The multi-layered tragedy of Ferguson, Missouri, has caused some soul-searching in America. It is not the first such debacle to do so, nor will it, sadly, be the last. We seem to be a particularly blind and stiff-necked people when it comes to facing our racial history, cultural misunderstandings, and impoverished view of humanity. My prayer is that compassion and understanding would overtake anger, frustration, injustice, and violence. It will take a transforming act of God to help us become much better listeners, more patient citizens, and seekers of truth and justice.

The soul-searching that is necessary, however, must get far deeper into my heart and my soul than conviction over one attention-getting news story.

Yesterday, President Obama requested $75M to buy 50,000 more body-worn cameras for local law enforcement. A report from the Justice Department, which had been in the works before the Ferguson shooting, said there’s evidence both police and civilians behave better when they know there are cameras around. The aim is to rebuild trust between police departments and communities of color. You can read the full AP article here.

What struck me about this story was the statement that “people behave better when they know there are cameras around.” In other words, people make different choices, restrain their basest impulses, and otherwise demonstrate greater self-control if they know they are being observed by Big Brother. TV crime shows make much of the power of surveillance to catch law-breakers or even disprove false testimony.

What is very sad to me is what body cameras replace. While crime has always been a problem—that one started in the Garden, no news there—the escalation of violence in our country occurs at a time when the public acknowledgment of God’s powerful presence is muted. In my lifetime, there has been a huge shift in perception. It used to be quite common for a parent to say to a child, “Even when I am not there, God is watching you.”

Our children experience this discipline first as “Mom is watching you.” One of my darling daughters was tempted by her junior high friends to leave campus and have lunch at the Burger King half a mile away. Upon her initial protest, they said, “Oh no, your mom never has to find out.” Yes, we lived in a fairly small community of 17,000 people, and yes, she was a PK; but I loved it when she reported to me later that she insisted to her friends, “No, I can’t do that. I don’t know how she does it, but my mom always finds out.” [Score!]

The fact is, God always finds out, too. That is both a threat and a wonderful and great promise of our faith. It is a threat only if you or I are guilty of immoral premeditation, like I was on a traffic-heavy day. I was tempted to take the not-yet-open freeway fly-by to avoid congestion in the soon-to-be replaced interchange. At the very last second, I decided not to do that, and you can imagine my guilty relief when I saw a California Highway Patrol car parked at the end of that fly-by just waiting for the next impatient scofflaw to attempt a pass. But it wasn’t I, because my well-formed conscience (a corollary to “God watching”) was in full operation that day.

In this shameless generation, the statement “God is watching” carries no weight or threat. But cameras on light-posts do; cameras affixed to a police officer’s chest or dashboard do; cameras in hallways and doorways do. If we had not lost so much moral ground built upon a Judeo-Christian foundation (as basic as the Ten Commandments), cameras would not have replaced the Seeing Eye of our Almighty God.

God is watching for our protection, but you can be sure that God sees our rebellion and knows our callous hearts as well. Whether or not we participate in visible violence, God knows our hearts that harbor prejudice or any number of other sins. Knowing this should propel us to the floor in remorse, confession, and repentance before the One who is able to change us from the inside out. Knowing this should drive us to our knees and plead for the Spirit of God to work behavioral miracles in us. Knowing this should transform us into trustworthy people, law-abiding citizens, and loving neighbors.

            Search me, O God, and know my heart;
                        test me and know my thoughts.
            See if there is any wicked way in me,
                        and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23f)

And then, we won’t need any more body cameras or live-streaming surveillance.

 

As I dig down in earnest to write a book about my lung cancer experience of the past year, the dreaded “book proposal” has me delving into stuff I have studiously avoided so far: statistics. As part of my research, I attended last night’s Shine a Light on Lung Cancer presentation in my area. The sponsoring organization, Lung Cancer Alliance,  is an advocacy group raising awareness about its prevalence, promoting screening, and lobbying for more funds to go into research of its causes. Almost 200 Shine a Light events took place yesterday, as part of Lung Cancer Awareness Month.

