Cry from a wounded heart

The plea of a church member for more conscientious pastoral care

Estelle Owenson is a pseudonym.

August 18, 2002. 5:30 a.m. I awaken with a sense of darkness pressing upon me. Anxious thoughts whirl in my head. Sadness envelops me. I grieve. I think back to January. I relive the pain that brought me to this place.

January 7, 2002. P.E.T. scan shows brain cell loss in my 81-year-old husband. Memory and cognitive ability are deteriorating.

These days, this 81-year-old retired Marine Corps Paymaster, once responsible for mil lions of dollars at Marine Corps Headquarters in Washington, D.C., doesn't even carry a credit card. When we travel, he watches the scenery pass from the passenger side of the car. I pay the bills and purchase the food.

No longer do those soft, uncallused hands, once so swift in military service, create the joy of accomplishment for this proud man a man so often commended by his superiors. Now those hands labor to write only simple reminders to himself and to me.

No longer does that detailed, meticulous, mathematical mind sharpened by years of financial challenge hasten to do his bidding. Once a week, a friend comes by to take him to the American Legion meeting. I make sure he has enough money to take care of dinner.

February 5. Diagnosed with vascular dementia. It might as well be Alzheimer's. The diagnosis doesn't ease my pain and fear. I have watched this insidious disease sneak its way into our lives. Why couldn't I get a doc tor to listen to me?

Is it with the genuine comprehension my husband still retains, that he surprises me by indicating an interest in joining the Seventh-day Adventist Church? He has been attending with me for six years. His admiration for the pastor grows as he accompanies me to worship services.

The beautiful people in our Sabbath School class surround him with sincere love and concern. They know his comments in class will reveal how little he understands of the depth of God's love, and the working out of His plan in our lives, but they delight in drawing him into their circle and love him for who he is.

My husband's announcement to join the Church leaves me with mixed emotions. Through the years I've prayed for him to be impressed by the Holy Spirit. I've heard him tell people that he'd never be a Seventh-day Adventist. I've earnestly prayed that someone he admires and respects would take an interest in his salvation. I guess they felt it was up to me, but I knew I wasn't the one.

Yes, he had questioned me at various times regarding my convictions, but his argumentative attitude showed me that my part was to ask God to help me live my faith and uphold my way of life without any pressure on him regarding his personal choices.

Why, I ask God. Why now, when he has mentally deteriorated and is hardly able to understand the step he is considering? Why did it not happen when he could have been more able to listen, to understand, to accept?

Not knowing the answer to the "why" question, and knowing it is not up to me to make a decision as to the validity of his interest, I lay it out before the pastor who has become so loved and respected by my husband. I pray that God will give him the wisdom he needs to know how to deal with the man I love.

A few days later, the pastor comes to our home and at the right moment, sensitively brings up the subject. Yes, my husband is interested, but has some "loose ends" to tie up at his Methodist church. Then he will be ready to have his membership "transferred." A few weeks later there's another visit from the pas tor, with more spiritual talk and interaction.

Delay and frustration

Weeks go by. I look forward to further visits by the pastor while my husband's mind is still functioning, though it continues to deteriorate. Every day I see him losing ground. I pray for the pastor to spend time in fellowship with him, leading, guiding, praying so that when the day arrives that my husband is ready to release himself from his church, he will be ready for the next step.

I am keenly aware that this candidate cannot be handled in the usual way. My husband is unable to under stand the 27 fundamental beliefs in any depth, and living them out is even more in question.

"It's Your project, God." I cry. "You know his heart, You know how much cognitive ability he has left. You also know that I cannot be the one to bring him to an ultimate commitment; he'd feel I was policing him. He's in Your charge. You know his background. You also know that because his mind is going downhill with each passing day, there's an urgency about these things. Please, God, send the help he needs to surround him while he can still respond to the most vital matter of salvation a relationship with Jesus Christ his Savior."

