A broken mind

Posted on May 13, 2014
Filed Under Elsewhere, Journeyman Chronicles, Mundane | Comments Off on A broken mind

I started living with my grandparents in autumn of 2002 when I began attending the nearby university. When I got there Grandpa was an independent man who could drive us down back country roads that would turn out in some small town where the Methodists were having a $6 supper. During the course of my college education Grandpa developed symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease: unable to use the TV remote. Unable to drive. My brother came to provide around the clock care until, in 2009, Grandpa became unable (or unwilling, really) to live.

Alzheimer’s disease can progress fitfully, seeming to recede as the brain tries to adapt to its own impairment. You can hear from a person suffering from Alzheimer’s what it is like to lose your mind. With time and empathy and attention you might learn as much as my brother did. I provided some weekend relief for my brother in care-taking, and between his observations and my own I am convinced that you can be alive even if your brain doesn’t work. It is, after all, only an organ. You can be alive without an arm or a kidney. You can even be in some sense conscious and aware that your brain is not working.

So how do you give up on your own mind? If you were aware that you were losing your cognitive abilities, how do you reconcile to that truth? How much courage does it take to admit that some of what you “see” and “know” is false? When, in those earlier days when you sometimes are still right–when you are right more often than you are wrong–should you admit that your mind is flawed and you need someone else to think about every important action you could take? Now my mother’s father is also in mental decline, and we talk about what he ought to do. O physician, take your own dose! Would you today give up all your right to make decisions?

I am decades away from my struggle with Alzheimer’s, should it come to me in the way it is most known. But Alzheimer’s is not the only disease that wrecks your brain. Almost anything you do is directed by your brain, so almost anything can be affected by a malady of the brain. But the brain is an ocean, with layers and currents and moods and no real boundaries. Like the geyser of a broken derrick, the presence of pollution in the mind is easier to identify than it is to define. Here there is a problem; there, not; but so much of elsewhere there is a trace of corruption that is only apparent over time.

Grandpa dies of Alzheimer’s, but his father killed himself. The “Purdy temper” is moody with a cynical bent, given to depression and quick to conclude that all is vanity. Maybe that’s treatable, like heartburn, or high blood cholesterol. Maybe one little pill can fix up our warped minds. Maybe it is just Tylenol. Maybe that’s not a bad thing.

You would think that’s a hopeful thought. It’s not. It’s terrifying.

Think of a happy day. Maybe it was a birthday party. Maybe a loved one came home after a long time away. Maybe you graduated, or were accepted into school, or maybe that was the day your wife said yes.

Think of an ordinary day. Last Tuesday, say, unless that was a special day. Think of some just plain ordinary day. I don’t know how you can think of an ordinary day because ordinary days are pretty much forgettable, but if today was an ordinary day just review it in your mind and hold it there.

Now bottle it up. In fact, squeeze it down to a pill.

Take your ordinary day experience – the feelings, the memories, the conversations – and put it into a pill. Would you take that pill?

Put that pill side by side with the happy day that you thought of earlier, in another pill. Put the happy pill right there by the ordinary pill. And now put an unhappy pill next to the other two.

Would you chose your truth? Is the truth even true if it is just something you choose? Which truth would you choose, if you could choose your own truth?

Let’s leave the question of dependency on mind-altering drugs out of it. If you can take a pill and change your perception of reality, is it even real? If you could take a pill when it was literally raining, and the sun would literally come out, is that real?

What if I offered you eye surgery: remove one of your eyes and I’ll replace it with one that can see colors you have never seen before – color no person has ever seen before. Maybe it’s real but maybe it’s a hoax. Would you agree? You’ll tell me that taking a pill isn’t the same as removing an eye, a pill is not a lobotomy. But then again an eye isn’t your brain. An eye is only your lens to the visible world. Your brain is the lens to the entire world. Once you start playing with the dial you can no longer talk about the “natural color,” as it were. Maybe you oversaturated red tones. Maybe you amped up the contrast. Maybe you did dial the colors in “right,” too, but who’s to say? Do even the “normal” people all see colors the same way?

To take a pill for your brain is to call yourself a liar. Not just an occasional liar but a habitual, pathological liar who simply can’t be trusted, but the person you are lying to is yourself.

