In this Age of the Self, we view the landscape from the look-out that is us. We are our own vantage point.
We are also told that “we can do it”, “we can be anything we want to be”, “we can achieve if we put our minds to it”. It is as if there is no point higher than we are.
I saw Dad today. All of those slogans are plainly just slogans for him, and for the other 35 residents in the locked dementia ward. No, they can’t actually do it any longer, and by “it” I mean the basics of toileting and eating for themselves. And they didn’t actually get to be anything they wanted to be up until this point, so forget about that from here on in. And, of course, you have to have a mind that can be put to anything, and when that’s going or gone, then the vantage point of the self shrinkers lower and lower, crumbling along with the body.
Speaking of which, Dad looks to have failed somewhat over the past three months, but then again, as I noticed today, so have many of the others. The chirping lady who wanders the corridors chirps less and wanders less. Tom, the self-loathing, bent-over ex-accountant, was even more self-loathing today as he shuffled past, almost doubled now. Some things have not changed. The staff are still effortlessly cheerful. And the Italian lady in the chair bed is still calling out the same one line refrain in Italian at the top of her voice. All day, every day.
It’s the 211th day of the year today, so I read Psalm 61 to Dad. 150 days, plus 61, so round two of the Psalms. And this part of verse 2 struck me, and struck him:
Lead me to the rock that is higher than I
Even as I read it, Dad finished the sentence, because he remembered it from an old hymn back in his early days in Belfast, called Hiding In Thee. It goes like this:
Oh, safe to the Rock that is higher than I,
My soul in its conflicts and sorrows would fly,
So sinful, so weary, Thine, Thine would I be,
Thou blest Rock of Ages, I’m hiding in Thee.
Ok, so it’s one of those Sankey’s hymns that no one sings anymore, but it resonated with us as we sat sinking a Dome takeaway latte (a welcome change from the ward’s Nescafe Blend 43). It resonated as we sat there in a dementia ward, the place our culture hides away the stark face of our inexorable demise.
We couldn’t get the tune, but I said to Dad, “How good is it to know that there is something that is bigger than us – especially as we shrink!” Dad did laugh at that point.
But something higher than us. Something that is a reference point. And perhaps we dismiss that in the times when we can do it, when we are convinced we can be anything, or have the mental capacity that allows us to achieve. But later? When we are getting smaller, our sphere of influence is diminishing, and the very living space we can call our own has shrunk to a single room (if you are lucky in a dementia ward these days), and a bathroom (even luckier). It’s a confronting future.
The good news is that Dad, according to Psalm 61, will soon get to swap his private bedroom and bathroom, plus the communal lounge and dining room, for a tent. A tent? Yep, a tent. A few short verses later the Psalmist, recognising his lack, recognising that he needs God when the true enemy approaches, says this:
Let me dwell in your tent forever!
The tent, the tabernacle for the Psalmist David prior to the building of the temple by Solomon, is the meeting place of God with humans – a true place of refuge. And it is there – from the presence of God – that we take our true reference point. We see that the vantage point we need is from that rock that is much, much bigger than we, and promises to appear even bigger the more we shrink.
The Psalmist goes on to say that he will “for ever sing praises” to God’s name, a confident assertion of an eternal hope even before resurrection. We hide in Him, until that day when we are revealed again in resurrection glory, when our hiding will be done away for ever.