Sermon by The Very Rev. Tracey Lind
Proper 17B 2021
“Do not forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life…” (Dt. 4.9)
The Bible is full of commandments about remembering and forgetting. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the Israellites are commanded to remember the days of old and years long past. They are instructed to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Faithful Jews are to remember and do God’s commandments, and thus be holy to God. Job instructs his friends and family to remember and extol God’s work, and the psalmist sings praises to those who remember to do God’s commandments.
At the last supper, Jesus says, This is my body that is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me…This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.
In the Acts of the Apostles, the church is told to remember the words of Jesus. In the epistles, Paul instructs his communities to remember their time before Christ and all that was done by Jesus on their behalf. And, in Revelations, the last book of the Christian Bible, the faithful are told to “remember what has been received and heard.”
Remembering and not forgetting are critical elements of faithful living. But what if I can no longer remember? What if I become forgetful? What if I can’t remember God’s covenant? What if I can’t remember the commandments – even the greatest one to love God and my neighbor? What if I’ve forgotten who my neighbor is? What if I’ve forgotten who God is? What if I can’t remember who I am? Am I then outside the covenant of faith, having no hope and without God in the world?
Since being diagnosed five years ago with early onset dementia, probably caused by a brain disease called Frontotemporal Degeneration (FTD, for short), I’ve given much thought to questions of memory and faith.
Memory is a big deal for those living with dementia. The loss of memory is probably the most frightening aspect of Alzheimer’s Disease. Memory loss raises the question of who we are when we have forgotten our loved ones, ourselves and even our God. Do we cease to exist in a meaningful way? Is that why people always talk about “the long goodbye” when it comes to people living with dementia.
In the early stages of cognitive decline, the fear of forgetting can lead to frustration, anxiety and anger. Shortly before and after my diagnosis, I was afraid that I would forget something important, not recognize someone I knew, that I would get lost, or that I would become overwhelmed by my environment. And that fear led to self-isolation. For a while, I didn’t want to go anywhere or see anybody. Eventually, I developed coping mechanisms for dealing with my anxiety as well as strategies for managing FTD and its symptoms as a chronic condition rather than a terminal disease. But that’s a topic for another day.
What I’ve learned is that anxiety is an undercurrent of dementia; people with cognitive impairment often live on the edge of panic. And that is made worse by the concern of not only what’s happening in the present moment, but also by the fear and uncertainty of what might or probably will happen in the future. We fear being out of control, being isolated in our dementia, being forgotten.
A lot of people with a dementia diagnosis also worry about being forgotten by God when they can no longer remember who they are. In his award winning book entitled, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God, pastoral theologian John Swinton writes thoughtfully and deeply about this subject. In doing so, he explores the concern that this morning’s Hebrew Scripture text raises: “Do not forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life…”
Swinton asserts that, “In an ecclesial [that is, religious] culture where remembering the acts of God and proclaiming the name of Jesus are often assumed to be central to a person’s salvation, a loss which prevents one from engaging in [such intellectual activities] creates dissonance and uncertainty.” According to Professor Swinton:
The deep forgetfulness of dementia and the often profound changes to personality and perceived identity that accompany it raise fundamental theological questions: Is my mother really saved, even though she has forgotten Jesus?” “Who will she be in heaven if she has changed so drastically in the present?” “What does it mean to love God when you have forgotten who God is?” “What does it mean to be ‘you’ when ‘you’ no longer know who ‘you’ are?” “If our hope lies in the resurrection, which ‘you’ will be resurrected?” 1
In speaking engagements over the past five years, I’ve been asked some of these questions. Thus, I know them to be true concerns.
So here’s what I think. While memory is an integral part of human existence, it is not an essential component to being human. That’s why I get so frustrated by people, including clergy, who don’t think it’s important to visit individuals living with dementia (especially those in memory units), thinking and sometimes saying, they won’t remember me or that I was there, so I don’t need to visit; and if I do show up, I don’t have to stay very long. That’s not true. I used to say to individuals who asked about visiting my mother in the memory unit, “She might not remember who you are and probably won’t remember that you visited her, but she will enjoy every minute of your visit.”
Moreover, there is a profound loneliness, isolation and exclusion that can begin to happen when an individual moves into what the psalmist called “The land of forgetfulness.” (Ps. 88.12) Like the Samaritan woman at the well, we (and our families) need sources of living water to sustain us on this journey; and, to receive the gifts we have to offer – in spite of our cognitive decline,
1 John Swinton, Dementia: Living in Memories of God, p. 188
While memories are really important, we are not defined by our memory. We are defined simply by being a child of God, whether we know it or not. We are created in the image of God, whether we remember that fact or not. And we value relationships, even if we can’t express it or can’t participate in the ways that we used to. As Oliver Sachs wrote, “A man does not consist of memory alone. He has feeling, will, sensibilities, moral being…”
My FTD role model Christine Bryden explains it this way:
I believe that I am much more than just my brain structure and function, which is declining daily. My creation in the divine image is as a soul capable of love, sacrifice, and hope, not as a perfect human being, in mind or body…I am confident that even if the continuing damage to my temporal lobe might diminish the intensity of my God-experience, there will be other ways in which I can maintain my relationship with God…I will trust in God, who will hold me safe in his memory, until that glorious day of Resurrection, when each facet of my personality can be expressed to the full. 2
That is how I feel. I’m not worried about being forgotten by God – I am confident that God will be with me to the end and beyond. For in God, I live, move and have my being; and therefore, nothing can separate me from the love of God. When I can’t remember God, I am confident that God will remember me; and when I die, I am confident that I will be raised to a new life in eternity, hopefully, complete with a new brain. I trust in the promise of the Torah: Because God is merciful, [God] will neither abandon nor destroy me. (Dt. 4.31)
I trust in the words of the prophets: “God will not forget me for I am written on the palms of God’s hands. (Isaiah 49.15-16) I trust in the words of the Risen Christ: “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28.20) As Holy Scripture so clearly articulates, we are because God sustains us. Therefore, my hope lies in the faith that all of us live in God’s memory, regardless of our memory.
2 Christine Bryden, Dancing with Dementia, p. 153
There is another aspect of this theological discussion about dementia that is important. And it has to do with keeping faith. Faith is not something we keep on our own. Faith is a communal endeavor. That’s why the essential prayer of Judaism, the Shema translated, says, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God,” not “the Lord my God.” That’s why Christians pray, “Our Father,” not “My Father.” That’s why we all make promises at the time of someone’s baptism.
Because faith is a communal endeavor, when I can no longer remember to pray, I will trust that you will continue to pray in my stead. When I can no longer remember what it means to receive the Eucharist, I will trust that you will remember on my behalf. When I can no longer remember you, I will trust that you will still remember me. When I can no longer remember myself, I will trust that you will remind me of who I am, who I’ve been, and how my life matters – even if the words don’t make sense.
One of the tragedies of dementia in our modern world is that people living with dementia and our spouses often go to the sidelines; and eventually drop out of sight, crossing to the other side of life as we once knew it. And then, as the old saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind.” Moreover, as my mother sadly learned, once confined to a memory unit, old friends are afraid to visit; it’s painful, scary or inconvenient, or maybe, contagious.
This is not acceptable in the eyes of God or God’s son Jesus. As Jesus clearly said, “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me.” Thus, when we forget or neglect our sisters and brothers living with memory loss, we forget and neglect Jesus himself. Let it not be so with us. Rather, let us be a community of memory for all – those who can remember and those who can’t.