I lost two grandmothers to Alzheimer’s – “the long goodbye” as they say. The first one, my Pappaw survived and tried to nurse to the end. Bless his heart; he struggled so hard to care for her. The second outlived Grandpa for several years, though the lights were dimming pretty much from the day he died.
Alzheimer’s. Such a dreaded disease. I saw it in last night’s news, since research is showing promise for thwarting it with healthy living while we are young. But it is only news because it affects so many people and does so in such a damaging way. Memory loss that breaks a person down slowly into a creature only barely resembling the human that once was there.
I see a lot there in common with street homeless.
What does it mean to be human?
I remember taking a course in school that asked this question. We looked at it from scientific and philosophic lenses. If I lost my right arm in a car accident, would I still be human? What if I got a robot arm in it’s place? Would I still be human?
We all answered, YES. Yes, you are still human even with the loss of an arm. Yes, you are still human even if you use a robotic arm in its place.
Okay. What if we take one neuron out of your brain and replace it with one computer chip. Would you still be human?
Yes. We said you would still be human.
What if we replaced exactly 50% of your neurons with circuit chips? Would you still be human?
We said yes to this too, but it was suddenly becoming a troubling notion.
What if we built a robot out of chips and bits? Would it be human?
We said, No.
What if we replaced 99% of the neurons in Agent X’s brain with chips?
The class then couldn’t decide if that would be BBQ or Jalapeno chips! It was hard to give up the humanity of that last neuron, but we effectively had a robot on our hands, and that just is not truly human.
But what if we program the robot to express emotions, to calculate thoughts? Well, this was a bit troubling too, and raised ethical questions, but the consensus was that this still was not a human.
So what makes a creature – human? Who decides? And in the world of tomorrow – and already even today – these questions become less and less abstract and erudite. They become personal for many of us.
The conclusion I have come to is that creatures who bear the image of God are the truly human creatures. Creatures made by God for that exact purpose (Gen. 1:26-27) are the truly human creatures. It is a specific community of creature at the nucleus. The human male and the human female together bear the image of God. Any variance on this proves less than fully human. Sin has tarnished the image.
Of course “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” as St. Paul tells us.(Rom. 3:23), and God provides grace for us. This suggests there is a potential for our humanity that we presently lack (all of us lack it). And so we “human” creatures live in a tension between being fully human or being animalistic. And there are many, many varied forces at work pulling us into different kinds of animalist forms. Not least being idolatry. But this post is not intended to exhaust all the causes for this phenom.
Instead, this post is about humanizing ministry, and I started by considering my grandparents suffering with Alzheimer’s. I will not tell of all the indignities my grandmothers suffered, but a few common to the disease are poor hygiene, paranoia, stripping and running naked, soiling one’s self, and the decimation of interpersonal relationships. How much of that do you see in common with street homelessness?
I remember discussing my Mammaw with my cousin one evening as we lamented her condition. She had been such a dignified lady in her youth, her middle age, even in the early years of her old age. She was a precious grandmother to us, a wife and home-maker, a friend to many, well dressed, articulate, hospitable, and caring. But Alzheimer’s took all of that, and we called in professional help who, in part, kept her out of sight as part of their program to keep her safe and manage her dignity, because she had become animalistic.
How might we humanize her?
It was clear that full healing and redemption were beyond our power. If God would intervene, we would have been happy to offer the prayer and healing touch, but that is all God’s prerogative, and he had not moved in that way.
All that was left for us was to leave her to the professionals – effectively ignore her and hope the problem would go away.
But actually, there was another option. One that was so stark it almost did not get noticed. We could take her HOME. We could, if we were so willing and loving, sacrifice deeply to love her ourselves, to keep her at home and bathe her, feed her, comfort her, and all the millions of little exhausting things that go with it. If we so chose to cook her old recipes, set her table and seat her at it with the rest of her family, we could humanize her.
It would cost us everything to do it. Our life would never be the same, nor would it be our own. Instead, minute by minute we would have to remind her where she is, who she is, to eat the potatoes and not take her clothes off at the table. To reassure her a million times a night that the door is locked and she is safe. To purchase her favorite perfume and apply it to her, to read to her from the Bible and her beloved Reader’s Digest. And to put up with her suspicion and resistance at every turn with complete patience and grace.
If we did all that, we would still have our Mammaw – or at least we would humanize the creature we were losing in a love that is only divine.
It was an option. Like it or not. And of course, NOT. But it was, and for many of us still is, an option. An option that will kill us if we take it. But an option in which we – yes WE – begin to bear the image of God as we die. And that too is something divine; just look at Jesus (Mark 15:39).
I am sure we would still fall short of the glory of God. But how might we at least consider moving in that direction?
My Mammaw was a sweet lady who did NOTHING to deserve her fate. But we agonized over the long goodbye with her all the same. We called in the professionals, and still we suffered as did she. But no one ever faulted us in the slightest – nor her for that matter. And yet we could have done more.
And I see so very much in common between her experience and that of the street homeless. The fact is: humans need a HOME. Home is humanizing. And humanizing is ministry.