Monday, July 22, 2013


I am blessed to lead worship in a retirement home two Sundays a month. Three other pastors regularly take the rest of the Sundays, and a much loved volunteer pianist plays every week. Consequently, over the past few years a wonderful sense of community has taken root.  

Yesterday, as usual, I arrived very much in the mood for worship.  I knew there was a bus trip scheduled right after worship, and as always, on the third Sunday we celebrate Communion. Therefore, I knew things did need to move along.  As I was finishing up my short homily, I noticed a younger woman come into the room and take a seat in the back.  I waved in acknowledgement, and planned to go to her after I finished talking, to at least offer her a song sheet.  

However, she raised her hand, and I paused.
"My mother died to today.  Would you say a prayer?"  I asked her mother's name, and we did pray.  The next hymn, "Jesus, I Come," we dedicated to Freida.  The daughter then left as quietly as she entered (I was able to talk with her on the patio afterwards). 
As I broke the bread, the surrender of the body and love seemed particularly moving to me.  Afterwards, I asked those present if they wanted to share some of their thoughts and feelings about Freida. I learned she was much loved, and as I listened, my heart filled with joy, even though I was surrounded by a tangible grief.  Marge, who is in a wheelchair, said, "When I first moved here, I was really angry and I refused even to eat with other people.  However, Freida gently got me involved."  Others echoed much the same sentiment. It seems she was always a welcoming,encouraging voice.

My joy comes from not the fact that an elder passed, but rather that she passed from this life loved.  She left a spiritual legacy of care and friendship.  She touched lives, even when she was ill and in her last days.  I never had heard of her until Sunday, but I was moved to celebrate her life and give thanks for her presence.  As we concluded our time with singing "Blessed Assurance," I was amazed how beautifully the hymns fit into our service, and I was also amazed at the strong sense I had of Jesus being present.  I think Freida brought us all closer to Jesus and to one another. Her passing also reminded me of the stoicism of the group, and that I need to look for signs of sorrow that can happen between 1:15 and 2:00 p.m. on just about any day of the week, but maybe particularly on Sunday.  

Thank you, Freida for all you brought to us.  Blessings on your journey.     

Out of my bondage, sorrow, and night, 
Jesus, I come, Jesus I come. 
Into Thy freedom, gladness, and light, 
Jesus I come to Thee. 
Out of my sickness into Thy health, 
Out of my want and into Thy wealth, 
Out of my sin and into Thyself, 
Jesus, I come to Thee.  

William T. Sleeper, 1887 

Monday, July 15, 2013


Several of you have asked what was most memorable for me during my time in Indiana. I probably have given each of you a different response, not from disrespect, but rather because so much of it was memorable, and as you can see, I am still processing my experiences.  I took my laptop with me, but I found the experience so intense that I really could not write about anything other than the  occasional Facebook posting about fireflies, lightening, wind and rain, and one fox sighting.   Those experiences were quite beautiful and I hold the memories dear, but such sightseeing was not the purpose of my time there.  

After dinner on the first night, we were told to pick one of twelve identical folders.  We knew that these folders contained very brief biographies of the elders we would be visiting for the rest of the week. I decided to pick a folder that was upside down, and that is how I came to know Jean.  It was her folder that was upside down.    

