|The Vicarage, Newton's home in Olney|
My eighty-two-year-old father-in-law has lost his mind. Once a can-do-anything man, an ironworker, certified to weld every ore on the planet, now has stage-six Alzheimer's. The man of laughter and endless stories of bygone days with which he held his grandchildren spellbound and belly laughing for hours, not only doesn't remember any of those stories; he doesn't know his own wife, children, or grandchildren.
For him, the earlier stages of the disease were more difficult, when he knew he didn't know things he ought to know, and was frequently frustrated by that knowledge. But now there is a mercy in his mental oblivion. Mercy for him, though not for his dear wife and children who know he doesn't know them and are in anguish at the knowledge. "The more knowledge, the more grief," wrote the author of Ecclesiastes (1:18). Whatever else this means, surely it applies to a family watching a dear loved one steadily lose his mind. At the last, they become like a child in an old body, an infant again, who must have everything done for them.
Let's be honest. There's a nagging question that inevitably creeps into our minds, or onto our children's lips: "If Grandpa doesn't know anything or anyone anymore, does he still know Jesus?" Is he safe? When he has lost his mind, is his soul lost too? Is he still saved? God our Heavenly Father wants to hear all our lisping, all our stammering, all our quavering questions. And his Son answers this one. "Unless you become like little children," said Jesus to his disciples, "you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven" (Matthew 18:3).
My travels take me frequently back to Olney in the United Kingdom, John Newton and William Cowper's village, the geographical origin of my literary endeavors over the last nearly twenty years. As I prepare for another visit, I am reminded again of the expansive reach of the gospel of grace. We can so easily slip into thinking that Christianity is for the morally upright, for people who have it together, for normal people, functional people, smart people, witty people, people who have not lost their minds. You know, people like we want others to think we are.
We scowl and attempt to explain what Paul really meant when it begins to dawn on us how the gospel actually works (or we clutch at our perceived good works and grind our teeth like the religious leaders of Jesus' day). It doesn't seem to connect. Jesus came for the sick, not for the well, for those sick in mind as well as in body. For smelly fisherman, not well-perfumed religious leaders; for lepers, not people with all their fingers and toes; for prostitutes, for victims of sexual abuse, for sexual abusers, not self-righteous moral purists; for swindlers, not for well-suited accountant types; for the illiterate, not for the strutting sophisticated academic; for the demon possessed, for those with dementia, with mental illness, for those who have lost their minds. For those who have lost their lives. For the dead.
William Cowper, born in 1731, one hundred years after the death of his ancestor and fellow poet John Donne, was one of those with great needs, special needs. He was one of the blighty. Bouts of insanity, even attempted suicides, odd behavior, dark depression, at times feeling himself a castaway, "whelmed in deeper gulfs" than any other. And yet God raised him up by the grace of the gospel, ministered to him through the love and kindness of his neighbor and pastor, John Newton, to be one of the Church's greatest hymn writers.
Perhaps it was not in spite of, but because of Cowper's lifelong struggle with mental illness that he became one of the most tender of our hymn writers. He knew that God truly does "move in mysterious ways his wonders to perform." He knew that behind a "frowning providence" God truly does "hide a smiling face." Cowper gently, experientially teaches us that, "Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan his work in vain." God truly does work "deep in unfathomable mines of never failing skill." He truly does "treasure up his bright designs and works his sovereign will." God in his gospel truly "is his own interpreter and he will make it plain," in his time, in his way.
With all of his mental challenges, Cowper knew that there really is a sort of insanity about the gospel. It is completely counter-intuitive. It defies economic sense, quid pro quo, this for that, balance the scale of bad deeds with good deeds. No. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a tertium quid, something altogether outside of and above all other religions. I want to get this, down deep in my soul. "O for a closer walk with God!" as Cowper cried. O to see more clearly the Light that "rises with healing in his wings." O to be washed in the precious "blood drawn from Immanuel's veins," there to "lose all [my] guilty stains."
We will always get the gospel distorted when we think it is only for the functional, the repectable, for people like we want to believe we are, and not for the insane, the ones who have lost their minds, for the dead, who must be raised to life by the gracious, sovereign mercy of God. Cowper reminds me of that. When I am most honest about my own heart, my desperate need for grace--justifying grace, sanctifying grace, daily enabling grace--then I know that I am in some real sense much more like William Cowper with all of his mental disorders, or more like my father-in-law who has lost his mind, but not his soul. When I see myself as a little child, a nursing infant (Luke 18:15), one who needs to have everything done for me, one who must be carried into the Kingdom of Heaven, then God has made the gospel plain. He has been his own interpreter. Behind his "frowning providence," I see his "smiling face." And am healed of all my diseases (Psalm 103:3).
Douglas Bond, author of more than twenty-five books, is husband of Cheryl, father of six, and grandfather of four. He is Director for the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, two-time Grace Award book finalist, adjunct instructor in Church history, advisory member to the national committee for Reformed University Fellowship, award-winning teacher, hymn writer, speaker at conferences, and leader of Church history tours in Europe. He broadcasts weekly at The Scriptorium. Follow him here and at bondbooks.net