Is despondent ageing a prank God plays on our lives?
12 MINUTE READ
This reflection is adapted from a sermon delivered at
a Christian Aged Care facility in September 2019.
Old Testament theologian, Walter Brueggemann, describes Psalm 77 as a “speech pilgrimage”. While Protestants are modest about the concept of pilgrimage, walking the Camino in Spain has an enduring attraction. Christians have always been interested in visiting Israel. What about Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress? Or hymns like Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah? As health professionals, we share a privileged apprenticeship in life’s journey with our patients. We have ‘walked a mile’ on good, bad, and even ugly pathways.
This psalm is a pilgrimage that starts in despair, “I cry out loud to God”. Here is the feel of the despair of an ageing body, the loss of social meaning and a threatening sense of loss of the memory of God. It is a psalm which captures echoes that could be generated from an aged care facility. There is a pathos even with and for the love of God. This worship leader speaks for anyone who will listen, from the place that senses God has forgotten us, that the strong right-hand of God has lost its grip on us (v10).
The psalm gathers all the groans of someone who senses they are spent. “I cry out loud to God – out loud to God so that he can hear me! During the day when I’m in trouble I look for my Lord. At night my hands are still outstretched and don’t grow numb; my whole being refuses to be comforted. I remember God and I moan. I complain, and my spirit grows tired.”
As our bodies and minds fail at the tail end of life, we can imagine that even the final moments themselves will be frustrating. “You’ve kept my eyelids from closing. I’m so upset I can’t even speak” (v5). It is hard to imagine this pilgrimage is likely to bring us close to God.
“The witness of God’s story to us in the Scriptures is that we have permission to ‘cry out’, to complain to God no-holds-barred.”
Our speech pilgrimage then starts its journey as a classic lament. It is a challenge to be so honest with ourselves and God in this way. Have you ever been to such a dry well? That rock-bottom dungeon where even words fail you?
The witness of God’s story to us in the Scriptures is that we have permission to “cry out”, to complain to God no-holds-barred. Such cries don’t have to be the end of life or at the bottom of despair either.
As medical doctors and healthcare professionals, we have the special honour to share the witness of crumpled faith at this unravelling and inelastic time in life’s pilgrimage. Like Ezekiel, sometimes all I can do is sit with individuals; to be present as a sort of “cheer squad”, when flickering memories of God’s loving kindness re-emerge.
In verse 5 the psalm takes a turn, though without much confidence, away from moaning. Memory is the vehicle for change in this speech pilgrimage. Memory is an important part of faith. The liturgical call of the Christian life is to both share in and remember, with all the saints, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for us. In this faith-generated practice of communion we repeatedly recognise that God always remembers who we are. His love never ends.
Asaph, who has created the speech pilgrimage of Psalm 77, remembers in v5-9: “I think about days long past; I remember years that seem an eternity in the past. I meditate with my heart at night; I complain, and my spirit keeps searching: ‘Will my Lord reject me forever? Will he never be pleased again? Has his faithful love come to a complete end? Is his promise over for future generations? Has God forgotten how to be gracious? Has he angrily stopped up his compassion?’ ”
In this remembering, Asaph recognises for us that life can seem to stretch out. During this stage of his speech pilgrimage, he meditates, he questions, he searches his heart. All of these are robust components of the faith pilgrimage. They require patience, critical reasoning and honesty.
While this psalm has captured a speech pilgrimage, it has also given us a glimpse of the apophatic components of the journey of life – the “be still and know I am God” stages of the path, times when words fail us, when speaking no longer cuts through. “My spirit keeps on searching”, the psalmist says.
One of the many benefits of a long life is to accept a slowing down and a recovery of stillness, of patience before God. Stillness and a seeking heart are genuine components of a normal spiritual life.
At the same time, empty uncluttered spaces in life can be misinterpreted. In our driven world, we may be tempted to interpret them as a waste of time. As Asaph takes us there, he becomes aware of painful questions: Has God’s faithful love come to an end? Has God forgotten how to be gracious? Has God angrily stopped up his compassion? Memory can be wrapped in intense emotion.
What about you? Have you ever asked these pilgrimage questions? It takes courage, a Job-like defiance toward despair and the failures of ageing.
Let us consider memory for a few moments. Can we trust our memory? What does it mean if we reach a point when we forget the love of God is for us? Is despondent ageing, ageing with memory white-out, a strange prank that God plays on our lives?
Human beings exercise three different types of memory, as we live with the elusivity of time:
- Semantic memory relates to how we remember concepts and facts, such as names, places, formulas, and so on.
- Procedural memory covers how we do things and develop skills. For instance, a person with no reliable short-term memory could play the piano.
- Episodic memory or the subjective experience of explicitly remembering past incidents is the type of memory that is deeply personal and is where dementia impacts memory most profoundly.
