The head and the heart do not always coincide.
I would never have guessed that I’d be working with elderly people and loving every minute of it. I would never have guessed that visiting the dementia unit would be the highlight of my day. I had to force myself to visit my own mother when her Alzheimer’s took over. So why do I now preach to those who cannot respond? And why do I find joy in it?
There’s a lesson here about the rewards of obedience and about being where the Lord wants us to be, but that is another story. I have discovered that much more is going on in the dementia unit than meets the eye. The body of Christ is here. And so is his mind.
The Spirit of God does not need words. There is such a thing as speechless praise, and it happens a lot in the dementia unit. The blessing of the Lord still comes. Sometimes we are allowed to glimpse behind the veil.
I walk into the room, and Connie almost shouts, “Hi. How are you today?” She’s giddy with delight that she was able to articulate the words and tickled about what we are preparing to do. She recognizes why I am here. I respond with a hearty greeting and thank her for the welcome.
Wilma is singing already, “In sweet communion, Lord, with Thee I constantly abide. . .”
In the House of the Lord
The residents sit in a semicircle; the number is limited. I begin with the symbols we use every week as visual cues: a miniature church complete with steeple, a large black leather Bible, a wooden cross on a pedestal. A banner that hangs behind me reads, “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go to the house of the Lord.”
I give the items to a couple of the residents to hold while I ready the table for our service. The white cloth flutters like a dove as I dramatically float it down, draping the table. I set the church on it and retrieve the other two items, all the while singing, “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me. . . .”
I use familiar language and repeat slowly and intentionally, “Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” I make eye contact with each person and bend down so we’re on the same level.
I say, “Let’s look at our hands.” I look at Tena and take her hands in mine. “I’ll bet these hands have held a baby.”
Going to Dan sitting next to her, I say, “And these hands worked a lot on the typewriter.” And then, “These hands loved to be working in the garden” (a big grin—a connection).
He’s Got the Whole World
We sing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” while I move in front of the residents, making big arm circles and pointing to the “tiny little baby” doll that is in Connie’s arms.
I sweep around in front of each one, stooping to make eye contact, and Donna reaches out to grasp both my hands in hers. She swings our limbs to the rhythm and sings the words almost perfectly. That overwhelming smile—was it the Spirit?
We finish by repeating everyone’s name in turn: “He’s got Mildred and Henry in his hands. . . .”
After a more subdued and prayerful, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” we open with a prayer: “Now may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable. . . .” I hear the “Amen” coming loud and clear.
“People of God, let us share our faith with these words: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not_____.” I pause, and two or three respond, “want.” “He makes me to lie down in green_____ . . .”
“Pastures,” comes the reply.
At this moment I see Dorothy look up for the first time. You’d think there would always be some who respond and some who don’t. But every week the Spirit touches a different person at a different time and in a different way. It’s always a surprise.
We read familiar stories from Scripture. Today it is the prodigal son and the loving Father.
“Have you ever known a rebellious teenager?” I ask. “How difficult it is for the parents? Or maybe you were a rebellious teen yourself.”
As I retell the story and wonder aloud if the son might be afraid of his father and if he thought his father would forgive him, Martha answers, “Oooooooooo!” I have never heard from her before and never since. (I wonder what memory floated through her mind.)
“God promises always to forgive us. I wonder if we all need forgiveness from God?” I ask. “Jesus says ‘I forgive you, David.’ Jesus says, ‘I forgive you, Thelma.’
“God promises to forgive us and he also promises to hear our prayers, so what should we pray about today?” There is a pause, and then the silence is broken by the words, “Peace” and “The things we do and the things we don’t do.”
“Let us pray: Have mercy on us, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion, blot out our transgressions. . . .”
I pray with thanks and praise to God and ask for peace in our hearts and in the world. We confess our sins of commission and omission. Then Helen breaks in with the Lord’s Prayer. She knows that comes next. I pick up the words, and we all recite it together. Worship memories are awakened.
Just as We Are
We sing “Amazing Grace.” In all our singing we use only the first verse. We use no books. We come to worship just as we are.
When we sing “Abide with Me” I see Mildred watching my mouth and trying her best to sing the words. When we get to the words “Help of the helpless, O abide with me,” I see tears streaming down her face. I feel her pain—the helplessness of being trapped in her own body, the frustration of the loss of connection with others. But we are connected at that moment, and God is there. We sing, “No never alone, no never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”
After the benediction, we sing the Doxology, and then I greet each one. “God bless you today, Dick.” He looks up with a room-brightening smile. “The Lord be with you, Helen.”
Jennie was awake for the whole service, but now she is fast asleep. Her request for peace was granted. Robert responds to my greeting: “God bless you too.” They are the only words I have heard him say, and with a smile at that. They are like apples of gold. My heart soars. Louise says, “Thank you for coming.” It’s a huge reward.
Perspired and Inspired
I say goodbye to them all and go to repeat this service on the other side of the unit. When I leave, I am perspired and inspired. It carries me through the rest of the day with an indelible grin on my face.
There’s a lot to the anatomy of the Spirit. I find it interesting that every week after visiting the dementia unit I receive another insight for sermon material. I can’t wait until the following week.
Yes, sometimes we are allowed to get a glimpse behind the veil.
Being a Chaplain
My employer is a Christian organization with three large campuses for senior residents.
The campus that I am responsible for has about 500 residents in independent living condominiums, a huge condominium complex (with a second one on the way) and a full nursing care unit. An assisted-living condominium is anticipated.
Once a week I go to one of the other campuses to lead three specialized worship services for residents in the dementia units there.
At this time we have a chaplain for each campus. We all do pastoral care and counseling along with Bible studies, worship services, memorial services, weddings (yes), and other tough work like scooping ice cream for ice cream socials!
Chaplaincy at a Glance
Chaplains are pastors who usually serve in specialized settings such as prisons, hospitals, counseling centers, or the military. As specially trained ministers of the gospel, they seek to encourage others in their relationship with Jesus Christ.
Chaplains seek to minister to the whole person, addressing not only spiritual needs but also physical and emotional needs. They commit themselves to being available to those who are suffering, alienated, and confused. They struggle with those who have perplexing questions about suffering, death, and the meaning of life. They offer resources and guidance that lead toward spiritual renewal and reconciliation with God.
Chaplains provide a caring human environment in which spiritual guidance can be provided. In so doing they are a part of the professional team within the institution.
Chaplaincy Ministries supports and develops chaplaincy by
- assisting prospective candidates through their specialized training,
- endorsing chaplains and their ministry,
- supporting chaplains and their families,
- maintaining links between the chaplain and the church through conferences and newsletters,
- promoting chaplaincy ministry in the church and community,
- participating in national, state, or provincial chaplaincy organizations,
- educating the church about institutional ministry issues.
To learn more about the CRC’s Chaplaincy Ministries, visit www.crcna.org/chaplaincy or call 616-224-0733.
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