Bible Studies

I’m Glad Ronald Reagan Is Finally Dead.

It isn’t that I didn’t like the man; I did.  It’s that I watched the ten-year course of Alzheimer’s disease on my wife’s mother.  It is not a happy journey to the Celestial City.

My mother-in-law wasn’t the first person whom I knew with Alzheimer’s.  Some years before, I had noticed bizarre personality changes in an older woman in my congregation.  This should have been the time when she and her husband enjoyed their retirement together, but she turned it into a nightmare; first she began to misplace items, and instead of facing the reality of a failing memory, she would accuse her husband of stealing!  Then when she would find something she’d been looking for, she would accuse him of playing evil tricks on her.  Things went from bad to worse.  One day, as they sat with friends, she told everybody that her husband was guilty of something really terrible—he was somebody they ought to watch out for.  It was the last straw.  “In sickness and health” didn’t cover this, he thought, and he left her and moved to another state.  She also got mad at the church and left.  Sometime later I was able to visit her in the hospital, and later I attended her funeral—by another pastor, in another church—not the first time that somebody in whom I had invested years of pastoral care left in bitterness.  I was never able to find out where her husband went.

My mother-in-law’s disease was managed by her family—first, pretty much by her husband, then by my wife—we moved her to Central Louisiana about fourteen months before she died, because my father-in-law simply could no longer tend to her by himself.  For many months he would alternate his time staying with us and traveling back to Florida to tend to things there.  On January 16, 2001, Mrs. Price was discharged from her last stay in the hospital and after one night in one of those Gulags for the elderly and dying, she once again moved into our home.  From that day until her death around eight in the morning on May 9, 2001, she never got out of the bed.  She couldn’t even turn herself or roll over; she could only wave her arms.  We watched as she developed gangrene on the heel of her right foot.  The nurses came twice a week to check on her, debated with the doctor, who oversaw her care, on how to proceed.  They decided not to amputate, and the dark spot grew.  Then one day the gangrenous, almost golf ball-sized piece of necrotic tissue simply fell off.  And to our amazement, she lived on a couple of more months.

I’m not sure whom all she recognized.  For a period of time she thought my wife was her mother, but eventually she ceased to be able to talk at all.  It was slow and painful for the family.  We never left her alone for more than a couple of minutes.  We always ate our evening meal in her bedroom with the television going.  (I hate using television as background noise; in fact, I pretty much hate television.)  But my wife’s father kept it on and only turned it off when he decided to go to sleep at night.  When it was my turn to sit with her, so Sandy and her Dad could go into town and get a break, I would turn it off and read.  I would also do a lot of thinking and reflection.

I thought about killing her. I don’t mean seriously.  It wasn’t even a fantasy—more of an emotionally loaded, ethical question with which I wrestled.

I knew there was the little bottle of drops containing morphine sitting by the rented hospital bed in which she lay.  From being with dozens of sick people at death, I knew there would be no autopsy because she would have died under the care of a physician.  I knew I could get away with it.  I didn’t dislike her.  In fact, I truly believe I loved her and briefly entertained the idea that it would be a loving act—loving to her, loving to her husband, to my wife, to my wife’s sister (who would leave her teaching job and family and travel to Louisiana for ten day stretches during those five months.)

Of course, I never really embraced that kind of thinking.  Why?  Because I believe God is sovereign over all of life.  I believe that God has foreordained whatever comes to pass—God, “who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:11.) -- God, who “is faithful,” who “will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear, but when you are tempted,” “will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Corinthians 10:13.) -- God, who has numbered the hairs of our heads and before whom not a sparrow falls outside his sovereign purpose. (Matthew 10:29-31.)  Everything that I ever had read in Scripture reminded me that no one dies apart from the plan and purpose of God.  Mrs. Price was still alive, held incommunicado in the tiny cell of Alzheimer’s, because God’s purpose for her life had not yet been fulfilled.  It wasn’t simply whatever mysterious thing God might be accomplishing in her; it was what he would do through her in the lives of others—in my life, too.

There is a profound sense of the futility of life that comes over you as you tend for a dying loved one, months on end.  I thought about Saint Paul’s words in Romans 8:20, 21, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

I thought about Qoholeth’s words, so broadly paraphrased by Kenneth Taylor:

“Don’t let the excitement of being young cause you to forget about your Creator. Honor him in your youth before the evil years come—when you’ll no longer enjoy living.  It will be too late then to try to remember him when the sun and light and moon and stars are dim to your old eyes, and there is no silver lining left among your clouds.  For there will come a time when your limbs will tremble with age, your strong legs will become weak, and your teeth will be too few to do their work, and there will be blindness too.  Then let your lips be tightly closed while eating when your teeth are gone! And you will waken at dawn with the first note of the birds; but you yourself will be deaf and tuneless, with quavering voice.  You will be afraid of heights and of falling—a white-haired, withered old man, dragging himself along: without sexual desire, standing at death’s door, and nearing his everlasting home as the mourners go along the streets.  Yes, remember your Creator now while you are young—before the silver cord of life snaps and the gold bowl is broken; before the pitcher is broken at the fountain and the wheel is broken at the cistern; then the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:1-7.)

But then I remembered Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

That “wasting away,” especially in a decade long battle of defeat with Alzheimer’s is difficult, and Scott Peck, for all his errors, was right on when he penned:

“Life is difficult.