Science gives us a range of other insights:
- Apparently, we remember interesting information that we process deeply, that we reflect on or mull over and so on.
- We remember visuospatial information better than verbal instructions.
- We remember information that is connected to things we already know.
- We remember information that we test ourselves on.
Science also can locate the brain structures involved in memory. The hippocampus is recognised as vital to episodic memory. Our left frontal cortex is vital to critical reasoning or how we make sense of the world and our memories.
In addition to long-term memory, we also have a short-term or working memory system. This memory helps us orientate, choose the next step, be socially appropriate, etc. Our working memory is in the order of 1-5 minutes. If distracted at the wrong moment, working memory will rapidly fade. Our working memory can almost instantaneously access stored memory capacity to make sense of the present.
“Honest pilgrims bear witness to grace in good times and bad – grace, even in times of pandemic lockdown and fear.”
Returning to our speech pilgrimage in Psalm 77, verses 5-10 draw on Asaph’s episodic memory as he increasingly senses God’s absence in the failing circumstance he finds himself in. He can exercise his memory to identify other times of his life when God’s love was close, almost tenderly palpable, and yet so far away from where the pilgrimage has brought him in the present.
We often read the Bible and live the Christian life as if everything is stable, as if our lives are destined to remain happy and healthy, for our sanity and memory to remain intact. But are we aware that the life God calls each of us to never comes with such a guarantee? Prosperity gospels are a cruel hoax which simply ignore a psalm like this. Honest pilgrims bear witness to grace in good times and bad – grace, even in times of pandemic lockdown and fear.
Psalm 77 now takes a semantic twist. As Christians, we can remember the fact of the Cross, of Jesus’ grace-scarred hands. As we do, we know our sins are forgiven. We know the shame and guilt of sin can be replaced by the hope of resurrection life. Our speech pilgrimage chooses these words in verses 11-15, “But I will remember the Lord’s deeds; yes, I will remember your wondrous acts from times long past. I will meditate on all your works; I will ponder your deeds. God, your way is holiness! Who is as great a god as you, God? You are the God who works wonders; you have demonstrated your strength among all peoples. With your mighty arm you redeemed your people; redeemed the children of Jacob and Joseph.”
By choosing to refocus and also actively meditate on the facts about God in Scripture – in the history of God’s people, in the stories of miracles during the great Exodus event – the redemption of the children of Jacob and Joseph – the mood of this pilgrimage changes. A new type of question emerges, “Who is as great a god as you?” In the place of failing weakness that age may bring us, memory of God and for God’s action from “time long past” are a source of rebalancing grace.
We Christians live with a double blessing of the memory of God’s acts and qualities which are then consummated in the incarnation, in God becoming one of us through Jesus the Son. We also live with the blessing of God’s presence in our own life pilgrimage as God’s story intersects with our story.
And there is more. This speech pilgrimage invites us to ask all sorts of new questions. Questions like, “If God can bring His people out of slavery into the freedom of a land flowing in milk and honey, isn’t there hope for new joy even in an aged care facility?” There is scope to dream, to imagine, to grasp new visions, to find the mind of Christ on any pilgrimage. Why? Because we can remember Jesus’ promise to never leave or forsake us, we remember his promise to send the Spirit as a Comforter at any point of our life’s calling.
In Asaph’s speech pilgrimage, his words start to run wild with excitement. A Spirit-fired imagination gets him recreating the possibilities of God’s action. “The waters saw you, God – the waters saw you and reeled! Even the deep depths shook! The clouds poured water; the skies cracked thunder; your arrows were flying all around! The crash of your thunder was in the swirling storm; lightning lit up the whole world; the earth shook and quaked. Your way went straight through the sea; your pathways went right through the mighty waters. But your footprints left no trace!” (v77:16-19)
“If God can bring His people out of slavery into the freedom of a land flowing in milk and honey, isn’t there hope for new joy even in an aged care facility?”
Self-preoccupation hanging on for grim death has now transposed to delight, in the possibilities of any future moment. We have reached the “then sings my soul” moment in our pilgrimage here.
Our psalm started quite acceptably in self preoccupied despair. Remembering by the risk of faith has allowed a healing, a renewal, to take place. At the start of the pilgrimage, God seemed distressingly absent. Now through memory, we can speak imaginatively of God as a playful, active creator. It’s chalk and cheese. It’s moving from “I” to “you”. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ [who] lives in me” (Gal 2:20)! The testimony of this psalm is that the smallest faith, the most tentative of faith as we look away from despair and diminishing capacity back toward God in whose image we are created, is a critical pastoral challenge in the pilgrimage of life.
At the start of this psalm, our pilgrim senses the absence of God. This breeds further despair. Now through the exercise of memory there is a revived sense of the vital presence of God. Ironically, there are still “no footprints” but memory has re-established a relationship.