The reason why I have avoided survivor-statistics is because they are so bad in the realm of lung cancer, especially for Stage III (mine was III-A) and IV. A year ago, I knew they were bad but it was easier to hold onto that amorphous concept than to hear how bad. My dear medical-scientist husband read the studies and confirmed my preference not to see them. Focusing on only one number—one— enabled me to concentrate on receiving God’s healing and participate in the plan for cure. After last night, I hold that my avoidance decision was a good call, and I highly recommend it.

But I do not recommend rolling over and playing dead, either. Somehow, today, after reeling a bit from the shock, my thoughts range somewhere between “Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics” and “Bring ’Em On!” As the event MC—himself a seven-year survivor—said, “When I was diagnosed, the statistical chance of survival was 15%. I looked my doctor in the eye and said, ‘Tell me how I can be one of those 15%.’” My sentiments exactly! Especially for my readers who have never had cancer, becoming aware of the uphill battle (not to mention your own lung health) will enable you to be better citizens, better pastors, better neighbors and friends to those who must walk down this road. That could be 207,000 Americans in the next year, according to the CDC.

Last night’s speaking panel included my own surgeon and medical oncologist, plus an oncology nurse and a lung cancer survivor. How grateful I was all this year to have the interpretive skills and medical optimism of these two physicians—surgeon and oncologist, joined by equally positive radiology oncologist—to keep me focused on what turned out to be very effective treatment. But the contrast between their demeanor in the examining room and the seriousness of their numeric reports last night was shocking. Imagine working optimistically, creatively, wholeheartedly, and skillfully with statistics like those hanging over your head. But it was their courage that became my own, and I will be forever grateful for each one of them.

The oncology nurse brought me back to the chemo chair experience, where over time I was blessed by the caring ministrations of several nurses just like her. In the familiar intimacies of side-effect control, I realized again how safe these women made me feel. And despite the physical danger of the disease I was fighting, I was safe: safe emotionally, safe spiritually, even safe (in the shorter term) physically. All because they said, “We are here to help you get through this as comfortably as possible.” Mission accomplished, ladies!

Erik, the survivor on the panel, told stories that illustrated the importance of hope. Believe it or not, his surgeon not twenty minutes before the trip into the OR, told Erik, “We’re going to try get all those lymph nodes out; if we miss one, then you’re terminal.”

Why don’t you just shoot me? Good grief.

Erik spoke sincerely about the power of hope, and why we must follow the signs of hope with courage and persistence. We must keep doing medical research, because we do not know why 17.5% of all lung cancers occur in people who never smoked. We must celebrate a milestone this week, a recommendation by Medicare to cover lung cancer screening of high-risk people, starting in 2015.  We must keep working on surgical techniques that make the procedure safer and recovery quicker. We must keep researching targeted therapies. There are exciting signs of hope in all these areas, and we are emboldened to pursue the Beast and slay it once and for all.

So add this to “Naegeli’s Laws”: Statistics do not predict what happens to me!

 

Out of the Silence

November 12, 2014

As I indicated in my last post on October 27, the Naegeli family is grieving the sudden untimely death of Matthew, nephew to my husband and me and beloved friend to so many. Some life experiences are simply off-limits to a blogger, particularly when one’s writing might only add to the pain a family suffers. And sometimes, there are no words.

This is my one blog out of this sad journey, about what I experienced and how the Word was brought to life during Matthew’s memorial service in Albuquerque. This was a public event, attended by several hundred mourners who filled the sanctuary of Hope Evangelical Free Church.

It is a glorious, sunny Albuquerque morning. The vistas are breathtaking at this time of year, reminding us as we walk into the church that the world and God’s handiwork is vast and beautiful and much bigger than we are. Arriving an hour early, we enter from the parking lot through the back door of the church, right into the flurry of activity by “the church ladies” preparing lunch for the reception. It has been said that one way to avoid descent into the black pit of mourning is to keep busy. These wonderful, hospitable ladies are putting their loving care into action, to facilitate a most healing fellowship that unfolds in the next few hours.

We family members are ushered into various rooms for various activities: baby care here, singing practice there, main lobby for setting up pictures and guest book . . . and “the cry room” (ordinarily for moms and their babies) where we would all gather just prior to the service. Twenty-five (at least) aunts and uncles, cousins, parents and grandma finally land for a quiet moment of reflection with the pastor.

