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God’s Maniac

You have to have a special access code to get into the dementia ward. The doors must remain locked at all times. Safety, etc. I never remember what the code is so I have to wait for the attendant to let me in. She doesn’t look very happy with me.

The room is smaller than I remember it, and the visit more haphazard. He remembers very little any more, and is not always coherent. Nevertheless, we do our best to corral all the stray words and half-remembered fragmentary thoughts, trying to assemble them into something like a conversation. It feels like we’re chasing shadows or ghosts. He stops in the middle of his sentences a lot. He stares out the window. He smiles. What else can you do?

I ask him about the art on his wall. There’s a painting of a prairie landscape and another of a young native woman and child. There’s also one of Jesus, precious Jesus, eyes pleading toward heaven in Gethsemane. His late wife painted them all. This last hangs above his bed, right where his head hits the pillow. Maybe he sleeps better with Jesus’ anguish for company. Father, if you are willing take this cup from me…  

“I’m glad you came to see me today,” he says. “I think you’re a very good doctor.”

“Do you mean a “pastor?” I ask.

“Yes, that’s what I meant. You’re a very good doctor.”

I smile and say thank you. He smiles in return. 

There’s a book on the coffee table. God’s Maniacs, it’s called. The back cover says it is about people throughout history who did crazy and terrible things because they believed they were doing them for God. It seems like the kind of book that would irritate me—another eminently rational somebody diagnosing the diseased minds of the religious lunatic fringe. As if it were rational to be so eminently rational in such a screwed up world where minds so easily betray…

“Are you reading this book?” I ask.

He smiles at me. I know he has struggled mightily with God over the years, that he is a doubter, a skeptic, that he is drawn to Jesus but that he stumbles along the way. We used to have fascinating conversations about this, before the ghosts and the shadows. Now I have little access to what’s going on behind that smile.

“Yes, well I’m trying… I’m not getting very far… I was wondering what you would think about it, though… The author doesn’t seem very… nice.”

There’s a lady screaming in the other room… Let me out of here, let me out of here! It sounds like she’s kicking the wall or shaking her bedframe. She sounds angry, confused, desperate. It’s hard to have a conversation about God’s maniacs when you’re surrounded by… Ah, never mind.

“She’s very nice,” he says, pointing toward the screaming voice. “I eat with her sometimes. But she seems sad about something…

I look at grief-stricken Jesus of Gethesemane, Jesus with his crazy anguished face searching the heavens. Jesus who keeps company with the betrayers and the betrayed in the dementia ward. I look back at the book. Just for the moment, I figure I’d rather take my place alongside the maniacs, whether their brains have been addled by God or religion or eminently rational bad chemistry.

IMG_7601At the wall on the other end of his bed is another piece of art. It’s a rooster, created on a piece of wood via an arrangement of nails. I think about Peter and his three betrayals before the rooster crowed. Poor Peter, always tripping over his devotion, swinging his sword in righteous anger, jostling for space in the kingdom, shouting his commitment from the proverbial rooftops. Another maniac for God.

You know I love you… I can imagine Peter barely whispering these words to the risen Christ by the side of the lake, in the aftermath of faithless failure and the shocking, stubborn irruption of a life for which faithlessness and failure are no match. Despite all the ways in which your cup is too much for me, too much for all of us… you know that I love you, right?

I look over at the bed. My friend is still sitting there, staring and smiling, surrounded by screaming and kicking and the shaking of beds, his faltering mind bookended by a betrayal and the garden where God’s maniac whispers, Thy will be done.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. So much we don’t understand. Stripped of everything does it come down to Love?

    March 29, 2017
    • Yes, it probably does. Love for one another in the midst of all these trials, and the love of God that promises to bring us out the other side.

      March 30, 2017
      • Paul Johnston #

        Ryan, I think it is essential to this conversation, if our intent is a selfless Spirit led response, to know why you go there and what you are hoping to accomplish by going?

        There is a danger that our real motives can be self centered and our efforts amount to nothing more than a purgative expression of compassion. Our need to feel compassionate rather then to be present as Christ’s expression and action of compassion.

        Hope that makes sense?

        Btw l can’t help but laugh at the great wisdom of this, “demented” man. He fully understands who you are and why you are there?

        March 30, 2017
      • Why do I go? Because the man is part of my church and my brother in Christ.

        What do I hope to accomplish? This seems a strange question to me, I must confess. I suppose I go for all kinds of reasons… I go to be present with him in his affliction… to pray for him… to sit in silence… to ease his loneliness for a few moments… to hear stories… to share his burden… to be instructed by him… to be the hands and feet and eyes and ears of Jesus, in some small sense.

