Worshiping on Pins and Needles: Taking Alzheimer’s to Church

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I’ve been reading a lot of articles lately on how the church might be more welcoming to children and their families during Sunday morning worship. At my church, we try to help parents feel at ease when they enter with a young child, but I’m also very aware they have a hard time letting go of the worry. Will their child speak too loudly? Will she escape down the aisle during a hymn? Will he draw too much attention to their presence?

Sunday morning, I was the one worshiping on pins and needles, asking those same questions, except I wasn’t worshiping as a parent of a young child. I was worshiping with my 74-year-old mother-in-law, and I was keenly aware of the anxiety felt not only by new parents, but also by those who worship alongside a person with Alzheimer’s.

It had taken us two days to talk her into visiting a new church. At first, she would hear nothing of it. It wasn’t her church with her Sunday school class, and her pastor, even though he yells at them and never has anything good to say (her words, not mine). Everyone would wonder where she was. We knew we were messing with her routine, and it wasn’t going to be easy.

My husband is a pastor, and is no longer comfortable attending his parents’ church because his mother incessantly introduces him to her friends as a “real” preacher, not like the one at their church. We’d considered simply not going to church that morning, but my husband’s sister needed her mother out of the house so she could do some purging in preparation for her parents’ upcoming move to be closer to her. Going to church was a reasonable distraction, so we headed off to find a church we’d heard about and wanted to visit. We’ll never know what happened in her brain to make her willing to go with us, but we were grateful it wasn’t going to be a battle.

When we pulled up in front of the small, white, wooden building, the first thing my mother-in-law noticed was a woman in a strapless dress. “She’s half naked,” was the first of many loud comments about that poor woman’s attire, and I told her she would need to use her “whisper voice” when we entered the sanctuary. I found myself wanting to sit near the back so we could make a quick exit if we needed to (and I remembered those young parents I encourage to sit up front so their children can see what’s going on). We were greeted warmly by both church members and the pastor, and I fought the urge to say something along the lines of, “Oh, don’t mind us. She has Alzheimer’s and that’s why she keeps saying the same things over and over.”

While highly anxious about what might unfold during the next hour, I was thankful for the kind woman who stood at the end of our pew, welcoming us to her church, and engaging us in quite a delightful conversation. Her hair was the same white as my mother-in-law’s and many of the others filling the seats around us. I guessed she’d had conversations with her own friends who repeated themselves a lot. There were a few ladies who sat behind us who forgot to use their “whisper voices” when it was time to begin the service. A teenager with apparent physical and mental special needs sat near the front and joined in the responsive readings with a voice that rose above all the others, and no one flinched. A baby cried, and I began to sink into the thought that we might actually be okay in this place.

The sermon was about being genuine with others, yourself, and Christ. It was actually pretty good. And as I looked around the sanctuary, I was grateful to be joining this particular community of faith on this particular morning. In the midst of being so uncomfortable, this seemed to be a place where it was okay to come as you are, and I felt safe. The warmth of the dark wood in this beautiful, old sanctuary made me mindful of the traditions that were honored and passed down week after week and year after year: reciting ancient creeds, singing weathered hymns, breaking bread together. And this worshiping body reminded me, more than my own, that everyone indeed, is welcome at the table. And not just once…not only when we use our “whisper voices,” not only when we say the right things at the right times, not only when our brains and bodies do like everyone else expects them to, and certainly not after we have it all figured out…but always…each and every day.

So, today I give thanks for that small, wooden Louisiana church, surrounded by Spanish moss-draped oak trees. I am grateful for the warm welcome, and I am grateful that my mother-in-law had a good morning, even though it wasn’t her church with her Sunday school class, and her pastor, even though he yells at them and never has anything good to say. And I am grateful there is always room at the table, even for me.

Love and Fear

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January 16, 2016

Every December, my family drives to western North Carolina to visit framily. You know…those friends who are closer family than some of the ones you’re genetically connected to? When we actually lived in North Carolina it didn’t seem that big of a deal, but it’s quite a haul now that we live in Florida. Luckily, we’ve found a way to maintain the tradition. It’s as much therapy as it is anything else, to return each winter to our home away from home. The kids get some quality surrogate grandparent time and my husband and I get some quality rest. After all of the Advent and Christmas goings on at home and work, we can’t wait to hit the road and head north.