The pastor, relatively new to Hope, looks like he graduated from college last June. (Why is it that so many pastors look a lot younger than me these days?!) He is gentle in spirit, authentic in manner, and wise in his approach to the family. It turns out he is the anchor for the service and the preacher of the Word. For now, he is the convener of a brief family meeting in which he lays out the flow of the service and prays a heartfelt petition to God that our time together would honor Matthew’s memory and demonstrate God’s goodness even in our grief.

The television screen in the cry room is transmitting a beautiful hymn medley played by a pianist and violinist in the sanctuary. I appreciate the quality of the music, and—knowing how much Matthew invested in the music ministry of this church—realize these musicians’ gifts were cultivated by Matthew’s passion for the arts in worship. With this lovely backdrop, we all stand and get in line to walk into the sanctuary and to our rows reserved in the front.

Some time between our departure from the cry room and our entry into the sanctuary, the music stops. As we enter from the back, the congregation stands in complete silence. No music to cover our steps or our sobs, just the solidarity of a dear community of faith saying with its presence, “There are no words.” I am close to losing my composure, stunned and blessed at the same time by the truth of this moment.

Out of the silence, the pastor gently invites us into the presence of God. We are urged to bring everything we’ve got at the moment—sadness, grief, tears, anxiety, whatever—with us to the place where God cries with us. He introduces briefly the gospel story he will preach later in the service, the account of Jesus traveling to Bethany to comfort Martha and Mary upon the death of their brother Lazarus. As Martha runs out to greet Jesus, the two have a brief conversation about faith and Jesus’ power to do something. But when Jesus approaches Lazarus’ tomb, he stands there and weeps. In the face of death, there are no words.

And yet, out of that silence, Jesus summoned the depth of God’s suffering and the power of God’s redemption to raise Lazarus, unbind him, and let him go (John 11).

The pastor emphasized the presence of the weeping Jesus in our current suffering and the knowledge that some things simply cannot be explained but only experienced in the compassionate presence of our Risen Lord.

As the service progresses, we hear the tributes, the funny stories, the laughter and tears of a life devoted to Jesus, to the arts, and to loving friendship. When his turn comes once again, the pastor preaches the love of God, the sufficiency of his grace, the power of the resurrection, and the genuineness of our hope in Jesus Christ. But this is no triumphalistic denial of death, rather a full-on confrontation with its rudeness and injustice in light of God’s intention for humankind, Life. Embedded here is the proclamation of a hope that some day joy and laughter will be as natural and genuine as sadness is today.

As a pastor myself, having conducted hundreds of memorial services and funerals in the last twenty-seven years of ministry, I am convicted that I have perhaps not made room for tears and true sadness. I think I have talked too much. I never regret lifting up the hope of the resurrection, because this is in fact all we have to hold onto at a time like this. But the hope shines brightly against a dark backdrop we might tend to keep safe and unseen behind a curtain. There is really no need to be secretive or embarrassed about the pain of loss; our faith fully acknowledges its existence and its source. This service taught me that for all its immensity, death is still not big enough to take away the grace and truth of the gospel: “By his stripes we are healed,” (Isaiah 53) and “then there will be no more mourning or tears or pain . . .” (Revelation 21).

Family Tragedy

October 27, 2014

Beloved, we are reeling from the sudden and tragic death of our nephew Matthew, of a head injury sustained in a car crash Friday night. We have traveled to Southern California to be with his parents and sister where the accident happened, and are helping out as we are needed. Services will be held in Albuquerque, his hometown. Thirty years old, Matt was a talented actor and musician in musical theater, a loving member of his family, and a friend to so many. He was also a devoted follower of Jesus Christ. I am clinging to the promises made real by Christ’s resurrection. My heart is broken for his loss and for the pain his parents are experiencing. I will take some time off from writing to tend to family business; I know you understand.

This blog series is coming slowly, as my readers can tell, because I am developing a bit of ADD over the topic. The sad thing is that there are too many “what ifs” and accounts to pore over, and it has gotten a little depressing to go there. And then, this morning, the high school shooting in Washington State puts another spin on the topic. Such a tragic waste, when a desperate, “bent” young person must shoot others before taking his own life. I’m sure I am not the first person to think, “If his real goal was suicide, why didn’t he just do that instead of take out so many others?”

But I digress.

