Admittedly Lent is going very different than I planned. My resolutions are going OK, not great, but I keep trying. What has changed is how I spend time. Instead of thinking about spring and the coming grass and flowers, I have spent much time contemplating life and death. There are reasons. I am a hospice volunteer, and spend evenings sitting with patients, often suffering from dementia. And, though not unexpected, I have a relative in the end stages of his life.
His life is not typical of most. After many years in the nursing home, he will soon be at peace, a peace he struggled his entire life to find. Having a severe neurological disorder, he never married, never drove a car, and desperately sought independence he could never fully achieve. More details are not necessary, but I realize more than ever that everyone “lives” differently. What truly defines a life “well-lived”? I am sure answers will vary.
There are other challenges in life. Matthew West has a song “Hello, My Name Is,” which contains:
Hello, my name is defeat
I know you recognize me
Just when you think you can win
I’ll drag you right back down again
‘Til you’ve lost all belief
There are so many factors that affect how someone lives. I have come to see this goes way beyond physical limitations. There are struggles within our minds that truly limit life. As I sit and visit with dementia patients, I realize the pain their families are experiencing. They have lost someone already. Maybe that is one of the values of hospice. I do not know the “pre-dementia” person and so I come to know someone else and it makes our interactions different. In some people there is the pain of rejection, judgment, and isolation. These are all pains which are impossible, many times, for others to see.
So, being it is Lent, I turned my thoughts to Jesus. Did He live a happy life? We have come to understand that He knew of His pending crucifixion long before it happened. Knowing this, was His life happy? I believe His happiness and purpose came when His apostles figured “it” out. Some did while Jesus lived, but many others did not figure it out until He was gone. He even told them in Luke 10: 21-23, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.” True revelation did not occur in many until after His death. Mark 15:39 reads “And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” These are words we will hear soon as we read the Passion on Palm Sunday and during the Easter Triduum. Sometimes it does feel like no one understands, and will not understand, until after we are gone…or maybe they never will.
Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Holocaust, in 1946 wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, after his release from a. concentration camp. “”Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s own way.” It is about attitude despite circumstances. Didn’t Jesus show us this also with His last words on the cross?
Matthew West’s song continues,
“These are the voices,
these are the lies
And I have believed them,
for the very last time.”
Yet, that is easier to sing about, and talk about, and say, than actually live. My uncle’s suffering wounded him. For some, that would make a person compassionate. While not so in his case, it did make him vulnerable, though he fights, he rages, against that. I believe the pain he shows, and emotions he expresses, shows he feels he is not in control of his life. In this we show we are human, and lack the strength Jesus showed in the face of His trials. But I believe that is the point. He can give us courage; He can be our guide – in our everyday life and in our deepest trials.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15–16).
Because of these struggles, sitting next to a man who, during his life was quite profoundly unhappy, and often angry, causes me to take issue with lightweight sayings like “Life is too short to be anything but happy.” It simply is not that easy for some. It also does not mean his life was somehow of less consequence. There were bingo games where he showed a smile (when he won), and there are certain amazing people at the nursing home who can coax a smile. There are also lessons, and moments, I will remember, and I am thankful to God for providing them to me through my uncle.
Even in our dark times – mentally, emotionally or spiritually — we are not alone. Not ever. Because I am certain about this, as I sit here in the nursing home, watching and thinking, when it is time to leave, I am confident I am not leaving my uncle alone. He often tries to push people away and that has saddened me for a long time. I found a thought that gives me peace. In 2012, writer David Heim asked theologians to summarize the gospel in 10 words or less and an answer was “In Christ, God’s Yes defeats our No.” God does not give up on us when we respond “no.” My uncle tried alienation and isolation, but I understand where in his illness that came from. In this season, we see the “no” to death – Jesus’ death and the death of God’s beloved Son ends in a resurrection. Knowing that, this Lent I sit, listen, pray, and wait because God’s “yes” is waiting.