Practicality and Impracticality

Posted on July 19, 2013

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There may not be a less practical ministry than working with Alzheimer’s patients.

I’m trying to make my peace with this fact.  I run a small worship service for memory care patients in a nursing home. In the best cases, dementia has robbed then of any independent living skills. In the worst cases, it has also taken any vestige of their former personalities. Most of the people in attendance don’t know I’m there, and the few that notice my presence forget it almost immediately once I leave. They interrupt songs and prayers with seemingly random questions, if they speak at all. Only a select few can even walk.

I can have no lofty ambitions for this group. It is Groundhog Day ministry.  Every time I come, Gloria will sit on the couch staring at the ceiling in apparent catatonia, eyes watery and mouth drooped open.  I will shake hands with Quincy and listen to him tell me about his time with the Plymouth Brethren in Bermuda, a story which I heard last week and will hear again next week. Each Monday I sing to them, read Scripture aloud, and then lay hands on them and pray, all in the hope that somewhere in the dying machinery of their mind, something they hear might flip a circuit or two to life for a moment.

In this ministry, I’m always aware that it is as far away from the rhetoric of modern evangelicalism as humanly possible. The vocabulary of Christianity I hear so regularly- missional, culture-shaping, mobilization, world-changing- is inherently pragmatic. Our Christianity goes places, does things, wins souls, changes the world. It’s about achieving things. It’s practical.

I’m glad for that.  This is the real world, and things need to get done, whether small- earning money, sweeping the deck, registering the car at the DMV- or large- building church planting movements, translating the Bible into new languages, reforming unjust economic systems, etc. I couldn’t be more grateful to or inspired by the people God has made, fearfully and wonderfully in His image, who have nothing but motivation for expanding the boundaries of God’s kingdom until there is no place where His name is not proclaimed and His justice does not reign.  I have much to learn from them.

Moreover, there is a side of Christianity that is necessarily practical. We worship a cosmic, omnipresent God who came to us in the form of a person, Jesus, at a specific time in a specific place. This is the way God works- in specific places, in specific ways, to specific people. Every place in creation, every moment, is the setting for something that God is doing. He is not uninterested in our local problems or our local places, but is in fact manifestly present and active in them. He is always up to something- which, now that I type it, is as good a definition of practical spirituality as we might get.  Practicality is a good thing.

I just also wonder where this Alzheimer’s ministry fits.

Alzheimer’s ministry, by any reasonable definition, is nothing if not impractical. Unless a supernatural work of God happens, these people will never advance the Kingdom of God in any tangible way. They will never share the gospel, be a part of an influential church, support overseas missionaries financially or become overseas missionaries themselves. They can never become more or less sanctified, at least not noticeably. They cannot grow in love for God or others as far as I can tell. Their every experience is immediately taken by the hungry blackness that is swallowing them up from the inside.

What place does a ministry have that does not achieve any kind of results, that lacks any semblance of usefulness? When I am in the nursing home I am far from enacting culture change, farther still from organizing people into an elite cadre of spiritual warriors, farthest of all from changing anything one iota in their lives or the world. What I am doing, mostly, is anonymous work among people who will forget what was done or that it ever was done. It could not possibly achieve less, from a practical standpoint. Pragmatically speaking, I’m wasting my time. Why should I bother?

In Run With the Horses- Eugene Peterson’s study of the prophet Jeremiah- Peterson devotes a chapter to the story of Jeremiah buying a field. It is a clear picture of the way that the supposed impracticality of Christianity subverts and redefines our traditional understanding of practicality. The people of Judah are about to be conquered by the Babylonians and be paraded away into exile.  Jeremiah has been thrown into jail by the king. While a prisoner, he makes a real estate transaction with a relative- he buys an empty field in the region of Anathoth.

What’s going on here?  The whole country is in turmoil and Jeremiah’s making land grabs from his prison cell?  What’s the point?  Practically speaking, this is a waste. The field will likely never have value. The Babylonians will soon overrun the country and exile the people. Jeremiah will probably go with them- he may never even see this field he’s bought, let alone till it, harvest from it, or turn a profit and feed himself with the rewards of his farming labors.

But God’s practicality is not our practicality. After purchasing the field, Jeremiah says this:

“Take both this sealed deed and the unsealed copy, and put them into a pottery jar to preserve them for a long time. For this is what the God of Israel says: ‘Someday people will again own property here in this land and will buy and sell houses and vineyards and fields.’”

Jeremiah’s hopeful act is radically out of step with the tangible circumstances that surround him. It looks crazy, like a desperation move. Impractical doesn’t even begin to cover it. Yet it is radically in step with God’s promise to return the people to this place someday and prosper them as he did before.  God says that property will someday be owned in Judah again.  Jeremiah’s impracticality is, in fact, true practicality. It is simply a practicality that conforms to a different, deeper, awareness of the facts of the world. The Babylonians do not have the final say on what will and will not happen to the Jewish people. God does.  Jeremiah’s purchase is a hopeful gesture that God’s impracticality is truer than the world’s practicality.

A humanly practical God, after all, would probably never save us in the first place. What could be less practical than a God who dies for the sins of people who might never believe in Him, out of love for people who might never return His furious longing for relationship, in demonstrating a glory that people might never bend their knee to? So much of who God is to us- infinite love, infinite mercy, infinite majesty- goes to waste. It falls all through the cracks in us, and we catch so little of it sometimes.  Yet God continues to pour it out on us.  It’s profligate, undisciplined, borderline foolish- and this is God’s way.

And so why should I bother with my Alzheimer’s friends, these people whose mental wastefulness is an exaggerated picture of my own heart?  Why should we bother with ‘love thy neighbor’? Or prayer? Or anything else that seems like it accomplishes nothing, that has no noticeable, practical usefulness?  In part, we bother because it is God’s way. It is his way to pour out generously that which may never yield fruit in us, not even the smallest visible bud. When I work with my Alzheimer’s friends, I walk in that way.  I walk in the way that daily gives so very much for so very little in return, aware that it was first God’s way with me, is still his way with me, and is now God’s way in the world. 

Maybe that, finally, is a good definition of God’s impracticality, an impracticality that is at work in us and that makes room for itself in our daily lives. It is His way.

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