Every once in awhile, you read about a case of “suicide by cop,” a scenario in which a person—who wishes to die—threatens violence and basically forces police officers to shoot him or her to death. The purpose of this action is to prevent the subject from killing others, an obvious obligation of those charged with public safety.

But it muddles the question of assisted suicide and necessitates more categories for consideration. Brittany Maynard’s case is a specific one: utilizing Oregon’s Death with Dignity law, she has acquired from a physician a lethal dose of medications she can use at will. She has announced that she will cut short her suffering from a fatal brain tumor by taking that dose on November 1. The specific question is whether society should sanction physician-assisted suicide (I say, No). Doctors, particularly, have taken the Hippocratic Oath and promised to “do no harm.” The only way around that one is to somehow reinterpret the situation such that what people find harmful (putting someone to death) is redefined as good (giving the patient an effective means to pursue his or her personal goal). Hence, the incredible discomfort with the whole idea, and one more biblical reason why I am opposed to it (from Isaiah 5:20-24).

So, in search of a biblical perspective on assisted suicide, the question comes up whether Jesus Christ’s death on the Cross, at the direct hands of the Romans but also through the political will of Jerusalem’s Jewish leadership, was a suicide by mob. In the interest of gathering facts, let us consider the information we have been given in Scripture: Jesus was well aware that death lay ahead of him. He “set his face toward Jerusalem” up to six months in advance of his crucifixion (Luke 9:51f). He spoke of “giving his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Could this be interpreted as a plan for suicide? Heavens no, for these reasons:

  1. Jesus’ death was not by his own hand, nor at his request. The fact that he knew what was going to happen didn’t make it happen.

  2. Jesus was God-in-the-flesh, fulfilling his redemptive purpose for all humankind through his birth, life, death, and (ultimately) resurrection and ascension. His crucifixion was death for the sake of others, for everybody but himself.

  3. Jesus chose to obey his heavenly Father, and therefore chose to cooperate with the Plan for our redemption. He proceeded voluntarily, mostly by remaining faithful step-by-step to the will of the Father, teaching and healing against the rules of the Pharisees. Yes, he chose to keep going, motivated completely by love for his Father and grace and truth for us. But that’s not suicide.

  4. Does Jesus’ sacrificial obedience give us permission to choose the time and manner of our death? No, this would be a huge leap of logic. There is not another person on the planet who has the standing (God’s Son, Emmanuel), the perfection (sinlessness), or the purpose (for the salvation of all people) except the One sent by God for the purpose of making sacrifice in atonement for human sin. None of us have the reasons Jesus did for cooperating with the Plan that ultimately led to his death.

What can we infer from Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross? He was truly human, as evidenced by his physical death, and all humans will die. We have no hope of any other outcome than that one, in the flesh. Technically we are not in a position to choose death, because it is already inevitable.

What human beings seem to want is control over the circumstances of death in order to avoid the anguish and suffering that often goes with dying. Jesus actually was out of control of his circumstances, having committed himself first and foremost to run the race God had laid out for him (Hebrews 12:1-3). Yes, he could have stopped preaching and healing and thereby reduce the irritation his ministry had on the synagogue officials. But he, like us, was well aware that one can control what one does but cannot control the reactions of others. Yes, he could have taken the Roman soldier’s spear and done himself in, to avoid the agony of the Cross; but then he would not have been innocent and therefore would have been disqualified from being the perfect sacrifice for humanity.

And finally, if we are really tempted to see Jesus’ death as a model for assisted suicide, keep in mind that his suffering was not lessened by the crown of thorns, the mocking, the burden he carried, or the nails in his hands and feet. He fully lived, embracing the awfulness of that manner of death; he did not run from the suffering or try to cut it short. He was conscious, even, until the end. Why not take that courage as our model and live through the life-threatening illnesses we face? That is what his first disciples did: threatened by persecution, they persisted in preaching the gospel despite the danger, and many if not all of them counted it a privilege to die as martyrs. Peter, it is said, was loathe to experience crucifixion in the same manner as his Lord Jesus and so asked to be nailed to his cross upside down. That is not about choosing death; that is about facing death with courage, as Jesus did, “to share his sufferings becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10; see also Romans 6:5).

Somehow, a therapeutic suicide designed for comfort and ease just doesn’t feel the same.

