Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Death Talk -- Life Talk; What are our priorities when time is becoming short?

There are so many things that call for our attention and devotion:our kids, our spouse, our jobs, our hobbies, or perhaps the trends and concerns, all the demands and distractions that come with life in general. And we have to be careful not to let them become more important or more of a priority than our relationship with God and what God has sent/made us to be.

The purpose of these following thoughts is to bring for me the evangelical doctrine of life into conversation with the implications generated by some recent and not so recent development in modern medical practice and ethics. To put it this way is to suggest that such a conversation has not taken place, at least not to the degree it should have. It is not to suggest, however, that biblical scholarship has not engaged many of the topics around modern medicine on an academic level. There is no question that biblical scholars made many contribution, for example, in the ethical implications of genetic research and addictions. In my thinking, however, what is needed is not simply for Christian scholars to work and publish in the area of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, but to engage the pastor and the congregation with the doctrinal implications that have arisen.

We all need to engage in the "death-talk" if we want the inevitable reality of death into the living of our lives somewhat on our terms. And we must do this as individuals and as members of the world we live in. Dealing with death is as old as the human race, it is nothing new to us, but Christendom and therefore Western society has rejected euthanasia as a solution to human suffering since its beginning. Why, then, are we considering legalizing it now, especially when medically speaking we can do so much more than in the past to relieve suffering? And I asked this question knowing that euthanasia has been legalized in several countries already and is practiced on some level for a long time.  

Without wanting to overstate, I know or hear of a fair number of church-goers who concluded that society and the medical system within that society is responsible for dealing with the issue of medicine and therefore of its ethics and implication for us. While I believe that society at large values human life and respects it within a given parameter, for what it provides to the individual and society at large. In this view, when the human machine deteriorates beyond some point, judge the the quality of life as  not "worth living," ending this life in a dignifying way is the best option. Human life would in this view not posses an intrinsic value and therefore a meaning beyond this existence. This value statement about life has become common even among Christians when they visit loved once in very difficult circumstances.

But the conviction that life is ultimately from God and that it is God's gift should challenge this view and disengagement from the debate on the congregational level. In the understanding of the church, life has an external origin, meaning outside itself, and therefore even dying and death have meaning. A theory how to deal with the end of life, or the beginning of life that does not arise from the fundamental assumption of God being behind all of life is difficult to maintain within the church. On the other hand, how we flesh out this teaching with always have somewhat of a provisional quality to it. This is not to say that each generation must disregard the past and start afresh, formulating ever new doctrines, bowing to the latest fads. But it is to say that at such times when new evidence, ideas or theories are brought forward and our thinking is challenged, we must be willing to engage that evidence, idea or theory and restate or even adjust our doctrinal thinking.

People are in the language of religion made in the image of God which captures the profound reality of the human spirit in us, which seeks meaning to life and ultimately fears death as the end of meaning. The debate around euthanasia is one important connecting points in which Christians have an opportunity to contribute to finding this common human spirit and meaning for life.

Our uneasiness with death might be getting in the way of our ability and therefore willingness to see death as a means of experiencing transcendence, a feeling of belonging to something bigger than ourselves, and leaving a legacy. We need to regain a sense of belonging to a community, the people of God, my congregation. I suggest that many of us have lost this sense and, consequently have difficulties of having the language we need to describe reality we enter together when we or those we love, are dying. In this together we are able to experience belonging to something bigger than ourselves; a sense of hope -- a connection with the past and the future, and a sense we are love and can love in return.

This debate of life and death that is currently underway in society is part of a search for a new cultural paradigm on which to base the societal structure. The same search is also being undertaken in the context of reproductive technologies and genetics, which includes human sexuality and identity.

What we chose to do and chose not to do in relation to this search will impact our sense of meaning, within which we live our lives. In the "West," we always have used the three great marker events, birth, death, and resurrection as central to the Christian search for meaning.
And yet, congregations by an large are still struggling to come to terms with questions of leadership structure, the role of women in leadership, while other congregations may have moved on 0to the question of divorce and remarriage in the context of membership, or even homosexuality and perhaps the debate over gender identity will follow shortly. We are not debating the real big question, we are not asking the same question as the world around us but we should in order to be available for suggestions. We are talking "inhouse" talk the world is not interested in. We are investing immense resources of time and money to talk details while the world is looking for meaning.

I suggest that the doctrine of life will engage and inform many of these topics. Reassessment of thinking and therefore of doctrine on the basis of extra biblical evidence, is not something we need to fear. Just like in case of the four corners of the world and the resulting idea of a flat earth, or rethinking of what the text at hand actually means, like in case of the value of people of colour is nothing new, anis in my view actually something that enriched the church tremendously.

