Requiem 4: The Long Good-bye

Series: Requiem

Mar 30th  |  The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming |  Romans 3:31

            In the interest of full-disclosure, I’ll tell you that I first preached about our subject for the morning on January 28, 1996, at the Oakland Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Ohio. I went back to look at what I said then and was stunned at how bad a sermon it was. My hope was that there would be enough of a sermon there to salvage, and I could have an easier spring break week. No such luck.

            The sermon for the morning focuses our attention on what has come to be known as “The Long Good-Bye.” For many, the diagnosis of an illness begins a process that can take years, but eventually leads to death. Cancer, heart disease, some forms of auto-immune diseases – all of these can bring long periods of decline and debilitation. They bring many “good-byes” along the way.

            Of course, the disease with which we are the most familiar that leads to a long good-bye is Alzheimer’s Disease. Alzhemier’s and other dementia-based illnesses bring a particular form of challenge as, bit by bit, the person we know and love slips away from us. There are lots of good-byes along that journey – and none of them are ever easy.

            So, our challenge this morning is to talk about “The Long Good-Bye” – in particular, Alzheimer’s Disease – and how we can surround those who are affected and their care-givers with a circle of caring.

            Let’s start with a little introductory information. Alzheimer’s Disease was first identified more than a 100 years ago, by Dr. Alois Alzheimer. However, research into its symptoms, causes, risk factors, and treatment has underway for about the last 30 years. While researchers have learned a lot, we still don’t know what causes the changes in the brain that triggers Alzheimer’s, and there is still no cure in sight.

            There are some common symptoms for Alzheimer’s:

  1. Memory loss that disrupts daily life.

  2. Challenges in planning or solving problems.

  3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work, or at leisure.

  4. Confusion with time or place.

  5. Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships.

  6. New problems with words in speaking or writing.

  7. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps.

  8. Decreased or poor judgment.

  9. Withdrawal from work or social activities.

  10. Changes in mood and personality.

People progress in the disease from mild Alzheimer’s to moderate and severe disease at different rates. Most people are diagnosed at age 65 or older, but people younger than 65 can also develop the disease.

            An estimated 5.2 million Americans of all ages have Alzheimer’s Disease. More women than men had the disease and other forms of dementia. It is estimated that by 2025, 7.1 million Americans will have the disease – and increase of 40% from those currently affected. By 2050, that number is predicted to be nearly 14 million people, unless a breakthrough is discovered to prevent, slow, or stop the disease.

            There are studies that suggest that people with Alzheimer’s, 65 and over, live an average of four to eight years after diagnosis. On average, a person with Alzheimer’s Disease will spend more years in the most severe stage than in any other stage of the disease’s development. Much of that time will be spent in a nursing home.

            Those family members and friend who care for Alzheimer’s patients provided and estimated 17.5 billion hours of unpaid care, in 2012. To put that in perspective, those hours are valued at $216 billion, which is approximately half of the net value of Wal-Mart sales in 2011 and more than eight times the total sales of McDonald’s in 2011. Imagine if people had to pay for that care instead of providing it themselves.

            Let’s summarize it in this way: if you don’t already have a family member or friend with Alzheimer’s Disease, the chances are that you will. It is a cruel disease that robs people of their memories, which is to steal their past and eventually their present. As one woman said to her daughter on a day of clarity, “my mind is no longer available to me.” In her bravely written book about her own experience with Alzheimer’s, entitled Living in the Labyrinth, Diana Friel McGowin writes:

                        At one time, I had managed a law office.

                        At one time, I had been a legal assistant, conducting research,

                              traveling to court, doing administrative work, delegating duties 

                              to others, and overseeing office procedures.

                        At one time, I had acted as hostess on behalf of the senior partner of

                              my law firm at a dinner party honoring the governor.

                        At one time, I had an IQ of 137. (page 31)


Just a few weeks before, she had spent four hours and an entire tank of gas trying to find her way home from her husband’s office, just a few blocks away.

            That is the pitiless and catastrophic disease called Alzheimer’s.

            The question now turns to this question: :how do we find the faith to face Alzheimer’s Disease?” How do we strengthen ourselves spiritually to confront Alzheimer’s disease – and all those diseases that take our loved ones away from us, bit-by-bit? Is there any good news from God, when the news from the doctor is so very bad?