 

Next post: a pastoral perspective on assisted suicide.

As the date for Brittany Maynard’s physician-assisted suicide looms, we are invited to reflect upon the appropriateness, legality, and morality of such an act. This is not merely a personal act, because it involves others in its execution, doctors who have taken an oath to “do no harm.” [I am not saying that a private act escapes moral scrutiny, but the picture is more complicated when an aide is required.] This particular act is a public one because Ms. Maynard is advocating for legalized physician-assisted and -approved suicide as an advancement for society. This is a false and dangerous hope in my opinion.

But as important to me as the societal implication is the morality question. In order to evaluate the morality of PAS, we must go back to the source of our understanding of what is right and wrong, what God desires for us, and how we are to live as a result. To this end, yesterday I collected data points from the Bible, including examples and teachings related to the question. Today, let’s begin to assess their meaning and applicability to the question at hand.

The one (and maybe two) incidents of assisted-suicide in the Bible, the case of Abimelech (Judges 9:52-54) and possibly Saul (if you believe the Amalekite’s story in 2 Samuel 1), were conducted to shield a wannabe king from the shame of defeat, to save his honor. From a cultural standpoint, it might have been seen as the honorable thing to do, to help the king and the nation to save face. Abimelech was identified as wicked, and Saul had deep character flaws that displeased God. Their suicides, from God’s perspective, are not lifted up as good or noble.

In the New Testament, we see Paul’s reaction to a potential “honor suicide” in Philippi (Acts 16). The prison doors miraculously fly open and Paul and Silas’ chains fall loosely from their arms and legs. When the jailer sees the jail’s destruction and that the prisoners are no longer restrained and have possibly escaped, he immediately gestures his intent to take his own life, presumably for failing to do his duty. But Paul stops him, saying, “No, no, we’re here! Do not harm yourself!” (Acts 16:28). Dare we say, from this, that God cares even for the shamed government employee, and there is no need to “save face” in such an extreme manner as suicide?

Samson’s situation is a bit different; in fact, it is arguable that his final act is not suicide. The scene is dramatic and shocking. Samson, who has been blinded and sent to forced labor by the Philistines, nevertheless seeks the Lord’s power one last time to avenge the foe. His destruction of Dagon’s temple accommodating at the time at least a thousand Philistines is seen as a heroic, selfless act, not primarily as a suicide. Yes, Samson knew that he too would fall, but the destruction of a pagan outpost was the greater good.

In today’s world, we see the “ultimate sacrifice” to save the life of another as heroism.

Moving on, to evaluate assisted suicide, we must look at the reasons for the suicide itself. Ms. Maynard’s reason for planning the end of her life is that she fears the undignified and painful course her brain tumor will take. She wants to die on her own terms and avoid the suffering her illness seems to promise. She finds it less fearful to choose her time and manner of death than to let it takes its natural course. She literally wants to take her life into her own hands.

The Scriptures tell us, however, that our hands are not big enough to carry us. We are in God’s hands; our days are in God’s hands. In fact, we are not our own:

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19f)

If Ms. Maynard believes that her life is in her own hands, it is no wonder to me that she can see only one resolution to her problem. The destruction of her life on her own terms is the inevitable result of being too heavy and significant to carry in her own strength. Her own terms include her own reasons, which involve considerations of comfort and ease of dying. This is far from heroic motivation, which by definition is selfless; this is self-serving, if not actually cowardly.

She, however, sees it as her personal and unique obligation to take care of herself and how she dies: in control. The sadness of this, to me, is that in order to believe it is up to her she must ignore the availability and compassion of a great God and Savior.

We are not our own, and God proved it with his ransom of us from the clutch of despair, sin, and evil. For those of us who know we are known and loved by God, carried and cared for by our Creator, the idea of taking what is not ours is unfathomable. Suicide is theft of a body, if not a soul. The identity of the thief might vary, depending on the situation. But a premeditated, chosen, planned act by a sane and rational human being is a sad denial of God’s compassionate ownership.

 

Washington, the state of my upbringing, passed an assisted-suicide law in 2008. The debate was vigorous—I heard about it from my Fuller students at the time—and ultimately the referendum passed. Most arguments in the public square were based on basic logic and emotion. An excellent set of arguments against physician-assisted suicide was presented by author Jane St. Clair in a series of thirty newspaper ads you can find here.

