Never retaliate when someone treats you wrongly, nor insult those who insult you, but instead, respond by speaking a blessing over them—because a blessing is what God promised to give you. 1 Peter 3:9 (TPT)
In over 50 years of this life journey, I have enjoyed relationships with many friends. Especially among my male friends, I have regularly encountered those individuals with what I will describe as a particular soul wound. They never received a blessing from their father.
In ancient days, a father’s blessing was a cultural ritual. The blessing was the spoken favor of the father given, typically, to his son. The first recorded blessing in the Great Story is God’s blessing to Abram:
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
Genesis 12:1-3 (NIV)
In Genesis 49, Jacob calls all of his sons and speaks to each one of them “the blessing appropriate for him.” It was a rite of passage, often spoken before death in those days.
Along my journey, I’ve come to realize that our culture has largely forgotten the importance of children receiving a blessing from their parents. I have come to believe that it’s important for a child to hear a blessing from both parents. I have observed, however, that a son receiving a blessing from his father has a major spiritual and emotional impact on a man’s life. I have known men who received nothing but curses from their fathers, and I have known men who received nothing but silence from their fathers. The soul wound is often hidden behind a male ego and masculine bravado, but I’ve seen how it can cut deep and create all sorts of spiritual, emotional, and relational handicaps.
Speaking a blessing doesn’t have to be a formal ritual, though it certainly can be a very meaningful rite of passage when it’s done that way. The most simple blessings are simply words of love and affirmation:
“I love you.”
“You’ve got this. I believe in you.”
“You’re going to be okay. I know it.”
“I’m proud of you.”
“That was great. Well done.”
“You are loveable, valuable, and capable.”
“I have no doubt that you will succeed at whatever you’re led to do in this life.”
In today’s chapter, it struck me that Peter instructed believers to specifically speak a blessing over those who wrong you. I find myself wondering if we even know how to do that anymore, even with those we love, let alone doing it with our enemies. Given what I see on social media, cursing appears to be de rigueur.
In the quiet this morning, I’m discovering my renewed desire to bring blessings back. There’s a reason why I speak a blessing at the end of my podcast. I would love for blessings to become fashionable again, but I suppose that means I’ve got to start being more intentional about it. So, here you go, my friend. Receive an old Celtic blessing from this wayfaring stranger (I spoke it as I posted it):
May the blessings of the Light be upon you, Light without and Light within, And in all your comings and goings, May you ever have a kindly greeting From those you meet along the road.
Earlier this sumer my dad found himself in the hospital for five days after suffering what was eventually diagnosed as a (thankfully) minor stroke. Being in the hospital meant that I had the honor of spending five days and four nights with my mother, who is in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. It was the most uninterrupted time I’ve spent alone with my mother since childhood. I found it a fascinating opportunity to observe her life at this point in her journey through dementia, and to interact with her in her daily realities.
Let me begin by confessing that I am no expert in Alzheimers. Our daughter, Taylor, has had far more experience with, and education in, the tragic disease. I am, however, deeply versed in life with my mother. I began noticing the changes long before her diagnosis. Conversations with her, which have always been pleasant, meandering journeys slowly became stilted and repetitious. I began to realize that there were certain subjects that she clung to like a child hanging safely on to homebase in a neighborhood game. In retrospect, I wish I had forced the issue with her and our family long before it all came to light, as we learned that medications can successfully slow the disease’s progression. C’est la vie.
I also know that Alzheimer’s and Dementia experiences can vary widely depending the patient and his or her own unique circumstances. I am in no way implying that my observations are somehow applicable to every person who suffers from these terrible diseases. For what it is worth, I am merely recording some of the observations and lessons that came from my personal time with my own mother in her current stage of this tragic disease.
First, a few general observations about my mother’s current waypoint in the descent to the cognitive darkness of Alzheimer’s. She has yet to forget any of our family members, though the names and faces of life-long friends have begun to escape her. When talking to me, she now refers to my father as “my husband” as though her relationship with him and her relationship with me have been separated from the mental compartment of “family” into separately labled relationship compartments in her brain. Nevertheless, I am still able to enjoy her recognizing me when she sees me. She has yet to fail in greeting me with the pet name she’s had for me since childhood (“Hello, Tommy Jameses“) and extending her arms for an embrace.
