Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Book Review: Walking Through Twilight

Walking Through Twilight by Doug Groothuis
A Wife’s Illness—A Philosopher’s Lament by Douglas Groothuis

Four years ago, Doug Groothuis’s wife Becky was diagnosed with a rare form of dementia that begins in the language centers of the brain. Becky Groothuis is in her early sixties and cannot read or write. She has lost most of her ability to speak, too. Sometimes she knows she wants to say something, but can’t find the words to express her thought. Losing language would be devastating for anyone, but as an author, editor, and speaker, Becky’s world was the world of words. Now all of this is gone.

Becky can no longer care for herself, either. She can’t accomplish even simple tasks because she gets confused. She can’t take her dog for a walk without getting lost. She has a hired caregiver, but still, much of the responsibility for her care falls on her husband Doug, who is a philosophy professor at Denver Seminary.

This book is a collection of his reflections on his experience walking through the twilight of a mind and a life—and of his marriage, too. Many of his reflections are expressions of sorrow for what his wife and he have lost. He found permission to lament and a pattern to follow in scripture: “[C]onsider the many psalms of lament, such as 22, 39, 88, and 90, as well as the book of Lamentations.” But it is Ecclesiastes, he writes, “more than any other book of Holy Scripture, [that] has given me the perspective and language of lament necessary for my own sad sojourn . . .. It is a deep well of tough wisdom for the weary and wasted soul.”

Still, even as he cries out in grief, Groothuis knows his time of anguish will not last forever. Most of the biblical laments are ultimately hopeful, and he grieves with hope, too. One day, he knows, everything will be made gloriously right. In the meantime, “God counts our tears before he takes them away . . .. Learning to lament is, then, part of our lot under the sun.” In this world, we will have sorrow. In this world, we will lament. But in the world to come, we will forever rejoice.

Walking Through Twilight is an excellent resource for anyone who is suffering, but especially forthose who are caring for a loved one who is ill and facing death. Doug Groothuis is a Christian philosopher, so his reflections are often philosophical and theological. This is not a weakness, but a strength, because almost everyone who experiences deep trials searches for answers to the troubling philosophical and theological questions that arise from their suffering. And when we are in the midst of tribulation, we long to find meaning in it.

Groothuis grapples with some of the hard questions, like “What do I do when I feel like I hate God?” He admits that he is sometimes very angry with God, but he has come to see that at the heart of his anger toward God is rebellion against him. When we are angry with God because of our circumstances, we are, in effect, saying that if we were God, we would do things differently—and better—than he is. This is, of course, is a ridiculous thought and an idolatrous one. Even though Groothuis understands this, his trust in God “waxes and wanes . . .,” he writes. “When I am outraged at God, I try to think of God in Christ hanging on a cross for me. This sometimes brings me back to theological and psychological sanity if not sanctity. I must work with what I have and seek more as I walk through the ever-darkening twilight.”

Another question he tackles in his reflections is “It is okay to give up—to stop fighting and praying for a cure for a disease?” He finds a piece of his answer in Ecclesiastes: “There is a time to search and a time to give up” (Ecclesiastes 3:6). “To go down fighting an unwinnable war . . . is sheer idiocy—and exhausting,” he writes. There is a time to surrender and accept the inevitable, a time to relinquish our efforts to change our situation and accept the outcome our loving God, who knows what is best, is giving us.

One practical feature of this book is an appendix with suggestions for readers who want to help those who are in the midst of suffering. Groothuis concludes this appendix with an invitation “I am but a babe in this loving skill, suffering well with others,” he writes. “Will you join me in the school of lament? Will you learn to sit on the mourner’s bench before God and with those whom you love?” Reading and learning from Walking Through Twilight is a one way to prepare yourself to suffer with your suffering friends.

Douglas Groothuis is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary in Denver, Colorado, where he heads the Apologetics and Ethics masters degree program. He has written numerous books, including Christian Apologetics and, most recently, Philosophy in Seven Sentences.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

My only comfort in life, in death, and in the face of dementia

For the last several years, my daughter and I have been spending Christmas with family. I'm thankful for these times because it's always a joy to be with the people you love. However, there is a practical aspect as well. My parents are aging, so this is an opportunity for their children to reassess their current situation and consider any help they might need in the days ahead. These discussions aren't easy, though, because any increased care will take away some of their remaining independence. It's also a difficult adjustment as the role of caregiver has shifted from parents to children.

