For two years, I’ve intentionally read scripture through the eyes of dementia. It’s an interesting perspective.
A couple of weeks ago, as I was preparing to preach at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Louisville, Kentucky, the gospel reading appointed for the day (John 11:32-44) spoke powerfully to my heart and circumstances, so much so that I wanted to shout, “God, you’re talking to me.”
It’s the story of Jesus calling his dead friend Lazarus to “come out of the grave.” I have been Lazarus, and Jesus called me out from the grave — at least twice.
As you most of you know, two years ago, I was diagnosed with early stage dementia, which caused me to take early retirement. After I finished my work at Trinity Cathedral, we needed to get out of town for a while. My dear friend Lucinda Laird invited us to come to Paris for Easter. We traveled by way of a transatlantic, repositioning cruise.
For nearly 4,000 nautical miles, I tried to come to terms with it all. By the end of the crossing, I found myself repositioned. I was ready to face this new chapter, which I thought would result in a slow but steady decline and an early death.
On Easter morning, in The American Cathedral in Paris, when Bishop Pierre Whalon preached Christ is risen and we rise, with tears in my eyes, I found myself rising in my front row seat. However, at lunch, when the Bishop asked what I wanted to do with this chapter of my ministry, I thought: What ministry? I’m getting ready to die.
Both Lucinda and Pierre weren’t willing to accept that answer, and so, they pushed me a bit. After a long silence, I replied that I want to continue to preach and teach. I want to travel, play music, write and take photographs. I also want to explore the spirituality of dementia and help de-stigmatize this dreaded disease by speaking about it from the inside out.
Lucinda, in her exuberant fashion, invited us to visit Paris in the fall and live in the cathedral tower guest apartment (62 steps up). The Bishop suggested we preach and teach about dementia during a tour around The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. How could we refuse such a generous offering?
For months, I prayed for help, and on Easter morning, I received it. God wasn’t finished with me, but instead met me in my sadness, fear, anger, grief and despair, guiding me as I adapted to this new reality, searched for a new sense of purpose, and discovered a new chapter of ministry.
Over the summer, I tried to figure what I might have to say about the spirituality of dementia. A friend suggested I read the scriptures through the lens of dementia, and I would know what to say. It was good advice.
At first, I was a woman on an urgent mission. After all, time was running out. But then, I had a dream. My old friend, Damon Miller, now an integrative doctor in California, visited me in the night and told me he had something important to say to me. I awoke and sent an email, telling him about the dream and suggesting that we might meet on an upcoming trip to California.
We had breakfast on Ash Wednesday (of all days). Damon suggested that while I had dementia, I might be able to slow, and perhaps even reverse, its progression. He explained there is new research about how modifications in stress management, diet, sleep, exercise, mindfulness practices (like meditation and yoga), chemical detox and supplements can make a huge difference. He suggested I return for a week of work with him, and in the meantime, I should give up gluten. Wow! That was a lot to ask, but it was the first day of Lent, so right then and there, I gave up gluten as a Lenten discipline and have not eaten it since.
Emily and I returned to California on Palm Sunday, and I spent Holy Week working with this incredible doctor. We went to Easter services at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. And once again, sitting in the front row (one of the benefits of being a retired cathedral dean), on what coincidentally happened to be April Fools Day, I heard the voice of God say: “Tracey, you don’t have to die; you can live with dementia as a chronic condition.” Once again, with tears in my eyes, I accepted the invitation to come out of the grave.
Twice on Easter, I’ve been called to new life. And twice, I’ve had to figure out how to respond to God’s generous invitation.
So I ask you: How has God called you out of the grave? How did you respond? And what grave might God be calling you out of today?