Unmentioned in this list are the many spiritual reasons against assisted suicide. Since my blog’s theme is Bringing the Word to Life, what does the Word have to say about “death with dignity” or assisted suicide? I am limiting my discussion to life-taking that involves the aid of another person. In preparation for that discussion (sorry for dragging this out), today I’d like to list the relevant biblical data that will help us sort out the issue:

God’s basic law: In the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), murder is forbidden, with or without premeditation (the word in Hebrew can be used in either context).

Only one example of assisted suicide:

Abimelech (Judges 9:52-54), assisted by his armor-bearer

52Abimelech came to the tower, and fought against it, and came near to the entrance of the tower to burn it with fire. 53But a certain woman threw an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head, and crushed his skull. 54Immediately he called to the young man who carried his armor and said to him, “Draw your sword and kill me, so people will not say about me, ‘A woman killed him.’” So the young man thrust him through, and he died.

In the case of King Saul, when he was wounded and surrounded by the Philistine army, he wanted his armor-bearer to take his life, but the aide refused:

3The battle pressed hard upon Saul; the archers found him, and he was badly wounded by them. 4Then Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and thrust me through with it, so that these uncircumcised may not come and thrust me through, and make sport of me.” But his armor-bearer was unwilling; for he was terrified. So Saul took his own sword and fell upon it. 5When his armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell upon his sword and died with him. (1 Samuel 31:3-5)

There are six recorded suicides in the Scriptures:

King Saul (1 Samuel 31:3-5—see above)

Saul’s armor-bearer (1 Samuel 31:5)—an example of the collateral damage of a suicide

Samson (Judges 16:25-30)—a heroic act primarily intent on killing the Philistines, but welcoming death as a sacrifice to that end

Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23)—the King’s counselor, shamed and defeated

Zimri (1 Kings 16:15-20)—after murdering his predecessor, within a week an uprising took over his city.

“He burned down the king’s house over himself with fire, and died—because of the sins that he committed, doing evil in the sight of the Lord, . . .”

Judas Iscariot (Matthew 27:3-5)—the disciple who betrayed Jesus was overtaken by remorse and loathing. His hanging seems to be self-punishment.

People who wanted to die, but didn’t commit suicide:

Elijah (1 Kings 19:4ff), King David (Psalm 13:2-4), the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:14-18), Job (Job 7:11-16), the Philippian jailer who was stopped by Paul (Acts 16:27)

Biblical concepts worth pursuing in this context:

Our lives are in God’s hands (Job 1:21)

Our times are in God’s hand (Psalm 31:14f)

All our days are known to God (Psalm 139:13-15)

Choose life! (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)

Taking care of “the least of these” is rewarded (Matthew 25:34-40)

Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 16:19)

Paul’s submission: To live is Christ, to die is gain (Philippians 1:20-24)

If I have missed an important data point, please let me know! These Scriptures and biblical ideas are my starting points for a spiritual and biblical argument regarding assisted suicide. I would recommend reading the accounts of the individuals listed, and I will post next on the teaching points with those stories as a background.

[After two days of jury duty, during which I was not selected for a three-week trial, I am finally coming back to the topic of physician-assisted suicide. Thanks for your thoughts and prayers while I was otherwise occupied.]

One of my deepest concerns, from a sociological and ethical point of view, about physician-assisted suicide (PAS) is the “slippery slope” argument. In a BreakPoint broadcast this week, Eric Metaxas addressed the broader issues with historical illustrations. The sociological equivalent of “give them an inch, and they take a mile” is a reality, as evidenced by the gradual acceptance and practice of all sorts of behaviors that in the 19th century would have been deemed unconscionable. These days, when the claim is made that “this [practice] will be regulated and controlled,” as a Calvinist who believes in “total depravity,” I simply cannot buy it. I don’t buy the idea that legalized marijuana (starting out as “medical marijuana”) is harmless, that gambling is a destination recreation rather than an economic cash-cow, or that abortion is rare but necessary. As these doors have opened, so have the floodgates of crime, addiction, and/or exploitation.

