Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News
January 27, 2002
My friend Leisa Askew gave me the opportunity to speak recently to some of the finest people in the world: the caregivers and social workers who minister daily to dementia patients. We met at the former Mr. J’s Restaurant, which the East Alabama Medical Center has converted into a marvelous resource center. The Lee-Russell Council of Governments Area Agency on Aging sponsored the two-day workshop.
Sooner or later all of us must learn how to relate helpfully to people whose mental capacities are degenerating. Whether we do so as professionals, caregivers, or simply as sons and daughters of aged parents, most of us need to improve our skill in helping the aged.
My assigned theme was “I Don’t Remember God…Does He Remember Me?” This topic quickly reminded me of the Old Testament, in which the prophets railed against the Israelites for the sin of forgetting God. Early on Moses warned the people “not to forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live.” When you come into the Promised Land, he said, and enjoy wells you did not dig, and vineyards you did not plant, “be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt.”
Years later the Prophet Isaiah heard the cry of those who said, “The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.” To which cry Isaiah hears God reply: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” So people forget God, but God does not forget his people.
For many years I have ministered as a pastor to the aged. Such ministry is often rewarding, but sometimes deeply frustrating. When disease robs people of their minds, God is often blamed. We cannot understand why a loving God would allow the body to outlive the mind. Hard questions arise which few of us can answer adequately. But that does not mean that our faith has been in vain.
In the face of cruel circumstances and unanswerable questions, there are some alternatives to giving up the faith and renouncing God. Here are a few things, which we as family members, loved ones, and caregivers can do:
1) We can offer our compassion to others even when it seems pointless to do so. Even the deranged person may benefit from our kindness. When we visit a person in a nursing home who no longer recognizes anyone he once knew, we can still touch him, pray for him, and call upon God on his behalf. Jesus did. We can too.
2) We can offer others our faith that God does not, and will not, forget his children. No matter how dreadful the situation, we can affirm that God is good. To be able to do that we must first settle this issue in our own souls; only then can we hope to convince others. Here we may learn from Jesus. He never tried to persuade anyone that God existed. He took that for granted and invited people to think of God like a Father who cares for his children. He urged people to believe that their heavenly Father wanted to bless them. We can cling to this conviction despite the worst of earthly calamities.
3) We can enjoy our own life and invite others to celebrate life with us every day. We can emphasize the positive, the true, the good, and the lovely. We can strengthen our capacity to laugh and give thanks that God has a delightful sense of humor. How else can you explain the existence of skunks, giraffes, and gnats? These creatures did not creep out of the primordial swamp one bright day. A God who has a rich sense of humor created them. Perhaps he made the tiny gnat so that one may fly up the nose of the proud, self-righteous cynic who scoffs at the idea of God. A sense of humor can be a valuable ally when grandmother begins to have hallucinations and insists that she sees people who are not there. We might as well laugh as to cry because the people grandmother sees are real to her, even though they do not actually exist.
4) Though we may forget many things on the journey of life, we should never forget the many people who make even a small difference in our lives. If we work at it, we can learn not to overlook people or to take them for granted. We can become aware of what they mean to us, and let them know we are grateful. Even a cheerful “Good Morning” shared with our colleagues at work can serve to make the day better for everyone. There are many people without whom we could not function. We can let them know we “see” them and that we care.
5) We can remember that our caring, kindness, and positive spirit may help someone believe that God has not forgotten them. We do not live in a vacuum. There are people all around us. We can be available to them, and available to God. We can treasure our relationships more than our things. You, for example, may be the one person God wants to use to bless someone else. Helping people become aware of God, and his love, may not be as complicated as the scholars want us to believe.
There will be people around us who lose their capacity to remember. That is why we should try to live so that our kindness may be the last precious memory that some people have before slipping into that strange world devoid of memory. One thing is certain: most people will never believe that God loves them until they experience the warm embrace of a human being who loves them. You and I can make a difference by being that person.
As you come now to the end of this article, you have already forgotten much that you read. Soon you may forget it all. You may forget even my name. But try not to forget this: God has not forgotten you, and he never will because he loves you so. Remember that as long as your memory lasts.