And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds … And God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” … God saw all that he had made, and it was very good (Genesis 1:24-31a excerpts).
I regularly lead worship with people living with dementia, and find that I use Genesis 1 far more than other Bible passages. Why? Because it talks about God, Creation, Humankind, and our job to care for Creation. I might talk about animals or birds or mountains or rivers, regularly repeating the line: “God saw that it was good”. I then tell my saints that God created us –men and women – male and female. We are made by God and loved by God. God sees us and He doesn’t just say we are “good” – but “very good”! I say “God looks at you, and me, and says that we are very good, very good”! My spirit is filled with joy when some of them smile, or say “Oh”, or on one occasion, clap their hands. I have spoken the truth, and the truth – that they are very good – sets them free.
We will then sing that wonderful hymn “All things bright and beautiful”: All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small, All things wise and wonderful, The Lord God made them all.
In April my wife and I were thrilled to pick up our new cocker spaniel puppy Jarah. Jarah is Hebrew for “honey” and “God is sweetness”. She is honey-coloured after all, and is very sweet. When she was fully vaccinated I took her into Northaven at Turramurra, the Hostel and Nursing Home where I am privileged to serve as Chaplain. I thought that some “puppy therapy” might be good for the residents and staff, and I wasn’t wrong! Jarah is timid by nature, and so when she sees people she doesn’t know is very placid. Her small size and cute face means that people aren’t afraid of her either. She really is a sweetie.
I led Jarah around the building, allowing people to pat her or hold her. Because many residents are in waterchairs or beds, I asked them if they would like to pat Jarah, and if they agreed, I’d lift her up. Sometimes I held her. Sometimes I would put her on their beds or put her in their arms, and they could give her a cuddle. Because I have trained Jarah not to lick she didn’t try and lick their hands or faces. (The exception was the resident whose hands were covered in vegemite. That was too much of a temptation for a four month old puppy).
There are lots of stories I could have put on paper, but I chose two: Jim and Judy. Both of these Nursing Home residents are in the final stage of dementia: “’Dignity with comfort”. I have known both of them for 4-5 years so they trust me and like me. Here’s their stories.
Jim is in a waterchair in the Nursing Home. He has lost the ability to speak and sleeps most of the time. I asked Jim if he would like to meet my cocker spaniel puppy Jarah and he nodded. I lifted her up and placed her front paws on Jim’s waterchair, holding her body securely to my chest. Jim looked at Jarah for a long while. Jarah stood still, looking into his eyes. Jim smiled, and ever so slowly moved his hand forward and touched Jarah. Her tail began to wag in appreciation, to Jim’s obvious delight. Jim continued to pat Jarah on her head, clearly enjoying this time with her. After a few minutes he withdrew his hand, smiled, sighed, and drifted contentedly off to sleep. Jim didn’t speak a word, but this picture painted far more than a thousand words.
Judy rarely speaks, and can only walk with the assistance of two staff members. She often smiles, and is normally content just to sit in a comfortable chair and cuddle her toy bear. When I walked Jarah up to Judy she came alive. She smiled, clapped her hands, laughed and squealed, and reached down to give Jarah a pat. Judy was overjoyed. She said “What a glorious puppy” followed by “Lovely dog”, repeating variants of these sentences over the next few minutes. Judy took both hands off her toy and stroked Jarah, much to Jarah’s delight. Even as I led Jarah to another resident Judy was watching her and smiling. Her bear was forgotten for at least 15 minutes afterwards, as Judy revelled in her honey-coloured joy.
There were lots of people around who saw what was going on. They knew that it was good. But God was there too. God saw, and God said, that this was very good.