Sunday Worship Service, January 4, 2009

The Love That Saves Us From Our Sins

Rev. John Billings
SCRIPTURE: Matthew 1:18-21
The Love That Saves Us From Our Sins

I saw a recent article that listed the five most popular resolutions made most every year. The 5th was to take up a new hobby, the 4th was to make more money, the 3rd most popular resolution was to improve relationships, the 2nd was to stop smoking, and the most popular New Years resolution, you guessed it, losing weight.

A woman walked into her bathroom at home. As she did, she saw her husband weighing himself on the bathroom scales, sucking in his stomach. The woman thought to herself, “He thinks that he will weigh less by sucking in his stomach.” So, the woman rather sarcastically said to her husband, “That’s not going to help.” Her husband said, “Sure it will. It’s the only way I can see the numbers.”

Often, at this time of year, after the overindulgence of the holidays, we make resolutions to change our habits and our way of life. A new year gives us an opportunity to start fresh and better ourselves. But come the middle of January we somehow forget our resolutions and go back to our old ways.

Some resolutions are easier to deal with than others however. I heard about a man who moved into a retirement community to spend the rest of his life there. It wasn’t long until he had made a number of friends among the other residents. There was one lady he was especially attracted to, & she was attracted to him, also. So they spent a lot of time together. Finally one evening he proposed, asking her to marry him. The next morning he woke up remembering his proposal, but he couldn’t remember her answer. So he went to her & said, “I’m really embarrassed. I proposed to you last night but I can’t remember if you said `Yes’ or `No.”’ “Oh, thank goodness!” she replied. “I remembered saying `Yes’ but I couldn’t remember who asked me.”

For this New Year’s message I was contemplating a brief look at the history of the New Years Resolution, how it began in Rome, and has gone through many changes over the centuries. And then possibly looking at the whole subject of time and it’s role in our spiritual journey. But then I got an email from Pete that was so utterly moving I just knew it would have to take center stage as a way to honor the new year that is upon us.

Has anyone seen the movie, “The Notebook?” What I’m going to share with you is a true love story for the ages that is reminiscent of that movie, which was of course fictional.

This story is true however and is about a Swedenborgian trained Presbyterian minister by the name of Forster Freeman who, in following in his father’s footsteps, used to be the president of The Swedenborg Foundation, which is our publishing firm. In short, he is a most worthwhile individual, who never lost his love of the basic principles of our theology.  I will be emailing him soon about current events and his desire to publish a book about regeneration at age 81…..still playing tennis too!!

At any rate, this is a real life love story that shows the unbelievable central place of love in our lives.

o Not power.
o Not wealth.
o Not sex.
o Not fame.

But very real love.

And when you think about our most basic belief that God IS love itself…….this story becomes even more significant about how important therefore God is to all of us, EVEN IF WE CALL HIM BY OTHER NAMES, or don’t call him by any name at all. It’s just so astonishing to me how deeply important love is in human beings lives, especially in children’s lives.  It is love gone astray, especially when we are little that creates all the havoc and pain in our world. Almost every song ever written is about love, especially love lost or unfulfilled.  So many poems are about love too. So is it any wonder then that when all else fails, love lives on to the very last moments of life.  So this now is a love story for the ages.

So many years had passed since his then-girlfriend Julia asked Forster Freeman this question: have you ever thought about being a minister? He’d been studying at Princeton University, planning to become a lawyer. He had his future carefully mapped out in his mind. And no, he’d never thought about becoming a minister. But he listened to Julia. She, at the time, was a student at Mount Holyoke College. She was beautiful, smart and friendly. Her opinion mattered a great deal to Forster. He took her advice, eventually serving in two different denominations. He holds a doctorate degree in spiritual direction. On this and other issues, Julia’s opinions and suggestions guided his decisions.

Of course, this was years ago  before they married, before they had four kids, before he worked as a spiritual director, before she became a minister’s wife, before they watched their children grow, before they scouted out retirement communities, and before the dementia hit Julia. She can no longer advise Forster. Some days, she gets frustrated and overwhelmed at having to choose chicken or fish for dinner. When this happens, she looks toward Forster and asks him what he is having. If he’s having chicken, she orders chicken as well.

For several years now, Forster has been the one making the decisions. Julia, once so steadfast and independent that she turned down an offer to take on honors work in college (She didn’t want to work that hard, and she didn’t need it for her ego).But for now, Julia no longer lives in the independent apartments in Lake Oswego with Forster. She now spends her days in the memory care unit, working with health care professionals who sometimes have to remind her how to tie her shoes. A thoughtful and candid man, Forster admits that he’s heartbroken. The beating of his broken heart is almost audible as he sits in the office of Director of Marketing Cheri Conyers office and says, “It’s just soooo sad to have this happen to Julia, or to happen to any human being, especially if it’s your true love.

