You may remember the 2001 film Iris, which told the life of novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, particularly the tragic onset of dementia in her life. Or more recently the film The Iron Lady which depicts something similar of Margaret Thatcher, although more controversially released before she died.
We all know the cruelty of this vile disease, not just for those who suffer with dementia, but for their loved ones watching the harsh progress of this awful illness. Sometimes people suffering dementia can forget their own stories. In The Archers a few years ago Jack Woolley became so ill with dementia that he had no recollection that he once owned and ran a collection of local businesses, including a luxury hotel, a newspaper, and a shop. Reminding people of their story, over and over again, helps people to remember who they are and why they are who they are. It can help to bring meaning and purpose in the midst of tragic circumstances.
Yet, actually, I wonder if we all need to pay a little more attention to our own stories. I think that we can benefit from being reminded of our own stories. As we continue to grow and change, as people faced with a variety of circumstances, we can all lose sight of our true selves and need to be reminded. This can happen in all aspects of our lives, including our faith.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus teaches his disciples that he must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts of his time. Then he will be killed and after three days, rise from the dead. Jesus knows his own story and he doesn’t make excuses about it. In fact, in the time of Jesus and in that part of the world, knowledge of one’s own death was a sign of wisdom, or of someone with great powers. I think that Jesus is so matter of fact about his story because he’s focused on serving his loving heavenly Father. Yes, Jesus is shared fully our experience of human life, and he clearly sees the lay of the land, but it doesn’t deter him from striving to follow the will of his loving heavenly Father, and understanding his belonging in God’s story.
Later on, Jesus asks his disciples, the crowd, and ultimately asks us, two very important questions:
Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives?
What will people give in exchange for their lives?
Or, to put the questions another way:
What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you?
What could you ever trade your soul for?
Remarkable questions. Jesus wants to know our stories, and the answers to these questions reveal who we truly are and what we believe about our stories.
Those answers also reveal who we believe Jesus is. Do we believe in the story that he tells, the Jesus that Peter says is the Messiah? Do we believe in the Jesus that will be rejected by so many and left to die on a cross, only to be resurrected? Do we believe all of these stories? Do we believe in the ministry of suffering and self-sacrifice? It’s a tough one. Either Jesus is crazy, a con man, or what he says is true.
In your own life, when Jesus looks at you and asks, “Who do you say that I am?” How do you respond? When a friend or neighbour or colleague asks, “Are you a Christian?” What story do you tell? Are we embarrassed because of the way Jesus is leading us in our lives?
To quote Jesus words in everyday language, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how.” This is clearly a different message than what we hear from the world around us, and from our human nature that so often seeks to avoid pain at all costs. God is calling us into living a different way; to be part of a different story than the one the world is telling us.
The idea that suffering and self-sacrifice are incompatible with faith is a danger. There’s nothing in the Bible that says that God will remove all the trials of our lives if we pray hard enough. Instead of asking for the trials to be lifted, perhaps we need to recognise where God is present in them. In these circumstances, prayer can become a conduit for opening ourselves to what God wills, rather than trying to force God to do our will. Even though our desires to turn God into a magic puppet come from a deep place of longing, if we’re honest, when has that ever been successful?
God is asking us to offer our whole selves, our time, our talents, our treasures, and especially those parts of us that are suffering, and to trust that we will be led into a more meaningful life than what we could come up with ourselves. That’s a big commitment, but we can choose to make it on a daily basis, so it isn’t as overwhelming. It’s the little things that we do that create the tapestry of life that we look back on. They may not be noticed in the moment, but they are felt over a lifetime.
As an author put it:
Just being who you are
not justifying or apologizing
it sounds so easy
it’s a life’s work
not to get caught in
keeping accounts of indebtedness
waiting for gratitude,
the habit of being.
It is cultivating a habit of being that seeks God first for advice, and not our friends. That prays first, then responds. That embraces silence, instead of trying to fill it. That opens the heart and notices God’s abiding. That tells God’s story, hearing it echo in our own.
Like the folk suffering with dementia, may we all remind each other of God’s love story when we lose our way, and may we have the courage to keep writing it, bit by bit, as we are ourselves transformed.