Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Life In the Slow Lane


It’s out of rhythm to write a post so soon after the previous one, but I find myself wanting to capture something before it is lost. This occasionally happens on a flight, where, amidst the hum of the engines and the quiet of an emergency exit row, I can sometimes escape into a world of reflection.

I’ve always loved returning to San Diego. This was, after all, where so much of my early story was written. Early friendships, competitive tennis, body surfing, movie theatres, and life with my family. But this trip has been my most painful journey. More than ever, the past seems so past. There are fewer and fewer tangible reference points I can connect the present with the past. So much has fallen into decline or been replaced—former relationships, homes, hangouts, schools. Everything looks so much older, but it is the weakening of my Mom that affects me the most.

I walk into the lobby of a care facility where most inhabitants stare off into vacant space. Some seem to notice me, watching my every move, seemingly looking at me with suspicion—as if I have intruded into their space. As if I will take something (because they seem to enter and exit rooms with new possessions). The staff does its best to provide games for those who have some cognitive skills, but most sit numb before a screen that is playing old movies.

This world has all of the life of a transit hotel, but then, this is what it is. Next stop—eternity. Can’t help but find it disorienting. I’m reminded of Plantinga’s book, Not the Way It Is Supposed to Be. The whole range of decay and deterioration tells us that these things are not as they ought to be. Sin, of course, is at the root, disrupting God’s original intent that we flourish here forever. Our only hope is a Savior.

Degeneration continues to increase its grip on Mom’s life. Mom’s hair is much thinner now. Her tiny frame seems so light I fear a light breeze might blow her over if I do not keep hold of her hand. Dementia continues to ravage her mind. It has robbed my mom and me of conversations we once had. In fleeting moments, she is aware that I am with her. For a brief second, we talk and laugh. But it passes like a quickly moving shadow. In the next moment, I am a stranger, no longer present to her. She wonders where she is, and I sometimes find myself asking a similar question. Where is the place that once felt so full of life?

We leave the center for a favorite restaurant. Mom does need to occasionally leave this environment. It’s not the discomfort of feeding mom, who finds using a fork too complex. It’s the realization that she will forget we were here even minutes after we leave. One must simply live in the moment.

Yes, I admit I pray often—several times a day actually—that God will take Mom home. Witnessing this steady decline kills me inside. Yet, it seems necessary—perhaps most of all for me and my growth. As I reread Eugene Peterson’s Practice Resurrection while glancing out at the clouds, he points me to authors who have influenced him. Near the top is the Austrian writer Baron Friedrich von Hugel. Peterson refers to him as his “most formative guide.”

In one of Hugel’s letters, this Catholic saint recalls advice from a noble Dominican: “You want to grow in virtue, to serve God and love Christ? Well, you will grow in and attain these things if you will make them a slow and sure, an utterly real, mountain step-plod and ascent, willing to have to camp for weeks or months in spiritual desolation, darkness, and emptiness at different stages in your march and growth. All demand for constant light. . .all attempt at eliminating or minimizing the cross and trials, is so much soft folly and puerile trifling.”

Sometimes I want to escape this phase of life. At least look for a shortcut. I’m tempted to evasive actions to avoid the pain of God’s ascent. Especially this agony. But Peterson concludes by noting, “It is a well-documented axion in the practice of resurrection that we can only know this life only by becoming it, growing every way into a maturity that is sane, stable, robust.” Reflecting on this just short of landing, I realize Mom’s condition, in part, seems necessary for my growth—a road that is obtuse, unclear, mystifying—yet life-creating.

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