By Cade Campbell
“Mom, it’s time to go to bed. Mom? Look at me. I said it’s time to go to bed.”
“What? Go to bed? Where? I’ve got to go home now. Where am I? I want to go home. Who are you? I want my mama.”
Last week my wife Amy and I were in her hometown of Natchez, Mississippi. We were there so Amy could help her mom with her grandmother for a few days following her surgery. Amy’s grandmother had hip surgery, a procedure complicated by the fact that she’s also suffering from Alzheimer’s. Over those few days we were reminded of a truth. Nothing hurts quite as bad as looking into the eyes of a loved one, a parent, a child, or a friend, or a grandmother – and knowing that they don’t know who they’re looking back at. Words cannot describe the piercing pain of looking into those eyes and only seeing a blank and confused and frightened stare blinking back. Physically Amy’s grandmother was right there in the room. But in a very real sense she wasn’t there at all. In many ways, we haven’t seen her grandmother in a very long time.
Is there a more horrific disease than Alzheimer’s? If there is, I don’t know what it is. Living in this world we all have more than enough options for tragic illnesses, but Alzheimer’s stands in a class by itself. Other diseases attack the body. Alzheimer’s attacks the mind, the very heart of a person. Other diseases steal the strength, vitality, and health from those we love. Alzheimer’s steals the person we love long before it turns its attention to killing the body. So we end up losing those we love only to know that we still have to lose them again. It is one long living loss.
I’ve watched family members sink into that sea of forgetfulness. I’ve sat at the bedside of family members who had left us long before their deaths. I’ve sat up in the long hours of the night with family members who had a mother or a father who had gone missing, who had simply walked away from home. As a pastor I know of church members and families who are even now walking through that valley shadowed with death. I’ve held my wife as we’ve cried over and prayed for her grandmother.I have stood in that darkness, and I have wept. Like so many others, this disease has stalked my family. It still is.
And that strikes at the heart of why it’s such a nightmare. It is a rare disease that is able to tunnel itself into the fabric of a family’s life and identity, but that’s exactly what Alzheimer’s does. It’s like a boa constrictor that squeezes the life not only from its victim but from everyone they know and love. This isn’t the way things are supposed to be. Parents aren’t supposed to forget their children. Grandparents should always know their grandchildren. Husbands shouldn’t be strangers to their wives. Alzheimer’s is a monster that kidnaps our loved ones but leaves their bodies behind. It makes its victims wholly dependent on others even as they forget who those others even are. It locks family members outside its steel-strong prison and it locks its victims on the inside, completely unable to get back. This is a strong enemy. So it needs a stronger gospel.
And we have one.
The good news of Jesus Christ is the only hope in the face of this horror. The gospel is the triumphant message that Jesus Christ has defeated every enemy and unlocked every prison. One of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s is sinking hopelessness, but the hallmark of the gospel is indestructible hope. The gospel invades this world and turns everything on its head, upside down. Even the worst things that we could ever fear.
If you’ve lost a loved one to this disease, or if one of your family members or friends is currently suffering from this illness, I want you to be encouraged with the good news that Jesus Christ is the only anchor and only shelter for this storm. The gospel’s hope is the only refuge in a world where we lose those we love in such horrible ways. If you’ve walked down this dark path before, or if you’re walking down it now, I want you to embrace three gospel truths that shine light on your steps, three gospel truths that really do change everything:
1. Jesus knows. One of the silent cries of Alzheimer’s is its hiddenness. It attacks in the shadows. Family members watch what’s happening, but most people on the outside never see it. Sometimes we feel like no one else on earth understands, knows, or notices. It is a very lonely disease, maybe the loneliest disease.
But God knows. He knows it all. One of the most beautiful verses in the Bible is Exodus 2:25. The people of Israel had been enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years. The God of Jacob hadn’t been heard from. They may have felt like God had abandoned them, and yet Exodus 2:25 tells us the truth. It simply says, “God saw the people of Israel – and God knew.” God heard their cries. God saw their suffering. God was not blind to their pain, and he’s not blind to your hurting either. In the throes of suffering God can seem silent. It can seem like we scream out into the heavens and only hear our own voices boomeranging back in reply, and yet the Bible tells us that God is not ignorant about the hurts of his children.
What’s more, he knows exactly what you’re going through. He understands. The author of the book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus “had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:17-18). He gets it. He’s been where you are.
Now you may ask, “how?” Jesus didn’t suffer from Alzheimer’s, and as far as we know he didn’t have a family member to suffer with it, so how could he possibly know what we’re experiencing as we suffer through this wrenching pain? Well, that’s just it. He has experienced what every family member experiences with an Alzheimer patient. He knows what it’s like to look into the eyes of those he loves, his closest family members even, and know that they don’t recognize him for who he really is.
