This morning I’m actually going to depart from the assigned Gospel and return to a few particular verses from last Sunday, and the imagery of the lost sheep and the searching shepherd. “Jesus told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”’” (Luke 15:3-6)
So there’s this book that I both hate and love, and a movie was made from the book that came out in 2014. It’s called Still Alice, and it’s about a woman, who is a world-recognized professor in linguistics, teaching at one of the best universities in the world, who just after she turns 50 suddenly develops early onset Alzheimer’s. And it follows her in the space of just one year as she moves from someone whose identity is built on her ability to understand and flourish in the world of words and thoughts to someone who can no longer find the right word for anything, who no longer recognizes her children, and in one particularly moving scene, gets lost in her own house, trying to find the bathroom. I love Still Alice because of its brilliant portrayal of the experiences and feelings of someone losing themself in dementia, and I hate it for that very same reason.
Because it’s terrifying. The possibility of memory loss and dementia terrifies me. It’s one thing to forget a word here and there, or to forget where you put your keys, but to forget who your children are? To forget the way around your own house? To forget your wedding day, or the day your children were born? To not be able to think anymore? To read a book and understand nothing, or to hear a conversation and not be able to follow it? We are who we are because of our relationships, the people we know and the things we do in life, and the opinions we have, and our thoughts. We are who we are because of our memories––those pieces of our life that tell us who we used to be, and how we’ve changed, and who we are now. We spend our lives trying to make memories to reflect on when we’re older. These are what make up our identity. That make up who we are. And to know that it’s all slipping away? To be aware that you are *supposed* to know the faces, and the words, and that you *used* to be able to read and think and remember and speak but now it’s evaporating? To have people tell you that you’re doing and saying things that you can’t remember and that don’t make sense and that you could never in a million years imagine yourself doing?
It’s awful––completely disorienting. It’s like being lost. Like being the one sheep separated from the ninety-nine others, far from the flock, and lost in the wilderness. We might even say that dementia is like being lost in the wilderness of our own brains. We’re stuck inside our wild minds and nothing looks familiar and we don’t know how to get out and we’ve lost ourselves and something is going to eat us all up until nothing is left of us at all.
This is a fear we all share. There is no one here who would say that they look forward to losing their self, and there is no one here who has not been touched by someone else’s slide into dementia. Whether it’s a family member, or a friend, even someone from this congregation, dementia is a reality we face, and in the back of our minds, we are terrified: What if this is me one day? How will I live if I lose myself?
What I want to tell you now is kind of a vaccine. Something that I hope will vaccinate you against the fear and anxiety you feel contemplating this future, and that you might remember if you find that you are suddenly a sheep lost in your own mind’s wilderness. And yes, I recognize the irony of giving you something to remember for a time when you can’t remember anything, but the Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways. So, here it is:
You may lose yourself; God does not protect us from dementia.
But Christ. Will. Not. Lose. You.
Christ will not lose you, and even more, Christ will notice if you’ve gone missing, and Christ will come and find you.
It’s remarkable, this story about the missing sheep that out of one hundred sheep, which is a *lot* of sheep, the shepherd notices that one is missing. One! Imagine being in a group of a hundred people. How long would it take you notice that one of you was missing? And we’re talking about sheep here! In order for the shepherd to notice that one of the sheep is missing, that shepherd has to really know those sheep. The ears, the tail, the fleece, the shape of the nose, the sheep’s favourite kind of grass to eat, whether a particular sheep likes to be in the middle of the flock or on the edge. In order to notice that one sheep is missing, that shepherd has to know who each single sheep is––really, truly, is.
Christ knows who you are. Really, truly. Christ knows the you that you are on the inside, the you that you are when you’re devastated and when you’re rejoicing, the you that you are when you’re furious and when you’re at peace, Christ know who you were when you were born, and who you became as a toddler, and a schoolchild, and a teenager, and an adult. Your secret hopes and your worst nightmares. Christ knows who you were, and who you are, and who you will be. Christ knows most surely who you are even when you yourself have forgotten. Christ can pick you out of a crowd of millions, and knows your name, and knows you better even than you know your self. Psalm 139 says, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. ... For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.” The one who made you has known you from even before you were born, knows you as you grow and change, and will know you when you no longer know yourself.
And should you lose yourself, Christ will notice. Right away. And Christ will come and find you in the wilderness. Wherever you are. No matter how tangled up in the thickets you are, no matter what ledge you might be precariously perched on, no matter what crack in the rocks you might have fallen into, struggling to the point of exhaustion to get out of. Whether the wind is howling or the rain is sleeting down, whether it is the middle of the day or the darkest night imaginable, Christ will find you. Again, Psalm 139 assures us of this: “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” No matter how far you go––no matter how tangled and precarious and dark it is in your world and in your mind, Christ will find you. You may lose your self, but Christ will not lose you.
I am losing several of my grandparents to dementia. A few years ago, during a conversation with my grandmother, a knife went through my heart when, out of nowhere, she looked at me and said, “Whose daughter are you?” She couldn’t remember that my dad was her firstborn.
I’m also starting to lose my dad to cognitive decline. Nothing big, just little things here and there that tell me he’s not who he used to be. I see the day coming when he will be lost, too. And, with so many generations suffering from dementia, I think it’s likely it will happen to me, too. It seems inevitable. By the time you’re 80, one in three people have dementia. By the time you’re 90, it’s one in two. So many people who have lost themselves in the maze of their own minds. It’s overwhelming to watch someone getting lost that way, whether it’s someone we love, or ourselves.
But Christ does not lose us. Christ is our shepherd, and when we have lost ourselves in the deepest recesses of our minds, when we have lost who we are, Christ will come find us, and lay us on his shoulders, and take us home, and rejoice. And Christ will whisper to us, “I have found you. I know who you are. You are, and always will be, mine.” Thanks be to God. Amen.