            Well, let’s begin by making this statement from the outset, loudly and clearly: like all other diseases, those diseases that take our loved ones from us a little each day are not from God. Disease – no matter it’s name or nature – does not come to anyone as a curse or retribution from God for something that was done or left undone. More evil damages has been done by preachers and teachers who claim every form of illness as something sent from God to get our attention or to correct us. I cannot and will not accept the notion that God deals with us in that way. Such teaching makes a mockery of Paul’s words to the Romans:

What can we say about all this? If God is on our side, can anyone be against us?  God did not keep back his own Son, but he gave him for us. If God did this, won’t he freely give us everything else?  If God says his chosen ones are acceptable to him, can anyone bring charges against them?  Or can anyone condemn them? No indeed! Christ died and was raised to life, and now he is at God’s right side, speaking to him for us.

If God sent Jesus to bring us life, and if God has declared us as acceptable to God, why would God punish us with such a hideous and insidious disease? It makes no sense. It is against the very character of God’s loving nature. Jesus said, “I have come so that everyone would have life, and have it in its fullness.” (John 10:10) Disease that robs us of life day by day is not life in its fullness, and so it cannot come from God.

            Alzheimer’s Disease, HIV/AIDS, cancer – all those diseases that take life away drop-by-drop, are not from God. That’s first.

             Then, we need to say this: even when “our minds are no longer available to us,” God does not let us go. A dear woman, whose husband was affected by Alzheimer’s, said to me, “I don’t know what to think about his relationship with God. He isn’t able to say his prayers anymore and I worry about that.” I assured her that God understood her husband’s situation completely and that God had not, nor would God, ever let him go.

            You and I need to remember that as we find a faith to face Alzheimer’s and these other diseases that produce “the long good-bye.” Our salvation – our relationship with God – is not built on our track record. Our saving relationship with God is not about what we do, but is all about what God has done. We call that “grace.” Even when we are no longer able to remember who we are, or who our loved ones are, or even who God is, God still remembers us. Even when we no longer have the capacity to be faithful to our commitments to God – attending worship, reading scriptures, saying prayers, and the like – even then, God is faithful to us, wrapping the everlasting arms around us, refusing to let us go.

            That leads us to the third thing we need to share as we face “the long good-bye.” It’s really a summary statement of the two points just made, but it needs to be stated and allowed to stand on its own. Here it is: “nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love for us in Christ Jesus our Lord!” (Rom. 8:39b) It’s the climactic statement of this sermon and service. “Nothing will ever separate us from God’s love.”

            The Psalmist knew this truth. The Psalmist speaks to God:

                  Where can I go then from your Spirit?

                  Where can I flee from your presence?

                  If I climb up to heaven, you are there;

                        if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

                  If I take the wings of the morning

                        and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

                  even there your hand will lead me

                        and your right hand hold me fast.

                  If I say, “Surely the darkness will cover me,

                        and the light around me turn to night,”

                  darkness is not dark to you;

                        the night is as bright as the day;

                        darkness and light to you are both alike. (Psalm 139:7-12)

Where can we go that God is not? The answer comes back, “everywhere we go, God is there.” Even when we are lost in the maze and confusion of Alzheimer’s, even when we find our lives being diminished day-by-day to other diseases, God is there. Each step of the way along “the long good-bye,” God is there.

            Paul took that central truth and expanded it in his letter to the Romans. Paul begins with the question:

                        “Can anything separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble,

                        suffering and hard times, or hunger and nakedness, or danger

                        and death?”

His answer comes right back: “No, in everything we have won more than a victory” – watch it, not because of anything we have done – but, “because of Christ who loves us.”

            And then, Paul makes this absolute statement with the full assurance of his faith:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Nothing – not even Alzheimer’s Disease, or HIV/AIDS, or cancer, or any other illness that can take our lives away – can separate us from God’s love for us in Christ Jesus our Lord!

            If you’re looking for good news and a word of hope and promise, look no further. You’ll do no better than that word, our final word, for the morning. “Nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love for us in Christ Jesus our Lord!” Nothing. Not now and not forevermore. Amen.