April becomes May. I am dealing with growing feelings against the pastor. Is my husband not important enough to work into his busy schedule? Is the dementia a factor that discourages the pastor? I find myself increasingly frustrated and hurt. When I kneel to pray, the anger and pain become a growing wall between my heart and the throne room of heaven.

On my knees, with negative emotions arising from my heart, I hear a voice: "If thy brother have ought against thee ... go ..." A day or two later, I appear at the door of the pastor's study and lay my heart open to him, admitting that I am feeling angry and telling him I can't under stand his apparent lack of urgency regarding my husband, particularly considering my husband's increasing dementia.

He kindly apologizes; he's been very busy. He appreciates my personal visit in this matter. He will deal with it. We pray together. I rejoice once again; we're back on our way.

More delay, frustration, and indignation

Soon, we have another visit from the pastor. His parting words: "Let me know when your project at the Methodist church is completed."

Yet, I still continue to hope and pray that although we are in a waiting period, preparation can be going on simultaneously while there is still some cognitive ability left.

Third week in June. Father's Day. We go to the Methodist church and check on the finalized project (a new plaque for the ornately carved lectern given to the church after the death of his first wife by cancer). He wants his name on it also, so the church won't forget he left his mark as their beloved administrator for many years. My husband is very pleased with the plaque. I take his picture. We leave the majestic gothic sanctuary for the last time.

The time has come. He now feels free to reach out for new church membership. He will leave the church which he chose so long ago as a young man.

It's not an easy or sudden decision. In addition to a very successful Marine Corps profession, my husband has been the business administrator of another prestigious Methodist church in the large leading city in which we live. He has carried the title of "diaconal minister" for many years, an honor bestowed upon administrators and nonpastoral leaders in the Methodist Church. The title has been very important to him. It is not easy to turn his back and embark on a new journey.

June 16, 2002.1 call the pastor and inform him my husband's project is in place, his membership at the Methodist church can now end. He is ready to make the big step, to go for ward with a new life in the fellowship of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Another disappointment. I find out that there is only one week until the pastor is to be out of the country for three weeks. He will come by our home for a quick visit, if possible. When he returns, he will need a few days to catch up, then he will be attending to the subject of preparation for baptism for my husband. Another four weeks' delay!

Why, Lord? What will be the state of my husband's mind by then?

June 15, the last Sabbath our pastor will be in church before his vacation. My husband does not attend, but sends this message by me. "Tell Pastor, he's not to preach again in the church until I am a member!" A rather child like request, but then in our need, we have become childlike! I relate this message to the pastor. He smiles.

"Do you think your husband will be willing to go through baptism?" The question is asked of me there in the hallway where the pastor and I have crossed paths that last Sabbath. We both know immersion would be a big hurdle since my husband always referred to the process as "changing his membership."

I share with the pastor my husband's reaction to that question as he and I had discussed it a week earlier. "I don't like the idea of being shoved under the water, but I'm willing."

July. My husband calls the Methodist church and asks for a letter of membership transfer. He requests that one copy go to our pastor. I am deeply moved at the responding letter and the kindly manner in which they release his membership, and the way they wish him the best in his new church home.

Three weeks go by. I pray for safety for the pastor and his family. I count the days when we can finally reach the destination in this long journey.

My heart is bleeding

Finally the day is here. Today, the pastor will be back. Patience, I tell myself, give him a few days. He'll be in touch.

One, then two weeks go by, and a bit more. The pastor calls regarding another project he is helping me with. During that conversation, he tells me he will be going to workers' meeting for the first part of the next week, then has some other pressing responsibilities. But after that, he will be in touch. That will take us to mid- August.The third week of August.

On the last Sabbath, I hear that the pastor is going to be gone for another week. He will be back Friday night. My heart drops once again.

It's been over five months since this process started. Once again, I'm feeling anger, frustration, and pain. I would like to ask someone else to pick up and carry this to fruition. I can't. Our local pastor holds the key to my husband's heart and to his member ship in the Church. Yes, he is an exceptional preacher. He has a way with words beautiful, impressive words. His delivery is impeccable and attention riveting. His personality is magnetic, but my disappointment and pain tend to obscure his words. My heart is bleeding.