My mom has dementia, and although she is functioning to some degree, she isn't able to do what she used to do including simple tasks most people would take for granted. She also doesn't think she needs any help. But the progression of her disease is inevitable barring a medical breakthrough or divine intervention. My dad has gotten more frail this past year, and the weight of helping my mom has taken its toll when he is already dealing with his own health issues. I wish he had an outlet to express what he is feeling deep down because I am sure he is grieving. But given his age and background, opening up is probably not the easiest to do. He is only willing to say but so much before it becomes overwhelming. These changes seem more pronounced compared to the last time I saw them. This was also the first time I said goodbye to my parents wondering how many more times I would be able to see them in this life., and it hit me hard.

As we were driving home, I grieved for my parents. Dementia is so cruel because it robs a person from the inside out, and it inflicts such loss, not just on the sufferer but on the surrounding family too. But as I was praying, I asked myself - is this life and its eventual deterioration all my parents have to look forward to? And as I asked the Lord to comfort us, the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism came to mind:
What is your only comfort in life and in death?
As providence would have it, a few Sundays after returning home, my pastor preached a sermon on this very catechism question and answer. While this is not Scripture, it encapsulates so many scriptural truths and the blessings and security they bring. It speaks of the unmerited love of God that would save sinners at the cost of the blood of Jesus. It speaks of full forgiveness of sins and deliverance from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God. It speaks of a loving Father who will not let a single one of his children fall through the cracks and that all things work together for our salvation. So whether in life or death or in the face of dementia, we are not left to fend for ourselves, but we belong to a faithful Savior. And in the end, we will be with him forever, fully healed from every effect of the fall.

Since that sermon, I've returned to these words again and again as I pray for my family. I can't think of any source of lasting comfort unless we find it in God and the hope of our salvation.  Your situation may be different than mine, but I hope you will draw comfort from these words as well.

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?

A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.  Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

They are our children, after all

In a perfect world, Christian parents would teach their children the gospel, and it would be embraced quickly, and without incident. Children would go seamlessly from childhood to godly adulthood without a blip on the screen.

As we know, we don't live in a perfect world. And the reality is that good Christian parents raise children who give them some sleepless nights and break their hearts. I know what that is like. If you have children who never gave you a moment's trouble, praise God for it! But for those of us who have had children who stray or struggle in their faith, it can be extremely painful. We feel shame and guilt. We may feel anger. But we must not despair. For those who may be in the midst of that kind of season, here are some thoughts.

Don't Take All the Blame

If you blame yourself for their sins, does that mean you take the glory when they don't sin? Think about that. If you failed to preach the gospel to your children or made mistakes, repent of them. Ask God for forgiveness. If necessary, ask your children to forgive you. But remember that our children make their own decisions. It is part of their spiritual growth to take ownership of their faith.

Don't Compare Them to Others

It's tempting when our kids are struggling spiritually to look longingly at the families who seem perfect. Don't give in to that. It can lead to bitterness toward our own children and it prevents us from feeling gratitude for what God has given us. Would you want your husband comparing you to another woman?

Don't Ask "What Will People Think?"

That is a bad question. And especially don't verbalize that to your child. Our concern is not what people will think of us. What is important to us is our child's relationship with God. Worrying about what others think makes the matter about us, and it's not about us. It can create an adversarial situation between us and our children if we worry about them making us look bad.

Be Discreet

Be careful when you share details of your child's struggle; the fewer details the better. Respect your child's privacy. Find one or two people you trust and who can keep a confidence. Ask people to pray without giving details. We don't always need to know the details. I think it goes without saying that social media is not a place to hash out your struggle with your child.

Focus On Your Own Walk With Christ

While we will always be their mother, there comes a point when we have to step back and focus on other areas of service. Dwelling only on the issues with our children robs us of opportunities to serve and ultimately can stunt our own growth. We're not abandoning them, but really, there is only so much we can do. "Delight yourself in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness. Delight yourself in the Lord; and he will give you the desire of your heart" (Ps 37:4-5).

Trust God With the Burden

Pray. Trust God. Don't despair. Some days it is harder than others, but is really is the best response. It will remind us of who is really in control. Aren't you glad that God is control and we aren't? I am. Keep looking to Christ. "Cast your burdens upon the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never allow the righteous to be shaken" (Ps 55:22).

And above all, love your children. Love them when you don't understand why they are doing what they're doing. Love them when you're frustrated, angry, and hurt. Think of tangible ways to show love. These children are ours, after all, given to us, not someone else. Remember that God is in control and more than able to bear the burden.