Merriam-Webster’s dictionary describes the word dysfunction as abnormal or unhealthy interpersonal behavior or interaction within a group. The prefix, dys, means bad, abnormal or difficult. So we can say that dysfunction is the impaired functioning of something or someone. It can happen out of trauma or tragedy, but in a human it can also occur out of disobedience, oppression and depression as well as trauma and tragedy. The outward behavior becomes the dysfunction making one immobile in some areas either physically or mentally. It is the inability to grasp some realities of life. And very often, it becomes a safe and protected prison.
God inoculated me to the horror of her standard of living, which has seen very little joy in quite a many years. It’s incredible how dysfunction can sometimes literally make one un-functional. We walked in to 2, 3 and 4 feet of trash strewn all over the house. Dirty dishes filled the kitchen which has long passed in seeing a home-cooked meal. A hall bath was so decrepit that an out-house would have been a kingly choice. Television and computers are their only source of entertainment. A 150lb dog can only lie on a tiny spot on the floor, embedded in her prison of trash and decay. Tufts of dog hair float by on the little walking paths and cling to our shoes as if looking for a way of escape.
Our first trip was made in the evening, our second in the daylight. It’s amazing how light can reveal what the darkness hides. We learned that she got angry one day and threw away all the trashcans in the house. People were there all day long on that cold winter day. The neighbors were stunned. An informal neighborhood meeting was called. Janis was not invited. We quickly surmised that in this neighborhood people don’t come to help. It’s easier for them to huddle in their garages and talk up a story. Outlandish and preposterous would be the idea of helping a neighbor, and one would nearly be ostracized for suggesting such a thing. They watch us from the windows of their homes as condemnation and disgust flow from their chimneys of judgement.
Mrs. Greer is in a nursing home, becoming weaker each day with Alzheimers disease. She calls me Angie, and I don’t correct her. I only know her as the roommate of a friend I visit weekly in that hospital. I bring Mrs. Greer chocolate kisses and talk to her about the news. I touch her tiny hand and smile. I see fear in her eyes, but lately she sleeps a lot. Lately she doesn’t eat. She may not make it to the end of the year. Janis weeps over her mother’s situation. I took her to see Mrs. Greer last week and the entire floor was alive from the cleaning personnel to the nurse’s station, shocked that Mrs. Greer had a visitor. Everyone came around to see. No one knew it was her own daughter.
Janis’ husband left when the two boys were young. He doesn’t visit them. They, too, are immobilized in this prison. We gave her food, prayed with her and invited she and her two sons to church. One attends, the older one, angry and confused, refuses. The boys cannot drive because there’s no money for car insurance, and they don’t work. The older one has a small income from his work on the computer. He stays in his room most of the day. The younger, more attentive to his mother, is eager to earn a living outside the home; eager to change. A friend of mine paves the way for teaching, mentoring and employment.
Janis blames everyone for her situation, from the doctor to the plumber to the neighbor next door. And anyone who has gotten into a situation like that would blame others. Like alcohol to a drunkard, it is the steady consummation of denial which soothes the wretched reality of dysfunction. The home starkly reveals her story and voices of anger and misery cry through heaps of trash. Apathy and hopelessness is the reply. Tears stream down her face. She is ashamed. I kneel before her and pray.
It’s a really tough place. I have seen worse, but in the expected places: the poor and homeless areas of town or the slums of Mexico. Not in a place like this, though. Not on Scotch Road. And I am humbly reminded that none of us are too far from these places. With our hells and our heavens merely separated by a thread we walk the fine line of paralyzing dysfunction every day, every moment, and with every choice we make. Our only hope is intentional and deliberate obedience and intimacy with Christ. What we witness in Janis’ home is the outcome of slow decrepitation. We only see the results. The process of declination must be a living hell.
We will visit often; there is much work to do. But we have hope in Christ that He will bring joy to these sullen hearts and, like a fresh wind, breathe new life into this home.
A movement is beginning to occur in our hearts and theirs. May we serve Him with irresistible anticipation for the extraordinary. May the neighbors take note.
Oh Lord, make us all sensitive to the hells of others. The trials and tribulations which affect the kingdom can wreak havoc on our souls. May we not turn a blind eye to those in need, to those living in constant shame. Fill us with courage and strength, patience and expectation. Give us words to share and ideas to embrace as we, in turn, embrace those who so desperately need a touch of your mercy and loving-kindness. Make us willing vessels. Humble us to serve your kingdom.