An awful conversation

I decide it's time for me to gently and sensitively ask my husband some vital questions. I never intended to be the one to ask these, but I feel that by default, at this point, it is important that I ask. I must find out to what degree the deterioration from his dementia has invaded and destroyed his cognitive ability during the past five months since we embarked upon this important journey.

I choose our quiet time together, when he is the most receptive.

I open the conversation. "I've been thinking about your desire to become a member of our church. Perhaps you have some questions I could help answer. Is there anything you are concerned about regarding any differences between Seventh-day Adventist beliefs and what you do or don't understand?"

Answer: "Evolution." (There was no hesitation in his answer. In the past, he has vacillated on this subject, mostly weighted toward the side of evolution.)

Q. "Do you believe in the Bible as the Word of God that it is the essential guide for our lives?"

A. "Men wrote the Bible. We don't know how many changes there have been to it"

Q. "Do you understand the Sabbath? What it really means?"

A. "I don't think it matters what day you keep. You could keep Sabbath on Wednesday if you wanted to." (Yet, he had unfortunately "reprimanded" our guest when he felt she was not respecting my beliefs about Sabbath hours!)

Q. "Do you understand what hap pens when someone dies?" (In previous discussions, I had been under the impression that he felt our stand was correct.)

A. "I don't know. I think the body deteriorates, but there is something else that I don't understand . . . what hap pens to the spirit?"

Q. "Does it bother you that you will not be a diaconal minister any more?"

A. "No." (This really surprises me! This has been so important to him.)

Q. "Are you still interested in being baptized?"

A. "I don't think it's necessary. It's like belonging to a club anyway."

Q. "Are you saying you have changed your mind and you don't wish to be baptized?"

A. "That's right, I don't want to be baptized."

Q. "Do you still want to come with me to our church and be a part of it even if you are not a baptized member, or do you want to go back to your church?"

A. "I want to come with you to your church. I don't have to be baptized to do that." Then, I ask him the most important question.

Q. "Do you believe Jesus came from heaven; became a man to live with us and for us here?"

A. "It's possible."

Q. "Do you understand and believe that He died for you and your sins, so you can live with Him in heaven?"

A. "I don't know . .. it's possible."

Q. "Do you believe Jesus is coming back to take His people to be with Him forever?"

A. "It's possible.

There it is the true story. My pain is deep. I grieve. I keep asking myself, Why? How could this happen? We had a window of time but it seems to me that it has slowly closed, and now it's shut, like the decayed mind of my husband.

I know God isn't held back by arbitrary rules of conversion or the 27 fundamentals. Neither is He bound by our sometimes-fumbling ways in the saving of souls. I know Jesus promised to take the thief to heaven. I know His love is boundless and timeless.

For years I have looked forward to the day when my husband would give his life to Christ and be buried in baptism. Now I'm terribly sad. Now, I shed tears filled with the inner sense that it is too late.

Yes, it's possible we could talk him into being baptized. But at this point, he doesn't know what it means to "die," nor would he know what "resurrection" implies. At this point, my breaking heart would experience baptism as a "hollow victory."

Yet I know that having a relation ship with Jesus is the saving factor. But, he does not have this. Or does he? I don't know. I can't say. I am not the Judge.

"O Lord, Your Holy Spirit once gave us a window of opportunity when You placed that original desire in my husband's heart. That in itself was a miracle. You are a God of miracles. You can reach down with another miracle a gleam from Your throne.

"Precious Abba, I trust my husband's eternity to an all-knowing, all-loving God. You and Your Son know if, when, or where there was enough of an honest spark in my husband's heart that in spite of all else, You can choose to say to him: 'My dear son, you will be with Me in paradise.'"

Please hear my heart's cry!

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Estelle Owenson is a pseudonym.

June 2003

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