Remember me (Part 1)
Sermon by Rev Stuart Simpson on 16 February 2020
Readings were Psalm 139: 1-12 and Luke 23:39-43
During the holidays I enrolled in a summer school course in Dunedin called the Practical Theology of Mental Health, which was run through the Theological Department of Otago University. The lecturer Professor John Swinton, is the Chair in Divinity and Religious Studies at the School of Divinity, History, and Philosophy, at the University of Aberdeen. He is also the founder of the university’s Centre for Spirituality, Health and Disability.
During the course, Professor Swinton, helped the class explore topics such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, suicide and dementia through the lens of theology.
You may be surprised to hear that I came away from the course energised and I am excited to share with you some of what I learnt. So today, I would like to reflect a little on dementia and what God has to say about this disease – a disease that is affecting more and more people around the world, in New Zealand and within our own communities. There is no way I can cover everything and I am certainly not an expert on this topic but I hope and pray you hear the Good News of Jesus Christ today – also if anything you hear today brings to the fore pain or hurt or questions don’t hesitate to talk to one of the ministers or elders.
This morning we’ve had two readings. The first reminds us that God knows us and has known us from before we were born. The second shows us that that God re-members us, even in the face of death and beyond (paradise).
Try and hold onto these two points as I continue.
First it would be good to say something about dementia, which means ‘without mind’. For most people dementia is a neurological disease that causes a person to lose their rational thinking and memory – there are differently types of dementia, the most commonly known is Alzheimer Dementia.
There is also Vascular Dementia – affects reasoning, planning, judgement, memory and other thought processes caused by brain damage from impaired blood flow to your brain.
Lewy Body Dementia – associated with abnormal deposits of a protein called alpha-synuclein in the brain.
Mixed Dementia – a condition where changes representing more than one type of dementia occur simultaneously in the brain.
Frontotemporal Dementia – a group of related conditions resulting from the progressive degeneration of the temporal and frontal lobes of the brain.
The common factor with all of these is the loss of rational thinking and the losing of one’s memory. If I was to ask you what might be one of your greatest fears you might respond by saying it is the fear of losing your mind – this fear is often portrayed by the villain in horror movies.
Why? Is it because we believe that it is our mind that defines our humanity, our being a person? Therefore if we lose our minds we cease to be human, to be a person?
Steven Post, a professor at the Center for Biomedical Ethics, School of Medicine, Case Western Reserve University, in his book ‘The Moral Challenge of Alzheimer Disease’, says,
We live in a society that is ‘hypercognitive’, a society that places inordinate emphasis on people’s powers of rational thinking and memory. So if anything happens to us that removes our ability to think rationally or hold memory it seems society has decided we have no value.
It is as though the essence of humanness, is thinking – ‘I think therefore I am’. And once I stop thinking in any way, I cease to be.
Another way to look at it, is that while we can tell our story and interact with the world then we are human but once we lose the ability to tell our stories we lose our personhood.
The great terror of dementia is that those who have it are losing who they are. And eventually society also forgets who they are.
In response to this narrative we need to hear the truth of the Gospel, which doesn’t ignore the great work carried out by the medical world, but recognises that the medical world [primarily in the West] has also been influenced by hypercognition and therefore it’s treatment of those with dementia will be influenced and guided by the philosophy ‘I think therefore I am’. And challenges the assumption that those who have dementia have lost part, if not all, of their humanness and their value to society.
To begin then, we need to have a new understanding of what the mind is or at least go back to Scripture where both the Hebrew and Greek imply that the Mind involves the Soul, the Spirit and the Heart.
If we take this seriously, then the mind is so much more than the place that stores memory or make possible rationale thought and expression – and therefore has huge implications on what it means to be human and hold personhood – to lose the ability to keep memory and be cognitive does not mean you are losing your mind and therefore your humanity. Losing one’s memory is one of the scariest things about dementia, especial if what one remembers is only held in the brain.
However, our bodies also hold memory – there’s a wonderful story about Margaret Mackie, who suffers from dementia, who moved into a Scottish care centre. A food server Jamie Lee Morley walked past the lounge one afternoon and heard a lovely refrain. For a moment, he wondered if somebody had left the radio on. But then he spotted Mackie, 83, singing a pitch-perfect version of Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling in Love.
“I was stunned,” recalled Morley, 31. “I’ve loved singing and music since I was a little lad, and I could just tell that Margaret did, too. Her voice is amazing.” Morley, who has worked at the Northcare Suites Care Home in Edinburgh since it opened last [Autumn], began singing regular duets with Mackie in the dining room and hallways. A video of one of their songs has been viewed thousands of times since it was posted online this month.
Although Margaret on a day-to-day basis struggles to remember who she is, through music and singing she remembers. The same can said about those who participate in the sacrament of communion – as they take the bread and juice their memories, emotions, and ability to interact reawakens – the issue with these memories is that once the music stops, the sacrament eaten, the memories fade.
There is a powerful African philosophy called Ubuntu:
I am because we are.
Which means we are all connected and the only way to be realised as persons is through other people. An anthropologist proposed a game to African tribe kids. He put a basket full of fruit near a tree ad told them that whoever got their first won the sweet fruits. When he told them to run, they all too each other’s hands and ran together, then sat together enjoying their treats. When he asked them why they had run like that, as one could have had all of the fruit for themselves, they said, “Ubuntu. How can one of us be happy if all the other ones are sad? Ubuntu in the Xhosa culture means
I am because we are.
We remember and have memory because others hold the memories of who we are in community. However, with any community, even the community of faith, our holding the memories of others is often reliant on how we ourselves feel. Even those with the best intentions struggle to find the time to be in the present with those whose story they are retelling. And like any close-knit community the uniqueness of the individual can be swallowed by the many – memories can be told but can also be told poorly or inaccurately.
Returning to the two scripture readings we heard this morning, we hear that God knew us before we were born, remembers our forming, our creation, our development and promises, through the joys and trials of life to remember us, or better put re – members us, into eternity.
Nothing will separate, who we are from God. Maybe another way to put this is through a story.
An elderly woman in the mid stage of dementia, for no reason became distressed – she repeated the same word over and over again – the nurses wondered how best they could help her. One nurse listened closely to what she was saying and eventually heard the word ‘God’. She was repeating the word over and over again. The nurse asked her if she was afraid that she was going to forget God. She said “yes”, “I am afraid I am going to forget God”. The nurse responded by saying, that yes you might forget God, but God won’t forget you. Because of the reframing, the woman became less anxious and more peaceful. She was simply reminded that as important as her memory is it was not as significant as the memory of God of her.
In response to Dementia, the Good News is that God holds us in God’s memory and what should be the underlying truth of our live is this. Jesus says to those who follow him:
I am therefore we are.
I will stop here now and next week we will explore a little more the theology of Dementia. Now we will sing the song ‘Jesus remember me’.