It’s definitely a challenge to fit everything into the short time we have, but we always seem to make time for staying up late, sleeping in later, shopping at our favorite stores, walking the dogs, making (and eating!) peanut brittle, sampling a few craft beers, celebrating a birthday, and ringing in the new year. Oh…and the obligatory trip to the best pizza place ever. There’s lots of laughter, lots of eating, and lots of memory making. We’re never ready when it’s time to pack the car and go back home.

This year, I wanted to add something to the list: Go see Margaret. Margaret is another one of those framily types. We met fifteen years ago when she chaired a search committee that called me to serve her church in educational ministry. We immediately became fast friends, even though she was easily 35 years my senior. We had attended the same graduate school and had a passion for Christian education. She, too, had married a minister (while I was a newlywed, she was a recent widow). She walked beside me as I navigated my mother’s brief battle with cancer, having lost her own mother only a few years prior. She was our first-born’s first surrogate grandmother and gave her her very first taste of chocolate. She took me to see beautiful Blue Ridge mountain views, taught me how to make mint tea, and made me laugh until I cried.

It’s been harder to stay in touch with Margaret lately. A few broken hip surgeries seem to have taken their toll, and her mind isn’t as sharp as it should be. She has a hard time finding the right words to finish her thoughts. Her phone’s voice mailbox is usually full and I cannot leave her a message to say I am thinking about her. She hasn’t been on Facebook in years and email was never really her thing. Occasionally, she will accidentally call me on her cell phone and once I help her remember who I am, we have fun catching up.

In the fall, Margaret’s children helped her move to an assisted-living facility. It was a wise decision, and although she wasn’t super excited about this transition, Margaret handled it well. I received a Christmas card with her new address, but it was only signed, “Margaret,” obviously not in her handwriting. I wanted to see Margaret on this visit, becoming increasingly aware that it was not smart to put it off.

As badly as I wanted to see my friend, I kept not finding the time to arrange the visit. When I would think to call, it was close to dinner, or too early, or too late, or we were heading out, and I would do it later. When I did call, I got that darned voicemail recording telling me I couldn’t leave a message. I couldn’t find Margaret’s daughter’s number to call and see if she was even in town for the holidays. I was beginning to run out of time.

“Well,” I told my husband on the final morning of our stay, “we could have lunch with her before we head out of town.” She was only 45 minutes away, and even though it wasn’t exactly on the way home, it could be. I called the front desk of the center where she now lives, introduced myself, and they kindly shared with me that she was out of town for the weekend.

That was it. She was out of town. Why hadn’t I bothered to call the office days before, instead of saying repeatedly, “I really want us to make time to see Margaret this week”? I think I secretly knew all along, but it took a while to admit it to myself. I think I was afraid of who I’d find. Would I need to prepare my children for what she might do or say? Would she know who we were? Would she still be Margaret?

 I admit I don’t know how to end this. If I think too hard about it, I realize how many of my friends are what I used to think was “old.” I realize how truly fortunate I am to still have my father and my in-laws, but cancer and degenerative diseases with frightening names and manifestations are realities none of us prepared for.  I realize this train I’m on is picking up speed.

And If I keep thinking about it, I wonder how I’ll behave when my dearest friends and family become what I fear. I’ve never been one for hospital visits, I’m not a very patient caretaker (just ask my husband about the last time he was really sick), and I’m much better at being “busy” or M.I.A. when it comes to uncomfortable interactions with those whose brains and bodies are betraying them.  My side of the family doesn’t do vulnerability  or emotions very well. Will I be able to express the love I have for my people without running away?  So, for now, I’ll just stop thinking about it.

