Alzheimer’s and the Husband #7 - Faith

Posted on 12/21/20 by Dr. Stu Ervay

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Editors note: Dr. Stu Ervay is a member of the AARP Kansas Executive Council and a volunteer for AARP Kansas. In this blog, he shares his experiences as the husband of his wife of 58 years who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

I envy people who can accept faith as a given. For them, belief in God and the spiritual world either is or is not. And the “is not” requires no consideration at all.

The power of prayer cannot be debated. Intellectualizing the meaning of Christ’s life and death on the cross is unacceptable. Scripture is to be read and discussed to achieve better understanding of meaning, and how that meaning translates into our behavior and depth of faith. And there are a plethora of writers and leaders who explain what that meaning is or should be.

Everything about that belief system is based on deductive reasoning. The words are inviolable because they are God’s message to us. It is blasphemous to think otherwise. And people who blaspheme are to be pitied and prayed for, lest they fall into depravity. They are transgressors who are a danger to themselves and others.

Absolutes. Inescapable truisms. The need to subjugate one’s own will to that of the Lord. Acceptance of a spiritual world that is typically referred to as a kingdom, with a benevolent God who expects all of us to follow his guidance without questioning that authority. Thy will be done.

C.S. Lewis approached the topic of faith as an inductive thinker. In nearly all his books on faith and religion, everything tended to percolate up. As depicted in the movie biopic of a portion of his life, Shadowlands, he struggled with the topics of suffering and grief. In short, he could intellectualize God’s will regarding the purpose and value of human despair. But, when faced with suffering and grief in a highly personal experience associated with the illness and death of his wife, his theorizing unraveled.

He had been down that road before with the death of his mother and another woman with whom he felt a special closeness. Those events shook him to the core, but it was the illness and death of his beloved wife that tested his faith almost to the limit.

Intellectualizing loss, grief and the role of God in our lives did not protect Lewis any more than it protects me from my wife’s Alzheimer’s. But try as I might, switching from inductive to deductive faith isn’t working very well either. I still can’t shift my faith to an unbounded “thy will be done,” or the “it is what it is” phrase so popular today.

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How can a husband, or anyone else, view faith as a solace for overcoming unremittent sadness and grief?  In trying to answer that question, I wonder what the phrase, “we are praying for you” means to those who say it and those who hear it.

I admit to being a kind of C. S. Lewis Christian, one who understands how words and phrases can be interpreted to create a highly personal kind of Christ-centered faith. While nowhere nearly as insightful or intelligent as Lewis was, I can identify with his search for linguistic meaning. In Mere Christianity for example.

So, I’ll beg your forgiveness now because I will kind of stumble through an ecclesiastical minefield, a venture that might have the potential to offend or be misunderstood. The reason I’m nervous is that I don’t want any reader to think I’m insensitive to the love and caring of friends, members of a church congregation, or any other devout believers who honestly and sincerely seek to give me comfort.

I feel the depth of their spirit-based empathy and appreciate it enormously. Their motives and love for me are never in doubt.

It’s just that the phrase, “we are praying for you” tends to fall into an emotional vacuum for me.

It’s hard to explain why. I know that individuals and groups will refer to me by name in sincere and beautifully articulated prayers. They will ask that I be comforted and request that my wife be shielded from any kind of pain and distress as she navigates the stormy waters of progressive dementia.

I think that’s called “intercessory prayer.”  It is thought to be especially powerful because the prayer is lifted up by many in my name, and on behalf of my wife. Many churches, including my own, systematize it through use of prayer lists. Communal activities carefully and prayerfully ensure that no one is overlooked. and ensure that ongoing circumstances such as ours are always uppermost in their minds.

When I’m told I am being “prayed for,” I know it is true. I know it is authentic. I know it is believed to be powerful. And I love the people who participate because they want me to be comforted as much as possible.

So, does my problem mean I’m a man of little faith? Am I a cynic? Is my status as a Christian questionable?

Would “we are thinking of you” be any better for me? Probably not, although I treasure the sentiment in the same way I appreciate condolences when a loved one dies.

“They mean well” is the usual explanation. And I know they do.

I guess my problem goes back to the topic of engagement.  Such as when a condolence or expression of prayerful concern is clearly heartfelt enough for me to feel it both emotionally and spiritually. Deep down. With unmitigated love woven into it.

When the other person or persons somehow convey a deep connection with me, an enveloping kind of thing stays with me for hours or even days. The other person’s prayers may not necessarily be articulate or part of a systematic process. But they strike me as being expressions of deep Christian empathy and a oneness of the spirit.

It’s as if our souls have become engaged spiritually.

And I know how significant that connection is with me. I know because it pervades my thoughts and emotions.

And I also know it can be dangerous in the context of giving it a meaning that does not or should not exist. It must not have anything to do with carnality or personal attraction. It takes maturity on the part of both the recipient of a caring remark, and the one who offers it unguardedly, to keep it in the realm of authentic, moral, and lasting comfort.

What do you think concerning my views on faith? Are you more deductive in your approach to faith? Please don’t think I reject that view for those who want and benefit from it. I’m just telling you who I am as I negotiate the rocky road of grief as the husband of a wife with Alzheimer’s.

Continue to seek ways to take care of yourself.

©2020 Stu Ervay - All Rights Reserved

Stu is a retired university professor and consultant to public schools. Prior to his work in higher education, he served as a unit commander in the United States Army, and taught history and government in secondary schools. Since retirement he has written journal articles and a book on school improvement. He is now a state AARP volunteer leader. His wife, Barbara, is also a retired educator. In addition to many years of teaching middle school science, she played a significant role as an advocate for women in church leadership.

This story is provided by AARP Kansas. Visit the AARP Kansas page for more news, events, and programs affecting retirement, health care, and more.

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