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Alzheimer’s Patient Recalls The Old Rugged Cross

In his book, Reaching the Invisible God, author Philip Yancey tells the story about his wife, Janet, who leads a weekly “Christian Circle” at a local nursing home. An Alzheimer’s patient named Betsy faithfully attends, led there by a staff worker, and sits through the hour. Every week Janet introduces herself, and every week Betsy responds as if she’s never seen her before. After a few weeks, Janet learned that Betsy has retained the ability to read. She has no comprehension of what she is reading and will repeat the same line over and over, like a stuck record, until someone prompts her to move on. But on a good day she can read a passage straight through in a clear, strong voice. Janet began calling on her each week to read a hymn. One Friday the senior citizens, who prefer to sing the older hymns they remember from childhood, selected “The Old Rugged Cross” for Betsy to read. “On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross, the emblem of suff’ring and shame,” she began, and stopped. She suddenly got agitated. “I can’t go on It’s too sad Too sad” she said. Some of the seniors gasped. Others stared at her, dumbfounded. In years of living at the nursing home, not once had Betsy shown the ability to put words together meaningfully. Now, obviously, she did understand. Janet calmed her: “That’s fine, Betsy. You don’t have to keep reading if you don’t want to.” After a pause, though, she started reading again, and stopped at the same place. A tear made a trail down each cheek. “I can’t go on It’s so sad” she said, unaware she had said the same thing two minutes ago. She tried again, and again reacted with a sudden shock of recognition, grief, and the exact same words. Finally, when Betsy seemed tranquil, Janet led her to the elevator to return her to her room. To her amazement Betsy began singing the hymn from memory. The words came in breathy, chopped phrases, and she could barely carry the tune, but anyone could recognize the hymn: On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross The emblem of suff’ring and shame. New tears fell, but his time Betsy kept going, still from memory, gaining strength as she sang: And I love that old cross where the dearest and best For a world of lost sinners was slain. So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross, Till my trophies at last I lay down; I will cling to the old rugged cross, And exchange it some day for a crown. Somewhere in that tattered mind, damaged neurons had tapped into a network of old connections to resurrect a pattern of meaning for Betsy. In her confusion, two things only stood out: suffering and shame. Those two words summarize the human condition, the condition she lives in every day of her sad life. Who knows more suffering and shame than Betsy? For her, the hymn answered that question: Jesus does.

From a sermon by Joshua Hetrick, Christ in the Home, 1/1/2010

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