IMG_0982March 23, 2016

Margaret called today. It was an accident. But when I saw
the missed calls on my cell phone (there were actually two), I immediately called her back. Her voice was a bit shaky, but it was so good to hear. She asked about my daughters and my job. She struggled finding the words to tell me she doesn’t like where she’s living. I couldn’t understand what the issues were, but I could tell there were tears as she tried to explain. She laughed that infectious laugh when she asked what I was doing and I responded, “procrastinating!” (she really does know me well). When it became too difficult to follow what she was saying, I told her how much I love her and how good it was to talk with her. I told her of my plan to visit this summer. I intend to keep my promise. I’m still fearful, though.

Time for a Blessing?

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There’s a coffee shop in town that I frequent a good bit. I don’t go there because there’s anything particular about the coffee, but because I can always find a seat, it’s usually pretty quiet, and I don’t reek of coffee when I leave. I go there to study, write, or to catch up with friends.

This establishment identifies itself as a Christian coffee shop, and I often overhear people praying with each other, participating in Bible studies, or simply talking about faith journey types of things. Some people are really drawn to the place because of this. I find they make me a little uncomfortable. I also feel strange for admitting this, being the church professional that I am, but I often find myself a little leery of these places. Some of it comes from the realization that some consider me a theological liberal in a very theologically conservative community. Some of it comes from the fact that I’ve always been uncomfortable with righteous God talk. As a kid, I couldn’t even say the name “Jesus” out loud when I knew it was the answer to a question in Sunday school, because it just felt so weird to say. And some of it comes from wondering about the exclusivity of such a place that is truly seeking to be—or would at least claim to be—inclusive and welcoming to all. The folks who run the shop are, indeed, very kind, and work hard to create a warm, welcoming atmosphere.  Otherwise, I wouldn’t go there.

On the counter by the cash register is a small jar of blessings…tiny pieces of paper someone has meticulously rolled up and tied with a ribbon. With every purchase, you are handed your change and a blessing. Again, some people really like this. They’ve told me so. Me? I sneak my blessing back into the jar when the barista turns around to fill my order. No lie. I’ve never read mine. It’s kind of turned into a little game I play with myself, wondering how long until I cave and unroll my little Christian fortune for the day. Based on the blessings of those I’ve shared coffee with, they seem to all be passages of scripture. Certainly there’s nothing harmful in being gifted with a bit of scripture to be encouraged by, or to ponder as you go about your day. But the cynic in me wonders, who picked these particular passages? Why these passages? Is there a subtle agenda? Would these verses read completely differently if they hadn’t been lifted out of the context of their original setting?

I realize I’m probably over-thinking this way too much, and I probably could do well to sit with a bit of scripture. I’m not sure what the resistance is about, but for now, I keep sneaking my tiny scroll back into the jar. I wonder how long it will be before I’m ready to receive my blessing.

***A little update…

IMG_6208On Ephiphany Sunday, the church where I attended worship passed out stars with words on them.  We were told to tape our stars to the bathroom mirror or put them on the refrigerator, and allow our words to guide us throughout the year, just as the Magi were guided by a star to where they found Jesus.  My word was blessing.  Maybe it’s time.

What Gives You Hope?

DSC_2301Recently, I was asked what gives me hope.  Initially, I froze.  Am I really hopeful?  I know it’s more than just making some wishes and hoping they’ll come true, but would I be able to articulate something that reflected just how important a question like this is?  I was thankful that I was asked to write it down and that I was able to give it a little thought.  I was also grateful for the opportunity to pause and think about my faith.  Even though I work in a church, I rarely take the time to put into words what and why I believe.  Yes, I ask others to do it all the time, but doing it myself is another thing.  So…I sat still for a little bit, I began to write, and here’s what I found on my computer screen:

In these days post-Christmas, “hope” is a word we’ve heard many times throughout the past month. We’ve hoped for peace. We’ve put our hope in the belief that darkness will not overcome the light. We lit a candle on our Advent wreaths, and named it “hope.” We Christians seem to be hopeful, or hope-filled people. But in times of terrorists, financial insecurities, and frightful politics, what is it that makes me hopeful? For me, hope comes with each day’s sunrise. It’s the rhythm of the days, both the promise and fulfillment that tomorrow is a new day. It is this sign of God’s consistency that keeps me looking beyond the present to a future of unimagined potential.