I have heard it said that those with ALZ can sometimes become more childlike, and many become bitter, angry and even violent. Mom has occasionally had momentary flashes of uncharacteristic anger, though more often I’ve experienced that she now lets fly with a blunt honesty about people and things that she’s never exhibited before. To be honest, I tend to find it refreshing. I am thankful that she has mostly exhibited a sweet, childlike humor I’d never seen in her before.
Watching mom now often feels like peering into the little girl she must have been. She is playful and joyous in an almost exhibitionistic way. The woman who who raised me and my siblings was sweet and fun-loving, but she carefully guarded herself, her looks, her words, and her actions. For most of my childhood she wore a partial set of dentures. I can remember her never wanting anyone, even her children, seeing her without her partial in her mouth. The mom I spent five days with this summer could not only care less, but I expect she’d be happy to pull out her dentures and make a funny face to make me laugh. My mother has always been apropriately reserved and “mature” around a camera. Now if I pull out my phone to take a picture she starts hamming it up and making faces. A part of me asks, “Who is this woman who looks like my mother?” Then I realize that I’m probably seeing an entire side of my mother that has always been there. I just never saw it.
I spent my time with mom in quiet observation. Our days together had a certain cadence. We would rise and have breakfast together. We would ready ourselves and drive to the hospital where we sat with dad in his hospital room. Each day I would take mom out for lunch before returning to the hospital to spend the afternoon with dad. In the late afternoon we would return to their apartment at the retirement community, enjoy a bite together, and spend the evening watching television until mom was ready to retire.
I made a conscious effort not to intervene with mom in the time I spent with her. I’ve observed that her flashes of temper often come when she feels as though someone is telling her what to do or treating her like she’s incompetent. It’s much like a child who barks at a nagging parent and exclaims, “I can do it myself!” So, I never told her what to do or tried to control her in any way. I just let her do her thing and quietly paid close attention. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was only occasionally necessary to “suggest” that she might want to see if she’d taken her pills or double-check this-or-that. As long as I kept my voice tone pleasant and helpful, she always responded positively.
I discovered that she had a very specific routine each morning:
Turn on the coffee pot. This is always prepared before bed the night before, another part of her daily ritual.
Sit on the couch and turn on the television. Any morning news channel will do. It seemed to be randomly different each morning.
Drink one cup of coffee while watching television. She doesn’t really watch television or take anything in, but she likes to have it on. I think it allows her the illusion (for others) that she’s doing something while her mind struggles to make sense of her moment. Interestingly, when she watched baseball with me she would regularly comment on things that happened in the moment (e.g. “Boy, hit that ball a long way.”) which is something she didn’t really do with any other kind of program. One night I took her to Buffalo Wild Wings for dinner. Surprisingly, she wanted to sit at the bar. She actually found all the television screens interesting. There was so much to look at and steal her attention.
Set the table for breakfast. This included placemats, spoons, and plates. The east and south sides of the table were where the settings went. This seemed important. If I was working on my laptop where the placemat was supposed to be set then I could tell this threw her off a wee bit, but didn’t rattle her.
Eat one yogurt with her second cup of coffee at the table. In the evening her meal was a Boost protein drink and another yogurt.
Wash her cup and spoon along with the coffee maker.
Go into the master bedroom/bathroom to get ready. Putting on make-up and “fixing herself” in front of the mirror is one of the things she gets lost in. One morning I finally had to “suggest” that we get going to the hospital in order to get her out of being lost in her endless loop of putting on and fixing her make-up.
I was pleased to observe that there were things that her routine helped her to remember and how much she still did without me prompting her. I watched her, at times, silently straining her mind to organize her world even if she quickly got lost in the process. If dad’s doctor started to give instructions she would get out a pen and note pad. She knew that she was supposed to do that. She might even pretend to pay attention and write “Dean’s Instructions” at the top of the page. Nothing else would be written as she would then get lost in another moment.
Much of my time spent with mom was me experimenting with, and even catering to, this playful, child-like spirit that has emerged in her as the Alzheimer’s has progressed.