        I realize that you think reflections like these are self-centred and that they’re more about my need to feel compassionate than to actually be compassionate. I’m not sure what I can say to convince you otherwise. There’s probably some truth in what you say if only because we can never fully subtract ourselves and our own needs and insecurities from any situation we enter.

        I guess all I can do is reiterate what I’ve probably said before at various times and in various ways. I am convinced that there is value in bearing witness to what I see and experience in my life and work. It’s part of what I feel called to do—to give expression to the sadness and beauty and joy and tragedy and faith and hope and despair that is part of life, and to do so with Christ as my light and my guide. I don’t do it perfectly, God knows, but I try to do it as honestly as I can and with the best intentions I can muster.

        March 30, 2017
  2. Paul Johnston #

    Funny thing, we have never met but I so admire your honesty and your clarity, your sense of material realities and your ability to describe the nuance. You can often give the chaos of nuance and competing perspectives a sense of order and calm. Your ability to reason and communicate is often breath taking to me. I really can’t leave you lol..well I will if I have to but it would be really hard. 🙂

    And I so appreciate the honesty and clarity of this response.

    Paragraph 3 is inaccurate but fair. I have sinned against you in the past so why wouldn’t I be doing so now? 🙂

    I ask you because I wish to encourage you in your efforts on behalf of Christ….I am “Irish” sent to help defend and encourage William Wallace….haha

    Or less foolishly but certainly more audaciously, I believe Jesus is asking me too. :)….this kind of assertion isn’t as crazy as it sounds…..I believe more and more that in all the actions of our lives Christ is calling us to bring His presence to our situations. Not just our presence but His.

    I think what you say as to your reasoning is beautiful sadness, likely true in every material sense but perhaps lacking the joy and deep affection Jesus can bring to every situation.

    I sense a Spirit that tells me to divorce myself from animating, “giving expression to” to use your words, sadness and tragedy or any other negative experience. The world that isn’t of Him, the competing principality is well equipped to do that. It is all it can do. Through Jesus we can do more. In every circumstance, especially in the most brutal of circumstances, we bring the certainties of faith; love and joy.

    If we don’t who will?

    Maybe, I think so at any rate, you are a doctor…maybe a nurse is a better descriptive….you bring the antidote. Jesus Christ. If you describe the situation you speak of accurately it seems your demented friend knows this. It seems to bring him peace and reflects back at you as affection. 🙂

    What if, in the end, the material tragedy he is experiencing is exactly the purgative action necessary to secure him his faith and brings him to eternal life. How do we feel about his situation then? How should we feel as Christ bearers? Is this possibility to impossible for us to believe and act upon as if it could be true?

    You are my brother in Christ. Though my intentions are true, my understanding of the Spirit may be flawed. Please pray and discern.

    March 30, 2017
    • Thank you, Paul. Your words are very generous and I appreciate them. I apologize for misunderstanding you in the third paragraph.

      I’m intrigued by what you say here:

      I sense a Spirit that tells me to divorce myself from animating, “giving expression to” to use your words, sadness and tragedy or any other negative experience. The world that isn’t of Him, the competing principality is well equipped to do that. It is all it can do. Through Jesus we can do more. In every circumstance, especially in the most brutal of circumstances, we bring the certainties of faith; love and joy.

      If we don’t who will?

      In your view, what would this look like in a situation like the one I described in this post? How would one bring “the certainties of faith, love, and joy” to a clouded, sometimes desperate mind that is often incapable of apprehending these things (at least in the ways we are familiar with expressing them)? Or, perhaps another way of asking the same question might be, “Are there some situations in a broken world that awaits its returning King, where at least part of what we are called to do is to simply give voice to the sadness?

      It may be possible that from his perspective he is experiencing “purgative action necessary to secure his faith” but we have no access to this—if such a thing is taking place, it is doing so behind the veil, as it were. And it would surely be the height of presumptive folly (at best) to presume that this is what is going on for him on his behalf.

      At any rate, I appreciate your consistent push to reconsider everything in light of Christ and his purposes for a human life. I suppose there are just times when I might consider your eschatology a bit on the “over-realized” side given the shadow side of human experience, even for those who have cast their lot with the Crucified One.

      March 30, 2017
  3. Paul Johnston #

    Thank you for this Ryan and your apology is as gracious as it is unnecessary. As I said earlier, your assumption was well grounded in some of my previous behaviors. If I may I am just going to make a list of points addressing your concerns. I’m feeling, “the dumb” right now and I think point form will give my response more coherency.

    1.The certainties of faith; love and joy.