My father is in remission after receiving a terminal diagnosis of a rare cancer. Yet, it is not the affirmative answer to prayer that makes me hopeful, for I cannot be both faithful and hopeful if I can only hold on to those two when circumstances work out for the best. We were not so fortunate with my mother. Yes, there are times when I do lose hope…in doctors, in treatments, and other things far beyond my control. But I take comfort in understanding that I do not know what possibilities lie ahead. Cancers are cured, enemies become friends, and wars come to an end. No, these things don’t always happen when we’d like, and like the Old Testament Israelites, some people don’t ever make it out of the desert.

As a Christian, I have chosen to believe in the hope of Advent, the hope of which the prophets spoke. I have chosen to believe that, even if it is not in my lifetime, the crooked will be made straight and there really will be peace on this earth…socially, politically, environmentally. I’m hopeful that it’s the faithful, those who trust and believe in the power and presence of Christ, who will lead the way, because they have been called to live differently. I both hope and believe that tomorrow the sun will rise and that God will do unbelievable things with it.

Maybe, in these next few days, you, too, can find some time to wrap your head around what it is that gives you hope.

According to Facebook…

According to Facebook, I have 68 friends. That’s a lot, considering earlier today I had only 26. For a while I had just 12, and Facebook felt sorry for me and asked those folks if they could recommend any new ones for me.

I’ve always been a bit leery of the whole Facebook “friend” notion, and have been very guarded as to whom I let into my little Facebook circle. One reason is because I’ve never really understood Facebook. I don’t “get” who sees what and why I don’t see what I think I should. Secondly, I have to admit I fear the judgment of those who don’t agree as to the level of interest/humor/inspiration of the things I think are worth posting. As for friends, I’d rather pick up the phone and talk with mine in real time. If you’re a true friend, I’ve always argued, chances are we’ll find other ways to connect.

But something changed for me today. I had a wonderful conversation with a more-than-acquaintance-but-not-quite-a-friend that got me thinking. She told me about a dear friend of hers who died two weeks ago and how much she loves her and misses her. She told me how this friend had impacted her life, encouraging her to live fully and faithfully. Tearfully, she told me about catching the bouquet at her friend’s wedding and the plans to help her friend’s husband begin cleaning out closets, figuring out what to do with no longer needed belongings.

I had already heard about this friend’s death. Seems she was one of those truly beautiful people who really did make the world a better place. There was a wonderful tribute to her in the newspaper.   She was a well-respected mover and shaker in state politics, a leader in her church, a loving wife, and a fabulous mom with a large circle of close friends. She touched hundreds of lives in her 46 years. A Facebook group created to post remembrances has over 1,000 members who both celebrate her life and mourn her loss together.

But here’s what’s been eating at me. I knew this friend, too. We went to college together. She and I were sorority sisters. I was shocked when I saw her picture in the paper, especially since the name didn’t ring a bell. I only knew her maiden name, but the face was the same one I knew over 25 years ago. I had no idea we’d been living in the same town for the last seven years. I knew this person everyone seemed to call friend, except she wasn’t my friend.

To say I’ve kept in touch with a handful of people from college would be a stretch, which is odd to me, when I consider how much fun my collegiate years were. I used to write letters and took great pride in choosing just the right birthday card to wish friends well. If I were passing through your town, I’d stop at a phone booth and give you a call, or invite you to join me for a drink at the airport during my layover.   I remember my mom telling me that if I wanted to maintain a friendship, it would be up to me. Mom was right.

I’m not sure at what point I quit putting in the effort. I got busy. Life got busy. I quit sending Christmas cards. I moved…a lot (insert longer list of lame excuses here). My world of friends got smaller and smaller and my world of more-than-acquaintances-but-not-quite-friends grew. Somewhere along the way I convinced myself that was just life. But I know how rich friendships can be. And I know the treasure and gift of true friendship, and I wonder how many beautiful friend-filled experiences I’ve missed because I was afraid to confirm a friend request, either virtually or from someone whom I thought was more-than-an-acquaintance-but-not-quite-a-friend. I wonder how many belly laughs have I missed because I was afraid to be vulnerable and let someone know my true thoughts, both the sincere and the sarcastic. And I also wonder how many people have been short-changed because I wouldn’t share the gift of friendship with them, wrapped in the package that God put together in me.

