Trusting in God's New "Living House"

So here we are, coming to the conclusion of Advent with only one more candle to light and seven days till Christmas. Advent is countercultural. I’ve always treasured its invitation to stillness, quiet, and reflection during the pre-holiday madness.

It’s strange not being a cathedral dean or parish priest during this season. I miss the traditions of Advent: the great hymns and antiphons, the Sarum blue vestments, the Bible stories and characters of the season, the wreath with its four candles, St. Paul’s Christmas toy shop, Trinity’s Messiah Sing, and, yes, all the preparations for welcoming strangers and friends to church on Christmas. It makes me realize just how much the liturgical calendar, the rhythm of the church year, and the discipline of preaching and leading worship ordered my life.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to preach and teach this Advent at The Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City (Long Island), New York, and Christ Church Cathedral in Houston, Texas. While these two churches differ in liturgy, architecture, and demographics, they share a similar cathedral ethos in worship, witness, hospitality, and service. And when you walk through their doors, you know that you’re in an Episcopal Church, so it feels like home.

Preaching on the second and third Sundays of Advent, I had the privilege of engaging one of my favorite characters in scripture—John the Baptist—a character that I think speaks to us all, regardless of religious identity. What follows is a synopsis of these two sermons.

For me, Advent is best described by Alfred Delp, a 20th century German priest executed by the Nazis for his participation in the Resistance movement. From prison, he wrote, “Advent is a message that shakes us up so that we will come to know who we are and to whom we belong.”

He continued: “There is perhaps nothing we modern people need more than to be genuinely shaken up. Where life is firm, we need to sense its firmness; and where it is unstable and uncertain and has no basis, no foundation, we need to know this too and endure it.”

I came to a deeper appreciation of this Advent message when I heard the doctor say, “Tracey, you have dementia, probably Frontotemporal Degeneration.” I was shaken to my very core, as my life had suddenly become unstable and my future uncertain.

It felt as if John the Baptist had walked into that doctor’s office, ripped apart the fabric of my life, and confronted the essence of my identity. For years, I’d preached that if Jesus was a carpenter, then his cousin John was a demolition contractor. If Jesus was the bearer of a new day, then John was the wake-up call. I’m here to tell you that Jesus is the way (but not the only way) to new life, and his forerunner John is the great interrupter of our old lives.

Meeting John is like waking up to a cold shower or an assaulting alarm clock. It’s like having your mother scrub your skin raw after an evening of playing hide-and-go-seek in poison ivy. It’s what happens when you encounter real poverty for the first time, and you realize how much stuff you have. It’s how you feel when you finally get in touch with your own prejudice and bias—you know, all those “isms.” It’s when you’ve got it all together, and someone else—a child, parent, friend, or neighbor in trouble—turns your life upside down. John’s baptism is hearing the doctor tell you that you have an incurable and untreatable disease and that it’s probably time to step down from your job and get your affairs in order.

John’s baptism of awakening often leads to frightening places where we realize that we are not immortal, invincible, or God-only wise. Instead, we come to an understanding that we are mortal with fragile and often foolish lives.

Repentance is the turn-around that follows the crash; it’s the rebuilding that follows the demolition, the construction that follows the destruction. Repentance is a change of course, a matter of being grasped by God—picked up and put down—so that everything looks and feels different, a little like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.

Singer-songwriter Carole Etzler wrote, “Sometimes, I wish my eyes hadn’t opened, but now that I’ve seen with my eyes, I can’t close them.” Repentance is seeing your life or somebody else’s with new eyes, then letting go of old patterns, behaviors, attitudes, and perspectives and beginning to create new ones.

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Two years into our pilgrimage with dementia, Emily and I now find ourselves dwelling in C.S. Lewis’ metaphor of the “living house” as we try to construct a rich and full life. In his seminal work, Mere Christianity, Lewis writes:

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what [God] is doing. [God] is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently [God] starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is [God] up to? The explanation is that [God] is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage; but [God] is building a palace. [God] intends to come and live in it.

As some of you have heard, we are trading our dream house overlooking the lake for an old house in a quiet neighborhood where we intend to live out this next chapter of life.

Our plan was to create a first-floor master bedroom and bath and a front porch to watch the world go by. But now, in order to build our little addition, contractors are getting ready to knock our house about in ways that we had not imagined. As the old Yiddish proverb says, “We make plans. God laughs.”

That’s how it is with repentance. We offer up our lives to God, with all of its brokenness and all of its mess, and God responds (probably with a smile on her face), “I forgive and I love you. Now, get on with making amends and living anew.”

The remarkable thing about repentance is that we get to do it over and over again. Life is full of turning points, both large and small. If we miss a turn, or if we start to back track, the opportunity for repentance will present itself again and again. I guess God realizes that we never quite get it.

When the demolition is complete and the dust settles, when the storm has passed and the waters recede, when the illness is over and you start to feel like you might live, when the old pattern is really gone and you’re looking at a blank palette—then, and only then, can that re-construction begin in earnest; then, and only then, can new life and new patterns appear. But it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, and we just have to be patient and wait.

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Friends, when life feels insecure, uncertain and unstable—when all seems to be on the brink of falling apart—trust and believe that God is rebuilding your “living house” and that instead of being made into a decent little cottage, God is constructing a palace—better than anything you ever dreamed or imagined is possible—in which the Holy One intends to dwell.

Pilgrimage or Death Sentence by Liisa Ogburn

Originally published as part of the Aging Well column, WRAL.com

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It was when she didn’t recognize her face in the bathroom mirror that Tracey Lind knew she could no longer ignore the troubling signs.

She was 62, Dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland for seventeen years and at the top of her career when she was diagnosed with frontal temporal dementia. Frontotemporal dementia (FTD), according to the University of California at San Francisco medical website a “group of related conditions resulting from the progressive degeneration of the temporal and frontal lobes of the brain. These areas of the brain play a significant role in decision-making, behavioral control, emotion and language.”

Several weeks ago, I heard Tracey and her partner, Emily Ingalls, speak at Christ Church in downtown Raleigh almost two years exactly after Tracey was first diagnosed.

“When I got the diagnosis,” Lind said, “the neurologist told me I needed to get my affairs together, quit work and accept reality. We had just built our dream house and we suddenly needed to put it on the market.”

Emily said, “I had dreamed of us walking down the street to visit neighbors after she retired. I had not dreamed of this.”

Tracey stepped down from her job. They read everything they could about FTD. They sold their dream home to move closer to family. They did a hard look at their finances and what their health care needs might cost. The picture wasn’t pretty.

In grief and somewhat on a whim, they bought two cheap tickets for a cabin on a cargo ship hauling goods across the Atlantic. The ride to Europe would take 14 days.

“Somewhere along the route,” Tracey mused aloud, “I understood that I could see this next phase as a death sentence or a pilgrimage.”

Our human tendency is to do the latter—but for whatever reason, Tracey—near the end of cross-Atlantic journey, made up her mind to do the former. “I’ve watched so many people be ashamed or try to hide their dementia. I wanted to start teaching about it from the inside out.”

Emily said it wasn’t that cut and dried for her. When she told her side of the story—which makes their presentation all the more powerful—she openly shared that that first year she felt stuck in loss and anger. All the caregivers in the audience gave Emily special credit, understanding that in addition to her presentation, she was the one behind the scenes setting up the talks across the country, making the travel plans, packing the bags, managing the budget, and preparing Tracey on days when she felt her old self and on days when she did not.

Emily said, over time, she began to pray, “Please help me walk this path with the grace and skills I didn’t know I would ever have.”

In the last two years, they have told their story to thousands of people in cities around the world.

It is a story that any of us could benefit from. Who doesn't carry an unbearable load at some moment in life?

I don't know that I would have the fortitude to do what Tracey is doing; what I do know, though, is when I can step back from the challenge at hand and look at it with curiosity instead of panic and dread, there's a little room for something else to happen.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Liisa Ogburn is the founder of Aging Advisors NC and a twice weekly columnist for the Aging Well series on WRAL.com.

A prayer for courage this holiday season

Today is December 2, the first Sunday in Advent and the first night of Chanukah. It really does seem that time is flying by like the migrating birds outside my window.

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It has been said that time seems to accelerate as one gets older. According to researchers, it has something to do with perception and relativity. I’m experiencing it, but I can’t comprehend it.

There are a lot of things that I can’t comprehend these days: how migrating birds can figure out where they’re going; how the brain works; how some people can be so cruel, and others so kind; and how come I always lose one piece of every puzzle.

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Maybe I don’t have to comprehend it all. Maybe I can just receive the mysteries of life with gratitude and grace.

On Friday, I spoke at the City Club of Cleveland. This venerable forum of public speech was filled with friends, colleagues, parishioners, neighbors, and strangers; and many more were listening on the radio or watching through the live stream. I spoke about dementia from the inside out, sharing my story and the life lessons I’ve learned over the past two years. It was a strange homecoming.

People tell me that I’m transparent, vulnerable, and courageous for publicly acknowledging and talking about my dementia.

I’m being transparent and vulnerable because I feel called to share this journey with others in an effort to demystify and destigmatize it - to demonstrate that there can be a rich and full life post-diagnosis. I believe that preachers are called to live our lives out loud, making sense of them through the sacred text, and in doing so, helping others to make sense of their lives.

But courage? I don’t get it. I don’t comprehend the risk of speaking about my dementia. I really don’t have anything to lose. I voluntarily stepped down from my job, and I’m not going to lose Emily or my family. If I lose any friends because of my dementia, then they weren’t really friends. And most importantly, speaking this truth won’t advance my dementia, at least I hope not. In fact, I think its good for my brain.

I’m fortunate. I know people living with early onset dementia who lost their jobs before they were able to retire or get disability. I know people whose spouses, families and friends abandoned them in their time of need. So yes, I’m one of the lucky ones.

But there’s more to it. When I go to the essence of that word “courage,” what people are saying to me begins to make sense. The root of the word “courage” is “cor,” which in Latin means “heart.” So to be courageous is to speak the truth from one’s heart. That is what I am doing. That is what Emily is doing. We’re speaking about dementia from the inside out - straight from the heart. So maybe we’re both courageous.

What would the world would be like if we all were courageous and spoke from the heart? I think it would be a beautiful place - the realm of God on earth.

So as I light my Chanukah and Advent candles this year, I’m going to start praying for everyone to be courageous and to speak truth from their hearts. God knows, that’s what the world needs now. - Tracey

If you want to listen to my City Club Forum, you can find the link here.