To perhaps state it differently, the challenge at hand is the old age challenge to reconcile special revelation (Scripture) and general revelation (creation, i.e. everything else). My concern is, that on the congregational level, a defensive such as a non-engaging approach to the challenges and perhaps evidences will dominate the conversation about life and death. I suggest, that for recent generations of Christians, this tendency has in part its root in certain development that occurred in biblical scholarship in the nineteenth and twentieth century the so called modernist/fundamental controversies with the effect of creating competing schools of thoughts and subsequent campuses and denominations. We had to learn new terms; liberal vs. conservative; modernist vs. fundamentalist; mainline vs. evangelical; progressive vs. traditionalist; and more resent the term emerging church vs. emergent church with little clarity in sight. The effects I believe are still felt in a general fear to tackle difficult issues, to look at the big picture, because we can't even agree in the minors.

But I think we owe the world better engagement with their concerns for finding the big picture, to come up with answers if not at least suggestions on how to think about life when it is difficult.

We haven’t come to terms with death in this society, and even less with dying, have we? We don’t know how to have the conversations first with ourselves and than with loved once. We don’t know how to let it happen and we try to, I think, please everybody and we wind up unprepared.

I know it is a somewhat morbid thought or topic, assisted suicide, end of life care, or palliative care. After all, some may argue that Christians don't really die, they simply fall asleep.  Nonetheless, I suggest we need this conversation around death within the church. We need the discussion for two reasons. For one, the world is seeking a way to come to terms with the inevitability of death and secondly dying is often not without suffering. I have been long enough pastor, visited enough brothers and sisters during their last month, weeks, hours and stood with parents as well as families in their grief. I have been asked; "What shall we do, pastor . . . is it wrong to shut the machine of? Is it wrong to withhold not only all food but also fluid? Death does not come easy to us. And perhaps for that reason, death itself is called the last enemy. And so perhaps a more selfish reason for thinking through our own end of life is that we too will die someday, and we need to help our loved once to know what we believe is right. It is our moral obligation to guide those we love through our last days and moments.

It is a discussion that touches on the meaning of human existence and human freedom. It is an emotional discussion, one we may not want but it is one that is coming to the church through the side door nonetheless. We should not expect challenges to come to us openly and announced. Just as I don't expect people to come to the church unless we have built a relationship with them first. We have to enter world full of people of brokenness and suffering and confusion seeking to emphasis with their struggles, their likes and dislikes, their ideas and their fears. But that takes real listening, a willingness to learn. But if the people of God participate and add to the discussion, we will touch creation and therefore provide an alternative purpose of human existence and experience, a purpose that is found outside of us.

I believe that if we participate intentionally and compassionately in the ongoing discussion it will lay bare society not in its idealized form but as we all actually are -- uncertain, perplexing, and profoundly human. We, the people of God, need a real and honest exposer to the thoughts, doubts and fear of the people all around us. After all we are being sent to them, not to come with cookie-cutter responses or worse with ignorance of their struggles. We need to be people of listening -- listening to both the questions of the world and the answers provided through God's word. We need to try to understand how the world thinks, and then offer a distinctively Christian alternative. And that means that we have to think long and hard, deep and wide about the situation in which we find ourselves in and all the issues surrounding the mission of the people of God. But as I stated in the beginning, although Jesus calls us to follow him and to carry our cross a powerful social habit remains; individualism.

To be sure, Christians have embraced new attitudes to many issues such as the use of street drugs, alcohol, pornography, and more, but others we have not given a thought. But in order to have a proper relationship to this world we need to know both what the world thinks and what God thinks. After all, Jesus didn't invite the world to come to his people, he directed his people to go into the world while being aliens, outsiders, strangers, citizens of the kingdom of God. 

But making that difference requires us to think, feel and respond very different at times to questions and challenges than the world does while realizing that advances in science and technology bring us greater moral challenges than we may ever face.

And so the question at the beginning is still before us; "What are our priorities when the doctor is giving us to understand that the cancer is inoperable, and terminal. How do we want to spent the few weeks left before we experience pain and the inability to "enjoy" life? How do we want to be treated? A last ditch operation perhaps that usually shortens only our life? Being pain medicated to the point perhaps that we are basically unconscious for days, even weeks? A few more days after painful treatment options are exhausted and yet we still can enjoy ice-cream and fellowship?

And I am asking this question, because I heard; "That is not a life living, that is no life at all, I would not want that." So what are our priorities when time is becoming short and unbearable?

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