I can't Go on! It's Too Sad!

My wife leads a weekly "Christian circle" at a nursing home. An Alzheimer's patient named Betsy faithfully attends, led there by a staff worker, and sits through the hour. Betsy is slender, with snow-white hair, blue eyes, and a pleasant smile. Every week Janet introduces herself, and every week Betsy responds as if she's never seen her before. When other people interact in the group or laugh at some little joke, Betsy smiles a distant, disarming smile. Mostly she sits quietly, vacant-eyed, enjoying the change of scenery from her room but comprehending nothing of the discussion going on around her.

After a few weeks, Janet learned that Betsy has retained the ability to read. Often, she carries with her a postcard her daughter sent her several months before, which she pores over as if it came in yesterday's mail. She has no comprehension of what she is reading and will repeat the same line over and over, like a stuck record, until someone prompts her to move on. But on a good day she can read a passage straight through in a clear, strong voice. Janet began calling on her each week to read a hymn.

One Friday the senior citizens, who prefer older hymns they remember from childhood, selected "The Old Rugged Cross" for Betsy to read. "On a hill far away stands an old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame," she began, and stopped. She suddenly got agitated. "I can't go on! It's too sad! Too sad!" She said. Some of the seniors gasped. Others stared at her, dumbfounded. In years of living at the home, not once had Betsy shown the ability to put words together meaningfully. Now, obviously, she did understand.

Janet calmed her: "That's fine, Betsy. You don't have to keep reading if you don't want to."

After a pause, though, she started reading again, and stopped at the same place. A tear made a trail down each check. "I can't go on! It's too sad!" She said, unaware she had said the same thing two minutes ago. She tried again, and again reacted with a sudden shock of recognition, grief, and the exact same words.

Since the meeting had drawn to a close, the other seniors moved away, heading for the cafeteria or their rooms. They moved quietly, as if in church, glancing over their shoulders in awe at Betsy workers who had come to rearrange the furniture stopped in their tracks and stared. No one had ever seen Betsy in a state resembling lucidity.

Finally, when Betsy seemed tranquil, Janet led her to the elevator to return her to her room. To her amazement Betsy began singing the hymn from memory. The words came in breathy, chopped phrases, and she could barely carry the tune, but anyone could recognize the hymn.

On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross

The emblem of suff'ring and shame.

New tears fell, but this time Betsy kept going, still from memory, gaining strength as she sang.

And I love that old cross where the dearest and best

For a world of lost sinners was slain.

So I'll cherish the old rugged cross,

Till my trophies at last I lay down;

I will cling to the old rugged cross,

And exchange it some day for a crown.

Somewhere in that tattered mind, damaged neurons had tapped into a network of old connections to resurrect a pattern of meaning for Betsy In her confusion, two things only stood out: suffering and shame. Those two words summarize the human condition, the condition she lives in every day of her sad life. Who knows more suffering and shame than Betsy? For her, the hymn answered that question: Jesus does.

The hymn ends, and the Christian story ends, with the promise that redemption will one day be complete, that God will vindicate himself with a burst of re-creative power, that personal knowledge of God will be as certain as the most intimate relationships we know on earth. "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."

The Christian story ends with the promise that Betsy will one day get a new mindů"

Yancey, Philip. Reaching for the Invisble God. Grand Rapids, Zondervan Publishing House, 2000, p. 286-288. Http://www.zondervan.com

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