    What I mean to say is my faith is not simply an intellectual assent but it is the real immaterial presence of the Holy Spirit within me. God is indwelling. Accepting His presence means many things but at least two of the certainties of His indwelling are love and joy. If I let Him he will animate all my responses with love and joy. I will very likely first have to be angry, sad or whatever negative emotion is consistent with my human experiences but in the end, if I choose to let the Spirit have say over my ego, all is well. Healing and redemption are available now. The veil as you speak of exists over the whole world it is true but can and is lifted, here and now, for those who choose to allow the Spirit to operate within them…..”I go so that something greater than me can come”….His very power that can transcend space and time. Jesus came once in time and yes will come again. But the Spirit comes once through time and never leaves, if for loves sake, if for the sake of the sorrowful passion, as we say in our church, we allow It to animate our being.

    2. How do we impart this understanding to a clouded desperate mind?

    Well we can’t but the Spirit can. If we believe and our actions are consistent with that belief then the Spirit we reveal is true. The rest is between God and the afflicted. Do you believe you can mediate God’s healing grace through your faith? I do. I am even more certain that whether or not you ever receive a convincing sign of an, “over realized” eschatology…I happily claim the title :)….we must believe it is at work. Perhaps as much or more for our own salvation as we think it might be, for another’s.

    Keep it simple for simple minds. Remind him he is loved by God. He is being saved by God. That God sent you to give him the good news. Remind him that as he told you, you are his doctor, the one God sent to give him words of love and joy. Remind him he likes you and can trust you. Tell him he is going to heaven and that all the things that trouble him now won’t bother him then. Tell him God loves him for his courage and patience. Be loving and joyful, no matter how he responds. You can do it. God is with you. 🙂

    3. As for presumptive folly, here’s what I believe. If all the senseless brutality and pain, especially the suffering of the innocent isn’t purgative and redemptive, if I can’t believe that, know that to be true with every fibre of my being, if that isn’t the whole truth and nothing but the truth, then I do not want any part in Christian faith.

    March 30, 2017
    • Thanks, Paul. I won’t add too much besides to say that your faith is an inspiration. Re: #3, I would agree on a theological level. I’m not always sure that it’s always the wisest thing to say pastorally in the middle of suffering, but I share your conviction that without this, I don’t want any part of the whole package. This is the hope of Easter and the ground of our faith.

      March 31, 2017
      • Paul Johnston #

        Yes, your pastoral experience and wisdom is surely true. More often then not I would think the discussions of purgative and redemptive suffering are best, when initiated by the suffering. A prompting of the Spirit, so to speak, that leads them to inquiry. Perhaps we might initiate if the suffering person seems to be overwhelmed by grief and or anger, unable to function. Though even then I would think much prayer and discernment would be required.

        It blows my mind to say this,” to feel it in my bones” (oddly I’ve heard it said forever it seems) but we really are dealing with more then just personal, family or communal griefs. We are dealing with Spiritual principalities. Not just seemingly insurmountable human tragedies but the very Spirits that ferment among and spread our sufferings….”But this kind does not go out but by prayer and fasting”…

        You have always been right to caution that understanding, healing…salvation itself, is a long arduous journey, fraught with setbacks, confusion and disappointments. How can any reasonable, honest, compassionate person say otherwise….and yet we must take time for joy and love…to stop and smell the roses :)….to humbly share in the mutuality of family, friendship and community. To laugh, to sing, to dance (even as awkwardly and as self consciously as I do)…to paint the faces of the young as my wife happily does at church today….she is the true keeper of the smiles in our household…..

        Often we never do reach a mutual understanding with those in need. With those we seek to help. Maybe we do fret too often over the stubbornness of their conditions and our inability to make a difference. Maybe we sometimes feel an interior sense of shame for the fact that we know our generosity often comes with very finite limitations and needs. Responses required of those we help in order to justify our participation….

        I take heart in the fact that an honest exploration of motives, combined with faith in Jesus leads to better efforts and outcomes but I’m still ashamed that I am 60 years old this July and still need help learning how to love. I hear an honest, nonjudgmental spirit within that tells me truly, a fuller, deeper, truer sense of love has always been abiding within me. Just waiting on me to call.

        The, “happy ending” is that our Lord treasures even the smallest act of selfless love on our parts. It is remembered and accounted for us. And to the repentant heart, seeking forgiveness, even our worst transgressions are forgiven and forgotten.

        It’s the best deal in creation, man. 🙂 Let’s all take it. 🙂

        April 1, 2017
      • Thanks for this, Paul. So much to reflect on in these wise and hopeful words. Yes, let’s all take the deal.

        (I love the image of your wife as the “keeper of the smiles.”)

        April 3, 2017

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