In the fall of 2011, televangelist Pat Robertson sparked controversy with comments he made on his program The 700 Club. He received a question from a caller asking about a friend whose wife had Alzheimer’s. The man had grown frustrated and lonely as the disease ravaged his wife, and he had started seeing another woman. The caller wanted Robertson’s opinion and advice.
Robertson began by acknowledging the difficulty of the situation—Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease for the person who has it and for his or her loved ones. Robertson described it this way: “Here is the person you’ve loved for 20 or 30 years, and suddenly that person is gone. They are gone.”
In the end, his advice was that this man should divorce his wife. When the other host questioned this interpretation of marriage vows, Robertson responded that yes, in marriage we say, “’Til death do us part,” but to him, Alzheimer’s is “a kind of death.” Therefore, he claimed, the man was free to be released from his vows as if his wife were already dead.
No one is ever surprised when Pat Robertson says something that makes liberals angry. But this time, his comments enraged everyone, most of all conservatives. People saw his statements as callous, cruel, even contrary to the gospel.
Many of the conservative detractors were angry because they saw Robertson’s comments as advocating for divorce. But the deeper issue here is how we understand and approach Alzheimer’s and dementia.
No one in this controversy actually thought that Alzheimer’s was the same thing as death, not even Pat Robertson—if your wife is dead, you don’t have to get a divorce in order to see someone else.
And yet, that was about all anyone could really say. From both sides came rightful condemnation of Robertson’s advice, but little else. The conversation focused more on the issue of marriage and divorce than on Alzheimer’s and dementia because, despite varied opinion, people generally understand matrimony better than memory loss.
Our problem isn’t just misunderstanding; it’s fear. Polls indicate that people fear dementia more than they fear cancer. That means some people would rather experience the crippling pain and nausea associated with cancer and its treatment than to go through the confusion and forgetting of dementia.
To understand our fear of dementia and to put it in a theological perspective, we first need to examine our understanding of memory and identity. John Swinton does so in his book Dementia, which seeks to redescribe memory loss in its social and theological context.
We live in a culture that places a heavy emphasis on the importance of the mind. Our value in society is often based on our intellect and ability to reason.
This plays out in modern Christianity in that we often think of faith as intellectual assent. We emphasize a person having correct beliefs and a full cognitive understanding of their faith.
Intellect and reason are wonderful gifts and a huge part of what it means to be human. But an overemphasis on the mind can lead us to forget that there is more to us than how we think. We are not just what we think but also what we feel, what we do, how we love.
What’s more, we tend to think of memory as an entirely internal process; what we hold in our individual minds is what we remember.
However, Swinton says that memory is not just internal; it is also external. External aspects of memory include grocery lists, calendars, journals, and so on. If someone has to take noted to remember an important conversation, we do not say they have lost their mind—we take that for granted as part of what memory looks like in a practical sense.
Another external aspect of memory is found in our interpersonal relationships. Memory is internal, external, and communal. We see this in the example of people recalling memories from their childhood with the help of a parent or other family member. We see it when a group of friends cooperates to tell a story, because each of them remembers a certain part of it, and together their memory is fuller than if just one person tried to revisit it.
The communal nature of memory is particularly important to faith traditions. Scripture is full of admonitions to remember—remember your forebears, remember the truth that has been shared, remember God. These directives are given not to individuals but to a community. The faith is remembered and re-remembered not by any one person but by the whole body of believers.
A 2007 article cited by Swinton showed “that people who are lonely are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.”
If memory is both internal and external, both individual and communal, then a person who lacks community will also lack an important means of remembering. Our identity is made up of stories that we tell about ourselves and stories that others tell about us. When we are no longer able to tell our own story, we must depend on others to tell it for us.
At the root of the fear of dementia, I suspect, is the fear that no one will tell our stories when we can no longer tell them ourselves. It is the fear of being abandoned, the fear of forgetting so profoundly that nothing, not our own identity, not our relationships with friends and family, not even our relationship with God remains with us.
Swinton shares a story in his book: “An elderly lady suffering from dementia paced the corridors of the nursing home restlessly—repeating over and over just one word. The staff were disconcerted, but no one seemed quite sure how to calm her and put her mind at rest. In fact they were at a loss to understand the reason for her distress. The word she repeated over and over again was ‘God’—and that was all she said. One day a nurse got alongside her and walked with her up and down the corridors until eventually in a flash of inspiration she asked the lady, ‘Are you afraid that you will forget God?’ ‘Yes, Yes!’ she replied emphatically. The nurse was then able to say to her, ‘You know even if you should forget God, He will not forget you. He has promised that.’”
Our great hope, and the promise of God, is that even in the darkness, even in the land of forgetfulness, God is there. Whether we remember God or not, God will always remember us. Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.
We are called to remember God, but more importantly, we are called to rest in the truth that God remembers us. We are called to tell other people’s stories when they can no longer tell their own, because we believe that all of our memories, the truth of who we are, all of it is held in the never-failing memory of God.
A few weeks ago, I was in Israel and Palestine with a group of young clergy from western North Carolina. One of the many holy sites we visited was the Jordan River. The Jordan is not an impressive body of water. It is small and muddy. But it is the place where John the Baptist, well, baptized people—including Jesus.
We were there not just as tourists; we were there as pilgrims. And so we worshipped on the banks of the Jordan. We held a baptismal remembrance service, singing and praying by the water. We went into the water in pairs, dipping our hands into the river and making the sign of the cross or just dumping a handful of water on our partner’s forehead. As we did so, we spoke one simple phrase: “Remember your baptism, and be thankful.”
Here’s the thing: I don’t remember my baptism. I was 4 months old when I was baptized.
For Methodists, infant baptism is the standard, in large part because we believe in prevenient grace. Prevenient grace is the grace that goes before us—it tells us that God is active in our lives even before we are aware of it. Baptism is a gift whose goodness is based first and foremost on God’s giving.
I may not remember my baptism, but lots of other people do. My parents, my godparents, the community of faith that witnessed my baptism and made their own promises to me and to my family—they remember, and I remember through them. More importantly, God remembers. When I remember my baptism, I am resting in the collective memory of the church that baptized me and of the God who will never forget me.
We believe in one baptism because baptism is a covenant with God—and God never breaks God’s promises. We may fail, we may break the promises made by and for us in our baptism, but God remains steadfast. We believe this about faith, too. Our faith in God may falter, whether through failing mental faculties or simple human wandering, but God remains faithful. Even these may forget--even you may forget—yet I will not forget you.
Here in this bowl is water from the Jordan River. As you come forward for communion, pause here first. Touch the water; make the sign of the cross on your forehead if you wish. Remember your baptism, whether you remember it yourself or only through the memories of others. Even if you have not been baptized, you can touch and feel God’s prevenient grace, the grace that goes before us—for we know that all things, our past, our present, and our future, is held in God’s gracious memory. Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell