Excerpts from a sermon preached on Oct. 7
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Cape Elizabeth, ME
In ancient times, children were the lowest of the low, servants of the servants, and the very last members of society. Like too many children in today’s world, they had no rights, and for many, there was no such thing as an easy childhood. And yet children — both then and now — can be our most poignant and powerful teachers.
Do you remember the 1990s movie “Regarding Henry” starring Harrison Ford? It’s about a New York lawyer who gets shot in the head, bringing his career to a screeching halt and leaving him with both brain damage and the spirit of a child. That’s how I feel most days.
I’m in this aging, adult body, with a brain that is damaged and a spirit that is becoming younger. As a result of dementia, I’m seeing life through the eyes of a child.
I now ride my bike with new enthusiasm, sometimes pretending like I’m on a horse. I explore tidal basins and look at art with the curiosity of a kid. I laugh at silly bathroom jokes; I cry at the drop of dime; I sometimes want my teddy bear; and there are moments when I reach for Emily’s hand or she takes mine, not like a lover, but like a child with her parent.
However, as Jesus once said, "Truly I tell you, unless you become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Sure there are challenges; but honestly, at this stage of my disease, I’m experiencing my relationship with God and the world around me in some new and wonderful ways. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if dementia has provided me with a shortcut to the kingdom of God.
I have always been grateful for the presence of children in my life. They have been my teachers, my friends, my playmates, and sometimes my soul mates. They are now becoming my guides as I navigate this new terrain, for as Frederick Buechner once observed, “Children live with their hands more open than their fists clenched...they are so relatively unburdened by preconceptions that if somebody says there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, they are perfectly willing to go take a look for themselves.”
During the early years of my tenure as Dean at Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland, two families from another city in the diocese came to our then relatively new nine o’clock service. One family was Roman Catholic, and they were trying to find a home in the Episcopal Church. I welcomed them to the Cathedral and asked what brought them such a distance. They explained that their daughter had been saying that she wanted to be a priest when she grew up, but she had never seen a woman priest. So they came to see the woman priest and dean of the cathedral in Cleveland. I smiled and introduced myself to this shy girl standing by her parents.
When it came time for communion, I asked my young visitor if she would like to stand with me at the altar. Without hesitation, she responded in the affirmative. And up she came. Then something remarkable happened. As I started to lift my arms to pray, she lifted her arms. When I raised my hands over the bread and wine, she raised her hands. As I celebrated communion, she intensely mimicked every move I made. Another little girl joined her; this one danced around the altar. At the end of the service, both sets of parents told me what an extraordinary gift I had given their children.
After that Sunday, I always invited the children to come up to the altar and help at the nine o’clock service. Then my cathedral clergy colleagues started inviting the children to help them. Within a few months, children at the altar were a custom at Trinity Cathedral, and some kids didn’t even need to be invited. They just came on up. The nine o’clock service was growing, and many people were coming because of the children. Parishioners and visitors alike would comment, “This is remarkable. I feel the intense power of the spirit in the presence of the children at the altar.”
Liturgical dancers, complete with blinking shoes, blessed us. We occasionally had dolls sitting on the altar with their arms and hands held out to bless the bread and wine — what better place for Barbie in her ridiculous fashion or GI Joe in his combat uniform to sit. One young concelebrant even wore a pirate hat to church.
Older siblings lifted younger ones up to reach the altar. Over the years, we had plenty of fingerprints on the altar linens and smudges on the silver but never a complaint from the Altar Guild; frankly, I think that’s a miracle in an Episcopal cathedral. There was usually a little bit of chaos, but always a lot of joy, laughter, tears, and grace at God’s table.
While I don’t know if this liturgical custom will continue in Trinity’s next chapter, I believe that children truly transformed our worship. At the altar on Sunday mornings, the children were the ministers of God’s sacraments. Their hands, eyes, arms, and breath literally blessed the bread and wine and invoked the very presence of Christ in our midst. In their very presence at God’s holy table, they embodied Jesus’ words: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:36–37).
We think that our children don’t pay attention to what is done and said in church. But I know for a fact that they do listen and remember what is proclaimed in both word and deed. I have had parents report to me that their children were playing communion at home with their dolls and stuffed toys. One time, a father called to tell me that his kids had created a new game. It involved going to the kitchen with their wagon and filling it up with canned food. Then they went to the hall closet and put gloves and hats in the wagon. Their parents could not figure out what they were doing. Eventually they asked and were told, “We’re taking food and clothes to the homeless, just like Rev. Tracey told us to do in her sermon.”
Over the years, lots of funny things happened at that service. My favorite kid story of all time is about the little boy who stood on his head during communion one Sunday. I don’t know why he did it, but it was funny. We all laughed, continued with our worship, and thought nothing of it. But that little boy standing on his head at the eucharistic table taught me that the Gospel of Jesus Christ turns the world upside down with humor, passion, justice, and love.
While I would have never, ever wished for dementia, in a strange way, I am profoundly grateful. Dementia has opened up my world in ways beyond my imagination. It has helped me to see the preciousness and uncertainty of life. It has provided Emily and me with a new adventure in togetherness and introduced us to new friends all over the world. It has forced me to slow down and smell the roses. It has humbled me. And, it has called me to what others say might become the most important chapter of my ministry. You see, I’ve decided to view my dementia in a way similar to how the Dalai Lama refers to his exile, as “an opportunity to get closer to life.”
In getting dementia, I received for the second time around the gift of childhood, and with it, the freedom to laugh when I’m taking myself too seriously, to say “Amen” like I mean it, to cry when I hurt, to frown when I’m sad, and to smile when I’m happy, and to sometimes stand on my head in order to see the world from upside down.