My 92-year old father-in-law is an amazing person. And he has dementia.
He lives in a wonderful care facility but is often mixed up about where he is, how things work, where he believes he’s been. When left to his disordered thoughts, he gets fixated and rambles at length about things that make no sense. We sometimes find him alone on a bench in a hallway because his deep baritone voice carries and his loud nonsense speak disturbs the residents in the main room.
My husband and I find that if we ask him about history—of which he is highly knowledgeable—his thoughts become more ordered and he can carry on a relatively normal conversation, recalling people and events with astonishing accuracy. He will sometimes tell us about a world leader or an event unfamiliar to us, so we Google it while he’s talking and he’s always spot on. But he also thinks he’s on a ship or in a train station, and he often sees things that aren’t there. Once he thought Andy Griffith walked by.
And yet despite his disordered mind, he always has a positive attitude. When I ask him how he’s doing, he often says, “I can’t complain. I’ve had better days, but you know, you just have to make the best of it.”
This makes it easy to remember the man he was. Family, friends and people in his community have long known him as a wise, kind, generous man who would take a homeless person to a restaurant and buy him a meal; a hardworking family man, and a steadfast Christian who always attended church no matter what shift he’d just gotten off, and even while on vacation with the family. He would find some church in whatever town they were visiting and take the family on Sunday morning—the fishing and sandcastles could wait. He prayed faithfully and read his Bible consistently, and everywhere he went, he never knew a stranger. He talked to people everywhere: at the gas station, grocery store, doctor’s office, and it didn’t matter if he knew them or not. He often encouraged people to look to Jesus and go to church. Without fail he was gracious, selfless, and respectful of everyone he knew, no matter where they came from or how young or old they were.
And he still does this today, even in his mentally incapacitated state.
The care staff has only known him as he is now: a nearly blind, nearly deaf, nonsensical old man who needs help with everything most of us do without thinking, like walking, eating, and using the bathroom. We’ve overheard him thanking the caregivers and apologizing for causing them trouble. They tell us often that he is one of the kindest people they know. This is a man who can no longer use logic and reason and has absolutely no control over anything he thinks or says. He has no filters, so what he thinks, he says.
Even with dementia—or rather because of it—he is teaching me something important about the indwelling Spirit of God.
I try to be kind, and I try to be generous, and once in a while, I try to be self-sacrificing, especially if I know it will bless someone. To be honest, kindness and selflessness are not natural reflexes for me (unlike sarcasm and sampling cookie dough), so for me to act this way is more of a conscious decision, a choice. As in an all-out flesh-wrangling choice. I’d like to think I’m developing more Christ-like reflexes…
Meanwhile, as I was praying for my father in law this morning, it occurred to me that this man has absolutely no choice over his behavior, and yet the fruit of the Spirit is clearly evident in him. The goodness and faithfulness and kindness and generosity he shows to those around him come from a place well beyond his mind—a much deeper place. He cannot will himself to act in any certain way. The way he treats others is motivated solely by his spirit, a place in which the Spirit of God clearly and fully dwells.
He didn’t build a cathedral or start a mega church or write a theology book or travel the world to preach the gospel. But what he did was just as phenomenal. His faith is simple and astounding. “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back” could be his life song, because, as an adult who had tasted of the world, he gave his heart to Jesus and didn’t turn back and has lived out this decision for more than 50 years. This man and his spirit-filled life have encouraged the faith of countless people. He aimed to follow Jesus all his days, and this aim has served him in the end because whether he knows it or not, he is finishing the race well. He doesn’t know it, but he’s teaching me about the miraculous indwelling of the Spirit of God, and he is inspiring me to be as purposeful in my aim, and to finish well. He doesn’t know this but his wisdom and his faith are still guiding me.
What a miraculous thing, to be so thoroughly motivated by the Spirit of God. I pray that Christ would so inhabit me that his likeness, the fruit of his Spirit, would flow as effortlessly from me.