Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia by John Dunlop MD, Free for CAPC Members
Dunlop’s book tackles a subject that few of us would care to read about in a way that encourages, informs, and relieves fear.
If you ever find yourself bushwhacking through the Javanese jungle (as you are no doubt wont to do), there’s a chance you’ll come across a church shaped like a giant chicken. The locals call it “Gereja Ayam,” which literally translates to “Chicken Church,” and while it may not be quite as exciting a find as a Church’s Chicken, it’s still become something of a point of interest and a popular tourist attraction. It’s also, technically speaking, neither a chicken nor a church.
The structure, which has been abandoned since 2000 and already looks like the set from a Colonel Sanders–themed horror film, was built by Java native and devout Roman Catholic Daniel Alamsjah in the mid-1990s. In 1989, he stumbled across a vista that he recognized from a vivid, recurring dream. Awed, he spent all night praying on the spot, and by morning, he had received a vision: he was to build a prayer house (not technically a church) in the shape of a dove (not technically a chicken).People throughout history have claimed to have received myriad commands from God.
He didn’t have the money at the time, so he continued to pray, and by 1994 he had scraped together the funds to buy the land and begin construction on his fowl creation. It would soon be used as a sanctuary open to people of all faiths, as well a rehabilitation center for disabled children, drug addicts, and the insane. You may wonder how shutting insane people inside a building shaped like screaming poultry was supposed to help them, but that’s why God was giving visions to Alamsjah and not you.
In any case, though, the vision’s realization was short-lived, because in 2000 Alamsjah ran out of funding and was forced to close down his gallinaceous creation, before he’d even finished construction on the building. Nearly 20 years later, the area has been almost entirely reclaimed by nature. The crumbling building is no longer the beacon of hope Alamsjah had envisioned, but instead an easy punchline and a strange footnote in a Werner Herzog documentary. The locals consider it an eyesore, hipsters flock to it for their obnoxiously ironic destination weddings, and teenagers use it for making out and painting crude anatomical graffiti on the walls (which is admittedly how teenagers use everything, but still).
It’s a strange and fascinating story, and it raises an unavoidable question: What does it mean when God gives you a dream—and then the dream dies?
I know what you’re thinking: “It means the dream didn’t actually come from God, you moron”—but that’s not necessarily the case. People throughout history have claimed to have received myriad commands from God—everything from “God told me to take this job” to “God told me to murder my family“—and it would be a mistake to assume all of these commands actually came from God, but it would be equally hasty to assume none of them did. And when the command lines up with what we know of God’s will—say, that we care for our neighbor in all his physical and spiritual needs—I think we should at least give it the benefit of the doubt.
Nor is it really unusual for God-given dreams to die without warning—even in Scripture. I recently picked up Me, Myself, and Bob, the memoir by VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer (who himself saw that particular dream die), and in it he referenced a sermon by charismatic pastor Richard Porter. “What does it mean,” Porter asked, “when God gives you a dream, and he shows up in it and the dream comes to life, and then, without warning, the dream dies?”
Pr. Porter knew what he was talking about, from personal experience. He had managed to bring numerous churches in the Vancouver area together for a hugely successful revival meeting in the summer of 2001. (“God had showed up. The Spirit had moved.”) He was already planning follow-up meetings—and then 9/11 happened. Everyone involved just walked away, and everything died. Porter spent the next nine months too depressed to get out of bed. “If this is what it’s like to work for you,” he remembered telling God, “I’m not sure I can do it anymore.”
Porter eventually found a bit of comfort in the story of the Shunammite woman in 2 Kings 4. It’s a long story, but briefly: She’s an older woman who’s prayed all her life for a son, and finally, because of her kindness to the prophet Elisha, God grants one to her. The boy grows—and then dies in her arms. In her grief, she seeks out Elisha, and he resurrects the child. It’s a strange story, and I’m not sure what to make of it, but Porter’s conclusion is this:
If God gives you a dream, and the dream comes to life and God shows up in it, and then the dream dies, it may be that God wants to see what is more important to you—the dream or him. And once he’s seen that, you may get your dream back. Or you may not, and you may live the rest of your life without it. But that will be okay, because you’ll have God.
I don’t know if this is true of Alamsjah and his church that didn’t quite make it across the road, but what I do know is this: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” I don’t know why God would have told Alamsjah to build a monument to questionable dove morphology, and then immediately take it away from him, but I do know that my ignorance of a purpose doesn’t mean there wasn’t one.
In any case, the Chicken Church still stands, squawking eternally at the nearby volcano, and announcing to the world—at the very least—that some are so in love with the God of Noah and Solomon that they’ll build even the strangest (and most delicious) of follies for him.
And if that gets even a few seekers to cross to the other side, perhaps it’s enough.
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