But where does the slippery slope take us in the realm of physician-assisted suicide? When a right (promoted for rare, but difficult cases) becomes a social or ethical obligation (i.e. under certain conditions, it becomes mandatory that a person die), a slide downward has begun. Let’s say that the most likely candidate for PAS is terminally ill, undergoing great suffering, and pleads for relief through death. A parishioner once appealed to me, several times, to give her moral permission to end her cancer misery by taking an overdose. We had long talks about it, and she was angry with me for not siding with her wish. She did die a natural death, with her pain and anxiety under control until the end. What if PAS had been a legal option, and her family agreed to let her go that route to end her life on her own terms?

The supposed safeguards to prevent a slippery slope put many conditions on the practice. PAS, where it is legal, requires evidence that the patient is indeed “terminal,” is making a free choice, is not mentally ill, and can in fact administer the means of death without assistance. All control is completely in the hands of the ailing patient.

But wait . . . what if a person has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and loses the ability to pull a lever or take a pill independently? Someone is “needed” to do what the patient cannot. Then the situation slips from physician-assisted suicide to mercy killing (euthanasia). The patient is still in control of the decision whether or not to proceed, but cannot implement the decision because the ailment has gone too far.

But wait . . . what if a person is comatose, unresponsive and unable to render an opinion about his or her care. If wise and forward looking, that person had a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care to guide decisions about such things and place them in the hands of a trusted ally. But so far, in California at least, the decision in the hands of a loved one does not include proactive measures to end life but only the withholding of artificial support for biological functioning that cannot be sustained without it. [I know I am oversimplifying this a little bit, but hang with me…]

But wait . . . what if our town has a whole lot of elderly, comatose individuals who have no hope of recovery? Their care is exhausting limited supplies and human resources that could be spent on younger patients with whole lives ahead of them? Isn’t it okay to hasten the process of dying for the older ones, in good stewardship of those resources, and for the good of the town’s future? Aha, now all of a sudden we are in morally reprehensible territory, are we not?

P. D. James, known for her splendid Adam Dalgliesh murder mysteries, wrote a novel of a different sort called The Children of Men. The “what if” she explores in chilling detail is the discovery that all men on the planet had become infertile, and no children had been born anywhere in the world for over twenty years. As governments, schools, health care systems, and even businesses realize the reality unfolding, a deep-seated depression sets a fatal logic in motion. The elderly and infirm, the weak of society are deemed an undue burden upon the healthy who want to enjoy what little “life” is left to them. The picture of mass suicides, masked in a shroud of dignified ceremony, is haunting.

The worry is the misplacement of power to the young and healthy and the demands of a society short on resources. If ever we come to the point where it is deemed a shame to care for folks who are “going to die anyway,” we have crashed to the bottom of the slippery slope. This is why, for instance, the ministry of Mother Teresa was so very important. I think many criticized her for not setting up hospitals and actually treating the diseases of the destitute in Calcutta; but her specific calling was to spend time and effort ministering to the basic human needs of individuals who, yes, were “dying anyway,” so that they would know the love of God and the dignity of being cared for as a human being.

I know you are thinking that P. D. James’ dystopian view cannot possibly take hold, and I pray that you are right. But the trend is for a right, such as euthanasia in the Netherlands, to get out of control and reduce human beings to the active culling of the weak from the human herd. And then we all lose, because the goal then is not “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all people, but death to the weak so the strong may have power.

 

My next post will process state-sanctioned physician-assisted suicide from a theological/biblical perspective.

Suicides, particularly by those of celebrity status, make the headlines. In Robin Williams’ case this summer, the world mourned the loss of a man tormented but treated for mental illness and addiction. We will never know what drove him to his final act, but we suspect that deep psychic pain was at its root. The inelegance of his method suggests that he was as improvisational in death as he was on stage. For this we wept and wondered.

In the 1990s, Jack Kevorkian helped approximately 130 people end their lives. Under Michigan law he was convicted for second-degree homicide and served over eight years in prison. At the present time, only three states in the Union permit physician-assisted suicide, or “death with dignity,” as proponents prefer to call it.

In one of those states, Oregon, Brittany Maynard has set a deadline for her own death after learning that she has an untreatable, aggressive brain cancer. She now possesses prescription drugs, prescribed by a doctor, that will take her life “on her terms.” The date for this final act is November 1, or “when the pain becomes unbearable,” whichever comes first. Meanwhile, Ms. Maynard appears on a YouTube video to explain her decision and advocate for “death with dignity” laws in more states.

