A friend was telling me about her sister a couple of days back. It was a sad story. Her sister has endured a steady decline from dementia and has reached the point where the only functional thing of which she seems capable, is swallowing. No communication, no ability to undertake any self-care that would preserve a level of personal dignity. Day after day of seemingly lifeless living, save the occasional liquid meal tentatively received – perhaps willingly, perhaps autonomously. It’s difficult to know.
My friend spoke with compassion about her ‘lost sister’ with a some sadness and confusion.
For as long as she could remember, her sister had been the tough one in the family. Tough to the point of bullying. Her attitude in relationships and towards authority was hardened and dismissive.
It seems the unravelling of her life had calloused her from others. Caused her to protect herself for reasons that no doubt existed and festered inside. Sometimes ignored, other times expressed in anger or nonchalance, stoicism or ambivalence.
Her demeanour was well known; her body communicated what her heart tried to keep hidden. It pushed away those dearest to her and being unbridled for those who weren’t.
It feels inappropriate to refer to some of this in the past tense, yet such is the nature of a degenerative condition – the person that you once knew is unrecognisable from the person you now see before you.
Someone once said to me that disease is quite simply ‘dis-ease’ — a lack of ease and function in the body, mind or heart. Untreated, dis-ease can flow into all three areas yielding a toxic environment that, unresolved, makes for a stilted, lurching, resigned life. Lifeless. Not all the time, for light breaks in through the passage of Jesus’ love and the love of others, but sometimes ‘lifeless’ is the default.
My friend’s sister’s body had become a fortress from the world and even herself — a reservoir for pain and bitterness with a tough, hardened shell of protection.
Dementia doesn’t appear to discriminate based on personality or history, but our observation was that, in this case, it almost seemed a layer of blessed self-protection.
The other observation that accompanied this series of vignettes was more poignant. Amidst this dis-ease was a strong faith. Her greatest treasure was Jesus. Her greatest hope was in the One who was her Saviour, Redeemer and Friend.
The confusion for her sister was how she found such encouragement and strength in the person and work of Jesus without entering into the reforming work of the Holy Spirit and the abundant, free, light and graceful life into which he invites us. Wow.
Her confusion hung uncomfortably in the air. It should. Jesus calls us to wholeness, not disintegration. To congruence, not compartmentalisation.
I write all of this as observation, not condemnation. All of us can live half-lives, enjoying some of the gifts of our salvation in Jesus, without unpacking the fullness of what was accomplished for us. Full freedom. Full healing. Wide open space where we can walk freely and lightly, no longer burdened by bitterness, toxic behaviours, or dis-ease.
We weren’t created to be double-minded or any-number minded, but in unity with ourselves, with each other, and with our Creator.
Remembering the conversation again today, I fixed on Jesus’ high priestly prayer in the Garden of Gesthemane. He prayed that we would be one. It’s a prayer for unity among those who follow Him, but as I prayed Jesus’ petition for one-ness, I heard something else. A prayer for congruence. For the love we have received to make us whole and become whole. Not compartments of goodness and some others not-so-good, but a whole life, consecrated to and made whole by Him.
This is shalom. Mendedness. No gaps and places of low integrity, but a temple of the Holy Spirit being formed in the likeness of Jesus. Beautifully whole.
None of us can do this alone. The stuff of life often demands healing of different sorts. Physical, emotional, spiritual. Recovery from abuse, from disease, and all kinds of damage wrought by others and ourselves. And it’s not dealt with easily. It is a strenuous wholeness. Not a solo job, but teamwork that may require counsellors, specialists, surgeons, and a team captain. Jesus’ encouragement is to make Him Lord as He reforms us in Him: our Head.
In Jesus, we are friends of God; invited to live out this new identity in our relationships, our decisions and our behaviour. To live, move and have our being, in Him. Our relationships in community and the peace we enjoy, emanate from this identity. From here, integration flows. There’s some disconnect if it isn’t.
My friend’s confusion was understandable. If I am following Jesus, living this new life in Him, putting off the old self and living this spirit-life into which He invites us, anger and bitterness are drawn into the light. They’re old life behaviours to be redeemed. They don’t magically dissipate, but they are brought into the light of his glory and grace to a place of healing. The deep healing not only brings restoration but brimming new life. Foreign and unexpected perhaps, but somehow familiar, for it is the life we were created to enjoy in Him.
My friend’s sister will pass away. Perhaps soon. One day her body will no longer remember how to swallow, and all function will cease. In mercy, she prays that will be soon.
But, right now, there is life on offer for us. Abundant life. Ever-integrating life. It does not merely happen without our knowing, though. It comes from intentionally seeking to be formed into the One who holds all things together.
I read today that ‘the means by which we live is congruent with the ends for which we live’*. The ends for which we live as followers of Jesus, are Kingdom-marked, reconciled lives of love. The means by which we live is the love of Him who brought out us out of darkness into His light so that we can be fueled by the fruit of His Spirit and strengthened by lives of love in community.
It’s not an old way of living. It’s a whole new way of living — a glorious invitation.
*As Kingfishers Catch Fire by Eugene Peterson