Auburn Theological 2006 Sermon Competition Winners


First Place:

Rabbi Sandler Phillips
"Wandering in The Wilderness"

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Runner-up:

Shannon White
"The Eyes and Hands of Love"

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Runner-up:

Avi Olitzky
"Supporting the Alzheimer's Community"

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“The Eyes and Hands of Love” Psalm 139

The Rev. Shannon White, January 10, 2006

The psalmist writes…”O Lord, you have searched and known me…you know when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away…you search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord you know it completely…Such knowledge is too wonderful for me….”

But what if… you weren’t able to remember that knowledge that was once so precious to you? Somewhere, somehow…it was all lost?

There are currently 4 million Americans who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and 19 million family members who are affected by the disease…A disease that indiscriminately rips the memories from its victims and can be the source of extreme agony for those who have loved a person for a lifetime.

With as many advances as there have been in the medical field, there still is no cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. We have to assume it isn’t going away any time soon. The Alzheimer’s Association projects that by 2050 the number of Americans with the disease will grow by 250 percent to 14 million people.

Perhaps the words of the psalmist come to mind again….“In your book were written all the days that were formed for me”(139:16b) …Frantically, he looks for the days now lost…she searches…The one who suffers might say…”Give them back to me God….All those days I have lost…What did you have planned for me? How could all of the love that you’ve had for me and all that I’ve shared with others be gone?”

It’s hard to know what is truly meaningful to people in the midst of Alzheimer’s Disease or severe dementia.

One resource the faith community does provide is ritual. Rituals provide a way for people to connect with God. Deeply written in a person’s experience, rituals may provide some comfort not only to those with the disease, but also to those who care for them.

Experts at the Mayo Clinic reinforce this idea. “As Alzheimer’s Disease progresses, recent events become jumbled and hazy. But songs and prayers from childhood often stay firmly rooted in memory long after Alzheimer’s takes its toll. (“Alzheimer’s: Spirituality Can Be Comforting”, CNN.com from MayoClinic.com)

I saw this as a hospital chaplain resident in Connecticut in the mid 1990’s. I had the privilege of serving six months as a chaplain at a nursing home. One of my duties was to facilitate the area clergy in the leading of worship for the residents.

One day at the service of Catholic Mass my attention went to one particular woman who suffered from what the doctors suspected was Alzheimer’s Disease. The woman was known for always rocking back and forth and never seemed to know what was happening around her. Most of the staff had written her off, because she was non-communicative…That is until that day… We all started saying the Lord’s Prayer together as part of the Mass… Suddenly, the woman perked up and started reciting it perfectly along with us, maintaining her rocking back and forth. She then began to sing the Holy, Holy, Holy…before the Eucharist. Somewhere back in the recesses of her mind, the ritual that had meant so much to her in her earlier days and that she had participated in so many times, came back to her in that instant…She was able to participate in body, mind, and spirit if even for that moment.

The destruction of Alzheimer’s Disease has even more far-reaching effects, namely, the loved ones who are left to witness the dismantling of the person that they have known and cherished as loyal spouse or parent. Over time, they are faced with feelings of powerlessness over the disease that may seem to have cruelly shattered the life they knew. As they watch the deterioration of this person, they may experience a bag full of feelings and a heavy load of responsibility. For some, the guilt over having to seek help to take care of the one they have known intimately can seem overwhelming at times.

The psalmist continues…”Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven you are there; If I make my bed in Sheol you are there.”
(139:7-8)

While wonderful work is being done clinically to aid families and to provide support on multiple levels, the faith community needs to come forward with their own voices and resources to support people spiritually. We must think together as a community and talk with each other about how to help our people deal with this disease that can have devastating effects on families and on those who suffer from it at different stages.

Dr. Stephen Post, professor in the department of bio-ethics at Case Western University School of Medicine says the grief process with this disease is unique. “There is only a series of losses at each stage of the disease, as their loved one slips away… So many of the healing aspects of death and dying are lost with Alzheimer's disease." (Web article )

A caregiver or family member, for example, may not be able to have a meaningful good-bye with the person, especially if their loved one is agitated. The family member may feel that they have actually lost the person long before they physically die. The ability to complete unfinished business may also be lost, as well as the ability to do a life review, which can help with closure for both people. The grief of those who watch the agonizing debilitation over time may be further complicated by the intense feelings they experience from their interactions.