Take chocolate malts for example. Mom’s appetite at this point is almost non-existent. A year-or-so ago her doctor said that she was, medically, at the point of starvation. Her weight was just under 90 lbs. Props to my dad and sister who have worked tirelessly to get her to eat. She’s gained weight and has been doing much better. Nevertheless, she is never hungry and will, like a child, refuse to eat almost anything you put in front of her. The one exception is chocolate malts.
Mom has developed an insatiable appetite for chocolate malts. When I asked her, “What sounds good to you?” it was the only answer she ever gave and she gave it every time. And, if I got her one she would actually eat the whole thing. So, I joyfully indulged her appetite. I mean, the woman’s almost starving and, in the near future, she’s going to forget the joy of tasting anything! Good nutrition, be damned! I decided that I would buy her chocolate malts as often as she’ll eat them. I soon learned that three chocolate malts a day was perfect.
Three times a day I would ask her “How about a chocolate malt?”
Every time I asked she’d look at me wide-eyed like a little little girl and responded, excitedly, “Oh, that sounds good!”
I started going to different places (DQ, Culvers, Bauders, Smokey Row, etc.) to see if she liked certain chocolate malts better than others. Smokey Row was clearly the winner, so that became our usual stop. It was during our thrice daily chocolate malt runs that I had another epiphany.
Mom’s ALZ has a certain repetition to it, but there’s also a routine to the repetition. Driving down I-235 always brought about the observation “I wouldn’t want to live in any of these houses along here.” Driving through the neighborhood around the hospital always brought out the comment, “I just love these big, old houses.” Pulling into a restaurant’s parking lot always brought out the comment, “Oh, I haven’t been to this place in a long time!” This statement was made the first time we pulled into the drive-through at Smokey Row even though I knew my mother had never been there before. And, it came out again four hours later when we returned for the chocolate malt she loved so well.
Two, make that three, observations sitting in the drive-through with mom at Smokey Row.
First, we often wax poetic in our culture about living in the moment:
“Forget the past.”
“Tomorrow is never promised.”
“Enjoy the moment.”
But, I find that we rarely do any of these things. We allow ourselves to be haunted by the past or refuse to deal with resentments, injuries, and relational baggage. We worry incessantly about tomorrow. We crank through our days with little or no introspection, observation, or enjoyment.
For my mother, the present moment is her only constant reality. The past is a fog. The future is cognitively unreachable. There is only this moment. Certain stimuli bring out the same reaction time and time again. I can’t will my mother to remember. I can’t correct her brainwaves to help her conceive of the future. I can only be her companion right now, in this very moment. My brain is the one that functions “normally.” When my mother’s “moment” repeats itself in intervals of five minutes or five hours I am the one who must compassionately choose to forget the last time it happened, let go of the annoyance I feel in the knowledge it will happen again (and again, and again, and again…), and simply be fully present with her in this moment.
There is also, I realized, compassion to be had for my father who is my mother’s constant companion on this journey. That was my second take-away from the moment.
I believe that my father’s Dutch sensibility long-ago convinced him that there is a black-and-white, right-and-wrong aspect to everything in life. Add to this a touch of perfectionism and he’s always been a bit OCD, and vocal, about the correct way to approach everything. My dad was a great accountant. The books always balanced perfectly. He was also a master craftsman with anything he built or made by hand.
Of course, living with a person who forgets almost everything means you’re living with a person who gets almost everything wrong. My father’s compulsion for everything to be right means that whatever is wrong must be corrected just like an incorrect number on the spreadsheet. Alas, correcting a person with ALZ is a fruitless, even counter-productive, exercise. Here I cross-reference the culturally popular definition of crazy: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. You can correct my mother all you want, she’s going to make the same mistake when she repeats herself in five minutes. I’ve watched my dad struggle to adapt to these difficult new realities. He’s done remarkably well, considering.
Once again, I found child-like-ness to be a good vehicle to understand that I needed to surrender any compulsion I felt to correct my mother. Life for her, much like a child, is a never-ending game of pretend. Sometimes she doesn’t remember and I watch her make up an answer just like our daughters did when they were toddlers and you asked them a question that was just beyond their comprehension. Sometimes her brain is permanently confused about a fact or a memory, and nothing is going to change that.
