Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, February 17, 2019
I woke up with a set of expectations this morning. I knew I would rise before the sun, do some gentle yoga, eat breakfast, drive here and spend the morning with all of you. I knew I would be nervous but grateful to share this message. And I knew that, there is always more that I don’t know than I really do know. That’s a little unnerving – but it’s also exciting.
This morning, I trusted that in my not-knowing, I would be met by your open hearts and open minds… After all, you didn’t know what to expect from me either. When people come together in mutual unknowing, as we have this morning, our limits dissolve and a new space emerges, a grace-filled space where Love has room to work amongst us. In this space, speaking meets listening, giving meets receiving, and past and future dwell fully in the present…I would like to illustrate this idea.
About six years ago, my Dad retired. His already quiet and reclusive life seemed to become increasingly isolated. He stopped visiting family members and meeting friends for golf or lunch. He began to lose weight and became nervous and tentative. He said he was happy, but he didn’t look or act like he was.
When Dad invited me to attend a routine exam that required anesthesia and a driver, I had a chance to step in a bit.Dad was so grateful for the practical support I offered on that visit that I began visiting for one extended weekend per month. Together we sorted mail that had accumulated, paid bills, did laundry, went grocery shopping, and attended appointments. We also made time for long walks, healthy meals, and plenty of laughter and conversation.
On one visit, I arrived late due to a rainstorm and Friday night traffic. I had called dad a few times to give him updates and offer a revised ETA. When I arrived, Dad was peering through the window by the door. He gruffly asked what took me so long. Exhausted from the drive and unprepared for this icy reception, I snapped back – something about traffic and calling a half-dozen times – and then caught myself. He had probably been waiting for some unknown visitor for my entire 5 hour drive. No longer able to track time, he could not possibly interpret the meaning in my phone calls. Maybe he also could not connect my voice with my face or my presence.
Dad had begun to live in the unknown all of the time. Dementia was robbing him of capacity to understand, sort and organize experiences, people, objects and events. For him, every moment was a step into an unknown.
After hitting dead—ends trying to get information and support from my Dad’s doctor, I scoured the internet and the library shelves for help. I wanted a definitive medical authority or a rule book, the equivalent of a map and compass that would tell me where on earth we were and where we were heading…And while I did find some resources that offered clues and perspective, I never found an outside authority that I could really settle into.
But, I found my Dad – obscured by his illness but patiently and persistently kind, loving and intelligent. And I found myself. Even better, I found that I was enough.
While I had been looking to the world around us for guidance, I was also just spending a lot of time with Dad. As we navigated challenging, curious, and mundane details of life together, our relationship was deepening. I was learning to dwell with him in the unknown – and in the sacred space that formed between us, there was safety, love, trust, and joy sufficient to carry us both along the challenging path that unfolded over the next few years.
As Dad became less verbal, we often walked together in silent communion. If Dad felt like making conversation, he would ask, “So, what have you been up to?” After I answered, we would often fall into silence again. Within a few minutes he would ask again, “So, what have you been up to?” He never remembered asking and remained as genuinely curious and interested on the 5th asking as he was on the first. Each asking became an opportunity for me to share a bit more deeply about my life. Though he didn’t remember my responses after a few seconds, he listened to each one with real interest and attention. I offered new responses each time he asked. “So, What have you been up to?“ It was like an invitation to peel away the layers of my life like an onion, sharing myself ever more deeply, while pulling Dad in closer.
As special as my relationship with my Dad was, it does not need to be unique. We don’t need to wait until dementia or any other life change nudges us into deep, loving relationship.
Humans are social creatures. We are meant to step in close, to walk through the peaks, valleys, and meadows of our life with others. We can practice a more intentional engagement with everyone we are in contact with – it’s as simple as a smile, an open hand, a moment of vulnerability, or an act of generosity. We will suddenly notice that there are fewer strangers around us and more friends. And we notice that the lines that separated us get a little blurry. The distance between us grows smaller and less significant.
When we honor the unknowing between us with open hearts and open minds, we create that nurturing grace-filled space where Love flows freely, speaking meets listening, giving meets receiving, and past and future meet the limitless present. We meet there in worship. Let us meet the wider world there in our words and our actions too.