Libby Caes' Homily from October 23, 2011

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Libby Caes delivered the following homily at Sunday Assembly at Holy Wisdom Monastery on October 23, 2011.  The readings from the common lectionary for the day included Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; and Matthew 22:34-46.  Libby Caes is the oncology and palliative care chaplain at UW Hospital and Clinics. She is ordained by the Mennonite Church USA but makes herself at home in the larger ecumenical community. She received her M.Div. at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary (now Palmer Seminary) in Philadelphia, PA. 

Just over a month ago Pat Robertson, the televangelist, was asked by a caller, named Andreas…and I quote

“I have a friend whose wife suffers from Alzheimer’s. She doesn’t even recognize him anymore. As you can imagine, their marriage has been rough. My friend has gotten bitter at God for allowing his wife to be in that condition and now he has started seeing another woman. He says he should be allowed to see other people because his wife as he knows her is gone. I am not sure what to tell him. Please help.

Robertson responded by acknowledging that Alzheimer’s is a “terribly hard thing” but also said the person in question is correct. “I know it sounds cruel, but if he’s going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again, but to make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her,” he said.

Then Robertson’s co-anchor piped in:

“Isn’t that the vow we take when we marry someone, that’s for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer?”

Robertson replied:

“There is the vow of “till death do us part,” but Alzheimer’s is “a kind of death,”

As you can imagine, this exchange created quite a storm and raises all kinds of questions:

  • What is the nature of wedding vows? Doesn’t “until death do us part? mean exactly that?
  • Is Alzheimer’s a kind of death?
  • Can we buy our way out of our obligations?
  • Can we delegate love?
  • Did the caller represent his friend correctly?
  • Does the person in question want to divorce his spouse or is it that he needs companionship and support?
  • What are the challenges of caring for a spouse or loved one?
  • Can caregivers take care of themselves when the burden of caregiving can indeed be overwhelming or they feel they need to be there 24/7?
  • And what about skilled nursing facilities? Are people ever placed in them for the wrong reasons?

I have never heard anyone say, “Put me in a SNF when I am old!”

There are many many other questions that this exchange raises…

Some of you probably have thoughts and emotions and questions I haven’t raised because your experience is different from mine.

In today’s gospel reading the Pharisees ask Jesus a trick question:

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

What the Pharisees really want to know is whether Jesus is kosher, whether he places proper emphasis on all the commandments, or whether, he, like us, has his favorite’s verses, emphasizing some and ignoring others.

If Jesus does have his favorite commandments the Pharisees can accuse him of being heretical. And, of course, that is what they want to do.

They want to be able to say, “got ya!” So they try to nail him.

The Pharisees want Jesus to answer with one commandment. Jesus gives them two.

They can’t argue with his answer.

Loving God and loving neighbor are at the heart of Jewish thought and practice. Jesus gives the right answer even if it was not the exact answer to the question that the Pharisees ask.

The Pharisees lose again…. They dare not ask any more questions!

Love.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

What is love?

Is it an emotion that we fall into and that makes our heart sing?

It can be.

But, love is a commitment, an intention.

Sometimes it does feel like a terribly hard thing.

It means sticking together when the going gets rough and you are no longer young and vibrant physically but with gray hair, easily broken bones, forgetful minds and much more….

Love is the greatest commandment, the essence of the gospel, the core of our faith.

Let me tell you another story, of another person, well-known in some evangelical circles…but not a name recognizable to the larger culture.

You can read about it on line. I remember reading about when it happened.

In 1990 Robertson McQuilken stepped down as the beloved president of ColumbiaBibleCollegein South Carolinato take care of his wife, Muriel, who had Alzheimer’s. He announced his decision at a campus chapel saying,

I haven’t in my life experienced easy decision making on major decisions.  But one of the simplest and clearest decisions I’ve had to make is this one, because circumstances dictated it… I must be with [Muriel] at all times.  And you see, it’s not only that I promised in sickness and in health till death do us part, and I am a man of my word, but as I have said…it’s the only fair thing. She sacrificed for me for forty years, to make my life possible.  So if I cared for her for forty years, I would still be in debt.  However, there is much more.  It’s not that I have to, it’s that I get to.  I love her very dearly, and you can tell it’s not easy to talk about.  She is a delight.  It’s a great honor to care for such a wonderful person.  

Robertson McQuilken cared for his wife for 13 years, she died in 2003.

At the time of his resignation, people were thunderstruck because here was a man with a great reputation and doing a stellar job as president who chose to walk away from it.

McQuilken later remarked that he came to realize that one of the reasons for the response that he got was that wives stand by their husbands in sickness but seldom did husbands care for their wives in the same way.

And, the cynic in me wonders what Pat Robertson would have said if it had been a woman who was bitter about taking care of her husband. I bet he would have told her to suck it and take care of him!!!

According to the National Alliance on Caregiving more than 65 million people, 29% of theU.S. population, provide care for a chronically ill, disabled or aged family member or friend during any given year and spend an average of 20 hours per week providing care for their loved one.
Some who wanted to be here today are not because of caregiving responsibilities.Put another, over ¼ of you work half time without reimbursement taking care of someone else.

Twenty five years ago 70% of all Alzheimer patients were cared for in their homes and 1/3 to ½ of all caregivers are spouses. I don’t know what the numbers are now.

I wish I could sit down with the person who prompted the call to Pat Robertson. I wish I could sit down with each of you who is a caregiver:

What has it been like for you? Tell me your story.

Tell me about your loved one. What do your treasure most about him/her? What do you miss?

What are you feeling right now?

Where is God in all this for you?

Who is your support? How do you take care of yourself?

What do you need right now?

What do you hope for?

What do you think it is like for the person you are caring for?

Why are some people bitter and others like Robertson McQuilkens of the world?

Why are some people resilient and others are not?

Not all of us have the same resources as caregivers, some relationships are healthy, others are less so.

To answer these questions would be another homily…

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