Because she can’t remember the past, however, I began to notice that each moment can be a bit of an adventure, a new revelation, and an exploration. When I decided to play pretend with her and to even encourage it, I suddenly found it easier to give up any need I felt for anything she did or said to be right. It’s not about right or wrong. It’s a game, and I am simply playing along. And, I sometimes found it to actually be fun.
Which brings me to my third observation sitting in the Smokey Row drive-through. During our first visit that day I noticed a cemetery across the street. Mom was, as usual, staring out the passenger window trying to make sense of her moment.
“Look at that cemetery over there,” I said.
“Yeah,” she answered as she looked to where I pointed.
“They say people are just dying to get in there,” I dead-panned.
She laughed, and laughed, and laughed. “Oh, Tommy Jameses, you’re so funny!” she giggled.
When we returned a few hours later for her third chocolate malt of the day she experienced her routine “I haven’t been here for a long time” moment. It was then that I realized: If she forgot that she’d been there a few hours ago, then she also forgot my joke. So, like a stand-up comedian working a different audience at a different club on a different night, I used my cemetery joke again just as I had before. She thought it was hilarious again! She thought it was hilarious every time I used it (and, I used it a lot).
Yes, the repetition of my mother’s dementia can be really, really annoying, but it also affords me the opportunity of repeatedly giving her a laugh or a happy moment over and over again with minimal effort. As the old saying goes, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
As I began to embrace the fun of playing with my mom in her moments, I had other discoveries. I’d read that the Church of England has started to conduct services in which they’ve consciously returned to the hymns and liturgy of 60-80 years ago. They did this because church members with dementia remember and connect with the hymns and ritual in the compartments of long-term memory they could still access. This gave me an idea.
I know some of my mother’s favorite songs from her childhood. She used to tell me stories about playing the song Sh’ Boom by the Crew Cuts so many times that her father yelled at her. So, as we left the apartment to head to the hospital I pulled up Spotify and played Sh’ Boom. My mother came to life. She knew almost every word to the song and began dancing in her seat. I then queued up Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Doris Day. We sang together and danced in our seats together all the way to the hospital.
Then, we did it again the next day and the day after that. The moment was new to her every morning, and I had the joy of singing and dancing and sharing a special moment with my mother each time. I realized that these moments are all I have left with her in this life. Alzheimer’s will eventually steal them, too.
My father and my sister are my mother’s constant care-givers. I recognize that my time with mom is grossly minimal in comparison, and I honor their love and perseverance.
“Thank you for helping take care of me,” my mom, nevertheless, said repeatedly to me in the days I spent with her.
Each time she said it I repeated the same answer. “Are you kidding me? Mom, you gave me life. You and dad have given me so much over the years. Helping you out right now doesn’t even compare. I am so deep in your debt.”
Repeating that answer was somehow therapeutic for me, as was the realization that doing so brought to mind. I’d learned some important life lessons in those five days that I will always carry with me. I also enjoyed some precious moments of laughter and joy with my mother that I will always cherish. Even with Alzheimer’s, she was still giving.
For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near.I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 2 Timothy 4:6-7 (NIV)
He knew he was going to die. I don’t know how he knew. He had been struggling with his health for some time. Nevertheless, he knew. He heard fate knocking like the opening measure of Beethoven’s fifth. He asked his caregivers to call me, and I went to his bedside. He was restless, agitated, and there was fear in his eyes.
I had pleasant conversations with him and his wife before. They were very sweet people who lived in a little house on top of a hill with a gorgeous view. They were both humble individuals with gentle spirits. He loved to tell stories. They had no desire to talk about spiritual matters. So, we didn’t. I visited and we swapped stories. We talked about many other things and enjoyed the view together. It really was spectacular.
Now, things were different. He needed to get some things out. He needed to take care of some matters of Spirit. He’d always avoided this conversation so he had no idea how to have it. I took his hand and began to ask him questions. He wept. He talked. I listened. I gently asked more questions. At his request, I helped him pray. I believe it may well have been his first and only time.
When I left he was quiet and resting peacefully. He died a few hours later.
It was what many people call a “deathbed confession.” My experience is that when that phrase is used in conversation it has typically been uttered cynically or sarcastically as if a dying person is trying to rig the system. I liken it to taking on the mantel of the prodigal’s older brother who gets pissed that little brother squandered his life and partied like it’s 1999, and then dad just welcomes him home with feasting and homecoming gifts. Where’s the justice in that? Perhaps I should have told the man, “Too bad, old man. You had your chances and now it’s too late. Good luck. You might want to take a fan with you.”
Everyone has their own journey. Everyone has their own story. Who’s to say that his story wasn’t a great story? Who am I to judge? The fear in his eyes was genuine. The words, the tears, and the prayer were humble and sincere. I am honored to have played a bit part in his final chapter.
Speaking of chapters, today’s is the last surviving words that Paul wrote. He, too, hears fate knocking. His story is very different. He welcomes the journey’s end. He looks forward to what lies beyond. His earthly journey is a sojourn. He is the prodigal heading home and looking forward to being welcomed.
In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about life and death and resurrection. I’ve recently been walking with a friend whose father has heard the fateful knocking and, along with his family, is making preparations. It’s a strange time when it comes – however it comes.
Everyone has their own stories in both life and death. Paul’s journey had prepared him in mind and spirit for the journey’s end. My friend, who asked his caregivers to call me, had never allowed himself to think much about it. I certainly identify with Paul as we share a common faith and a common hope. I find myself saying a quiet prayer for those who, like my friend who made his deathbed confession, have not thought much about it – and have no one to call.
I had the lunch earlier this week with a young father. He and his wife have a two-year-old daughter. Over lunch we talked about some of the life lessons I’ve learned as a father. Chief among them is that, as followers of Jesus, we believe that “we are not our own but have been bought with a price.” In the same way I believe our children are not ours. They are a gift of God that we are called upon to steward in order that each child might follow God on their own respective journeys. The hard lesson is accepting that my child’s path may not look like the path I would choose for her.
In that vein, I often found myself sharing sage advice and wise counsel with my children. In many cases, the wisdom was born out of my own tragic mistakes and important life lessons. And, quite often, they paid no heed.
Welcome to parenting.
In today’s chapter the Chronicler shares the story of Mannasseh, the son of good King Hezekiah. We don’t know all of the circumstances of the relationship between father and son, but we do know from doing the math that Mannaseh was born when Hezekiah was in his early forties. Hezekiah had a great track record for following God and doing things by the Book. There was even that improbable deliverance from the evil Assyrians we read about yesterday. Talk about a great example to follow.
But, Mannaseh paid no heed to his father, to his father’s legacy, or to his father’s God. The Chronicler says that God spoke to Mannaseh and to the people, but he paid no heed.
Another lesson I’ve learned in parenting is that we often expect our children to behave differently than we, ourselves, behaved in childhood. It’s the “do as I say not as I did when I was your age (not that you’ll ever find out about that if I can help it)” principle. But I was like that. I had my own experiences with paying no heed to my parents, my grandparents and God. It’s part of my journey and a big part of those life lessons that led to wisdom.
This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about myself, not as a father but as the child of God that I still am. I can’t forget that Jesus said becoming like children is required if we want to be part of the Kingdom. Are there places, even now, in which Father God is speaking, whispering sage advice into my spirit, offering me wisdom from His Message…
To Timothy, my dear son: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. 2 Timothy 1:2 (NIV)
Last night I had the privilege to speak to a packed room of high school students. They’ve been working their way through a book called God Distorted by John Bishop, and the premise of the book is that we often take the heartache and shortcomings we’ve experienced with our own fathers and project them onto God the Father. The book explores different father types (e.g. absent, passive, controlling, and etc.) and last night I got to unpack the ways in which demanding fathers affect their children and the reality that God is not a demanding Father.