It’s easy to say what to do if your brain disease is bad enough. If your Alzheimer’s disease is so bad that you actually can’t figure out how to start a car, it’s easy enough to say that someone else should drive you. It might not be a fun thing to say but the necessity is pretty clear. But what if you just missed a turn? Everybody does that. What if you just couldn’t find your way home for a bit? You made it eventually. I have never curled up in the tub screaming silently at the horror of existence. Indeed that is so far beyond my fits of melancholy that I have trouble conceiving of it as more than a fantasy. Surely under that great a strain the non-physical part of your mind just… explodes. Surely reality can’t include visions of nothing more than horror.

How do you know if your mind is broken when you live in a broken world?


Posted on May 4, 2014
Filed Under Poems | Comments Off on Impatience



You cannot see it


You cannot see anything


Waiting you wonder


How come it doesn’t fill with water?


And then I could drown.







Depth perspective

Posted on May 4, 2014
Filed Under Theological | Comments Off on Depth perspective

They say that drowning people don’t shout for help or wave, and may not even splash that much. Maybe most people who drown are just below the surface when they die. You can get caught up in something and dragged into the deep, and perish there, arms reaching up vainly; but you can also slip just low enough that your upturned face doesn’t quite break into clear daylight, and your arms spread wide hold you there, almost, but not quite, breathing air.

I was pulled from a pool once in such a condition. But that was many years ago.

Truly the deep is well named. There is a flood of misery covering the earth, and black horrors in it, and ghastly creatures live there. And what mighty storms rage upon it! Yet one may drown in the merest sunny pool of calm water.

Church or ekklesia

Posted on May 4, 2014
Filed Under Theological | Comments Off on Church or ekklesia

The word ‘church’ conveys the idea of an organization managed by a defined hierarchy. It is a clergy and laity system, typically reflected in the architecture of pulpit and pew (though the exact furniture may vary). It has definite boundaries: at any given point it is incorporated within a specific building, is led by a specific set of individuals, and has a specific membership roll. It has property. This definite entity has its own peculiar interest in self-preservation.

This set of characteristics was not true of the first Christian groups. Because the contemporary word ‘church’ is so firmly associated with a system or method not specified or endorsed by the New Testament authors, some who advocate a simpler and less structured gathering have expressed dissatisfaction with the term and either avoid using it, attach qualifiers to it, or use ‘church’ only in a negative context to describe that modern thing not found in Scripture.

To be sure, the term ‘church’ can be found in Scripture, but it is a mistranslation of – or at best, a failure to translate – Greek words that properly have different English equivalents. The Greek word most often rendered ‘church’ is ‘ekklesia,’ which simply has the sense of ‘gathering’ or ‘assembly.’ It is has a benign social context, with a bit of a political bent. A school assembly or at most a town hall meeting adequately fulfills the word. It doesn’t signify politics at a national convention level of intensity, at least not necessarily.

Some people who wish to shed the term ‘church’ use the anglicized ‘ekklesia’ in its stead. To me this substitution falls ironically short of its goal. It replaces one rarefied religious term held over from an older language with another term from an older language. All I can see gained by the switch is a louder claim of distinctiveness and a better perch from which to look down upon the rest, the ignorant and unremarkable ones who go to churches.

If Christians had sought a distinctive term in the beginning, they had one on hand: ‘synagogue’ describes the Jewish religious gathering in the Greek language contemporary to the origins of Christianity. Although doubtless the Jews of the time would not have appreciated it, there is no compelling reason to suppose the Christians couldn’t have taken the term with them when first they split from Judaism. Certainly the term ‘church,’ once established, has been carried by many a departing faction denounced by the Christians they left.

Perhaps the closest modern word to match the ancient ‘ekklesia’ is our ‘meeting,’ generally carrying the sense of business to be done but not strictly limited to such uses. Not coincidentally, a few of the smaller denominations that got started with an eye on the primitive church favor this very word, ‘meeting,’ to describe their convocations. It is not really such a secret that ‘church’ is an artificial splice in the self-conception of Christianity.

But even ‘meeting,’ applied to a gathering with a religious purpose, strikes my ear as contrived and deliberately differentiating. If we are looking for the most ordinary word possible to describe our gathering, and our gathering has some purpose which relates to God, the word to use is ‘church.’ Yes, it has a disgraceful ancestry, but so did Jesus. Words should be chosen for how they will be understood; to do otherwise is to deliberately close the doors to the public and to germinate a mystery only the initiated may comprehend.

There is mystery in the church, but that mystery is Christ, and he has revealed himself and given us charge to proclaim him. Not all who see will comprehend; but let us not be found hanging curtains that Christ tore down.