I recently have been reading a book titled Dementia: Living in the Memories of God, by John Swinton. This author says, “It makes a world of difference to suggest that the memory loss we encounter in dementia happens to people who are loved by God, who are made in God’s image and who reside within God’s creation”. The speech pilgrimage of Psalm 77 has orientated us to recognise this truth.
There are many types of dementia but the most common and well known is Alzheimer’s type dementia. Swinton observes in his book that dementia is diagnosed by exclusion language. This is an illness of deficit in memory and, to some extent, thinking. Much of the description of dementia assumes a loss of the sense of self. Swinton argues that theology needs to work with science to defend the self in dementia. Our self is a reflection of being created in God’s image. Here Swinton tells the story of a person wandering the corridors of a care facility repeating the word “God”. Eventually, a nurse asked the question, “Are you afraid you will forget God?” The immediate response was, “Yes”. Pastoral care at this point helped all the agitation to settle.
The “image of God” identifies not only the importance of vertical relationships, but also of horizontal. Our communities, our friendships, our human relationships all contribute to the sense of who we are. We are most clearly ourselves when we tell, or reflect on, the story of our lives in relationships.
Swinton has a word for the view of dementia which strips the self from a human being – “dementogenic cultures”. Such cultures give permission to society to consider euthanasia rather than maximising relationships of care. Unsurprisingly, death anxiety is on the rise in our contemporary world.
Community surveys confirm that dementia or loss of memory is one of our greatest fears. The truth that God chooses not to forget any of us is of great comfort. Any honest speech pilgrimage will discover sooner or later that whether or not we remember, we can trust God remembers us. Isaiah 49:15-16 says, “I will not forget you! See I have engraved you on the palm of my hands”. God’s memory is of “yesterday, today and forevermore” (Heb 13:8)! And yet, God can choose to forget – to forget our sins because of his great love for us. Now we can say of our lives, “we are not what we remember, we are remembered”. Nothing can separate us from this truth, generated through the great love of God. God’s memory informs the actions of God the Father, Son and Spirit.
Swinton’s reflections about God’s memory are rich. He says these things:
- God’s memory is for the purpose of remembering; to bring together that which is fragmented.
- God remembers because God promises. Promises like, “I will be with you until the end of this age” (Matt 28:20).
- God’s memory is not a recreation of the past, but a continuation of the self-same purpose.
- God’s memory encompasses his entire relationship with his people (as this psalm acknowledges). His memory includes both great deeds of the past as well as his continued concern for his people in the future.
- Human memory is nothing more (and nothing less) than one mode of participation in the memory of God, which is our true memory and our only real source of identity and hope.
Swinton continues on with other profound reflections, but I think this picture is enough to carry us to the end of our speech pilgrimage.
Asaph has guided us from the despair of weakness, back to the playful presence of God. So how will his pilgrimage end? Verse 20 ends this psalm with the image of a faithful, open journey assisted by guides. Listen, “You lead your people like sheep under the care of Moses and Aaron”. This verse reminds me of Israel’s favourite psalm, number 23, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”. Jesus speaks of sheep knowing his voice and following as he leads to “green pastures”. Any memory we have of God’s grace is a preparation for discovering new, fresh expressions of grace now and of God remembering us in the future.
Our calling at this point of the pilgrimage is trust, it is sweet surrender, again and again. While God doesn’t leave footprints, he gives us leaders like Moses and Aaron who can support God’s people in wilderness times, support when we are in the presence of enemies or even in the valley of the shadow of death. Indeed, Moses saw the day when the Spirit of God would be poured out on all the people, the day when we can all, in God’s power, minister to and support each other.
As we come to the finishing line in our speech pilgrimage, you may be unsure about God’s love. Is it because our bodies are failing, and we sense our memories are fading? The darkness of our doubts have a menacing quality, yet as we remember God’s story, as we “eat the bread and drink the wine”, the Spirit ministers God’s memory of us, back to us. This is a wonderful blessing. We may have consigned God to “imaginary friend” status, only to discover the playful return of the most loyal of lovers.
Our speech pilgrimage has guided worship from the grip of despair to bring us to this place of enduring rest. Do you hear the voice of Jesus today, that most tender voice that knows you and your journey? Our life pilgrimage is naturally coming home, to rest. As we approach this day, let us confess that we are remembered.
Dr Paul Mercer Dr Paul Mercer is an active General Practitioner in Brisbane. He is the former editor of Luke’s Journal and enjoys his work in Aged Care Facilities.
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- Bible – CEB
- Swinton, John. 2012. Dementia: Living in the Memories of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Group.
- Brueggemann, Walter, 1995. The Psalms and the Life of Faith. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
- Polk, Thad A. 2016. The Aging Brain: Course Guidebook. Virginia: The Great Courses.