If I am remembering correctly, these short informational sheets were all submitted by daughters of the elders. 
What struck me, even after our first visit, is that these biographies were of limited assistance.  Much of what we were told that the elder valued simply did not spark conversation or memories.  Not favorite foods, or careers (Jean was not interested in talking about her work as a nurse), or even names of close and living family. Not that family members were no longer valued. Jean seemed to feel no need to speak of her immediate family, but I witnessed her obvious excitement when her daughter and granddaughter happened to come for a visit when I was with her.  However, the overall experience reminded me that too often, we want the elder to remember what we want them to, rather than to meet them where they are.  Yes, that meeting can be difficult because their "there" may not be visible to us.  We have to learn to imagine it.  We must learn to see with what the Apostle Paul called "the eyes of the heart."   Sometimes, we must learn to grow comfortable with the discomfort of not completely knowing the terrain in which we have found ourselves - the same challenge that faces many of our elders.   
Today, however, I was reminded that work experiences can have deep, defining roots.  I walked into the communal dining room to be warmly greeted by an elder dressed in what I thought might be a lovely dress from Thailand.  I complimented her attire, and she smiled and said, "Singapore Airlines."   Years ago Tyler and I flew on Singapore Airlines and it was a beautiful, gracious experience.  I told her that and she gave me a warm hug and said, "Thank you for flying Singapore Airlines."  Neither of us may fly that airline again, but for a brief moment, we were lifted onto that tarmac known as common ground.  A destination definitely worth searching for.     
By the end of the week in Indiana, all the biographies had long been set aside.  Many of those who were invited to attend the training had director level jobs, and often do not get the opportunity to simply sit with an elder living in their community.  Meetings, phone calls,consultations, and appointments just take up too much time.  Ministry is not immune to such time pressures.  The chance to just sit and talk with an elder was a luxury that I think each of us will long savor.  I guess I am trying to get that into my biography now. That, and I really did love the fireflies, the lightening, wind, and rain, and seeing the fox on an early morning slow run.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Changing Gears

While we laughed much during the week-long training with Memory Bridge, some of the discussions were quite serious.  Probably the most sobering discussion for me concerned repetitive motions and jumbled speech. The presenter, Naomi Feil, encouraged us to see repetitive motions and speech patterns as a sort of last ditch effort at communication.  That is not the cheeriest of ideas to ponder, but it does remind me that we humans just seem built for communication.  We sing.  We dance.  We share ideas.   We play instruments when words seem inadequate or beyond our grasp. We laugh and cry.   Therefore, even when a brain is severely  impaired, it makes sense that a person will continue to try express something from deep within.  Consequently, even when we can do little else to communicate with an elder (or anyone else), we can at least mirror the motion or the speech.  I have done this with speech and have actually been able to decipher a few words.  However, I had never thought about mirroring repetitive motions. Naomi urged us to believe that even when clarity does not surface for us, the elder might have a sense of being heard, of being in communication, of maybe even being in relationship. Definitely worth trying.   
I thought of these discussions yesterday as I was driving south on 280 on my way to a home dedicated to the care of the memory impaired.  Despite the transportation woes that many are experiencing because of the BART strike, the traffic on 280 was light.  I had my Sam Cooke Pandora station on, and as I drove and sang right out loud, I felt happiness.  I also felt a desire to be driving a manual transmission.  The urge surprised me.  I could not remember driving a manual transmission for many years.  
Yet, later in the day, I remembered a very fun car that I drove for a couple of years - a 1970 Datsun 510 that I purchased for $675.  I named it Mad Max because it had the look of a worn survivor, if for no other reason than the body of the car was faded green, and the hood was gray and slightly battered. However, the car never failed as it zipped around corners and in and out of traffic and parking spaces.  And yes, it had a manual transmission.  When I drove it on the freeway, the need for a fifth gear was always apparent because the car whined when the breathtaking speed of 65 miles an hour was reached.  Even so,  I don't ever remember wishing the car had an automatic transmission.  I loved to drive it just the way it was, even with only four gears.   Do I want to return to driving a manual transmission everyday?  No, but the memory of that car makes me smile.   
Certainly, this memory resides in my brain, but it was first experienced by me in my body, stimulated by a desire to shift gears.  This was a response to a good driving day and fun music.   I am blessed to be out in the world, responding to a wide variety of sights, sounds, conversations, and memories.  However, this is not true for many of our frail elders whose sense of isolation can cause them to withdraw further and further within.  Communication takes effort and energy.  It also takes people who care enough to reach out in a supportive and loving way.  Otherwise, the frail among us are at a very real risk of languishing in increasing darkness.  If we can help keep the lamps burning and in sight, we just might be able to find our way into relationship.  Love can be kindled at any age, and really, the more light the better.  
Blessed be.