John begins his gospel by telling us that Jesus was in the world “yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:10-11). Jesus’s own family didn’t know who he was. In Mark 3:21 we’re told that his family tried to take him into custody and lock him away because they “thought he was out of his mind.” Jesus knows what it feels like to love someone who didn’t recognize him. He identifies with you. He knows.
2. Jesus is strong. As bad and as powerful as Alzheimer’s is, Jesus is stronger still. Alzheimer’s is big. Jesus is bigger. Alzheimer’s kidnaps our loved ones. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who doesn’t let his sheep get stolen. Alzheimer’s is a wolf that terrorizes the flock. Jesus kills every predator that threatens his flock.
One of the questions I hear sometimes from the family of Alzheimer patients is this: “What happens when they forget the gospel?” I know longtime believers, longtime Sunday school teachers, faithful saints, who have reached a point in their battle with Alzheimer’s where they don’t remember Jesus. When they hear about the cross they ask, “Who is Jesus? Who died and why?”
As you can imagine, that question knocks the wind out of us, and for good reason, and yet it is at this very moment when the truth of the gospel shines in its sparkling beauty, and it is in this moment that we have to hold onto everything the gospel is. The power of the gospel is stronger than any disease. The gospel is mightier than memory loss.
Romans 8:38-39 tells us 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.” Paul’s statement here is gloriously broad! Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord! Nothing! Jesus in John 10:28 tells his disciples how strong he is. He tells us that he gives his followers eternal life, “and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Jesus’s words are gloriously broad too! “No one will snatch them out of my hand!” And he really means it. He doesn’t lose those who are his! No one is strong enough to be snatched from his grip, not even you. Our God is a God mighty to save.
3. Jesus wins. Because Jesus is stronger, we can have confidence in the face of Alzheimer’s that Jesus will be triumphant. There is coming a day when every tear will be wiped from the eyes of God’s people. And therein lies our hope. Jesus is victorious. Satan will not conquer. Satan will not seize God’s sheep as spoils of war. God will defeat every enemy. Paul ends his letter to the Romans with that assurance. He tells the believers in Rome that “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20). The great reversal is coming. Christ’s resurrection assures that death itself will work backwards, giving up those who have succumbed to its curse. As Tolkien might say, everything sad will come untrue.
I know what it’s like to look into the eyes of a loved one and hear them say, “What’s your name?” Who are you?” But I also know a Savior who has assured me that in the age to come he will restore all creation and resurrect our bodies. And so I am confident that there is coming a day, a day on my calendar as certain as any day that I’ve ever lived, when I will once again look into the eyes of those that Alzheimer’s has stolen and hear these words in their own voice: “I know you.”
And that’s only because Jesus knows those who are his. Satan, the accuser of the brothers screams out accusations of those suffering with Alzheimer’s. He whispers a serpentine lisp that says, “Look at him. Look at her. They don’t know you God. They don’t trust you. They don’t even remember you.” That’s what Satan says. And the Father turns to our advocate, our mediator, our faithful high priest who identifies with us, and asks for a response. And Jesus stands and says, “He’s right. She doesn’t remember me. But I remember her, and I have paid her debt, died her death, and given her my life. This one is mine. Case closed.”
And that is the verdict that Satan cannot contest. Jesus’ triumph isn’t in our feeble memories, feeble bodies, or feeble faith. Jesus’ triumph is Jesus’ work, Jesus’ victory, and Jesus’ finished accomplishment.
Just before he died on the cross all those years ago, in between the mocking screams that were hurled at him from the crowds, Jesus turned his blood-drenched head to hear a gurgling gasp next to him. One of the criminals who was dying on the cross by his side cried out to him, and in the midst of pain-choked cries and straining lungs the thief made one last minute appeal, one desperate plea: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
That thief had no reason to expect a response. He had no good works to plead with. He had nothing to offer. He had no gifts or payment to bring in his hands. His hands were nailed to a piece of wood. But he did have one last hope – a hope that suggested that maybe, just maybe, the thorn-crowned king next to him would save him a place in his throne room, would know his face, wouldn’t forget his name, and wouldn’t forget his request. As he faced his end, all he could do was cast every hope he had on this dying Savior by simply asking him to remember.
And Jesus did.
And Jesus does.
Cade Campbell is Associate Pastor for Preaching and Discipleship at First Baptist Church Henryville, Indiana. You can follow him on Twitter at @DCadeCampbell.