will see that there has never been a mundane task without purpose in God’s incredible universe in which nothing goes to waste.  Every little task, every intentional act of service points back to the God who made us and forward to an eternity in which the connection between worship and work will be forever eliminated.

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This book was provided by Crossway in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Regular readers will recognize that the theme resonating throughout Glory in the Ordinary has shown up in these parts quite a bit in recent days.  I recently reviewed Jen Pollock Michel’s excellent book (Keeping Place) that also touches on the work of home.  Click here for part one of my review which deals with a theology of home.  Part two parallels Courtney’s thoughts and gives additional perspective on the work of home.

Melissa Kruger blogs for The Gospel Coalition and has interviewed Courtney at their website.  Click here for further insights behind the scenes of Glory in the Ordinary.

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And . . .

. . . stay tuned for details and a reading schedule for Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. I’m looking forward to a discussion here each Thursday from September 7 through November 16.

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.