But then, his eyes light up. On the other hand, he says, I also want to be sure to make it very clear that I’m very grateful to be here at Lake Oswego.  Coming here, after all, was a calculated decision.  When we first started looking at retirement communities, I knew that it needed to be a continuing care place for us because she was already showing some dementia signs. So we looked at several in the Portland area and one down in Eugene, and this one impressed us the most for numerous reasons.

The term, continuing care, refers to a retirement center that offers independent living for healthy seniors, as well as a health care program that continues throughout all phases of the aging process. Many of the residents on the independent living side participate in daily activities ranging from yoga to watercolor painting to French classes to aqua aerobics.  Opportunities abound to join coffee clubs and knitting groups and grief support classes. They’re invited to take educational excursions and to mentor students and attend lectures and classes.  Some of the other services and amenities include a lap-size swimming pool, spa, woodworking shop, walking trails, gardens, housekeeping, laundry and transportation.

Then, there is the other side.  When residents transfer to the health center, a truly independent lifestyle becomes a thing of the past. Here, the services and amenities include 24-hour nursing care, a clinic nurse and assistance with daily living activities. Sometimes, the residents on the independent side don’t want to think about the health center,,,,,,not yet. They’re not ready to visualize a life that includes constant help and care.

But sometimes, like in Forster’s case, there is no choice but to face the realities of life on the other side of the center. He witnesses it daily, every time he goes to visit Julia for lunch and dinner. Some days are harder than others, he says. For the most part, despite her advanced memory loss, she still remembers who he is. She still knows me, and that’s a wonderful help, Forster says.   She’s glad to see me, and I am always so glad to see her. But she’s not the same Julia. For a long time, Forster tried to go it alone, taking care of Julia himself and doing the best he could. Then, last August, he realized it was time to step up her professional health care.

“I finally was convinced that I couldn’t handle it anymore, adequately for her benefit or for mine.” So one day, while a friend took her out to lunch, Julia and Forster’s two daughters decorated her new room in the special memory care unit, just the way their mother would want it.

“Oh, isn’t this nice!,” was Julia’s only reaction when they showed her the new living space.

I never quite explained to her what was going on because she couldn’t comprehend, Forster explains. Forster says Julia was welcomed nicely. The nurse’s aides, and other staff members have treated her with kindness and care, dignity and respect. The aides are so good-natured, mostly. They know how to humor Julia in a loving way for what she needs to do, her toileting and eating her meals.

It was a process for Forster. Because he cared for Julia for quite a long time, he could see Julia’s decline, but he could also see the toll it was taking on him. Not just the emotional sadness of seeing your true love go through that, but also the physical toll that it was taking, just trying to care for her.

“Yeah, that’s right,” I did have some physical symptoms, Forster agreed. The transition happened in stages,  starting with a few hours at a time, when a nurse would come tend to Julia, so Forster could get away for a while, to play tennis or do something for himself.

“You don’t realize, when you’re in the middle of caring for someone like that, that you need to take care of yourself, too.”

“Yeah, I was sleeping on the floor, Forster confesses. She was noisy. We used to have an agreement. If one of us snored, the other one would say, Please turn over.  But she got to the point where she couldn’t get it. So I used an air mattress in the living room every night. And that kind of thing is wearing.”
Sometimes just sitting down and standing up is confusing, Forster notes of Julia’s current mental state. But he’s comforted, knowing she’s in good hands. Meanwhile, Forster is enjoying a revival in his independence at Lake Oswego.

“I just got asked to go into the tango class!” Forster says, laughing. He performs in plays (the residents write their own scripts). He chairs the Ecumenical Celebrations Committee. He plays at the Portland Tennis Center. This 80-year-old gets out there and plays. He walks daily.  I try to be intentional about that.  He socializes with his neighbors and other residents.

And several times a day, he visits with Julia, his wife and his love. She has the most beautiful smile and the most welcoming eyes and is so full of life.  Such a brilliant woman they say of Julia. Once in a while, she gets fussy and angry with me and tells me she wants me to go away, Forster says.  And with a broken heart, Forster leaves her side. But other times, she wants a kiss. Forster is always happy to oblige.

Can there be any doubt about what lives at the very center of all of us?

And God said, “Let us make them after our own image and likeness.”

May we all remember this fundamental reality about who we truly ARE as we traverse the coming year with all its challenges and joys.

And it is this very kind of love, and more, that answers the question of what it means that Jesus saves his people from their sins, for if Jesus was about anything, He was about love. And it is indeed love, both given and received, that moves us away from darkness toward the Light and Warmth of God.  Amen.

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