Naegeli’s law number 13: Just because something is legal does not make it moral or right.

My mind and heart ache for someone way too young to die. I hate cancer and, as a survivor myself, I hate the collateral damage it is wreaking in our midst. People have been dying since Adam and Eve, so that is nothing new and to be expected, but we fear its processes no less. Except for cases of sudden, accidental death, it is quite possible to diagnose sickness unto death or, after death, to find out what happened. As data are gathered, we even know how disease progresses in many cases. The availability of such knowledge may be helpful for discussing treatment options, but in cases such as Ms. Maynard’s, that same knowledge can raise the level of anxiety and fear to intolerable levels.

The common word used by Ms. Maynard, her husband, and her mother to describe how they felt about her decision to end her life on her terms was “relief.” Relief from what? we ask. Relief from physical pain. Relief from loss of control. Relief from a diminished self. Even relief of other’s pain, as Ms. Maynard put it, “I’m choosing to suffer less, to put myself through less pain, and reduce the pain of my family.” What she is looking for is a beautiful, peaceful, painless, dignified death.

As a pastor having attended the bedside of many dying patients over the years, I insist that death, in general, is rude and outrageous. Having said that, the most beautiful deaths I have witnessed are the ones around which a loving family has sacrificed, and served, and lovingly attended. These deaths have followed nature’s course in a final submission to the ways of God, which entail finishing this life in order to move into eternity. One person’s process of dying is an invitation to family and friends to live selflessly, even nobly, and is one universal means by which people can grow in grace and character.

What I am most concerned about, however, is the fear we might be carrying that in our dying state we become dependent, unlovable, or ugly. This is a fear of the diminished self, and its basis, I think, is disbelief that anyone could ever love me in that state or condition. It would be a very frightening thing to believe that no one in my life loves me unconditionally, for that is what fear of the diminished self is all about. We all enjoy a certain amount of love from others, but what if we fear that it is conditional love dependent on me being strong, beautiful, or healthy? And what if we simply do not want anyone to see us diminished by the ravages of disease because we fear rejection?

As an aside, I remember hearing the shocking news of Princess Diana’s accidental death in a car crash, and thinking several thoughts: We will never see Diana grow old; we will forever remember her has the young and beautiful princess. The public never saw pictures of her injured body (and it would have been incredibly bad taste to have published them). Do you not think that this is a secret wish we all have? To be remembered in our heroic youth, undiminished and still beautiful?

That would work, except that it is a colossal denial of death. Ms. Maynard desires to “enjoy [her] days, surrounded by those [she] loves,” but by choosing death she is removing herself from them and cutting short their opportunity to love her back. And she is assuming that by taking death into her own hands, she can mitigate its rudeness and outrage. She may be gone by then, but those left behind will still have to deal with death’s reality. As we all do, whether it is “beautiful” or not.

This is only the first installment on my thoughts . . . there are ethical implications, societal trends, and theological reflections to share. But once again, tomorrow I have been called back for another round of jury selection, so I don’t know if I will be able to write. I promise, my next blog will bring the Word to life and death.

 

One of my regular readers has asked me to comment here about the case of Brittany Maynard, a young woman who moved from San Francisco to Portland in order to organize an assisted suicide in the state of Oregon where it is legal.

What I would like to do with this first post on the subject is simply to offer the different approaches of two women with brain tumors, Brittany Maynard herself and Maggie Karner.

Since it is Sunday as I write this, I will not retell their stories but allow them to do so:

Brittany’s story is told in her famous YouTube video found here. (Note that the video is sponsored by Compassion and Choices, the organization that absorbed  The Hemlock Society and End-of-Life Choices in 2005).

Maggie writes a personal response in The Federalist here.

What spurred me to include Maggie’s column is that after outlining my own thoughts on the subject, I went online for research and located her account. She covered almost all the bases I had down on my paper, and she comes from a uniquely credible place. I don’t want you to miss her essay.

Tomorrow, I will add a few insights and organizing principles for thinking about planned death from a Christian perspective. It is an important issue not only for Christians but for Americans who wish to live in an ordered and compassionate society.