The faith community can be, literally, the eyes and hands of God’s love to family members as they deal with very difficult circumstances.

I was on a spiritual high upon my return from a year away doing short-term stint as an English conversation teacher working in a church in Japan. I had received what I believed was the call to enter seminary while I had been abroad and was ready to go and follow God.…ready to do God’s will and serve God’s people.

While I made application that year, I needed a job. I heard through one of the staff at my local Presbyterian church that there was a particular woman who needed someone to be her companion during the day. I thought this would be the perfect thing for me to do. No problem.

The first day I walked into her house, I was bombarded with sights and smells I couldn’t believe…it was a hellhole…this woman had been a packrat and a recluse for 6 months. Her nephew and niece were her only surviving relatives and lived over an hour away. I was to be her contact…and my assignment, as per her nephew, was to get this woman who had once been a Grand Dame in society back out into her social spheres. I was to get her out to the hairdresser, to the grocery store and other places she once.

“Mrs. T” was terrified, because she knew how limited she was and that many days, in her words, “she wasn’t herself.” The more I knew of her, the more frightened I became at the prospect of such a venture.

She complained to me about her relatives…and then complained to them about me. I was crushed. I wanted to be the perfect caregiver….loving, caring, compassionate and I found myself faced with anger, fear and inadequacies every day. Above all, I felt a level of powerlessness over her over her illness and over her situation that left me exhausted and hopeless.

Her own family couldn’t deal with the difficulties she began to manifest on a daily basis. She had been found wandering off in the neighborhood in her slip one morning. Another morning when I arrived, I noticed that her eyebrows had been singed after she had tried to light the kerosene heater. That’s when we got someone to stay with her at night. It’s a miracle that she didn’t burn herself and the house down.

That period was one of the most difficult times of my life…and I don’t know how I would have done it if I had had the emotional ties of family. Thank God for my church community and for my roommates who listened to me debrief and complain about this woman’s daily antics when I could not hold it together. They reflected back to me that I was doing a good thing by just being there for her.

In the end, the gift of those nine months, was the stripping away of some superficial spirituality in my own life. I was driven to look at myself and at God and to look again…and again.

The psalmist cries out…”Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.” (139:23-24)

In their book, Compassion, authors Henri Nouwen , Donald McNeill and Douglas Morrison …give us all some direction. They write, “The compassionate life could be described as a life lived patiently with others. Patience means to enter actively into the thick of life and to fully bear the suffering within and around us. Patience is the capacity to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell as fully as possible the inner and outer events of our lives. It is to enter our lives with open eyes, ears, and hands so we really know what is happening. Patience is an extremely difficult discipline precisely because it counteracts our unreflective impulse to fight or flee…Patience involves staying with it, living through it, listening carefully to what presents itself to us here and now. It means paying attention to shameful memories and searching for forgiveness without having to forget…In short, patience is a willingness to be influenced even when this requires giving up control and entering into unknown territory. ( McNeill, Morrison and Nouwen, Compassion, Garden City, Doubleday Image Books 1983, pp.92-93).

As caregivers, as family, as God’s very own, we have the opportunity to be the eyes and hands of love to those who may have lost their mental connection momentarily with the God who formed their inward parts. As people attempting to practice patience and compassion we also have the opportunity receive love beyond measure from the One who will lead us in the way everlasting….

Let us as a community of faith bless and support those in our midst who courageously stand in as the eyes and hands of God’s love… in the lives of those who struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease.

BLESS THEM who wait with us, who labor with us, who cry out with us

BLESS THEM who know our limits, who push us beyond them, who see us through

BLESS THEM who call us to our strengths, who tend us in our weakness, who dress each ragged wound

BLESS THEM who laugh in the face of convention, who weep for our own pain, who bid us come and live.

(Jan Richardson Night Visions: Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas, Cleveland , Ohio, United Church Press 1998, p.81).

(Scripture Text is from the New Revised Standard Version)

© Copyright | 2006