Along life’s road I’ve come to accept the reality that all earthly fathers, myself included without question, fall short of perfection. As my friend Chadwicke shared a week or so ago, “you can’t give away what you haven’t received.” Some fathers certainly do a better job than others, and all who are given the mantel of fatherhood have a responsibility to our children to diligently work at being a good dad. Nevertheless, we all fall short in some areas. It just is what it is. At some point every father must depend on the grace of his children to forgive his shortcomings.
Timothy’s father is absent from mention in God’s message. History does not share with us the reason why, but whether through death or circumstance Timothy seemed to have a gaping hole in his life when it came to the father department. Timothy was raised by his mother and grandmother. Enter Paul, who becomes a mentor and father figure to the young man. In today’s chapter, Paul begins his letter by addressing Timothy as his “dear son.” Sometimes fathers (and/or mothers) have nothing to do with DNA.
This morning I am thinking about the room full of high school students last night. I’m thinking about Paul’s mentoring of Timothy. I’m thinking about my ever-present dad and the ways my life was launched by his love and provision. I’m thinking about the men and mentors who were, nevertheless, like a father to me in so many ways. I’m thinking about my responsibility to mentor others, to stand in the gap, and to provide a father-like presence for those with a gaping chasm in the dad department.
And of Joseph he said: Blessed by the Lord be his land, with the choice gifts of heaven above, and of the deep that lies beneath; Deuteronomy 33:13 (NRSV)
Along my life journey I have received words of incredible encouragement from family, teachers, and mentors:
“You will do well in whatever you do.”
“Whatever you do, I know you’ll succeed.”
“You’ll do great. I know you will.“
Those words are examples of what the ancients called a blessing. Most commonly given from father to son, king to subject, leader to follower, a blessing is a word of affirmation spoken to bless and encourage. Some blessings can be prophetic nature while others simply to strengthen and comfort the recipient.
In today’s chapter we find Moses approaching then end of the road. He is in the home stretch of his life journey, and the finish line is straight ahead. He gathers his people together and, tribe-by-tribe, he speaks over them a blessing. The blessing for each tribe is unique, and the themes include life, safety, strength, acceptance, abundance, provision, affluence, favor, possession, and etc.
Today, I’m thinking about my children, and others who live within the circles of my influence. I’m thinking about the opportunity I have to speak words of blessing into them. Conversely, I’m thinking about the curse of staying silent and not blessing those who I have the opportunity to encourage. I need not wait until the end of my life journey to speak a blessing over others. In fact, what a shame it would be for me to do so.
If a man has two wives, and he loves one but not the other, and both bear him sons but the firstborn is the son of the wife he does not love,when he wills his property to his sons, he must not give the rights of the firstborn to the son of the wife he loves in preference to his actual firstborn, the son of the wife he does not love.He must acknowledge the son of his unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double share of all he has. That son is the first sign of his father’s strength. The right of the firstborn belongs to him. Deuteronomy 21:15-17 (NIV)
This morning’s chapter was one of those chapters that require a bit of effort to embrace. Reading various laws concerning a middle-eastern culture thousands of years old doesn’t seem to have immediate relevance to this 21st century, midwestern, American life. And yet, when I step back and look at the underlying principles of the laws, there are definitely some take aways common to the human experience.
Take the verses I pasted above. A guy has two wives and a son with each of them. He loves one wife but not the other. The law said not to play favorites with the sons based on your feelings about their mothers. On the first reading I’m thinking “I don’t live in a polygamous culture. I can’t relate to that.”
Then I start thinking, not about polygamy but divorce and remarriage. I think about the simple act of favoritism within families. I think about children who’ve watched their divorced and remarried parent shower new step siblings with love and affection while they feel unwanted. I think about grandparents who do things for the grandchildren of one son but not for the grandchildren of the other. I think about how messy parent and child relationships can get.
Yes. Yes, this is relevant to me.
Today, I’m thankful for two amazing daughters and the different, but no less priceless, relationships I have with each. I have tried very hard over the past two and a half decades to live out the idea that favoritism is not avoided by restricting relationship to the rigid borders of absolute relational equity. Rather, favoritism is avoided by choosing into unbridled, expressed love and support for the unique child of God each daughter is becoming communicated through the unique relationship and relational paradigms I have with each of them.