So, today I’ll raise a glass of chardonnay in honor of my fellow Stetson Hatter (Facebook told me chardonnay was her favorite) whose spirit continues to influence and change people’s lives, and I’ll give thanks that she is inspiring me to live more fully. Today, I’ll contact at least one long-lost friend who, even though we’ve not spoken in years, has always been on my list of all-time very favorite people, and whose memory makes me smile (she deserves to know). And, today I’ll give thanks for the friends who’ve invited me into their lives and been willing to share themselves with me, in ways that truly matter. I am blessed.

Java and Jesus

While we haven’t had a formal conversation at my church about bringing drinks to worship, I’m pretty sure it is coming soon.  I’ve noticed more and more adults and youth walking into the sanctuary with their thermal mugs, insulated Tervis cups, and disposable Starbucks cups.  Some people think nothing of the gradual encroachment, but some folks are starting to become a little agitated.

Now, I consider myself a traditionalist when it comes to worship.  I believe we should dress up a little for worship.  I believe we should be on time for worship.  I also believe that when we enter the sanctuary, we are entering into a sacred space…a space where people expect, or hope, to encounter God.  That being said, I also believe God welcomes us each Sunday morning, no matter how we’re dressed, no matter what time we get there, and no matter the frame of mind we showed up in.  Yes, God loves us warts and all.  But when we present ourselves before God with the intent to worship as God’s gathered people, shouldn’t we present our best selves?  At least the best we’ve got in that moment?

Which brings me to the coffee.  Mmmm…coffee.  I prefer mine with a bit of sweetener and a little milk.  A darker tan color, but I’m not real picky.  And I prefer mine in the morning, sitting on the back deck, watching the sun rise over the neighborhood lake.  I also enjoy a cup after dinner with friends, as we sit back and connect with stories until we remember someone needs to get home to pay the babysitter.  Yes, there can be something almost spiritual about coffee. But it’s never crossed my mind to take a hot cup of Joe into worship with me.  Maybe it’s because I work in the church and have forgotten in which Sunday school class I last left my cup.  Maybe it’s because I’ve already had three cups by 10:30 and really don’t need any more.  Maybe it’s because my momma told me not to take food or drinks into the sanctuary.  It’s probably a bit of all three.  And for one hour on Sunday morning, just before lunch, it’s not something I can’t do without.

For me, walking into the sanctuary with a cup of coffee signals, “I’m here to relax.  What have you got for me today that won’t make me too uncomfortable?  I hope it’s a good show.”  This isn’t a movie theater, friends.  We have work to do when we enter the sanctuary.  Worship is work!  You might need two hands to do some of it, and a spilled cup of unattended coffee is a distraction no one should have to deal with.  I’m sure there are plenty of arguments for why it’s perfectly acceptable to bring coffee with you to worship, but I can’t think of one that puts God before self.  Not one.

In a recent conversation with a friend about this topic (her thermal mug is quite nice), I asked if she would take a cup of coffee with her to attend a wedding.  “Well, of course not,” was her response.  When I asked, “Why not?  That’s a worship service, too,” she responded that she hadn’t thought about it that way.  And, yes, it seems absurd to think we would walk into a wedding ceremony with our cozy cup in hand.  Why doesn’t it seem just as absurd to carry one with us into worship?

If you’re a member of the sippy cup set, and your cup is accompanied by a few Cheerios or Goldfish because this will help you stay in worship with your family, I’m willing to let your cup slide.  But, if you’re over the age of four, I challenge you to present your whole selves to God, appropriately caffeinated, of course, and worship God with the best you have to offer.  I’d be happy to join you for a latte and some fellowship as soon as worship ends.