Monday Over Coffee: "Unplug"

Published October 9, 2023 by Greg Funderburk
October 9, 2023 at 7:00 am

My mother had suffered with early onset dementia for two decades and was bedridden when my father began to show signs of Alzheimer’s Disease. I had a young family. Charlie was a baby, Hank was a little boy, and my wife, Kelly, and I both had demanding jobs. I set up a series of appointments for my dad with the same neurologists who were following my mother’s condition. We’d leave my mother at home with one caregiver, and I’d meet another caregiver with Dad at the doctor’s office. After all the terrible tests, his doctor told me what we’d feared but really already knew. Crucial parts of his brain were becoming just as compromised as my mother’s.

At the end of the appointment, which had all been pretty clinical in nature, the doctor asked if I’d like to see a counselor. I said sure and prepared myself to gather some additional tips about how my brother, sisters, and I could better provide care for two parents with dementia. 

Dad went back to the waiting room with the caregiver and I met the psychologist alone in an office down the hall. I don’t even remember how she started. In fact, the whole thing remains a blur. But something was triggered inside me: grief, sadness, anger, resentment, fear, pity, sorrow, frustration, loss. They all mixed together as a single thing, and everything that had been building up for who knows how long, poured out in a sudden torrent. Tears, sentence fragments, then apologies and embarrassingly messy sobs—it was not only unlike anything I’d experienced but unlike anything I thought I was capable of emotionally. 

With a little distance now, I recognize the crazy thing wasn’t that I broke down and crashed that day. That was psychologically predictable, healthy and, though brutally exhausting, probably good for me. What’s nuts was that even as I knew I was entering into another obvious season of deep, prolonged stress and grief, I never went back to the counselor. I didn’t take a break, change what I was doing or how I was caring for myself at all. I didn’t do anything. 

Writer Ann Lamott says it’s a crucial and enduring truth in the modern world that almost everything that’s broken will work again if you simply unplug it for a few minutes then plug it back in. Resting, caring for ourselves, puts in God’s hands a more healthy body, a set of hands with more stamina, eyes with sharper vision, ears with superior sensitivity, a renewed mind, and a wiser and more emboldened spirit. Conversely, when we fail to unplug and reboot routinely, God has none of this with which to work. 

In Roger Kahn’s terrific book about the Brooklyn Dodgers, there’s a great chapter about Jackie Robinson in which Kahn writes of Robinson’s talent, personality, charisma and grit. “Jackie Robinson,” he said, “didn’t merely play at center stage. He was center stage, and wherever he walked, center stage moved with him.”

This is probably a good way to picture Jesus’ three-year ministry in the Galilee. Wherever he was, center stage moved with him. Paralytics were lowered through roofs; women were reaching out just to touch his cloak; desperate men came to him, pleading for him to heal their children. At the height of his ministry, lines of people pleading for help must have swarmed with constancy around him all the time, a multitude of voices in his ears, besieged at every moment of every day. He must have felt the exquisite pressure of having many things to do at once, of being needed always, of being responsible, of being the only one who could help. 

John Steinbeck once wrote, “Any capable writer can cut a bad sentence, it takes a great writer to know when to cut a good one.” Just as it’s hard to edit out the good in writing, it’s hard to edit out, and to turn from the urgent good for a less urgent but ultimately larger purpose. Turning it back to Jesus, Fred Craddock wrote, “It takes a person of extraordinary spiritual discernment to turn from the good to the power necessary to resource the good.” This is the only thing that explains the many references in the Gospels in which large crowds were following after Christ, pressing in on him, hindering him from going away. And yet, he did. He stepped away, for a time. If Jesus Christ was able to do this— to unplug sometimes— can’t we?

God—I know in my bones that when I refuse to unplug, to find Sabbath, some rest and recreation, it’s at my own spiritual and physical peril. I won’t rob You of what You want of me tomorrow by exhausting myself today. Amen.

— Greg Funderburk