“This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it.  Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult.  Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

“Most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult.  Instead they moan more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy.  They voice their belief, noisily or subtly, that their difficulties represent a unique kind of affliction that should not be and that has somehow been especially visited upon them, or else upon their families, their tribe, their class, their nation, their race or even their species, and not upon others.  I know about this moaning because I have done my share.

“Life is a series of problems.  Do we want to moan about them or solve them?  Do we want to teach our children to solve them?

“Discipline is the basic set of tools we require to solve life’s problems.  Without discipline we can solve nothing.  With only some discipline we can solve only some problems.  With total discipline we can solve all problems.”

Contrary to Peck, we cannot solve every problem with discipline; the futility of life means that there is a barrier which brings inutility to human action, a place where we simply bow our forehead before God’s majesty and worship the one whose purposes are beyond our comprehension.

Peck continues:

“What makes life difficult is that the process of confronting and solving problems is a painful one. Problems, depending upon their nature, evoke in us frustration or grief or sadness or loneliness or guilt or regret or anger or fear or anxiety or anguish or despair.  These are uncomfortable feelings, often very uncomfortable, often as painful as any kind of physical pain, sometimes equaling the very worst kind of physical pain.  Indeed, it is because of the pain that events or conflicts engender in us that we call them problems. And since life poses an endless series of problems, life is always difficult and is full of pain as well as joy.

“Yet it is in this whole process of meeting and solving problems that life has its meaning.  Problems are the cutting edge that distinguishes between success and failure.  Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and our wisdom. It is because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually.  When we desire to encourage the growth of the human spirit, we challenge and encourage the human capacity to solve problems, just as in school we deliberately set problems for our children to solve.  It is through the pain of confronting and resolving problems that we learn.  As Benjamin Franklin said, ‘Those things that hurt, instruct.’  It is for this reason that wise people learn not to dread but actually to welcome problems and actually to welcome the pain of problems.

“Most of us are not so wise.  Fearing the pain involved, almost all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, attempt to avoid problems.  We procrastinate, hoping that they will go away.  We ignore them, forget them, pretend they do not exist.  We even take drugs to assist us in ignoring them, so that by deadening ourselves to the pain we can forget the problems that cause the pain.  We skirt around problems rather than meet them head on.  We attempt to get out of them rather than suffer through them.

“This tendency to avoid problems and the emotional suffering inherent in them is the primary basis of all human mental illness.  Since most of us have this tendency to a greater or lesser degree, most of us are mentally ill to a greater or lesser degree, lacking complete mental health.  Some of us will go to quite extraordinary lengths to avoid our problems and the suffering they cause, proceeding far afield from all that is clearly good and sensible in order to try to find an easy way out, building the most elaborate fantasies in which to live, sometimes to the total exclusion of reality.  In the succinctly elegant words of Carl Jung, ‘Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.’”  (M. Scott Peck, M.D., The Road Less Traveled, pp. 15-17.)

Life is difficult, and it is fleeting.  In so many ways, so much of life for so many people is unbelievably sad, and for everybody, sooner or later, no matter how much of this world’s goods they enjoy, there is an underlying grief and emptiness to life in this world.  “Even in laughter the heart may ache, and joy may end in grief.” (Proverbs 14:13.)  I used to watch that funny man, Johnny Carson, and my wife and I would comment on the sadness in his eyes.  Life is a place of toil and tribulation.

“’Mid toil and tribulation,
And tumult of her war,
She waits the consummation
Of peace for evermore;
Till with the vision glorious
Her longing eyes are blest,
And the great church victorious
Shall be the church at rest.”
(“The Church’s One Foundation,” Samuel J. Stone and Samuel S. Wesley.)

Yet it is only in this sober realization that life is full of sadness, that we can discover the secret to happiness, not only in the world to come, but in the here and now, too.  For Saint Peter encourages, “Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.” (1 Peter 1:8.)

“All I once held dear, built my life upon
All this world reveres and wars to own
All I once thought gain, I have counted loss
Spent and worthless now, compared to this

“Now my heart’s desire is to know you more
To be found in you, and known as yours
To possess by faith what I could not earn
All surpassing gift of righteousness

“Oh to know the power of your risen life
And to know you in your suffering
To become like you in your death my Lord
So with You to live
And never die

“Knowing you, Jesus, knowing you
There is no greater thing
You’re my all, you’re the best
You’re my joy, my righteousness
And I love you, Lord.”
(“Knowing You,” Graham Kendrick.)

What goes on in the sequestered soul silently waiting the summons to face the last enemy before the blessed embrace, where a nail-pierced hand wipes away every tear?  God knows; I don’t.  The promise of Proverbs 4:18 is still true, “The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.”  Can a bed of numbed pain in that drifting consciousness of Alzheimer’s be a trysting place with Jesus?  When my own wife once lay for days in a coma, she remembers being called back from a beautiful place of peace with rolling hills of verdant grass and blooming flowers; it was full of people, beatific with holy mirth.  Who knows?  What we do know is that we have “a more sure word of prophecy,” Holy Scripture. (2 Peter 1:19.)  And that Word gives us a “sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.”

“While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my eye-strings break in death,
When I soar to worlds unknown,
See Thee on Thy judgment throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.”
(“Rock of Ages,” Augustus M. Toplady.)

There is compelling evidence that both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Price hid themselves in Christ—the mighty Rock.  So I am glad they are dead—glad for their families, but more importantly glad for them—for death is always gain for the believer. (Philippians 1:21.) It is the completion of our course and the final victory in the battle with sin; it is final rest and joy unspeakable.  It is the open door to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in the Great Hall of the King of kings.

Bob Vincent